Month: April 2016

Anchor(age)s Away!

Oops, we did it again.

Off to Anchorage for another sinus surgery. Last time we were caught off guard and saddled with hotel bills and food costs we weren’t prepared for. But this time? This time we knew the drill:

Prep the House to Leave for five days (see last week’s post about the serious Spring Cleaning effort that has only just begun). Clean, prep firewood, unplug everything from the battery stash except the fridge (we got a mini fridge!), turn off the propane, water the plants…in general, shut her down.

Secure Places for the Dogs to Stay (we were pup-sitting our nephew dog still). Bring over their beds and foods and bowls (these dogs know the drill better than us. Before we had even hinted to Lou that we were taking her to the neighbors’ house she was already over there the morning we were leaving, getting used to her new digs). Thankfully, in a town full of dog lovers, pup places aren’t too hard to find, especially when they are such good watchdogs.

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All four corners covered.

Head into town the day before the pre-op appointment and settle into our hotel.

Pre-Op Appointment day followed by errands.

Operation Day: Head into surgery with The Chief until they roll him off. Pick up medications and any last-minute comforts during The Chief’s surgery. Take him back to the hotel to rest and recover and then head out for more errands like laundry and Costco, etc.

Required Recovery Day. The hospital asked that we stay in town as long as possible in order to tell if any complications were going to arise. The most they could buckle The Chief down for was one day. More errands.

Last but not Least (Most Important, in Fact): Leave: spend the day driving home, doing last-minute grocery shopping and pick-ups for friends and then home to the pups and the cabin.

Easy-peasy!

Right?

I say this every time but still I am like Dory from “Finding Nemo”- I forget constantly that planning in Alaska is like swimming upriver with a weighted vest. It’s doable but not that enjoyable and in the end it makes more sense to ride the tide.

But I didn’t. We knew the drill but this is how the drill actually played out:

To start:

Alaska has some pretty amazing health coverage, especially when you happen to fall into the Denali Care bracket. Since many people in the state (like us) live in The Bush, getting into town for a surgery or doctor’s appointment can be a real financial hardship. The last town trip for us was a seriously unexpected depletion of funds. It was like our pockets and pocketbooks developed holes in them.

So this time, since we knew we were heading in, we were able to get coverage from Denali Care. They would take care of the hotel (something that could have been covered last time had we known we would have to stay) as long as it was Medicaid approved and they would provide a meal stipend.

This was some seriously good news. So, we set about finding a hotel. Easy, right?

Geez.

Wrong again.

We didn’t realize that the Native Youth Olympics were taking place and everywhere we called was booked. Finally we found a hotel that said they took Medicaid. We checked and re-checked with them. Are you sure? It would be a real bummer to drive 8 hours and be turned away. They agreed. It would.

It was.

After traveling the 60 mile dirt road (which takes hours to complete and is riddled with signs suggesting you don’t travel it and if you do to pack survival gear and let people know you are leaving. A little ominous, eh?) in a huge truck which seemed to hit even more bumps that were even on the road, pothole after pothole after pothole followed by more potholes, we were happy to hit the pavement for the next 6 hours. We showed up around 7:30pm, tired from the trip and both starting to feel a cold coming on but excited by the nice hotel (pools, dogs allowed! Next stay they were coming with) and great location, only to be told that they in fact did not take Medicaid and that someone (someone who had checked and doubled checked) had been wrong.

O.K.

They were able to send us to a sister hotel which I ended up being even more pleased about because it was right next to Natural Pantry (think Whole Foods) and the movie theater. I squealed with delight! Score! Now we can eat healthy food and get supplements to stave off this cold.

Wait.

They only had room for us for one night. And, they didn’t have food for us. We would have to go across town to see if we could be served and by now it was already 9pm. Tired and hungry we decided to forgo finding food and ordered in while we spent the whole night calling other hotels, hoping for something to be available which took Medicaid. The next day was the Pre-op appointment and the following day was surgery. I wanted The Chief to be settled and cozy before going under again, not up in the air and stressed.

Finally we found a local Medicaid help center that gave us a list of hotels to call. They suggested one that people “really like” which turned out to have space. Alrighty, things are starting to get better.

Right?

The next day (starting to feel even more sick than the day before) before the Pre-op we went to check out of the second hotel only to find that they needed to keep our Medicaid original voucher for their paperwork.

We needed the original voucher for our next hotel.

Luckily, at the Pre-op appointment they were able to create a new “original” for us. Alright, back on track. We went to the doctor, talked to the surgeon and the nurses and got our heads in the game for surgery. The surgeon told us that we would need to come back for screenings 2-3 times per year but that if we suddenly were dropped from Medicaid or weren’t able to pay that he would make sure we were still seen. Things were looking up.

We arrived at our third hotel in two days (both coughing and sneezing and incessantly blowing our noses) only to be greeted by a seedy scene. Seedy bars? Yes, please. I love dive bars. Seedy places to sleep? Not my favorite. Seedy places to recover from surgery? Not my first choice for my love. Things were looking down again.

We checked in with a front desk agent who was simultaneously talking on two phones, training an employee and checking us in while checking another guest out. Hectic doesn’t quite meet the feeling head on. We carried our luggage up the concrete stairs (a bit of a danger for a groggy post-op Chief tomorrow, I thought) since there was no elevator and keyed into our room.

You know when you enter a room and immediately get a bad feeling? Yup. Me too.

It was dingy and dark and right against 5th avenue. Big hauling trucks flew by. It was loud to say the least. The bed was stiff and scratchy and I immediately felt my skin start to crawl. I’ve stayed in seedy motels by myself on long road trips just to save money but I had been prepared for it (see: brought a blanket and pillow from home). We had walked straight into this one. It had been recommended. I wouldn’t have recommended it if I was paid to do so.

