Some months ago, I ordered a kicksled from Kicksled Alaska. I’d been thinking about it for quite a while: what could be more perfect for commuting to campus or running the dogs? Skis are great, but switching in and out of ski boots is a pain, and ski boots aren’t much use against the extreme cold Fairbanks sees in the middle of winter. Plus a kicksled can be used for moving a little bit of gear, like a backpack. I thought about it and thought about it, then said to heck with it and went ahead and placed the order. I think I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.
The sled finally arrived about two weeks ago, and it has seen use every single day since then. Alan and I went straight to the hardware store to make a few dog-related modifications and then took the sled to the river for a test run. That whole first week, we took turns kicksledding out to the burbot sets. The dogs learned to get excited when the harnesses came out and went from awkwardly pulling out of sync to matching their gaits and running shoulder to shoulder.
We had to take our fishing lines in this past weekend, so now we take turns running the dogs on the trails around Alan’s neighborhood, practicing “gee” and “haw” and “on by,” and wearing out the pups. Silna is real lead-dog material: when she sees Crozier veering off to try and pee on a tree, she knocks into him to remind him to stay on task. You can almost hear her scolding him. She’s the brains, Crokie’s the muscle, and together they’re turning into a handsome little team of two.
I don’t know thing one about mushing. I learn something new every day from working with these puppies, a real classic case of “who’s training who?” We’re careful to take it easy, to always stop when the dogs get tired, to always quit while everybody’s still having fun, and I think that’s good enough for now. It’s easy to see how people get hooked, though. There is a clear path from here to ten dogs and a basket sled with a tent, a grub box, and a chainsaw in it, no question about it.
The best part of my days, lately, is checking burbot sets. Alan and I have five sets in a slough on the Tanana, and every day we walk or ski or snowshoe out to chip out the ice and haul up the lines and see if we’ve got anything. So far, a week into this attempt, we’ve caught three smallish fish.
Burbot are hideous. They’re slimy and green and kind of grotesque. If a catfish and an eel had a baby, it would look something like a burbot. But they’re a freshwater cod, so their flesh is white and flaky and firm, and when they’re battered and fried and served with a wedge of lime, they’re tough to beat.
But the pleasure of checking burbot sets doesn’t really have much to do with the fish, though they make a nice perk. It’s mostly about getting outside. Every day, no matter what, we have to go out and check our sets. It’s required by the fishing regulations. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or if it’s windy or if I had too much of Alan’s homemade honey mead at brunch (that was yesterday: his mead was really very good); no matter what, we go out and check our hooks and replace the bait.
And that requirement allows me to prioritize checking sets. It takes about two hours, all in all; more when the trail’s blown over, less when conditions are nice. And I get to spend those hours outdoors, moving my body, playing with my dogs, soaking up the changing season. It feels good and purposeful and … justifiable? Often, guilt plagues me when I try to prioritize my own joy. Is it some kind of genetically coded thing from the Catholics? There’s always grading to do and writing to write and wood to haul and dishes to wash and all of that is important, and all of that sets me free to do the things that I want in the long run, and some of that is rich and rewarding, but it’s not the stuff that feeds my soul and makes me feel free and easy and alive. Checking burbot sets is technically a chore, but it feels like a subversion of the system, like some kind of loophole. It’s a chore I love, and being accountable to an outside regulatory body (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, thank you so much for this) allows me to elevate it on my priority list. It’s a pleasure that isn’t guilty but feels like it should be.
Because of a (slight) excess of Alan’s honey mead, I was a little slow to get going after brunch at Joshua’s yesterday. Alan had to drive to the landing, and it was nearly sunset by the time we got there. The trail was good and packed, thanks to the snowmachiner who wandered into the slough a few days back, so the skiing was easy and fast. I started out a little wobbly, but the fresh air and exercise swept the last of the mead fumes out of me pretty quickly, and soon I was centered and smiling, enjoying the whip of the little breeze and double poling. By the time we got out to the holes, it was twilight. It had been cold, was maybe fifteen below or so by then, so we had to chip the holes out, one after another. Twice we severed our paracord lines with the blade of the chipper and I had to stick my arm into the dark water to grope around in the hole for the other end. Twice I got lucky and found it still clinging to the smooth-bored ice. It’s startling, sticking your hand into water that is warmer than the air. By the time we finished resetting all of our lines, my feet were going numb in my ski boots and it was nearly full dark. There was an orange glow in the west that reflected a little off the snow, and the lights of the houses on the hill overlooking the river were shining, warm and bright in the black sky.
