alaska

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

40 Below (Alone)

40 Below (Alone)

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

A Dillon Beach storm a-brewin’!

 

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

It was Go Time.

Day One:

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

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

Easy, right?

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

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

Mother Nature had other plans.

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

 

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

Sunset ride with the puppers.

 

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

If only it were that easy.

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

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

Day Two:

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mom…you got this?

 

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

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

I do.

I need a hose.

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

 

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

Back to lash-sicle territory

 

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

Strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success!

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

Then, the lights went out.

The generator had died.

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

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

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

Yes, please.

 

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

I love bubbles.

 

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

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

Day Three:

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

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

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

 

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

Driving each other stir cray cray.

 

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

 

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

Moonlit walk.

 

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

Day Four:

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

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

 

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

And the temperature finally above 40 in the morning!

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

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

Steam halos.

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

The Fox and the Hound

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

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

 

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

Two peas in a pod

 

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

Thus, entered his second-ever toy: Elephant.

 

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

Love at first sight.

 

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

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

 

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

Just a couple pups, out for a drive.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

And so, Leto found other ways to amuse himself.

 

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

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

 

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

And ignoring his replacement toy.

 

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

Elephant.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Little tiny, not so tiny.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant was gone.

Again.

 

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

Pouting on the couch

 

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

 

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

So much cuteness.

 

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

Until…

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

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

With love,

From The Fox, The Hounds, and Alaska

 

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

What’s in a Name?

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

Thank goodness.

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

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

 

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

Post-engagement photo courtesy of LB

 

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

“Where will you get married?”

“When?”

“Alaska? Alaska is too far.”

“Whose name will you take?”

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

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

 

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

She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

 

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

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

 

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

Chief Chester

 

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

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

The Chesters.

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

Sort of.

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

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

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

 

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

Chester Lane

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

My little reminder, on my desk still today

 

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

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

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

 

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

Cuteness.

 

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

Sort of.

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

 

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

September 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Should I be Chester or Page?”

Silence.

Nothing.

Everything.

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

Chester.

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

A unit of two.

 

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

Something old, something new

 

Plus Leto. A unit of three.

I finally felt at peace.

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

2nd: Your driver’s license

3rd: Your passport

Badabing, badaboom! Easy peasy!

Oh so very wrong.

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

 

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

3:30 pm sunset.

 

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

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

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

With love,

 

From Alaska

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

Happy Holidays

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

From the three Chesters

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Best Friends

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Last year. Finally home.

 

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

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

 

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

Home sweet California Home (or one of them).

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Alaska

The back-backyard.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Alaskan Home.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

I’ll miss my O snuggles for sure.

 

With love,

from Alaska

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

and Leto at 3:30 pm.

 

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

Porcupup

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

 

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

Handsome hubby.

 

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

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

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

 

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

Chester Family photo, September 2019

 

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

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

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

Leto with a face full of porcupine quills.

 

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

The Porcupup

 

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

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

This was bad.

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

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

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

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

Quiet night?
I think not.

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

Tonight.

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

 

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

Still smiling (or just very stoned).

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Still a stoney baloney

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

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

 

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

At least it was a beautiful drive.

 

What a Sunday. What a start to the week.

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

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

Home sweet home.

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

 

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

Hello, handsome dude!

 

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

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

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

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

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

Knit cap brigade.

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.

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19, McCarthy Alaska

Back to the Waves

A week ago we returned home from a week in Anchorage for a Town Run.

Town.

{insert ominous music}

As we drove out, we waved to passersby on The Road (our 60-mile dirt “driveway” that leads to the “town” we live just outside of).

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19 Malamutes of Alaska

Helllllooooo!

 

Around here, we wave to everyone. Everyone does. It’s a sort of natural reflex we all seem to feel out here. Everywhere I go, every person I pass, I wave a greeting of “Good day”.

Yet, that’s not true.

