Helping turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the vast headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come.
End of the Long Nights – 2015
Alysia has become, officially, an ambassador for teacher-powered schools. She even gets to go to Washington next month, all expenses paid, to be on a panel at a conference. I was reading the webpage of the group sponsoring the conference. It contained a link that had a link to a blogger writing about teacher leaders. He opened with reference to remarks Arne Duncan, secretary of education, had made about how we need to change our current organizational model in which a master teacher, worthy of more influence and salary within public education, must leave the classroom and move up into the district hierarchy to gain that influence and salary. Secretary Duncan was saying we needed to develop ways that teachers could become leaders while remaining within the classroom.
This brought to mind an experience I once had in the early days of Chrysalis. I was giving our annual report to our sponsoring district board shortly after the governor had declared that all eighth graders would take algebra. I said somewhat self-righteously, flaunting the independence of charter schools, that we did not believe that all eighth graders were ready for algebra and we would not be teaching algebra to all of our eighth graders. The superintendent cut me off, saying this was not appropriate for a board report; that he thought that all eighth graders could succeed at algebra and that the district, with proper instruction at the earlier grades, would achieve this goal.
We continued not putting all of our eighth graders into algebra. A few years later we heard from the high schools of too many freshman ending up in remedial algebra classes and often failing it again and repeating it again because they had been pushed too fast in previous grades to get them ready for algebra and they had no secure foundation and the high schools couldn’t take the time to go all the way back to teach fractions.
Many years later, at a meeting, that same superintendent remarked to the group that the latest research showed that not all eighth graders were ready for algebra and should not be required to take it. He acknowledged that he had thought it was possible and they had attempted it and they had been wrong. (He turned to me when he said that which I thought was very gracious of him.)
That district had many good teachers and some of their very best had been promoted into the district hierarchy as curriculum specialists to inservice the other teachers in the district. I know that many teachers benefited from their knowledge. But they also went along with implementing the governor’s declaration that all eighth graders would take algebra. Surely they must have known it was not right but they had to go along because that is how the chain of command works. You assist passing the command from the top down to the teachers.
So when I read that Arne Duncan wanted a way to create ways for teachers to become leaders without having to leave the classroom, I have to ask the question: what do you mean by leader? Do you mean fitting into the hierarchy of command, helping pass down the “one model fits all” solutions originating from on high? Or do you mean leading the teachers to take more of the power of deciding what happens within their classrooms, to overrule top-down commands that cause harm, and be able to send corrective feedback back up a chain of command that is open and responsive to it?
I keep picking away on my next book. I hope to achieve a balance between interesting life stories and the lessons learned from those experiences. The chapter that follows describes my 24th summer. The summer before, I had discovered Alaska and found my dream of becoming a seasonal naturalist in Denali National Park. But I hadn’t yet felt worthy of this high calling so to develop myself, I set a goal of floating a thousand miles of the Yukon River the next summer. The only way I could think of for doing this as a hitchhiker was to use a small, inflatable raft.
On the Yukon
My plan was to float the river in two parts. I would put in at Dawson City and float 400-500 miles down to the new Alaska Pipeline Haul Road northwest of Fairbanks. Then I would revisit Denali. Later, I would hitch back to the Whitehorse area and put in on the Teslin River which would join the Yukon downstream of Lake Laberge so I wouldn’t have to paddle its 30 miles of slackwater, an impossible feat in my soft inflatable raft, especially if there was a headwind.
But first I hiked out to that tombstone of a mountain and touched the cliffs at its base. All alone out in dark rock mountains. It rained the first days and gray-crowned rosy finches hopped upon the melting snowbanks plucking insects lying frozen upon the snow. Then I came back to Dawson, bought my food, blew up my raft, packed my supplies aboard to form a soft, somewhat level, deck, sat down on top of my 4’ x 6’ raft, paused to look around, pass through any fearful reluctances, savor this moment, and finally push off. My raft started moving with the current. I was on my way.
It was mostly a very quiet time, just lying on my raft floating on a large, gentle river through the long arctic days. There were occasional abandoned cabins to walk around, probably built by the men who had lived along the river chopping wood for the steamboats that had plied this river for sixty years. But almost all my waking time was spent on my raft – because if I ever landed, I was quickly swarmed by mosquitoes. Except for occasional explorations, I’d come to shore only to get drinking water out of a clear side stream or to defecate. Otherwise I simply smoothly floated all day. Occasionally the current would carry me near a high cut-bank filled with burrowed swallow nests and for several delightful minutes I’d be in the midst of hundreds of swooping, chattering swallows, some hovering a few feet from me and then the current carried me beyond.
