Cold Handle Pan

It’s early December in Fairbanks, and the weather’s just fine. In fact, the temperature rose above 32 degrees for a few hours on Tuesday and I had to ask Alan to plug in the freezer on the deck to keep my ice cream from melting. It’s cooled since then, but it hasn’t hit twenty below once in the last few weeks.

I hosted a small Thanksgiving dinner last week for a few folks in my Covid-bubble, and we played board games and ate bacon-wrapped caribou backstrap, and the whole thing felt wonderfully normal. That said, we’re once again coming to the end of a distance-delivery semester, with another one looming on the horizon.

Alan’s staying with me while his Bronco’s in the shop, and he’s got a calculus final coming up next week that he’s really worried about. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anyone studying this hard. The first picture was taken at 10:00 am yesterday, the middle one at 2:00 am, and the third at 11:00 this morning. He slept in the middle somewhere, but he hasn’t done much else. Calculus is hard for him, especially without a synchronous class or a live professor he can talk to about the work. I’m sure his instructor would be willing to set up a zoom call, but it’s a lot harder to initiate those conversations in the asynchronous online learning world. I hear Sal Khan’s voice in my sleep a lot these days. It’s soothing.

My finals week isn’t going to be so stressful. I’m working on a portfolio for my poetry class, and doing an essay revision for my workshop, and neither of those things is a really big deal. The big project that’s on my mind is for my Left Coast Lit class: I’m writing an essay – a research narrative – about an adventure Geoff and I took in the summer of 2018 and linking it to some archival and historical research. It’s really engaging and I’ve learned all kinds of things about the history of the Chandalar region, including where those enormous old tractors in Venetie came from and how they got there (stay tuned).

I called Geoff up tonight to tell him about it, and we talked for a long time. I miss him and Shoopie, and I miss being out there. This will be my first winter without a snowmachine adventure, my first winter break without Arctic Village fireworks, my first year without a night in an Arctic Oven.

It’s hard not to feel, sometimes, like I’m wasting time. I’m glad I’m here, and I wouldn’t trade the people I’ve met or the things I’ve learned for a few more winters of wilderness, but, especially this year, with my face glued to a screen all day every day, I’ve been struggling to feel completely real. Going for walks with Silna helps, and, the other day, I woke up to the burbling gossip of a couple ravens picking through my compost. I like their ragged, hoarse voices. That moment skimmed the surface of really real.

Geoff is anticipating that feeling, and the prospect of retiring at the end of this year is half-thrilling half-horrifying for him. He’s never not had the academic school year structuring his life, and now, all of a sudden, he’s going to be footloose and fancy-free all year round. He chafes at the restrictions work puts on his adventure time, but without his teaching job, he won’t be living in Arctic. It just doesn’t work like that out there. He’s going to have to figure out where to go and what to do and how to get out on the land, and that’s a lot to tackle.

But that’s not really what we talked about. Mostly, we talked about summers, past and future. I reminded him of our adventures on the North Fork, trying to get to Chandalar Lake (we didn’t make it, and I almost bought some property there anyway, sight unseen. I don’t regret my choice, but if I get a do-over, I won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a couple acres out there). He reminded me that it’s time to take Lyra downriver, and I need to make a plan for what I’ll do with her once I get her to Fairbanks. I reminded him that he needs to keep a few weeks free this summer: I want to go back to old Caro and revisit the history I’m studying now, and who better to go with me than Geoff? Who knows, folks – if I stay this excited about the material, this whole Chandalar gold rush thing might turn into a book-length project (stay tuned?).

After about an hour, Geoff and I hung up. I had to go get some groceries, so I went out to start the truck. I leave it plugged in a few hours before I run it, and I run it a while before I drive it when it’s cold. Out, through the snow-tunnel of bent birches that forms over the far end of the trail, up the path to the driveway, key in hand, shivering. I started the truck, then hustled back down the trail, chilly in my hoodie and PJs, to get my things together for the store. While I was packing up my grocery bags and tracking down a mask, the phone rang: Geoff. What could he want that we hadn’t already been over?

“Keely, can you confirm something for me?”
“Uh, sure, what’s up?”
“I just went out and tapped the thermometer and it’s reading fifty below.”
“No way!” I pulled out my computer to check the weather in Arctic (Geoff doesn’t have the internet at home), “you said you thought it was maybe twenty!”
“Yeah, I knew it was cold, but I wasn’t thinking fifty-below cold!”
Sure enough, the temperature at Arctic Village Airport was -36 Fahrenheit, and Geoff’s cabin is usually a lot colder, way down in the bottom of the valley.

In the pre-pandemic days, the drop in temperatures would have meant a morning of hot-water-flinging for the kids. On normal mornings, Geoff left our cabin way ahead of me and headed to school to get a shower before the kids started arriving. On special, fifty-below mornings, he headed in extra-early to make sure the school’s biggest pots got filled with water and put on the stove to boil. When the kids arrived, we hauled the pots out to the front step and gave everyone a ceramic teacup, a couple of basic safety tips about boiling water, and permission to fling. When the kids got too cold or grew tired of it, Geoff would throw the last of the water up into the air in a grand finale.

At the end of the semester, everyone deserves to blow off a little steam, right?

Occupational Hazards

00D4305B-22AB-42BC-AD5F-EDD57AA42509

so much more than just the cold!

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.

270B2479-EEB2-4DFB-A541-89AE8E65A4ED

ice on the windows so you know it’s cold: bedbugs begone!

2. Trauma

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.

980DDD22-197B-456F-A9D6-C0EF3BF18FDC

meanwhile, the sun is rising again, a little longer each day

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

2197D060-9421-4EF5-9D15-C979B43B34F1

This is Not a Polar Bear

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.

6B36D005-009E-45B7-BF19-2B8644F4A9A5

And after I fixed it, practically under the nose of a ravenous bear, my ride found the strength of ten Bravos, plus two! (this is how we haul school trash, these days)

**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.

Field Repairs

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.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

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.

Shit.

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.

Frick.

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.)

It makes a difference

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.