The Chief is a trooper and settled in to just deal with it. I, on the other hand, was not having it. This was not a place to relax and heal. This was a place to throw down one’s bags and leave for all other time but for sleep. I swear, I’m not a prissypants. This place just had bad ju-ju and dirty feelings all around it. I started making calls. We didn’t know if the day had already been recorded with Medicaid in which case we would have to spend money for a new hotel (and also go back again to the doctor’s office and ask for yet another voucher) but at that point I didn’t care. This was not the place we were staying.

Finally, we found a place. The place we had stayed last time. The place we probably should have just called all along.

We checked out of the Seedy McSeedface (name inspired by Boaty McBoatface) motel (Medicaid thankfully hadn’t gone through yet) and repacked the truck for the sixth time and headed over to the new hotel. They had a restaurant on site so we could finally use some of our meal vouchers (all of the others were off site so I would have to drive to them for breakfast and lunch and after days of errands, feeling awful and caring for a sick post-surgery partner, convenience was key) and I knew the area well after spending an unexpected week in the area last month.

Ahhhhh, a sigh of relief. We still needed to book a hotel for the Post-op appointment a week later so we booked ourselves a room there. No more risks. No more trials. Finally, we were settled.

It was already late in the day, around 5pm at this point. We had done some errands earlier in the day but after waking up über early the last few days and losing sleep and stamina from all of the jostling about and sneaking in sicknesses neither of us were feeling well enough for much more than a movie. We settled in for the night and got ready for surgery the next day.

We awoke at 6am to get to the surgery center before 7:30. Surgery was scheduled to start at 9am. Finally by 10am, after waiting for 2.5  hours in his gown, The Chief was rolled into surgery. I went off to start getting any last odds and ends he might need. Tissues and distilled water for sinus flushes, yogurt and of course, medications. But, surprise! The nurses assured me that they could make that easier. They would have the prescriptions brought over to surgery. Amazing! Too good to be true?

Yup.

They faxed over the prescriptions the doctor had given me.

One was misspelled and had to be re-sent.

They came and gathered the originals and got new ones.

Then they faxed those and returned the scripts to me for safekeeping.

I left.

They called.

The fax didn’t go through.

I drove back.

Parked the huge truck yet again. Ran back to the building again. They faxed them again. I left. Again.

No sooner had I driven all the way back to the hotel and made about ten trips from the parking lot to the room to take all of the contents out of the truck (think 30 lbs. of laundry and bags of ammo and other heavy errand items) in order to make plenty of room for a groggy Chief to puddle into when I got a call from the surgery center. The meds were there but they needed the original prescriptions to be shown in order to collect them. Could I pop in (why hadn’t they just kept them there?)? The Chief was still in surgery but they needed me to come by now. I had more errands to run before getting him but they said I needed to be there so I left.

I told them I was on my way, maybe 15 minutes out. About 5 minutes before I arrived they called to say that instead I needed to just go to the pharmacy because they had left with the meds instead of waiting.

I get it. They are busy. But I could have just picked these up at Walgreens anytime.

This was supposed to be the easier route. I should have known. Planning. Dory brain.

O.k. so now I need to park at the pharmacy. The local University is having a game or a show or a something that is borrowing all of the parking at the pharmacy except for one lot. Cars are circling like vultures around a carcass. There’s no humanity here. I circle and circle and circle. Like a doodler on the phone. 30 minutes later and just as I am about to say “screw it” and park illegally (because the surgery department has called 10 minutes prior and said that The Chief is out of surgery and asking for you) and a spot opens up. I hurriedly run inside and collect the prescriptions (I’ve already paid the $1.oo co-pay over the phone. $1.00!). I run back outside only to see a lot full of open parking spaces.

What in the…?

It doesn’t matter, it’s time to speed off back to the surgery center and pick up my love. The surgeon comes by, happy with his work and with The Chief’s progress. All of the nurses comment on how tough he is and that he hasn’t agreed to or asked for any pain meds yet (but giving me the look like “you need to convince him to take some or he’s going to be in a world of pain in a few minutes, thank you”. I mean, he did just have his face drilled into, again). About thirty minutes later (twenty more than I was supposed to park in the Surgery Pick-Up lane, whoops!) The Chief climbs into the truck and off we go.

Recovery time.

For both of us.

My cold has turned into a full-blown yuck-fest and both The Chief and I are down for the count. I am able to take care of him but not like I would like to. We both rest in bed as yet another day of errands goes to waste.

The next day The Chief is up and at ’em (as much as one can be and probably more than one should be post-surgery) and I am down and out, feverish and exhausted. The minimum amount of errands that must be done before we leave the next day are laundry and washing the truck. The truck is going in for service and clothes, well, it’s good to have clean ones to wear. Finally, I work up the energy and (after almost leaving without half of the laundry due to having Foggy Cold Head Syndrome) head to the laundromat nearby that I’ve found online.

I arrive to a vacant lot.

Oh. Apparently it no longer exists.

I find a self car wash (since the truck likely won’t fit through an automated one and I don’t want to be the one to test it out. Plus, after hauling garbage for last week’s clean-up, it needs some TLC, or at least some hands-on soap).

I promptly spray myself in the face with the soap hose. Off to a good start.

People start lining up behind me and then just as quickly, as if I have a sign that says “Seriously, I am moving at turtle pace today. Please, please, pick another lane.” they move to another stall to wait. In between blowing my nose and sneezing triplets the truck is finally clean enough and off I go to find a laundromat.

Laundromat found.

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My co-pilot mountain of washables almost took over the entire cab

Washers-a-plenty and…not enough quarters and no cash.

Ugh.

I put in as many loads as I can and stumble out into the city to find cash-back somewhere. I look a mess. Watering eyes and a red puffy snotty nose. A vision of sickness in motion, if you will.

Finally, I’m stocked up on quarters like a slot winner in Vegas and a few hours and seventy tissues later, the laundry is done. Thankfully, I got in there before the crowd hit. Who knew that laundry was a popular Friday night activity?

“Not I”, said the fly.

