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.
Summer’s really getting going now, and I have the mosquito bites to prove it. Alan and I just got in from an overnight backpacking trip with a big crew of new friends (new friends! Meeting new people feels almost sinfully delicious!) in the Chena River Recreation Area, and we’re still all mud up to mid-calf and blisters under the toes and skeeter bites clear up to here and it just feels so good. So good. (Hot tip for anyone thinking of heading to Stiles Creek cabin any time soon: bring a mosquito net – the cabin isn’t safe from the swarms)
It’s been a gorgeous, busy, cool-weather spring. The snow stayed on the ground a long time, and my garden plants have taken their time in germinating, but the mosquitos haven’t been too bad yet (well, up until this weekend), and the sap run went well into May. I brought in a pint and a half of finished birch syrup just using the sap from the two tapped trees in my woods.
Just like last year, my woods turned into a creek when snow in the field next door started to melt in earnest. Unlike last year, I was ready. Alan and I hauled a lot of water before the trail became unsleddable, and I had rubber boots ready to go for wading through the mire. By the time the flood was knee-deep, we had concocted a scheme for a new annual event: prodding stick required, rubber boots optional. Alan’s beer box boat won the race, but Silna stole the show when she came through for Manny and carried his craft over the finish line.
Using this wonderful video as a guide, Alan and I have been trying to learn traditional brain tanning and practicing on a couple of caribou hides from last fall’s hunt. It’s going pretty well so far. He wants to make a buckskin shirt (without too much fringe, of course) and I want to have some soft, beautiful hide to make into a pair of beaded slippers trimmed with rabbit fur to wear at school when I get back into the classroom next year.
The past few months have been hard: Back in March, Daazhraii was injured in Arctic Village (we don’t know how, though the vet believes someone must have hit him in the knee with some kind of club). The injury left him essentially crippled and he developed a horrible abscess and infection that ate away at the bone and nearly cost him the leg. After more than a week of draining infected fluid all over the house, the vet cleared him for a first, exploratory surgery and scraped away the necrotic flesh from the knee. Later, after that first incision healed, the vet went in to operate on the severed cruciate ligament and nearly gave up and amputated: the infection had eaten away too much of the bone. Over the phone, Geoff begged him not to take the leg, so he did what he could and we all got lucky: as of today, Daazhraii is scheduled for a final surgery that should give him almost full use of the leg again by the fall.
The summer’s arrival has brought some much needed light: there’s finally good news about Daazhraii’s leg, there’s a memorial service scheduled for next week that will allow Geoff and me and our friend Alison to grieve in community for a loved one who died in the autumn, there’s all the good fresh food that the end of winter brings, and there’s the promise of a season brimming with new faces, smiles showing bright, bared to the endless sun.
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.