Month: February 2016

So, Are There Any Girls There?

I remember when I first started telling people I was headed to Alaska. The first reaction was always:

“Oh man! You’re gonna be the only girl there. Good luck.”

And maybe, in some towns that’s the case, but here, oh no. This town is buzzing with beauties. Beautiful women from the inside out. Women who can beat you in a race up a mountain, catch all the fish, raise gorgeous gardens and can ice climb into spaces you wouldn’t dare attempt. They are powerhouses. Everyone seems to specialize in something from local plant knowledge to massage to mountaineering. I was beyond impressed by the talents I saw but also by the harmony in which they all co-existed and the importance that was placed on girl time together.

But then, it became winter. Suddenly, the town was no longer abuzz. People were tucked away into their homes or had left for the winter. In the summer, the local watering hole was a good place to gain familiarity with someone over a couple of nights, slowly make friends and maybe eventually go for a hike or whatnot together. The slow build of friendship. In the winter, the local watering hole closes. There’s nowhere to randomly show up to, no place to start building familiarity, putting names to faces. Nope, like so many things here during the winter, you just have to jump straight in.

Remember in Kindergarten when we were all too young to realize our vulnerability and you would simply ask someone “Do you want to be my friend?”.

Well, welcome back to class.

Without effort, it’s unlikely that you’ll see much of someone out here. Our houses aren’t all close to one another, a (sometimes) frozen river separates the town and to go anywhere is a bit of a to do. You aren’t just wandering around meeting people.

And so, just like when I was four, I found myself asking either blatantly or by suggestion: “Do you want to be my friend?”

This type of bare bones vulnerability is awkward but essential out here, unless you prefer to be alone.

Luckily, it’s worked out pretty well. The women around here can really rally (crossing rivers and wading through forests to meet up) and we’ve made it a point to have girl time.

You see, when you’re in a couple in the middle of the woods, in the middle of winter you spend all of your time together. All of it. You take down trees together. You build a fire together. You make dinner and breakfast and lunch and snacks together. You divide and conquer chores and to dos but overall, you are together. And it’s amazing but it also makes girl time that much more essential.

Years ago, I didn’t understand the importance of this. I was always the girl that hung with the guys. I could keep up with the dirty jokes and the beer and the pizza and it was great. Shoot, I was even a pretty good WingWoman. But something was missing. Slowly, I invested more time in girlfriends and found a whole other community I didn’t know I needed.

Now, being here, I am suddenly apart from my women people in body (though not in spirit) and so, again it was time to invest time in making another community.

The first new girlfriend’s house I went to made me realize just how different it is to make friends here than anywhere I’ve ever been. In California I might have met someone, gotten their number and asked them to meet up for a walk or a drink somewhere.

Here, a meeting place is likely to be someone’s house because there is shelter in case the weather turns. And so, a first meeting is a full on greeting to who this person is. Oh, and it’s also chock-full of interesting directions.

“You know where the airfield is?”

“The air strip or the air field?”

“The air field, where we get our mail.”

“Oh, ok, yes.”

“Ok, just before you get to the airfield you will see a snowbank on your right* with a quick opening, take that down the hill, veer right at the first fork. Then when you get to the cottonwood tree that looks like it’s doing a graceful side bend you will veer left. Then you’ll pass a trailer on your right, keep going and eventually you’ll hear the dog barking. He’ll lead you to the house.”

*Note: everywhere is a snowbank, so keep your eyes especially peeled.

It’s also fun to play the turn around game at a new person’s house. Will they have a circular driveway or will I have to figure my way out (one of our snow machines conveniently doesn’t have reverse)? It keeps it interesting and it keeps you on your toes. Man, I used to get anxiety about going new places when I had a map in front of me or worry about parking in San Francisco. This is a whole new ballgame. Missed your turn? It might be a while before you get back to it. Reverse. I had no idea how much I loved you.

The first time I took a solo snow machine trip was to a new girlfriend’s house. She and I had spent time together this summer so when I heard she was coming back in for winter I quickly solidified her answer to the question: “Do you want to be my friend?” She was in (yipee!).

I had a vague idea of how to get to where she was staying since I had been there once in the summer (though it took me about an hour longer than it should have since I got myself thoroughly lost). Funny thing is, you cover everything in snow and suddenly, the world you vaguely knew to begin with is a whole new mystery. Surprise! So, with slow progression I found the turn, found the tree, found the trailer and the dog found me and thus, a first girlfriend date began.

 

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The river had broken so I took the bridge route over it (aiming all the while not to tip over and fall in)

 

Our plan: skiing and waxing (not the skis)

Oh, you didn’t think I had a beauty regimen in the woods?

Actually, I’ve never been much of a waxer, but the juxtaposition of waxing in the woods really got my goat. It just seemed so opposite. It had to be done. And that’s lady love, to grow out your armpit hair for a friend, only to have her rip it out. Love or lunacy. I prefer to think of it as the former instead of the latter.

So, the ski. At the time I was still falling down while on a flat surface in my skis (if you’ve never skied before, which I hadn’t, just know that the main idea is to stay upright and the easiest time to do that is when you are on a flat surface. So, needless to say, I had some skills to work on). Therefore, the obvious choice was to choose a hilly backcountry trail (read: lots of tree limbs and roots to smack you in the face or trip over and a previously uncut (unattempted) trail)).

Hey, the only way to get better is to try.

We made it through the hairier parts to the top of the biggest and longest hill I had ever attempted on skis and before I had a chance to guess twice whether or not to try it, she was at the bottom.

Oh, ok. So we are doing this I guess.

I followed suit and zoomed down after her (and then almost into her and the dog. It turns out I didn’t get the stopping lesson down as well as I thought). But now, we had arrived to our destination: a big glacial lake.

