Right Place, Wrong Time

About two weeks ago, sometime after midnight, I found myself in a blanket nest on the living room floor of Alison and Matt’s place in Talkeetna. My mission was to keep Silna from hopping on the kitchen counter and raiding the cupboards while also keeping Crozier from breaking a window in his incessant inside-outside all-night-long dance. Dogs can be a real headache at sleepovers, and it was Alan’s turn to get a good night’s sleep, so I was on duty.

To keep myself busy, I was browsing the internet for cool property listings. Alaska is overflowing with them, and I love reading about all of the amazing places I could someday live or visit. It’s fun to spin up a little fantasy around the spare descriptions and the features of the maps. I have a few sites that I check pretty regularly (some people have instagram, I have Alaskaslist) and so when I came upon this listing I knew it hadn’t been up long.

photo cred: Alan

It was beautiful: it looked like Arctic Village and was at about the same latitude. There were two cabins on ninety acres in a river valley open to the south. It was at the confluence of two waterways, and way far up the Dalton: remote enough to be wild, but still pretty road-accessible. The property line was only steps away from Gates of The Arctic National Park, a place I’d fantasized about visiting for years. I’d never seen anything like it. My heartbeat started pounding – I swear, I had an actual physical response to this listing – and my imagination kicked up to warp speed: I was there, riding my Bravo through the trees, snowshoeing with Silna, setting up the second cabin as a rental, teaching my imaginary kids to fish in the little pond and snare bunnies on the trail.

I’m not one to fantasize idly. I wanted this thing, and I knew it wouldn’t be listed long. It was priced way under what I’d think was its real value. So I got into gear and started doing my homework. What would it take to get up the Dalton to have a look? How much money could I scrape together for a down payment?

Within a few days, Alan was in and he’d gotten his dad to agree to cosign on a land loan through a local credit union. Those imaginary kids were looking blonder by the second, and now, look! Here’s Alan, teaching them to hunt ducks and pan for gold in the creek that runs down the middle of the property! Looks like he just got in from a sheep hunt in the Endicotts, let me go make him some cinnamon rolls in our wood-burning cookstove.

photo cred: Jane!

Within two days, the loan application was filed and we had an arctic oven tent (mine is still up north with Geoff, whose comment on this whole thing was, “good luck, better get it before Neil Young snaps it up”) and a satellite phone rented and ready to pick up in Fairbanks. By the end of the week we had everything packed and were waiting with bated breath for the Alaska DOT to declare the road passable after a wind event. When we got the news that it was, we threw everything into the Bronco and headed out to pick up Jane (who is always game for an adventure). The Bronco promptly broke down, but we were offered a loaner truck as an alternative (thank you Madison!) and were on the road by noon.

Does this all seem a little rushed to you? Me too, frankly, but this is Alaska! What’s Alaska without a rush and a boom? North to the Future!

And you know what? We made the drive up without incident. We snowshoed across the Dietrich in the dark and pitched our tent near the smaller of the two cabins by the light of our headlamps. We had a bad scare when Crozier got himself caught in a wolf trap (I’m working on a whole essay about that, so I won’t say more about it now; the details are coming eventually) but he came through not too much the worse for wear. The whole experience was overwhelming and dangerous and vital in the dark, and in the half-light of day it was overwhelming and dangerous and vital and stunningly beautiful.

photo cred: Jane again! She takes some pretties ❤

I don’t think the sun ever made it up over the horizon while we were there, but we got to drink in that pale light that shines out of everything in the far north in the winter: I think I was starved for it. We poked around the cabins, found the spring and the creek, snowshoed into Gates of the Arctic.

photo cred: Jane! I absolutely adore this picture of Silna.
We made it into Gates of the Arctic!

When I stood on the frozen pond and looked back at the cabin, I spun up that dream, letting tentative feelers creep out of my heart and wrap themselves around the mountains and the creek. I fell in love with the place a little. It was the same rush and thunder, the same confluence of dizzying fear and reckless courage that I’ve felt at the start of every new romance in my life.

photo cred: Jane

In the evening, the mountains blushed with alpenglow as we packed up our camp. I was terrified of the enormity of the thing, but ready to do whatever it took to get my name on the title to that place. I was a total basketcase the whole time we were there, trying to take it all in and make sure we were being safe and asking myself, is this real? Am I really going to do this? Sorry, Jane and Alan, thanks for putting up with me.

With everything packed up, we drove south again, watched the sickle moon throw light on the mountains, and stopped in Coldfoot for dinner at the farthest north truck stop. Their burgers are surprisingly good. It sank in on that drive: I was in love again. I would give up everything in my life to start a new one in that place.

photo cred: Jane

But in the end, someone with ready cash beat us to the punch.

