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Of Snow, Fire and Stars
By Peter Christian
Genre: Non-fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

It's colder here on Marion Creek than almost any other place that I know of along the Koyukuk River in northern Alaska.  This drainage forms the mountain's gullet and it exhales chill air that flows down to the lowest point in the terrain, where creek and river converge.  I'm snowshoeing up from the river bottom, stamping out a dogsled trail to connect our home loop with the wider Koyukuk river system.  Above me, snow lies heavily on the branches of the birch saplings that line my way.  The weight of the snow bends the limbs over so that they form a dark tunnel through which I travel.  I move gingerly, threading between the trees because the slightest disturbance releases their load, dropping snow onto my head and shoulders.  Even when relieved of their burdens the birches do not spring back in the cold.  They stay bent like old men who have endured too many winters. 

The miniature thermometer dangling from my parka zipper is bottomed out at 40 below zero, the mercury making an angry red knot at the base of the bulb.  Back at the house this morning, the needle in the yard thermometer hit the peg at 50 below, unable to register any lower.  I pull my chin farther into the hood of my parka.  My throat burns as I try to avoid frosting my lungs with each drawn breath.  Just breathing is hard work.  At 50 below the air feels as dense as water, seems to pool in the bottom of my lungs forming a lake of oxygen.  Is it possible, I wonder, to drown in one's own air? 

I move at a deliberate pace, enough to keep warm but not so much as to sweat.  Sheathed as I am in the wicking properties of synthetic clothing, getting wet in these cold conditions can cause serious problems.  I feel like the character in Jack London's story To Build a Fire, but unlike the unimaginative man who freezes to death, I am burdened by an excess of imagination.  I'm keenly aware of how my mistakes can punish me in this cold world.  Go slow.  The powder beneath my feet feels bottomless.  Because with each step my snowshoes sink ankle deep, I use ski poles with big baskets to pull me up.  Take your time.   Days spent trapped in the close clutch of house walls allowed me to rationalize many reasons to go out today.  I tell myself that this is all for a good purpose, that in a few days this trail I'm making will set-up hard enough to run a sled and dog team onto the main river.  Another reason to make this trail is to connect me to the world, to something outside of myself.  Going outside is an act of faith that somehow life struggles on.   There is a visceral thrill to stepping into the deep cold, but now that I'm here I acknowledge the recklessness of it. 

In the deepening air, the quiet surrounding Marion Creek is profound.  Nothing moves.  Am I the only living thing that stirs in this mosaic of creek and forest?  The small band of moose that I glimpsed on the river today stood as motionless as graven statues.  They huddled together to share warmth, heads down, belly-deep in snow, breathing slowly-a pall of steam gathered into clouds above them.  Now, as day descends toward dusk, the darkling woods are silent.  No chickadees sing.  The still sky is vacant of birds.  The usually present camp robbers have all vanished.  No squirrel scolds me for my foolishness.  The snowshoe hare trails that cross my path here and there look old and unused, tiny crystals filling each track.

We take turns, Patty and I, going out into it.  I go to seek solace in my isolation, to hear my own heart beating.  The blazing white mountains draw me like smoke up a flue.  The pure ridgelines against the sapphire twilight bring clarity to my thoughts.  I don't know what Patty seeks on her outings, separateness perhaps from the demands of clinging children and a husband distracted by words.  We don't speak of these needs, but we fill them urgently.  About a mile from the house I begin to smell wood smoke.  I'm worried about my nerveless fingers and numb toes.  My breath has congealed as frost on my eyelashes.  With each blink they stick together briefly before parting, as if the forest shadows are willing my eyes to shut forever. 

When we venture out we have an unspoken pact with each other that nothing bad will happen.  Still, when darkness falls and it is Patty's turn to be late, I hover by the window and wait, anxious.  I start to make a mental checklist, lay plans for a search.  My eight year old son Elias picks up on it and soon the two of us are pacing the house together, casting furtive glances to the door, making idle chatter, listening through each other's talk for her footsteps.  I try not to reveal my worst scenarios to Elias but he's keen to know everything and asks penetrating questions.

"What if mommy doesn't come back?"

He's looking right at me, worried.

"We'll go looking for her," is my immediate reply.

"How can we?" he counters.  "You can't take three boys with you and you can't leave us alone in the house." 

He's got me.

"I promise you that mom is fine," I say but he knows that I can't be sure.

"How do you know?" he persists.

