Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Baking, Winter in Alaska

A European Vacation

Last month, for the first time since my first Winter here, I had significant time off at home, in Alaska.

Not just time, an unprecedented amount of time: an entire month.

Aside from a few months in my first Winter (which I spent nearly paralyzed by all I had to learn in order to live and thus, not very much enjoying my unemployed freedom), I’ve always worked at least one job, most often two or more, while living here. Before that, I worked consistently since age 14, always carrying at least one but often closer to three. Even on “vacations” in the last few years, I’ve always worked at least a chunk of the time off.

So it came: A whole month off, for the first time in longer than I can remember.

Amazing, right?

Well, yes, eventually.

Work, to me, is security and purpose. I like to work (maybe a little too much) and so the idea of not working, of not having a schedule or deadlines or responsibilities or (especially) cashflow felt very overwhelming. I also knew it was exactly what I needed. The past few years have been a lot, to say the least, and I desperately needed a reset before jumping into my new job (the impetus for the time off). Thankfully, my new boss agreed – scratch that – actually, encouraged me to take the whole month off before I started my new job (thank you!) and so…I did.

“What will you do with your time off?” was the question I received most often.

“Don’t waste it!” was another common sentiment.

Yikes! I could feel the pressure building. So, I set out to quell the panic with my most favorite of lists: a To-Do list

Vacation To-Dos:

  1. Watch the sunrise and sunset every almost every day
  2. Exercise every day
  3. Write every day
  4. Train Leto to skijor (become professional skijorer, obviously)
  5. Leash train Leto to police dog status
  6. Become a seamstress
  7. Master knitting
  8. Become a collage artist
  9. Embroider onesies for all of the newest babes in my life
  10. Finish all remodeling projects on our house
  11. Bring the large washing machine inside and do all Winter laundry
  12. Bake every other day
  13. Go to the doctor and the dentist (a full trip to Anchorage)
  14. Become a fermenting pro
  15. Learn to play the guitar
  16. Learn to play the keyboard
  17. Record a few songs
  18. Oh yeah, relax
  19. etc.
  20. etc.

The list went on and on so I won’t bore you with the details but I will say this:

I completed every single To-Do!

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Alaskan Malamute Puppy Skijoring

Skijoring champion!

 

Nope.

No, I didn’t.

Of course, I didn’t.

In retrospect, I see how fast a month flies by and how utterly over the top my ambitions had been. I chuckle to think of my therapist trying to slow the runaway train of my month off ambitions so I’d finish the month in a realistic, rather than a disappointing state. Yet try as she might, I was unstoppable.

At first.

In the first two weeks of my vacation, I spent my time waking early and working on any and all business I had at present or had neglected in the past. Taxes, property searches, car insurance, titles, oh my! My heart beat far too fast and my adrenaline surged from the moment I awoke each day as my need to fill time and “not waste” my vacation jumped in the driver’s seat. I did my best to suck all the fun out of those two weeks but in retrospect, it was exactly what I needed so that the third week, I could relax.

By week three, I had finally allowed myself some time to just chill. While sleeping in eluded me for the entirety of the month (though I was able to wake at 8 am once versus my 6 or 7 am daily rooster routine). Eventually, my anxiety waned as I found the rest I desperately needed in ways I normally wouldn’t allow myself. I read in bed, which to me, is perhaps the most luxurious thing one can do, made only more luxurious by The Chief bringing me tea in bed as well. I watched trashy TV in the middle of the day (before doing so, I stopped to look over my shoulder as if to say “Am I really allowed to do this?!”) and had phone conversations with friends and family I hadn’t been able to catch up with in ages. I read magazines I’d received months earlier and never even opened and baked scones and biscuits and other buttery bits I wouldn’t normally let myself whip up.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Baking, Muffin Tops in Alaska

“Muffin tops”. Apparently, I didn’t fill them enough to get the full effect but you get the idea. Ha!

 

I also implemented a hint of a schedule via parameters: before I looked at my phone each day, I needed to complete my morning ritual of reading and journaling. It was surprising how hard that was at first but instead of waking and obsessing over everything on my To-Do list via phone from the moment I awoke, it gave me a moment to connect inwards and check in with what I needed. It allowed me to let go of my To-Dos for a moment and just listen to what my body needed.

Which was:

Not an exercise regime but instead a long, rambling ski (and snacks. Lots of snacks).

Not a sunrise/sunset agenda but a snowshoe hike or a walk whenever my body needed it.

Not a concrete daily schedule but time to be open to whatever came next.

What my body needed was a mixture of play and work, a mixture I had been missing for a very long time. So, when my body asked for a timeout, I took it and when I started getting anxious from too much downtime, up I went.

I baked and tidied the house and started long overdue organizing projects and skied and worked on skijoring with Leto a bit too.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Home ORganization

Organization in progress. What floor?!

 

Everything on my list was given a nod though not necessarily the full processional. I never even got out my sewing machine but I did go on many an unplanned adventure. New To-Dos came up that trumped my original plans. Things shifted and priorities swayed with my inner tides by simply asking myself: What do you need?

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Cross Country Skiing

This. I needed this.

 

What do you need?

So often, we forget to check-in with ourselves. So often we forget that we can provide what we need. Once I had focused on what my body and mind needed, I realized there was something else I needed: a desk. The Chief and I realized that in order to accommodate the command center my work was sending me, I certainly had a need: a new desk.

So, I went online and…

We built one. All too often, I think of something I need and go to procure it rather than manufacturing it myself. If nothing else, this virus has brought me back, full circle, to the realization that I’m often far more able to meet my material needs than I realize (and doing so myself is often far, far cheaper) So, I didn’t buy one online. I certainly researched ideas and designs online but instead of clicking “Buy” The Chief helped me manufacture a beautiful cream-colored lass made especially for me.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Alaskan Building

Work in progress

 

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Workshed, Winter

Half of the shop

 

Gorgeous as she was, she inspired us to finish our bedroom (finally) with trim and even (gasp!) actual walls. I know, I know, fancy, right?

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Building in Alaska

My moon.

 

My time off ended in a flurry of warming the work tent in the morning, working long days that carried into the night, then stoking the fire for hours afterward to protect our painted pieces against the suddenly cold outside temperatures that threatened to cool the tent. We went to bed that last week with sawdust in our hair and paint on our hands and the joy of making something, together. Down to the wire we were nailing in trim and navigating the plethora of connections my new computers required. I finished out my month off in a scurry, in true Julia fashion, but the job was done and done well. All in time to start my new job.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Work from Home

The command center!

 

Last week, as my vacation came to a close, my therapist and I laughed at my overzealous To-Do list. “This is why Europeans take a full month off every year. In the first two weeks you are detoxing from work, the third week you relax and the fourth you prepare to go back to work. There’s not really much time to start a million new hobbies. You have to pick a few”.

And I had (though not the ones I would have guessed I would have prioritized).

It was just as she said, my European vacation. Full of decompression, relaxing and then re-compression in a mindset anew. Full of hopes, reality, daydreams and dust bunnies. Full of surprises. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar surprise situation due to an unplanned virus-induced vacation of sorts. Perhaps your mountain of a To-Do list is overwhelming you. Perhaps the vacation doesn’t have an end in sight and monetary pressures loom over you.

Yet still, I implore you to dig into this moment of reprieve from the daily grind. Give yourself whatever time off you can and if possible, find the calm after the decompression. I promise you, it’s a beauty. I don’t say this as someone who is comfortable not working or as someone who would be alright financially not working for weeks on end but I do say this as someone on the other side of four weeks who didn’t realize how badly I needed them until I reached their end.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Kennicott Alaska

Mountain play date. The only thing on the To-Do list that day.

 

Despite the intensity of this COVID situation and the different challenges we all independently face, there is beauty in a necessitated slowing down. A moment to take stock of what we do have, what we can do and DIY (and save money doing so), without looking outward. Take a bath (please, for me, take a bath. Is there anything better for relaxing than a bath? Someday…), take a nap, phone a friend, build something you’d normally buy or bake a pie for no reason other than you are alive (and what a reason that is).

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Baking, Winter in Alaska

Turkey Pot Pie deliciousness

 

Give yourself a moment in this mandated moment of pause to do just that.

Pause.

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Alaskan Malamute Puppy

Pause professional

 

Cheers to you, wherever you are sequestered. May your troubles be few and your time off from our persistent reality calming. May work come back to you if it has fled and if not, may financial security find you in some other way. May you find yourself a moment of calm.

To you and yours, with love,

 

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, A European Vacation, Winter in Alaska

Winter walks.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Sprouts for Breakfast, Dolly Parton, Alaska

Apocatips

Apocatips

Tools & Tips to Weather the COVID-19 Storm from Off-Grid Alaska

 

The other day my girlfriend, who lives in California, said to me: “If anyone is ready for this, it’s you guys.”

“This” being the COVID-19 pandemic. “This” being hunkering down in our days of social distancing. “This” being living off of and making do with what we have for an unknown amount of time. Normally, I would have thought to myself with pride “Yes! We are so prepared!”. However, as fate would have it, the past few months we have flip-flopped our tendencies as we have significantly tightened our belts around here. With that tightening went away any non-essential purchases and the well-worn habit of always buying a little extra. We weren’t preppers by any means but for the last five years, we’ve always had enough stocked to last us a few months at a time.

Not anymore.

New reality versus old reality:

 

 

 

 

The past few months we’ve whittled down our freezer stores and eaten all the things we tend to forget (read: aren’t interested in eating) are in there (hello random fish filet. You weren’t exactly delicious but you got the job done). For the first time ever, we’ve run out of things and not immediately ordered them again without having a family discussion about it. Do we need this? Really? Or do we just want it? Chocolate didn’t even make the list you guys. Chocolate. Serious budgeting (and serious regrets).

You see, normally, we actually have it pretty darn good out here, despite being 4 hours to the nearest and 8 hours to a variety of grocery stores. Friends and family are constantly surprised to hear about all the fresh veggies we are lucky enough to have during the Winter, often due to the kindness of neighbors. Yet even that we have pared down. Wasting nothing has been our goal and so we’ve pared down all around. For the past five years, I’ve shopped to satisfy our needs for months at a time and so we’ve rarely run out of things. Yet in the last few months, vowing not to go to Town unless we needed to, we’ve let ourselves run out. We’ve been diligent in paring down just in time for…

The Apocalypse

Okay, okay, it’s the not the Apocalypse (It’s not, right?) but it certainly feels a bit doomsday-ish right now. Just in time for everyone to have cleared the shelves, we too have cleared out our freezer and pantry and now find ourselves at a bit of a loss in replacing our stores. Our first Town trip in months was scheduled for last week but was canceled indefinitely due to the virus. So, I ventured onto Amazon to try to replenish some basics. I found a 12-pack of pasta in the totally “normal” price range of $56.72-$326.69.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, COVID-19 Price Gouging

Oh no, you don’t.

 

 

Being gluten-free, I’m used to higher prices but pasta over three hundred dollars? It had better be made with gold dust (it wasn’t). So, yes, price gouging is real. As I sat on my computer, trying to purchase the basics I hadn’t planned on needing to replenish via the web (beans, pasta, polenta, shelf-stable almond milk), panic started to crawl over me. Everything was either out of stock, exorbitantly priced or wouldn’t ship to Alaska.

Oh, joy!