As we hit the pavement, the waves continued…until at some point they didn’t. Around 4 hours into the trip they just stopped for both of us automatically. It wasn’t due to waving fatigue, those muscles are strong, (waving fatigue, a real killer. But, like I said, we are seasoned wavers) it was something different.

By the time we reached Anchorage, waving was no longer a part of my repertoire, it wasn’t even a consideration.

Perhaps it’s due to the reality that even a seasoned waver might get fatigued with all the faces to greet in a big town. Perhaps it’s the fact that in all likelihood, you’ll never again see most of the people you wave to in a city whereas in the woods, you may not know the person but in all likelihood, you eventually will. Maybe it’s because in a city we are all too busy. Maybe it’s because a city feels as if it belongs to no one and a small town feels as if it belongs to everyone. Everyone gets a Mayoral wave. Maybe it’s because out here we are rarely anonymous and out there we almost always are. Perhaps I’m just missing the wavers. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to wave first.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

In all the hustle and bustle of Town, contemplating waving fell far back in the line of things to do and I promptly forgot about waving altogether. With our wedding date fast approaching and a litany of lists of To-Dos, and the simple fact that we were in Town, my contemplation didn’t get much deeper than How Do We Do Every Single One of These Chores Done in Not Enough Time to Do Them? and Oh No, I Forgot to Eat Again! What’s Close and Quick?

Town is a jungle for us. We navigate our way through traffic and hike through lines of people. We get cut off and passed at 90 on the freeway. It’s intense going from one extreme (where I swear I haven’t driven over 30 mph in months) to the next but in all honesty, the place gets a bad rap. There’s a great art scene, delicious restaurants, fun cocktails, and beautiful trails. The truth is, it gets a bad rap because we rarely get to enjoy the benefits of Town. It’s in and out and rushed all the way through.

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19, Get Married in Alaska

Chores galore. Even this became a chore…but we did enjoy ourselves.

 

We ended up staying at our best AirBnB yet tucked next to a sweet little creek on a trail system with salmon swimming upstream and ripe raspberries prime for the picking in the backyard. It was tranquil and idyllic and still we had next to no time to try to soak in the meant to be mini-vacation (unless, of course, you consider walking your dog at 11 pm soaking it in because damned if I wasn’t going to walk the trails, even if it did have to be after a 12-hour chore day). It wasn’t all rushing, we did get to see some great friends, try a cardamom cocktail(!) and enjoy some delicious eats, just all with a steady level of hurry packed in with them.

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19 Cardamom cocktail

Cardamom & Star Anise? Yes, please.

 

After our unanticipated week in Town (we meant to be there for 2 days but realized we had chores enough for 10) we were beyond ready to be Home. We hit the pavement, leaving Anchorage at a bright and early 12 noon. Ouch. The 8-hour drive stared at us menacingly, but we didn’t care. We were pointed in the right direction.

It’s funny how quickly we can change, adapt, forget. Within 7 days I had gotten used to getting a mid-day coffee or chai and so as we drove towards Home I pondered which I would order when we stopped for coffee…

In the middle of nowhere?

Nope.

As the city fell into our rearview I realized I was 4 hours out from the nearest coffee shack which just might be open when we got there. In just one week I had forgotten that a coffee stop wasn’t just a few streets away at all times.

Then, I had to pee.

This time, the realization that we weren’t in Town was a joyous one. Having to pee in Town means lines, people, sometimes a purchase, waiting. Having to pee in the woods (or at least on your way) is a simple switch of a blinker and a slow down. The Chief pulled the truck over and Leto and I each found our spot and within a minute, we were back in the truck, back on our way Home.

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19, Malamute puppy in a wedding.jpg

Happy puppy, tucked beneath a mound of flowers.

 

Within a week I had gotten used to some aspects of Town and forgotten the way we do things. The new normal happens so fast.

Four hours or so into our drive, it happened.

We both waved…

to a stranger.

And the stranger waved back.

