First Fire

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.

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?

A Secret

When it gets cold, here in Fairbanks, I can feel little jets of air shooting in through little gaps at floor level in the yurt. Like a hot tub, but not at all like a hot tub.

To keep dogs from running off, call them in every once in a while and tell them a juicy secret.

A secret: every fall, when the temperature bottoms out and I find myself stepping outside at night for the first time since the drop, I panic a little. Maybe it’s the sudden immersion in an illusion of the vacuum of space; that darkness in the stars, the empty, icy, weightlessness that threatens to suck the hot breath right out of my lungs and pull me apart. Maybe it’s all that heavy, icy air suddenly settling on me so that for a moment I feel like I can’t breathe under the lead of it, like the night air might force itself into my lungs and harden there. Can it be both at once? The terror of a crushing weight and the terror of weightlessness?

But then, every year, I pull on my Carhartt extremes and slip on my bunny boots. If you’ve never worn bunny boots, you might not know that they make for awkward walking. Each foot suddenly gets a lot heavier, and each step gets a swing to it, so that, like it or not, you’re walking around like an arrogant young cowboy with a brand new shootin’ iron. They say smiling sends happiness signals to your brain, so you can fake joy to make joy. Maybe it’s the same with confidence. Eventually, walking like that makes me feel at home in the dry, cold snow. Eventually, every year, the night and the ice and the starlight become my habitat.

The aurora blew up last night, eerie and beautiful over the pasture at LARS.

Indoors, though, I wear fuzzy slippers almost all winter. No need to let the ice-jets sneaking in under the wall-cover tickle my toes.

Silna and Crozier are also on Team Fuzzy-Slippers.
Having a nice cord of kiln dried birch doesn’t hurt either.