I looked at our less than packed pantry, our dwindling freezer bounty, our single large package of toilet paper (a 48 pack we had started on February 13th. Yep, we have been budgeting that hard that we wrote it down on our family whiteboard to track how much toilet paper we actually use and try to pair it down, pre-COVID-19. FYI, over a month later we still have PLENTY) and our fresh food nearly fresh out and realized it was time to take action. No, we were not going into this prepared as we normally would. In food alone, it was not true that if anyone was ready for this it was us. However, we did have a trick up our sleeve: we live in rural Alaska.

While our stockpile may be lackluster at just the wrong time, our tricks and tips for making do with less are tools we use year-round. They are seasoned and ready. While we live with more than people typically assume, we are also well versed in living with less and making do with what we have. So, without further ado, here are some Apocalypse Tips (aka Apocatips) for weathering the COVID-19 s-storm we all find ourselves in:

  1. Get Used to Living With Less, Going Without and Substituting (Spoiler Alert: It’s Actually Fun): In these past few months of paring down, living with less has actually been more enjoyable than living with more. Certainly, when I found that I wasn’t able to get what I “needed” the other day, I panicked. However, this is where substitutions shine. It’s a real cup half full moment to step out of focusing on what you don’t have and instead look at what you do. Dig deep into your pantry and freezer and you might be surprised at what you do have versus what you don’t. Plus, the surprise is great an all but the pride I feel when I make something from improvised ingredients is the real cherry on top.

    Some examples:

    We ran out of almond milk for tea and coffee, baking, cooking, etc. so for my tea, I blended some coconut cream I had in our pantry with some water and voila! It was delicious. For baking, I substituted some powdered buttermilk I rarely use (and didn’t know existed until the grocery store didn’t have liquid and they gave me the powdered for free. Thanks, Freddy’s!) for some cornbread and again, delicious! Once the coconut cream is running low, we will make almond milk in the blender and save the almond meal produced from it for flour. While I know fresh is best, think of things that can replace what you might normally consume fresh (i.e. powdered buttermilk, milk, etc.). Step out of your usual tendencies and switch it up when you run out. Use maple syrup for sugar or make your own red sauce from scratch versus the can. The possibilities are endless. Also, if you have too much of something and it might go bad, share it. If that’s not an option preserve it! Pickling, fermenting, etc. scared the heck out of me but guess what? It’s so, so, so fun. You got this. Waste not, want not.

    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Ombre Sauerkraut, Alaska

    Ombre sauerkraut. The new Starbucks unicorn latte or…whatever.

  2. Find Yourself a Handkerchief: Toilet paper a little low? No, no, don’t worry, I’m not suggesting hankies for your heinies but for your schnoz, it’s a different story. Here, we often use toilet paper to blow our noses (and in Winter in Alaska there is a lot of nose-blowing going on) but what we did recently (and what we should have been doing all along) was switch to handkerchiefs. They are durable, less wasteful and a fun little snotty accessory to brighten up your daytime jammies, er, outfit. No handkerchiefs laying about? Perhaps make one out of old shirts or other clothing you’ve been meaning to donate. The same can be said for paper towels. We haven’t bought paper towels in years (I’ll be honest, I missed them dearly at first) and use rags and cloth napkins instead. It works, I promise (plus, it makes me feel oh so fancy when I use a cloth napkin).
  3. Let it Grow: Winter is certainly a time we all help one another around here and right now is no different. Most often, anytime someone has come in these days they’ve checked to see if others could use some fresh vegetable or fruit supplies. However, even with people willing to bring things in, empty stores mean we have way fewer freshies than usual. Thankfully, I put up a ton of greens from our garden this year but frozen isn’t the same as fresh so…let it grow.

    Some examples:

    If you are able to get green onions you can put them in water and they will continue to grow as you cut them for use. You can also do this with ends of other vegetables by submerging the base in water (here’s one site about it but there are tons. Just search for “growing vegetables from kitchen scraps”). I’ve had great luck with lettuce.

    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Growing Vegetables from Kitchen Scraps, Alaska

    Green onions and celery.

    Another option is to start some sprouts (you know, those things your hippie parents always had growing in the window? Yea, they were geniuses)! Lately, I’ve been super into sunflower sprouts. They are hearty and a bit sweet. Currently, I have lentils and alfalfa sprouts going.

    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Sprouts for Breakfast, Dolly Parton, Alaska

    Thanks, Dolly. Will do. Sprouts on scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

    Start your garden. While in Alaska it’s a bit early to start the entire garden (though I did spend a few hours yesterday shoveling our garden out so the ground would thaw faster. “Faster”, however, was not my personal speed as our snow shovel was at the fire department and I aimed to concur the few feet of snow with an avalanche shovel. I wouldn’t recommend it), microgreens are the way to go. Yesterday I brought my soil inside to start defrosting and I plan to start as many seeds as I have space for and then transfer them into containers to grow. If you live where you can garden outside this time of year, go for it! Even if your space is limited you can make do with windows (read: hanging plants) or windowsills or do some container gardening even in the smallest of outdoor spaces. Think vertically when space is limited (a true Alaskan tip).

    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Swiss Chard, Gardening in Alaska

    Swiss Chard kissing Marigold.

  4. Being Sequestered: Ok, admittedly this is not as much of an issue for us out in the woods. While we are essentially following all shelter in place rules we admittedly have the luxury of a lot more area to roam. Still, y’all remember January? I do. In January this year, I was more or less housebound. I went for very cold walks when I could but overall, I was inside watching the cold crawl through the cracks in my wall. It felt tight and a little claustrophobic. It also made things a whole lot simpler. My options were limited.
    While you may not have to stoke a fire every 30 minutes or haul water, there are certainly ways to fill your time when you can’t go outside. As an ex-personal trainer, I love to exercise (though sometimes you wouldn’t know it by my “I wore yoga pants all day without working out” approach I sometimes take. Ebb and flow and whatnot) and my body and mind love me when I do it. YouTube has a TON of workout videos for anything and everything. I love Yoga with Adrienne (she’s a gem. Even The Chief does her classes and raves about how much better he feels when he does). Classes make me feel like I’m around other people even when I’m not (and in all honesty, it’s what I prefer). Join a 30-day challenge or create a schedule for yourself and stick to it.
    If you miss the camaraderie of your close pals, set up some virtual cocktail hours or start/continue a book club. Come mid-Winter this year, my California girlfriends and I started weekly phone calls and it made my night every time. Being alone can also be a good time for some soul searching. It’s one of my favorite aspects of living here is not being distracted from the work I need to do on myself. Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More is amazing. My guy friend, upon listening to the book said with a chuckle “I wish I had listened to that ten years ago. I could have saved myself from having to go through my last 7 relationships”. It’s a keeper. Worried about money? I get it. I can’t recommend Tosha Silver’s book called It’s Not Your Money. Thank me (and my girlfriend who recommended it to me) later when you find 100 bucks in your pocket.
  5. Iron Chef It Up: Growing up, my brother and I used to watch Iron Chef and then we would aim to make dinner out of our own limited store. We pretended we were competitors on the show. We made egg drop soup one night when all we could find were eggs and broth. We’d scour the pantry and freezer and come up with the most random of meals but guess what? They were amazing. Plus, making the meal together, coming up with ideas from very little was extremely satisfying. Without a nearby grocery store, I often still feel like an Iron Chef. So, in addition to discovering recipe substitutions, step completely out of your dinner rut and create something altogether new. You might love it, you might hate it (we certainly had some kitchen fails) but either way, you’re getting creative in the kitchen and again, focusing on what you have versus what you are lacking. At a loss for ideas? Look at what you have and decipher which thing will go bad first. Plan a meal around that. If you don’t have any inspiration consult the oracle (aka Google) for ideas.

    Some examples:

    Cabbage is a great long-term vegetable to purchase when possible as it stores for a long time but you don’t want it to go bad (trust me, it smells ungodly) so use it up as it nears its end! Make cabbage rolls, sauerkraut or soup. I’ve made peanut chicken using the last bits of peanut butter and coconut milk, green soup using frozen veggies, smoothies using anything and everything. Go for it!

  6. Conserve What You Already Have: When we are used to being able to get whatever we need whenever we want, we waste more. Moving here, I found so many ways in which I was using far more than necessary and not utilizing what I had.

    Some examples:

    The easiest way to have more is to use less. The Chief and I love to eat but sometimes (read: far more often than I’d like to admit) we take an extra serving (or two) that we don’t actually need. Now is the time to decipher between want and need and it actually feels really good to set some boundaries around it. Instead of snacking post-dinner, try some tea. Harvest some wild herbs like mint, yarrow, goldenrod or chamomile, etc. if you can and dry them for your own tea.

    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Spruce Tips for Tea, Alaska

    Spruce tips for tea and a tired puppy.

    Stretch it. Have you ever been making dinner for two and suddenly friends drop by? You stretch whatever you’re making to accommodate. Do the same here. Add a little extra broth to your soup (broth that perhaps you’ve made from the last time you roasted a chicken…hint, hint), add a filling side like rice or polenta or simply chop everything smaller. The last one may sound ridiculous but we found that we used far less when we chopped everything smaller.

  7. DIY: Just like with the almond milk example above, there are tons of things we buy on the regular that, with a little effort we can simply make. Pickles, sauerkraut, mayonnaise, broth, yogurt (this recipe for coconut yogurt is made by mixing probiotics into coconut milk and letting it do its thing on your counter for two days. It’s so yummers and truly simple), etc. are all things we’ve made versus bought. I’m not saying you have to make everything (nor do we all of the time, trust me), but the more we can self-sustain on what we already have, the better off we all are.
    Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Homemade Coconut Yogurt, Alaska

    Coconut milk yogurt doing its thing.

    Next up: DIY what you would normally have done for you (warning: results will vary).

    On our canceled Town trip last week one of the highlights for both my girlfriend and I was the idea of a haircut. Often here I simply go without certain beauty perks for months on end but if I really get a hankering for a change, I simply do it myself. Again, results do vary. I may or may not have (I absolutely did) given myself a haircut that resembles a mullet BUT, I did it myself and it feels pretty darn good to at least get some weight off.

    Next up? Highlights. I’ll keep you posted. Fingers crossed that I won’t be able to win a Joe Dirt lookalike competition.

    More DIY: Used to getting pedicures? Give yourself one! Waxing, dying your brows, facials, etc. You can do all of this from home and in a time of uncertainty such as that which we currently find ourselves in, a little self-soothing is certainly called for. Be nice to yourself, get creative and DIY yourself anew.

 

Overall, despite what a wild time this is, we can find the good in it. We can focus on what we have versus what we don’t have. We can get creative and brainstorm together. We can spend time with our loved ones. We can focus on the positive.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Frittatas

Like frittatas! Frittatas are positive.

The reality is, no one is unaffected. Even here in remote Alaska, we definitely feel the intensity of the situation. People are returning to the valley from travels all over the world. Social distancing is in full effect even for our dogs and most are in agreement that two weeks quarantining upon arrival is a must. All of this reminds me so much of when Leto was shedding Parvo and he and I were quarantined at our house for six weeks. Six weeks! If we can do six weeks with a puppy who thought (read: knew) I was his chew toy, working full-time plus cleaning every surface he touched, not leaving our property and sterilizing everywhere he pooped, we can all stay away from one another for two weeks.

It seems most everyone feels a little on edge as our rural town with very little medical resources braces to protect our inhabitants. Our challenges, throughout the world, are different from one another but the reality is, we are all in this together. My health is your health is all of our health. It is my responsibility not just to keep myself safe but to keep you safe. Every single one of us holds someone dear to them who is at risk. Treat the loved ones of others as you would want your loved ones treated.

Think outside of just yourself.

For goodness sake, do not hoard.

Be kind.

Keep you and your local and global community safe.

