I’m sitting on the 2nd floor of the Margaret Murie building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks watching the first snow fall on the green lawns of west ridge. I’m trying to develop a routine of writing here every Monday and Wednesday morning this year. So far I’m having mixed results – the last two weeks have been wild and fun, but not productive writing-wise.
I like the space though–on a clear day I can see all the way to the Alaska Range–and I like the idea of a routine. Maybe it’ll settle on me as the fall wears on.
Today’s project was finishing some copyedits and minor revisions for a forthcoming publication. It feels weird to write that, but I have to say I like it.
It’s early December in Fairbanks, and the weather’s just fine. In fact, the temperature rose above 32 degrees for a few hours on Tuesday and I had to ask Alan to plug in the freezer on the deck to keep my ice cream from melting. It’s cooled since then, but it hasn’t hit twenty below once in the last few weeks.
I hosted a small Thanksgiving dinner last week for a few folks in my Covid-bubble, and we played board games and ate bacon-wrapped caribou backstrap, and the whole thing felt wonderfully normal. That said, we’re once again coming to the end of a distance-delivery semester, with another one looming on the horizon.
Alan’s staying with me while his Bronco’s in the shop, and he’s got a calculus final coming up next week that he’s really worried about. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anyone studying this hard. The first picture was taken at 10:00 am yesterday, the middle one at 2:00 am, and the third at 11:00 this morning. He slept in the middle somewhere, but he hasn’t done much else. Calculus is hard for him, especially without a synchronous class or a live professor he can talk to about the work. I’m sure his instructor would be willing to set up a zoom call, but it’s a lot harder to initiate those conversations in the asynchronous online learning world. I hear Sal Khan’s voice in my sleep a lot these days. It’s soothing.
My finals week isn’t going to be so stressful. I’m working on a portfolio for my poetry class, and doing an essay revision for my workshop, and neither of those things is a really big deal. The big project that’s on my mind is for my Left Coast Lit class: I’m writing an essay – a research narrative – about an adventure Geoff and I took in the summer of 2018 and linking it to some archival and historical research. It’s really engaging and I’ve learned all kinds of things about the history of the Chandalar region, including where those enormous old tractors in Venetie came from and how they got there (stay tuned).
I called Geoff up tonight to tell him about it, and we talked for a long time. I miss him and Shoopie, and I miss being out there. This will be my first winter without a snowmachine adventure, my first winter break without Arctic Village fireworks, my first year without a night in an Arctic Oven.
It’s hard not to feel, sometimes, like I’m wasting time. I’m glad I’m here, and I wouldn’t trade the people I’ve met or the things I’ve learned for a few more winters of wilderness, but, especially this year, with my face glued to a screen all day every day, I’ve been struggling to feel completely real. Going for walks with Silna helps, and, the other day, I woke up to the burbling gossip of a couple ravens picking through my compost. I like their ragged, hoarse voices. That moment skimmed the surface of really real.
Geoff is anticipating that feeling, and the prospect of retiring at the end of this year is half-thrilling half-horrifying for him. He’s never not had the academic school year structuring his life, and now, all of a sudden, he’s going to be footloose and fancy-free all year round. He chafes at the restrictions work puts on his adventure time, but without his teaching job, he won’t be living in Arctic. It just doesn’t work like that out there. He’s going to have to figure out where to go and what to do and how to get out on the land, and that’s a lot to tackle.
But that’s not really what we talked about. Mostly, we talked about summers, past and future. I reminded him of our adventures on the North Fork, trying to get to Chandalar Lake (we didn’t make it, and I almost bought some property there anyway, sight unseen. I don’t regret my choice, but if I get a do-over, I won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a couple acres out there). He reminded me that it’s time to take Lyra downriver, and I need to make a plan for what I’ll do with her once I get her to Fairbanks. I reminded him that he needs to keep a few weeks free this summer: I want to go back to old Caro and revisit the history I’m studying now, and who better to go with me than Geoff? Who knows, folks – if I stay this excited about the material, this whole Chandalar gold rush thing might turn into a book-length project (stay tuned?).
After about an hour, Geoff and I hung up. I had to go get some groceries, so I went out to start the truck. I leave it plugged in a few hours before I run it, and I run it a while before I drive it when it’s cold. Out, through the snow-tunnel of bent birches that forms over the far end of the trail, up the path to the driveway, key in hand, shivering. I started the truck, then hustled back down the trail, chilly in my hoodie and PJs, to get my things together for the store. While I was packing up my grocery bags and tracking down a mask, the phone rang: Geoff. What could he want that we hadn’t already been over?
“Keely, can you confirm something for me?” “Uh, sure, what’s up?” “I just went out and tapped the thermometer and it’s reading fifty below.” “No way!” I pulled out my computer to check the weather in Arctic (Geoff doesn’t have the internet at home), “you said you thought it was maybe twenty!” “Yeah, I knew it was cold, but I wasn’t thinking fifty-below cold!” Sure enough, the temperature at Arctic Village Airport was -36 Fahrenheit, and Geoff’s cabin is usually a lot colder, way down in the bottom of the valley.
