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.

Solstice, Estrus, Christmas

Happy Solstice, friends!

And Merry Christmas from the reindeer next door and their supervisor, Silna.

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.

A grainy but warm and cozy photo of the treehouse.

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 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 a whole lot worse than to let the two have a litter. And, honestly, I’d really 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 long-term plan. 

In the meantime, the 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 finally 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. 

Home alone and enjoying all 314 square feet to myself. Yes, I made that wreath myself, yes I still use a utility ladder to climb up to my (unmade) bed, and yes that is a roll of toilet paper hanging from the barrel of a rifle. It’s very convenient for blowing my nose.

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. 

I whittled this widdle fish and then did some woodburning. Shhhh! It’s a surprise!

And that’s not too bad, after all, is it? For an estrus holiday?

Begin Something

The nasturtiums are in on the frenzy

I don’t know what woke me at 4:00 this morning, but I found my water glass empty and went barefoot onto the deck to fill it from one of my blue jugs. There was an owl out there, singing a night song in the clear rinse of a new day. I didn’t look for it, just listened as I drank a full, cool glass, refilled it, then came inside. I laid my body in my nest, stretched and shifted, closed my eyes, opened them. For some reason, I couldn’t settle down.

I like that expression – settle down. This context makes me wonder if it comes from the way birds fluff their feathers over their feet when they roost for the night. Even if it doesn’t, that’s how I’m going to imagine it from now on.

I’ve never been a good sleeper. I think I love Alaska’s summers because they give me permission to be as wakeful as I like, to sleep when I’m tired and work or play when I’m not. Deep winter is like that too – the sun designates no particular time for productivity, so my body, with its irregular desire for rest, can have free rein.

Daazhraii just leapt up and went to the door, ears and head high, featherduster-tail atwitch. I have earplugs in because Geoff is here and he is snoring, so I didn’t hear anything, but when I went to the door to answer the plea in those brown dog-eyes, Sylvester the camprobber was perched in the alder that taps the east edge of my deck. He had not “settled down.” His eyes were bright and his feathers were smooth and the branch he was clinging to was still swaying. He must have been raiding the kibble, kicking up a clang from the stainless steel dish. I let Daazhraii out, and Sylvester skedaddled. The dog is curled up in the corner of the deck now, nose in his tail, ears up. Let the squirrels and jays come scrounging, he says.

Silna must have heard it too, but she doesn’t seem to care who shares her rations. She is still curled up behind my knees, neat as a pin, shifting slightly when I stir so I’d hardly know she was there. I call her my liquid dog because of the way she pours herself into cuddles and nooks. She will sometimes bury her nose in my lap so thoroughly that her hind legs come off the ground and she slithers, upside down into the cradle of my legs.

When I am done here, with this early-late writing, I will get up and put on yesterday’s overalls. I will go down the steps and to the woodpile and choose a chunk of firewood to chop. When it is split, I’ll peel the bark away and fling it into a growing mulch pile. The split wood will join the rest in a drying stack. That done, I’ll do a few push-ups and brush my teeth. That will mark an official start to the day. I like having a routine that gets me out of bed and dressed and moving in the mornings.

Geoff flew in from Arctic a few weeks ago so to that we could go dipnet at the Kenai river mouth like we always do. Usually, that whole excursion is routine, but this summer it was different. Driving through the Nenana canyon where most of “Denali” is boarded up in mid-July felt strange. Not hugging friends was excruciating, and so was the worry that came with deciding to hug them anyway. We skipped showers at the washateria and tried to do all of our grocery shopping in one go. I learned that one of my favorite restaurants had closed up for good this summer.

But mostly, it was fine, and when the weather was fine it was lovely. We had some nasty weather on the river, but it cleared up most days, and there were a few absolutely sweet days of sunshine in Clam Gulch, where we set up camp.

I went running on the beach there with the dogs, and tried harnessing them both together for the first time. Silna didn’t really get the point, but we had a good time dodging the eagles that dotted the shore, hunched over fish carcasses.

