The school year’s starting. Last Wednesday, the summer ghost town campus succumbed to clumping freshmen and swerving bicycles, and this past week was move-in week. As I tried to fall asleep under an unfamiliar popcorn ceiling the first few nights, it still seemed strangely limiting to sleep a few layers of insulation removed from open sky. Alaska was on my mind, instead of sheep.
I had a number of random thoughts. First, what were my comrades doing at that very moment? Quite a few had stayed on for CRM projects, some lasting into September, so probably they were huddling in tents somewhere along the Tenana River and using the last rays of 16-hour sun to write up their pits. Later when it was totally dark, they might take “smoke baths” to keep the skeeters at bay – it’s when you stand over the campfire and flap your shirt and underwear to fill it with smoke. This is actually very legit! I will never forget the looks on the other customers’ faces when we strode into the grocery store pre-shower, post-smoke bath and began mass ordering steak fries.
Some people stayed in Alaska because they live there. “I live in Alaska” is in fact a loaded sentence. Debate rages over whether one, two, or more years of residency constitute valid Alaskanship because the mental sheet foil one initially brandishes against the long, hard winters may turn out to be a specious banner of bravado, flown only to advertise one’s own machismo. Then one gets SAD and must seek tanning beds, and then one surreptitiously slithers across the border to Washington. Of the indisputable Alaskans, one friend signed onto a helicopter survey, so I hoped she had not gotten airsick while dangling equipment over the Tangle Lakes mountain ranges. The lakes provided our TA’s gambit for his powerpoint to recruit people for a weekend camping trip: “As you can see, archaeology is a thankless job, I mean, can you believe I have to hike across all this endless terrain and take pictures of all these boring landscapes?”
If the survey had already ended, she was probably helping her dad make reindeer sausage or hunting for moose. You can hunt as much moose as you want in Alaska, but what you can’t finish, you have to give away. It is illegal to sell moose meat.
Regarding family life, the dogs of Alaska rated a thought there. Almost everybody had their own lovely mutts at home, and eventually we had all talked to each other’s dogs on the phone. We also had a camp dog, Bella, who belonged to one of the TAs and hung out under the equipment tarps while the rest of us sweated in the hot sun. Well, no, I don’t want to be misleading – it was around 80 degrees – but eventually I came around to the Alaskan way of thinking and marveled at my own ability to wear long sleeves in weather hotter than room temperature. Other than Bella, there was a muddy stray who clambered up our bluff one morning, and whose collar tag bore an address from 20 miles away! Reasonably, she collapsed on top of my neighbor’s quad – crumbling the corner he had just spent the last hour straightening.
I wondered what had become of our dig site. Right before we left we worked on drawing the soil profile, but a sudden hail storm halted work for that day. As we left it, if it were to be discovered by archaeologists thousands of years in the future it would have looked like the dwellings of a rigidly controlled and psychologically anal society, based on the straightness of our walls. Volunteers were supposed to keep digging after we left, however. An unexpected benefit of going to this field school was meeting many nontraditional students, people who had started college in their twenties and thirties or gone on personal adventures in the middle of their undergrad years, and for whom “archaeological technician” would just be the crowning title on a resume listing ranch hand, concertmistress, U.S. geological surveyor, and work-study painter. I miss being around such an academically diverse student group and the learning environment that forced us into close quarters, smelly or not, day in and day out.
I also miss our camp chef’s Southern cooking. She was a smoker and made dishes too salty and spicy, which counteracted the taste of silt in our mouths.
Overall, I learned a lot. Sometimes by completing the reading about Paleoindians, other times (when I had not completed the reading) by looking out the door of my tent.