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.

Cold Handle Pan

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.

At the end of the semester, everyone deserves to blow off a little steam, right?

Summer Schemes

Don’t worry, kids, I haven’t forgotten about winter, but…

Today, a short, chilly November Tuesday, was all about summer. My big goal for next summer is to squeak through without getting a real job just one more year. While I’m here, I’m here to write. I want to live in my treehouse and write lots of essays and hang out with Silna, not wear myself down slogging away at some job I don’t love to make grocery money. Besides, there’s the two weeks off for fishing in July, and the couple weeks it’ll take to get my boat down here from Arctic with Geoff. No way I can hold down an actual job.
“Maybe I’ll just go mushroom hunting and sell morels” (that’s me)

“You’ll be lucky to make back your gas money.” (that’s Alan. He’s practical)

“So I’ll camp out for a few days at a time and eat… mushrooms?”

“That’d save you gas but cut into your profits. You should take the .22, then you could eat porcupines.” Like I said. Alan’s practical.

Alan’s plan for the summer is to work as a wildland firefighter. There’s always work for firefighters, pandemic or no, and that’s been especially true over these past few years. The pay is good, and he likes that kind of labor, so he’s started preparing.

Scorched birches lean in old burn near Fort Yukon. There are wildfires in Alaska every summer.

See, there’s a test. Alan’s pretty smart, but smart doesn’t get you a mile and a half run in under twelve minutes. To join UAF’s fire crew, you need to be able to complete 45 sit-ups, 30 push-ups, and five pull-ups, do a three mile pack test with a forty-five pound pack in under 45 minutes, and run a mile and a half in under 11 minutes 30.

On pack test day in Arctic and Venetie, agency guys (BLM maybe?) would come out and administer the test. It was like a parade: folks you didn’t usually see out and about would be marching through town in the middle of the day, weighed down with those 45-pound backpacks. Three miles in forty-five minutes. I always figured I could do that, if push came to shove and I needed to work in summer. As far as I know, that’s the only requirement for those fire crews.

My first late summer in Venetie.

I don’t think I could make the team at UAF, though. Even with six months to prepare, I don’t think I’d be able to manage five pull-ups. I did, however, do a set of eight pushups today. That’s my personal best!

Today was the day Alan set his baseline scores for all of the fitness test criteria. Colin came over this morning and the two of them ran a mile and a half course through my neighborhood. I timed them, walking briskly from the start to the finish line with my phone in stopwatch mode in the pocket of my Carhartts. It was about five below, and the sky was that spoonbill pink on white in the south. I should take a walk every morning.

Back at my place, they took turns doing the calisthenics. I did my one set of pushups, held Alan’s feet for the sit-ups, and tallied everything in a notebook. Later, we drove to Alan’s and he loaded up his hiking pack with most of a fifty-pound bag of rice, then timed himself on a three-mile course. I worked on clearing up some old dirty dishes and things. Men are gross when they live alone. Later, panting and crusted with ice, he burst through the door. “People drove by and thought, dang, that guy is cool,” he bragged easing the pack to the floor and shaking frost out of his hair, “I made sure to jog when someone was coming by so I’d look extra cool. They all stared, like dang.”

“Dude,” I said, “they probably thought you were running off with a backpack full of stolen electronics or something. Who cruises around Goldstream in November with a pack like that?”

“Fair. That might have been why they were watching me. Dang.”

I felt a little lame, watching Alan work so hard toward his summer goal today, so, just now, I emailed the local foragers cooperative to see about actually hunting morels and picking berries for pay next summer, and then I sat down to write. Writing doesn’t pay many of my bills, but it’s the work I want, and if I really want it, I’d better work these scribble-muscles just as hard as Alan works those actual muscles if I want to stay in shape and earn my place on the bookshelf someday.

Summer side-hustle: why not?

New Neighbors?!

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Short Stack boys on our spring field trip, meeting my future neighbors

Today I committed in a huge way. I signed a purchase agreement for a piece of property in Fairbanks.

Geoff, John and I walked the land a week ago. We found some good high ground and paced out what will be my deck. We appreciated the lovely old trees and the western exposure. “It’ll be perfect as long as the reindeer don’t snore,” Geoff said.

It’s not a large lot, but its location is perfect. The university is less than two miles away on a network of trails that I can use to ski or bike to class. Across the trail to the west is the university’s large animal research station. It’s beautiful, and I’ll have reindeer and musk oxen for my neighbors.

I’ll close on the property as soon as I get to Fairbanks at the end of school, and then I’ll get some friends together and start chainsawing and digging a privy pit and pounding stakes to mark out my deck and power pole. I’m getting ready to make a down payment on a twenty foot yurt, probably from Nomad Shelter, Alaska’s local yurt people down in Homer, maybe even this week.

Gulp.

It’s terrifying, but thrilling.

But terrifying! There is so much to do and I am so ready to do it, but I’ve never written such a big check in my life. While staring down the barrel of a lot more big checks.

This won’t be a permanent place for me. I’m not ever going to be completely happy with living smushed in, but it’s the ideal solution for the years of my MFA program, and I think having the ability to walk out the door and onto a miles-long trail system will provide a new kind of refuge. I’m looking forward to living alone again, and finding the independence and clarity that I remember from my time in Venetie. At the same time, it’s impossibly sad.

So, feelings: A lot of excitement for this fancy new bespoke life, and fear of the unknown. Grief for the things I’m sacrificing, and a sense of liberation, too. Don’t they often go hand in hand?

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Clarity, liberation, kids on a field trip

 

sea legs

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.

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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!