1. Parasitic Arthropods
Our cabin is currently sitting empty with the windows open. Last time I checked, the temperature upstairs was about -5. I never actually saw a bedbug, but I have a distinctive line of bites along my ribs.
Kids bring bedbugs to school, along with head-lice, pretty frequently. A few weeks ago, I had a kid raise his hand in the middle of read-aloud. I glared, and he put his hand down. A minute later he threw his hand up like Arnold Horshack and waved it in the air. All it took was a raised eyebrow and he burst:
“I found a zhii!”
That is one of my hundred or so Gwich’in words, so I did what most people would do if someone loudly announced that they’d just picked a louse out of their hair- what everyone else in the classroom did – and stared slack-jawed.
He looked back, totally ingenuous.
“Umm. Go to the office.” He left. I tried to play it cool and get back to read-aloud, but he came right back in.
“Um, where’s the office?”
“Katie! Go tell Katie!”
Katie’s our administrative aide and she’s worth her weight in gold. She quietly arranged a school-wide head check and called parents.
After a while my student came back into and helpfully notified us all that “nobody should sit there. [He had] dropped it.”
All that is just to say that parasitic arthropods are just part of classroom teaching. What are you going to do? It’s really a wonder we’ve never had bedbugs before.
We threw the mattress in the yard last week, and a day of forty-below took care of that. Freezing the house at a temperature of zero or below for a few days will kill any bugs or even eggs that are left inside. We had to move the canned goods and perishable food out of the place, but there are no pipes to freeze. It’s a perk of arctic living.
I realize I am just beginning to understand trauma: it’s the dread I feel with the coming of dividends and holidays – times of heavy partying; It’s the sick feeling I get when someone who doesn’t usually visit the school shows up in the middle of the day. So often those visits mean that someone – a student’s cousin or a parent – has died.
This fall, I taught for two hours with the knowledge that two of my students had lost a parent that morning. They had no clue, just went about business as usual. I held everyone in my classroom, escorted kids to the bathroom, made sure no one snuck a device under the table and got on social media. I tried to keep it light, have fun, not let on. It seemed to take years for the kids’ grandma to come and get them. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
By the time these kids hit middle school, they’ve seen far more tragedy than I saw in the twenty-five years of my life before Alaska. I have only been around for a few years, but already my gut is twisted with it all.
Trauma clouds the vision and tragedy is what happens when someone gets backed into a corner and can’t see a way out. Tragedy is what happened to both these boys, one of whom was my student. I try not to let myself dwell on it, but I have had a hard time letting it go.
3. Polar Bears
Jim is my neighbor, the father of a whole pack of young Arctic Village girls. He came by the school to pick up his daughters and I got to hear this story firsthand while the girls got their winter gear on. I just about lost my cool when I heard about this: it was the same weekend I was out thinking I was so badass for patching up the Bravvie all alone in the wilderness. I would have felt a lot less badass if I’d known there was a polar bear prowling around the area.
**Polar bears aren’t really an occupational hazard. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. This is just a ridiculously nifty story.
It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up toward the divide.
When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.
I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.
I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.
No Geoff, so no tools.
I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.
I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.
Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.
I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.
As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs. I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.
I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.
When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.
For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.
Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.
In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.
Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.
Just like that, I was back in business.
I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.
Just like that.
While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.
(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)
Fifty-five below is a lot colder than forty below. This morning, on the way to school, I could feel my nose prickling with frostbite needles, even through my neckwarmer.
The propane is still flowing, maybe because we have a mostly-full tank. The monitor is icing up, and Geoff’s talking about plugging in the heat tape to keep the fuel from jelling in the intake.
It’s been cold since Saturday. At camp, my keychain thermometer was bottomed out at -30. Geoff’s machine needs some repairs, so we left it beside the tent when we came back to town. Daazhraii lolloped ahead of the Bravo, perfectly easy in the frigid night, puffing clouds of breath that hung in the air behind him, obscuring the trail and dissolving the beam of the headlight. Out of this golden mist, pawprints materialized, helpfully tapping out a dotted line through the night. When we stopped to switch drivers or to warm our hands, Daazhraii would appear out of the darkness and lie in the snow beside us, grinning and burying his head in the drifts, eating snow.
I love how I can still be surprised by the way the cold changes the behavior of common elements, how it turns things around and makes the ordinary world extraordinary. It always surprises me, too, how real cold still frightens me. Walking to and from school at fifty-below, I get a chill behind my heart that has nothing to do with my core body temperature, and I’m very, very glad that my keys are there when I reach for them to open the door. Stepping in, the mist billows around my shoulders. We all make dramatic fog-machine entrances in times like this.
We finally took off north this weekend.
Geoff and I have been talking about heading for the continental divide all year, but it hasn’t happened. All winter we’ve been getting wood instead of working on trail, which is good: I’ve finally hit a groove in my firewood chopping, i.e. chopping not chipping. We’re using less diesel and we’ve adjusted to heating water on the wood-stove as a first choice, but we haven’t been traveling as much as we did last year and even the year before. This weekend we finally took off and made it north of the woodyard for the first time.
We packed up on Saturday, determined to break trail as far as we could, but it was a false start. We got into a herd of caribou a few miles out of town and wound up spending the evening working on meat.
I like working on meat in the snow. After the fire ants and heat of Arkansas, the clean, fresh snow is a blessing. Caribou are easy skinning by comparison with pigs, and the work goes fast. It was cold, twenty below on Saturday, and the metal spine of my knife got stuck to my fingertips a few times when the blood froze, but warming up was just a matter of sticking my hands between the hide and the warm meat. A novelty. While we were working on meat, a friend from sewing night drove by with a load of wood and mentioned that there were hundreds of caribou on Airport Lake, where they used to drop cargo, once upon a time. It was only a few minutes, so I took off on the sassy white bravo to have a look while Albert and Geoff worked on one of the caribou, and I’m so glad.
I came around the corner and there they were, ranged out over the lake like a broken string of beads spilled across a white tabletop. I turned the key and the bravo shuddered to a halt between my knees. The caribou watched me for a minute, then got on with their evening, fairly unperturbed. I love the way they tip their heads up and back to high-step through the snow with perfect posture. I love the way they stand perfectly still and stare because I am an alien in their woods.
I recognize that my pictures pretty much suck at explaining how awesome this was, how the caribou overthrew me. I love that I got to see this alone and under my own steam. I could have sat on the bravo forever and watched them go by, but dark was falling, my friends were waiting, and the meat was cooling in the snow.
Hot tip: carry a thermos of hot water instead of a thermos of tea: it can be used for tea and for hand-washing and knife-rinsing in cold weather. Man it feels good to not have to wash up with twenty-below snow.
We let the blood thaw off our boots in the foyer (ha) and laid out the quarters on cardboard to thaw. Chips of blood-ice scattered everywhere and made little puddles on the floor. What a pain.
Still, we made it out on Sunday. We ran about ten miles out, most of it fresh trail in the deep snow, and Daazhraii ran along the whole way. We made it as far as we could before dark – my headlight is still out – and then turned back. We’ll try and cut across the valley now to a stash of awesome wood we left on the Junjik in the fall.
Daazhraii flagged on the return trip but refused to ride the snowmachine, no matter how worn out he got. We had to run slower than slow on the way home, but the boy never quit. He’s one tough pup. He was such a wee cutie a year ago, and now he’s this big, badass ski dog.
We’re still working on meat, but quarters laid close to the door don’t thaw that fast, so we have a few days to get it done.
I really oughta get home and do that.