 

With love (and lots of handwashing),
From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, Apocatips, 03-23-20, Malamutes of Alaska

Be cool, wash your hands.

The Sweetness of Saturdays

Since that sweet day last September when The Chief and I were wed, I’ve been honored to be marking time together. At first, I marked every new dawn. I’d exclaim on the daily: “Two days since we got married!” “Three days you’ve been my husband!” I was a veritable marital town crier. It was oh so new, tender as a babe. Each day felt as if it required a moment of recognition for the vows we’d made, the change we’d chosen together. Soon, as the days accumulated, it was our one week anniversary and from there on out, I started marking Saturdays. Every Saturday that passed marked another week I’d spent donning my newly acquired Wife hat. I’d look to The Chief and exclaim “Three weeks since we got married!” and then some weeks later “Seven weeks we’ve been married!”

It always takes me by surprise to think of the contrast: more often than not, our Saturdays these days are spent reading together on the couch, alone, with only a few souls in our vicinity, a far cry from the Saturday in September when we said “I do” surrounded by love, surrounded by community.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Wedding in Alaska

And…surrounded by mountains.

 

This last sleepy Saturday, however, was not so sleepy as we bustled about readying ourselves for a Saturday snowshoeing adventure. Side note: Snowshoeing is an absolute workout. My poor aching legs! I could barely lift them by the end. Before I’d ever snowshoed I thought it was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard of. Yet even with a picnic in tow for our outing, the focus of this was not romance but stamina. I found myself grateful to be following in The Chief’s large footsteps to at least gain the benefit of partially patted down hip-deep snow. Yowzers!

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Snowshoeing in Alaska

Go Chief, Go!

 

As we readied for a far more arduous day than I had planned, something snuck into my consciousness. It wasn’t just any Saturday. This Saturday was a true mark in time.

Six months.

For six months we’ve been married.

Like a new pair of shoes, I worried to scuff our marriage’s perfect sheen at first. The role of Wife felt very new and very ancient all at once, like a strange club I’d suddenly found myself a member of without realizing I’d applied for admittance. This line in the sand of dating to marriage felt small and huge all at once. People would ask me how it felt to be married and I’d reply that it felt simultaneously like nothing and everything had changed all at once.

I soon realized that I’d never been very good at keeping my shoes in pristine condition, nor did I like them to be so. We had our first fight and it strangely settled me. Our marriage wouldn’t be pristine, it would be real and true and deep. One thing that had changed was how I felt about myself. I wanted to be the best Julia I could, not just for me but for us. I had committed in a way I’d never committed before, nor really dreamed I would and it inspired me.

Marriage has softened the edges years of dating had carved into me. It’s comforted my need for fight and flight. It’s calmed me into realizing I’m safe. Certainly, after everything the last few years have brought, I know that heartache is inevitable, as is the change that brings it about, yet I find myself calmer in the unknown, for one thing is known: us.

We decided that this six month Saturday certainly deemed marking. Dressed in our rumpled wedding gear we set off for our wedding site with tired legs, best friends at the ready for a photo shoot on Sunday. Six months and one day.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Alaskan Malamute Puppy High Five

High fives all around!

 

As the marking of days turned to the marking of Saturdays turned to my forgetting altogether just how long exactly, to the day, we’d been married, I’m grateful for this Saturday’s announcement of six. Six months of wedded life: good and hard and exciting and boring, stir crazy and calm, ease and anxiousness but overall, a constant: commitment.

If you’ve ever considered whether or not to get married, I can’t tell you what’s right for you but I can say that marriage brought more to us than I had ever dreamed. Planning together, while monotonous and costly and crazy-making at times, was all worth it. We were building together. Watching it all come to a culmination that day and seeing the faces of our friends and family gathered with us and all of the help we received without knowing we needed it was pure magic and we are eternally grateful.

 

 

 

I so look forward to the day, many years from now, when the yearly anniversaries become like the weeklies that turned to monthlies. Another year’s celebration turns into another year, normal and comforting in their accrual. Yet even as I grow more and more used to our ringed fingers, less surprised to hear myself called by the title of “wife”, I hope always to stop and cherish each day that marks that which is right in front of me: a beautiful love built from living through it all together: hope and heartache, jubilation, busy and slow, new and normal, all wrapped into one entity: us.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Snowmachine Chariot Alaskan Wedding

Your chariot awaits

 

To those who have supported us along the way, thank you (and a special thanks to our wonderful neighbors and 6-month anniversary wedding photographers and to MT who built an amazing arch to last the seasons). It takes a village to raise all of us. Our village near and far is so beloved, so necessary, so appreciated, always.

With love,

from The Chief, The Scribe, Leto, and Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Alaskan Wedding

 

Beneath the Borealis, 03:09:20, The Sweetness of Saturdays, Alaskan Malamute Puppy

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Alaskan Winter 50 below zero

Cabin Fever

I haven’t left my house in three months.

This reality came tumbling all the way out of my subconscious during a walk the other day and it’s been on my mind ever since.

 

Three months.

In the woods.

Mostly just the two of us.

Sometimes all alone.

For months.

Three months.

Cabin fever anyone?

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Malamute and Alaskan

I have the Fever, Dad. Put what you’re doing down and pet me (Note: The Chief is already using his left hand to draw but that was not good enough).

 

I mean, I’ve physically left my house. I ski or walk daily though mainly the same variations of loops. Yet, the farthest I’ve ventured out in three months has been 15 miles down The Road to two different friends’ houses for a total of three trips “out” since November.

Christmas, New Years Eve and a dinner party.

Aside from that, we’ve done dinners and parties in the neighborhood often enough for all of us introverts to meet our personal levels of social overload. Yet leave our house, shut it fully down and be away overnight somewhere?

Not for three months.

When I quantify it, as in “Oh girrrrrrl…you haven’t left the house in a quarter of a year!” It seems insane or at least a little closer to shut-in status than I ever thought I’d venture. Yet when I think of the time in increments, in weather, in months and happenings, it doesn’t seem that long.

In November, the at-home novelty was fierce. I’d been back and forth to Town more times than I could count. In October, I took my last trip out, or so I thought until a kidney infection had me on a rushed 4-hour trip to the closest clinic. Two doctor visits in two weeks added to all the travel of the Summer made me feel like the calm would never come.  I longed to pull into our driveway for the long haul and finally, we did.

I spent Halloween, my birthday and Thanksgiving here at home for the first time ever in all of the almost five (five?!?!?!) years I’ve spent in Alaska. Through Fall into Winter, we whistled the months away, looking alternately at the ground and the sky, praying for snow and watching as the final trickle of people leaving for Winter came to a close. Those who were staying were here, those who were going were gone.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 December in Alaska

Winter sunsets.

 

December was jovial. We finally got some snow and the holidays were sweet and intimate, unrushed and unscheduled. Seasons greetings filled our little home and cookies and cakes (and tighter pants) were aplenty. Winter had finally arrived and we settled in to enjoy it.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Christmas in Alaska

Our itty bitty backyard tree.

 

January arrived with a little more light and a lot more cold. Almost the entire month was spent heads down trying to stay warm in near 50 below temperatures. We were deep in the thick of it: Deep Winter.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Alaskan Winter 50 below zero

This pretty much captures January.

 

Then, in danced February, warm and cheery. It felt as if the days have been flying off the shelves like hot, fresh donuts (mmm, donuts). The light has brightened and lengthened and finally, after all this time, my cabin fever has finally arrived.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Kennicott River in Winter

Skiing in the middle of the river

 

For the past week, it’s been sunny and warm and not just the “Oh yay, I don’t have to bundle up like the kid in A Christmas Story every time I go outside” kind of warm. It’s been the “Oh no, all of the snow has fallen off of the trees, the ground is melting and the rivers, so nicely frozen into highways have been ripped open” kind of warm.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Kennicott River, Alaska

A river runs through the old river highway.

 

With the warmth and the sun comes a new energy, a different energy, and for the first time in four months, I wanted to leave. Cabin fever, right?

You see, as beautiful as Cabin life is, Cabin Fever is a thing. In the darkest of days and for months on end, I’ve drooled over the idea of a long, hot bath or the simple luxury of ordering an overpriced cocktail in the appropriate barware from someone I don’t know. Other times, the idea of being surrounded by strangers and spending dollar after dollar sounds suffocating. Sometimes I walk or ski our local loops and feel closed in. Other times I feel the expanse of thirteen million acres spread out before me. There are days when either The Chief or I (or god forbid both of us) are in a bad mood and these four walls feel awfully tight while other times we dance in our “spacious” abode.

Sometimes, your woodshed is full, your water is hauled, your batteries are charged and you’ve just gotten a replenishment of freshies from a friend in from Town and life is good. Other times, your batteries are dead, the house is cold, you’re out of water, wood isn’t chopped, you have to pump gas (and of course you’re at the bottom of the barrel) and the generator, which holds the key to most of these problems, is frozen.

There are days when all you need is to see a girlfriend (yes, there are other women here, thankfully) but the only other women around are 15 miles up The Road and at 40 below, going anywhere is out of the question. So, you sit with yourself, your emotions, your needs and tell them they will all simply have to wait until the weather moves out.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Alaskan Malamute Modelo

Puppy cabin fever. Leto took to the drink.

 

Feeling feverish yet?

The funny thing is, honestly, I wasn’t.

Of course, I can think of a day or two throughout the last three months when it felt like the walls were a little closer to my personal space bubble than I was comfortable with. There were days when I just wanted to be clean with clean clothes for more than twenty-four hours at a time. But the quiet? The calm? No one around for miles? I was OK with that. In fact, I loved it. The other things were just creature comforts I experience less in the Winter but miss year-round. The truth is, I’d never felt cabin fever this Winter in the way I felt it the other day when I realized I’d been here for three months straight. The “fever”, however, wasn’t about being stuck in the cabin, it was about our being “stuck” coming to an end.

The quiet.

The calm.

The solitude.

Gone.

Don’t get me wrong, Winter is hard but I think the hardest part about Winter, for me, is letting it go.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Malamute and Alaskan

We’ve all grown accustomed to it. Even Leto’s paws pray for more Winter.

 

This past week with its temps in the low 40’s (read: everything is melting) it really hit home. For three months, leaving felt like the last thing I wanted to do. Now, it feels like the first. I want to outrun the change. To find another place to cozy down for just a few more months of a good Winter’s rest. I feel like a kiddo sleepily asking for “just a few more minutes” of shuteye every morning as the alarm goes off. I want to hit Snooze on Spring.

I’ve never been good with change. Especially change I didn’t choose (read: you know, most of life). Sure, the weather might shift again. Even as I type this post this morning the boards of the Ramp of Doom let out a crack as The Chief descends them, signifying a drop in temperature to below zero. The paths that are now icy might again be covered in snow, the river might again freeze. Yet the shift woke us all from our Winter slumber and there’s no way to dismiss it: Summer is coming…slowly.

Once the Winter spell is broken, you can’t go back. The reality is there. As snoozing pales in comparison to deep sleep, we too feel the end in sight. You know there’s no going back to the quiet calm you came from.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Kennicott River, Alaska Crosscountry Skiing

So long middle of the river skis…maybe.

 

Until next Winter.

Until then, I’m grateful for the stretch we’ve had and pray to the skies for a little more snow, just as we did those three months ago in November.

Only time will tell.

Cheers to you and yours wherever you may be. Whether you are ready for Summer or Spring or still clinging to the depths of Winter. Wherever you are, may you be happy.

With love,

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis Post Cabin Fever 02:24:20 Alaskan Malamute in Alaska in Winter

Our pensive pup.

