backcountry

The Weather Gambler

I’ve never been much of a gambler. Despite going to Las Vegas a handful of times, the most I’ve ever lost was $100 and it was $100 a friend had given me to encourage me to “Get on out there!”. Get on out there I did for about 1 solid hour of Juju gambling time and then…meh. It’s just not me.

Recently, we had the chance to gamble twice. You see, the weather a month ago had been absolutely gorgeous. Bluebird skies. Not a cloud in sight. Warm, sunny days.

Summer in Alaska

So, aiming to finally get “out” before the Fall closed in, we had scheduled a backcountry trip (where you fly in an airplane into even more remote Alaska). We met to match schedules with the flight company, deciding each to take one day off from work, and lo and behold, we found the perfect weekend. It was settled.

Then, The Chief’s boss switched around his work schedule. Suddenly, if we took the trip he would have missed one normal day of work AND one day of overtime instead of just one regular day. Being that his work season is coming to a close, the squirreling of dollars has begun and we couldn’t really swing it. Plus, one of the people who had given us the trip was visiting said weekend and we would have missed getting in some quality time with her.

Best friends
Ain’t she cute? Wine bottle birthday cake.


So, novice gamblers that we are, we risked it: Gamble #1: Rescheduling. We scheduled for the last weekend the flight company was open: last weekend. Labor Day Weekend, which also happened to be our one-year anniversary. The visiting girlfriend who had given us the flight and had worked at the flight company had worried that it might be too cold or that we would get stuck in the backcountry. “Go! Dont’ worry, we will see one another soon! I don’t want you to get stuck or not go!” she cautioned.

Stuck?

Yup.

Mid-Summer, it’s actually pretty fun to fly out to places that have difficult landing strips or are prone to weather delays and experience the maybe we will, maybe we won’t adventure of getting stuck in the backcountry. I mean, who doesn’t want more time in the mountains, right? As the Fall closes in, the chances of weather delays and rough landings increases and…this was the last weekend the flight service was operating. So, if they couldn’t pick us up, we’d have to Winter over in the mountains.

Just kidding! But…it would delay their closing if their ability to pick us up was delayed.

Still, the weather had been beautiful and if it were anything near how the weather had been last year at our wedding, we would be totally fine. So, we scheduled it. Labor Day weekend, goodbye! To the backcountry we go!

Fall in Alaska
Blue skied beauty

Right?

Enter: Gamble #2: Rescheduling…Again

As we cruised through the following weekend, post reschedule, the weekend we would have been in the backcountry originally, the weather showed up in style. It was GORGEOUS. T-shirt weather mixed with the leaves turning made for an epic precursor to Fall. Everyone reveled in the good luck we were having. What weather!

The Monday after that weekend everything changed.

Fall in Alaska
Cold and dreary but…beautiful

We awoke to Fall. The sky was overcast and cold, and the temperature was in the 20’s. As Leto and I took our morning constitutional, we looked into the mountains.

McCarthy, Alaska
Weeks later, still snow

Snow.

A lot of snow.

Oh.

The gloomy week continued and as the trip grew nearer, we had a gamble to make: we could go into the backcountry and risk getting stuck or we could cancel our trip until next year.

Cancelling Pros:
1. Next year, we could go earlier in the summer with (potentially) warmer weather
2. We could harvest our garden which, given the current weather conditions, was unlikely to last through the weekend and greet us upon our return
3. We wouldn’t risk missing extra work (more than we could really budget for)
4. We essentially live in the backcountry, so even without a plane, we could get out into the wilderness on our own. This, however, is more likely in Winter though, which means temperatures far colder than Fall weather. But…I’d done it before!

