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.
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.
Two elementary school girls came over this afternoon to make cookies. They have a sleepover lined up tonight, and I loved listening to them discussing the games and pranks they plan to play.
“What if you hide outside the door and scare them?”
“We could put whipped cream on their face!”
We made a couple dozen tiny cookies and a specially tailored cardboard cookie-carrying box with the words “top secret” printed on the top so that they could transport them without losing them all to nosy neighbors.
It was wonderful and also a little sad for me. Cookie night used to be a big thing in Venetie. It never took off here in the same way, but this felt to me like those old cookie nights used to, with the girls laughing and opening up a little in ways they don’t at school. I am going to miss them. And all of this.
While the cookies were in the oven, J asked to play with Daazhraii. Now, Daazhraii is a pretty good dog. He’s playful, obedient, tough, smart, quiet, affectionate with his people, and sensitive (sometimes a little too sensitive), but he doesn’t like children, especially little girls. He treats kids with extreme suspicion and, if they approach him in an enclosed space, he stiffens, glares, and, if they keep coming toward him, growls. It’s scary and disheartening.
I have done a lot of reading on this, and I try to handle it well. I control any fear or anxiety I feel when kids are around him. I don’t allow him to be cornered, and, when I need to, I remove him from the situation gently. I don’t validate his fears by punishing him, I just watch him carefully and do what I need to do to remain confident that everyone will have a positive experience.
“See how his tail is stiff? That means he doesn’t want to be petted. Let him sniff you and, if he walks away, just let him go.”
It works well, and it seems to be helping him build up his confidence, because when J talked me into letting her play with him, he aced it.
One of L’s little-kid-sized rubber boots had a tear in it, and I’d just put on an Aquaseal patch, so she and I stood in our socks on the steps and watched as J spoke softly and gently to Daazhraii until – I couldn’t believe it – he let her pick up his rope toy and play tug and chase. They played for at least half an hour, at first on his run by the front door, then running laps around the house, taking turns carrying the rope toy. He was as gentle as – gentler than – I’ve ever seen him, and completely beside himself with the fun of it, totally relaxed and thrilled with his new best friend.
Daazhraii seems to be mellowing, and I’m glad. There is not much room in the world these days for dogs that can’t be trusted. He may never get to be really trustworthy (I still wouldn’t let him into the house with the kids, where he tends to get more territorial and feel more cornered), but he’s making some progress, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.
On the subject of sunshine, everyone should know that it’s daylight here twenty and more hours a day now, and twilight the rest of the time. I love hearing the birds singing all night. I went out to pee at two this morning and I could hear the river churning like a slushie machine down at first bend. Spring is here!
In other sunshine-related news, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award – “an award given to bloggers by their peers for being creative, positive, and inspiring, while spreading sunshine to the blogging community.”
Thank you Julia for nominating me! I’m honored that you thought of me and also super delighted by your questions.
If you don’t already read Beneath the Borealis, you should. Julia writes an account of her life in a very different part of rural Alaska. She is perceptive, enthusiastic and vulnerable in her writing, and I love each and every one of her posts. She has just added a tiny fluff to her family, so one can assume there will be many enchanting snow-puppy stories coming soon.
Here are the questions posed to me by Julia:
Why did you begin your blog?
I began Chasing Piggens years ago, when I was living in Arkansas.
Partly, I started the blog because the life I shared at that time with my partner Sean was wildly different from the lives of everyone we knew. It was a way of sharing what we were up to, and why.
Partly, too, I was reading a lot of blogs at the time, learning about how folks had tackled projects or approached changes similar to mine. I thought I might have some useful advice for someone wanting to raise chickens in varmint hell or butcher their own pigs with the help of a decrepit swingset. Then I started reading Alaska blogs…
What is the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning?
“Oh shit, I’m late!”
Geoff woke me up at five thirty this morning, convinced we were late for work because the sun was so high in the sky.
The best part? Friday was the last day of school! We get to sleep in – or out, preferably – and on any schedule we please – for the next three months!
How do you soothe yourself when you’re having a bad day?
I reread a Tamora Pierce book. Tortall is my favorite place to go when the real world is too tough to face.
Hogwarts is a close second, especially on audio as read by the fabulous Jim Dale.
What is your ultimate favorite meal or food item?
STUFFING! I love stuffing! I will go to extreme lengths (trust me – I live in the bush and it’s not easy to come by fresh parsley) to put honest-to-goodness homemade-from-scratch stuffing on the table at Thanksgiving.
If you could only recommend one place to go in the world to everyone you met, where would it be?
