from the 13th Kate Shugak novel

“Yuck!”  The pool of slush covered the road from snow berm to snow berm and thirteen-year old Andrea Kvasnikof had just stepped in it up to her ankle and over the tops of her brand-new, white on white Nike Kaj.  “Ms. Doogan!  Ms. Doogan, my shoe’s all wet!”

“This is where the leading edge of Grant Glacier was in 1778,” Ms. Doogan said, standing in front of a signpost surrounded by the seventeen students of the seventh and eighth grade classes of Niniltna Public School.  “Who can tell me what else happened in Alaska that year?”

“The Civil War started!” cried Laurie Manning, a red-headed virago who seemed always to be on the verge of declaring war herself.

“No, the Revolutionary War!” yelled Roger Corley, a dark-browed eighth-grader who wasn’t going to let some little old seventh-grade baby go unchallenged.

“Not a war, stupids,” Betty Freedman said calmly.  Betty always spoke calmly, an unnerving quality in an adolescent.  She didn’t peer over the tops of her glasses only because she had twenty-twenty vision and didn’t need them, but it was impossible not to imagine two round lenses perched on her nose, magnifying her big blue eyes and increasing her resemblance to an owl.  With all that fine white-blonde hair, a great snowy owl.  She even blinked slowly.  “That was the year Captain Cook sailed to Alaska, wasn’t it, Ms. Doogan.”

It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of fact.  “Yes, it was, Betty,” Ms. Doogan said.

“He anchored in Turnagain Arm on June 1st,” Betty said.

Ms. Doogan made a praise-worthy attempt not to grit her teeth.  It didn’t help that Betty knew as much history as her teacher did, and sometimes more.  Ms. Doogan glanced back to see Moira Lindbeck, the one parent she’d manage to coerce along on this field trip roll her eyes.  She faced forward quickly–it would never do to laugh–and continued up the trail, moving to the gravel shoulder to miss an ice overflow rapidly liquifying in        this warm spring morning.  Bare green stalks of wild rice clustered together in the ditch, loitering with intent, waiting for the temperature to get high enough to burst into bud.  She paused next to another signpost and waited for the class to catch up.  “This is where the leading edge of the glacier was in 1867.  What happened that year?”

They all knew this and they said so in chorus.  “The United States bought Alaska from Russia!”  Somebody turned a cartwheel, kicking muddy water all over Andrea Kvasnikof’s lime green down jacket.  Andrea did not suffer this in silence.

Betty Freedman waited for the furor to die down.  “For seven point two million dollars.”

Ms. Doogan, the breeze soft on her cheek and the heat of the sun on her hair, felt suddenly more in charity with the world and smiled down at Betty.  Besides, she knew that behind her back Moira Lindbeck was rolling her eyes again.  “Yes.”

“Seven cents an acre.”

Ms. Doogan transferred the smile to Johnny Morgan.  The tallest boy in the class, with a serious brow beneath an untidy thatch of dark brown hair that fell into deep-set blue eyes, Johnny seldom volunteered information.  He seemed older than the other students, and every now and then Ms. Doogan caught an expression on his face that she thought might indicate something between tolerance and scorn.  She had the feeling that he was only putting up with her until the end of the school year.  Indeed, he seemed merely to be marking time until the day he turned sixteen, when he could legally quit school.  Which would be a pity, as Johnny Morgan was one of the brightest students she’d ever had the privilege of teaching.  She’d tried to reach him all year, but while he was unfailingly polite he remained aloof.  He did his work well and got it in on time in more or less readable shape, or as readable as you could expect from a kid living in a log cabin with no electricity.  He was attentive and respectful, but she was always conscious of the shield he had erected around himself, high and wide and, by her, impenetrable.