Cancelling Cons:
1. Not being in the backcountry
2. Waiting an entire year to get into a plane and go in the backcountry
3. Feeling like we “never do anything”
4. Staying home and not getting that backcountry release one can only feel when phones are off and all is quiet

Come Wednesday of the week we were finally set to depart, the forecast gave us nothing. It was dark and cold and the predictions were about 50/50 cold with sun to colder with snow. After a dinner sit down we decided to call it: The backcountry would have to wait until next year. Having worked on our garden since March, and trying to stay true to our aim to live better off the land, we would have been devastated to come home to a spoiled crop. And, although there’s nothing quite like the backcountry, we did have one trick up our sleeve:

Long Lake

You see, this Spring we did something crazy. We bought 21 acres of raw land, 3 seasons sight unseen.

Long Lake, Alaska
Thanks for leading the way!

What does that mean? The Chief and I trudged about the property for a month in the heart of Winter. Snowshoeing in hip deep snow to create trails to discover the property lines of the different lots and choose which would be ours.

Alaskan couple
The day we found our lots

We ended up with two and come this Spring, we saw them for the first time in Spring. Come this Summer, we saw them for the first time in Summer. Come this past weekend, we finally saw our property in Fall. Finally, all four seasons, sight quite seen.

The property sits across The Road from Long Lake, a place that has always held a special place in my heart since I arrived. It was, in fact, the first place I ever stayed in our area and it had me from my first mosquito fleeing boat ride across it. I never dreamed we’d actually be able to live there but The Chief and I had always hoped, deep down, that someday it might work out and then…it did.

Alaskan Malamute puppy
Leto, hanging off the cliff-edge at the back of the property. Chitina River below


So, no, we didn’t go into the backcountry last weekend. On Wednesday we decided to cancel and guess what?! Come Thursday morning, the sun was shining bright as ever, the birds were singing and though crisp, the day was “warm”. The night and day shift in weather continued into the weekend and trust me, I doubted my gambling abilities, even going so far as to try to ruin the first few hours of our first day off together by drowning in self-doubt. Still, every time I looked up to the mountains, with its steady accumulation of snow, and down to our garden that lasted just until Saturday morning, when we harvested the last bits, I knew we had made the right choice.

Gardening in Alaska
Rainbow carrots!

To gather some of the backcountry vibe we were so desperately in need of, we turned off our phones for the weekend for the first time in months (hence the lack of photos). We spent the weekend pickling the vegetables from our garden. Carrots and zucchini and cucumbers found their way into jars and basil was hung to dry and set aside with carrot tops for pesto. The tomato plants with their fruit still green, were cut down and brought into the house to ripen on the vine and the last wild Alaskan medicinal herbs that grace our property found their way into tinctures and oils and onto drying racks.

Calendula oil
Calendula oil

It was a tidying up, a recommitment to our base values.

Pickling
Pickles, baby!

Then, it was adventure time. First, a hike out to The Toe of the glacier and then, a night at the property.

Toe of the Glacier, Alaska
Leto at The Toe a few weeks before, chasing a duck in the glacial lake

Being on the property felt magical. The Chief cut down the first trees ever, we started working on our trail and we had our first fire. We spent the night under the stars (it’s Fall, y’all and stars are back!), listening to howling coyotes and hooting owls. By dawn, it had started to rain and we threw on the tent fly, scooped up our Leto and cuddled into our family nest, cozy, safe and sound.

The next day, our one year wedding anniversary, we packed up and headed homeward. We spent the day unpacking and tidying, reading and napping. Then, as the night closed in, we 4-wheelered down to our somehow still standing wedding arch and toasted to a wonderful year together.

Wedding arch
The arch. Thank you, again MT

Our first year of marriage. As we had done during our wedding ceremony, we made vows to one another and promises born from the lessons we’d learned in the year past. Then, as we had done after our wedding ceremony, we walked down to the river, found a rock along the way and hollered our wishes as we threw the rocks in to the icy waters below.

As I tossed in my rock, I looked up to the snow-covered mountains and felt that, for once in my life, I’d made the right gamble. The biggest gamble of them all. I’d unknowingly gambled on Alaska and in it, I found the love I had never dared to dream of. Just like the weather, there have been moments to test me, to make me question myself but always I come back to here, back to you. With all of my heart, thank you to Alaska and to The Chief for gambling on me and helping me to see I’m right where I need to be.

