Beside our dirt road, the cottongrass blooms in clusters, rising out of a watery ditch. I rub the soft, silky fibers between my fingers and close my eyes. It’s the downy undercoat of shedding sled dogs, growing somehow out of the ground. We called it “dogflower” those first few summers, and that’s what we call it still. The white, cottony tufts dot a broad green swath of tundra that rolls interminably to the west and north. The land drops in a forested fold down to Panguingue Creek and rises again, a few times, til it reaches a high, barren ridgeline. We have our own name for that one, too. Wolf Ridge. I walk out to the sunwashed bluff behind the cabin and see the smoke settle and lift and settle again in the creases of birch- and alder-filled creek bottoms. The sun is a mean red eye that hovers over Wolf Ridge for a little while, warning us of wildfires to the north and west. Reminding us of all we stand to lose. I turn around and see the dogs. See Bullock lounging on his house behind a little altar of purple fireweed. See T-Bone, with his leg and tail hanging off the side of his house while he sleeps. Piper, always watching me, ears flickering up and back down with every step I take. All 27 of them in their quiet, fairytale yard, surrounded by spruce that now seem less like a shelter from the wind and more like a box of matches waiting to be struck.
The summertime clouds of my Texas childhood march across the Alaskan skyscape. Towering cumulonimbus rife with electricity. Dark grey and black and roiling. Or glowing florescent pink at midnight, an extension of the alpenglow-lit faces of the Outer Range. The flashing lightning that seemed to buzz straight into my bloodstream and the booming thunder that elicited screams of delight from the childhood me now produce a different reaction. A quickening of the pulse, to be sure, but out of worry instead of thrill. A constant scanning of the horizon for the dreaded white plume.
And now the wind has shifted and the smoke has blown away in a dirty smudge on the horizon. From upstairs the high mountains ring my viewshed, sharp and clean and crystal clear. Oh, to be a nomad out in that hinterland again. Our only home a warming tent. Our only transport a dog team. Our only provisions what we carry. The cold air freshening our lungs as we inhale and exhale in white, steaming puffs. Our minds gentle with the knowledge that nothing can be taken from us.