Beyond ready to get back to the hotel and into bed I remember a birthday present that I have yet to get The Chief. It took me three phone calls and some fancy footwork to track down. I am not missing this opportunity. I park at the hotel and walk (see:hobble) to the nearby store that has just what I am looking for. 30 minutes later and I’m back at the hotel ordering dinner that I will later walk (see: crawl) down from our room and pick-up. Almost done for the day.

A few minutes later, an angel of a friend comes by offering to let us borrow his car so we can drop the truck off the next day instead of next week when we come in for the Post-op appointment. This means we can spend one extra day at home with the dogs (and one extra day that we don’t have to find them puppy-sitters) before turning around again for the appointment. And, it means a much smoother ride over the pothole laden 60 miles of dirt and rock which, for someone just out of surgery, is a big deal. We are so grateful.

I realize that we will need a permit for the car so I call the front desk and let them know we have another car to add to the permitted cars with us.

You need to come down.

I almost cry.

I am so tired. My face feels like it’s in a vice. I am sweating and shivering all at once.

O.k. I’m coming right now.

Great, I’ll have the paperwork all ready for you.

I make my way down.

No one.

Not a soul is around. My fever is up again and simply standing upright is a chore I’m not sure I can check off the list for much longer. I head outside to sit and wait.

Finally, someone arrives. I explain again what’s happening and finally get the new permits, head to the parking lot and place the permits in both cars, keycard back into the building and finally, finally get into bed. It’s 10pm and I am pooped.

The next day is departure day. The Chief, not having felt much pain the last two days is suddenly in pain (probably because although he isn’t supposed to lift anything he is helping me to load the car and move over laundry etc. from the truck to the borrowed car). He is a trooper. We head to drop off the truck at the mechanic’s and find that despite it being a Saturday, he is in. He lived in our town back when it was even more like The Wild West and has stories for days. We both are starving and tired already with grocery shopping and an 8 hour drive ahead of us but hearing someone with such nostalgia for the place we love keeps us for an hour before we have to excuse ourselves lest it be nightfall before we leave town.

Finally, we leave. I shop on our way out, a few groceries and odds and ends that end up taking an hour to complete, get gas and we are off.

The signs of home start to come. The mountains. The rivers. The lakes. Your favorite turn-outs or vistas. The glaciers. The gas station with the familiar faces welcoming us back from the big city. The 60 mile road. Our turn-off and finally, our puppies. We stop at the neighbors’ house to collect them and despite being exhausted and sick, it is so good to catch up with the ones we love, both furry and human.

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It must be rainy season. Miss Lou’s coat, looking like a porcupine.

A little while later and we are finally home to a cold but cozy cabin. The Chief builds a fire as I bring in our haul from town, load after load, wading though the muddy muck outside that weeks ago was feet of snow. Spring is here and so is the rain and with it the muddy season. But, thanks to being in town, we now both have rain coats to shoulder the season.

Unpacking finished and groceries settled away and it is finally time to rest in our own house, in our own bed, under our own sheets with two furry family members downstairs to greet us in the morning.

The next town trip looms in the future but for now, we are tucked into the woods, warmed by a fireplace, surrounded by mountains, blanketed by rivers and rocked to sleep by raindrops.

Oh home, how I have missed you.

When is Trash Day?

It took me a while after I first arrived here to realize that Trash Day doesn’t exist here. There isn’t one night a week that you’ll run into your neighbors as you line up your cans or watch them in the morning cursing their forgetfulness as they hurriedly place them in a row. There are trash cans everywhere. Trash and recycling duties are performed by the Park Service but they are not for local use. Of course you may occasionally use the cans for typical use (that ice cream wrapper has to go somewhere) but bringing your household trash to the garbage cans? That’s a No-No.

So, then what?

By the time I realized I was living with The Chief (the plans of a building a platform finally put to rest and my boots settled comfortably in what was now Our house) I realized I had a lot to learn about how the house actually worked. As a visitor you (or at least I) kind of gloss over certain details. You toss something in the recycling at someone’s house and then for you the process is done. Until suddenly you live there.

And so I set in to learn just how everything magically went Poof! and disappeared.

Well, I’ll tell you right now it is not magic.

It is, on the other hand, a lot of odoriferous work.

But that’s fine with me. I grew up amongst pungent projects. My favorite household chore as a kid was going to the dump. I loved the sounds and the big machines, wearing “dump clothes” and tough leather gloves. I loved the seagulls and the utter vastness of the pit. It was powerful to me in some way, like looking out on the ocean from a clifftop. Back then you got to drive straight up to the actual garbage pit.

For some reason they stopped allowing people to do that. Sometimes I wonder if it had anything to do with this little girl who fell down into the pit one day because her father threw the rotten 2x4s they were heave-ho-ing into the pit on the count of “3” instead of “Throw” (you know “1, 2, 3, Throw!” vs. “1,2,3!”. It’s the ultimate debate) and she flew into the pit along with the boards. Down, down, down into the vast array of who knows what just as one of the big garbage chewing machines (this may not actually be their technical name) was coming by. The driver couldn’t see her and he was approaching fast. Scared and a bit discombobulated, the little girl started to try to move but she only sunk into the mounds of garbage around her. Thankfully, just then a random dump-goer ran in and carried her out and both escaped unscathed.

Oh yeah, that little girl was me. I spent the rest of the day showering the stink of adventure off of me.

So, needless to say, I’m familiar with taking care of my own garbage and used to the odors it can produce. Or so I thought.

The thing is, I’d grown soft. After years of Tuesday Trash Days and Monday night meet and greets with the neighbors over the lining up of our refuse, where the trash went and how it got there weighed less heavily on my mind and depended on very little more than a short walk from me.

So, fast forward to moving to the woods which obviously (obvious now, not so much at first) does not have Trash Day. What does one do?