 

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Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California, Golden Gate Bridge

Building

Few things are more often discussed out here in the woods than building. From adding in a draining sink to starting completely from scratch, people here are doing it all, all of the time.

Growing up, we were always lucky enough to own the homes we lived in and thus, were able to modify them. As an adult living in California, the idea of ever owning a home was almost laughable (and definitely cry-able). I rented in a multitude of situations, everything from rooms in different friend’s parent’s houses to the floor of my brother’s room. I housesat, stayed with friends and eventually, after years of packing and unpacking (one year I moved over 20 times), I found myself in a little in-law cottage in Berkeley where I was going to school.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California

My car most often looked like this (love you goofs)

 

The sheer expanse of it all thrilled me. Living alone (despite how grateful I was for all of the houses I had laid my head down in the years prior), I could finally take a deep breath. It was the first time I had fully unpacked in years.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California, Golden Gate Bridge

Plus, the local hikes weren’t so bad, eh? Oh GG, you are gorgeous.

 

Yet as a renter, unpacking was just about the only modification I could make to my space and eventually, what once felt roomy started to feel cramped as my tenancy above a 24-hour barking dog started to grate on my sanity.

A few years after that, I found myself (still renting) in my dream home in Graton, California. Years before, I had housesat that exact house and had offered it up to the Universe that, if it wasn’t too much trouble, someday I would really love to live somewhere like this.

Exactly like it, it turned out.

(Thank you)

As friends moved out, I moved in and true roots, for the first time in years started to unfurl. I unpacked books from storage that had sat patiently, awaiting an opening and boxes from my childhood now laid in my home, rather than with my parents. I was becoming something…

Finally, I had space to mold that was my own. I decorated with real furniture, buying my first ever big kid couch and bed (booyah!) and worked the grounds around us. Grounds. There was finally space to stretch out, away from a city, in peace. I was close to my favorite haunts and perched perfectly adjacent to some of my most beloved trails. Near convenience yet far enough from the hustle and bustle.

The house was perfect.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California Succulents

A prickly situation

 

The relationship, on the other hand, was not (for anyone) and one day, I woke up and knew it was time to leave.

I moved in with a glorious girlfriend, to whom I will always be grateful. She softened the blow of the shrapnel from the life I had exploded with talks and walks and wine and baths and bowls of soup I never knew I needed (thank you, thank you. Always, thank you).

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California Beekepers

Just beekeepin’ with my boo

 

And then…

Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, Alaska Glacier Cave

Glacier and girlfriend.

 

Since moving here, I have been lucky enough to be catapulted into a title I thought I’d never inhabit: Homeowner. The elusiveness of homeownership in California isn’t quite the same here in Alaska, at least in our part of Alaska, and over a decade ago, when The Chief first found this bit of land with his bestie, it was even less so. Together, they paid off the land, put in a well and built their own homes. In their 20’s. 20’s! The Californian in me stills gasps every time I remember this fact. It awes me.

And so, lucky enough to fall into this place, and the furry arms that built this house, I find myself not renting for the first time since my teens. It’s a strange new world and The Chief and I have done our best to take full advantage of the fruits of our bounty through modifications and additions. For the first time, the only person I have to check in with is my husband, instead of my landlord.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, Alaska Building Construction Tiny Home Husband.jpeg

And he’s pretty nice.

 

Need a hook? Put one in!

Shelves? Heck yes!

Rip it down, put it up? Let’s do it!

We’ve worked on our home slowly and steadily (and sometimes in bursts of weather-induced deadlines) aiming to tidy it up the inside so we could side the outside and…

be done.

Done.

Silly us!

This Saturday, we went to a friend’s house and a few weeks before that, another couple’s house for dinners. First viewing dinners. They both had been working on their dream homes and both dinners signified the first time we would dine together in their beautifully buttoned-down abodes.

They are both gorgeous (the people and the houses) with details I don’t know how they dreamed much less executed, and designs to make your heart pitter-patter. They’re done.

Right?

Well…

Even these houses, still have building adventures they want to embark upon. Siding to put up or projects only they know to exist. From an outsider’s point of view, however, they look darn good and darn done.

It’s amazing.

And daunting.

Because…

The “Let’s just button it up and be finished for the foreseeable future” plan of our last almost 5 years here together, has come to an end. In realizing that we will someday soon want to expand our family (I mean, Leto really needs his own room, right?) we’ve realized that we too will need to expand our house. The main culprit is a set of stairs, nay, essentially a vertical ladder that is our only access between the bedroom and downstairs.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, Alaska Tiny Home

Straight up.

 

It’s an access point that rivals the Ramp of Doom. I have fallen down these stairs and through the hatch MANY times. One time I even fell down the stairs and landed on a banana (I kid you not), slipping into a splits position and a full stop, at last. The Ladder of Chance is the reason Leto began sleeping alone downstairs almost immediately despite us wishing he could be up in our bedroom with us. It’s just too fraught with falling hazards with high-risk endings.

And so the iterations begin.

We’ve gone back and forth, up and down and every which way in between. We’ve ventured in the building dreamland everywhere from building onto our current house and making room for more moderate stairs to starting completely over with a new house to starting completely over at a new property.

“Oy vey!”, my Godmother might say.

For now, we’ve decided at least to spruce up our current digs as we won’t be adding on, and so the projects begin again as well.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, Alaska Building Construction Tiny Home

A weekend of looking up and some very sore shoulders. Ceiling improvements!

 

In my spinning head, these competing options rattle about, challenging one another. The best solution will win, yet only time (and, oh yeah, money. The old Fast, Cheap, Good Triangle, right?) will tell. Until then, I’ll be hanging in the unknown and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, California Praying Mantis

 

Good luck to you, whether renting or building or living in a fully finished house. May you be cozy, safe and well-fed.

 

With love,

 

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, Building, 02-10-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy

…and Leto and his basket (he’s become a bit of a kleptomaniac

 

Are you building? What have you learned, loved, loathed? Do comment and tell us your story!

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska

40 Below (Alone)

40 Below (Alone)

A week in Alaska, alone, at 40 below zero.

 

I awoke to the morning of January 3rd in this new decade to a very distinct quiet: I was alone. The Chief and our Third Amigo had ventured off to Anchorage for a supply run and so alone I lay, hearing only the breaths that were my own. It’s a strange feeling, that sensation, that moment of realizing the space someone warms and fills by their simply just being. That tinge of loneliness was enough to motivate me to get out of bed. As I rose, a new level of morning cold nipped at me. The temperature must have dropped.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Skijoring in Alaska

The two days before: warm sunshine and skijoring! Happy New Year!

 

Dropped it had to a brisk 25 below zero. Our Winter thus far had been a mild one at best, filled with more icy than snowy roads and a Christmas warm enough to don merely a dress with leggings and a jacket. We’d had quick cold snaps where the temps had dropped to 13 below but that was it. Winter light. Yet snap it did that morning into truly cold territory and with it came flooding back all that “cold” means.

First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am not suddenly immune to normal cold. The temps we’d had before were not warm by human standards, they were simply warm by Winter’s standards. Secondly, our cold out here is a dry cold with the rare windy day (though yes, there certainly is wind) which makes the cold a bit more bearable (and personally, I love the cold, which makes it a lot more bearable, for me).

Living in California for most of my life, the temperature never varied in a way that affected me all that much. Sure, we’d prep for storms and power outages but all in all, it was a mild fluctuation of predictable seasonal shifts. Certainly, some days I’d find myself ill-prepared on an unseasonably cold Spring day and have to rummage around in my car (read: my second closet) for another layer but all in all, there was always a newspaper to cover my head in a random rainstorm or flip flops to greet a sunny day. With relative ease and a modicum of preparation, I was typically able to meet the challenges of the elements.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, California Dillon Beach

A Dillon Beach storm a-brewin’!

 

Enter: Alaska. A whole new set of elements where flip flops and newspapers were unlikely problem solvers. For me, it’s been a beast to learn. Yet learn I have and learning I still am. However, just as I’ve learned, I’ve also forgotten as the tricks for one season don’t always blend into the next. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen temperatures of -25. I’d forgotten how it felt, what it meant. As I sat in front of our fireplace that morning, warming myself and our 40-degree house, the little things about life at 25 below started coming back to me. Like the quiet. It wasn’t just the absence of my husband that made the morning quiet, it was the cold. 25 below seems to be the threshold at which things start to get very calm, very quiet. A seriousness settles in.

It was Go Time.

Day One:

For the first time ever since we’ve lived here, I was alone, in Winter, in Go Time temperatures. The cold temp quirks started coming back to me as I reached for my toothpaste, only to find it near frozen, the icy water with which I rinsed stunning my teeth, flushing the drain with boiling water so it wouldn’t freeze. Leto’s water bowl threatened to ice over as the floor sent up glacial tentacles that grasped me through my slippered feet. I made my first step outside onto The Ramp of Doom which let out a piercing pop as the frozen wood responded to my pressure, the crack all that much louder in the blanket of silence around me. Surprised, I drew in a quick breath, and my throat caught slightly as the freezing air hit it. The snow further announced my outside arrival, squeaking loudly with each step. All familiar signs of 25 below. In just one night’s sleep, everything had changed, the game was on.

The game? Stay warm, stay safe, keep your ship running smoothly.

Easy, right?

I was the sole player and it wasn’t just The Chief who was absent. I was also officially more alone in the woods than I had ever been, in any season. All of our neighbors were gone and the closest help was miles away.  Still, it was “only” 25 below. I’d done 25 below with The Chief, I could do 25 below solo. So, I spent the day running through mental checklists and chores to prepare for what I assumed would be a few days at 25, maybe 30 below. I chopped as much wood as my arms would allow (since we had zero chopped at the moment), pumped fuel, checked our systems and looked gratefully at the remaining three full buckets of water The Chief and I had filled before his departure.

As I checked chores off the list, I thought forward. The next day was a friend’s birthday and if I could get the house warm and my snowmachine going I figured I’d head out for an hour or two to toast her trip around the sun.

Mother Nature had other plans.

To keep my one mode of transportation in good working order, I’d been starting my snowmachine every day since The Chief had left.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Snowmachining in Alaska

Sunset ride with the puppers.

 

Yet as the temps dropped, my battery, already on its last leg, couldn’t produce power enough to start the machine with the electric start (read: what dreams are made of). Plan B was the pull start but with such a large engine it was no easy feat. I pulled slowly to start, like stretching before a run (and to avoid ripping my arm out of its socket), then eventually full fast pulls. I pulled until I was nearly sweating (at 25 below!) but the engine wouldn’t budge. Knowing that a warm battery had a better chance than a cold one, I set out to pull it inside and charge it.

If only it were that easy.

Try as I might, I couldn’t pry it, bang it or will it free. It was frozen into place. My fingers cursed the cold as I cursed myself for having sent The Chief to Town with the only pair of heavy-duty gloves I had (in fairness, they were originally his and mine were nowhere to be found). Frozen from sweating and then standing at 25 below for an hour, I needed a break. I brought my aching hands inside to warm up and realized my next problem: warmth.

