For the first time this year, my fingers are smeared with cottonwood sap. It’s got a great smell, like ginger and fresh-mowed-grass. I found a few buds on my walk this evening and rolled them between my fingertips to release the aroma and squish their green insides out. What a pretty color, green!
The Koyukuk in front of Huslia was mostly iced in on Saturday (I went for a long bird-hike; among other things, I saw my first robin of the year, identified a white-crowned-sparrow by its song, and watched a northern pintail land in a pool of open water by the far bank. Yeah!) but by Sunday it was wide open. There’s a bit of a jam at the bend downriver from the village, but it doesn’t seem to be damming the flow the way the one on the Tanana did this weekend.
I was on the phone with my friend in Manley Hot Springs on Friday night when he heard water running somewhere. He lives in a dry cabin, so that’s a pretty notable oddity. “I’ll call you back in a sec, I’ve gotta go see what this is.” He called back a little while later, and by the time we hung up, water was rising almost half-an-inch every ten minutes in his driveway. That community is still mostly flooded–water is up over roads and in people’s homes–everyone is fine, but Manley hasn’t seen flooding like that for almost fifty years.
Spring. It’s a mess.
Almost every day now, during our walks, Silna drags moose scapulae out of the woods where folks dumped them last fall and gnaws on them. Normally, I can trust her to stay close while we’re walking, but all bets are off when she comes across something stinky and gross to chew. There was some confusion on Sunday when I couldn’t find her for a while. I got smart after hiking around looking blindly for half an hour and followed a raven cawing from the top of a spruce tree on the riverbank. Sure enough, Silna was sprawled on the moss below, savoring her disgusting treasure. Today, she tried to take one along on our walk. Pretty adorable–a moose scapula is so big that even with her head held high, one end bangs against her front legs and almost drags on the ground.
We raised the yurt and sunk the power pole the weekend before I started grad school at UAF.
It was August, still warm but past the peak of mosquito season, so as soon as the walls were hung and the doors were mounted, I set up my cot. It had been months since I’d had space of my own, really. I arranged my water bottle and a book I had to read for one of my classes on the edge of the crate that contained my new wood stove, then added a candle, since it was starting to get dark again and I didn’t have electricity yet. Moved in. I didn’t mind that the wall covers were still flapping loose.
All that first week I went to orientation at UAF, then came home and cooked my dinners on a fire, burning the ends of 2x4s and slash from trees we’d felled to clear the site for the platform. It would be a few days yet before I had a cookstove, and weeks before I had electricity. That Saturday night, orientation behind me and a new semester ahead, I curled up on my cot, now pushed against the wall, pulled a candle close, and tried to read a little before sleep. I had to get through the first couple-hundred pages of an anthology for my first class on Monday.
As usual, the noises of the night slipped through the gaps in the walls and penetrated the thin cover over the lattice. During the day I could hear the wings of ravens flapping overhead. At night, the owls and the rustling of rodents in the duff still startled me, though I was getting accustomed to the company.
This particular night, though, voices from outside broke my concentration. They seemed to be coming from the forest all around me, which wasn’t right. I have a road on one side, a trail on another, and an empty, forested lot on a third. I couldn’t make out what the voices were saying, but they sounded angry. I reached for my bear spray and tucked it into the lattice in easy reach, marked my page in the book, blew out the candle. The doors were locked, but that didn’t matter much. The wall covers were still open at the edges, and, since I didn’t have stairs or decking yet to make the doors an easy access point, I’d been getting into the yurt by climbing through the gap in the hard wall underneath my one glass window. It was open to the woods, a big enough gap for a cow moose to get her head through, an easy point of entry for anyone smaller. I wished Daazhraii was with me, but he was in Arctic with Geoff.
I listened in the dark, breath quiet, as the shouting escalated. I thought maybe some folks were parked up at the nearby trailhead and partying along the path. Periodically, they’d quiet down for a while, and I’d start to relax, but then I’d hear a burst of laughter or a snatch of conversation, sometimes yelling and cursing. Just before eleven o’clock, I thought I heard gunshots. I stayed absolutely still while my fear wrestled with my self-control and my rational mind. My fear won out. I reached for my phone and looked up the number for the police station. They referred me to the troopers.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it or put anyone out,” I said, just above a whisper, “I’m not sure it was shots, but it really sounded like it.” And if someone nearby was shooting, they weren’t doing it responsibly. It was dark, they were close, and my walls were made of fabric.
“We’ll send someone to drive by in a while and take a look. Thanks for calling,” the woman’s voice was tinny and felt too loud coming through my cell-phone’s speaker. When she hung up, the darkness around me seemed to get bigger and the thin walls seemed to evaporate. I felt completely exposed, lying there waiting, listening for the sound of a car on the road. The partygoers seemed to have calmed down, and all I could hear now was occasional, muted laughter and chatter. I started to feel stupid. Was I such a wuss that I couldn’t make it even a week alone in my own home? Was I still scared of the dark like I was when I was little? Had I heard what I thought I heard, or was it just my imagination? Should I have called a neighbor, late as it was, instead of calling the troopers? Should I have gone out to investigate? I lay stiff and tense, waiting. Every few minutes I’d check the time on my phone. 11:30. Midnight.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”
I almost jumped out of my skin when they started singing, then I felt a wave of embarrassment tow me under. I was a complete idiot. Mortified, I called the troopers back. “Yeah, I called about a half hour ago… they just started singing happy birthday. It’s just a birthday party. I’m so, so sorry.”