One of the biggest issues with trash here is storage until it reaches the next step of transferring it to town or if it’s burnable, burning it. It makes sense, of course, but if I had been without The Chief, I can see myself piling trash outside and coming home one night to a bear dinner party that I was not invited to join or disrupt. Trash needs to be secured. So we have 55 gallon drums that we’ve purchased to store trash until we can take it into Town.

For now.

In the Summer, it may be another story. You see, the bears can undo the drum latch. I can barely undo the latch with two hands and two thumbs and a pair of work gloves. It’s a challenge every time but a bear? He can pop that thing open like Popeye and his spinach. So, we will have to test it and see how it fares.

Hopefully it will fare better than the freezer last summer. Which brings us to the next issue: getting rid of bigger items. It’s been said many times around here that this is often the final resting place for the things that find their way to the woods. From cars to tank tops to snow machine seats and 4-wheeler tires, things are used and re-used and re-purposed till the end. But when something no longer works and cannot be fixed, then what? Start a junkyard?

It feels strange to see “junk” in the middle of the woods but getting items out is always harder than getting them in (and getting them in is often darn hard. Need building supplies for your house? Unless you want to/have time to do 50 truck loads 8 hours each way yourself, you’re going to need some help from freighters). So last year when a hungry bear came to our house every night and made meat popsicle out of our stored food and broke the freezer, what was there to do? The freezer no longer worked, the food was ruined. Ah, clean up, you can be such a disgusting charade. And now we had a freezer on our hands that didn’t work and was broken past repair. The plan? Haul it out. Someday.

The next issue of life in the woods is recycling. Alaska has a pretty detailed recycling system. All items must be clean and sorted appropriately (there’s seemingly one billion different plastics classifications), bottle caps removed and non-recyclable items not included (even if they say they are – Costco apple cases? They seem to be recyclable. They aren’t accepted in Alaska. Surprise!). We have a recycling bin inside the house that then gets bagged up, taken outside and then eventually sorted into many different bags. However, the sorting process doesn’t always/can’t always happen immediately (sorting recycling at 20 below zero just doesn’t always appeal to the senses) and sometimes on the way into town there just isn’t room enough to take loads of recycling. So, it starts to pile up. Since we are heading into town again, I decided to tackle the recycling. It’s contents range from Fall until now so needless to say, the job was sizeable. Thankfully, it being Spring and all, a lot of the ground had melted around the bags but some were still frozen in and had to be shoveled out.

About 20 bags and countless amounts of old beer spilled on me later, we were sorted.

 

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Seeing dirt for the first time in months

 

We started to debate how much we would actually be able to bring with us. With a barrel for fuel and all that recycling plus 4 bags of trash, things were getting a little crowded, and we still had that old freezer plus countless other random items that needed to be retired for good. We settled on putting in as much as we could and leaving a day early in order to complete all the dump and recycling runs. But, we ran into a much better option. A friend had started a trash and recycling business last year and was taking a trip out, his first big run of the season.

 

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Way to load it, Mr. E. By the end of our drop-off and few other neighbors, this thing (plus the attached flatbed plus a horse trailer) will be chock full of recycling and trash

 

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It’s not just for ponies anymore.

Residential services were available and so we called to see what he could take. We hustled all day to get as much gone as possible which meant cleaning out another freezer that had stored the rotten meat from the bear encounters with the other freezer last year. A lot of gagging and bagging up meat turned unrecognizable and we would finally put to rest the bear debacle that started 8 months ago.

 

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Don’t puke, my love.

 

That’s how things go out here, in stages and never as fast as one would hope. But now we could see the end in sight. We piled the truck high with our first load and then our second and slowly but surely improvements to the property were becoming noticeable.

The Chief had done a day of falling trees for our friend who was running the trash business and so the beauty of the barter and trade system that flourishes out here was put into play. Just for us to haul the freezer to the dump would have been $100, plus gas and time, plus it would have taken space away from hauling in other items. Our friend was able to do it for much less and all in all, credit from a day of work from The Chief paid for a day of hauling trash and recycling from our friend. Any time something out here is made just that much easier, it means the world. Saving a day at the dump (even though I still do love going) means that we can spend that getting the property even more ready for Spring before we leave, for as the snow melts it’s amazing the treasures (and trash) I’ve found.

The dog we are dog-sitting (he’s our nephew) came in one night biting at his paw. He allowed me to look at it and I yanked out the molar below.

 

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The next day, as the snow had melted exponentially more, he came up with the whole half bear jaw and some claws.

 

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Thankfully now there’s a way to get rid of the trash we find amongst the treasures on a regular basis and a way to avoid potentially creating bear amusement parks in our backyards. It makes the “hard” life we live just that much easier so we can focus on other Spring things like getting the garden ready and switching out Winter boots for Summer boots.

Cheers to Spring time (I’ve finally given in) and all that it unearths.

 

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Ah, and a brief sidenote: The Chief is named The Chief over here at Beneath the Borealis not because we are ensnared in some hierarchical patriarchical relationship where he reigns supreme but because of his profession. He is the Fire Chief of the town and thus, The Chief seemed a sweet moniker for the man I spend my days with. So no, don’t worry, I’m not bowing before him or asking for permission to sneeze. We are partners. Different in our talents and equal in our value.

Lumberjane and the Not So Easy, “Easy Tree”

I did it.

I took down my first tree.

When we arrived in December the idea of logging was very Disney-esque to me. I pictured a bearded Lumberjack in plaid yelling “Timber!” as a gargantuan tree fell, crushing smaller trees on its way down and sending nature all around it off in a hurry. Birds chirping, squirrels chattering, the forest awakened by the sudden change. And then, the Lumberjack would throw the logs over his shoulder and whistle as he walked away to a warm cabin not so far away.

In all honesty, this wasn’t so far from reality, but it definitely brushed over a few major aspects.

First, apparently, we don’t yell “Timber!” anymore. This was a real shocker but I believe I can get the momentum going to bring that one back.