 

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Perspective is a tricky thing. Just know that we are way up high and the lake is way big.

 

Just as we started to make our way to the edge of the overhang to view the lake, the dog took off after something. We turned to see him chasing off two moose.

 

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We made our way to the edge and she showed me where a large part of the glacier had calved recently, a piece so big that she had heard it from her house that was the twenty minute ski we had just taken away from here. She remarked on how when another glacial lake higher in the mountains had broken it had moved even the largest icebergs in the frozen lake.

 

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Broken ice and icebergs from water flow

 

I love living in a place where our time is marked by breaking lakes and calving glaciers. Where memories are based on the land and life is lived by understanding what is happening around us. Nature nerds unite.

 

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Eventually the sun started setting and as we turned to head back to the waxing palace the moon peeked her head over the mountaintops.

 

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Peek-a-boo moon

 

We picked up a trail she had put in a few weeks earlier and made our way through the deep snow, thinking the whole time how we need to find a harness to put that pup in to pull us away.

 

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Home sweet home and the wax is waiting but all that skiing worked up our appetites. By the time we had changed (my backpack contained an entirely new set of clothing to replace my sweaty ski clothes. It also contained a bottle of wine, a girl date staple in case you ever wonder what to bring. Oh, and chocolate. Bring chocolate. I don’t even care if that sounds stereotypical, it’s just a safe bet), snacked and made dinner we realized that we hadn’t even heated up the wax and since it had been on the floor of the cabin, it was now frozen.

And so out came the wine (from me) and chocolate (from her) (see, I told you) while we waited for the wax to heat on the fireplace.

A quick trip outside to refuel the generator gave light to the happenings in the sky: “The lights are going off! Bundle up” she said “We are headed out”.

“The lights” are the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. They started off slow, a little glow here and a little ray there. “They’re shy” she said. “You have to sing for them.” And so we did. She whistled “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding while I sang along and before we knew it, the lights were dancing.

The show lasted long enough for me to reach for my glass of wine at the end only to find it stuck to the porch. A little colder than a red should be served at, no?

With a little love, it came unstuck and we decided to check on the wax status and warm up a bit.

It was time. My armpits shivered in fear. I’d never waxed them before. They would be shocked! We had always been so polite to one another. Here I was coming in with a wax army. I didn’t know what to expect.

You know, you really reach a new friendship level when you’re waxing your friend’s armpits.

My pores got angry and I started sweating. We couldn’t stop laughing, me nervously and her at/with me. Oh, and did I mention I’m ticklish. Probably the armpit wasn’t the best place to could pick, ya think? But we persevered and before I knew it (after she had tweezed the sneaky remainders, ouch), those things were smoother than a skating rink.

Is it weird that I’m telling you this? Well, this is the nitty gritty of how bonds are formed. You’re welcome for the look into the intricacies of female friendship.

The accomplishment had us both pretty jazzed and before we knew it the clock struck 1:30am and I still had to drive home, now in the dark, on my second ever solo snow machine trip. But hey, if I could survive winter waxing a la fireplace heat up I could handle making it home.

 

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It’s polite to pull down one’s face mask before a picture, lest one be confused for a ninja. Layers and layers and layers…

 

And I did. All the way home to my furry man (they say opposites attract, right?) who, although I had spent the last month with him and had seen him only 8 hours before, I still had missed. I guess that’s what living in the woods will do to you: force you to make quick friends and force you to find someone you can live in a tiny space with and still miss when you’re away for a day.

So, yes. There are girls here. Awesome girls (women, to be precise) and lucky for me (though my armpits aren’t so stoked), I get to be among them, of them and with them.

Thank you, Alaska.

Home is Where the Hard is

My girlfriend in Norway texted me this morning. “Help” was the first text. “Help me choose a kitchen” with a link to a website was the second.

You see, she is remodeling.

And I guess we are too.

Two kitchens. Two continents. Worlds apart.

Since moving into The Chief’s house it has become our house. Our home. It felt like home the first time I arrived and has ever since. But, as I mentioned in this post, it was a bachelor pad, like a perma-bachelor pad. And so we have slowly been making it ours.

The thing is, projects in the woods can get a bit tricky. It’s not like we can hop in the car and take a quick trip to Home Depot and stop for lunch on the way home (oh to eat a meal and simply walk away from the mess, that is luxury). We can’t just pop into town.

Town is Anchorage.

Town is 8-10 hours away, depending on the weather.

It’s a three day minimum commitment. Your house will freeze along with everything in it and if you’re lucky enough to have work, you’ll have to take time off. You’ll have to brave glacier riddled roads and icy highways and you must be able to carry all the supplies on your vehicle because strangely enough, stores don’t deliver out here.

So, the best alternative is to do it yourself. Source your own materials and make it work.

The Project: kitchen shelving

The Plan: build them from scratch

The Materials List: it all started a few years back…

In essence, our kitchen project started years ago. Before we even found one another. Our neighbor cut down the trees that would then be taken to another resident’s property to be milled into the biggest size possible. The now beams were eventually brought back over to our joint property by another neighbor where they sat…and sat…

Fast forward to present day and a stretch of time off from work for The Chief due to…you guessed it…a need for more supplies. So, as the job site was restocking we made use of the time off and started a “simple” kitchen project. We figured it would take a day or two. That was cute of us.

Day one: After suiting up for the cold, The Chief headed  out to the beam site. Shovel and axe in hand he chopped and chopped through ice and feet of snow until he wrestled two free.

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Wolf patrol. So many things to pee on.

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Sniff it out, dig it out.

I suited up myself and helped him to lift the beams onto the sawhorse.

