Friday’s snow had that magical, slow, fat feel to it. Winter wonderland, powdered sugar stuff, and it was still warm enough to enjoy walking home from campus in just a fleece. There were a few golden leaves still clinging to the birches, and the Christmas-red bunchberries were still poking up through the snow on the ground. White and red and gold and sublime. I love that three mile walk through the woods.
And the snow kept coming. Alan came over on Saturday to help me wrap up some fall chores and had to stop to help someone out of a ditch just up the road from my place. Inexplicable ditch people are common this time of year. Been there myself once or twice. Here’s the story of this one as best I can tell it:
Alan and the driver pushed and dug and boosted, trying to get the car out of the ditch. While they worked, another truck came up alongside. This truck was creeping really slowly, checking them out and looking like it was about to stop, so Alan took a breather and waited, thinking more help was on the way. As the truck passed, moving at a snail’s pace, the driver rolled the window down. “I’m not stopping,” he said to Alan. Why are you telling me this? Alan thought, sweating and puffing a little from exertion, if you don’t want to help you can just go on by. Then his eyes snagged on the wheels, all locked up: the driver meant to stop, but he couldn’t. The truck was just slow-gliding through the slush at a crawl.
I’m not stopping. I like it. As a metaphor, it works. Brakes or no brakes, the truck just slides by. The inexorable in scene. “I’m not stopping,” delivered matter-of-fact. I thought the first snow would melt off and leave us another few days of fall, but it didn’t. Winter’s not stopping; no sense getting worked up about it. I won’t get cranberries this year; so what? I’m not stopping, I’ll just get them when another September comes sliding by.
In the meantime, this place is a confection of red berries, golden leaves and sugar-white snow and I am reminded to savor the sweetness while it lasts.
Yesterday Alan and I devised a machine for lifting the engine off the boat. It consisted of a hook screwed into one of the beams at the back of his cabin and a rope harness and a comealong. We thought we were awfully clever when we got it all set up and it seemed to be working.
Hot tip: disconnect the battery before you attempt to lift a boat engine off the transom: there’s nothing like having it halfway up and then realizing your battery is still hooked up to the bilge pumps and they’re firmly attached to the boat and that battery is not coming away without a wrench which you don’t have handy, and and and.
Putting everything to bed for the winter is always harder than I expect: the loose axes and shovels need to be leaned up against vertical surfaces so they don’t get buried in the snow, the insulation panels need to be fit just so over the windows, every system needs to be drained or brought inside or fed its own special chemicals to keep from freezing and busting. It’s a whole set of fiddly chores, and they come right when it’s time to go hunting and berry picking.
It was a good summer, full of friends and floats and trips to Talkeetna and projects and craftsmanship and dogs dogs dogs. Alison helped me with the hearth pad mosaic project and we wandered the valley looking for big rocks for her garden. Daazhraii’s leg slowly gained condition, Silna had a near miss with a porcupine in the canyon up Petersville, and Crozier spent the summer escaping from every situation he could, the rascal. I figure he was just out looking for Alan.
Since Alan was away on Kodiak until school started, and I went to Arctic to bring Lyra downriver with Geoff and Tim instead of going down to the Kenai for dipnet, we’re looking at the bottom of the freezer these days, and I don’t like the look of it. It’s too late for moose, and caribou closes before the weekend, so we may be out of luck until winter hunts open. If all else fails, we’ll get serious about burbot this winter when the ice comes in and eat ourselves sick on fish fry.
Meanwhile, look for me out in the woods this weekend dusting the snow off the lingonberries. If we do come into some game later in the season, I want to be ready to bust out the cranberry chutney.
ALSO! If you’re curious about some of the things we’ve been getting up to, check out Alan’s youtube channel – it’s a lot of gun reviews (which aren’t exactly my thing, but I’m learning to appreciate his expertise) and great bonus videos of cute dogs.
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.
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.
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.
The best part of my days, lately, is checking burbot sets. Alan and I have five sets in a slough on the Tanana, and every day we walk or ski or snowshoe out to chip out the ice and haul up the lines and see if we’ve got anything. So far, a week into this attempt, we’ve caught three smallish fish.
Burbot are hideous. They’re slimy and green and kind of grotesque. If a catfish and an eel had a baby, it would look something like a burbot. But they’re a freshwater cod, so their flesh is white and flaky and firm, and when they’re battered and fried and served with a wedge of lime, they’re tough to beat.
But the pleasure of checking burbot sets doesn’t really have much to do with the fish, though they make a nice perk. It’s mostly about getting outside. Every day, no matter what, we have to go out and check our sets. It’s required by the fishing regulations. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or if it’s windy or if I had too much of Alan’s homemade honey mead at brunch (that was yesterday: his mead was really very good); no matter what, we go out and check our hooks and replace the bait.
And that requirement allows me to prioritize checking sets. It takes about two hours, all in all; more when the trail’s blown over, less when conditions are nice. And I get to spend those hours outdoors, moving my body, playing with my dogs, soaking up the changing season. It feels good and purposeful and … justifiable? Often, guilt plagues me when I try to prioritize my own joy. Is it some kind of genetically coded thing from the Catholics? There’s always grading to do and writing to write and wood to haul and dishes to wash and all of that is important, and all of that sets me free to do the things that I want in the long run, and some of that is rich and rewarding, but it’s not the stuff that feeds my soul and makes me feel free and easy and alive. Checking burbot sets is technically a chore, but it feels like a subversion of the system, like some kind of loophole. It’s a chore I love, and being accountable to an outside regulatory body (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, thank you so much for this) allows me to elevate it on my priority list. It’s a pleasure that isn’t guilty but feels like it should be.