Second, there’s a lot more involved in falling a tree than chopping or sawing through it. First, there’s the picking out of the tree. Here, we try to always avoid green wood (trees that are still alive), at least for firewood. That way it doesn’t have to cure as long before you can use it and you’re not killing a tree without reason. Finding a tree that is dead but “healthy” (meaning not rotten or taken over by beetles, etc.) is a good challenge especially when coupled with the reality that you’ll need to find a tree that won’t get “hung up” on (fall into) other trees. You spend a lot of time evaluating the lean and shape of the tree and its surroundings.

Then, there is cutting it down.

There are three cuts. The first is a level (as perfectly level as possible which is difficult when you are holding a saw that is too heavy for you) cut about a third of the way through the tree. The second completes The Face Cut and angles down into the tree from above the first cut and meets up at its edge. It creates a cut-out like a big slice of watermelon. This cut is awkward and hard. All sides have to line up. All the while, you are watching your tree, watching for movement, checking your lines to make sure the cut is accurate, level and correctly angled. Then, you make your Back Cut. It starts at the back of the tree, a bit above the level of the first cut (if you’re actually looking to cut down a tree please take don’t use this as a manual – there are precise measurements for how much above the Face Cut one goes and information on angles and techniques a plenty, but not here my friend). It too must be level but you need to be able to trust your saw skills enough to not have to watch yourself cutting and instead be able to affix your eyes to your tree. Is it moving? Wobbling? Does it look like it’s going to fall where you want it? If not, it’s time for some quick moves. Oh, and speaking of quick moves you always need to be aware of your “out”. Playing If the Tree Falls This Way, I Go This Way isn’t just a game for fun. You need to look at your surroundings and see or create (cut down nearby branches, etc.) your escape for if something goes wrong.

Third, you don’t always wear plaid and the forest animals (at least in the Winter) are tucked away sleeping, not jabbering about your falling technique. It’s relatively quiet (well, at least until the chainsaw runs).

Fourth, there’s a lot of clean-up involved and a day of tree falling is always accompanied by a lot of brush work which thankfully normally leads to the day ending with a bonfire. Oh, and hauling the logs is not done on the shoulder, double barreled. It takes smart angles and momentum (and sometimes two people) to get the lengths into the sled. After which you drive them with your snow machine to your drop spot (ours is in front of our woodshed) where you tip the sled over to empty it and head back for another load again and again until the logs are all moved and you’ve finished hauling brush and brush and brush.

Fifth, safety is cool. Ear protection and eyewear, though both may make you look like a bug (you’ll see what I mean in a later picture) both are protecting some serious assets. Wear them.

So clearly, Disney had led me slightly astray (insert little girl gasping sound!). I had a lot to learn when it came to cutting down a tree. From picking one out to cutting techniques to safety precautions, the more logging we did the more I realized how little I knew and my goal of cutting down a tree before Winter’s end started to seem like a pipe dream.

Besides, I was really good at running the clean-up effort. I could knock off branches with the swish of an axe and had learned to maneuver logs that were almost as tall as me into the logging sled. I had made progress. So what if I didn’t take one down on my own? I mean, if you’re there to lick the spoon and clean up the mess, it’s basically like you baked the cookies, right?

Not really. But with Winter coming to an end and logging becoming more difficult in the shallowing snow, I had kind of resigned myself to waiting for next year. Kind of.

I think The Chief sensed this resignation but knowing how much I had wanted to do it, he found a way around it. We didn’t have to go to the trees and try and pull sleds in melting snow. The trees were right in front of us.

So, one Sunday we decided it was First Time Falling Day. The Chief picked out a near dead tree on the property that needed to go and off we went. Well, sort of.

We went to get the chainsaw (the smaller of the two, still too big for me) and it was gone. A little sleuthing sent us to the neighbor’s house but on the way there we heard a ruckus.

Two dogs and two people arrived at our house just as we rounded the corner towards the opposite direction.

**Sidenote: one of my favorite things about this place is that everywhere you go, humans and dogs are either in equal numbers or the people are outnumbered. It’s pretty much Heaven on Earth.

“Well, I guess that project is on pause” The Chief said.

I couldn’t believe the relief I felt. I had felt a twinge of it when we couldn’t find the saw but just figured I was being lazy. Now, the relief of knowing we were being derailed by visitors and I wouldn’t have to attempt the fall made me relieved which also made me annoyed at myself. But I tabled the realization as I swallowed my frustration with myself and went to meet the droppers by.

An hour and an invite to dinner and music by an outside fireplace later and I figured that the derailment was final. No trees would be dropped today.

Wrong.

The Chief was ready. We were taking down a tree and by We he meant Me. I was weeble-wobbling back and forth. I was feeling nervous but I did want to try. We headed back towards our neighbor’s house and found the saw. It had been taken apart.

Aww shucks, I guess we can’t cut today!

Wrong (again).

We headed back home where The Chief showed me how to put a saw back together again. We re-upped all of the oils and gas and we were ready to go…sort of. A ponytail suddenly felt highly important and I excused myself to go inside and attend to this must-have. Inside, I got my battle gear on. I had been wearing running pants and a baggy sweatshirt. I did not feel the part of a Lumberjane. A ponytail, snow pants, tougher boots and a zip-up later and I was feeling a little more put together and a little more up to the task. Next time I think I’ll reach for the charcoal too and give myself a little warpaint. That’ll do the trick.

So, a personal pump-up later and I was ready. Except I hadn’t run the chainsaw in over a month and I needed a little re-teach. The one thing I immediately remembered was how awkward the saw feels to me. I am left-handed (insert ominous soundtrack here). Our saw is not. I consistently grab for it with the wrong hands and consistently see things backwards, flipping it over on the wrong side or angling from the opposite side I’m supposed to. It’s like working in reverse. As I became reacquainted with the saw and got it running (nothing feels more Lumberjane-y than pulling to start a saw and getting the cord choked up. Nothing flips over except your pride) I started looking at the tree The Chief had handpicked for this newbie.