I’m a pretty strong little bundle of a 5′ 3 (and 3/4)” lady but this 12-foot hunk of future shelving was a serious workout. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.

The beams on the other hand, they were cold. Frozen to be exact and at ten degrees outside, they weren’t thawing out any time soon. This seemed like a serious threat to our shelf building escapade. Out came the hammers. We hammered away the large chunks of ice and used the other side (the Claw, I’m told) to scrape. It was slow going. We found angled metal that worked as a scraper too but still, a great deal of ice remained and there was no way we could get those beams inside the house to thaw. The Chief smiled. He had a little trick up his parka: a weed burner. It’s exactly what it sounds like (unless you’re from California, then see the following explanation): basically it’s a torch used to burn down weeds but hey, I’m all about multi-purpose tools.

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So we spent the next hour or so burning off the freeze and the rest of the afternoon logging for the next project.

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Logging means brush…which means bonfire time

The next day was colder and it was harder to motivate to head out into it. But, of course, in true Alaska fashion, once we did motivate and had just finished defrosting the second log friends from across the river announced their arrival via snow machine. Our work was done for the day.

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The next day was full of bright blue skies and recently refrozen rivers. We couldn’t just burn weeds all day, we had to greet the blue and so the project was pushed off again.

Sidenote: this whole “go with the flow” attitude isn’t natural for me. I’m learning it. It feels irresponsible because it sometimes chooses fun over work but isn’t it just as bad to choose work over play simply because you “should”? I’m still figuring that one out. Dang Puritan work ethic. But I do know that it seems criminal to live in a 13 million acre national park and not explore it when you have the perfect day to do so…so we did.

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The Chief testing the thickness of the ice off to the right

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If it can hold this little guy it can hold us, right?

Finally, on the fourth day, things started coming together. The weather had turned (this always seems to happen. Good thing we took advantage of the day before) to grey skies and snow. The Chief and I suited up and got to milling. The wood was actually in pretty good shape considering its snowy grave and we were able to get three boards milled.

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We made shelves until five o’clock when we realized we were going to be late for the dinner plans we had made at a friend’s house up the hill. Time for a pause.

Sidenote: By “We made shelves” I mean The Chief mainly measured, cut and screwed in the boards. I learned (relearned) how to calculate a hypotenuse (and just now how to spell it again), how the miller and saw worked and how to brace shelving. I was in charge of aesthetic and placement and that’s great but it’s one thing to tell someone where to place something and another to place it oneself. I wish I could say we were both out there at the same time doing the same work but the truth is, I just didn’t know enough and when you only have so many materials, it’s pretty essential not to mess up. And while there’s nothing wrong with being the one who runs to get the materials or reminds you both to eat an apple, I can’t wait for the day when I lead the work. Luckily, The Chief is happy to share the position. Outside of my mom, no one has ever had so much faith in me to be able to do anything I set my mind to. From teaching me to run a chainsaw to encouraging me to lead us home at night on snow machines, he’s the best cheerleader (and the hairiest) anyone could ask for.

Before. During. After.

A few hours later, too full from dinner and too excited to sleep, we started finding new homes for things and brainstorming the next steps. I love these moments together. Just the two of us, making plans, trying out ideas and laughing together if they fail, knowing full and well that we will make it work. There’s nothing like living in a little cabin to get your creative organizing skills flowing and there’s nothing better than a partner in crime to dream with.

The next day it was snowing again so we waited until it abated and then started on the corner shelves. It took up until the dinner bell at the neighbor’s house was ringing (two homemade dinners that we didn’t have to home make in one week?! Hallelujah!) to finish. Two shelving projects down and an infinite number left to complete but a serious pat on the back is in order.

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For the last two days, every time we would walk into the kitchen (which means every time you come in the house or walk from the living room. Tiny house, remember?) we would marvel at our completed project.

And then this morning I got the Norwegian text and it made me realize how different my world has become. Never in my life did I think I would help mill the tree a friend cut down and make my own shelving (shoot, I’d never even met someone who’d cut down a tree for lumber before). Never did I think I would work in the snow and the cold in the middle of winter in Alaska. Never did I think I’d meet my person in the middle of the woods. Never did I think it would happen, but I did hope for this life.

I was looking for a “hard” life, even if I didn’t know it. And it is hard, in the best ways. Things take three times longer. Each project becomes a town effort as you run out of screws or borrow tools but the “hard” is what makes it feel so good to hammer in that final nail. The “hard” shows you how hard things could actually be and how lucky we are. The “hard” is what makes it home. Our home.

 

 

A Bowl Full Of Scaries

I swear, I do not just spend my time in the woods in a perpetual state of fear (even if the last post and this one suggest otherwise).

I’m not carefully looking around every corner, wondering what scary beast is lurking and hungry nor am I constantly running away yipping with my tail between my legs.

But from bears (both imagined and real) to bonfires, this place is alive with excitement and danger, both in a constant battle to win over the other.

Everything here is so tough and at the same time so delicate. The snow is packed until you hit a soft spot and fall in up to your thighs. The fire is roaring until you get distracted for a moment and it suddenly goes out. Your snowmachine is running great until you hit a hidden rock and now you’re stuck without transport. You go to pump water and the generator is on the fritz so it’s back to melting snow. You’re confidently chopping wood until the axe swings through and you hit your boot and luckily your boots are thick and you aren’t hurt.

Because if you are, you aren’t in a good way when you’re way out here. And so the balance continues. Do what you need to do and do what you want to do but aim to do it well and without incident.

So, when some friends were getting together to go for a snowmachine ride up to The Bowl I was both excited and scared. First option: call my neighbor/old boss/best girlfriend who’s a guyfriend and poke around to see if I can ride with him (meaning on his machine because I’m nervous to drive on my own and The Chief is at work).

