Friday, August 1, 2014

My best essay from the Coal Creek Writer's Workshop

My essay-writing perch

Assignment 1, Coal Creek Writer’s Workshop

Gretel Erhlich gives us our assignment as we find spots on the bank of the Yukon:
“You are here alone. South of here has for some reason become unlivable. What’s it like?”

Here, on the Yukon again. The gentle monster flows by with a gurgle, like an Elder carrying on its back the splashes of its feeder creeks.

Alone, the time I’ve craved, knowing that now it will be too much, this silence once bottled in Alaska but now available everywhere down there. Be careful what you wish for, right? Fuck that.

Inventory: Bug dope until it runs out. Some MREs stashed in Slaven’s by a fire crew. Enough clothes to keep the bugs off but I’ll need more. An endless supply of freshwater from Coal Creek and an axe to chop a hole come winter. Three lighters and seven books of matches. Cabins with good roofs and wood stoves. Three rolls of toilet paper. Powdered pancake mix. Seven Clif bars. A canoe. Shotgun. Seven slugs and three popper shells.

What I see from the South Bank: One half mile of smooth brown water, hills bluing with smoke. The occasional bite of spruce and green willow in the air. Nostalgic.

Too many memories in this place. Should have escaped somewhere else. Her handwriting in the logbook, sudden as a bee sting. Forgot she had been here. Her cursive, so perfect.

“I wonder if I will ever visit here again?”

That’s a no, Tammy. And I don’t know how you died.

But that trip comes back to me now. Landing on the airstrip in the dense 40 below air, the chilly ride to Slaven’s on snowmachine, gathering river ice in sleds to melt on the barrel stove. For mushers and their dogs. A good place to see them, halfway on a thousand-mile journey.

Walking to the bank of Coal Creek in our Apocalypse bibs and parkas. Falling into a pillow of snow to watch the aurora flame the northern sky.

There was magic in that trip, and in the dormer at Circle Hot Springs after. I told her we’d have beautiful kids, one of my bolder lines. But it was true.

She had those lovely children with someone else. Many times, though, I conjured her when alone. She smelled of apricot shampoo and was as passionate as she was voiceless in a crowd. She gave me that ink portrait of her face, staring as if pissed at me. I couldn’t take it with me when life changed. Tacked it to the ceiling of the outhouse. A sin, really. But I didn’t know what else to do.

Tammy’s ghost will be among the more pleasant here before I join the billions now stinking to the south, as they return to dirt.

We all knew it was coming. Too much pressure on the system. I thought it was impossible. The Earth is large and resilient. Self healing.

This one, the Big One, leads to the greatest theological question: God, why did we like to fuck so much?

That’s a head scratcher. The alder flycatcher that should be here got wiped out with the dripping trees in central America. The flute of the Swainson’s thrush silenced when mid-America went dry. I don’t know if the salmon are still shooting though this chocolate water, but they might extend my lifespan a few weeks.

How to catch them, though? A net in an eddy. But I’ll have to make one. Maybe some rope at Coal Creek Camp.

The baby raven screams across the river. Of course, they are here. And breeding. They are probably expanding their range now, delighted at the fallen meat.

And signs of others — the wolf tracks pressed into mud, river willows torn by moose. That’s the thought that brings a feeling closest to joy. When I drop from skinniness or the Remington, they will be it.

These bees and dragonflies and fucking mosquitoes and beetles, beetles, beetles. The few large mammals adapted to deep Interior cold and the ability to survive on a bushel of frozen twigs each dark day. The smart ones, the insects, who wait out years in suspended animation, to spring up when conditions are better.

It’s poetic that Earth’s renewal after shedding its most destructive species will start when I end here. Jimmy Carter knew. Idiots gave him so much shit for the truisms he had the balls to speak. No. 1 — A man wants to fuck every woman he sees. Two — There’s value we can’t fathom in wilderness, so while I’ve got the keys I’m park-ifying Alaska. Deal with it.

So, Jimmy, you were, in the end, right. It doesn’t make any difference now, with me alone here on the Yukon. I’ve got my death sentence, as I guess I always had, and will finally get to try the subsistence lifestyle.

