Ice britches


To get to camp this weekend, Geoff and I had to wade across an ice-cold, waist-deep slough.

It’s October, and things are in full swing at school. We’re short-staffed and holding it together by sheer willpower. This time of year is always like that.


Whoever made the crossing first lit a fire on the other side to melt the ice from between our toes. On Saturday, Geoff did this while I whimpered on the other side, looking dubiously at the ice at the water’s edge. “You’re the one who likes to get outside,” he called from the other side, and I made it across on laughter. Yesterday, I went in first, eager to get it over with.

I missed my best friend’s 30th birthday party this weekend, and talk among college friends of a New England New Years has me a little homesick. When I have free time, I miss the company of these beloved people with whom I have so much in common.


We went by canoe last time and set up camp on the far shore of the lake.

I have learned to say “it’s snowing!” in Gwich’in, (ah-shee) though no significant snow (zaa) has stuck yet.


Now the lake is frozen too solid for boats and not solid enough for skis.

The kids in Arctic Village are sweet – maybe a little too sweet – it makes me wonder when the other shoe will drop. I have a really eccentric third grader who makes me laugh every single day.


We walked in, maybe three miles in all over trackless tundra, dodging ponds.

I do miss the kids I taught in Venetie. They were like family, and they had a great deal of personality. I got to see them for a few hours when I was on my way into Fairbanks for a dental emergency a few weeks back, and they’ve grown taller and stronger and so much more mature since I left them in May.


Geoff carried the chainsaw in, which was no picnic.

In Social Studies, the high school has been doing CNN Student News every day, as usual, and practicing for the National Geographic Bee. The upper elementary class has been learning countries like crazy, making giant leaps from the beginning of school when they didn’t know their continents and oceans yet. I’m surprised at how much I find myself enjoying the younger group. They are so earnest and fun-loving, I can’t keep myself from playing a little every time they’re in the room.


But when we arrived, late in the evening, the arctic oven was waiting patiently. Some varmint had gotten into our supplies and dumped out the gas, but I’d packed in plenty for one night, so we were still able to run the chainsaw.

In English, we’re focusing heavily on writing. I’m allowing the kids to turn in as many drafts as they want to, and they’re keeping me hopping with their constant requests for feedback. I have a separate reading class where they practice reading aloud, discussing, and analyzing their novels in written responses. The whole thing is going well. I’m trying to keep a writing sample from each student so that I can see their growth between now and the end of the year. I hope they grow. I think they will.


We built a fire outside to warm up, and then busted out the chainsaw to do wood for the tent.

Weekends, though, are the best. Nothing can compare to spending days out beyond the edges of the village, picking a way through the tussocks and noting the fresh prints of wolves, spending nights under the aurora listening to the fire wheeze and the lake ice ripple and buckle.


In the arctic oven, we shared a caribou dinner. When I went out to brush my teeth, the lake ice groaned and snapped with a sound like a jumprope whistling by my ear. Phtheewwwwwww! It was ghostly and strange, with the aurora in green scraps overhead.

Someday, I’d like to spend more time out there at this time of year. I want to note how thick the ice gets before the muskrats stop plowing through it. I want to listen to the ice and learn to tell time by its shifting. Two-day-weekends are just not adequate (see me using today’s vocabulary word?).


I woke up chilly in the night and started a fire in the cold stove, then went out to pee and chop more wood. I was ecstatic over that small handful of wood, frosty-barked in my bare arms as I crawled back into the tent.


I am not an arctic badass yet, but I’m getting closer every day, and wading through that slough again in the gathering dark last night earned me a merit badge for sure.


It was full dark by the time we returned to the village. This morning, the river was icing in swirls and whorls.

Early (metaphorical) Frost and Pictures from Tustumena Lake

I went for a hike with Geoff last night out to the east of the village. There’s a gravel road that runs that way for a few miles, past countless little ponds and a caribou fence and through clouds of mosquitos. I am enchanted by this inviting, velvety-beautiful landscape. I didn’t want to turn around and come back to town, so I dreamed up a short backpacking trip in that direction for labor day weekend to explore the ridge that shelters the valley and to try to reach Old John Lake. That might be one of the last nice weekends before it gets truly cold. The leaves are already red on the blueberries, and the fireweed is hazing sunny hillsides with its rich fall mahogany and white.

I’m in Arctic Village right now because my boat is not finished.

All summer, I dreamed about those long, honey-slow August days meandering in unfamiliar sloughs, the late mornings breaking camp on sunny sandbars, and the long twilit evenings by a pinprick fire in the vast, dark blanket of the wilderness. It’s too late now to make the trip at all, and I find my summer gone unexpectedly in an early killing frost.

When the builder called as we were driving the trailer down to Delta to pick up the boat last week, I felt my heart split and I cried, off and on, for the better part of several hours.

I think I have a name for her, this freight canoe, but I haven’t said it aloud yet. It’s astronomical and arctic, musical and literary and brave. We’ll see. Hopefully, she’ll be completed for fall hunting before the river closes in October.