It was already midday and all-day-long I had kept the insatiable woodstove full to the brim but as I entered from outside, the temperature inside didn’t wrap warmth around me as it should have. I checked the temperature. The house was still at a stubborn 59 degrees. I looked at the wood I’d brought inside and realized my problem: wet wood. I did my best to remedy the situation by removing the frozen bark from all the warmed pieces but the water went deeper. In normal temperatures, I’d barely noticed the lack of heat this wood produced but as the temperature neared 30 below a feeling of doom settled in. Still, the house was cold but it wasn’t like it was freezing, right? I could manage. The dogs (we were dogsitting our beloved Kvichak), having made full use (read: a full mess) of the discarded bark told me it was time for a walk to take our minds off the cold (seems contradictory, right?) so off we went. We came back an hour later and before I knew it, the day had passed. I bundled up for bed, knowing the inside temp would further drop as I slept. In I crept to a hardened mattress (another thing I forgot happens in these temps: frozen mattresses!) in head to toe wool long johns, a sweatshirt, a hat and wool socks (exactly the opposite of how I normally sleep). I’d stoked the fire as much as safety allowed, hoping to buy myself a couple hours of sleep.

Day Two:

Come the ringing of my 4 A.M. fire tending alarm, not an ember remained in the woodstove and the house was down to 35 degrees. I was shocked. This wasn’t right. Our stove isn’t the largest but I felt like we’d been able to maintain a warm house and at least a 4-hour fire in the past without losing this much heat. I built another fire and sat brushing Leto (who had decided that right then, along with his best pal Kvichak, was a good time to start his bi-annual shedding) as I waited for enough coals to build up that I could again stuff the stove and get a little more sleep.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Malamutes Shedding

About a minute in. The ever-expanding fluff pile.

 

Sleep I finally did around 5 A.M., waking at 9 A.M., yet awake to a warm house I did not. Despite building a raging fire at the crack of dawn, I still woke to the bitter cold of our near-frozen home and again, not one ember in the fireplace. Something was different, a shift had occurred. I looked to every Alaskan’s Oracle: the thermometer.

It was 37 degrees below zero outside and 37 degrees in our house.

I needed to get on my feet and moving fast or this house would freeze, soon.

I think we call all agree that the difference between 25 below and 37 below is 12 degrees but the physical difference with each added degree below zero is exponential. Past 30 below, your breath doesn’t simply catch, it nearly chokes you with each inhale. Your woodstove isn’t just a resource, it is a lifeline and…things and systems start to breakdown, fast. Even the smallest hiccup can put the wheels of mayhem in motion. My first Winter, I grabbed a tote that had been left out in the Fall and it shattered in my hands and it’s contents spilled out, ruining half of them. The temperature had been a “mere” 28 below. We were way past that territory now.

Reality started to set in: this was no joke. I had found a rhythm in drying my woodpile but I had yet to find warmth. Try as I might, the temperature inside had not topped 60 degrees and had hovered for most of the day in the high 40s to low 50s. I texted the birthday girl to report that I most definitely would not be able to visit. Snowmachine aside, my 60-degree plight made leaving a no go. Even those who actually had a warmed house couldn’t make the birthday for fear of their house freezing while they were gone. Our house was already halfway to freezing. My girlfriend told me not to promise to reach out if I started losing the battle and things started going upside down on me.

I knew I was in a bit of a bind but having someone else say it shocked me further into action. This was serious.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Malamute Puppy

Mom…you got this?

 

I cherry-picked my way through my inside woodpile and the driest logs I could. The fire kicked up for the first time in two days. Things were looking up! Yet there was no time to celebrate. It was chore time.

I bundled up in my warmest clothes, protecting every inch of skin minus the very top of my cheeks and my eyes and went outside to get water. I lugged the generator over to our well. I was all set and ready to go. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get the water hose to thread onto the well. The threads had frozen. I pulled out my lighter to melt the ice but it barely budged as the flame kept failing in the cold. I wrapped my hand around the threads but nearly ripped off the skin as it instantly froze. Next, I trudged into our makeshift workshop to find our propane lighter. Genius! 10 minutes later I finally gave in. It was too cold to flow enough to ignite. Finally, after 30 minutes of problem-solving and failing, I was starting to get cold and the running generator was about to run out of gas. I decided to go for it without the hose. Who needs a hose anyways?

I do.

I need a hose.

Without a hose, the water shot straight from the pipe about four feet in the air. I held the bucket above my shoulders trying to catch as much as I could (and prevent Leto from catching the stream he loves to chase), using one bucket to fill the other three. Within seconds I was encased in a frozen cocoon of ice from head to toe. After two rounds of running up and down the Ramp of Doom with 80 pounds of water at a time, the dogs constantly in my way, tripping me as I rallied myself upward, water was done.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska

Back to lash-sicle territory

 

Next, I needed to charge the house batteries. Easy. I’d just had the generator running. It was warm and ready to go…but, it was out of gas so I filled it up, started it up, plugged the house in and…our outside lights didn’t come on.

Strange.

Still, before I could check if it was charging inside, I needed more wood. Especially in cold temps I always try to apply the waitressing technique my friend taught me early on: Don’t move empty-handed. Make every trip in and out count. I chopped a quick armload of wood to bring inside but on the last swing of the ax, I felt something pop in my shoulder. Pain radiated up and down my arm. I felt panic well up inside me. If I couldn’t chop wood, I really was screwed. Still, there was no time to wallow. I loaded up my other arm with wood and headed inside.

Inside, the fire near dead after an hour of chores, I stoked it with new wood as I felt my cheeks start to melt from the comparative warmth of the house. The splatter from the well water had hardened where my eyelashes and my upper cheeks were exposed and immediately my skin started to burn. Still, there was no time to worry about that either as I looked to the batteries and saw that the house was not in fact charging. Just then, the generator started to angrily rev up and down.

After two days of failing to heat our house, struggling with water, countless near falls up and down the Ramp of Doom from dogs underfoot, an aching shoulder, a burning face and now a generator not producing power, I was starting to lose it. I checked everything I had learned about malfunctioning generators and found no culprit. It felt like my little world was starting to, to quote my girlfriend “go upside down on me”. Was I losing the battle? I called The Chief for a pep talk and just hearing his voice made my eyes well up with tears.

“You’re doing great. It’s hard, babe. Really hard.”

The tears threatened to spill over when at just the right moment he followed up with:

“Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.”

Deep breathe I did and I was back. I did have this. I could do this and with a little persuasion, I finally picked the easy route. There wasn’t time to troubleshoot the generator right now. I grabbed our backup and brought it inside to warm. Then, I headed to the woodshed and cherry-picked the best, most checked pieces of wood I could find (a check in a round of wood suggests it’s drier than one without it) and painfully chopped my way through it. Finally, hours after I had bundled up to start chores, they were finally winding down. The new wood fed the fire with gusto and an audible difference in the flames let me know this fire would warm us, which was good because, in the time I’d been outside, the inside temps had sunk again to the ’30s and the outside was near -40.

An hour later, the replacement generator hopefully warm enough, I suited up again for the outdoors, now in the early dark of dusk. In all the frustration earlier, I had forgotten I would need more fuel so off I went to fill another 5-gallon jug. In the cold, the fuel hose had frozen into a kinked position through which no fuel would flow. Again I de-gloved and warmed it as best I could with my bare hands. Finally, the fuel started to flow. I filled the generator and finally after about 20 pulls it started.

Success!

I went inside and saw it was producing power (the generator was the problem, not our inverter or batteries, as I had feared) and all was well.

Then, the lights went out.

The generator had died.

I quite nearly lost it (again) but (again) outside I trudged. Luckily, the generator had simply stopped because it was cold. I finally got it started again and this time it took. Cautiously, I went inside. Consistently it hummed.

A few hours later it was nearly 7 pm and the house was finally above 60! I was simultaneously exhausted and elated. At that moment, a next-door girlfriend newly returned from Town (I finally had neighbors again!) texted.

“Champagne? It was for the birthday but I think we should celebrate from afar.”

Yes, please.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska with Champagne

I love bubbles.

 

By the time she came over the house was still a bit chilly but my cheeks were on fire. The frozen water from the well had burnt the top layer of skin, like a sunburn only from cold: frostnip. Thankfully, good conversation and bubbles distract from welted cheeks. The healing powers of girlfriends, eh? I felt rejuvenated and accomplished. I had made it! As she left, I realized what I hadn’t made was dinner (or lunch). I settled on the dinner of champions (or maybe just this momentary bachelorette): pasta with butter (sorry, arteries).

Chalking the day up to a success, I finally fell into bed again after midnight. The house was near 70 degrees and with a stuffed woodstove and belly, I fell asleep.

Day Three:

The 4 A.M. wakeup call felt extra early the next morning. Groggy, I remembered that in our conversation the day before The Chief had asked if the bricks in the top of the stove had ash on them (meaning that perhaps that buildup, in addition to wet wood was adding to our heating issue). Since the fire had been going steadily since he’d asked I hadn’t been able to check. Yet, despite a full stove 4 hours earlier, there was no trace of heat. Now was my chance. I cleaned out the wood stove that was dense with ash and checked the bricks. Soot fell from atop them as I tugged them out, simultaneously realizing I had no idea how to get them back in. A few tense minutes later, everything thankfully was back in place and again. I started yet another fire and headed out into the -39 morning to dump the ashes.

By 4:30 I was doing dishes waiting for the fire to catch. The reservoir of water we use to fuel our faucet had frozen so I did my dishes in a basin, careful not to let any water trickle into our homemade plumbing and ice up. At those temperatures, water freezes almost instantly so even small amounts can take us out of commission fast and the last thing I wanted was to add slop buckets back into our life. Finally, the fire established its coals. I stuffed it full and opted for a few more hours of sleep.

I awoke to yet another morning of a near-frozen house, a woodstove without coals and completely dead batteries but it was ok. I may not have had it totally dialed but this situation wasn’t going upside down on me. Finally, caught up enough on chores and the house warm enough to be able to step away for an hour, the dogs told me how we would fill our time: a walk, at 39 below.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska Stircrazy Puppies

Driving each other stir cray cray.

 

Despite being constantly in my way, they had been very good sports through it all but the stir craziness was starting to hit. Even though they are both Northern breeds, even they can’t stay outside long in those temps if not running and so had opted to be inside, in the way. Thus, we all needed some outside time. I covered my frost nipped cheeks as they amazingly pranced unphased by the cold, minus a lifted paw here and there.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Husky, Malamute, Alaska

Moonlit walk.

 

The Chief phoned to tell me that they were delayed and wouldn’t be home that night but would return the following day. Two days before I might have panicked at his extended absence but I didn’t. I had done it. I had made it through 40 below, alone.

Day Four:

The next morning, the cold snap lifted. The thermometer read a mere -12 outside and I finally got the house to near 80 degrees. I love when it’s cold and the house is warm at the difference reaches nearly 100 degrees between the inside and outside. At the coldest of 40 below and the house in the ’70s, the day before the difference had been over 110 degrees, something that still just makes me laugh in awe.

In true Alaskan fashion, things didn’t quite go as The Chief had planned for departure but he was determined to make it home. By 3 A.M., I finally heard our truck roaring up the driveway. After hugs and hellos and unloading the truck of perishables and making and tending a new fire, we were finally both back to bed, cozied up at 5 A.M. An hour or so later I felt The Chief rise from our bed and heard the familiar sound of him stoking the fire. An hour after that, groggily preparing for work, I went downstairs to find that despite the again dropping temperature, the woodstove was alive with glowing coals.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 35 Below Zero in Alaska

And the temperature finally above 40 in the morning!

 

My brain did a joyful backflip while my ego simultaneously sighed. A strange juxtaposition. I was overjoyed for The Chief to be home yet at the same time, it meant I was no longer the lone soldier protecting our castle. After 15 years of living alone in the woods, The Chief’s internal alarm clock awakes him immediately when temperatures drop. Having lived 4 years in the woods with The Chief, I think my internal clock would let me sleep through icicles forming in the house. The Chief has (almost) always beaten me to stoking the fire in the night. The sighing part of me was the part that wanted to continue to better hone my instincts. Yet other parts of me, like my shoulder, celebrated the help.

