Month: November 2019

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

Porcupup

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

 

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

Handsome hubby.

 

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

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

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

 

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

Chester Family photo, September 2019

 

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

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

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

Leto with a face full of porcupine quills.

 

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

The Porcupup

 

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

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

This was bad.

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

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

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

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

Quiet night?
I think not.

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

Tonight.

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

 

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

Still smiling (or just very stoned).

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Still a stoney baloney

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

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

 

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

At least it was a beautiful drive.

 

What a Sunday. What a start to the week.

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

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

Home sweet home.

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

 

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

Hello, handsome dude!

 

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

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

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

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

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

Knit cap brigade.

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan cabbage harvest

Cabin Confessions: Putting Up

I’m not sure what was in the air or the water or the stars this October but for some reason, the month brought with it many confessions. From candid to long-hidden, confessions came from dear friends and new friends alike, as if the month held a sort of truth serum that all of us had unknowingly drunk (for, of course, I had confessions of my own).

In this growing age of online versus in-person, of creating personas based on snapshots and moments in time, it’s easy to assume that another’s life is just how he or she portrays it: downright near perfect. That’s not to say that across the board, we all simply share the good times and hide the bad. I’ve seen plenty of Instagram feeds with hilariously relatable “fails” or beautifully honest posts. Yet overall, the online personas we often see showcase the best of the best of the very best sides of all of us and sometimes, I think that too flows into our in-person lives.

Enter: October

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Leto the Alaskan Malamute

Leto and the new ice.

 

I think the truth is catching and it caught like wildfire. The truth serum must have been drunk at a gathering of gals early on in the month and from there it spread. That night I learned “dirty secrets” (that were neither dirty nor did they need to be secrets) that made me feel…

Normal.

Since that night, I’ve aimed to honor that honesty and spread the good word: we all have things we think are odd, weird, ugly, bad or boring when it comes to ourselves but unearthing those hidden weirdos, bringing to light what you consider bad might just make you feel a little bit of good.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Best Friends

Let’s hear it for the weirdos in our lives! Love you girls.

 

 

And so, in that honest vein, I bring to you: Cabin Confessions, a sort of mini-series within BTB to keep the truth moving through us all, self-included. May it spread your way and help you to feel a little better, brighter and lighter. Or, just a little more normal.

Here goes:

Cabin Confession: Putting Up

Sometimes it feels that upon moving to Alaska, you’re supposed to have already learned all of the “Alaska Skills”.

Chop wood? Of course I can!

Fish? Sure, old hat for me!

Garden? Duh, easy peasy.

Sew? Yep!

Knit? Mmmmhmmm!

Survive in the woods? Yesireebob!

The list goes on and on. The truth is, when I moved here my first Winter I scored about a wobbly, uncertain 1.5 out of 6 on the list above and the above just breaks the surface. Heck, I didn’t even know how to dress myself (and in truth, when the weather changes these days, I still find myself wondering how I did it last season). So, when it came to Putting Up (a term I had never even heard before) I felt my familiar “friend” creep over my shoulder. Hello, Overwhelm.

Four years later, I still feel that sense when it comes to Putting Up food.

What is Putting Up?

Canning fish, pickling cucumbers, drying herbs, making sauerkraut, freezing bulk garden goods, etc.

Basically, to Put something Up means to harvest and preserve something you’ve bought or for more Alaska gold stars, something you’ve grown or harvested (typically in the warmer months), so that you can enjoy it for the colder months to come.

Easy, right?

Confession: Nope. Not for me.

Certainly, some Putting Up I fell in naturally with. I love harvesting, though sometimes I have trouble with the follow-through if the follow-through involves more than drying. Thank goodness for tea!

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, harvesting wild alaskan plants

Goldenrod, Spruce Tips, Labrador Tea, Yarrow, Lupine & River Beauty

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, harvesting spruce tips

Spruce tips (and Leto0

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, foraging for morels

Morels, found by Leto (and Leto)

 

Yet, for some reason, putting up fermented foods has always made me feel more put down, by myself. The phobia I had discovered in California didn’t suddenly melt away upon moving to Alaska (I must have missed the Alaska Newbie Handbook), it froze solid. I can’t tell you how many cabbages I’ve bought at the store to make sauerkraut or kimchi that ended up moldy in the compost. Wasting food out here, where the nearest grocery store is 4 hours away is a serious no-no. Sure, food going to waste happens, but it’s often more of an accident; someone gifted you something you couldn’t quite finish or you had to leave for a few days unexpectedly and your refrigeration failed in some way. It’s not often because you have been staring down your food, too scared to fail and thus too paralyzed to do anything with it, that it goes bad. This year, to ensure I’d really learn the kraut craft, I grew my own cabbages.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, starts from seed

April starts

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan garden starts

Brand new garden bed

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan cabbages

Gigantic cabbages!

 

The pressure was on but it was ok because this year I was making sauerkraut, no matter what.

Yep!

Sure was.

Right?

Nope.

Wrong.