It seemed a little crooked.

 

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It’s the bigger of the two on the right. The one with the gangsta lean right behind target practice.

 

The reason it seemed a little crooked was that it was a little crooked. Pretty darn crooked, if you asked me, but hey, I’m the newbie, what do I know?

We started discussing the plan of attack and the moment came when we both realized that maybe the tree was a little crooked for a beginner, but as per usual, true Alaskan style always likes to take you out on a limb so we decided to go for it.

**Sidenote: The moment that made us realize this tree was a toughie was when we realized that I would have to brace myself on one knee in order to make the first cut. Ah, how valiant! A kneeling cut. How very fancy!

Having a saw blade running near you is an intense feeling. It’s waves of excitement mixed with waves of caution. It’s a heightened state where your every move is precise and premeditated.

Or, you’re like me and still trying to get the hang of the basics and your attention is all over the place. But, putting a saw above and in front of your face will help to focus your attention.

The first cut was pretty simple (other than flipping the saw over the wrong way at first – again, lefty problems). The next, the one to create the melon slice, was a little harder. The ground was mossy and icy and it was hard to find balance with a too big saw overhead, much less to create a perfect angle. The Chief had to help guide me but eventually the ends met up. We evaluated the cuts, looked from behind them to see how we thought the tree would fall and decided that we were lined up as perfectly as we could be.

Time for the back cut.

About halfway through The Chief yelled for me to look up. I had been so focused on getting through the cut that I hadn’t even checked on what the tree itself was doing.

She was wobbling.

“Keep going, but watch her as you go” The Chief shouted over the saw and our ear protection.

I did and then I started to hear cracks. The tree was falling. Falling. Falling.

Right into the clearing we were aiming for.

I turned off the saw and just watched for a moment. Everything during the cuts is so loud and so intense that once the tree falls everything suddenly feels very quiet. There’s a finality to the moment that was somewhat lost on me until I cut the tree down myself. A pause. An honoring. A thank you for letting us use your fuel to heat ourselves. And a nod to the cycle you’ve changed and the new cycle that will begin.

From this…

 

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To This…

 

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Little tiny nature miracles wake you up from the quiet.

And then…there’s a celebration. At least there was in our case. There were hugs and high-fives and smooches to be had.

 

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See, we look like bugs, but safe bugs.

 

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Not completely dead, but totally rotten. A beauty, nonetheless

 

My first tree!

“To the first of many” congratulated The Chief.

 

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Yes, a little crooked, I’d say.

 

Since we were now somewhat late to dinner we decided to buck up the tree (cut it into lengths that are more easily manueverable. Later they will be cut into lengths that will fit into the  fireplace and later will be chopped into wood for fires) when we had time to do it right. Maybe I’d even do it on my own when The Chief was at work (maybe, probably not but at that moment anything seemed possible).

The Chief headed off to check on a charging 4-Wheeler battery and I went inside to get ready. I was starving, all that adrenaline had gotten my heart pumping but I knew we were headed to dinner so I looked for something quick and settled on some salami. Normally, I would cut up smaller slices, maybe with some cheese and apples and sit for a snack but no way, this Lumberjane was tough and in a rush. I cut off a chunk and popped it into my mouth, bit down and…

broke off a piece of my tooth.

 

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I think I swallowed it too, just for good measure.

 

What in the heck? I just had a chainsaw inches away from my face, running full throttle. I just cut down a 45ft. tree and I come inside and break my tooth on salami? Something is wrong here. Or actually, perfectly on point. Of course that would happen here. Just when you think you’re safe and solid, a little reminder heads your way.

Don’t get cocky.

Do call a dentist.

Well, eventually. It’s not all that bad, The Chief couldn’t even tell which tooth (it’s the bottom left front tooth) but my tongue sure could. I kept feeling the newly rough crag over and over throughout the night. At first I was annoyed with myself. How careless. But then I decided instead to see it for what it was: a good reminder of how fast a slip-up can happen and to listen to your intuition.

Something had whispered to me that I should cut up the salami and maybe if I had the peppercorn that broke my tooth wouldn’t have hidden so well but I didn’t listen and so I met the consequences. I realized that I was lucky that it was this small reminder of how fast things happen out here (and how far away a doctor is) instead of a reminder in the shape of a chainsaw accident.

Yes, I cut down a tree and yes, it was cause for celebration but no, it does not make me a skilled Sawyer by any means.

Maybe a Lumberjane in Training though, I’m good with that. And as long as I remember that I’ll be in training for a long time, as long as I remember not to get too big for my flannel shirts, well then I’m happy to keep learning and earning the name of a Lumberjane.

 

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Driving Lessons: Shifting in the Snow

I love driving, I always have. Since I was little I remember not being able to wait for the day that I would get behind my own set of wheels and race off into freedom.

Yet my love of driving exists despite my initiation, which went a little like this:

“Dad, I really want to learn to drive the truck” (the truck was a Toyota pre-little me, a.k.a probably from the 70’s. She took cooing and caressing everyday in order to start but it only made us love her more).

“O.K. Let’s start” he said as he backed into the lower driveway.

His house had a demonic driveway. There were ditches on both sides (one with a creek) and chunky gravel that left tires spinning and hearts racing. People would come over and once they had made it up the steep gravel slip slide hill of an entrance, they would ask my Dad (or me, eventually) to back their cars out when they left. Some of my friends’ parents who were savvy to the struggle would just drop them off at the bottom of the hill and make them hike the treacherous drive.

It was the kind of hill that you have to lean forward to walk up.

Not the best way to start a play-date but hey, that’s what plates of placating cookies are for.

There were two buildings on the property: the Music Studio (that when approaching the house turned off the driveway mid-hill into a parking spot) and the House (that sat at the top of the driveway).

So, needless to say, when I asked my Dad to teach me to drive that day, I was thinking we would start somewhere a little flatter.

Nope.

