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.
Back in November, Alan and I went to the white mountains together. We’d been broken up about a week by then. We shot two caribou, gutted them in the field, then brought them back to my place and spent the next week doing meat chores together. We filled bag after bag with roasts and steaks and chunks and vacuum sealed and froze them all. The way things work out, sometimes there aren’t enough chunks to fill a bag to capacity, so we ended up with one bag labeled “caribou chunks, single serving” and that bag ended up in my freezer.
Every time I look at it I come a little unglued.
Breaking up looks so different every time it happens. In this case, it’s meant not much has changed except the invisible stuff. The feelings, the plans, the intimacy. We still talk often and do things together (or we did, before I moved to Huslia). My unfreezable stuff is still stashed at his house, and he still plans on leaving his dog with me for the summer when he goes to Kodiak. “It’s amicable” I can say if I want to, “we’re still friends.”
And all that is true. Only Alan’s happier now, and I’m not. Breaking up was my idea, and it was the right choice, but I started the conversation because I suspected his feelings for me had changed and I didn’t think he had the nerve, and I guess I was right. Sucks not to be wanted. And it just keeps on sucking.
I woke up in the middle of last night with the dog licking tears off my cheeks. I can’t remember the dream, but I still feel desolate in that familiar way this morning. It’s not a real mystery.
I’m smart enough to know that it’s not really Alan making me feel that way. It’s me, it’s where I’m at. I’m ready to find a long-long-term partnership, and losing a serious relationship just as I’ve come to that realization adds sizzle to the sting. To add a little salt, I’m here in Huslia, population 300, so there isn’t exactly a queue of eligible fellas lined up around my block. They’re scarce even in population centers, to be fair: I don’t go for the kind of men who like population centers.
Last night after dinner, Silna’s ears perked up and she went to the door, listening. I turned off my music and went to the window. Shrieks and giggles, whoops and hollers: right outside, a group of kids in winter gear were playing on the school playground. I opened the door and Silna charged over, tail helicoptering wildly. She wasn’t so sure about the kids on the first cookie night of the year, but when they came over again this Thursday, she couldn’t get enough: she played tag and soccer with them, and they gave her treats and tummy-rubs and played chase and keep-away: she was in Silna heaven, and for an hour after they left she crooned and threw her soccer ball at me relentlessly, trying to get me to be half as much fun as they were. Last night, I watched from the doorway as she leaped to the top of the slide and licked the kid at the top, then bounded to the monkey bars to investigate a swinging child’s boots. She was so visibly, overwhelmingly happy that something in my chest almost cracked. I love her. I love seeing her that way. After a few minutes I put on my boots and went outside too. It’s been a long time since I played tag in a schoolyard in the dark; it’s been a long time since I’ve laughed that hard.
I love it here. I love my job and I love the way this place feels around me. I love kids and I love cookie night. I’m almost certainly going to sign a contract for next year, and I’m almost certain to be single as long as I stay in the bush.
So this new loneliness stings because I know it probably isn’t temporary. I am where I want to be, and it looks like that means being alone. That isn’t what I want, exactly, but it is what I want, mostly, so I don’t really know what to do about it.
Cookie nights; Silna-joy; caribou chunks, single serving.
Today I’m going to find a new acquaintance’s house. She invited me to come by and start beading some glove-tops.
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.
Late the other night, I drove Alan and Crozier back to Alan’s place in the Goldstream. Alan’s been staying with me more than usual lately, since his Bronco’s been in the shop (apparently, they had to order a part from Texas, and it got delayed on its way because the pandemic is slowing down barge traffic from the lower-48). It’s been lovely: we’ve been cooking together, trying to establish some healthy routines, and mostly failing no thanks to a recent mutual obsession with the Great British Baking Show. All I want lately is cream puffs! The dogs have been keeping each other entertained, and we’ve been playing board games with the friends in our bubble, drinking lots of tea, and taking turns doing dishes. Each of us has been trying to take a daily leash walk with one of the dogs to soak up a little of the precious sunlight that filters through the trees in my neighborhood. A few times we’ve met in the clearing up the trail and let Silna and Crozier off their leashes to run around together and smell the fascinating smells of the world outside my yard. The whole thing has been very nice and domestic and cozy.
Now, though, it looks like we’ll both be spending Christmas more or less alone. Alan will be stranded at his house with no vehicle, and I’ll be pretty limited in my movements, too. It’s all Silna’s fault: she’s taken it upon herself to go into heat for the holidays.
Here’s a primer on female dogs in heat: a few days before they become fertile, they begin to bleed and their vulvas swell up to twice their regular size. The blood and discharge can get a little messy, but it’s not too bad. Silna sleeps a lot more than usual and seems more sensitive. Alan described her as extra-doe-eyed. It’s a little bit inconvenient, and it can last for up to a few weeks, but managing her symptoms isn’t a huge deal. The real problem is the scent she emits. Everything I’ve read indicates pretty unequivocally that every single male dog in the North Star Borough is going to break loose and charge over here to pitch some woo within a few days (get it? Howling dogs say wooOOOoooOOO!). Unfortunately, Crozier is an intact male, and I really don’t want puppies right now, so he and Alan have got to go.