But there’s a reason the Han were nomadic, and I don’t have their skills. The moose flies of summer will have my flesh to slice, and maybe a slam-dunk caribou will fall to the shotgun. But the subarctic winter is not designed for a creature adapted to the tropics. There will be no more milk from Washington cows or avocados from California. Maybe I can use the seed stock from that kid’s greenhouse at Coal Creek if I make it another summer. But I should have acquired some of those skills — gardening, stalking animals — I so admired.

However long it takes, this will be a fitting place to breath the last of this air free of man vapors. If given the choice in that former world, I might have chosen to have the ravens pick my carcass clean here, on the grassy bluff in front of Slaven’s, near the birch trees in love, wrapping themselves around one another as if they are afraid to let go.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Coal Creek writer's workshop

A return to Coal Creek, where I was a park ranger 20 years ago. Coal Creek Camp was there as a home to miners who operated a giant dredge that ate seven square miles of valley for three tons of gold. Shut down in the 70s, the dredge and the camp are now part of Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. And site of a recent three-day writer's workshop led by Gretel Erhlich and put on by UAF Summer Sessions.

Chicken. Eight hours into the 12-hour journey from Fairbanks to Eagle.

Finally got to play ball on the grass airstrip in Eagle. Families in Eagle Village for July 4th started a game at 10 p.m. A kid invited me in. No balls went in the Yukon. Played till 2.

Eagle classics

Have invested many minutes here.

On a four-hour ride downriver from Eagle to Slaven's cabin and Coal Creek, Park Service seasonals Michael, left, from Jersey, and 19-year-old Andrew. Felt a bond with these dudes, who pack all their summer food in coolers and take them downriver. This includes Chicken-in-a-Can, packed in gelotin.

On the way, a good view of the oil shale fire above the Tatonduk River. One of the only fires going this wet summer. Even God can't put it out.

Met some new friends in Slaven's cabin.

Near Slaven's, workshop participant Maria Berger, Fairbanks, finally meets river traveler Maria Berger, Fairbanks.

More river travelers at Slaven's. Katsumi, 3, and Porter, 5, of Portland, OR. Like all brothers, they like to cross their streams of pee.

The boys leave Slaven's with dad Jason, Yoshi and Andy, headed for Richard Smith cabin downriver.

The Yukon near Slaven's was where Jean perched for our first writing assignment: Gretel said to imagine the world is somehow unlivable to the south, and you are here now. Start writing.

Gretel reading in Slaven's Roadhouse. Loved her assignments. Love her.

Really love my buddy Pat Sanders, giggling at left, who was rangering 20 years ago and let me live at her Trapper's Cabin for free. And very much like Ed, the driver, and of course ultracompetent teenager Andrew.

Coal Creek Camp. Twenty years ago, I had a feeling here. I should write.

And bike. On the upper road to Coal Creek from Slaven's. Bikes are freedom machines.

At the final group read-off: Laurie, Maria, Lloyd the cook, Jean and Monica.

Best wildlife sighting: on the Taylor Highway

Best tow truck driver: Mike from Tok, here solving a problem that blocked the road for hours on the ride home. Mike once gave us a ride from outside Chicken to Tok as he hauled our broken Honda Civic in for a $900 repair. After a $900 tow. Don't break down at the Walker Fork. Or drive off the Taylor Highway.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Lonely, Alaska

My guide/trailbreaker/chef/leader Ben Jones had some tasks on his lake-sampling trip that took us near Lonely Point, Alaska. We made a quick run to the end of the tundra, the beginning of the Arctic Ocean and a Cold War fortress, now deserted.

Lonely was born in 1957, when the U.S. constructed dozens of Distant Early Warning radar sites from the Aleutians to northern Canada. They were spaced about 60 miles apart on the northern coast of North America.

In this one skinny building under the radome, a few dozen guys pulled long shifts staring at radar screens, hoping they didn't see green blips coming over the sea ice. The DEWline sites were set up as a trip wire connected to the White House. If Russian Bear bombers heavy with nukes were heading for Chicago, these guys would see it first.

Happily the guys were just bored. Lonely is now abandoned except for a pair of resident ravens that roost beneath the cold tin roof of an old hangar. Their squawks and glunks made the place seem even more eerie, and Lonely has a high baseline level of spook.