"What could possibly happen?  It's the arctic!"  I attempt a feeble joke.

"Well," he ponders, not taking the bait, "there's overflow, there's moose.  What if a moose charges her and she runs into some overflow?  Her feet will freeze!" 

His certainty with this implausible story is contagious.  What if?

"I don't know.  Let's give it another ten minutes," I suggest.  "Then we'll see."

I guess this is about how the conversation is now going with Patty and Elias back at the house.

In these high latitudes, where the mists and veils of the atmosphere are thinnest, I can feel the impersonal hand of outer space pressing down on the living planet.  Here, above the Arctic Circle, where the Earth turns her back from the sun, oblivion seeks entry like frigid wind through the fabric of a threadbare coat.  The icy presence of the Great Void is so keenly sensed here.  It's just on the other side of the shallow cobalt ocean of air above me.  It's the Dark Abyss-the Deep Cold-strong today, just outside of my ken. 

I stop for a quick rest and take off my pack, my arms are wooden.  Briefly, I'm required to remove my mittens, fingers fumbling at the snaps.  I take out a thermos of hot coffee and a cup.  I manage to unscrew the top and release a plume of steam.  When I pour the hot liquid into the cold plastic cup, it cracks like a shot and coffee trickles out burning my fingers.  I quickly jam my hands back into the mittens.  The cup is useless so I pull back my ruff and lift the thermos to my lips.  Like the sapling birch, my stiff spine is unwilling to straighten and only with an effort can I do it.  As I raise my face skyward, I see above me a raven squatting, puffed up against the chill.  Still as a forest shade, it seems frozen to the bough.  The raven looks down at me with glittering eyes that do not move.  The cold seeps past my parka and down my neck.  I shiver with the certain knowledge that something stalks me here in this dark place that does not care if I live.  I consider my ski pole and wonder if the raven would shatter into a thousand icy black shards.  Under the bird's inscrutable gaze I finish my coffee and move on.

My encounter with the raven, worn cliché that it is, provokes in me the gloom of Poe.  As I struggle toward home, I can't help but dwell on omens of death.  At this time and in this place, it's hard to believe in the inevitability of global warming.  It's the cold that I fear today.  That the world is winding down.  Entropy, the amount of energy no longer available in the universe, builds inexorably.  Like my broken cup, it is the tendency of Nature for all things to slide from order into chaos.  Because it takes more effort to sustain a thing than to neglect it, the complexity of organized matter trends towards disorder and decay.  Complexity...not just the great cities of the distant south, but anything I can think of, maintaining a trail, keeping up a fire, raising children, nurturing a marriage, a human body-stop putting energy into it and it breaks down, grows cold, spontaneously reverts to chaos.  More energy is required to create than destroy.  This is one of those immutable laws of thermodynamics that I dimly recall from college physics. 

It feels colder now and a glance at my thermometer says it's nearing fifty below.  Do wolves still run?  I think of their sleek shapes gliding, shadows in the snow, yellow eyes reflecting moonlight.  Can it be that even wolves must hunker down, or freeze?  Cold is the solid state of things.  The heat and light that breathes life into the world is finite.  Like a spinning top it will slow and then stop.  The definition of absolute zero is a universe that can neither emit nor absorb energy.  In the far distant future, when the last suns flame out, there will be nothing but an empty universe where nothing moves, dark as the raven and as silent.

I shake these thoughts away as I drive my legs forward in the snow.  There is something inside of me and perhaps in the very world itself that recoils from the edge of such a terrible future.  It is wildness-the dynamic, rootless energy of the planet itself that sweeps up all in its urgency to be untrammeled.  Wildness follows no rules, has no boundaries, is both patient and impatient.  It moves on.   In the Brooks Range, in Alaska, and in other northern places, the battle for the future of our natural world is now joined on so many fronts.  The outcome is not pre-ordained, but here the first skirmishes have already been fought and mostly lost.  In the winter air above the high peaks hangs a brown layer of arctic haze born in the coal fired plants of the "developing world," and circulated aloft on polar air masses.  Below, the caribou scrape and paw through snow to nibble lichen that is laced with the strontium-90 of Chernobyl.  Salmon swim in Fukushima's toxic stream.  Is everything poisoned?  Have we truly reached the end of nature, with all things attenuated by the meddling of so-called wise apes? 