A few days ago, I peeked at my last harvest of cabbages, 5 beautiful cabbages I had been lovingly caring for since starting them from seed in April. Watering, feeding, guarding, admiring every day, watching grow bigger and bigger…

They were rotten.

I’ll give myself a slight out to say that food storage in a tiny cabin where the temperature fluctuates between 90 and 40 degrees almost daily is a challenge but…I had also procrastinated for almost a month since their harvest. Sure, there had been an unexpected Town trip and well, I definitely needed to deep clean the oven…twice. I had procrastinated them into oblivion.

* I did, however, eat these first babies up!

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, giant cabbages

First harvest

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, giant cabbages green

Cowabunga, dude! Enormo!

 

My last harvest of beautiful cabbage babies met their end in the compost, joining the many before them.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan cabbage harvest

The second harvest as the frost came tumbling in. Leto helped a lot.

 

Not only was it disappointing in the sense that all this time and energy had gone into this food that now lay spoiled before me, not only was it disappointing to have lost 5 good cabbages which could have made endless meals if not kraut, but the disappointment that again I had failed after 6 months of preparation was almost too much to bear. I was so disappointed…in me and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had, yet again, failed.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan Malamute puppy

I felt a little bit like this.

 

Thankfully, The Chief was in the next room, a few feet away to hear the sigh.

“It’s OK, we just won’t let this happen next year. It’s OK, Julia. Plus, we still have one cabbage left!”

Oh great, one more cabbage to stare me down as it degrades.

Yet, instead of going down that path, I remembered honesty. I told everyone about my ruined cabbages and as I listened to others lament about kraut cold feet or pickling paranoia I suddenly felt better. Not in the misery loves company way because they were no longer miserable as I was, in the way that I felt I could (finally) get over this, as they all had.

The last cabbage left was a behemoth of a babe that my girlfriend had grown this year. She is an epic gardener (you can read all about it here) and after a dinner date at her house this Fall (read: 2 hours out, 2 hours back. That’s an Alaskan dinner party, if I’ve ever heard of one!) she gifted me one of her gargantuan gals.

I may ruin storebought cabbages and I may ruin my own, but I wasn’t going to ruin hers.

Right?

Finally, the answer was “Right”.

Three weeks later.

Meh, better late than never, right? I had been battling this fear for years, three lousy weeks weren’t going to take me under this time (plus, I had some gentle nudging from a friend, moving me slowly but surely along).

So, three weeks later than I had planned on doing something with her cabbage, I finally did.

1 Quart for experimenting

1 Big Bowl of Potluck Coleslaw for Poker Night

1 Big Crock

later and the enormous cabbage was finally gone and…

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan cabbage harvest making Sauerkraut

Half-way through

 

Kraut is on the way.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Gardening in Alaska, Malamute puppy in Alaska

Finally, I felt like this!

 

I’ve psyched myself up time and time again to do the Putting Up I dream to do here but time and time again, I’ve found myself talking myself down, stressing the details, deciding I’ve failed before I’ve even started and thus, never begun. Perfectionism sure is a sneaky beast that robs you of entering new experiences with lightness or confidence, if you enter into them at all. Yet step by step, uncertainty by uncertainty, I moved forward this time and I owe it all to honesty (and certainly to some truly non-judgemental love from The Chief and friends and to my furry Leto, who sat on my toes or watched me squish cabbage the whole way through).

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alaskan Malamute 9 months old

Ice dance.

 

Opening up about my own shortcomings, or things I just see as such, has helped me to see how normal they are. Certainly, mine may not be yours. You might be scoffing at this little backwoods cabbage waster but I’m certain there is something for you too. Some half-finished project, some goal yet unmet, some hidden habit that you feel guilty or sad or embarrassed about. The good news is: you don’t have to! Who knew?! Feeling bad provides little impetus for change. Feeling bad leaves the cabbages rotting and the sauerkraut supply still empty. So go and tell your tale of your closeted self, whoever that may be. Chances are, the person you tell might really, truly need to hear it and I guarantee you’ll feel better.

Best wishes to you and to all of your quirks and flaws and beauty that make you who you are. You are doing just fine.

Cheers to you.

Cheers to honesty.

May it spread to you and yours and beyond.

With love (and sauerkraut),

 

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, 11-11-19, Post Cabin Confessions, Putting Up, Alpenglow Alaska

Alpenglow time of year.

 

P.S. Do you too have a fermenting phobia? My friends pointed me towards Nourished Kitchen, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and searching Facebook for helpful groups. There are many salt to cabbage ratios but one tried and true method I’ve heard (and tried) is to make it as salty as the sea. If that’s too vague for you, I totally understand. Let the professionals guide your way, it’s not as scary as I thought. I promise.

P.P.S Beneath the Borealis has been featured on Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2019. Thank you, Feedspot! I’m honored. Check the good company we keep here: Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs

This post is dedicated to Danielle. I love you. Thank you for always encouraging me to keep trying new things in the kitchen and beyond.