He Wasn’t Drunk

life in a village

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This is Birch Creek. I’ve long wanted to get some good pictures of it, and I’m happy with these. Birch Creek is home to about 30 people, or maybe 20. Nobody moves here looking for work. In fact, nobody really moves here at all.

Well, that isn’t totally accurate – living in the interior of Alaska has a semi-nomadic quality to it and people, usually family relatives, do come and go.

Gwich’in Athabascans have long dwelt in Birch Creek, fishing and hunting the abundant wildlife. Lawrence does, and one cold, February day earlier this year he was having a drink or two, which may or may not have had something to do with the sudden urge that overcame him to go for a walk. Hum, Fort Yukon’s not too far away.

It’s worth noting that a February stroll across the Yukon Flats probably isn’t anything like a stroll down your neighborhood street. If you are a crow, then Fort Yukon is about 30 miles from Birch Creek, but if you are bipedal like Lawrence and me, then you are looking at a 50 mile hike.

It also bears mentioning to those who may not have followed this blog for long that there are no roads across the Yukon Flats; it is true wilderness. There are no mile markers, no signs that you would recognize. There may be snow-go tracks, if they haven’t been obscured by fresh snow. Sometimes there are stars visible. That’s about it. Except for wolves and the like.

Fortunately for Lawrence, he had plenty of time on his hands. He walked for 15 hours and almost made it. A search team found him 4 miles outside the Fort and brought him in. He felt great, except his legs were a little sore.

Lawrence, by the way, is 52 years old. It was -35˚F when he strolled out the door, and there were less than 6 hours of winter light per day.

His family said he wasn’t really drunk, but they also conceded that he may not have been completely sober. Either way, my hat’s off to Lawrence for accomplishing something I would never try.

inspired by Dorothy Chomicz’s story on Newsminer.com

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The Wright Choice

northern exposures

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We departed Fort Yukon on Saturday at 3:30 pm on Wright Air, headed for Fairbanks. There are 3 carriers out of the Fort and Wright’s is the only one we will fly. Their Grand Caravans are reliable even in extreme cold and so are their pilots.

Saturday’s pilot warned us that by the time we passed Birch Creek, about 30 miles south, we wouldn’t be seeing much. That was an understatement! Thirty seconds beyond the Yukon it was a white out, so I leaned against the window and fell asleep. At some point I awoke and saw this unknown creek cutting across the landscape below me, so I snapped a quick picture of it just as the snow clouds closed in again.

That was the last thing we saw until the runway lights guided us onto the East Ramp in Fairbanks. The flight normally takes 55 minutes; strong headwinds and zero visibility added another 25 to ours and you should have heard the moaning about that!

Our flight may have been slow, but one of the other planes carrying teachers to Fairbanks lost engine power briefly and began descending over the mountains. I heard there were some screams on that one! The problem apparently had to do with a vapor lock or something as the pilot switched fuel tanks. They landed okay. By the way, that wasn’t one of Wright Air’s planes.

And now you know which airline is the Wright Choice!

Chasing Piggens: Heart-Warming Stories From a Frozen Land

life in a village

To all my longtime followers, stop right now and go visit Chasing Piggens. Its author, Keely, is a newcomer to the Yukon Flats and teaches in Venetie, a place even more remote than Fort Yukon (yes, there are such places).

Chasing Piggens is a love story, a tale of a young teacher from outside who finds her way to a remote village on the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter and falls head over heals in love with the land and its people. This is a tale you will not want to miss! Here’s an excerpt:

At quarter to six last night, I realized I had only enough butter left in the freezer for one batch of sugar cookies…I was looking down the barrel of a long two weeks without butter. I tucked myself into my gear and crunched my way over to the store, hoping they were open, hoping I wouldn’t leave the girls stranded in the cold, hoping they’d have butter at the store, hoping they’d be able to break a fifty.

The store is four short aisles of dry goods, a couple of coolers and freezers, and a half-shelf with some bruised and spotted and wildly expensive fruit…I snagged a couple of pounds of butter and set them on the counter. “That’s fifteen dollars” the girl said. I handed her a fifty, and she had to clean out the register to make change for me. I felt like a jerk.

~Keely

Two Old Men

northern exposures

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There he goes, rolling along the horizon, studiously reluctant to climb the heavens. Old Sol’s a bit shy this time of year, probably embarrassed to have been bested by Old Man Winter. A pale blue light, sometimes faintly dusted in rose, is about all Sol can muster. But everyday he peers a little higher over the willow banks and holds his wink a little longer, and someday he will send his “forever foe” packing.

Yesterday afternoon the temperature hovered around -10 ˚F; pretty nice, so I layered up and headed down to the river in search of something to photograph. Where are all the wildlife this year? I saw no rabbits, no ptarmigans, no tracks of any kind, apart from those of a few ravens and stray dogs.

People have been out on the Yukon – I could see where they had cut trail with their snow-gos. But I could see open stretches of water, too – some dark & forboding (“I’m deep and swift and can swallow you whole!”), others catching feeble rays from the sun – daring me to risk the ice. No thanks! I followed the shoreline and finally turned homeward.

A pleasant outing, but my efforts earned me more chilly toes and fingers than good photographs. It seemed colder on my return. Sure enough! Within hours the temperature plummeted to -44 ˚F. It’s still in the 40’s, in fact. Finally, it feels like winter around here!

Darkness of Another Kind

life in a village
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the Yukon River in winter – sun at zenith

Nine days to winter solstice. Six hours of half light, eighteen of darkness. Snow fell through the night lightly, and continues even now. Temperatures hover around 0 ˚F (-18 ˚C). One year ago today the mercury fell to -52 ˚F, so we consider ourselves blessed by this comparably warm winter.

The whole village has been on electrical short rations since Wednesday night. The situation is expected to be fixed by tomorrow. Of course, if the situation worsens, we may experience darkness of another kind – pitch black.

In the meantime, city and tribal offices are closed. The post office and clinic are closed. The gasoline station and the AC, our only store, are opened for only several hours a day in alternating shifts. Runway lights at the airport have been turned off so planes can only land for  a few hours around noon. And our school is closed.

Hooray for five day weekends – life is so exciting!

Where the Poplar Grows

northern exposures

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I walk the path along the riverbank under sheltering trees. Willow, poplar and alder grow here. The spruce grow farther back, on dryer ground along with an occasional aspen & birch. In the summer, all is green, but now all leaves but spruce have turned golden and will soon carpet the path I walk.

I have been teaching my 8th graders to identify these trees. We have pressed their leaves and this week we will landscape the front of our school with aspen.

Flower Of the Yukon

northern exposures

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I like to tell my family how our cabin is surrounded by wild roses, but that’s nothing special. The rose is everywhere around our village and across the Flats. They lend color to every season. Delicate pink blossoms in Springtime. Ruby red hips in the Fall. And on Winter’s final approach its leaves put on a wild array of colors, all rusted and speckled, deepening into scarlet and orange as Jack Frost kisses the mornings.