There are a few really good reasons for this. First of all, Silna’s still very young. She’s only in her second heat, and I absolutely don’t want to breed her until she’s physically mature. Second, I might never want to breed her at all. I haven’t had her evaluated by an expert. She’s brilliant, personable, fast, flexible, eager, and sound, but she’s also small and not very typey for a Greenland dog. I don’t want to be responsible for bringing subpar puppies into the world. Third, Crozier had parvo and spent a lot of time on the property this summer. It would be awful to go through that again, knowing I have the power to prevent it. I’d like to give any surviving virus a couple years to dissipate, or plan a litter that would whelp and mature in winter when the ground is encased in snow and ice. Fourth, I’d feel horrible if any of her pups wound up in a crappy home. She’s special, and if she ever has a litter, I want every one of those pups to have a home as good or better than the one I could give them.
I have some guilt about keeping her intact at all: on the whole, I’m a big fan of spaying and neutering dogs. Whenever I stayed home sick as a kid, I’d sit on the couch with my tea and applesauce and watch The Price is Right. At the end of every episode, Bob Barker would remind me to spay and neuter my pets, and I had nothing better to do, home alone, than to take that message to heart. Here I am, though, with my own female dog entering her second heat and no plans to spay her any time soon.
Daazhraii is neutered. I got him fixed when he was about two. It seriously improved his cranky attitude, no question about it. That was the biggest reason I wanted it done: he’d taken to growling at people – anyone but me and Geoff, really, even friends he knew well – who wanted to pet him. The world absolutely doesn’t need more cranky dogs in it, and his bad attitude wasn’t from some abusive experience: he’d had a really good life, with lots of socialization and no major traumas. It’s just who he was, and that didn’t need to be passed down. He’s still nuts, but a little less so. And he’s big and strong and gorgeous, and all the freight dog people look at me like I must have been off my rocker when I made the decision to get him snipped, but I’ll stand by that decision as long as I live. I swear, he’s a basketcase. It wouldn’t have been worth it.
Silna is Daazhraii’s opposite: she’s not as impressive a physical specimen, but she’s got all the charm, brains, and will that Daazhraii has never had. She meets new acquaintances, human or dog, enthusiastically, and she meets challenges with the same vim and a bold heart. She learns everything I try to teach her and plenty I don’t, and she’s got sense as well as smarts. In harness, she pulls hard and steady. It’s difficult to believe the two of them are half-siblings.
Alan’s dog Crozier has the size and power that Silna doesn’t, and he’s sweet as honey ice-cream. If I ever find I need a dog team, I could do worse than to let the two have a litter. And, honestly, I might like to have a dog team someday. Definitely not this year, probably not next year, but in the not-too-distant future when I go… well, I don’t know for sure where, yet. Maybe back to Arctic or to some other village, certainly back to the bush. She’s part of a possible long-term plan.
In the meantime, keeping the door open on that long term plan requires some investment, and that means another quiet Christmas. I’ll spend Christmas Eve in solitude while most of the folks in my pandemic bubble celebrate at Joshua’s house, but I’m okay with that. I’ll light some candles and I’ll sing some carols in the wonderful little amphitheater of my home, and maybe I’ll bake something special for myself, and I’ll think a little about the holiday traditions that have a hold on my heart and which of them I want to carry on. I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition and ritual and the power of celebrations lately, and I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about what traditions I want to invent or pass down to share with my own kids, when they arrive on the scene. Which they will, if I have anything to say about it, maybe around the time I get that dog team running. On Christmas day I’ll make myself a celebratory breakfast of pancakes and enjoy the last day of holiday music on the radio. Actual radio, too, not that internet stuff.
Right now, it’s sixty degrees warmer than it was this time last year, and instead of poor Zeus (Alison’s pitbull, who spent a very chilly holiday shivering in the treehouse with me last year) I’ve got Silna here to keep me company, along with Daazhraii, who has flown south for a visit while Geoff does some hard trailbreaking on his snowmachine out in the Arctic Refuge. It’s nice having the Shooper around: I feel a lot safer letting Silna, that lusty little tart, play outside when her big, strong, eunuch bodyguard is hanging around. I’m sure he’d raise a fuss if any strange males came sniffing around. With no one else here, and no real way to go anywhere (since they can’t be left in the truck for very long or Silna will eat the upholstery) I have plenty of time to work on making Christmas presents. When I ask someone to watch Crozier for a few hours so that Alan can come over to celebrate with me on the 26th, I’ll be able to offer him a homemade stocking (maybe with rabbit-fur puffballs!) stuffed with a few nice, handmade things.
And that’s not too bad, after all, is it? For an estrus holiday?
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.
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.
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.