A few weeks ago, back on the Kenai, we spent a weekend on Caribou Island. We loaded Geoff’s boat and made two trips up the river and then across milky Tustumena Lake to the cabin.


The cabin was windswept and sunlit and cozy, just right.


That first night, we pulled the boat ashore at the narrow channel between the island and the mainland, and while we stood there, picking up loose driftwood for the fire, a bull moose crossed from the island right behind the boat and came ashore not two-hundred feet from us, belly dripping.


Geoff reenacted the spectacle.


For the first few days, it was windy. The boat dragged anchor and washed up on the rocky beach in front of the cabin multiple times before we got the hook set far enough from shore. We stayed on the island until Saturday, when the wind laid itself down enough for us to get out in the boat to explore the east end of the lake, where the glacier feeds it.


That end of the lake is chilled by a glacial breeze and fed by multiple clear creeks where sockeye salmon spawn. We poled up into these creeks, wary in case of bears, whose wide trails split the green grass banks. They were sunlit and sparkling, fish-smelling and dank, rich and green and electric with living things feasting and breeding in the bacchanalian excess of the salmon run.


I found an enormous eagle feather on the beach at the mouth of one such creek, which I left on the wildlife camera some other visitor had strapped to a driftwood limb.


We were sorry to leave that place. I hope to go back someday, maybe next time to stay a little longer.

I did it again

I bought another boat. What is it about the early days of summer that just does this to me?

This one is an eighteen foot square-stern canoe, and it’ll be built this summer by a small company (a dude named Michael)  here in Alaska called Yukon Freightworks Canoe Company.  I wanted something to take on serious adventures up interior rivers, and this felt right. With a small engine, Geoff and I will use it to make the trip from Circle up to Arctic in August, down the Yukon and then up the Chandalar, even in the shallow places where heavier, deeper drawing boats bottom out, and it’ll maybe be good for caribou in the fall, which would be a pretty cool adventure.

DSC04813I went up to Arctic last week to visit and relax after school got out. On Saturday, when I got off the plane, the river was cluttered and hissing with ice. By Tuesday, it was clear, high water full of muskrats and ducks. I hiked along the river on Wednesday afternoon and took a few pictures. A willow in bloom hummed with bees and made my heart fizz. When I came across a four-wheeler and spotted some folks out hunting ducks a little ways along the bank, I turned and slogged through the marsh to get back to Geoff’s place, stopping for raven feathers and tiny purple flowers in bloom. When I got to the house, I napped in my hammock, strung between two stringy spruce trees, until the sun dragged over the mountains. The next morning, it snowed. DSC04814

I can’t quite believe that this staggeringly beautiful, remote place is my new home. I have a P.O Box there (PO Box 22045, Arctic Village, AK 99722) and now that I’ve turned in all my school keys from Venetie, the keys to that box and the key to the Sassy White Bravo are my only keys in this universe. I like the things I can unlock, very much.

DSC04809This week, I’m taking classes in Anchorage to maintain my teaching license. To get here, I took the train from Fairbanks to Wasilla with Geoff, a trip I highly recommend to anyone who is thinking of visiting Alaska. The views are magnificent, the food is good, and the staff are informed and friendly. I have always liked taking the train because the landscape moves by at such a graceful pace. It’s not headlong and hurried like in a 12-passenger van full of kids. We saw some cool old home sites, several moose, trumpeter swans on their nests, and a single lost caribou, way out of his territory and all alone. Over lunch, we dreamed up a backpacking trip that would make use of the flag stop service that some routes still offer.

Yesterday was the best though. Geoff brought me up to Hatcher pass and we hiked several miles in along the Gold Mint trail through this beautiful river valley. I’m an idiot for not bringing my camera. There were a lot of people for the first few miles (forgive me, I’ve been in the bush, there were probably twenty), but as we slowly climbed up the valley alongside the clear-running river, the trail got swampier and snowier, the footprints grew less and less dense, and the cottonwood trees, aspens and alders thinned away to willows. We passed beaver pond after beaver pond, right beside the river, and spotted what I think must have been a wolverine in the rocks across the water. Lupines were blooming on the south side of the valley, and I was so glad to see them that I got a little misty-eyed.

After a while, we came to a place where the river was shallower and braided and the sun was shining on a sandbar in the middle. We took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and waded across the knee-deep, frigid moat, swearing and shrieking at the cold. My feet went completely numb and then burned with the cold, but the sand was warm on the other side, despite the patches of snow still clinging to it. Geoff and I both fell asleep, barefoot in the mountain sun, for a blissful half hour in the afternoon.

My Auntie Sheila (sender of bomb-ass care packages – THANK YOU – the kids [and I] loved the trail mix) tells me that my father said, after visiting me this spring, that if he had come to Alaska at my age, he’d have never come back.  There’s something in that, Pops.