In the pre-pandemic days, the drop in temperatures would have meant a morning of hot-water-flinging for the kids. On normal mornings, Geoff left our cabin way ahead of me and headed to school to get a shower before the kids started arriving. On special, fifty-below mornings, he headed in extra-early to make sure the school’s biggest pots got filled with water and put on the stove to boil. When the kids arrived, we hauled the pots out to the front step and gave everyone a ceramic teacup, a couple of basic safety tips about boiling water, and permission to fling. When the kids got too cold or grew tired of it, Geoff would throw the last of the water up into the air in a grand finale.
I’ve heard it was a great year for blueberries. Rumor has it someone in Arctic picked thirty gallons. I mostly missed the season, thanks to summer break and teacher inservice, but I put away three quarts before hard frost.
I was stoked for September to roll in so that I could pick cranberries (they’re lingonberries, really, but everyone here calls them cranberries). They’re my favorite: I make cranberry bread and chutney to eat with caribou fry meat, and I’ll eat them plain Jane just for the sweet tart bite and the memory of fall. These past two years they’ve been easy to pick and abundant during my time here, far more so than blueberries which begin to shrivel and sag toward the end of August, so I was prepared to pick and process gallons.
Two years ago, the berries were fat and juicy and everywhere.
It didn’t work out. I have only two quarts of cranberries, and I’m saving those for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I searched and searched, and I stood in banks of the juicy green leaves, stymied. The plants weren’t bearing. The fruit just wasn’t out there. Maybe it’s a pollinator problem. Maybe we had a too-hot or too-cold or too-wet or too-dry summer. I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I’m not relying on berries as a source of winter calories.
Boom and bust is the name of the game. Before I went to town last week, we were in a lean time: there was one very old tub of hummus in the refrigerator, but that was about it; we’d run out of fresh foods and frozen veggies and were eating into our stash of dehydrated camp meals; I didn’t have yeast to make pizza dough or butter and eggs to make cookies.
It wasn’t all bad: the freezer was full of Kenai reds, we were overwhelmed with caribou from our trip upriver over Labor Day weekend, someone gave us some moose ribs, the store had potatoes, so dammit it wasn’t worth doing a Freddy’s order with only a few days to go before a town trip.
Lyra loaded down with three fat caribou after a beautiful weekend in the refuge
Now scarcity is not the problem. It’s really the opposite: Geoff’s gone to town and I’m overwhelmed with plenty. There is too much fresh food: there’s fruit in the fruit bowls and there are boxes of salad in addition to a flat of microgreens I started in the lean weeks. I hardly know what to cook to use it all up before it goes bad.
FRUITS!! (and stuff): neato neato neato
One of the things I love about Geoff is his confidence in me. This week, he left me home alone with a chainsaw I’d never used (the one I’m familiar with is broken), a pile of full-length logs, and an empty diesel tank. It’s getting colder now, so we’re lighting fires twice a day to keep the house cozy.
It was Saturday afternoon, and Geoff had already hopped on a plane for Fairbanks when I realized I didn’t know how to start the other – bigger – chainsaw. It has a weird choke and switch thing that I hadn’t seen before. I called down to Fairbanks and Geoff and John talked me through it and damn if this big monster chainsaw didn’t feel like sudden-onset superpowers. I had a couple days’ worth of wood chunked in no time flat, so I got down to business and chopped enough to see me through for a few days. Plenty again.
It feels good to be rich in fruit and firewood and puppy-dog snuggles.
My world revolves around boats: In just two months Geoff and I have traveled the full lengths of the Kantishna and the Muddy and hundreds of miles on the Chandalar. Geoff waterskiied on the Kantishna. I bought a packraft and nearly t-boned a cow moose in the middle of the North Fork. We ran Geoff’s boat aground in the Kantishna and I swore never to leave the house again without 1) a mosquito headnet, 2) a pair of neoprene booties, and 3) a comealong. Lyra took a beating in some Chandalar rapids. I took a break from the wilderness and spent a week in Maine playing games and sewing in the salon on Islander while the pogies ran up the Passagassawakeag. Now it’s dipnet week on the Kenai, but we’re taking today off to wash clothes and take showers and, indeed, use the internet. Besides, the gillnetters go out on Thursdays and scoop up all the salmon. Sometimes at night when I lie down in my bedroll (or couch, or – very occasionally – bed) on shore, I’d swear the world is rocking around me; I sometimes wonder if I’m losing my balance, but, looked at this way, it stands to reason I’d be uneasy on dry land this summer.
When we left Arctic on the first of June, I labeled our actionpackers: Camp, Food, Maintenance. The sun has now worn the sharpie away. This is what I hoped for when I came to Alaska: Looking in the mirror of my friendships, as I did when I went back east, I find myself profoundly changed. The wilderness crawls inside of you and fills you up with its spare and rugged reality, but it won’t leave, after a while, and you’re left gasping with the loneliness of it. I didn’t expect that. I was never good at small talk, but now I get lost in the weirdness of lines painted on parking lots, dogs on leashes their entire lives, the scads of everything at our fingertips. Gaping at the commonplace feels more natural than trying to communicate about things that I don’t understand anymore.