I’ll always be 11 years shy of The Chief’s Alaskan experience but come the opportunity to have my own, I did and I survived. Looking back on the week alone, I realized how far I had come in 4 years. I’d probably never even have noticed the wood was wet my first year. I certainly wouldn’t have known how to troubleshoot the well or the generator or even how to dress for the elements. Sure, there were hiccups, there were things I could have done better (and will do better next time) but the most important is that looking back, I can see how much I’ve learned. I’ve learned how to care for myself in the middle of nowhere Alaska, in the middle of Winter, alone.

The Chief’s help doesn’t negate my learning. Divvying up labor doesn’t mean both people aren’t capable of either task or that one is more or less important. Resting my shoulder so it can heal doesn’t mean I’m giving in, it means The Chief is stepping in to help and just as The Chief helps me, I help him. His presence doesn’t mean the learning stops and just in case I forget what I’ve learned, I’m sure Alaska has many more trials and tribulations up her sleeve to remind me.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 50 Below Zero in Alaska

Plus, when he’s home and the temperature drops to almost 50 below, I have a partner with which to capture this…playing with boiling water!

 

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 50 Below Zero in Alaska Frozen Water

Steam halos.

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy 2 months old and Elephant

The Fox and the Hound

Our little Leto is one month shy of his first trip around the sun. Recently an old friend came back to visit, reminding me of one of the best highlights of his first year: The Fox and The Hound.

When Leto was just a few months old, his Auntie E brought him his first-ever toy: Lambchop. Leto and Lambchop were an inseparable pair.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy 2 months old and Lambchop

Two peas in a pod

 

Every morning I’d come downstairs and greet the pair, often double-taking between the two of them to decipher which was which. Despite being nearly the same size, little Leto carried his friend with him on all of his adventures. Lambchop was by his side more often than not but soon enough his mini-me started to lose her parts. An ear here, an eye there. His little teeth made his way through the toy till there was nary a lamb shank left.

Thus, entered his second-ever toy: Elephant.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy 2 months old and Elephant

Love at first sight.

 

Despite her lackluster name, Elephant was the apple of little Leto’s eye. While Lambchop had been by his side more often than not, Elephant might as well have been glued to it. Outside they ventured together into the woods, Leto always bringing her back in, tucking her into the bed they shared each evening. He would lovingly mouth her trunk but not a bite was taken from her, ever.

One day, Leto’s Unclue Ruger (a 2-year old German Shorthaired Pointer) came by to check-in.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute and German Shorthaired Pointer

Just a couple pups, out for a drive.

 

The dogs of our neighborhood love to do the morning rounds, greeting each household, checking for treats, marking “their” territory. Only this morning, Ruger had another plan in mind. In he came for some morning snuggles and no sooner had I bid him “Hello” did he lunge for Elephant and abscond with the prized possession. Leto was in hot pursuit but his 3-month old legs were no match for the long-legs of his thieving friend. Defeated, he sat on the front porch and howled, a long and mournful howl, for the first time ever.

He sat out on the porch that day, bewildered and tucked into bed that night for the first time, alone.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute puppy toys

He did, however, stay entertained with a duck he was “gifted” from Uncle Ruger, much to Ruger’s chagrin. The gift we think started it all.

 

As the months wore on, the captive Elephant would make random appearances with her captor. Through the yard he would prance, head held high with his prize daintily held between his teeth. Leto would try to catch him, as would we, but none of us came close. It seemed he moved Elephant every day or so, always staying one step ahead, guarding Elephant like the treasure she was.

And so, Leto found other ways to amuse himself.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy with Morel mushrooms, Alaska

Like hunting for Morels (he pointed me to all of these! I just had to get to them before he devoured them all).

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy yawn

And ignoring his replacement toy.

 

Until one day this August when Leto and I returned from a walk by the river to come home to…

Elephant.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute and toy

No bumps, no bruises and only a little worse for wear.

 

Gently placed in a cluster of willow branches lay his prized friend. He grabbed her and yipped and threw her into the air and then brought her inside to safety.

Months went by and as our little pup seemed to grow overnight, outgrowing his elephant by leaps and bounds, his fondness seemed to hold steadfast. We’d bring her with us on road trips and he’d cuddle her along the bumpy roads and each night he’d tuck her in. All was right with the world again.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute and firefighter

Little tiny, not so tiny.

 

Yet our little one, who suddenly was not so little, grew up and suddenly, grew a little careless. One night this Fall, he left his Elephant outside in the early November snow. I saw as he attempted to bring her inside but she’d frozen into the ground and so, cavalier pup that he is, he left her to weather the night solo. The next morning as we warmed ourselves by the fire, I saw a shuffling figure outside. I went to the window and watched as a fox came up the driveway and sniffed about. Loving finally seeing the animal that whose tiny prints painted our yard, I grabbed my phone to tape the sighting and no sooner had I turned it on did The Fox discover Elephant and…

After a few tugs to pull her from the ice, off he went with her (see the video here)! I barely realized what was happening before he had snatched her. I hurried outside and he stopped and turned to face me. I was having a hard time holding in my laughter as I asked:

“Are you certain? Do you really want Elephant?”

If he took it, surely we’d never see Elephant again. After such a long journey back home, I didn’t want a howling Leto to twice lose his Elephant. Yet lose her he did, for a second time.

The Fox stared at me as I questioned him and then seemed to think to himself, “Yes, I really, really do want Elephant!” and off he went with her in tow.

Leto ran outside behind me, sniffing in seeming disbelief. He paused where his Elephant had been and sat down in the spot, dumbfounded. Then, he took off after The Fox. An hour or so later, he returned, empty-pawed.

Elephant was gone.

Again.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute 9 months old

Pouting on the couch

 

The Fox returned almost every day that week, sometimes more than once a day, seemingly to taunt Leto as his Uncle had in the Summer. They would have a staredown, The Fox in the driveway and Leto in his pup cave under the house and then, one of them would make a move and the chase would be on.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Cross Fox

So much cuteness.

 

It went on like this for weeks until we dog sat another dog and suddenly, three was a crowd. The Fox didn’t return again.

Until…

One day, in the last days of December I walked out into the driveway and there was Elephant, completely encased in slobber made ice. The Fox had returned her. It seemed the whole neighborhood was in on the game now, The Fox and the Hounds (well, Pointer and Malamute but you know what I mean). Who would make the next move? Only time will tell.

These days, she’s still the apple of Leto’s (outside only, it seems) eye. Outside Elephant sits with nary more than a torn ear. She’s weathered many a storm and gathered many a tale…if only she would tell.

With love,

From The Fox, The Hounds, and Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Fox and the Hound, 01-13-20, Alaskan Malamute Puppy

What’s in a Name?

Two years ago this Winter Solstice, The Chief and I got engaged. We’d talked about marriage since the week we first met and cheesy as it may sound, the moment I saw him, I knew we would marry. I knew, but I certainly didn’t know how. The odds seemed stacked against us. I lived in California, he in off-grid Alaska in a lifestyle completely foreign to me. I was looking for a change but hadn’t anticipated a change that great. I wanted a career and living in the woods seemed like the last place one might bubble up. Yet, that feeling, that knowing I felt when I first saw him, that was all I needed to know. I threw my cautions to the wind, gave fate up to the universe and dove into a life together.

Thank goodness.

Having discussed marriage right off the bat, we had always had an open dialogue surrounding it. How would we do it? Where? Would we change our names? Did we care if we were married before we had kids? Just like any hatchling of an idea, we brainstormed about where and when and how it would all go down, what we valued (food, food, more food) and what was less important but one thing was missing: our engagement.

I figured it was just a formality, a simple change in status from girlfriend or boyfriend to fiance. Yet, once we were engaged, things actually did change.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, The Chesters

Post-engagement photo courtesy of LB

 

After getting engaged, our dual daydreaming we’d nestled in together for the two years prior suddenly became public and the questions and comments started pouring in.

“Where will you get married?”

“When?”

“Alaska? Alaska is too far.”

“Whose name will you take?”

Suddenly, our private dreams turned public were instantly open for opinions, suggestions, and scrutiny. As with any public decision, that’s the norm. We all do it. I’d seen it happen and I’d done it myself despite friends lamenting to me about it. Yet even familiarity with this switch didn’t prepare us.

Alaska is a long way off from a lot of the people we love but it’s also our home. Yet, within weeks of getting engaged, we were suddenly somehow planning for a California wedding. Things moved so fast. At first, I was just looking at dresses, then suddenly I was being asked to sign on the dotted dress line, all while discussing our venue options, all while in California.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Dillon Beach, CA

She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

 

Returning home to Alaska made us realize that, just as always, despite the hard, despite the sacrifices, Alaska is our home and home is where we needed to be married. And so, we planned together for our marriage in Alaska.

One of our plans was that I would change my name. This was something we had gone back and forth about since the very beginning and it was a decision made after much debate and a little magic. You see, The Chief and I both have some interesting familial twists and turns and as we followed each potential family name, we often found ourselves at dead-ends. There were adoptive names, step-family names, names we could have created together and family names. After trying all of the above and more on for size for years, we had finally settled on choosing a family name of which there were two contenders: Page & Chester. However, other than occasionally (and jokingly) being called The Chief in town, The Chief has been known as his last name since moving here: Chester.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, The Chesters of Alaska

Chief Chester

 

In deciding for whom it would be more difficult to change, I decided that it should be me to switch. Changing my last name was less of a hassle than essentially changing The Chief’s first name. My change would consist mainly of paper while his change would require a complete social shift. While The Chief agreed that perhaps it might be easier, we both wanted to be thoughtful in the process and all the history it carries with it.

We sat with the idea. It grew familiar and warm and sweet. I cherished it.

The Chesters.

Still, despite the sweetness, I wondered if it really mattered? Why do we need to share a last name when we are already sharing a life? I ran through my reasoning in my head. Some reasons were small like the simplicity of just writing: The Chesters versus both of our last names and the idea of our kids not having to enter epically long hyphenated names on a scantron test. Some were larger, deeper like the fact that growing up, almost everyone in both of our households had different last names. Everyone was a step or a half and I wanted us all to be a whole, the same. For me, it always boiled down to having kids. To me, this was our chance for a new start together as our own family unit.

Still, I waffled. What would it mean publicly? Would I be considered less of a feminist? Looked down upon by those who had held fast to their names? Would I miss my own last name?

Despite the waffles (and the pancakes), the true, most basic reasoning I wanted to change my name was that my gut told me that “Turning the Page to Chester” (a phrase coined in an Anchorage bridal shop by a spunky lass from Ireland) was an important move for me, one that I needed to make in order to transition from just me to us.

Still, logical or better doesn’t always compute to easy. Change has always been uncomfortable for me, even when it’s in my benefit. I’ve ducked many a change just to avoid transitional discomfort. This change I was hurling my own direction.

So, like any big decision, I put it up to the Universe. I’d ask, the Universe would respond and that would be the end of that.

Right?

Sort of.

The first time, which I swore would be the one and only time, to help me decide I asked:

“Universe, what do you think? Should I be Chester or Page?”

I was driving the backroads of my childhood hometown, roads I’d frequented for almost 30 years at the time. I knew every stretch, every turn. No sooner had I finished my query did I look up and, on a road I’d driven umpteen times, there was a sign, literally: Chester Lane. The sign was old, not some newbie staking their new territory. It had always been there.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Chester, CA

Chester Lane

 

Convinced, I drove on, feeling warm and light and calm. It was decided.