Is there anything that can beat that feeling? That spreading warmth in your toes that comes straight from the pumping of your heart? The bobbing light hooked to the dog’s collar and his quiet panting? That certainty about the way home, the woodstove that’s waiting there? The swishing sound of skis in the night?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t light a fire every day, even in winter. Don’t get me wrong, my home is a yurt, and our winters are subzero, and the membrane between my tiny, fragile version of the indoors and the great and sublime outdoors is very thin and permeable. There is always a fire going in the winter, it’s just that I don’t light a new one every day. That might seem trivial. I feed the woodstove every six or eight or ten hours, depending, and that keeps my house from freezing. What’s the difference, really?
This is part of it: On New Years Eve, Geoff and I drove through the night from Wasilla to Fairbanks. Everywhere we stopped for gas or to pee or to switch drivers, there were fireworks. Shoopie had to stay in the car – I think he held it for all 300 miles – but Silna, all business as usual, hopped out and relieved herself whenever she had the chance. The moon was huge in the mountains, and the moonlight spilling down the slopes of the Alaska range was stunning. You can’t beat winter night drives through the pass.
Geoff is in the process of moving his belongings out of Arctic in preparation for his retirement in May. We’d gone down the highway to drop some stuff at Geoff’s storage unit in Wasilla and to see Alison and Matt, our friends in Talkeetna, for a few days. We hadn’t planned on making the drive up so soon, but things happen. Alison and Matt were hosting their bubble’s New Year’s Eve party, and we decided it was in the best interest of public health if we weren’t there. I know it was irresponsible to visit at all, and I’ll offer no excuses but this: everyone involved had been careful ahead of our visit, and everyone involved will be careful post-visit. Geoff and I are both beginning situation-appropriate versions of quarantine.
All that is just to say that, at 11:30 on New Year’s Eve, instead of chilling champagne and eating cream puffs, we were passing through Healy. The Totem was open, and there were trucks packed in the lot. It would have been so nice to stop, get out, wander into the bar, make friends with strangers to ring in the new year, but we couldn’t do that. We stopped a minute in the parking lot of the grocery store across the street and watched occasional fireworks sputtering up from the cabins in the trees while Silna peed, but we moved on pretty quickly, and the handful of lights from town disappeared in the rearview. It was sad and lonesome, driving into the dark like that on what should have been a convivial, crowded, happy night. I would have loved to stay in Talkeetna and party with our friends or even to just stop and share a toast with a fellow celebrant in a public place along the way, but it wasn’t possible, and that was hard. I hate being so helpless, powerless, in all this pandemic stuff. It’s getting harder and harder to be good all the time, and nights like that I have to fight myself to stay on track. We drove on.
Before leaving the yurt to head down the highway, I’d taken all of the freezables (onions, potatos, liquid anything, computers, canned food) out of the treehouse to store at Alan’s and had let the fire burn out. When Geoff and I got back to town on New Year’s, a little after two, my place was frozen to about zero degrees. The jug of drinking water I’d left on the floor was solid block of ice. Silna and Daazhraii curled up on Geoff’s cot, tails tucked under their noses, and puffed little jets of steam. I had to start a fire.
While Geoff carried our belongings in from the truck, I started. With chilly hands, I used an old tomato can to scoop the ashes from the firebox into my cold steel slop bucket. With the same hands, I arranged a sheet of birchbark and some kindling in the center of the firebox, then found a lighter. You may not know this: in extreme cold, plastic cigarette lighters don’t work. They need to be warmed first. I let the last heat from my palms soak into the plastic, then tried it. My hands were so numb that I didn’t even feel the spark wheel tearing the skin of my thumb. No luck.
Lighting a fire is an act of power. It is so human to assume control of the environment that way, to build fire and contain it, to harness it, and to reflect and protect its heat strategically. When the lighter sputtered, I did another fundamentally human thing: I turned and scanned my home, looking for an alternative tool. There: I walked to the range and lit a burner to touch off the curl of birchbark in my hand. It blazed up with an oily sizzle, and I carried it back to the woodstove to ignite the blaze that would warm my home, protect me from the winter, heat my water, cook my food.
Lighting a fire is an act of renewal. It is the bringing to life of something hungry and hot, not a living thing exactly, but nearly. It is the initiation of a relationship, an agreement that in exchange for my care, the fire will provide. It’s the sealing of a commitment and an act of trust. I have not lit a new fire in the days since then but have instead nurtured that spark as it has, in turn, nurtured me.
I did not get the New Year’s Eve I wanted. I would have chosen warm human companionship, the banishment and disavowal of the old year, a sense of shared renewal, a countdown, a toast, a buzz, an explosion. Instead, in this plague year, I got this: to build a fire, to exert some miniscule measure of control, to renew again the cycle that sustains my small life.
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.