Far above me, as I stumble forward on the valley floor, Dall sheep stand guard, nearly invisible in their white capes.  They seek out the breezy north faces where the wind blasted slopes reveal the freeze-dried greens of summer, a season that now seems as remote as Mars.  On the steep hillsides below the sheep, beneath the snow, bears sleep, snug perhaps in their dens, unknowing of the future.  The caribou, restless migrants across the surface of the boreal world, have all departed, going where only the caribou know.  In summer, their presence on the landscape brings life to the gaunt green hills.  When they go in the fall, it is like blood draining from the face of the arctic.  Oh how unlucky, those of us who cannot hibernate!  It is as if our sufferings are the very nerve endings by which the world knows that it's alive.  If the wild earth is self-aware then we, its living beings, must be the eyes through which it sees itself. 

From my house in these woods, I do not see a clear path to the survival of our civilization.  Instead, I see the wreck of it in drunken forests leaning over sinkholes like blast craters, where permafrost has melted away and the ground caved in.  I see its collapse in the gaping hillsides that have been supported for millennium by delicate ice structures.  These have thawed, detached and slid away tearing out swaths of taiga in a wake of destruction.  I see the ruin of it in the empty mountain hollows that once held pocket glaciers-those that remain shrinking year by year.  I have visited the village of Shishmaref and others, falling into the sea, houses balanced topsy-turvy on eroding cliffs of sand, and pummeled by winter storms no longer tempered by a layer of thick sea ice.  When I leave the mountains behind and fly over the North Slope, thermokarst implosions dot the tundra like the spread of an arctic pox.  These are the first changes we have wrought, a harbinger harvest rising from the seeds we have sewn.

I come to a ledge of ice and have to somehow step up onto it with clumsy snowshoes.  In the summer this is a lovely little drop in the middle of the creek that makes a playful noise.  It is at this bend in the creek that just a few months ago I found my youngest son Orion, four years old and alone, standing on the trail next to our tangled up dog team.  I don't think that he started crying until he saw me.  My friend Nels and I were on snowmachines coming up from the river, my two oldest sons Brooks and Elias along for the ride.  It was dusk then, as it is now, and we slowed when we saw the dogs' eyes reflecting the headlights.  Miraculously, the sled was upright, but the dogs were hopelessly snarled into a ball of tuglines and harnesses.  Nels looked at me with wide eyes.  Somehow, Orion had been in the sled when it had gotten away from Patty. 

Only later did I hear of her fear and panic as Patty desperately searched for our son on foot, in the snow, with darkness descending.  Somehow, boy and dogs were unhurt, the runaway sled and unguided dog team careened down the trail.  We had been lucky that day.  I scooped the boy up onto my machine while Nels released the dogs from their harnesses to run along behind us.  As we had neared home we encountered Patty, coatless and breathing hard in the near dark.  Like the boy, I don't think she started to cry until she saw Orion sitting securely between my knees. 

This land is like a book into which we write the story of our lives. We live in the land, keep it company, and it invites us to write it all down, sometimes in blood and grief, sometimes in utter joy.  The land gives us our life and we give it back to the land by filling it up with our stories.  If we are fortunate enough, have courage enough to endure the grief and joy, our stories, our lives, and the land, merge into one.

Another half mile of slogging through unconsolidated snow and then I'm off the creek and back on the firm pack of our established trail.  Home territory.  My pace quickens.  In ten minutes of determined walking I'll see the house lights shining through the trees.  Slow down. No mistakes so close to home.  Slow is fast.  Through ice-slitted lids I see windows glimmering through branches.  The house sits on a low bench above the trail.  The wood smoke has hit an inversion layer and is flowing like water across the yard and down the trail to greet me.  When I arrive at the house, I'm late by more than a little and the sun is already below the graying ridge.  I stumble through the door knowing I'm in trouble, my credibility tattered. 

Once inside, the frost that covers me turns instantly to water and I'm drenched in my own wet breath.  Fur hat, sweater, parka, gloves and socks are hung above the stove where they drip and hiss.  No one is waiting for me.  From one of the bedrooms I hear the soft, murmuring voices of home-school in progress.  The door opens and three young boys come pelting down the hall to tussle with me.   I see the relief in Elias' eyes replaced almost instantly with the animal happiness of the present.  Patty comes out, takes a moment to survey my dripping gear before looking at me.  She's clearly upset, but holds her tongue in front of the boys. 

"Sorry, I'm so late," I say.  "The snow is deeper than I thought and it was slow going."  I should have turned back.  It would have been the responsible thing to do.

