First Snow 2021

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.

Little Red Kicksled

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.

Silna and Crozier have really taken to it.

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.

This afternoon in the Goldstream there was a lot of fresh snow, so the going was tougher than usual

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.

River Trip Stats:

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  1. Freight Canoe Lyra traveled 800 miles on the Tanana, the Yukon and the Chandalar.
  2. Daazhraii, Geoff and I spent 26 days on the water and ran the engine for over 100 hours.
  3. Our fastest speed was 15 mph, and our slowest was 2 mph.
  4. We navigated class II rapids, carried, at most, 45 gallons of gas, and climbed 1500 feet in elevation, mostly in the last hundred miles.
  5. On Wednesday, I shot 2 different guns and cut down 1 tree.
  6. School starts in 2 days. We made it just in time.

When my computer arrives (it is currently stuck in Fort Yukon) I will post my journal entries and pictures from the Chandalar.

River Trip Journal 4

7/8/17

The sign hanging above the post office in Tanana says “Tanana, Alas.” The “ka” must have fallen off. It’s a misrepresentation, though. Tanana is pretty, lively, and welcoming. The washateria has great showers, and the water is good. The library at the school opens a few times a week in the summer so that folks can read and use the internet.

We met a Norwegian family that had rafted downriver from the bridge and a French couple in a canoe. Geoff met some folks he knew from the old days, and everyone I talked to was curious about our trip. The girl who was working the counter at the store let us bring Daazhraii in while we shopped and chatted with me about where we were heading. Tanana is accustomed to floaters, so strangers are kind of commonplace and come with a ready-made explanation. It’s a different vibe from villages that I’ve visited before.

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Shade for people

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Shade for dogs. Daazhraii had dug this nice, cool hole to chill in. Smart boy.

The weather was screaming hot and clear when we were in Tanana, and Geoff and I were both getting sunburned in our shadeless sandbar camp. The sand got so hot around midday that you couldn’t walk across it barefoot. We stayed an extra day at the confluence to go through all of our gear and sorted out a good amount to mail back to Fairbanks to make a little more room in the boat. It was sweaty, miserable work, and we spent most of the afternoon after we finished it sitting half-in the river, arguing and burning, making ourselves miserable and knocking chunks off of the bank to hear the splash and see the splatter and vent a little frustration. We buried our feet in a stratum of icy mud beneath the surface and glared at the shivering hot air rippling above the white sand of our island. Ice cream sandwiches back in Tanana took the edge off the heat a little.

We got to town and mailed out our extra gear. The store-owner was chatting with me about our plans and Arctic Village. “Well, make sure you’re putting on sunblock, girl!” she warned.

“I don’t have any,” I exclaimed. “You always forget something on these trips…”

“Say no more,” she said, “I think I’ve got some upstairs.” She returned with sunscreen from her own cupboard and insisted that I take it. What a kindness.

At the library, I visited for a while with the librarian while my next Harry Potter audiobook downloaded. It’s always interesting to talk with folks who are connected with schools in different villages to compare and contrast.

We decided in Tanana that, to hell with fishing on the Kenai, we’ll just take the rest of the summer for this trip. We were supposed to be in Fort Yukon on the tenth and that just isn’t happening, so we’ll set ourselves up to take our time.

We left Tanana in the rain last night (I counted forty-six dogs in a dog yard on the shore. Whoah!) and cruised until we found a flat spot on the south shore of the river. It was a late night, so we slept in and had a great swim this morning. The water got deep enough quick enough that I could dive off the transom with the boat tied to the shore. Daazhraii came in with us and romped and played in the shallows and chased sticks. It was a rare true break from packing or driving or setting up or breaking down camp. We didn’t motor out until mid-afternoon. There’s nothing new about this, but we were able to relax without worrying about making our deadline in Fort Yukon because we’ve decided that we don’t have one.

Wahoo!

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(editors note: we wound up in Fort Yukon on 7/19 and took off 7/20 for the Kenai where we had a super-successful weekend dipnetting. We’ll be eating reds all winter! Now we just have to make it to Arctic before the school year starts.)

River Trip Journal 3

7/5/17

Camera broken! Disaster! (editor’s note: the camera was later de-broken)

It is just past midnight at confluence camp. I made cookies in the collapsible stove-top oven to celebrate our first sight of the Yukon.

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Manley Hot Springs was adorable. A crew of celebrants was playing bocce after the 4th of July events in the center of town. Someone offered us drinks, so we sat a while and let the dog romp. Everyone we met was friendly and personable. Daazhraii made tons of friends.

After a while, we went and got a pizza at The Roadhouse, and talked about spending the night. It was getting late, but the night was beautiful and I felt more comfortable with the routine of camping than with the risk of leaving our gear in the boat overnight, even in Manley. We got a ride down to the slough at go-time, beer and ice and dog and gas cans and all.

We are realizing that we need more fuel than we thought. We filled up two gas cans in Nenana, and Geoff is worried we’ll have trouble getting a few more in Tanana. We just aren’t getting the fuel efficiency we were hoping for, which I guess isn’t surprising, given the amount of gear we are carrying.

I drove us out of Manley at just about the dewpoint of the evening, maybe near midnight, when the sun was down but the sky was still pink and silver. We camped on an island just downriver. I spotted a mama moose with her baby in the swamp in the elbow of the slough on our way out, and it turns out they were good wildlife-luck. Today, we saw a moose swimming across the Tanana – Daazhraii was wired once he finally spotted it – saw a big black bear (brown of coat) munching at the top of a tall cutbank, and saw a beaver rocketing downstream beside us. We did not, however, see any mammoth tusks protruding from the cutbanks, though I made sure to look carefully, just in case. Lame.

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All this time I’ve been carefully moving a little watermelon around in the boat, trying to protect it from doggy claws and careless bumps. Today, there was room for it in the twelve-volt cooler, so we chilled it all morning and when the sun got hot, hot, hot, we cut the engine and feasted on cold, sweet, sticky, drippy, pink watermelon while we floated downriver, listening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m going to have to get the next book downloaded when we reach Tanana.

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The bank here at confluence camp keeps crashing into the river. I think we’re going to lose a few feet by morning.

It was a fireweed day, full summer, hot and bright and lush. There was an old burn along the bank for miles, and the fireweed frothed electric pink around the ankles of the standing dead tree trunks. We cut the engine and floated, watching the wilderness roll by and listening to the silty swish of the river against the hull. Swallows were nesting in the cutbank under the fireweed, and they rose and whipped around in daring gyres against the blue sky. It’s enough to take your breath away, sometimes.

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A barge came by camp this evening. Tooted at us. Way cool. Good night.

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