“I wish I had something – anything – in common with my brother.” I told Geoff over breakfast today.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I can’t think of a single thing we could talk about.”
I can’t really hold up my end of a casual conversation. To the extent that I was ever – what? normal? usual? inoffensive? culturally fluent, maybe – I think I’m not anymore. It’s sad and scary, and okay, too, in a way. Is it self-centered to imagine I am different? Probably. Does it matter? Not really. That kind of thing only matters in a context where there are other people, and in my context, there mostly aren’t.
Teaching doesn’t really qualify as authentic social interaction. In my classroom, I am myself, but no one sees me that way. I am my job, my role, my function. I am just this to my students and to almost everyone else in the community. Sometimes I feel like the picture of a person, a placeholder for a collection of ideas about teachers or outsiders. This, too, is lonely and isolating.
For days on the Chandalar, when smoke from a forest fire filled the sky, I wondered if the world had turned to ash, had no way of finding out without treating my concerns seriously, and wouldn’t that confirm the fragility of my sanity? I waited it out, and when we arrived in Venetie we found no zombies or invaders or horrible, transfixing TV news (outside of the ordinary horrible news). The next day, I bought a ticket for home, supposing this whole episode to be a pretty clear indication that I needed a break from isolation.
I’m not quite ready to commit to becoming someone who lives a life like that, where it’s reasonable to wonder if you’re the last woman on earth and to spend hours contemplating the ramifications of public arboreta.
I’m glad I’ve signed up for a couple years in Fairbanks to recalibrate my social skills, but I’m dreading it, too. I’ll miss the wilderness. I’m not sure I want to revert completely, but I don’t know how to live with a foot in two worlds. Is this a stupid problem, or is it the essence of the question for maybe the majority of people on earth?
I guess I mean to say that I feel off-balance lately. Shifting from the bush to the lower-48 was disorienting and alarming, and shifting gears again a week later was frustrating. I’ve spent a lot of time this month feeling vaguely off-kilter and uncomfortable, out of my element and then dissatisfied with my solution. “Challenge yourself,” Sean said, when I complained to him in Boston. “You can’t expect everything to be easy.”
Fair. You can’t live on a boat all the time and not expect to wobble when you step on shore.
On another note, I’ve been writing a lot lately, but not for the blog. I’ve been saving up some poetry and some essays, maybe for publication, assuming I can get my act together and actually put together some submissions. Wish me luck!
Every new year, since I first came to Alaska, has marked profound changes in my circumstances and in my dreams. This is the first time in many years that I’ve spent this transition away from old friends – my heart’s family. In fact, at the moment, I’m completely alone except for my dog. If I can’t be with loved ones, I’m glad to be by myself. There’s a little extra gravity to sitting and thinking and writing alone. Later on I’ll go get Geoff and we’ll go to the community hall and join the fiddle dance, but for now I’m free to sit here in perfect silence and consider.
It’s been a year of changes around here: Congress voted to open ANWR and Arctic Village got cell service.
There were some pretty great achievements: The inservice snowmachine trip last March, the school play, learning to skijor with Daazhraii, the Christmas party, the river trip, dipnetting our limit on the Kenai, finally getting the Bravo running properly, doing stained glass with the art class, reading Harry Potter aloud to the elemiddles, that time I got my tongue stuck to an axe-head and then unstuck.
I was in town last week, mostly to take the GRE, but also to do some shopping. When the plane took off yesterday morning, I slipped back to my first flight to Venetie. We flew over a dawning Fairbanks where the streetlights were painting the parking lots and roads with pale pink circles, the Chena was steaming, everything was smoking and billowing in the cold, catching the little light of the almost-sunrise, and the lights of town were golden. It was exactly as I remember it from that first time, three years ago, when I was hurtling headlong and helpless into the unknown.
This time looked the same on the outside, but it felt entirely different. I was going home in a plane full of familiar faces, not alone into some unknowable adventure.
In that first year, I left things behind and began from scratch.
In the second year, I found my feet and my skis and a kind of real happiness.
This year, I grew strong and brave. I have learned to navigate on the rivers of the interior, I have camped alone in the winter, I have been stuck in overflow, I have chosen trees and cut them down and chopped them into firewood, I have learned to flush the fuel lines/grease the shaft/change the spark plugs/replace the pump and filter, I have slept on a bed of spruce needles fifty miles from anywhere at forty-five below.
This was the year of Daazhraii:
This was the year of Lyra:
This was the year of firewood:
I have been able to look forward and outward this year. I am applying to graduate school. I am counting down to the release of this year’s state land sales brochure. I’m daydreaming about the rivers I will explore in Lyra, the chickens I will raise if I wind up living in Fairbanks for a while, the cabin I want to build somewhere remote some day.
It’s a good view, this teetering on the the brink of new things. I can see the sun coming up on some pretty great stuff, and this new year’s full moon is lighting up the things behind and around me that make my life awesome: students who are beginning to come into their own, a dog who makes everything sunshine, a fella who is maybe even more independent than I am, friends who are orbiting the same sun, mountains and miles of snow, and a community hall that is even now beginning to fill up with dancers.