Sunday, January 30, 2011

January 30

I had two strange memories flood over me this week while I thought to notice myself rooting down here. The first was the recollection of seeing the Dick Proenneke PBS special for the first time years ago, its images interspersed with a lulling quiet. I recalled specifically two things: the fact that he fashioned his own tools & tool handles on site (recalled mostly because that takes a committed bad-ass), & the sound of his oars in the glass-smooth water of the lake. Resourcefulness lending itself to recreation, that sort of thing. & then the second memory involves meeting some random friend of a contemptible peer at DU who was visiting & discussing plans to make a film featuring Alaska. At the time, I was reading a history of the state & so came to the conversation academically. Which, really, is entirely implausible. The guy, it turned out, was every bit as much an insufferable ass as his friend, but what strikes me now is the absence of the senses from that brief conversation. His fingernails were clean, for instance, & his framing for his project was theoretical & constellated around things that had nothing to do with place at all. I was thrilled that he had simply been to the state before, but it’s curious in retrospect to think now of what I’ve done since then. How all of these small cues seemed to point me here. Passing a man in the dog park at Chatfield who wore a Salty Dog sweatshirt. Seeing a drunk at a bar on Broadway with a Humpy’s hat. Reading histories of places I never thought I’d see, or watching rapt the simple process of planning a felled spruce on some special I stumbled upon on public television. How all of my academic thinking was geared towards making complex, obscuring, yoking into relation all of these disparate threads in some futile stand against entropy. & then how so many of the things I tend to here require a simplifying eye. & then there’s my fingernails.

All to say I guess that I still can’t fathom of leaving this place. I think about it every now & again, if only because that’s how I learned to be in the world, itinerant. I try to think of any place in the world that calls more clearly, & I permit myself to absolve those tangible restrictions that would hold me here tp aid my thinking (if money were no issue, if the dogs could come with us, etc.). & in no case do I find a place more akin to my present self, or kinder to my present heart, or more consistently capable of conjuring awe than my home here, & my love here, & my self here.

A few days ago, I reread a kind of journal I kept during the dissolution of my engagement. K had read it on accident & her comments had a kind of hesitation in them, so I wanted to revisit it to find what might spur such a thing. & after reading through the exhausted chronology, through the pity & the deference & the grappling after meaning, I came upon a later bit from a few months into my relationship with K. It wondered yet if I would be able to fully love again, if my heart would allow for it, if in fact I even had the desire to do so. The prognosis was not positive. As I wrote it, Willa was on her way north to us, my family was staging their visit last June, & the season was well underway. From the first, I was enchanted by K, so it’s so odd now, from this distance, to read that cold sterility of tone & to know it for the feeble gesture at self-preservation that it was. Of course I was terrified, marred, unwilling to admit of Possibility, even when it literally stood before me, patient & wonderful.

& so I think of what time can do to us, & how we can end up after some circuitous wandering in the place we always wanted to be. & how warring & fractious fear can be, & how willfully we would reign over even those traits in us that elude reason. & how there is such grace in being, in being where one simply is. & how we can commit to our hesitations as if they were fact, when they too come to dissolve & fade from us & leave us with the first terms of enduring wonder in their absence. How I can have such a full heart, after all, & cannot now imagine it otherwise. I know it reads a little better when one explicates it & draws it out & shows the evidence, but in the end, all of this just to say that I love it here, & I love Kristin, & I love our dogs, & my life is generally surprisingly wonderful. & so, here I am.

Friday, January 21, 2011

January 21

Odd how standing in the cabin, feeling the sun pour down over me for the first time in months, there awake the quietest intimations of spring already. It is twenty-seven below, with a dusting of new snow, but in that bath of light there is a kind of stirring. Your eyes note the chickadee instead of the raven or the magpie. You note that the gloaming comes later & lingers a bit past the late afternoon before the moon crests above the range blood-orange or silver-white. & all at once, I clutch the more tightly to the winter & lean into the thought of warmth. So many miles yet to mush, & at the same time, I feel a bodily need for sunlight again. Before the winter came, we all told ourselves that in its frigid months we would have time to slow down, reacquaint ourselves with ourselves, work on projects & the like. & now, halfway through it, I am no less busy, only more quietly so. My busy-ness does not involve hundreds of calls & blips & beeps at work, & when I recreate, it doesn’t involve throngs of wondering tourists. It is that muted tone of the winter landscape, that broad brush of real isolation. The panting of the dogs or the soft crunch of the snow underfoot. The wind’s stubborn song uninterrupted by passing buses or planes or the sounds of neighbors outside. Only that precious silence in which you stand as the sole & only fortunate audience time to time, your ear attuned & your eyes closed against a gale, thinking over & again, how lucky.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