Plan failed. He sniffed me out in seconds.

You’re coming. And you’re driving. Or, you know, you can sit at home and sit out this beautiful day.

Ugh.

You know a friend is your friend when they force you to do things you’re scared of like:

The Bowl. Driving solo. Getting stuck. Flipping the machine. Losing the machine down the hill. Falling off the cliffs. Did I mention I have a fear of heights? I try to just pretend I don’t and sometimes it works (typically when I’m on flat ground).

There were so many options for things to go wrong and all of them were running through my head.

The Bowl is at the end of a narrow and winding trail of about 3,000 vertical feet up into the mountains. One side of the trail is a sheer drop-off and parts of the trail are so narrow that in order to keep on it one has to stand up and use all your body weight to lean and tilt the machine to the opposite side to avoid falling down the hillside. The best case scenario if you did is that you would ditch your machine in time and be able to stop yourself from careening to the bottom and that your machine would get hung up in a tree (and therefore would be save-able and salvageable) instead of breaking into a million little pieces on it’s descent into town.

The first time I had gone to The Bowl we went with a different group of friends. I rode with The Chief. Without much more to hold onto than a narrow strap with too much slack my legs were squeezed as tightly as possible to hold me on and to keep me in sync with The Chief’s moves. He leans left, I lean left. He leans right, I lean right. Forward, back, making yourself a team, a unit (which is really hard to do when you can’t see through the person you’re riding behind and thus can’t anticipate a bump or tun. All you have to go off of is a response to and an anticipation of their movements).

Everyone got stuck in the deep snow in the final ascents.

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Good call on bringing the shovel.

Machines would sink and we would dig them out and pull and push until they were free, just in time for another to sink. But, these guys are excellent drivers, throwing legs and shifting hips over the machine and making maneuvers I never even thought of. We made it to the top and it was a perfect day filled with shared snacks and sips and just a bit of a view.

 

So, now I’m doing that? Ok, I mean I am a pro. I’ve just taken my first few solo trips in the last week or so and I’ve probably driven the machine about 6 times total, so yeah! Let’s throw this thing into full gear and jump from the bunny slopes to the black diamond.

A few exciting facts about the machine:

The footrests are iced over on this particular morning (and there’s no time to heat it off), making my footing about as stable as slippers on an ice rink

The “brakes” are a bit of a work in progress. The brake handle is a replacement that doesn’t quite match and therefore is loose and falls forward, out of your reach. So when you go to brake, well sometimes you miss it. Best to keep it pulled in at all times even if it cramps your hand.

You don’t have reverse, so think fast before you put yourself in a corner.

Steering the machine is more of a workout than a day at the gym. But, the turning radius is pretty amazing.

 

A few realities about what it means to go for a snow machine ride:

It’s not just a joy ride. How will the house be when you return? Will the weather turn and the house freeze? The only way to help stave that off is to a. stay home (which my neighbor has conveniently shamed me out of doing) or b. make an amazing fire and get the house cooking so…

As you’re dressing for the cold, you are going to make the house a temperature that would beg for clothing optional (think 10 degrees outside and 95 inside).

You start upstairs in the bedroom loft: underwear first. Then socks. Last time you wore thick socks with your boots (that you bought on your first major gear acquisition in Anchorage in this post and that you thought you bought too big before you knew the meaning of buying boots too big) your feet were cold. Like icecubes. So, ok, let’s do the liners and thin socks move.

Ok, we have underwear and socks on. The next moves are to cover the body and the options are too many to count. Think about it, it’s 10 degrees outside (this is HOT), but where are you going? The Bowl is higher in elevation so there may be in inversion, it could be 30 degrees above up there. So, let’s start with a light layer, a wicker of sweat, then let’s add a little warmth with a light sweatshirt, then a fleece jacket followed by a skiing jacket to hang out in if it’s warm, followed by a parka for riding and for if the temperature starts to drop.

Now, for the fabulous bottom half. Let’s start with long underwear then add some warmth with a pair of fleece pajama pants.

Add to the masterpiece a pair of bibs (not the kind you throw-up on as an infant, the kind that I know as waterproof overalls but everyone calls bibs). Note: You are now starting to sweat, fiercely.

Then, add a log to the fire because it has finally kicked up and you need to add as much to it as possible before you leave for who knows how long.

Back to the outfit: You’re almost there. Add a balaclava (if you’re an outdoorsy person this is apparently a word as simple as “candy”, I had no idea what it was. It is essentially a jack of all trades for neck and head warmth). Then, pick your gloves, pick your poison. Too light of gloves, you’re cold. Too big of gloves and you sweat and lose your dexterity. So compromise with mid-weight gloves, hope for warmth in The Bowl and shoot for having room to pack mittens to go over said mid-weight gloves. Grab a hat and your ski goggles or sunglasses and your ear protectors, a scarf to bring with and…shoot!

Food.

You haven’t eaten today and there’s no telling when your next meal will be so, time to pack some snacks with a punch. Oh, and let’s boil some water and make a mug of tea in case it gets super cold up there and you need a quick way to warmth.

Ok. I think you might be ready.

Go outside. Fire up the machine (this takes about 6 pulls, full choke, half choke, run and a lot of gentle gas gives. It’s up and ready finally) and…it’s out of gas.

Ok, you are almost ready.

Drive to the gas drum, unscrew the pressure release, unhook the pull and start filling.

Tank is full. Check the oil. Oil is low. Find the oil. Add the oil. Wait for the oil to go into the machine (it’s cold, it takes a while) add more oil.

 

Ok, now we are ready.