I was wrong.

He parked in the lower driveway and we switched seats. I would drive the car up to the house.

Looking back as an adult, this scenario is laughable at best and an ego crusher at worst but as a kid I just figured it was feasible. If he said I could do it I should be able to. Right?

A little background:

  1. I was maybe 8 years old at the time. Even with the bench seat pulled all the way forward my little legs strained to bring my feet to the pedals (I was nicknamed Thumbelina because I was so short while my Dad’s knees were basically up to his ears as he tried to fit back into the truck).
  2. I had never driven anything other than sitting on laps and steering.
  3. The old truck was a stick-shift.
  4. We were parked in the driveway, requiring us to go uphill at a 90 degree turn in order to make it up to the House.

It was starting to feel like I had bit off more than I could chew but what did I know? I just figured that’s how one learned. Right?

Well, I sure did learn something: the clutch is a tricky thing and the gas makes you go. Oh, and seatbelts. Seatbelts are a pretty good idea.

I put the car into gear and as I took my foot off the brake we started sliding backwards towards the Studio (the driveway too was on an incline). Geez! That was an unexpected complicating treat.

“What are you doing?! You’re gonna have to give it more gas than that, kiddo, otherwise we’ll crash into the Studio”.

I started realizing that indeed, this feat was going to be harder than anticipated. My Dad’s Studio was his world and the thought of crashing into the glass doors and crushing the instruments and equipment sprang a leak of fear into my heart. I was not going to hit it. I was determined.

And so I prepared again, feeling gung-ho about heading forward this time and well, I really found the gas pedal and head forward we did.

Straight into the creek.

The car engaged and before I could turn the wheel and we shot straight forward, nose diving into the creek that bordered the opposite side of the driveway (seriously, could this thing be any more treacherous? Ditches and creekbeds and gravel, oh my!)

A tow truck later and the car was finally out of the creek and back where it had started in the lower driveway. My Dad showed me how “easy” it was as he drove to the top of the driveway. I had failed and my love of driving was lost. I spent the rest of the day with a tummyache while my Mom spent the rest of the day Mama-Bearing my Dad (thanks, Ma!).

Looking back, he probably could have started me under better conditions. I spent the next few years terrified of driving. My Mom once even tried to get me to just sit and keep my foot on the brake of one car while she moved another where I would then gas it up the easy driveway. No one else was around to help her but I couldn’t. I ended up in a panic. No way. No wheels, thank you.

But, eventually, age and necessity caught up and my fear of driving was slowly replaced by my need for freedom.

Growing up in the boonies (or what I thought was the boonies back then) I was limited to where my feet and my parents could or would take me. My nearest friend’s house at my Mom’s was miles away (after you got up our mile long straight up and down driveway) through backroads with no shoulder and blind curves a plenty. My nearest friend’s house at my Dad’s was so far that the one time I attempted to walk to it my dog Dixie (a puppy at the time) gave up walking and made me carry her the remaining few miles. So, as I started approaching driving age, I got more and more restless to be self-sufficient.

The clear solution? Steal my parents’ cars of course.

My favorite to steal was my Dad’s girlfriend’s car. One, because it was a zippy automatic (I had yet to have a second stick shift lesson and all of my Dad’s cars were manuals) and two because well, we didn’t really get along so the guilt I felt was minimal at best. I know, I know, I am a terrible person…or just a bored and opportunistic country kid (you choose).

However, one day my friends and I wanted to leave and the only car available was my Dad’s stick shift. I took my girlfriend’s word for it that she was an expert stick driver and off we went.

Down the driveway (thankfully the car was already facing downhill),

down the street and…

straight into a mailbox.

After paying for that (both fiscally and in endless variations of the phrase “I’m sorry” for months) I took a little break from my auto theft days and distracted myself with saving for my own car for when I turned 16. Since I wasn’t about to ask for another manual lesson from my Dad (he was still pretty mad about the whole mailbox incident) I ended up buying an automatic and other than a few stints in friends’ stick shifts, it’s been automatics all the way.

Every time I drove a stick shift I loved it. It felt like I was really driving. I desperately wanted one but never had the guts to just buy one and learn how to drive it as I went (what a test drive that would have been).

And so, I stuck to automatics, kicking myself every time a situation arose where someone needed me to drive a manual and I couldn’t help.

Until now.

With the seasons changing here…

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A week ago there wasn’t an exposed rock in sight and the ice sheets were snow machine highways.

I consulted my What I Want to Learn Before the End of this Winter List and saw a lot of unchecked boxes (how did I not become fluent in three languages, become a guitar virtuoso and write a manifesto?) but the one unchecked box that stuck out the most was driving a stick shift. Lucky for me, The Chief has an old SUV that just got up and running again last Fall.

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Don’t be jealous of her lovely lady lumps n’ bumps.

It was time.

A few minor bumps in the road arose:

  1. I had never driven in the snow. Not in an automatic. Not ever. Now I was going to learn a stick shift in Spring snow (read: ever changing conditions, enormous puddles, sheets of ice, ruts and slush…oh joy!)
  2. I could barely reach the clutch again (seriously?!)
  3. The car is lovingly called “The Jack in the Box” because it’s shocks are so shot that when you hit even the tiniest of bumps it rocks back and forth and up and down for what feels like eternity, just in time to hit another bump and start the rock and roll all over again. Basically, it’s like driving a boat through big seas. But hey, I’ve got fishermen in my family. I can brave the seas.
  4. The ignition. The ignition is an exposed bundle of wires attached to where the key normally goes. In order to start the Jack in the Box one must first acquire a flathead screwdriver. Upon acquistion one must find the “sweet spot” in order to be able to start the car. Nervous? Flustered? Good luck starting this beast. She requires a gentle touch and a lot of patience (hmmm, this is sounding familiar).