Wedding in Alaska
Still my favorite photo ever


With love,

from Alaska

Fall in McCarthy, AK



P.S. What has been your favorite gamble?

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping The Confluence

In Celebration of Women

Friday before last, I awoke to the day with a sturdy mix of excitement and nervousness.

Today was the day.

What day, you ask?

A day of firsts.

A few weeks ago, about halfway into our puppy sitting the cutest little dude I know (who goes by the name of Kvichak. Pronounced like “Quee-Jack”), a plan started brewing. It all began with crossed fingers and a lot of treats: we were going to skijor. Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of skijoring and I’ve only tried it once before and that was a year ago. Yet there I was, locking myself into a physical agreement with a pooch I’d only heard knew what he was doing. Apparently, that clout was good enough for me.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Huskies in Alaska

That arm…hardcore chillin’.

 

Skijoring is like dog sledding in the sense that the dog wears a harness and pulls the rider. Yet with skijoring, there’s no sled in between. The skier too wears a harness and a mere bungee rope connects the pooch to the skier, entering them into a serious game of trust (hint: the pooch has the upper hand).

After that first squeals of excitement filled run, I was hooked and on the mission to find a setup of our own (as we had borrowed my girlfriend’s and thus couldn’t both go at the same time). In the lovely land that we live, a message board post I put up had us outfitted in no time, thanks to the kindness of our not so nearby neighbors (thanks again, M & P). And so it was that my girlfriend and I could skijor together and hatch our plan:

An overnight.

In the snow.

At a destination attained via skijor.

The plan hatched quickly and then went through iterations too many to count. There was the issue of houses freezing, as my girlfriend’s husband would be out of town on the chosen date and unable to man the house. There was the issue of location and distance and weather and details too many to count but all of those could be navigated.

In truth, the greatest hurdle for me was that of motivation.

The comfort of home can be hard for me to leave and trying new things, especially things that might prove me less than savvy, is hard for this recovering perfectionist. Yet the discomfort I felt around the adventure, before even its realization, was a familiar feeling that told me I had to go.

Mid-week, the plan still relatively unrealized, our momentum sagged. There was a lot to prep, a lot to plan and being that I had never camped in the snow (honestly, I didn’t realize that was even a thing people would opt to do), a lot to learn. The -20 nights had me shaking in my snowboots and so, any easy out started looking nicer and nicer.

Thankfully, after a few more hems and haws, we voted away the easy out.

We were in.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping

Packing quickly took over the house…

 

It was time to get things in order. The night before the big adventure, The Chief and I made some modifications to my sled via a drill gun, paracord and a lighter. Everything we’d need from firewood to sleeping bags was going on our backs or in our sleds. At the night’s end on the eve of our great adventure, weighted down by a few rounds of logs, the pup and I took the sled for a test run. For the first time I too was pulling weight and the short loop around the neighborhood had me winded.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Skijor Sled

 

Gulp.

The morning came and with it my nerves. The weather had warmed but still, we were sleeping outside! Utter badass that she is, my gal pal, a backcountry ranger, (I mean, how cool of a title is that?!) who has logged days on end backpacking convinced me that we didn’t need tents. We would instead be using the burrito method.

Now, I know my food references but this one I’d never heard. Still, the trust of my dear friend intact, I packed a tarp and did not pack a tent.

Gulp.

The morning nerves were soon accompanied by news. As I logged into work, a headline came up on my computer: today was International Women’s Day.

Today?!

My nerves melted away. I felt blanketed in power. Today was a day to celebrate women and I could think of no better way than adventuring out of my comfort zone in the comfort of my girlfriend’s (and two adorable pups’) presence. As soon as I heard the news Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” was playing through my head (and soon through the speakers). Today was a good day already. The half-day workday flew by and in no time…

It was time.