The three boys-wildness embodied-have a way of breaking the tension.

"Dad, you shouldn't have been out there so long.  It's a little on the cold side today," lectures Elias, gently mocking the tones of his mother. 

His knowing look makes me smile.

"What could possibly happen?"  I quip. 

He chuckles and bounces back down the hallway to his bedroom with the others in tow.

"Were you able to connect the trails?"  Patty asks, making a peace offering.   

"Yeah, I think it's packed down pretty good now.  If the temperature rises tomorrow it'll firm up and you'll be able to run the dogs on it," I say, placating. 

Patty's mild ire has cooled.  She opens the stove and tosses a log onto the glowing embers.  In an instant the birch bark ignites and burns furiously.  The yellow flames reflect onto her face the light and heat of a long-ago sun.  In the long years of its life, the tree that produced this log stored the sun's energy in wooden rings of cellulose.  With the burning of the birch she's releasing it again, energy neither created nor destroyed-another immutable physical law.  We stand quietly shoulder to shoulder together for a moment, staring into the crackling fire.

"It was way too cold to enjoy my little jaunt," I say to her.  My fingers and toes burning their way back to life. 

She looks over her shoulder at me with a yeah, right expression on her face that is uncannily similar the one Elias gave me.  From the window we can see the smoke rushing out of the stove pipe and settling to the ground.  The wood, transitioned to its new state, streams along the surface of the snow to gather in the dim light of the dog yard.  This reminds us that it's feeding time. 

Pulled out of our quiet reflection, the necessity of daily chores reasserts itself.  No matter the temperature, the dogs must be fed.  Though inured to a life of dark and cold, it seems unfair that they should be chained to their plywood boxes to wait it out.  The dog houses, built with a small entrance to minimize heat loss, are stuffed with straw.  The dogs get two feedings a day.  In cold weather, sled dogs won't drink plain water so their morning treat is a broth of melted lard and warm water baited with bits of kibble to entice them.  In the evening they get a full meal of soaked kibble rich with fat, sometimes with moose trimmings, fish skins, rice, the scraps and leavings of the table. 

I hold the door open while Patty, bundled in goose down against the deep freeze, exits the house with a five-gallon bucket of dog food in each hand.  She is greeted with an immediate response as twelve enthusiastic canines emerge from their dens, yowling with excitement.  They run in mad circles around and around their houses.  From the bedroom window the boys and I watch her work.  Her boots crunch and squeak audibly in snow with the consistency of Styrofoam.  The dogs yammer and strain at their chains.  Patty stops and waits for each of them in turn to sit.  Only then do they receive her offering.  Their bowls steam with it.  Soon the yard is calm, each dog intent on its own progress.  The muffled sounds of their lapping and swallowing through our frosted window seem wholesome and good. 

With the last of the daylight I see a raven perching in the spruce above the dog yard.  It croaks and caws, drawn to bits of kibble scattered on the snow.  There is nothing ominous here.  It's only a raven acting mildly comical as it tries to figure out how to poach a meal without getting caught.  If it is patient its chance will come.  Patty walks among the dogs, checking their paws, roughing their fur.  She loves them and even from the window I can see her smile.  In turn, they adore her; she is their goddess.

It has grown dark and a gibbous moon rises over the Koyukuk.  Patty flicks on her headlamp and the dog yard disappears, lost in a blinding, artificial light.  I imagine that she hates to do this, to reduce the world to a narrow cone of seeing.  As if hearing my thoughts, she flicks off the lamp and the world returns.  Now only the low moon rising casts shadows and beyond it the stars are all alight.  She moves in the moon-darkness back to the house. 

There is energy that flows from other places than the sun.  Life circulates like blood through the hidden foundations of the world-or the human heart.  From my roost by the window, I see a flood of yellow light on the snow as Patty opens the porch door.  She is still smiling and I watch her turn back for a last look, but the yard is already empty.  The dogs are quiet, nestled in their beds of straw.  She steps inside and shuts the door.  For a moment there is only stillness then, in the absolute black, a sudden chorus erupts, a melodious choir of howls.  Knowing nothing of immutable laws, the dogs are singing together as one.  They do this to strengthen the bonds of their pack, certainly, but I believe beyond hope there is more to it.  They are celebrating their aliveness, pushing back the walls of night, crying out to the splendid, starlit universe, "We are here!"


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