Later, I found out that three people were shot at that party sometime after midnight. No one was seriously injured. John filled me in after he read about it in the paper on Monday. I thought he was kidding at first because I didn’t hear a thing. I must have slept right through the gunfire. I guess the birthday song must have put me at ease.
The Birthday Gunfight. It has a kind of legendary status in my mind.
I was pretty freaked out but I stuck out the next few nights, phone and bear spray clutched tight, and pretty soon the yurt began to feel safe: John made things happen every day while I went to campus: he built the outhouse, ran wiring, paneled the wall under the window. After school, I hung insulation, buttoned down the walls, chopped firewood. We teamed up to put in the chimney and I think that first fire made all the difference. Suddenly there was an inside that was warm and dry, and an outside that was separate, pushed away.
The walls are still fabric, and they’re still too thin at times (think -45 F, more on that soon, I promise), but they offer plenty of protection in ordinary circumstances, and I am sure I’m the only person in my neighborhood who has heard a moose clopping across the nearby paved road at two in the morning, the only one who can be certain she sat up in bed to listen as the very first of the sandhill cranes spiraled overhead and proclaimed that spring had come to Fairbanks.
It’s been weekends in the refuge on a hilltop with an all-around view. At night we can see the lights of town twinkling twenty miles away. I named the spot Weathertop for the way it overlooks the Junjik valley to the north and the Chandalar valley to the south.
In March, my dad visited Arctic for the first time. We camped at Weathertop, went skiing, and toasted St. Paddy from the top of the world. It felt wonderful to finally be able to show someone why the isolation and frustration are so worthwhile – chump change compared to the compensation of mad-glorious wilderness.
One weekend, Daazhraii ran sixty miles in three days so that Geoff and I could have a picnic at the end of the trail. Geoff’s been out riding it endlessly, trying to push farther each time and coming back to camp grinning through a beard of snow with the zippers on his carhartts iced in. This weekend, I stayed home and he and Albert camped rough out beyond Spring Creek so that they could just keep pushing out and out.
There is no sign of caribou north of the village yet, but there is plenty of moose activity. Once, I was so close on the trail of a moose – though I never saw it – that its smell still hung in the air. I have noticed the tracks of weasels and marten, and a few times the imprints of hunting owls. There have been wolves, too, though we haven’t heard them howling this year. Their tracks make Daazhraii’s look like tiny butterflies in a field of heavy, wide sunflowers.
Imprints of an owl on the prowl
Direwolf tracks and sunglasses
Kristie came out to camp last weekend and I got the Skandic stuck. We were cutting firewood, and I’d no sooner run off into the deep snow to get turned around than the machine went down on its side. I couldn’t drive out in forward because I’d gotten myself wedged against a tree in the process of tipping the machine upright. I couldn’t get enough purchase in reverse to make it more than a few feet. In the end, I had to go for help, which was awfully embarrassing. We’d borrowed a short-track Bravo for Kristie to ride – it’s so itty bitty that riding it feels like cruising on a tricycle! – and I was actually able to pick up the back end and just spin it in the trail so that I could ride up to camp to get Geoff. He solved the Skandic problem by running over the tree (maybe the diameter of my knee and fifteen feet tall?!) that I’d been fetched up against. Yikes.
photo credit: Kristie! – Thanks lady.
When not on Weathertop I’ve been obsessively googling yurt things. I’m going to look at some property in Fairbanks on Friday, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’m going to erect a yurt on my own land adjacent to the trail system behind the university. I’ll be able to ski or bike to class! It’s all about yurt companies and wood stoves and incinerator toilets for this gal right now. I have developed a strong distaste for indoor bathrooms, so I’m hoping I can get away with an outhouse, but, if not, did you know that incinerator toilets can function at temperatures as low as -35 fahrenheit?! You could totally put one in an outhouse of sorts. I also know how to get a permit to cut firewood in the borough and that the city of Fairbanks considers yurts “single family dwellings” for permitting purposes. I love the rush of having something really pressing and fascinating to research.
This weekend, while Geoff and Albert were out breaking trail, Daazhraii and I stayed home and stayed busy. In addition to yurt-googling, I made cookies and cranberry bread, hauled water and started laundry, swept and mopped and made a wood-burned axe-handle for Geoff. The snow-puppy and I went skijoring and checked out the spring carnival where the kids were trying to pop balloons tied to each other’s feet. I mailed my taxes and a letter and sent off an essay and some photos to a magazine that’s actually paying me for some writing! Woo! Look for more on that in November of 2020. I had to keep chopping wood to have an outdoor fire, too: I’ve been trying to figure out how to extract the teeth from these skulls I’ve got, but I need to macerate them first, which meant boiling them over the fire pit. Anyway. I’m going to call an orthodontist friend soon for some advice on that one.