Despite the sleepover being for merely one night, the multitude of necessities was startling. I stuffed extra layers of all types into a stuff sack and packed a parka, bibs, gloves, scarf, extra socks and a hat for the evening. I donned my ski outfit, composed of much lighter fare due to the suddenly warm weather of 30 odd degrees outside, a swift shift from the day before. After bungy-ing and re-bungy-ing my sled and its contents, we were finally off (only an hour later than our planned departure time)!

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Skijor Alaska

 

No turning back now.

 

 

Kvichak and I breezed along, the weight only seemed to encourage him rather than slow him down. We dropped down out of the woods onto the river trail and promptly…

Threw up.

In his wanderings of the neighborhood, the little dude has earned the nickname Kvichak the Kleptomaniac. He’s returned home with everything from a frozen zucchini to compost filters to an empty milk jug and full on logs, not sticks, from neighboring woodpiles. So, I can only assume he found something that was not quite his but quite delicious nonetheless that perhaps hit back when it hit his tummy.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping Husky

Showing off his compost filter steal…

 

He barfed twice and then looked at me as if I was crazy to be concerned and started to pull again. Apparently, all was well. Less than 10 minutes in, one barf session down and miles more to go. What could go wrong?

Thankfully, not that much. There were some epic falls for us both, on all sort of terrain including flat, up and downhill. Sometimes the dog feels resistance and stops. Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s right at the apex of a hill and you have to fight with all your might to pole yourself up that incline. Or slide down backward and have to try again. Other times, you fall. Hard. Aside from falling, a lot of skijoring when you first are training is spent untangling. While Kvichak has an uncanny propensity for not getting stuck despite stopping often to make puppy snow angels, the eventual snag or two (or twenty) are inevitable and you hobble along trying to untangle the pooch back to his perfect puppy pulling potential.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Skijoring in Alaska

Skijoring into the sunset (plus a rainbow).

 

Snags and snafus aside, we made it to camp in about three hours. Wolf tracks graced the latter half of the trail and the dogs perked up to follow them across the frozen river we skijored upon. The sun was setting and the moon was rising as we found our home for the night. The place which had been our goal.

The Confluence.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping The Confluence

Mid-bunny hop (Icefall behind)

 

Where two rivers meet and an icefall marks the spot, we found an area nestled between the river and a higher bank that we thought might provide cover from the potential wind tunnel we were in. Running water could be heard nearby and icefall looked down on us in all her glory. We packed down the snow in our home sweet home as best we could, using the sled as a flattening tool though still punching through. Walking about camp we looked a bit like toddling babies, doing our best to stay afloat amongst the uneven terrain.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Backcountry Winter Camping

Breaking trail to camp.

 

As soon as we had regrouped via a complete change of clothes (Naked in the middle of a frozen river, eh? Never thought I’d cross that one off the list) it was time to build a fire and make dinner. The warming fire kicked right up in my expert gal pal’s, despite the fact that it was built in snow. The light of the flames warmed the dark new moon night. We got out our heating implements and drank tea to warm ourselves as we warmed our dinners. The setting of the sun had brought on a quick chill but still, the night gave no promise of the 20 below nights we’d been having.

Already cold fingers crossed.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Backcountry Winter Camping Alaska

Hello, moon.

 

The pups too ate their dinner which was accompanied by water in order to get them to drink (a common difficulty in the snow). Kvichak looked at me as if I didn’t know who I was dealing with as he expertly chased down the bits of food, avoiding the water like a bobbing for kibble expert. At first, I was worried he wouldn’t drink. Then, he slurped it down. A purist, I see. He left just enough water to show his rebellion which promptly froze in the bowl.

Finally, it was time to see what this burrito sleeping situation was all about. I heated more snow for drinking water as I watched my girlfriend lay on the snowy surface the tarp we had burrito-wrapped (so many burritos!) around our sleds to keep our goods intact on our journey out. She expertly laid both sleeping pads beneath her two sleeping bags and then cocooned herself and her pooch inside. Then, she wrapped the tarp around them. The burrito. 