 

Just on the ride to town to the base of the mountain I felt out of my league. My neighbors and I took the river trail that I’m used to riding but at a much faster clip and once we got the road it was full throttle.

But that just means it’s time to step it up a bit. This is how you learn.

When we got to town, everyone was snowboarding the hills and drinking beers. I’m embarrassed to say it but I thought the plans had changed and this was our landing pad for the day.

Phew! A sigh of relief. I could try The Bowl another day.

Not so fast.

It turns out we were waiting for someone to return…and then we were going to The Bowl.

Great! (This is a sarcastic “Great!” in case you couldn’t tell)

Time to do the self-pump-up dance again.

And we were off. I asked my best guyfriend to ride behind me in case I got stuck and eeked out a little “I’m kinda scared” as we took off.

Around the bends, the tipsy curves and up the climbing hills we went. Thankfully those machines are loud because I was yelling “You got this!” interchangeably with “Ohhhhhh shittt!” to myself around every hairy corner. And I did. Even the extra sharp one right before the final ascents. We got past the treacherous spot from my previous trip and we were on the home stretch, the final ascent and…

I didn’t make it.

At the last big hill I gunned it and…almost made it.
Halfway up the hill the machine topped out, no more pull, and the speed I had wasn’t enough. I sank and started rolling backwards. I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could but still the angle was in cahoots with gravity and I kept falling backwards down the hill.

Nothing feels as good as not only foiling your plan to make it up the hill as to ruin the momentum of all of your friends behind you (4 machines of them), but hey, at least I caught my machine before it ran down the hill into any of them (always look on the brightside, right?).

And so, as quickly as I had almost given myself bruises from self pats on the back for making it to the summit, I was stuck in hip-deep snow at a 45 degree angle on a mountain thousands of feet above the town.

Thankfully, when you decide to go on a group trip you are also agreeing to help your comrades and before I knew what had happened I had help. We started digging snow from underneath the track and the skis (for those of you who don’t know (and I certainly didn’t prior to riding one) snowmachines have a track beneath them in the middle, like a tank but narrower, accompanied by skis on the sides of the track that ideally guide the machine)). Once we realized that there was no way the machine was making it up we started trying to just lift it. 400+ pounds isn’t all that much for two people to lift but when on either step you both are standing or falling into hip-deep snow it can start to look like an Oompa Loompa up and down dance and it gets a little tricky. Eventually we got it pointed rightways or right enough to move (which still meant almost perpendicular to the 45 degree incline) and I asked my friend to steer it down to the next landing pad.

Well, I didn’t make it but it was close. So I walked up the rest of the mountain. Good thing I dressed for cold, I thought as I walked slower and slower up the steep incline. Ten minutes and about four stops to peel off layers later I got to the top, sweating. I realized I was a bit screwed with all of these layers now being sweaty but I was happy to make the view.

We played around for a bit and watched friends ski down the icy slope above us for an hour or so until it was time to rally down. Walking downhill to the machine I started sending good ju-ju waves down to the brakes.

It’s you and me guys, let’s do this together.

And we did. Slowly but surely. At times I would be full press on the brakes and we would still be Slip Sliding Away (I sang that song all the way down to distract from the fact that I was sliding down a mountain and that my forearms were so tired I felt I might have to let go at any moment) , but hey it’s that balance again between excitement and danger so let the battle begin.

Safely at the bottom my neighbor and I decided to visit the boys at their work site (I needed someone to hug). I got that hug and rejuvenation enough to make plans to head to my neighbor’s for cocktails (and high-fives, even if she didn’t know that was on the menu). I just had to go home first – remember the fire? It had been hours and the temperature had started to drop, plus I needed to check on the dog since she had refused to leave the house and for a while there she (a Husky mix) had basically been in a sauna house.

At the break in our paths on the river trail (my exit home and her continuance on the trail) we waved and I geared up for the big jump off the river trail and…

I didn’t make it.

What I had worried about all day had finally happened: I crashed.

I had landed the jump. I just happened to land it right into a tree.

Booyah! At least I saved it for the only moment I wasn’t surrounded by people, right? Except wait…now I needed help (and just where the hell had my sunglasses and ear protectors gone to? I guess they flew off in the crash). This thing is heavy.

I started heaving and hoing but I couldn’t get the machine to move. I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. No answer. Everyone was on machines and couldn’t hear their phones.

What next?

I was NOT about to make the:

Sorry Honey I Roped Your Machine Around a Tree and Now I Need You To Leave Work Early To Come Bail Me Out

phone call.

No way. Whatever stubbornness I had to summon in order to make the decision not to call him was enough to power me to get the machine out by myself. I pulled and dug and pulled the skis and rocked it and finally I was free to be on my way. On the way home I ran into our nearest neighbors and immediately told them about my mishap (there’s something about Alaska for me, or maybe it’s just growing up, but whenever I do something embarrassing I feel like I have to immediately tell someone). They looked over the machine and assured me all the smoke coming from it was from the snow I had gathered in crashing and that overall it looked fine.

By the time I got to the house, made it warm, fed the dog and finally got all my layers off and hung to dry The Chief had made it home.

I told him what I had done and waited for the ball to drop.

No ball, just a jaw accompanied by an amused smile and an “Are you ok, babe?”

Phew!

Finally cozy and out of wet layers and safe from the elements I wasn’t risking going anywhere else. I told the neighbor I was in for the night and cozied up, recouping for the next adventure, the next balance between excitement and danger and I thanked my lucky Big Dipper for keeping the tilt to the excitement side today.

You see, I’m no daredevil but I don’t think I’m any sort of pussycat either but out here, the bar is raised. I’ve never lived where I have no idea what a day will look like, where you might wake up feeling vulnerable and still go out on a trip that feels beyond your ability, where our day (and dress) is so dependent on weather and where I know a day spent half in fear will also likely be spent half in sheer excitement (at least hopefully). And I’ve never had so many opportunities to be scared and push through.