A few days and a few “Oh, you’re changing your name, huh?” conversations later, I was feeling a little less warm, light and calm. Should I not change my name? Our private decision, which had once felt so right was being publicly challenged. Perhaps I had misheard the Universe. So, again, I asked:

“Wait, did I hear you wrong? Seriously, what do you think? Should I be Chester or Page?”

I said this in an antique shop as I thumbed through vintage postcards. They were divided by state. I was sending cards to people based on where they were from in the country. Missouri for my Grandma. California for Chris and my family, etc. I was halfway through California when I posed the question to the Universe and the next card I thumbed past was a postcard of a snowy scene…in Chester, California.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, The Chesters, Chester, California

My little reminder, on my desk still today

 

I’d never even heard of Chester, California and I’d lived in the Golden State most of my life.

The second time was the charm. I was tired of debating, tired of going back and forth and tired of not listening to myself. I wanted to be Chester. I would be. It was decided.

Our wedding day grew closer and closer and with it came public formalities: registering for a wedding license with the state, filling out paperwork, making financial decisions. Our once private decision-making was now not just public, it was about to be set in stone in the public record. While weddings are, at their base level very romantic, they come with a lot of red tape and planning and learning the hard way. They may not be for everyone, but for us, it was an important transition that I cherish (though certainly, I didn’t always at the moment).

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Marriage License, Anchorage, Alaska

Cuteness.

 

After two years of waiting, the real deal wheels were set in motion and in early September this year, I became Julia Chester.

Sort of.

Talking about a life change and making that change, as I had learned already with talking about marriage versus actually doing it, are two different things. Talking about becoming Chester was easy, changing was less so.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019,The Chesters of MXY

September 2019

 

A month after our wedding, sitting solo in the Social Security office on a rainy Fall day in Anchorage, it didn’t feel so easy. Writing my old name next to my new name made me well up and not with joy. I felt a sadness I didn’t quite understand. Still, forward I went. The Universe had answered, twice. I need not ask again.

A week later, back at home, I received my new Social Security card. Julia Chester. The Chief beamed. My stomach hurt.

“I’m having second thoughts about changing my name,” I told him. He responded with kindness and comfort, telling me to do whatever I needed. He encouraged me to take a pause, a breath, a moment. Besides, it would be a while before I would be headed back into Town for phase two of my name change (my license). I would take this pause, slow things down and see where it lead me.

For a few weeks, I decided not to think about it. I’ve always been someone who needs a lot of space to think and a lack of self-judgment to connect with what is true for me. It’s not easy. I gave it some breathing room. After a few weeks had passed, the planted seed started to sprout. I started to think about it again, to research. I reached out to friends I trusted, who were married and who had or planned to have children to ask how they had decided on their last name. I researched the topic on the internet. I researched within.

Then, I put it up to the Universe one final time.

“Should I be Chester or Page?”

Silence.

Nothing.

Everything.

At that moment, the moment I waited for a sign, I heard nothing from outside but from within, I heard myself say “Chester”.

Chester.

The sadness I had felt in the weeks proceeding suddenly felt far away, outside myself. The warmth returned. I no longer felt I was losing a part of me, I felt like I was moving into a new part of me and a new part of us. It felt exciting, new and pretty darn adult. Speaking with my therapist (yes, I see a therapist. I highly recommend it and hope that sharing my experience with this tool helps to remove the taboo of seeking help. If you want it, it’s there and I support you finding it) helped me to realize that, for me, letting go of Page was much deeper than a name change. For me, it meant letting go of what Page had always meant for me: being a daughter in my family. My name was given to me by my parents and thus, my attachment to it was my attachment to them, to my family, to what might have been. Moving on meant letting go of that and moving from the role of daughter to wife. My family as a whole was getting larger but my family unit was getting smaller. My unit had shifted from my parents, my brother and I to instead, The Chief and I.

A unit of two.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019,The Chesters of MXY Wedding.jpg

Something old, something new

 

Plus Leto. A unit of three.

I finally felt at peace.

Now, don’t get me wrong, changing one’s name is a royal pain in the patootie. The instructions make it seem simple:
1st: Change your Social Security card

2nd: Your driver’s license

3rd: Your passport

Badabing, badaboom! Easy peasy!

Oh so very wrong.

Aside from the fact that changing all of these means 16-hour round trips (#2 and #3 both requiring #1 to have been completed first, meaning another at least 8 to 16-hour round trips), there are the nitty-gritty changes that I never anticipated. You see, once I’m in, I’m in and having loose strings hanging drives me crazy. Having already completed Step #1, I thought I was close to the finish line. I started in on the other, unmentioned changes I hadn’t quite factored in: changing my bank, my checks, my computer ID, my logins, my email, my work information, etc. etc. and at each junction, I ran into issues. Mailing in copies of our wedding certificate, spending hours on the computer, sending a photo ID and other legalese has proven far more time consuming than I had ever anticipated. To say that changing your name is a breeze is like calling a hurricane a breeze. It’s not. It’s difficult and time-consuming and frustrating, all of which is exacerbated by our remote location.

 

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Sunset in Alaska

3:30 pm sunset.

 

Yet still, despite the annoyances, each juncture has allowed me to continue my commitment, our commitment to the private decisions we made years ago, in our tiny cabin in the woods. For me, it’s been extremely healing, for others it might simply be a non-issue. We are all different. I’ve spoken to many different people and gained countless insights while I hemmed and hawed over my own decision. I’ve learned that even when in public it seems someone is moving effortlessly through life phases, in private, they might not be. Everyone struggles in different ways. We don’t know until we ask. We are all different, yet one thing everyone agreed on was their advice: find what works for you.

While this sounds so simple, for me, it wasn’t. It took years to discover and years to accept but now that I find myself on the other side, it’s the best advice I could give: Find what works for you. You know. Deep down, you do know. Do what works best for you and your family. It’s no one’s decision but your own.

Thank you to everyone who has candidly shared their private decisions turned public with me. Your honesty and openness helped me to be open with myself. Open to a new name, a new unit, a new phase. May your transitions be smooth and may the Universe guide you, if not anywhere, then back to yourself.

With love,

 

From Alaska

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Chester Christmas

Happy Holidays

Beneath the Borealis, What's in a Name? December 30th, 2019, Chester Christmas Leto

From the three Chesters

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay

Last night I received a text from one of my dearest girlfriends inviting us all to her annual Vision Board Party. Despite the madness of the holiday season, every year, she calls us to action to think about what we want going forward and despite the hustle and bustle, we all show up. Truth be told, this woman could rally a group of sloths into action. She’s spunky and fun and has always been able to motivate our squad into whatever quirky plan she’d hatched. Once she came over after I’d just awoken from a nap and somehow convinced me to play dress up like we did in Elementary School together and go for a walk. We were decked from head to toe in random 80’s workout gear, fanny packs included. Did I mention we were in our twenties? Like I said, she’s a good motivator.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Best Friends

Dress up Nerds then. Dress up Nerds now. Love you two.

 

I got her text invitation last night as I sat in front of our fireplace, book on my lap, dog snoozing by my side, Winter finally having arrived and I realized, that last year’s Vision Board had come true. Well, last year’s Vision Board Party premonitions at least. I never quite got to the board.

Last year, everyone cutting and pasting away while laughing over discussions of love and life, I felt loved but lost. People kept sending the wedding magazines my way. I wasn’t that bride. I hadn’t even thought of our wedding. There were travel magazines filled with places I’d like to travel to and skills I’d like to hone. Exercise, relationship, work goals all sat in front of me. It was normally my smorgasbord of goodness. I’d normally dive right in. I just didn’t feel motivated.

What I did feel motivated to do was to go Home. It took my other dear friend telling me so first though. There, amongst the scraps, she looked at me and said: “As much as I don’t want you to, I think you need to spend the next full year in Alaska.”

It felt as if someone had given me permission to sleep after months spent awake. Suddenly, a weight felt lifted. In a few short weeks, we would be heading Home to the wintry North and Home we would stay.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Last year. Finally home.

 

It’s funny the things we get used to, take as fact, expect and accept, even if they no longer serve us. Every year our pattern has deviated slightly but overall, without much thought, has been the same: months away from home, starting in the Fall. Dont’ get me wrong, it’s been great but until last year, we’d never evaluated whether it was working for us any longer. Besides, it’s a classic Alaskan pattern. Our pattern began when I left Alaska after my first Summer to return to California for two different weddings in late August. I’d already RSVP’d (though probably only verbally. Sorry, y’all!) and I’d already changed my ticket once. I was going down South.

Soon after, The Chief, having not left the state in years, joined me and we road-tripped down the Pacific Northwest into California where we stayed for the next two months. All in all, I was away from Alaska for almost four months and The Chief for almost three. A third of that year and a quarter of that year, The Chief and I were gone from Home.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Home Sweet Home RV

Home sweet California Home (or one of them).

 

It was the longest time The Chief had been gone from Alaska since he had moved here.

By the time we were leaving, he ached for Home. I, on the other hand, was trepidatious. Home wasn’t quite one Home to me yet, rather it straddled two states. My first Winter in Alaska loomed before me and stared menacingly like a beast under the bed. It was unknown and uncertain with just a pinch (or two, or three) of fear added in. Leaving California, leaving Home to go Home, was hard but love is a crazy drug. Off we went.

Once we got Home to Alaska and I started to get the hang of a whole new type of Alaskan life (Winter), I fell in love with this place all over again.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Happy Husband

Day # 1, Winter #1. The happiest hubby in our happy place.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Alaska

The back-backyard.

 

Still, the following Fall we left again as we have every year because suddenly, that’s what we did. With one trip a rhythm and an expectation had been created in ourselves that we simply followed without much thought. It was nice to know when I’d next see friends and family. Nice to know when I’d get a change of scenery.

So, we did the finding housing in California dance (which always starts long before we leave, as does the stress of it). We did the car dance, making sure our California rig was registered and ready (which, of course, it never was). We spent hours on end preparing our house for Winter, packing away that which would explode when frozen and hoisting off of the ground anything we didn’t want to become unusable yard art. Then, to top it all off, we spent thousands of dollars to make the journey through plane tickets and vet appointments and health certificates, car storage fees and more. All of which was fine. It was what we did. 

And I’m glad we did. We spent quality time with those we love and those we have lost. We grew to know one another’s friends and family and backgrounds. We got to experience the love one another’s friends and family feel for them and now for each of us.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay,  Friends

Julia Dinner. I will always cherish this picture. Thank you, Sloats.

 

We loaded up the car and boarded planes countless times to travel here or there to learn one another’s past and grow our family as a whole larger by combining our two worlds. Traveling from home for months on end became the norm.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Dillon Beach

So did beach days with this love (the one with two legs).

 

We didn’t think much of it. Seasonal travel is a common rhythm for Alaskans. The Great Exodus starts in late August with a boom. This town goes from hustling (for us) to hushed in a matter of days. Yet those who stay welcome the quiet and settle in to enjoy it for the time they have left until they too depart. Conversations lead with Winter plans. Every few weeks someone is leaving for a few weeks, a few months or until next Summer.

This and many other things Alaskan quirks have become the norm to me:

  • Outhouses are now old hat and sometimes preferable (except in the middle of the night. I’ll give indoor plumbing that).
  • Smelling of gasoline is the new norm (when dealing with the generator. Don’t worry, I’m not using it as a chosen perfume).
  • Spending intensive time with and without my partner (this is a true Alaskan relationship tip that I think is priceless: build in time to miss your partner).
  • Salvaging bits off produce that before I would have thrown away whole into the compost (I think L.H.’s term was is it “Alaska good still?”. Love it.)
  • Showering once, maybe twice per week in the Winter with birdbaths in between.
  • Leaving.