Sometimes I’d rescue drowning insects from the glacial silt gray-brown water and place them along the top of the tubes of my raft, up to five or ten of them if I was into it at the time. I’d get down close and watch one dry itself through a process that made sense as I watched it unfold. The first big effort was to drag its body out of the drop of water it was caught within. When it finally burst free of the bubble, then it would rest. It was still enshrouded in water but it was no longer that large confining mass. Next, it would drag itself along the surface, leaving a damp trail, leaving behind more and more of the water adhering it to the surface. It would rest. Then there would come the moment – when – with great effort the legs were able to lift its abdomen up, free from the surface and stand! The front legs would wipe off the face and pull the antennae through its claws. The next stage of drying off the wings varied among the insects. For beetles with smooth wing coverings, it was easy. For open-winged insects, it was slow and laborious with occasional rests. Gradually, the drying wings rose higher into the air, filling out, regaining their loft. Usually there would then be a couple of experimental flits of the wings and then – flit – the insect was gone.
I would sit cross-legged atop my “deck” of pack and raft tubes, then shift to my legs extended in front, then lay on my side, all 6’ of me extending the length of the raft, sometimes lay on my back gazing upward. When I was ready to camp, I’d drift down onto the head of an island, jump out, pull my raft onto shore, and then set up my tent with a mosquito-inspired speed and precision that improved day by day. I’d throw my supplies into the tent, dive in, zip the door shut and hunt down every mosquito that had made it into the tent. Then I would roll out my sleeping bag, eat dinner, go to sleep. Sometime in the increasing light of the perennial arctic day I would wake, eat breakfast, pack up my supplies within the tent. Then I would come out of the tent, take it down fast, pack it up, load the raft, push off, and float all that day.
Very little happened. One day a porcupine crossed my path. He was paddling across the Yukon. He was only about a fourth of the way across with a long way to go. But his hollow quills acted like a life jacket, holding him high in the water so all he had to do was a slow dog paddle to keep moving across the current. He would reach the other side miles downstream of where he had started. For awhile, we gradually drifted towards one another and passed a few feet away. I looked into his brown eyes. He continued on his way while I continued on mine, slowly diverging from him.
One day, while floating, I heard a sound in the forest. I interpreted it as the short squeal of a hare caught by a hawk or fox. I’m not sure what it was about that moment, that exclamation at the end of a life, but I suddenly felt at home within this world. “This world” in the big sense. Not just this day on the river in the arctic but this world with its billions of years of lives ending in death within a vast universe – something that I had always thought of as outside of myself was now me within it, in a comfortable way. It wasn’t a big moment like my first walk in bear country. It wasn’t an epiphany. It was just this subtle but noticeable shift in feeling between me and the world that happened at that particular place now far back upstream along the Yukon. I was now part of this world in a way I hadn’t been before.
The most dramatic thing in that part of the trip happened as I approached the town of Circle. I was out in the current, assuming that I would see the town up ahead on the left bank in enough time to paddle my raft over to it. I was planning on stopping for an hour to mail some postcards and buy some decadent food treat. The river, which had always been flowing as one channel with occasional small islands, opened in a quiet sudden way into three channels and I could the town of Circle about a quarter mile down the left channel but I wouldn’t be able to paddle fast enough to make it across to that channel so I floated past Circle and into the Yukon Flats. The Yukon is turbid brown, heavy with glacial silt and the Yukon Flats are the first place where the river can really spread out and drop some of it. As the silt settles out, it fills the channel, forcing the water to flow along a new path which it will, in time, clog with more silt. The river keeps reworking itself, splitting into channels flowing in different directions. For a day I tried to track my progress on my maps until I realized that the channels were rearranging themselves faster than any map could keep up with.
There came a point where I simply had to surrender to faith that the current couldn’t flow to a dead end, that all the channels would eventually have to inevitably gather together back into one channel before I reached the haul road bridge. Those became magic days, floating with no sense of where I was at all, far from any road, just floating on channels that would split and turn. Sometimes I floated along channels only a few yards wide; sometimes on channels that spread and shallowed to a few inches and I’d have to get out and pull my raft until it deepened. Sometimes the current grew so smooth and slow that I learned to tell which way I was moving by noticing how something in the foreground appeared to move against something behind it. Did it glide to the right or the left? I drifted by sand bars with colonies of Arctic Terns, the most buoyantly beautiful flyer I’ve ever seen, flying above me. As the Yukon Flats implied, the land was of low relief so there was no sense of progressing through a landscape, just the unpredictable twists and splits of channels that would occasionally rejoin a large channel of the Yukon but then later split again. (To sense this reality, go to Google Earth, go to Circle, Alaska and then follow the river north to watch this happening.) The currents carried me northwest just up to the Arctic Circle and then turned southwestward. Floating through the Flats from day to day for two hundred miles until the channels merged into a larger and larger river and the Yukon was one channel again and soon thereafter I came to the haul road and that part of the trip was over. I got a ride with a trucker into Fairbanks, took a shower, washed my clothes, and headed back to Denali for a few weeks of roaming.