School is still chugging along, but it seems like an afterthought now that the sun is up. We have been doing all kinds of cool stuff, though none of it is really reading, writing and ‘rithmetic: We’ve been skiing, performing wolf dissections, checking out Jim’s polar bear skin, and planning for our spring trip to Homer and Seward. We’re flying out on Friday with nine kids and we’ll be gone for almost ten days. It’s going to be awesome, but I hate to miss the last weekends of spring.
I’m starting to have trouble sleeping, or at least trouble finding the rhythm of sleep. Spring is the hardest because I still feel the need for the dark to give permission for me to rest. When the midnight sun comes, it’s like a license to nap at will through the long syrupy afternoon. I wore cutoffs and winter boots this weekend to haul water, and I saw a cardinal yesterday. The ducks and geese will start appearing as soon as we have open water. Maybe I’m having trouble sleeping just because I don’t want to miss a second of the season. It’s like soft serve dripping down the back of your hand: eat it quick before it melts! There is no time for savoring, just slurping.
I attended a BLM scoping meeting at the community hall the other day. Folks in Arctic were asked to describe specific concerns about the development required in the Arctic Refuge by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and to suggest ways that the required development can be done sensibly.
The unanimous position of the speakers was this: any development, regardless of location and timing, will disrupt the porcupine herd and the migratory birds that nest in the 1002 area. Disruption of the herd will mean catastrophic cultural and economic disruption for the Gwich’in.
It was fascinating. I learned a great deal about caribou: the scent glands in their feet that allow them to relay information about trail conditions and hazards, the vital nutrients that the cows and calves glean from the unique ecosystem of the coastal plain, and the cultural, economic and spiritual relationships Gwich’in people have with the caribou and have had for millennia.
Developing nonrenewable resources on the coastal plain is shortsighted. Attaching this provision to unrelated legislation was deceptive. I am disappointed in my government and disturbed by the speed with which all of this is moving forward. I am humbled by the activists in this community, some of whom have been fighting this battle for decades. I am hopeful that the voices of this community will be heard, that this process will be slowed and ultimately reversed, and that eventually the coastal plain will be protected as wilderness.
If you’re interested in learning more, please read the expert opinion of a former and long-time employee of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game who also served as a lead biologist for caribou studies.
The tribe has requested an extension of the scoping period and that meetings be held in other Gwich’in communities, such as Fort Yukon, Beaver, Chalkyitsik and Circle. They have also requested a careful examination of the 1987 treaty that protects the Porcupine caribou and an invitation to the planning process for impacted Canadian communities.
Please consider lending your voice to theirs and seconding their very reasonable requests.
If you are an Arkansas duck hunter – as many of my former students are – you should be aware that the health and migratory patterns of waterfowl may hang in the balance as development moves forward.
A spring snowshoe hike in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
I have been running on the Mountain Road most clear evenings since school started. While my feet pound and my breath rushes I can let go of the day and let my mind watch the colors change on the tundra. I get to measure daily how far the snow has crept down the flanks of the big mountain at the head of the valley. Daazhraii free runs with me and, in theory, provides some warning in the case of dangerous wildlife. Mostly he lollops along with his enormous tongue hanging out and plunges around in the kettle ponds terrorizing the ducks, though now that I mention it, I realize the ducks have gone.
Last night I put on my hip belt and the dog sat sweetly while I fumbled with his harness. I clipped a bungee line to him and then to me, and Geoff took off on his bike. “Daazhraii, come on bud,” Geoff called, and we were off for the very first time.
It’s called canicross: dog assisted cross country running. It feels like flying. Daazhraii hauls with his heavy freight dog shoulders, chasing the bike, and the bungee rope stretches and pulls on my hip belt. I glide, my arms and hands free to fly.
We ran our usual route, and I didn’t feel that tightness in my belly that means I’m really pushing myself, even though we were moving faster than I usually jog. Daazhraii was focused and bouncy, a little surprised to be allowed to pull, but delighting in the freedom to guide our speed.
I was giddy. It’s fun and freeing and glorious, and it takes teamwork and energy and focus. We practiced “whoah” and “hike”. Once he gets used to pulling (he’s been trained not to pull on leash, so it’s an adjustment for him) we’ll work on “gee” and “haw” and “on by”. I can’t wait for ski season.
He’s a little young to work. You are supposed to wait until a dog is about a year old and his bones and muscles are fully developed before putting him to work in harness. Daazhraii is only ten months, but he isn’t working too hard or too often, and I want to make sure to practice “whoah” while I can still dig in my heels and stop him. On skis, that is going to be a lot harder.
What joy, though. I couldn’t keep from grinning, and Daazhraii ran laps around the driveway when we got home to the cabin, just to let some of the happy fun fizz off the top.