So thank you friends for the push (and for the digging).

Goldilocks and The One Bear (and Quite a Bit of Profanity)

When I returned to Alaska this winter I received a lot of advice:

 

Buy your boots a size too big

Fur, leather and feathers for warmth

Black ice is a bad plan

Food that’s gone “bad” just needs a little TLC

Your definition of dirty clothes is about to change

 

But one friend’s advice stuck out in particular:

 

Every day, take an hour for yourself outside.

 

He didn’t say it flippantly. He stopped, looked me in the eyes and made sure I was listening.

Now, coming from California and more specifically Northern California, it is common for someone to prescribe to you the act of self-care.

Make sure you take time for you

Do what feeds your soul

Eat what fuels you

Treat yourself kindly

And yes, these are all great things to do. But, being a bit of a rebel against what is good for me has made this hard in the past and with these prescriptions there’s no immediacy, no sense of urgency.

Enter: Alaska and her precious few available hours of daylight.

I’ve always done my best work on a deadline and every day here is like a sunshine deadline. I often wake to darkness, get up, either The Chief or I make a fire, feed the dog and put on water for caffeinated beverages and just as that coffee readies, the sun begins to stretch her arms for her daily journey. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to beat the sun out of bed (even if you did only wake at 8am).  But when you live in Alaska you can wake up at 8am, do a few morning chores and still get down to the river in time to watch her rise.

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9:30 and lookin’ purdy

And then the sun clock starts ticking.

For some people, being outside is a take it or leave it toss up. A day gone by entirely inside doesn’t bother or confine them. Me, I question my entire life’s worth and meaning.

So I took my friend’s advice. Daylight hours are precious. Every day I made sure to make use of daylight and take at least an hour to walk or ski or play outside even if it was 20 below and my lashes froze.

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And it was going great, until last week.

You see, last week I saw the movie “The Revenant”. I even mentioned it in last week’s post here. If you haven’t seen it go for it, it’s great. But, there’s a bear attack scene and if you live in the woods with bears it might just give you a shiver down your spine (even if it is a CGI bear). It had me a little spooked.

So, here I am in the woods, going for my daily hour of sunshine me time when I come across some bloody tracks.

I am not a tracker. Let’s get that out in the open right away.

Sometimes I forget what my own shoe print looks like in the snow and think we’ve had visitors. I’m no expert.

But prints are magical. They allow you to build up a whole story around them. Sometimes I see Lou’s (Cinda Lou the dog) prints from a previous walk and think maybe, just maybe they are from a wolf (and then I go down to the river with my friend who actually tracks and see real wolf tracks and realize I’m way off). But the point is, tracks are like breadcrumbs to a little story that you follow and put together.

So, I started putting those breadcrumbs together and working on the five W’s

 

Whose tracks?

What caused the bleeding?

When? Even I could tell it was very fresh. Bright red and barely frozen.

Where? (Right at my feet…that one was easy)

Why?

 

Detective that I am, I started following the tracks but they quickly ventured from the road into the woods and cross country skiing through knee deep snow is no easy (or smart) task. I decided to come back later for further investigation by foot. I continued the ski, losing one of the dogs (my neighbor’s) to the lure of the tracks. Lou and I continued on.

Once we hit the river trail the tracks picked up again.

And so, the following transpired:

Genius Maneuver #1: Follow the tracks of an injured animal.

Genius Maneuver #2: Break trail in knee deep snow on cross country skis towards the drop-off to the river, right to the edge, to follow those tracks.

As I neared the slippery edge and tried not to fall downhill into the ice and water I heard something that called all my senses to attention: something big was at the edge of the treeline behind me.

Lou was behind me, between me and the forest that gave cover to whatever was making the noise and “said”:

“Oh girl, you’re in a bad situation here.”

I started positioning myself to turn around, slowly high-stepping my skis to maneuver as quietly as possible and head slowly away from the noise.

It stopped.

I stopped.

Then it started coming towards me, breaking branches with labored steps.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

SHIT.

Shit because the figure I was starting to see in the woods did not look like the animal that I was tracking (which I had figured to be a moose), this looked like a bear tracking the animal I was tracking and suddenly, I was in between a bear and it’s kill.

I have never felt my pulse so strongly (and I used to workout for a living). It felt like my neck was going to pop.

Lou looked at me and started running towards me, looking back towards the noise every few steps.

Nothing feels better than seeing your dog spooked and running towards you. Oh joy.

Oh, and then I fell.

Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow doesn’t make anyone look graceful.

Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow when you’re about to fall into a river and you think a bear is coming for you I looked like someone slipping on a banana peel over and over and over again.

And while the river is beautiful I’m not looking for a swim (and bears swim faster anyways).

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I like to think I’m composed in emergency situations. I always have performed well in them, been able to delegate and to act fast and get to safety or help.

But this sort of emergency was a whole new breed.

I finally got myself upright and pulled myself together with a quick pep talk (“Get it together, woman! Yes, you may have to fight a bear with two ski poles and a pocket knife. Surely, crazier things have happened. Not ideal but, this is your new reality so get moving, mama!”)  and slowly headed downriver, back the way I had come. It would be a much longer way home but whatever was following me was blocking the entrance to the trail that would have me home in minutes so the only choice I had was to backtrack.

Or was it? Suddenly I remembered: there was another way home.

The Chief.

He could grab the snow machine and come and collect us within minutes instead of the thirty it would take me to reach home and safety. Oh, sweet relief!

I pulled out my phone, pulled up his number and pushed call.

And that was the exact moment my phone died.