In August, I did the second, upper part of my Yukon Trip. I hitchhiked with my 110 pounds of equipment back near Whitehorse to the Teslin River which would join with the Yukon River downstream of long Lake Laberge. This was a different trip. Night now existed and was growing quickly longer. There were no more mosquitoes. The Teslin was a much smaller river. Its shores were closer, the river shallower. There were less islands so I camped on the shore more. The water flowed clear though brown. Later, the Teslin converged with the Yukon, flowing very clear after its slow passage through Lake Laberge and now I was on the Yukon and it was growing bigger with each new tributary. And then the well-named White River came in laden with glacial silt from the St. Elias Mountains a hundred fifty miles away and the Yukon became opaquely silty for the rest of its way.
I stopped at Fort Selkirk, a ghost town from the steamboat days. In the school house were some old reading primers from the British Commonwealth empire. Stories with pictures of white girls in party dresses having tea parties in their rose gardens, all so proper. What thoughts would have arisen in the native kids out here in a wilderness where winter dominated the year as they read these stories? There was a non-native cemetery with headstones and a native cemetery. There was a stone memorial in the Mounties section of their cemetery inscribed with verse from Robert Service
“This is the law of the Yukon,
and ever she makes it plain:
“Send not your foolish and feeble;
send me your strong and your sane”
I chanted that, sometimes proudly bellowed it strong and sane as I floated on down the river. Now I felt worthy of the high calling of being a seasonal naturalist at Denali National Park.
Migration was on. Flocks of birds passed low overhead as they followed the river upstream towards the south. Flocks of robins. A large flock of nighthawks. The spotted sandpipers that had been a constant presence, bobbing along the shore, faded away. Near the White River, a large flock of five thousand sandhill cranes circled and clamored at the end of the day, perhaps voting whether to stop for the night or keep going. They eventually decided to land on a sandy island just downstream of my camp.
My main memory of that trip was a hike I took. I floated the Yukon because I wanted to go far beyond the roads, to get way out there, out possibly to that mythical place where no other person had stood before. I wanted to be bold and adventurous and be in a situation where I was completely on my own, just myself and the world. As I floated, I realized I could get there by hiking away from the river. So I studied my maps and selected an area ahead where low mountains lay close to the river. I landed at the mouth of one of the streams flowing from those mountains, packed my pack for an overnight hike, stowed my supplies and raft and went hiking up, following the stream toward the top of its drainage. Bear scat appeared within the first half mile but it was probably just black bear scat. I hiked cross-country throughout the day and by late afternoon, I was following the final rounded tundra ridges towards the summit ridgeline. Communal piles of wolf scat were common atop every rock outcropping that stuck out along the ridge. I was out there. I sauntered up to the final low summit where I could gaze in all directions. About three miles across the next wide drainage on the next dividing ridge was a mid-size, 20 to 30 man mining operation. It was too far away to hear but through my binoculars I could see the bulldozers at work.
We live and move within a gradient that stretches thousands of miles to Out There and, more importantly, stretches back tens of thousands of years to a situation that has deeply shaped our souls. Maybe it’s a young male thing – I don’t know – but I imagine youth, like fairy tale heroes in search of their fortune, leaving overpopulated birth places devoid of opportunity, in search of a place they can call their own like that porcupine swimming across the Yukon. Some die in the search but those aren’t our ancestors. Our genes come from the ones who were successful, the ones for whom the search led to a wonderfully exotic mate, hills to roam, and secure places for one’s children to romp. Our ancestors from the deep past have shaped within us a siren call that lures us towards horizons. Out There calls from deep within. Out There lies new worlds, new possibilities. If the world of people gets too much, head for the hills.
But on the next ridge over from Out There sits a mining operation. And that was 35 years ago. Another mine might be strip-mining Out There at this very moment. We have populated and so changed the world that the Out There we imagine no longer exists. The urban-wilderness gradient still exists so we can still have the experience of heading out into the wild but the wild is becoming domesticated as we fill the world in. To those of us who have sought the shaping influence of the wilderness, we humans are losing one of the greatest gifts that being alive on this Earth has to offer us – the opportunity to be completely responsible for every step.
But my main memory of that hike was of a place. That first afternoon, after having climbed above treeline, I stopped by the now small stream to rest. No mosquitoes. All was still. (In fact, in a few days, I would be spending the day beside the river in my tent as the first wet snowfall dripped brown slush from spruce branches.) The stream curved in a way that created a low sheltered spot. It was warm. I was alone, where no one would ever find me. The rippling of the stream was the only sound. Around me, was the tundra brush in full autumnal colors. Oranges, reds, and golds beneath blue sky. It was very peaceful. Way out in the wild beyond. . . it was peaceful. I sat there a long time, letting its peace flow through me. Nothing remarkable happened but that orange place remains strong in my memory.
And then one day, Dawson City came into view. I came to shore a few feet downstream of where I had pushed off from in June. As my raft deflated, I sorted my supplies for the hitchhike back home. I carried my trash to a garbage can. I dropped the first load in and the bang of it hitting the bottom was so painfully loud that I had to gently lay the remaining trash onto the bottom. My ears had dilated wide open to the quiet world.
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