Yet this year, Leaving suddenly didn’t feel normal. After seeing so many of our beautiful friends and family at our wedding, celebrating together and feeling so much love and validation for our place here, leaving just felt like the exact opposite of what we needed and so, we didn’t.

As much as I miss our friends and family down South, this is what we needed. A time to be cozy together. A time to nest into our life here that we’ve thrown on the backburner for the last few years. A time for firsts. First birthday at home, first Thanksgiving. A time to focus forward on our future here.

California, lucky for us, was Home to both of us for twenty plus years. It will always have a place in our hearts and our itineraries but this year, the Vision Board Party wish came true:

Home Sweet Alaskan Home.

This year, I’ll connect with the Vision Boarders vis FaceTime as we wish one another well in our year to come but this time, I’ll be doing it from exactly where I need to be: Home.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Vision Board

First year’s board. A lot of checkmarks here!

 

May your wishes come true and may your Winter be cozy, wherever you may be.

Cheers to the motivators in your lives, the loves who know you even when you don’t want to admit they are right. Cheers to tough choices and friends to help you make them, even if it’s hard for all of you. Cheers to dear friends and family, near and far. I can’t wait to see you.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Nephew

I’ll miss my O snuggles for sure.

 

With love,

from Alaska

Beneath the Borealis, Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay, Alaskan Malamute

and Leto at 3:30 pm.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Alaskan Malamute

Porcupup

Almost two months ago now, back when Fall colors had fallen and the leaves paved our paths in gold, we were starting to settle in. Time had slowed, Summer had fallen away and with it, hundreds of people were gone. There were no drumbeats for us to keep pace to. The quiet was upon us.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Fall colors Alaska in September

Handsome hubby.

 

With the wedding in the rearview and no looming leaving deadlines ahead of us, without plane tickets requiring chores to be done and the house to be shut down, we were home for the foreseeable future for the first time ever in our four years together. Since our very first year as a couple, the Fall has meant packing up and shipping out to the Lower 48 and spending a great deal of money to do so. It’s been a time of continuing the energy from Summer, rather than a slowing down as the season requests and of spending resources we don’t exactly hold in excess.

This year, we looked forward to the continuity and calm of home and the tightening of our financial belts by living simply.

So, two months ago, on a quiet Sunday, in keeping with a calm home program, Leto and I decided to take a walk with our neighbor and her dog while The Chief read and dinner bubbled away on the stove. The stage for the night was set: a leisurely sunset walk with a friend, sausage soup with greens from the garden and herbs harvested throughout the Summer for dinner and a cozy evening, just us three.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Malamute family photo

Chester Family photo, September 2019

 

Leto has a tendency to be like a horse to stable, barn sour if you will. For most of the duration of our walks, he’s within eyesight, regularly stopping to check in on me, sit and watch for me, circle back for me but there’s a point too when he realizes that “Homeways is rightways now” and home he heads, leaving me in the dust. Our last pup, Cinda, used to do the same thing and we joke that she’s up in Pup Heaven (a.k.a MXY in the Sky) teaching him her wonderful ways. So, I wasn’t surprised when, as we rounded the bend up from the river, indicating the turn back towards home, he started gaining ground ahead of us, taking a shortcut through the woods.

I was surprised, however, when I heard what I can only describe as a scream coming from the direction he’d run (and by surprised, I mean surprised and then terrified). It sounded as if something had been dealt its final blow. The something, I wasn’t sure of. It was a noise I’d never heard Leto make but something told me all was not well with my pup. My heart started pumping faster as I tried to place the scream and run towards it. Bears were still out, moose are always a concern and wolves had been roaming the neighborhoods of the valley and have taken dogs as their prey. There was no knowing what this could have been but the sinking feeling I felt told me the options weren’t great. If I found him, I expected to find him dead.

“Leto!” We yelled as we circled back through the woods he had run through. No, this didn’t feel right, I thought. Homeways, head homeways. Screaming for him and hearing nothing in return, no movement, no yip, no whimper sent my fear into overdrive. I started running home and then, around the corner, running towards me, came Leto.

Leto with a face full of porcupine quills.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Malamute with porcupine quills in Alaska

The Porcupup

 

In my wildest worries, I had never considered that the scream could have come from a porcupine encounter. A wolf, a bear, a moose, yes, but a porcupine? We just don’t see them on our side of the river very often. In fact, I had never seen one in our neighborhood in four years. Lucky Leto, he’d found the mystical West Side porcupine.

Immediately upon seeing me, he came in for a moment of comfort and then ducked into the trees to lay down and assess his situation. I did too and the outlook was grim. I’d seen dogs with quills before but they’d always been few enough to pull ourselves. This was another level. He started thrashing about, trying to pull them out with his paws, each time coming precariously close to the one just centimeters from his eye. In his panic, he threw open his mouth and I saw the roof, littered with quills.

This was bad.

Still, he wasn’t dead. A face full of quills was suddenly the best-case scenario I hadn’t considered and bad as it was, I was glad we were in it as opposed to the other fears that had fetched my mind.

Finally, we convinced him to come home with us but the quills in his paws must have been excruciating as he would duck back into the soft mossy ground of the woods every few paces and lay back down. I needed to get him home to where the pliers were to see if this was something we could even handle on our own. Finally, he just stopped.  He wouldn’t move and I couldn’t get a hold of The Chief as he was fully ascribing to our evening electronics shutdown goal and his phone was off.

Our neighbor offered to go and get him while I stayed with Leto. I didn’t want him running off deeper into the woods like he wanted to. I had a flashback of our Cinda doing the same thing when she got the injury that eventually ended her life and it made me sick to my stomach. Off E went to fetch The Chief and just as I heard our truck rumbling closer, Leto decided he could make the journey home.

Like ships in the night, the missing game began. The Chief came my way, I went back his way. Now we both were panicked. Back at home, Leto tucked himself in under the house. I crawled in after him, still listening to The Chief calling for us but still not wanting to leave Leto. Our neighbor came to check on us and saw that The Chief had missed us and off she went to find him again. Thankfully, this time when ships in the night floated past one another again as he turned back home at the same moment as she arrived to tell him where we were, The Chief was headed back to us. The Laurel and Hardy, Who’s on First routine certainly didn’t help the frustration of an evening already thoroughly thrown off the rails.

Quiet night?
I think not.

After we pulled the first quill, huddled under the house with headlamps, Leto knew the game and was not a willing player. Quills are barbed, like sea urchin spines and so when they go in, they lodge there, making pulling them out extremely painful. He was wild-eyed and after pulling 15 or so, we realized that this was not going to work. There was no way we could get the quills in his mouth, he wouldn’t dare let us near them. Another neighbor came over to check on us and validated what we feared: a trip to the vet was in order.

Tonight.

The emergency vet was four hours away and I didn’t know if she was even on-call these days (I called our regular vet and she was out of town and wouldn’t be back for weeks). Thankfully, she was.

“How soon can you get here?”

“Probably by 11 pm, depending on how good driving through The Pass goes.”

And so, we set out to drive the wintry pass to Valdez. We loaded our quill-faced pup into the car where, after an hour of pain and thrashing and panic, exhaustion started to set in. He sat up, trying to sleep without putting pressure on any of the quills, not being able to rest his head. The drive was dark and tense as we still hadn’t purchased our much needed new headlights (after losing not one but two lightbars to the 60-mile bumpy dirt road) and the view of the night was dim at best. I put on an audiobook to lighten the mood: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. If you know the book, or just even a basic history of our beginnings, you know that it didn’t quite do the trick.

Finally, four hours later, we arrived. Still, despite everything, Leto wagged his tail and joyfully greeted the vet. He’s a big fan of new friends. A few minutes later the sedation came on and the quills started coming out. His face filled with blood as she ripped the quills out of his delicate lips and sweet little nose but it wasn’t enough and he thrashed about, despite all three of us holding him down, screaming and crying as only a Malamute can do. It was awful. Finally, with more sedation, she was able to prop open his mouth to unveil the work to be done inside. It was like a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. Top to bottom was filled with quills: tongue, roof, cheeks, gums. She started pulling. Some were wedged in sideways, going longways through his gums but she worked methodically to get them out and soon he was near finished.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Malamute with porcupine quills

Still smiling (or just very stoned).

 

She checked his body for any stragglers and found them in his back, his neck, his paws and his shoulders. We had a moment of lightness as we joked, “Did he roll on it?!”. I pictured him trying for a tasty bite of the “spikey bunny” and being in such shock at the pain of the taste that he fell and rolled onto the poor creature. Some quills came out quickly after we found them (which is no easy feat since the quills burrowed through three layers of fur) but some had gone in completely and lay flat against his shoulder blade and face. She tried to cut them out but decided they weren’t going to budge. “They will work themselves out”.

Two hours, one very wobbly drugged dog and 400 plus dollars later, we were out the door, in Valdez at 1 am with nowhere to stay. We stopped by every hotel we could find but as the tourist season had just closed shop for the year, our pickings were slim. We took turns running into the hotels and each time came back with a thumbs down: no dogs allowed. Finally, the last hotel allowed dogs for a 20 dollar fee per night.

20 dollars in addition to their nightly rate of almost 200 dollars.

Thankfully, the front desk took pity on our little man and gave us a discount bringing the total to just under 200 dollars.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Malamute after the vet

Still a stoney baloney

Still not able to walk, The Chief carried Leto through the slippery parking lot. He howled and cried every time he moved even an inch, in pain and dysphoric from the drugs. We settled into our very expensive hotel room and I washed the night off of me with a bath. Leto whimpered and panted all through the night. None of us slept well. The next day, my morning started early and with yet another bath (someday, someday I will have a bathtub and I won’t even have to pay 100 dollars per bath) as I prepared for three hours of Monday morning meetings at work. Thankfully, there was a breakfast buffet.

A few hours and a few meetings later and it was checkout time. Leto still could barely put pressure on his paws but he finally peed on his own. It was time to go home. We filled up on fuel and grabbed some road snacks and off we went.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Valdez, AK

At least it was a beautiful drive.

 

What a Sunday. What a start to the week.

Four hours later, we returned home where yesterday felt very far away.

In just 12 hours, we had spent over 800 dollars of unplanned expenses and our quiet, cozy Fall evening had turned into a panicked, hours-long stress fest. We were all completely exhausted, but we were home.

Home sweet home.

Two months later, we are still finding quills in little Leto. They burrow their way out and pierce through the skin. One erupted over a few hours and was heading straight towards his eyeball until The Chief deftly pulled it out. Even last night, I was rubbing his chest and felt one slide sideways through his tissue. Someday, they will all work through.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Alaskan Malamute

Hello, handsome dude!

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be crouched under a cabin with my husband in the middle of nowhere pulling quills from our Malamute. Four years ago I’d never even thought twice about porcupines. What a difference a few years can make.

The Fall finally fell into place and the quiet settled in again, even more so as the final departees left the valley. We retightened our financial belt that had been busted loose from our porcupup and cozied down, preparing for Winter.

In the two months since Leto’s brush with the pokey bunny, we’ve had two more unexpected trips to Town and the expenses to go with it. One to replace The Chief’s broken snowmachine and one to repair a UTI turned kidney infection of mine. Oh, joy! So much for spending less by staying home but, still at home we are, mostly. Despite missing friends and family, I know it’s exactly where we need to be right now: cozied down, pulling quills and praying for snow.

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-25-19, Porcupup, Alaskan couple

Knit cap brigade.