 

SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT.

 

Back to Plan A. I did my best not to look like a frightened animal on the run. I made long strides and tried to present myself as powerful.

More self-talk pep-talks.

You want some of this? I’ve got 130 (140? 150? I don’t know, we don’t have scales here) pounds of fightback power.

Oh, you weigh 700-1700 pounds. Ok. You win the size category.

But, I’ve got speed! Look at these bad ass skis I have attached to my feet. See ya.

Oh, you can outrun me (at 50ft./second you’re a little speedier, just a little).

Ok, so back to just trying to look like I’m not fleeing, just a passerby that doesn’t need to be eaten, despite how hungry this bear must be.

The bear kept following, his head down, headed towards us.

Lou was ahead of me but at a much closer distance than she usually keeps. She kept looking back, sensing my absolute fear, looking scared herself (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but if you’d seen her face…).

Man, I can’t believe we are going to get eaten right now and by we I mean me because you (Lou) are faster.

This is not exactly how I saw my hour outside going.

Finally we reached the road that meets up to our driveway. Unfortunately this meant I still had twenty minutes before we were home. Also, the woods T-boned the road so that the bear had a shortcut to where I was.

We both kept looking over our shoulders. I was certain that one time I would look back and see a grizzly on our heels and then a grizzly on my back and then it would be time to fight or play dead and hopefully live to tell the story.

But that didn’t happen.

We made it home huffing and puffing and barged through the door to relay to The Chief  the terror that was our time in the sun.

The next step was obvious: go out again, this time by snow machine.

As we looked for the bear, The Chief’s face grew serious and worried. A bear out in the winter is a bad thing. A hungry bear, out in the winter when you least expect it on the trails you need to utilize to get anywhere or find trees for fire is a really bad thing.

I took him to where I first spotted the tracks (I couldn’t remember their exact location since on the way there I had been in Happy Detective Mode and on the way back I had been in Don’t Die Mode). He confirmed that they were moose tracks (not the ice cream, that would have been way better).

We continued down the river to where the tracks of the bear’s prey picked up again.

And then we heard the bear. Cracking branches and heavy footsteps.

We looked up to the treeline and the figure I had seen reappeared. This time I was closer, since we were on the trail and not at the river’s edge as I had been before.

Close enough to see that…

It was a moose.

Sidenote/personal disclaimer: I wear glasses. Addition:  I wasn’t wearing them that day.

Back to the story…

A moose.

An injured moose. We waited for the potential predator but I think we both knew that what I had seen, what I had feared, what I had been certain was going to kill me was in fact a moose and not a bear. No prey, no stalking, just me out in the woods chasing and then running from a moose.

And, that’s legitimate. You should avoid a moose.

Moose kill people.

But a moose out in winter is normal. A bear is big trouble.

We drove home, both of us happy to see a moose, not a bear, and one of us (guess who?) a little embarrassed.

You see, it turns out that moose shed their antlers in the winter (who knew?) and with its head down and labored walk it really did look like a bear. Especially if you’re looking up from the river, knee deep in snow, not wearing your glasses and have just been scared by “The Revenant”.

So now I know (too bad that little tidbit wasn’t in my Alaskan welcome package).

The thing is, little (or actually let’s call that one gargantuan) scares like that are important out here. The moment you get too self-assured or too cocky is the moment you lose touch with reality. The reality that:

You live in the wild.

You, at 140 pounds or even 240 pounds could be taken out by an animal with the simple swipe of a paw or the closing of a jaw.

You are hours away from clinics and even farther from a hospital.

And, any day could be the day that reminds you of this, if you are foolish enough to forget (and we all do).

Hopefully the little reminder is enough for you to re-calibrate your relationship to the wild, recognize the pecking order and act accordingly (even if you learned the lesson in a way that left you a tad embarrassed).

And then, the next day, it’s time to go out again. Time to greet the sun and take that time for yourself, even if your heart does a little pitter patter every time you hear branches break for a few days.

Time to get back on the horse, detective and this time with a little more knowledge (winter = no antlers. Got it).

I think the first time I have to school a newbie, that will be part of my advice. That, and to take an hour outside, everyday. It’s worth it.

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Wilderness as a Backyard

 

 

 

The Quickest Way To Hear (Your) God Laugh (How Did I Get Here PART II)

I had plans.

With my newly created single life I was going places (literally). First on the list was Alaska and then, after 17 days, I’d go back to CA, regroup and head to Thailand and just keep going from there. I was free and it was time to make use of it.

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The last load to storage before departure. Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin.

Alaska because I felt as if a rope in my gut was pulling me there.

Thailand because I wanted to learn to surf, brah.

As I stocked up on items for Alaska I also acquired items for the other leg of the trip (even though I hadn’t bought a ticket or made any real plans). Sundresses and sandals would wind up in my haul of long underwear and bear spray (ya know, to avoid a “https://www.youtube.com/embed/YOlkeDrqozw“>The Revenant” situation, please).

I came home one day and my girlfriend giggled as I shuffled in two pairs of heeled sandals.

“Those will be super useful in Alaska, huh?” she wink-winked me, almost as if she knew I wouldn’t be back for them.

My intention was to be on my own merry way. Do my own thing on my own schedule. I never even began to think that those heels would gather dust in my storage unit.

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A whole life (sandals included) in one little box

 

Plan: I’d get to Alaska and out of my comfort zone and then find some killer waves, dude.

Every time I think back to that trajectory I planned for myself I think of a quote I recently learned:

“Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (David Milch)

And I was shouting these plans from the rooftop. I should have heard the thunderous laughing from above that must have followed my announcements but stubborn ears are deaf to opposition and I just kept on planning and meeting with friends and asking for tips on places to go post AK (thanks DW).