Because of a (slight) excess of Alan’s honey mead, I was a little slow to get going after brunch at Joshua’s yesterday. Alan had to drive to the landing, and it was nearly sunset by the time we got there. The trail was good and packed, thanks to the snowmachiner who wandered into the slough a few days back, so the skiing was easy and fast. I started out a little wobbly, but the fresh air and exercise swept the last of the mead fumes out of me pretty quickly, and soon I was centered and smiling, enjoying the whip of the little breeze and double poling. By the time we got out to the holes, it was twilight. It had been cold, was maybe fifteen below or so by then, so we had to chip the holes out, one after another. Twice we severed our paracord lines with the blade of the chipper and I had to stick my arm into the dark water to grope around in the hole for the other end. Twice I got lucky and found it still clinging to the smooth-bored ice. It’s startling, sticking your hand into water that is warmer than the air. By the time we finished resetting all of our lines, my feet were going numb in my ski boots and it was nearly full dark. There was an orange glow in the west that reflected a little off the snow, and the lights of the houses on the hill overlooking the river were shining, warm and bright in the black sky.
Is there anything that can beat that feeling? That spreading warmth in your toes that comes straight from the pumping of your heart? The bobbing light hooked to the dog’s collar and his quiet panting? That certainty about the way home, the woodstove that’s waiting there? The swishing sound of skis in the night?
About two weeks ago, sometime after midnight, I found myself in a blanket nest on the living room floor of Alison and Matt’s place in Talkeetna. My mission was to keep Silna from hopping on the kitchen counter and raiding the cupboards while also keeping Crozier from breaking a window in his incessant inside-outside all-night-long dance. Dogs can be a real headache at sleepovers, and it was Alan’s turn to get a good night’s sleep, so I was on duty.
To keep myself busy, I was browsing the internet for cool property listings. Alaska is overflowing with them, and I love reading about all of the amazing places I could someday live or visit. It’s fun to spin up a little fantasy around the spare descriptions and the features of the maps. I have a few sites that I check pretty regularly (some people have instagram, I have Alaskaslist) and so when I came upon this listing I knew it hadn’t been up long.
It was beautiful: it looked like Arctic Village and was at about the same latitude. There were two cabins on ninety acres in a river valley open to the south. It was at the confluence of two waterways, and way far up the Dalton: remote enough to be wild, but still pretty road-accessible. The property line was only steps away from Gates of The Arctic National Park, a place I’d fantasized about visiting for years. I’d never seen anything like it. My heartbeat started pounding – I swear, I had an actual physical response to this listing – and my imagination kicked up to warp speed: I was there, riding my Bravo through the trees, snowshoeing with Silna, setting up the second cabin as a rental, teaching my imaginary kids to fish in the little pond and snare bunnies on the trail.
I’m not one to fantasize idly. I wanted this thing, and I knew it wouldn’t be listed long. It was priced way under what I’d think was its real value. So I got into gear and started doing my homework. What would it take to get up the Dalton to have a look? How much money could I scrape together for a down payment?
Within a few days, Alan was in and he’d gotten his dad to agree to cosign on a land loan through a local credit union. Those imaginary kids were looking blonder by the second, and now, look! Here’s Alan, teaching them to hunt ducks and pan for gold in the creek that runs down the middle of the property! Looks like he just got in from a sheep hunt in the Endicotts, let me go make him some cinnamon rolls in our wood-burning cookstove.
Within two days, the loan application was filed and we had an arctic oven tent (mine is still up north with Geoff, whose comment on this whole thing was, “good luck, better get it before Neil Young snaps it up”) and a satellite phone rented and ready to pick up in Fairbanks. By the end of the week we had everything packed and were waiting with bated breath for the Alaska DOT to declare the road passable after a wind event. When we got the news that it was, we threw everything into the Bronco and headed out to pick up Jane (who is always game for an adventure). The Bronco promptly broke down, but we were offered a loaner truck as an alternative (thank you Madison!) and were on the road by noon.
Does this all seem a little rushed to you? Me too, frankly, but this is Alaska! What’s Alaska without a rush and a boom? North to the Future!
And you know what? We made the drive up without incident. We snowshoed across the Dietrich in the dark and pitched our tent near the smaller of the two cabins by the light of our headlamps. We had a bad scare when Crozier got himself caught in a wolf trap (I’m working on a whole essay about that, so I won’t say more about it now; the details are coming eventually) but he came through not too much the worse for wear. The whole experience was overwhelming and dangerous and vital in the dark, and in the half-light of day it was overwhelming and dangerous and vital and stunningly beautiful.
I don’t think the sun ever made it up over the horizon while we were there, but we got to drink in that pale light that shines out of everything in the far north in the winter: I think I was starved for it. We poked around the cabins, found the spring and the creek, snowshoed into Gates of the Arctic.
When I stood on the frozen pond and looked back at the cabin, I spun up that dream, letting tentative feelers creep out of my heart and wrap themselves around the mountains and the creek. I fell in love with the place a little. It was the same rush and thunder, the same confluence of dizzying fear and reckless courage that I’ve felt at the start of every new romance in my life.
In the evening, the mountains blushed with alpenglow as we packed up our camp. I was terrified of the enormity of the thing, but ready to do whatever it took to get my name on the title to that place. I was a total basketcase the whole time we were there, trying to take it all in and make sure we were being safe and asking myself, is this real? Am I really going to do this? Sorry, Jane and Alan, thanks for putting up with me.
With everything packed up, we drove south again, watched the sickle moon throw light on the mountains, and stopped in Coldfoot for dinner at the farthest north truck stop. Their burgers are surprisingly good. It sank in on that drive: I was in love again. I would give up everything in my life to start a new one in that place.
But in the end, someone with ready cash beat us to the punch.
I was gutted. I still am.
But this is Alaska – some other remarkable thing will turn up sometime soon. I’ve already got a few ideas.