One afternoon, after a run, I walked into the surf to rinse off and stopped short. Something was raising the hair on my arms. I looked up at the seagulls, down at the froth, behind me at the shore and across the inlet at the volcanoes of the Aleutian range. Set net buoys bobbing orange in the middle distance. Clear sky, fireweed and beach grass, dun bluffs, glacial erratics. Beautiful and inviting, all of it. Silna was up the beach, relaxed, gnawing on a salmon spine. My feet went numb in the water while I tried to pinpoint the source of my alarm. Finally, my eyes landed on the curl of darkness under the crest of each breaker. I was unsettled by the way the afternoon sun put the shadows in front of the waves. It seemed unnatural, uncanny. Something Atlantic embedded deep in my animal brain rejected the west-facing beach, argued that I must be in a dream of some kind. I tried to push past it, but I couldn’t make myself go in deeper than my thighs. I dunked my head under, swam a few strokes in the shallows along the shore, scrubbed my body a little, then walked out, relieved in an animal way.

We got our fish (Alaskanism? Does everyone talk this way? I’m not sure I like it, but I think in these terms in spite of myself). All but one. I like to think of that one as one of “our fish” too, the one that goes upriver and spawns and dies and completes the cycle of plenty, ensures a future harvest. The one that ties us to that cycle.

Terri was along, dipnetting for the first time, and she couldn’t get enough of the fishing, but when she whacked the salmon and clipped their gills and tails, she would whisper “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I told her to say “I’m grateful, thank you, thank you,” instead, but I don’t know if she was really listening.

This is a moment of bounty in the north: plenty of time and light and food to thank the land for. The nasturtium on my deck is in on the frenzy, tumbling over the tabletop in a cascade of blossoms all tangled in the mess I never seem to manage to clean up between projects. A few weeks back, I harvested morels with some friends in last year’s burn on Murphy Dome. In a few more weeks, I’ll be picking cranberries on the tundra. This weekend, I’m driving up the Steese to fill whatever containers I can find with blueberries, and after I chop wood this morning, I’m going to fire up the chainsaw mill and start some lumber drying. Plenty to be grateful for.

Alan and I went up Murphy Dome yesterday and found a nice ridgeline trail fringed in dwarf alder. It seemed to go on forever, and I think if I hadn’t promised Geoff I’d be back, we might have walked miles farther than we did and come home late in the scraps of dark.

We drove up there for the shooting range that Alan found on one shoulder of the hill. It is quieter and shorter than the borough-maintained range in the valley, a perfect place for me to get some practice. I’m pretty skittish around guns. I think, if I didn’t need to know how to use them, I’d just pretend they didn’t exist. But I do need to know how to use them: I eat meat, and I want to keep eating meat, and to do that I need to be able to kill an animal myself and say thank you, I’m grateful, thank you. And if I’m going to do that, I want to do it as kindly, as quickly and surely, as possible. Caribou opens on the Steese soon, and I want meat in my freezer, especially now with all of the pandemic-uncertainty. I want to learn this thing, even though it scares me.

“Let’s get you warmed up,” Alan said, and firmly put the .22 in my hands. He knows he has to hold me to my word on the matter of guns, that I’d wheedle out if I could. I plinked the target a few times and started to relax.

Alan is a very good shooting teacher. He is that rare person who can break down a skill that has come to be as natural to him as walking or talking, and explain it in clear pieces to the raw novice. He’s good at noticing how people are feeling and helping them build confidence. When he could see I was ready, he took the .22 away and handed me my rifle, the one he bought for me to use and had me dry-practicing with all winter. I hadn’t held it in at least a month, and it felt heavy and awkward. He must have noticed how I was standing, so stiff and uncomfortable: “Check it to make sure it’s safe.” I did, and as I worked the bolt it started to feel more familiar, lighter.

I practiced, actually firing that rifle – my rifle – for the very first time. My first two shots weren’t great, but the next two were better. Alan moved my hands, my shoulders, helped me remember. He was warm and gentle and said all the right things, noticed and said so when I did things well. “Good hand position there, nice and relaxed.” “Good shot!” joyfully. We held hands and walked down together to check out the holes in my cardboard target.

We determined that I would be lethal to a caribou that was standing perfectly still fifty yards away. If such a thing comes to pass in a few weeks, I’ll take the shot. “And I’ll be there, backing you up,” he said. Alan. All the right things.

He’s awful cute and just as sweet.