While there, Ben installed a weather camera on the old control tower. He aims it to a repeater on the tundra that sends a signal back to the Ben Jones cabin at Teshekpuk Lake, from where I'm writing this post.

"Just go explore the place," he said to me while he worked. "Use your headlamp to check out the old living quarters."

He added one thing: "Oh, and if you see a polar bear, rev up your snowmachine to scare it away."

And so I slid down a drift and entered the creepy/cool complex.

The former post office.

Someone's dorm room. With kitchen/radar/bar/bathrooms all in one building, guys didn't have to go outside.

Further incentive not to venture into the cold wind: White bears with a meat-only diet live on the sea ice, which is a few hundred yards from Lonely.

Contractors from Wainwright won the bid to dismantle/clean Lonely this summer and next.

Walking through the long corridor, imagining airmen and civilians calling their wives and girlfriends on the 60s-era phones covered with frost, I headed for the light at the far end of the tunnel-like structure. 

When I got close to the light, this image fired every fear cell in my body:

I had seen these rounded tracks before once, near Shishmaref. In this moment, I was terrified. For a few seconds that felt like hours, I could not move. The crumbs of snow told me the polar bear tracks were fresh.

That exit would not do. Not breathing, I retreated the 100-yard length of the building, for the first time seeing polar bear tracks I had missed before. Shit. Thoughts of meeting a white bear in this tunnel upped the insane fright level.

I winced at the squeaks of my boots with each frantic step out of there. I emerged near my snowmachine like a freaked ground squirrel and climbed aboard to its relative safety. I fired the engine. then rode a wide lap around the complex looking for polar bear tracks leading in. I found none. Could a bear be denning in the house-size snowdrift at the terror exit? Probably not, but Ben and I never ventured to that snowdrift to find out.

I stared at the old living quarters for 10 minutes to the Lonely soundtrack of wind and a heavy power cable gonging against a metal light post.

I was happy to return to the other human at the site. Ben installed another camera on one of these pilings that the Arctic Ocean is eating. While I held screws for him, my head swiveled like a radar dish. No white bears. Just a visit from three snow buntings that few over the sea ice toward the North Pole.

Goodbye Lonely.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Arctic coastal plain, midway on the journey from Toolik to Teshekpuk

Arctic fox near our campsite west of Nuiqsut.

Set up on a lake Ben, Chris and Guido are studying. Hard for the average man to tell water from tundra this time of year at 70 degrees north. But the boys have a sixth sense.

'Tis pretty remote up here. But we never felt lonely so close to Alpine oilfield and it's tundra satellites.

Some visitors rolled in.

Clay, left, and Mike are surveyors for ConocoPhillips. Their tundra buggy goes anywhere, Clay says.

Had another problem with Chris's sno-go. Was unrelated to what Bodey repaired at Umiat. Boys couldn't fix it in the field, so coworkers sent another one by sled from Barrow. Two guys from Barrow delivered the new machine outside our tents at 3 a.m. After some sleep at Nuiqsut, the heroes we never met picked up our dead machine and snowmachined back to Barrow, arriving at 1 a.m. A 300-mile round trip!

In the meantime, Guido discovered that his bouncing sled makes bowling balls. 

Science writer at work, arctic coastal plain. Blogging by satellite, yet another miracle of our time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Population about 50 and constantly varying. On the Colville, largest river in northern Alaska. Born with the Naval Petroleum Reserve in the 1940s.

Ben, Chris and Guido have done their arctic lake studies in the surrounding area as Chris's banged-up snowmachine spent time with the only mechanic within 100 miles.

We emptied the Qounset hut when we heard a sno-go pull up and the mechanic delivered the news.

"It's better than it was before," said Bodey Winningham, who welded the frame while listening to Mettalica in the shop here. Bodey is 27, owns a few monster trucks and one monster Subaru wagon, and spent five years fixing things on a nuclear sub in the Navy. Boy is goin' places.

Machine back from dead made us happy, as is Chris's wife Sarah today.

Boys tested the machine back in the field, somehow finding salmon-shape lakes under the snow.

Then back home for dinner. And the chance to send this dispatch through the air to that dish. Then 22,000 miles up to a satellite, and 22,000 back to you.