I was gutted. I still am.

But this is Alaska – some other remarkable thing will turn up sometime soon. I’ve already got a few ideas.

The Geoff-est Thing

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Coming down-mountain after a kickass day at Old John.

On Saturday, I went to Old John Lake for the first time. Katie and Mike and the girls let me tag along, and it was beautiful! Following them on the ride up the mountain was delightful: they found the sweetest, smoothest trail to ride so that the girls would be comfy in their nest of blankets in the sled. We sat around jigging for a while, and the girls tested the crust on the snow, seeing how far they could make it before breaking through. At one point, sitting by the fire Mike had built, I remembered the state of the wood pile at home. “Crap! I bet Geoff took the chainsaw with him. I wonder if he remembered to cut some wood first. I chopped the last of it last night.” We chuckled and got on with our day, but I had it marked in my mind, a chore to do when I got home: check the wood pile and the chainsaw. The ride back was spectacular with the whole valley spread out in front of us and I felt outrageously fortunate to get to visit Old John in such good company. Thank you, friends.

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The girls and their monster lake trout

Meanwhile, while I was out fishing, Geoff was setting off on a mission of his own. He was determined to get us some caribou meat and he was done waiting for the herd to come north. We still have great snow, even now, but it is too much to expect it to last another week. Geoff called up the First Chief and made arrangements to go out hunting on tribal land. The plan was for him to head south with Albert. They’d spend the night out there and come back the next day.

When I came home from fishing, I wasn’t surprised to find Geoff gone, but I was surprised to see that he hadn’t taken the chainsaw. I looked around the house a little more carefully and discovered that he hadn’t taken a sleeping bag, either. It was a puzzle, but it probably just meant he was traveling light and he’d come home late that night or in the wee hours instead of the next day. Glad, I set about making a birthday cake. I pictured lighting the candles as soon as he came through the door and having him blow them out while bits of ice were still melting out of his beard.

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Mmmm buttercream. I tried not to sample too much, but there’s just something about buttercream.

Later that evening, I learned that Albert was too sick to go out and that Geoff had taken off with someone else. To go out on tribal land, we have to have a guide, which is why we usually go into ANWR. This news just made me more certain that he’d be through the door any minute.

I finished frosting the cake around midnight and headed off to bed. I woke up every time I heard a sno-go on the road, certain it’d be Geoff, bringing a sled full of meat and work and a wave of cold through the door. But it wasn’t. He didn’t come home.

Around four I woke up, unable to sleep. He didn’t have his sleeping bag or a chainsaw – what if something had happened? He’d be furious if I made a fuss over nothing – the rule is “don’t worry unless I’m late for work – like a couple hours late for work – on Monday morning” but I hated to think of him out there in the cold and dark in some kind of trouble.

I inventoried my gear in my head, planned a way to fuel up the Bravo if I needed to, tried to remember the southbound trail that I thought he was on, and then rode over to the school to check my email. Since I don’t have the use of my cell and we don’t have internet at home, it’s inconvenient to communicate with someone out in the woods, but it’s possible thanks to the inReach, which is a blessed miracle of technology that functions as a GPS and sends text messages via satellite. When I arrived at the school, he hadn’t sent a message, which was either good or really really bad. I sent, “I’m worried – you don’t have your gear. Write back soonest,” and waited, biting my thumbnails and killing the time watching Netflix.

Finally, after about half an hour, he responded. “I’m here, all good.”

“Okay – let me know when you head home. I’m inviting people over for a birthday party and I want to guess at a time.”

“You got it. Should be heading home slowly around 8 am”

I knew he was about forty miles down the trail, so I figured noon was a reasonable expectation. I went home, took a nap, told everyone to come over at six, and made pizza dough.

At three, I got a little worried again and headed back to the school. “Hey, we got crazy turned around, but we’re back on the trail now. See you in a few hours unless we see caribou.”

Well. Judging by the fact that we hadn’t seen caribou in a while, I figured he’d still make it in time for the party.

At five forty-five I heard a sno-go in the driveway. “Geoff! Shoopie, he’s home!” Daazhraii and I flung open the door and bounded out, ready to give lots of loves, but it was the first party guests arriving, not Geoff at all. I tied the dog out, invited them in, and proceeded to have an awesome time eating pizza and cake with wonderful people. By eight, they were all bound for home, and at eight-thirty Geoff rolled up, frosty and thrilled with a sled-load of caribou. I lit the candles on what was left of his cake, he blew them out with ice still melting out of his beard, and then he cut himself a good fat piece.

