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.
“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.
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.
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 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.
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,
P.S. I ate some really tasty spruce-tip scones recently. Shoutout to Nicole for her culinary stylings.
It’s been eleven months. Sorry about that, friends. I’ve been saving my writing juice for other projects lately. And that’s been awesome. I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing.
I’m realizing I miss this space, and I want to keep it alive, so here’s a mini-summary in pictures.
More soon, I think.
As of Thursday, the driveway is in and solid. Geoff and John had a great time taking turns with the skidsteer and the roller. They claim it was exhausting, getting jiggled all over the place by that vibrating roller machine, but I think it was just the heat. It’s been in the eighties all week, and we’re all so slick with sweat that the mosquitoes haven’t hardly been able to get enough purchase to bite. We quit early the day we finished that project.
“You doubted us, Keely.” John brought a little drawl with him when he moved up here from Florida.
“I know it, I’m contrite.” Their work on that driveway must have saved me thousands of dollars. They have lifetime parking privileges, for sure.
While they were doing that, I was working on digging out a privy pit (earning myself lifetime pooping privileges?). Digging is heavy work, especially as I get deeper, but the hole is refreshingly cool, so it’s not as bad as working above-ground in the heat of the day. I hit permafrost about four and a half feet down, and we’re experimenting with some strategies for thawing it out and keeping the hole going.
The three of us played with the laser level one day this week, figuring out how much higher the back end of the deck will be than the front (answer: about five feet). We must have looked a treat, the three of us tiptoeing through the strings and holes and 2×6 forms all over the building site, holding up a piece of white paper to catch the faint red lines, squinting and dodging and trying to cast helpful shadows without blocking the laser.
It’s starting to take shape. I can almost see it in my mind, now.
I split the cost of a wood-chipper with a friend, so I’m spending a lot of time (when I’m not hanging out in the cool privy pit) chipping all of the slash from the trees we had to fell. The chips will go to protect the trail from compaction so that, hopefully, I won’t wind up with a mud mess next spring. Chipping is loud, dusty work: my sweaty arms and neck get all gritty, but I smell surprisingly nice thanks to all the fresh spruce tips I’m pulverizing.
For a minute yesterday, while I was using the wood-chipper, I zoned out, probably thinking about Hot Licks, the local ice cream joint, and the chipper chowed down hard on a sapling with a horizontal branch that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of. My right hand got slammed into the top edge of the hopper-feeder-tube thing with tremendous force. It felt like the ring finger had been split horizontally, even through my leather glove. The pain was blinding black for a second before I actually felt the adrenaline wash in and throw a fog over my brain. I was instantly muddled. I couldn’t think of what to do first and just stood there in the roar of that crazy machine, kind of in shock. I knew I couldn’t scream because the guys would freak out, so I bit my lip and sucked air, stumbling toward the truck, then stopping to rip off the glove and look at the bit at the end of my arm that was throbbing so horribly. It was surprisingly normal looking, considering. I stared for a few seconds, then turned back to be responsible and turn off the chipper, then back toward the truck again, wobbly and disoriented. I climbed awkwardly into the bed and ripped the lid off the ice chest, cradling my right hand, then pulled all the beer and boxes of grocery store sushi aside (yes, this is correct, because we’re cool like that) and plunged my hand into the cold water at the bottom, rattling the floating ice cubes against the plastic sides.
After a minute, I scooped up a handful of ice in my still-gloved left hand and made my way down the trail, cradling my numb right fingers to my belly-button and wobbling, still kind of drenched in adrenaline and not totally in touch with my surroundings. I was starting to get a little more clarity, starting to wonder whether the finger was broken and how much it would hurt when the adrenaline wore off.
Geoff spotted me coming. “Hey, Keely, if all three of us work on concrete it’ll go a lot faster. You up for helping out here for a while?”
“Nope.” I sat in the one blue camp chair we keep down there, taking deep sobby breaths.
“Nope?” Geoff took note of the wobble, the tear tracks in the wood-dust on my face, and the cradled right hand and did an excellent job of suppressing panic while he got me to show him the hand and flex the finger, all three joints. He is handy with hugs and aspirin, when he needs to be, and I calmed down enough in pretty short order to just feel pissed that I’d be out of commission for a while. And guilty for leaving the lid off the ice chest and not putting the beer and sushi away.
We had decided to take Saturday off and after the finger catastrophe it seemed especially appropriate. We grilled all kinds of meat out on the deck all day. I made a blueberry rhubarb crisp with the last of last years blueberries and some fresh rhubarb. Happy solstice weekend, everyone! I wore a dress to celebrate.
“That dress really shows off your mosquito-bites, Keely.”
“Just because I don’t have the fullest figure…”
In the end, the finger injury wasn’t even all that bad. I am typing with that finger now, and it’s not hurting much. I can’t completely close my right hand, but I bet I’ll be in good enough form to use shovel tomorrow, and that’s all that matters. The biggest disappointment is the unremarkable look of the finger. The bruise hardly shows under the tan.