Alaska Shorts: Up Mountain, by Samuel Chamberlain

been begging to take me up mountain for days, but I kept us in the classroom. I
am their new white teacher, dedicated.  Our
schoolhouse is built upon stilts poised above the permafrost. The building’s
red has begun to match the fiery colors in the changing tundra; it’s late
August in Alaska’s northern most latitudes.           

spruce grows in patches across the valley. At its lowest terraces, alder and
willow, already gone from green to golden, live around the bogs and atop the
cut banks of the East Fork of the Chandalar River.  Spruce stands of stunted, spindly trees—like dirty
pipe cleaners—thin with elevation and latitude, clinging denser in the draws
until reaching the terminus of tree line, far below the summit’s shoulders. The
Brooks Range lines the north and west of the river, an aged wall of scree slopes
and immense ridges some with exposed vertebrae. Hills rise to the south and east
from Vashràii K’oo, rolling and sloping downward all the way to the flats of
the Yukon River. In between the mountains and the hills, along the river and the
kettle lakes, amid the tundra and the tussocks, lives the Gwich’in of Arctic
Village—the caribou people.

holy mountain, sacred mountain,” they teach me as we walk a four-wheeler path
leading away from the school.

village is more spread out than most. We walk through the last collection of
six or seven homes, some log, others fuchsia and baby-blue hud style, then
we’re in the wilderness. The path meanders around ponds and through wood lots
where men will come for firewood once the land is locked in winter. Today
summer is like a fall afternoon. The students wear thin black hoodies and
faded jeans.

upper limits of the forest, before the terminus of trees, are haven for hunting
camps.  Most are vacant, as the caribou have
skirted farther from the village this year, but still obvious by their old
exoskeletons—trees skinned and lashed, stones collected as a fire pit.

upper slopes seem sparse, solemn, but teem with life. The trail wanes to dirt
single-track, the taiga becomes alpine tundra. Our pace slows as the slope
steepens. We wander. With each step the ground gives then pushes back,
breathing into us. The tundra exhales the last of the mosquito and gnat, but
they are batted down in the breeze. Flakey lichen stains the rocks chartreuse and
also lives like a spongy pillow in-between the shrub.  I kick at the porous plant and it
disintegrates. Two students make antlers with thumbs growing from brow, fingers
pointed skyward, then click their jaws and lick their lips.

they say. “For caribou.”

It’s hard
to imagine a more resilient animal living off a more distasteful looking plant.
We find a rack of antlers, but they weren’t shed, the skull is attached, not
decomposed but gnawed upon. Nearby there are two scapulas and many ribs.

they say. “Zhoh —wolf, caribou food.”

I reach
for the animal’s calcified headgear but a student stops me.

they say. “Bad luck to touch those—we should leave them.”

The village
is four miles away but near enough. The runway is the most significant feature.
A conveyance to the outside world, it’s a linear scar surrounded by an organic
geometry. Then the school—filled with its curriculums and its interventions and
its western education—sticking out like an arena in a metropolis. Some of my
students live in the brightly painted new homes, radiating like Easter eggs or art
deco above the Arctic Circle. The traditional log cabins are mere shadows in
the valley floor.

earth smells fresh here. I bend and reach for the tiny forest growing beneath
my feet. Like a hound I circulate my nose above the soft edged needles growing
in shoots from the bushy carpet.

a student says. He grabs a bunch and stuffs it in his pockets. “To take to my auntie—tundra

I go
prone and bury my face into the prickly earth. It smells like time, musky, but with
a familiarity I want to wrap around myself. The students giggle. I roll to my
back, propped up on elbows. Flakes of caribou lichen stick in my beard. Today I
am not their teacher.

Chamberlain is a writer, teacher, and social activist living in Fairbanks,
Alaska. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in
Oregon’s low-residency program. His work has appeared in O-Dark-Thirty. He can
be reached at:

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2 thoughts on “Alaska Shorts: Up Mountain, by Samuel Chamberlain”

  1. Beautiful Sam. Your hike with the students became vivid in my mind while reading. As I look out the window in my new Michigan home I try to recreate those tundra aromas with your help of words. Thank you.

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