January 16

So much of the park I’ve seen in the last ten days, on the back of a snowgo or from the runners of the dogsled. Out in the gloaming mornings on the tundra before the trail narrows in to the Sushana, with the sky a muted pink & the Alaska Range stirring into focus, the great cleft wedge of the mountain rising gargantuan from the dark. The yawning cornices windblown & hanging delicate over the rolling hills above the river. The tussocks with spiny copper-wire willows bare & twisting under. The river-ice of the East Fork River, a quarter mile across it seemed, steaming over sinkholes, stepping over fissures or giving in to overflow & slush. The sound the ice makes, those quiet, travelling strings of cracking that spread vermicular underfoot in sudden spells of lightning terror. Seeing your sled slide parallel beside you when it ought to be pulled behind. & then the warmth of the wood stove, the pots boiling down the snow, the dogs curled with noses under tails, the auroras gentle in their sway & the sky so vast & clear & cold one can scarcely hope to describe it.

On the overland trail from East fork to Sushana, along the northern boundary, there is a swath of tundra so wide it conjures the feel of a massive caldera, the ridges distinct off in the distance, the mountain seeming so close in its formidable vertical rise. & in that vast valley a herd of caribou out along a drainage, a single male bucking in a swath of snow. A ribbon of spruce where the roots will find purchase against the winds. & knowing, knowing that you are the only human out there. Fucking extraordinary, beyond all measure. One simply cannot imagine that scope, the way we can’t grasp infinity or the like. It is perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever been.

Four days of snowmachining, then back to work for three, then two days of running a seven-dog team out to Sanctuary Cabin & back. I think myself irrevocably changed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January 4

A new year, & with it, the strange effects of the Chinook casting warm temperatures & gale-force winds & clouds roiling in violent torsion through the sky. Each day now a little longer, measurable for us by the line of the sun on the ridge to the north of the cabin, which each day gets closer to draping over the valley on Stampede. Not yet, not yet, but closer.

Tomorrow I join the kennels folks & a ranger & head out from Stampede to the Lower Toklat, with night stops at Sushana & East Fork along the way. If you look at a map, you’ll see that after the Tek we still have a ways to go. That thumb in the park boundary gives way to a gaping landscape, the topography of which pushes us down to the East fork before ridging over to the Toklat. North of the Wyoming Hills. A part of the park I’ve never seen in any season. I’ll be starting out on snowgo, alternating from time to time with the three mushers I hope, taking the teams along a circuitous route that isn’t often traveled. I’ll of course hope for my favorite among the sled dogs, Lava & Aurora. The trail is in to Sushana, past the site of McCandless’s bus, but beyond that we’ll be navigating & breaking trail that hasn’t been put in for some time, in snow that saw forty degree days & 50 mph gusts, drifted & now settling, dense & wet, to ice over. & then overnighting in tiny patrol cabins with five of us.

I recall writing last year about the gentleman who trekked in to Wonder Lake by himself. Imagining what it must be like to experience that vastness so unpeopled & empty & quiet. & every time Kristin returns from her patrols, it is that same feeling that stirs in me—not jealousy, but a wonder begging after empathy, a keen & palpable desire to feel that largeness of the world, that smallness of the self, & to know that you found your way across dozens of miles of Alaskan wilderness in the winter to feel just such a thing. I am always amazed at what K can do, how well-acquainted she is with wilderness & its demands, & after so many years of dedicated passion, I suppose it makes sense. That she returns every time rejuvenated & awed & so fully herself is nothing short of beautiful. & it’s odd this time to be the one heading out, leaving her with the dogs here, in familiar country, in our familiar routines. She’s earned the backcountry, time & time again, & I do sometimes feel like a tourist in it, but then I remember that I was asked to do this patrol because I can offer mushing experience that no other ranger in our division has, & though I know that to be a fledgling, inchoate thing, I still can’t quite articulate the kind of pride it conjures in me. Not strictly pride in the sense of self-aggrandizement, but in the sense that I am keenly aware of how lucky I am to have that experience, of how extraordinary it is. That association with the dogs, with their fraternity, is rather something for which I am enduringly grateful. It is an association that betters me in countless ways.

To the Toklat then.