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.

A Secret

When it gets cold, here in Fairbanks, I can feel little jets of air shooting in through little gaps at floor level in the yurt. Like a hot tub, but not at all like a hot tub.

To keep dogs from running off, call them in every once in a while and tell them a juicy secret.

A secret: every fall, when the temperature bottoms out and I find myself stepping outside at night for the first time since the drop, I panic a little. Maybe it’s the sudden immersion in an illusion of the vacuum of space; that darkness in the stars, the empty, icy, weightlessness that threatens to suck the hot breath right out of my lungs and pull me apart. Maybe it’s all that heavy, icy air suddenly settling on me so that for a moment I feel like I can’t breathe under the lead of it, like the night air might force itself into my lungs and harden there. Can it be both at once? The terror of a crushing weight and the terror of weightlessness?

But then, every year, I pull on my Carhartt extremes and slip on my bunny boots. If you’ve never worn bunny boots, you might not know that they make for awkward walking. Each foot suddenly gets a lot heavier, and each step gets a swing to it, so that, like it or not, you’re walking around like an arrogant young cowboy with a brand new shootin’ iron. They say smiling sends happiness signals to your brain, so you can fake joy to make joy. Maybe it’s the same with confidence. Eventually, walking like that makes me feel at home in the dry, cold snow. Eventually, every year, the night and the ice and the starlight become my habitat.

The aurora blew up last night, eerie and beautiful over the pasture at LARS.

Indoors, though, I wear fuzzy slippers almost all winter. No need to let the ice-jets sneaking in under the wall-cover tickle my toes.

Silna and Crozier are also on Team Fuzzy-Slippers.
Having a nice cord of kiln dried birch doesn’t hurt either.

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.

Solstice at the Treehouse

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That ol’ midnight sun through the tent roof

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.

 

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“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.

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Shoopie was a big help, obviously.

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.

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This is not a picture of me digging out an outhouse hole, but it’s a cool picture.

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.

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Some of the pads were easier to prepare than others. This one was a stumper.

It’s starting to take shape. I can almost see it in my mind, now.

 

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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.

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Part of the trail won’t need chips, since Geoff is building me this nifty set of wagon tracks, soon to be a boardwalk proper

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.

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Mosquito Bites on my Mosquito Bites

Five days ago, after a wonderful but unexpected two weeks in Trapper Creek being a badass with Alison and Matt, I went to Yukon Title and signed all of the required paperwork with shaking hands. I became a (slightly wobbly) property owner, just like that.

The lot was forested, accessible by road or trail but with no parking. I say was because it is all changing. As of today the lot features stacks and stacks of drying spruce, a clearing just the right size for a twenty-foot diameter yurt with a large deck, a cleared area ready to become a driveway, and a long trail connecting the two. Geoff, John and I have been earning our pizza (like ninja turtles!).

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A plan!

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Ripping logs for the trail

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The deck site yesterday

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The deck site today

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We are cutting and stacking firewood as we go. With luck and planning, it’ll dry well. We’re piling slash to run through a chipper and use to mulch the trail as needed.

At the Fairbanks North Star Borough Community Planning office, I told the woman at the counter that I wanted to build a deck with a yurt on it.

“You mean a yurt with a deck on it?”

“No, that’s not really how it works.”

She looked at me like I was nuts, but she issued a zoning permit and a street address for me, so that’s something.

I guess what I am doing is a little different. Most people build where they have vehicle access for logical reasons. The neighbors up the road are building this summer too. Their lot is all dug up like a donut with a big hole in the middle, pretty much the opposite of mine. I like the privacy of my forested lot, and the mind-shift that will always be evoked by leaving the vehicle behind and walking through trees covered in snow or through horsetails and wild roses to the yurt whatever the weather – rain or cold or mosuitoes – I think it is important, so I am incorporating it by design.

Geoff, ever practical, points out that I will need a very long extension cord to plug in my vehicle when it gets cold. He suggests I get a generator in a locked box at that end of the property, warm that up with a cordless heat gun, then use it to heat up the engine block. Smartypants. I’ll figure that all out later I suppose.

This whole project is challenge after challenge. I went to the electric company yesterday and inquired about getting a hookup. Now I need to figure out how we are going to get a thirty foot power pole in there. And then how do we stand it up?

Then there’s the driveway. I went through a fear period where I was terrified that if we tried to do it ourselves, we would rent the little bulldozer thing, drive it off the trailer toward the driveway, hit the ditch, do a header, and everyone would get squished.

“Have you ever driven one of those things before?”

“No, but I have driven a tank.”

Helpful, Geoff? I don’t know.

There is a culvert to place and gravel to pack in. After we clear the organic layer, should we use that geotextile stuff at the bottom where it’s a little mucky? I am trying not to sweat it. It’s not a twelve-lane highway. We need the driveway, and soon, to stage the rest of the project. Besides, I’m sure the neighbors are getting tired of our truck (with attendant dog chained to the hitch and parts snowmachine crash-landed in the bed) being parked on the road. Everyone’s been nice about it, but it’ll be good to get out of the way. And to have a place to unload that dang sno-go.

imageOverheard in the saw shop: “you might be Alaskan if you’ve got a sno-go and a mountain bike in the back of your truck at the same time”

(Dude didn’t even comment on the goofy husky or the three chainsaws).

Passing bicyclist in a parking lot: “you still riding that skidoo? Hardcore!”

I am unexpectedly glad to be done with this phase of Project Treehouse. Most of the clearing is done, so there won’t be too much more cutting of live trees. I have cut and hauled plenty of loads of mostly-dead, dry firewood out in ANWR, but there’s something different about live trees in the very greenest weeks of spring. It’s a little sad. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s how they seem to fall so slowly (except when they go down wrong and they’re heading for your noggin). Maybe it’s how much the light in the forest changes with each felling. Maybe it’s just that they’re in my custody: my trees. I am glad to not have to do too much more of it, and I am glad we saved the lovely birches.

I am exhausted. We did laundry tonight and after all the sawing I could hardly lift the laundry bag. I have sap up to my elbows and across my face. I feel naked without my safety glasses and hearing protection. Thank goodness Carhartt was on sale at The Prospector for Father’s Day, because I am living in work overalls this summer. I have mosquito bites on my mosquito bites and bruises all over. I should be getting Geoff to help me clean and tune up my Stihl, which has been acting up a little, but I am grateful to have the following excuse: my dad, who is absolutely right, reminded me to write; there’s a lot I’ll want to remember.