“One shot from a little closer, so you can finish strong.” And I did, and we put the rifle away and loaded the dogs up, but the day was too beautiful and the dirt road was too inviting, so instead of heading back to town, we bumped farther out along the rutted dirt road and found the ridgeline trail.

In a few weeks, I’ll go out there for cranberries. Now, though, the upper reaches of my spruces are aglow in earnest and it’s time to chop wood, set aside this early-late writing, and begin something.

Use Every Part of the Spruce Tree

Yesterday, I slept in a little past nine. Silna spent the night curled up inches away under my cot, stirring now and then, while the light dimmed behind the hills to the north, then brightened again.

Alan showed up while I was still tucked in. “Brrrr. It’s in the low forties this morning,” he said

“No wonder I’m still in bed, then,” I said, “It’s chilly outside the covers.” But I flung them off anyway. We had plans.

Plans!

Some weeks ago, I felled a really big spruce. I was super thrilled; there isn’t much that makes you feel more awesome than all that weight hitting the forest floor and rebounding into your boots and knowing you did that. That is your boom.

Nicole, Reggie, Alan, and I peeled it with a drawknife and a hatchet, using the blade of the hatchet like a spud knife to take off huge, wet strips of bark and cambium. Our pants and gloves became soaked with the watery sap and the slick blond logs slipped through our hands like fat salmon. I loved it, that joy of messy work that feels so clean, somehow.

Some of the middle pieces of the tree went to a raised garden bed, notched, log-cabin-style. I learned then that notching is not as easy as you might think and that chiseling wet wood is much easier than chiseling dry. I broke my first chisel working on that project, but I got my tomatoes and squash in before they busted free of their pots.

Some of the smaller-diameter pieces I left long. Those, in company with some lengths from another tree, will make the posts for the loft I aim to build later this summer.

The remaining pieces, cut into six-foot lengths, have gone to the mill.

Milling!

Milling is hard, dusty work. The Alaskan mill mounts on the bar of the chainsaw and steadies it as the chain rips down the length of the log you’re milling. The posts are marked with measurements, so you can cut the plank to a preset width. Alan has been helping me, which I’m extremely grateful for. It is not a one-person job.

When we start a new log, we set the mill to three inches, nail a 2×6 flat along the top, then slide the mill along that to create a straight first cut. The resulting pieces of “siding” are an inch and a half at the thickest point, and structurally useless, but Alan made a cute planter-box out of some of them, and I’ve been saving others to dry and use as paneling on a future project.

While you are milling, the chain digs out a cut the width of the bar through the log and sawdust flies thick. It mixes with the hot exhaust from the saw and tickles in your nose when you inhale it. It smells like a paradox – clean, fresh spruce shavings and fumes from burning petroleum. Even through the earmuffs, the saw roars too loud for any overhead jet to cut in. You don’t look up. The mill and saw vibrate in your hands clear up to the wrists. You are fully absorbed, physically, back bent, nose, ears, hands busy. Your mind is free for a while.

I love that.

After each cut, one of us shovels the sawdust into a sled. I’ve set some aside to mix with wood glue to fill the cracks in the floor, and the rest I’m using to mulch the muddy parts of the trail. With all this rain, I’m glad to have so much of it.

Milling takes a lot of gas and a lot of time, and it’s amazing how quickly your chain dulls, running long rips like that, but you end up with great lumber. I’m drying some of the widest pieces, hoping they’ll be straight and wide enough to make a countertop. I’d like that, to be able to say that I sourced my kitchen counter on-site. So far, though, most of the planks have gone to the boardwalk.

When it was half-finished, I let the test-walkers try it out.

Geoff freehand ripped an incredible set of bog boards for my wagon to roll along last year, then constructed a notched-log support system for them. It was a really magnificent feat of chainsawing, and they’ve worked perfectly, but it’s always been a goal to plank them over, and as of tonight, it’s done.

This summer has been a lot of that: planking the bog boards, finishing the deck, finding permanent solutions to the problems I had to figure out as I went along. There is insulation yet to lay in, a retaining wall to build, and a mosaic to create in the hearth-pad, but I’m chipping away at it.

From my very clean chimney to (hopefully) yours,

Keely

P.S. I ate some really tasty spruce-tip scones recently. Shoutout to Nicole for her culinary stylings.