“Seward’s Folly,” a small voice said.  Ms. Doogan looked down in some surprise.  Vanessa Cox, short, slight, dressed year round in Carhartt’s bib overalls with a turtleneck beneath in winter and a T-shirt in summer.  It was economical, Ms. Doogan supposed, and even a practical solution to dressing a child to go out in any weather in the Alaska Bush, but every time she saw the girl she had to repress an urge to break out the crinolines, or even just a lipstick.  If it weren’t for the delicate features of her face and the braid of thick fine dark hair that hung to below her waist, it would have been hard to tell that Vanessa was a girl.  “That’s right, Vanessa,” she said, smiling, “Alaska proved them wrong on that, though.”

Vanessa, rarely seen to smile, gave a solemn nod.  She exchanged a glance with Johnny Morgan.  Here, it seemed, was one person who had managed to reach through the shield.  Good for both of them, Ms. Doogan thought.  Johnny Morgan was only fourteen, but if her instincts were right here was a young man with the ability to remind any young woman, no matter how deliberately neutered by her foster parents, just how female she was.  And anyone as young as Johnny was all the better for a friend.  Especially given that his father had been murdered a year and half before, and that he was estranged from his mother.

Ms. Doogan moved up the trail about ten feet.  It was starting to get steep and the snow on either side of the trail to get higher.  At the same time they could hear the sound of running water.  “The glacier was here in 1898.  What happened in 1898?”

Betty opened her mouth but Vanessa beat her to it.  “The Klondike gold rush.”

“Very good, Vanessa,” Ms. Doogan said.  “Have you been reading ahead in your history book?”

Vanessa gave her solemn nod.

“And you’re remembering what you read.  Good job.”

Betty was much too mindful of the might and right of authority to do anything so lese majeste as to pout, but Moira Lindbeck was close to dancing in the street.  Ms. Doogan fixed her with a quelling eye, and led the way to the next signpost.  “In 1914, the glacier was–“

“World War I!” shouted Laurie Manning, capering up and down in excitement.  Laurie had yet to master middle school cool.  “World War I!  World War I!”

There was a soldier or soldiers in Laurie’s future, Ms. Doogan thought with an inner sigh, but she smiled and said, “Yes, Laurie, World War I.  Eric Kizzia, if you pinch Mary Lindbeck one more time, I’m going to pinch you myself, in the same place and just as hard.  Knock it off.”

Eric tucked prudent hands into the pockets of his corduroy jacket and did his best to look as pure as the driven snow.  His grin was impudent and dimpled and it was hard not to grin back.  He’d had a crush on Mary Lindbeck since the second grade, only temporarily side-tracked by luscious upper classman Tracy Drussell last year.  Eric’s plan had been for Tracy to flunk until Eric made it into her class, but Tracy’s family had moved to Anchorage instead, and in the interim Mary had grown breasts, which had effectively cut short Eric’s mourning for Tracy.  It also made it difficult to keep his hands to himself.  If he’d tried to hold her hand Mary would have shoved him into the ditch with the wild rice.  Ignoring her was not an option.  A pinch had seemed a safe compromise.

Mary, whose awareness of the male sex had undergone a sea change in the last year, left her nose in the air but let the corners of her mouth indent in a tiny smile.  Eric saw it and it was enough.  Moira Lindbeck saw it, too, and was struck dumb with terror.

Teenage hormones were bad enough, Ms. Doogan thought, as she led the class around a corner, hopping from dry spot to dry spot on the trail as they went.  Teenage hormones and spring was a lethal combination.  Add in a parent who had just been made aware of her child’s burgeoning sexuality and Ms. Doogan thought she felt the earth tremble a little beneath her feet, in either anticipation or apprehension, she could never decide.  On the whole, she thought she might skip the planned lesson on the Romantic poets.  They could do with rather less talk of young men and spring at Niniltna Public School at this time of year.

The trees opened up and the snow berms melted away and a small lake filled with icebergs dissolved into weird and wonderful shapes spread out before them.  Between the bergs the lake was like a mirror, reflecting the bank and the trees and the bergs and the Quilak Mountains and the sky above.  She dropped a curtsy.  “My class, meet Grant Glacier.  Grant Glacier, allow me to introduce the seventh and eight grade classes of Niniltna Public School.”