Once in Alaska (see last week’s post here describing the journey in) I was still convinced my future held beaches but succumbed to the reality that something was telling me to stay (shouting it actually). I was in for a quick summer stop-over, Alaska style. So I started to look into staying. First thing’s first: money. Leaving for Alaska had meant buying a lot of items I just didn’t have in my arsenal (see: bear spray, a headlamp, hiking shoes…I had thought I was way more outdoorsy than my existing equipment suggested) so I hadn’t exactly been flush to begin with and I didn’t plan on bleeding myself dry in the funds department.

And just like that a job offer came.

My girlfriend introduced me to a friend who was starting a food truck. He needed help. I needed a job.

Boom! Employment (Thank you, MacChina).

We were fast friends, I mean sheesh, I’m a girl who likes to eat and he’s a chef. What could be better? Friend match made in heaven.

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Not a bad view to whistle while you work

Ok, so money problem taken care of but now where to stay?

My girlfriend said I could build a platform on her property and camp there for the summer. I’d need to find or have lumber hauled in from Anchorage and find a tent and bear wire (WHAT?! Who even knew that existed and thank you to whomever created it). Since all of that was a lot to acquire we also decided to keep an ear out for places for rent.

And so it was settled.

Until it wasn’t.

Because this is where The Chief enters the story and my exit plans disappear without my realizing it.

I met him my first night in “town” at the local (see: only) watering hole. We had talked for 30 minutes (unbeknownst to us) before my girlfriend came to check on me. Was this furry mountain man bothering me? I hadn’t even felt the time pass. I was a goner.

But I’m a stubborn one and clung to my singledom like a kid to a cupcake. Ain’t happenin’, Captain. I’ve got plans.

And then the thunderous laughing from the sky began again. I told my boss at the food truck (one of his best friends) that it was no biggie. It was just a fling. It had to be, right? I should have felt bad lying so blatantly but I thought I was telling the truth. He would just smile and say “Ok, see you in the morning, neighbor” since when I was at The Chief’s house we lived a quick walk through the woods away from one another. He knew. Everyone knew.

People I didn’t know would come up to me in town and say how happy they were for us.

Us?

I’m in an Us?

No way Jose. Not this little Senorita. I’m a solo artist. I mean, that’s the plan.

 

But…work on the platform was at a standstill.

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The Proposed Platform Site (aka a pile of somewhat flattened rocks)

I spent the better portion of a day trying to flatten the site but I still didn’t have building supplies.

I asked my boss to order the materials.

I asked The Chief.

I asked in the way that you ask for a fruit cup in place of dessert at a restaurant.

Everyone knows what’s happening. Everyone knows the deal except for you because you’re trying to convince yourself that you want the fruit cup.

It’s smarter.

Healthier.

Right?

(Not to call living on her property a fruit cup, it would have been a big time dessert just not the one I was meant to have)

And so I eventually let go…

and ordered dessert.

 

I was basically living with The Chief (though still in denial about it, I mean just because all of my stuff is there and we were grocery shopping together doesn’t mean I live there, right?) but one Taco Tuesday night we made it official.

Living with someone you’ve just met is insane.

Living with someone who’s never lived with a girlfriend is a recipe for disaster.

Living with someone after just getting out of a 7 year relationship is a rebound.

Right?

All of these judgements circled my head but the laughter from above was finally gone. I had stopped making plans and jumped into the flow and it had carried me straight to him.

Now, don’t get me wrong, moving into a perma-bachelor den was interesting (to say the least) but it immediately felt like home.

Pretty soon the question put to me by locals switched from:

“So, are you staying the summer?”

To

“So, are you staying the winter?”

Ha! Winter! That’s cute.

Nope. No way.

 

And before I knew it I was planning for winter.

 

A friend in CA that had watched me go through the breakup said that it seemed like I had changed my plans all for some guy and he was worried I would lose my trajectory (and never get to Thailand).

Fair enough. And thank goodness for friends who shoot it straight (Thank you N).

But I hadn’t lost my trajectory. I had ended up exactly where I was supposed to be. This was scary to accept and hard to defend when oppositions from myself and others started coming in but all I could counter with was that it just felt right. I felt at peace.

I realized that Thailand had been a sort of safety net. A “planned” next move to let me feel safe in the uncertainty of Alaska and open me up to it’s possibilities. Leaving Alaska simply because that was the plan I had announced would have been the biggest mistake I’d ever made, The laughter from above would have been deafening, even to these stubborn ears.

Trying to preserve my pride just to avoid judgement that I was jumping in too fast or giving up my plans for “some guy” would have led me away from where I’m supposed to be. And there’s a difference between standing up to oppositions because you don’t want to be wrong and standing up because you know you’re right, even if all you have for proof is a feeling.

Plus, staying in AK didn’t mean I wouldn’t go elsewhere, it just meant I didn’t want to go now.

Now was for seeing if when the fireweed flowers disappeared and the rocky ground became snow and the town went from hundreds to (maybe) 30 people if this was still where I was supposed to be.

Lucky for me, it was and it is.

That doesn’t mean everything is unicorns and puppies and dessert every meal. We are real. We are human. We disagree and get fussy just like anyone else, that’s just life.

And even though at times being out here is a challenge and a constant departure from the creature comforts I wouldn’t trade a nearby grocery store or electricity for anywhere or anyone else.

But I wouldn’t complain if a chocolate shop happened to open next door.

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Summertime. Home sweet home in the woods.

 

// All credit for our coming together goes to the town as a whole, our next-door neighbors and a Subaru get away vehicle powered by Marvin Gaye. Were it not for them, we wouldn’t have been forced into seeing what was right in front of us. Thank you. //