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Geoff – the notoriously unpunctual Geoff – had done the Geoff-est thing: he had woken up in a snowbank after sleeping in his Carhartts and bunny boots, snow machined for almost twelve hours, and then finally showed up late for his own birthday party, elbow-deep in caribou blood and with cold all the way to the bottom of his pockets.

May your fifties be full of weekends like that, Geoff.

It’s Good to be Home

“Welcome back! No, welcome home.”

I looked up, caught flat-footed, at the young woman unloading cargo from the plane. She smiled at me, glad and familiar, and you could have knocked me over with a feather.

“Thanks! It’s really, really good to be here.” I said it a little too brightly, still off-balance. I don’t really expect to be welcomed home when I step off the plane in Arctic.

It’s not that people aren’t welcoming. Most are.

But home.

This is my home, if I can be said to have one. When I am not here, I am traveling, sleeping in a bed one night for every thirty in a tent. The house I grew up in was sold last summer to a stranger who I hear has since filled it with tropical birds. My family lives in an RV.

It goes a lot deeper than circumstance: I love these children with the fiercest part of my heart, worry over them, watch them grow up, and feel pride and pain both on their accounts. The land too: the smell of labrador tea and the taste of caribou meat and the color of twilight dusk-dawn at fifty below when the chimneys smoke sideways; it all makes my heart vibrate with a bone-deep note of yes. This is where I belong. And it is. I have never loved a place so much.

But this is my home in the way that white people mean home. It is my home by luck and love, not by right. I have no ancestral homeland, no blood and culture ties that go deeper and older than the permafrost. Most of us don’t. Four-year-old A said it best tonight: she put one hand on each of my cheeks and pulled down with her thumbs, then leaned in so close I could almost taste her runny nose; “your eyes are blue!” she hollered, and all the other kids had to come and take a look. Four serious little gap-toothed brown-eyed girls inspected my face and A held my cheeks still so my eyes wouldn’t go squinty when I laughed.

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Home? Home! 

Snow-puppy and his Isolation Distress

It was a beautiful afternoon. The moon rose at three or so, just as the light was fading. I rode the Sassy White Bravo out toward the creek to give the dog a run and to practice breaking trail in the deep snow (you lose your steering and have to lean to make turns. And don’t ever stop moving because you will sink and then you’ll have to shovel snow out from on top of your skis. I am not great at this, but I am trying to improve). The moon was enormous on the horizon: too big, like an alien spaceship lurking behind the mountains.

I got back from my ride and I couldn’t resist strapping on my ski boots and my gaiters and going for a slide around the loop, just to keep watching that moon, maybe to kind of keep an eye on it in case it had sinister intent. When I got back from skiing, I harnessed the dog and he pulled me around the loop one more time. It was that kind of afternoon. I just couldn’t get enough.

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Yeah, that’s like 3:30 pm or something.

I love that I have Daazhraii to count on when I want to go out. He’s a total chicken, (he is scared of fireworks and little girls) but having someone with me – even someone who is absolute yellow-bellied poultry – still eases the anxiety that comes with wandering the arctic night alone. Geoff wanted to stay in tonight (he doesn’t care for skiing anyway) but I didn’t have to go out by myself. I had my snow-puppy right there waiting, begging me with those big brown eyes and that floppy lolling drooly tongue to just please open the door and let that cool comfy air float in, or, better yet, let him go out. I put on my boots and he started to dance. He is great company. daazhraii by the door

The flip side to great company is crushing loneliness, at least for the dog. He has what I guess is called isolation distress: he gets anxious when he is alone. Any company will do, but solitude is unacceptable. He barks and cries and tears things up. He’ll do it for hours and hours. It’s not a behavior issue, it’s an emotional response that’s out of his control. He does things when he’s alone that he has no inclination to do when he has company. Leaving a shirt with my smell on it doesn’t work – he just shreds it in his panic. Playing music, stuffing toys with treats for him to extract, none of it helps. He won’t touch his food when he’s alone. He can’t be left in vehicles: this summer he ate Geoff’s front seat and my best friend’s husband’s head rests. He ate one of my bunny boots (see the above photo) and a thermometer when we left him in the house about a month ago. He sometimes breaks out of kennels, which I guess is better than chewing his own fur off, which some dogs with this problem apparently do when they have no other outlet. If he can’t break out, he’ll cry nonstop for hours and soak the door and the floor around his kennel with slobber. It’s awful to see him panicking like that, but it’s impossible to have him with us all the time.