My burrito ended up more like a taco. As claustrophobia is one of my less-favorable traits, I couldn’t quite get down with the wrapping action and, with a Husky as my companion, he too needed his space. Husky’s are notoriously independent but this cuddlebug did sleep next to me the whole night through.

My girlfriend and I, perfectly packed into our respective Mexican dishes hooted and hollered “Goodnight! Happy International Women’s Day! I love you!” to one another over the fire. I patted the pup and bid us both a good night and good luck. I fell asleep cozy as could be, though about 60% certain I was about to die of cold in my sleep.

An hour or so later I woke up in an overheated claustrophobic panic. Losing layers in a hurry as if digging myself out from below ground, my temperature and panic dropped. Well, I guess I wasn’t dying of cold. I fell back into a cooler, calmer sleep. An hour or so later, I awoke again, this time cold, as the taco ruffled in the windy night. I zipped down tighter as I gazed at the stars before pulling the tarp overhead. Claustrophobia plays second fiddle to cold.

We awoke in tandem, my girlfriend, the pups and I and I let out a hoot and a holler.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping in AK

Morning, sunshine!

 

We had done it! We had camped in the snow, in tarps! Seasoned as she is at such feats, I had known my gal pal would make it, but me, I wasn’t so sure.

Yet I had.

I had slept overnight in the middle of a river in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness on the shoulders of Winter.

Just a few years ago, I’d never heard of skijoing and certainly hadn’t considered camping in the snow in a tarp. Even if I had, the hurdles I would have had to jump in order to make such a thing happen would have stalled me in my thoughts. That morning, as I looked around at the greatness of nature and the ease with which we could access it, I thanked my lucky stars.

After an exceptional oatmeal breakfast, we slowly packed away the camp. I, upon my girlfriend’s suggestion, had slept with my sweaty clothes from our ski in. Why, oh, why you ask?! Same here. Apparently, this will help them to dry. I’d heard this before and met it with the look of a single cocked eyebrow but trusting her as I do, I tried it and…it worked! Sure, they were still a little wet but nothing like the night before when they had frozen to the tarp within minutes of taking them off. I donned the slightly damp clothes, naked again in the middle of Winter in Alaska, and danced about the still uneven terrain to warm from the self-imposed chill.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Huskies of Alaska

Returning from the expanse, looking very tough.

 

Soon, with nothing left to pack but ourselves, I showed Kvichak his harness and his tail began to wag. We skied from one river to the next watching the stories of the wolf tracks dance out in front of us and listening to the river flow beneath. About halfway home, the tired set in. I hadn’t felt all that worked over by the day before’s activities but suddenly they caught up. My pack somehow felt heavier, my legs felt like logs but home was in sight.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping GSP of Skijoring

Homeways is rightways now.

 

I returned home to water easily accessed, not made via my melting of snow and veggies not frozen from exposure. The comforts of home wrapped their sometimes excessively enveloping arms around me but that day they felt just perfect. I fell into bed that night, grateful for the warmth of a non-burrito blanket though missing the stargazing and whispered goodnight to my girlfriend, grateful as ever for her.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Ladies of Alaska

Sunset snowmachine

 

Without her, I wouldn’t have known about skijoring and I certainly wouldn’t have ventured out snow camping. It’s funny how one person can open your eyes, not just to new ideas but to new realities and expanded views of yourself. I know that to some, snow camping is a no brainer, but to me, it was truly daunting and I thank my friend for her guidance into what turns out to be not so scary.

Here’s to the ladies in all of our lives. The ladies who love us, who awaken us to the unknown and who push us just enough to see that our comfort zone is wider than we think.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping Libations

Cheers to you, boo!

 

Happy belated International Women’s Day to all of us, for we all get to experience the wonder that comes from women.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis In Celebration of Women Winter Camping Women of Alaska

Until next time…