This time the whole class rolled its eyes.  She’d made them walk all the way up here, that was bad enough, but curtsying to glaciers.  What next.  Ms. Doogan was always doing weird stuff like that.

But she was kinda cool weird, Vanessa Cox thought.  At least Ms. Doogan cared enough to get excited about what she was teaching.  Vanessa shrugged out of her daypack to pull out her lunch.  She sighed a little over the PBJ.  Sometimes she thought it was the only sandwich Aunt Telma knew how to make.  But there was also a cranberry raspberry Snapple and a Ziploc bag full of Thin Mints, so lunch wasn’t a total loss.

Ms. Doogan paced up and down at the edge of the water, talking and gesturing with what looked like a tuna fish sandwich.  Her students were sprawled on the bank facing her and the lake, eating and trying to look interested.  Her light olive skin was already starting to tan in the spring sun, and her short bob of fine dark hair was beginning to frizz from proximity to the glacial lake.  She looked like a poodle, Vanessa decided.  Moriah, her best friend back in Ohio, had had a standard poodle, a huge big black dog named Matisse.  Matisse was interested in and excited about everything, especially after he’d eaten a sixty-ounce bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate chips Moriah’s mother had bought for Christmas fudge.  Vanessa wondered if Ms. Doogan ate a lot of chocolate.

“Grant Glacier descends from what ice field?” Mrs. Doogan said.  “Come on, guys, we talked about this in geology.”

Vanessa knew the answer but her teeth were a prisoner of peanut butter and she couldn’t suck them clean in time to beat Betty Freedman to reply.  “The Grant Ice field.”

“Correct.  The Grant Ice field, like the largest glacier descending from it, also named for Ulysses S. Grant, the nineteenth president of the United States.”

“The eighteenth president,” Betty Freedman said.

“The eighteenth, then,” Ms. Doogan said amiably, “you got me, Betty.  It was so named by a couple of Army lieutenants on a survey mission back in, oh, 1880, I guess it was, after the purchase anyway.  They had served under Grant in the Civil War and they were probably hoping that if they named an ice field this big after their commander-in-chief that they’d get promoted.”

Betty looked suspicious.  She hadn’t read that anywhere, and she doubted any information she had not seen laid out in columns in a textbook.

Grant Glacier was a wide ribbon of ice winding out of the Chugach Mountains, white higher up and black lower down with a blue layer sandwiched between the two.  “Why’s it black lower down?” Peter Mike said.

“Who remembers what happened on March 27th, 1964?” Ms. Doogan said.

There was a blank silence.

“Come on,” she said, and sang, “`Rock and roll is here to stay, it will never die’–come on, you guys, you know this.  Unless you’ve been propping your eyes open with toothpicks in class.”

Johnny Morgan finally opened his mouth.  “Earthquake.”  Anything to keep Ms. Doogan from singing again.  Sheryl Crow she wasn’t.

“That’s right, Johnny,” Ms. Doogan said, beaming, “the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964.  Nine-point-two on the Richter scale.  One hundred and twenty-five people were killed, some by the resulting tsunami as far away as Oregon and even Hawaii.  The biggest earthquake ever felt in the United States in recorded history.  And, by the way, eight of the top ten biggest quakes in U.S. history have had their epicenters in Alaska.  Little bit of trivia there for you.”

They knew better.  Ms. Doogan’s trivia had a way of showing up on tests. 

Fun fact: A lot of the information about glaciers and first growth I learned from our guide on a rafting trip I took down the Copper River with my Cordova family. I wrote a column about it for Alaska magazine, which is now included in the e-book collection called Alaska Traveler. She said craftily.

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the 23rd Kate Shugak novel
coming April 11, 2023
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