I wish there were more that I could do. The internet professionals suggest slowly desensitizing him by leaving him for increasing amounts of time, starting with just a few seconds and working up to hours over the course of several weeks. The problem there is that leaving him for a longer time during that therapy period can undo any progress he makes. We can’t take six or eight weeks off from work to practice leaving the dog alone and in the summer we travel constantly. I hope he can benefit from this protocol someday, but right now it’s not realistic. Some people drug their anxious dogs, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve thought about getting him a friend – when loose dogs visit, he calms down immediately – but one dog is a lot of work and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another, complete with his/her own unique challenges. Besides, it might not help.

For a while, earlier in the fall, he was in a kennel right outside my classroom window during the school day. That was fine. He’d sit comfortably in his kennel, watch the world go by, listen to my voice through the window, and never make a peep. We started slowly moving the kennel and got him comfortable with a spot just outside of teacher housing. Unfortunately, the school district directed us to remove him from school property (in most places, this would make sense, of course, but in this village it is pretty ridiculous. There are loose dogs everywhere). Now we have him across the lot on a run, and he is not happy. In fact, he’s panicked. The barking drives everyone nuts – the maintenance guy, who has to work outside, has walked out over the incessant yelping at least once, and I can’t blame him. We keep Daazhraii at school where I can see him from my window because I’m terrified that if we left him alone on a run at the house, someone would get sick of his yelping and just walk up the driveway and pop him with a .22.

It’s challenging, and it has sometimes seemed like there’s no answer. There was a while in early December where I was missing school days to keep the dog company. Is it a sick day if I’m sick at heart? If it’s me or the maintenance guy? Magically, in the last few weeks, Daazhraii has started calm down, even remaining quiet for half-hours at a time during school and chilling in his dog house. He’s started to howl instead of yelp, too, so things aren’t quite so bad. The howling is pretty cool, actually. Cross your fingers and hope he continues to improve.

When we’re in Fairbanks, there are some different challenges. We can’t leave him in a hotel room, and we don’t like to leave him unattended in the car for long. Geoff and I have found that if we give him a good run before we leave him in the car, he is less likely to eat the seats while we grocery shop. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but it meant that we had a good incentive to take him out and work him every day when we were in Fairbanks last week. We played a lot of football on the lakes out by the airport.

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I love my dog. He is gorgeous, obviously, but he is also affectionate, smart, sensitive, willing, hilarious, expressive, and strong. When he’s with his people, he’s mellow, attentive and sweet. He’s so quiet that I sometimes have to look around and check to make sure he’s in the cabin at all. He has learned some fifteen or twenty commands – my personal favorite is “gimmeakiss” – and his manners are excellent. I have taught him to wait for an okay before going through doors or starting in on his dinner. He rings a bell at the door to be let out. He likes to play tug-o-war and keep-away. He often lies with his chin just barely on the tips of someone’s toes. He likes to lie on his back with his spine in a crescent and his back legs spraddly. In the morning, Daazhraii jumps up onto the bed and burrows under my neck with his wet nose and leaves snail-trails of dog boogers all over my face. He likes to nibble my ears and chin. When we go out for rides on the sno-go or for walks or skis or runs, he bounds around exuberantly and throws up snow in great big sprays, that huge tongue lolling, those legs kicking out, that tail fluttering and floofing, those ears swiveling and pointing. It’s impossible not to melt a little inside.

My friend Kristie took these next two pictures, and they are some of my favorites.

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This one is in the tent at camp. That’s Daazhraii’s happiest place: he’s free to roam outside and he knows right where to find his people. I love his dog-smile in this photo.

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One of his cutest habits is burrowing into the snow. He’s always got a white face-mask when he’s outside. He just goes for it in the deep snow, diving like a porpoise. It’s totally charming.

There was a time in my life when I swore I’d never get a dog. There were at least thirty reasons, and half of them were “poops in yard”. That’s the least of my problems, it turns out now. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite, but I never regret bringing him home, even when I’m lost in a hopeless spiral, wondering if Daazhraii’s crying will be the straw that finally gives that extra leverage to the folks who want Geoff out of the village or wondering if someone will decide to take their issues with Geoff or me out on the dog.

He’s wonderful, even if he is imperfect, and I’m not so surrounded by good company that I can afford to reject someone who loves me just because he’s a little bit crazy.

No one else would have gone skiing with me tonight, and that’s worth everything. He’s an amazing animal in his element here, doing what his ancestors were bred for and loving it. He helps me to be my best self, to go out and soak up the moonrise, and he makes me stupidly happy, so I’ll put up with his eating my boots and crying from lonesomeness and love him madly anyway.

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How could you not?

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Also: If you’re out there dealing with separation anxiety or isolation distress with your dog, I get it. It’s horrible and agonizing. I have a huge amount of respect for those folks who find a way to manage this issue with composure and compassion for all involved.

Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.