I would recommend the arctic. And I would advise everyone to stay for a while.
The arctic is beautiful and vibrant in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I lived in the lower-48. There are places here, river valleys and hilltop lookouts, that are so beautiful and primeval that they crack your heart wide open and compel you to drop everything and revel. You can’t help feeling small and afraid while at the same time feeling that you are at the height of your powers somehow: Impossibly human with a real understanding of what that means. If you hang around long enough, the landscape itself will transform you.
What is your favorite pair of shoes?
I love my Bean boots. They’re great all-purpose rugged footwear, and I kinda like that they mark me as a New Englander in a world of Alaskans in XtraTufs.
Do you feel like an adult?
Yes, but I really hope that will go away when I stop being responsible for children all the time.
Lately, as I’ve been researching and scheming for Project LandYurtPlanDirt, I’ve felt ridiculously grown up. I have done heaps of paperwork, and I had to order checks for the first time in my life (who uses checks?! [adults, apparently]). I’m looking forward to the part where I’ve spent all my money and I get to go bash down trees and cut firewood and move into my sweet-ass yurt on a tall deck in among the trees beside the reindeer pasture. I’ll pull in my rope ladder (figurative or not? you decide!), put up a sign that says “no boys allowed” and forget all about paperwork for a good long while.
What makes you feel alive?
River trips, winning at anything, kissing, playing dog football or skijoring with Daazhraii, carefully planning and then spectacularly executing any scheme, singing in the car, fixing things by myself, being trusted.
What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?
I don’t have a favorite! Beverages are conditional. I do have a thing for pink, though. On a slow morning, grapefruit juice. Any time at all, a dash of real-deal cranberry juice in my water. In winter, I like a pink cocktail out on the town.
Do you like where you live?
Yes. It’s also very complicated. Arctic Village is both spectacular and harsh in almost every imaginable way.
What do you need to do for yourself to feel good?
SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Basic Self-Care vs. Work, Chores and Adventures!
In my life, the latter tends to totally dominate. My work makes me feel like I’m contributing something useful to the world, chores make me feel like I’m holding up my end of my relationship, and adventures make me feel like a badass. Eating well, sleeping enough, and getting any kind of exercise tend to fall by the wayside because those things benefit only me and don’t really impress anyone.
I’ve been a lot better about it this school year – I realize that I need to take care of myself if I want to get the most out of my body and mind – emotional resilience, physical wellness, and mental agility all depend on self-care and are all essential to succeeding as a teacher – but it can be really hard to prioritize myself. If I could push hard twenty-four hours a day, there would still be more to do: Lessons to plan, wood to chop, classes to teach, dishes to wash, papers to grade, game nights to run (I am now the Dungeon Master for some of our middle school boys who just got into D&D), events to plan, reports to draft, staff parties to host and on and on.
This year, Jewels and I worked out after school together. At this point, we can both recite Jillian Michaels’ “Yoga Inferno” dvd nearly perfectly (our favorite line: “there are days you’d rather be dead than turn on this dvd!”). It is exhausting, but working out erases my headaches and makes me feel like a million bucks. That changed the school year in a huge way for me. Thank you Jewels, for always being game to roll out the yoga mats. You saved my bacon this year.
I would like to nominate some of my favorite, still-active, Alaskan Teacher-Bloggers for this award, and I’ve tailored my questions accordingly. With no internet at home, I’m terrible about keeping up with who’s new out there, so if you know of any good bush-teacher blogs I should follow, please comment.
- Aletha over at Tumbleweed Soul is very active and always has something cheerful or funny to say.
- Leslie at Occupational Therapy Below Zero works in Arctic Village with me, as well as in other parts of Alaska with other schools, and takes beautiful photos.
- Andrew and Kristina at Bellamy Travels are new to Alaska this past year. They work in Hughes and I just found their blog a few weeks ago when they posted an awesome synopsis of their year.
Here are the rules, if you wish to play:
- Thank the blogger who nominated you.
- Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
- Nominate up to 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
- List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog
- Why Alaska?
- How does your experience compare to your expectations?
- Imagine a bucket. What’s it used for?
- If you could design your ideal care package, what would be in it?
- What is one thing you buy just about every single time you go to the grocery store?
- Do you have a favorite joke? What is it?
- What is something you can make, food or otherwise, that you are proud of?
- What is one thing you are looking forward to right now?
- When you need to laugh, what is your go-to book, podcast, tv show or whatever?
- What is your favorite extravagance?
- What is something that you miss already about winter?