Yet despite these minor issues, I was ready to roll. I’ll have to learn to drive in real snow (driving last month in Anchorage there was hardly any snow. They had to bring in snow on the train for the Iditarod start so, needless to say, it was minimal) someday and if I want a vehicle to drive here it’s going to be this one so why not throw it all together at once? This seems to be a common theme here: try the hardest way first. And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Jump on in, the water is intense but after this you’ll be able to swim in anything.

Learning Day: The Chief popped Jack into 4-wheel drive, backed out of the parking spot, and brought us to the main road. The road may have been covered in snow and rutted to pieces but at least it was flat(ish), wide and a long straightaway (Dad, if you’re giving any driving lessons these days, take note). We switched seats. The Chief gave me the rundown (oh, that probably would have been helpful back in the day too). I started the car with the screwdriver on my first try and…we were off. Just like that.

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Snowy? Check. Gorgeous? Check.

 

And then we saw an approaching 4-wheeler and all of the lesson went out the window as I panicked and stalled. The 4-wheeler carried a neighbor who wished The Chief “luck and safety in his teachings”.

Minor embarrassment aside, the rest of the lesson got us all the way to the footbridge (our final destination) from which we could walk into Town. I did it!

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The Footbridge into Town

Sidenote: there is a vehicle bridge that takes you into Town but at the end of Winter money is scarce and an investment like a bridge key for a couple hundred dollars sounds a lot worse than just parking at the Footbridge and walking into Town (that’s what feet are for anyways, if they’re able).

After that, I figured we would practice when we had time. I wasn’t completely comfortable, surely not ready to be on my own but I felt confident and proud.

Surprise!

It started to rain. The already melting snow turned to slush and just as my work week started the snow machine trails turned to mushy rock-laden crash traps. I drove anyways. It wasn’t that bad, right? After narrowly avoiding one rock, only to catch the tip of the ski on another and driving over dirt on some parts of the road to Town, The Chief and I decided it was best to stop using the machines before we ended up breaking something (on them or on us).

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Since the rains this is the best this road has looked. Ruts and all.

No problem, right?

Oh, except for that minor issue of getting to and from work twice a day (split-shifts). Well, one option was that I could become a half-marathon runner and clock 14 miles per day going back and forth. Or, I could test just how solid I was in the statement that I wasn’t ready to drive by myself yet.

I’m down with exercise but 14 is about 10 miles too many to walk, run or ski in any given work day. And so, I set out on my own.

The first morning driving on my own the temperature had dropped below freezing the night before and the windshield was a thick layer of ice. There’s nothing like rushing to obtain the calm, cool, collected demeanor necessary to start the Jack. After running back and forth to the house for credit cards and hot water to scrape and melt the windshield there was finally a shred of visibility large enough to gain exit (I had forgotten about the back window but there wasn’t enough time. Besides, that’s what mirrors are for, right?). I tried to start the car. I failed. Deep breaths, Julia-San. A few hurried belly breaths and a few attempts later and the car finally started. I had to give it extra oomph to back the Jack out of the frozen puddle it was parked in and then panicked as I flew backwards towards the 90 degree turn I needed to complete in reverse in order to right myself towards the driveway exit. I slammed on the brakes.

I forgot the clutch.

Stalling is humbling. It teaches you to pay better attention, slow down, take a moment.

I wasn’t in the mood for a lesson.

Three more stalls later and I was high-fiving myself for having avoided the trees and other vehicles around me. I was finally facing the right way. I made it out to the road only to see that indeed, conditions had changed overnight (as they always do, yet still I am always surprised). It was no longer the puffy little snow drive I had been hoping for. Nope, the road had become a skating rink.

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As I slid towards my destination I saw the next changed condition: snow melt and rain had caused huge puddles to form and the freeze the night before had caused sheets of ice to form on top.

Oh joy!

I geared up and headed through, finding out (as I hit one) that large rocks were also in this mixed bag of road dangers. The Jack bounced and bounded through the puddles rocking me to the next challenge: a small river had formed. I waded through slowly, too slowly, so that I almost stalled again but I figured four times of stalling was the charm, I didn’t need more, and so I was able to gas it through.

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This was made by…

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this. Which was made by melting snow. A week ago all of this was fluffy white snow machining paradise.

A few fishtails later and having avoided crashing or falling off steep banks I made it to the footbridge. I had gone outside to start the car at 7:15. I had driven 3 miles and it was now 7:42 am and I had to be at work in 18 minutes which was about a mile away still, over the footbridge and through the woods, which in slushy snow is slow going. But I couldn’t help pause for a celebration dance. I was on top of the world. I had made it! I hadn’t planned on driving solo for months but in true Alaska style, she had other plans for me. I stopped to celebrate my first voyage.

 

 

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Celebration dance not pictured. Celebration face, pictured.

and hurriedly slipped and slid my way to work to play dish pit stained glass:

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Just like with the snow machine, practice makes perfect and although the split shift can be tough, it’s been great for practice. Four trips per day for my shifts last week has made me confident, but anytime that starts to turn into cocky, Alaska will send a little fishtail action my way or an unseen rock to send me bouncing. Just like every lesson here, it comes with the requirement of respect and the check of ego. If you get too big for your britches the stitches will rip.

And so, britches intact (though with some patches) I try to remember that each day is different. Some days I’ll wake up to blue skies and a defrosted windshield, others I’ll wake up to rain and still others to a frozen Jack in the Box. That’s the deal.

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Without the snow melting and re-freezing, I never would have gotten to see this little ice gem. Everyday adds to the next.

Either way, I’ll still finally be driving (and stalling) a stick shift, a lesson that started 21 years ago. And no matter the weather, I still get to be driving here, in the middle of a national forest (**Correction: National Park & Preserve) with my trusty screwdriver and my Lou at my side (who I swear rolls her eyes when I stall but makes me feel safer nonetheless).

Cheers, to the closing of the chapter “Stick Shift Up a Creek” and to the start of “Julia and the Jack in the Box”.

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Even through a shattered windshield, it’s a view to remember.