It hit me then. I hadn’t realized our waves had stopped in the city until that very moment. That wave brought me back all that we were driving towards. To the calm I feel out here. The connectedness.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some city time. I love the art and the culture and the variety and sometimes the anonymity but I also love predictability. Friendly familiar faces. I love the wide-open spaces and the feeling of being known, even by strangers. That simple wave, that automatic reflex reminded me of the goodness and the simplicity that sweet gesture makes me feel.

Yet as the week has passed since we’ve been home I’ve pondered: does the act of waving have to live in such a dichotomy? Is it a Venn Diagram with an empty center circle or am I creating this image? In the last month, I’ve done more online shopping from our tiny cabin in the woods than I’d like to due to the sheer fact that I can’t just pop on over to any store to get what I need. I’ve brought the metropolis to me (my aching wrists can vouch for this). Further, while in Anchorage, I saw Steelhead swimming upstream in the most relatable of struggles: life. I walked in the woods by simply stepping off concrete and our pup bathed in waters minutes from our home away from home.

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19, Sockeye Salmon

Can you spot the Salmon?

 

The city finds the woods and the woods are found in the city. They aren’t that separate after all.

It’s easy to feel solo in the city, to feel like your anonymous life doesn’t impact others. To sit in your car facing forward and never make eye contact. I’ve done it. I did it for a week straight. I shifted into city mode. Yet the reality is, we are all humans, always, anywhere, despite the veneer a city can provide to make us forget. And, of course, if I lived in the city I would have my familiar faces and places, I would have my people I waved to.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that our people are everywhere. In the city, in the woods. We are all impacting one another.

So why not throw up a little wave wherever you might be? Maybe at first, it’s small, maybe at first, it’s infrequent. Maybe you get strange looks but in the end, I think the benefit will outlast the output.

I’ll try it if you will.

With love,

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis Back to the Wave 08-12-19, McCarthy Alaska

Hello and goodbye to the sun

 

Speaking of waves, this gal is giving a momentary wave “Goodbye” until after our wedding dust has settled. So, until then I bid you adieu, with a wave, of course.

Everything Changes (Even Your Face)

After the last two loss-filled years we’ve experienced, one lesson has climbed above the rest: everything changes.

Everything.

However, despite its claim to #1 spot fame for me in the Top 100 Lessons of Grief, I have tried to ignore it, despite its shouts.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Intuition

Shout it loud, but we ain’t listenin’.

 

Everything changes.

The impermanence of it all has not left me in some zen-like state of acceptance. Quite the opposite. Rather, the worry that the potential for change has brought for me has left me in a sort of Henny Penny “The Sky is Falling” frantic permanence. Towards The Chief, towards our family, our friends, our little Leto. I considered all of the potentials for loss and tried to make every interaction left on good terms. Live each moment like it’s your last, etc., etc. you know the drill. I thought that perhaps my worry would safeguard us from more loss. Yet this had always been measured outwards, away from myself.

And so in all my worry, I had forgotten to fret about one thing: me, specifically, my face.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done a great deal of worrying about my face, I did, after all, attend middle school and high school in which I’d say more often than not, that people were unfortunately judged first on the constructs of their face rather than the content of their character. I did my best to dodge the disses and watched as beauty unfairly bargained the way for those she bestowed herself upon to the front of the line. Yet, as the years went on, I felt a flip of the switch.

In my 20’s, the first thing one of my boyfriend’s mother said about me when she met me was “She’s so smart.” It made me cry. I realized the tables had turned and I was in a phase of my life where the content of one’s character actually did come into play. It made me want to be a better person, smarter and kinder.

After moving to Alaska and Falling in Love Naked with Cauliflower Armpits I found a further reprieve from the standards of beauty I still (despite smarts or kindness) felt confined by. Although I enjoyed the routine of putting on makeup, I no longer felt required to do it. The choice became mine.

And so, these last few years I’ve worried less about my face. I’ve aimed to embrace my “sparkle lines” as my girlfriend calls my smile lines that ring my eyes and watch the changes that take place as marks of memories rather than the marring of time.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Alaskan Couples

Smiles lines, for good reason.

 

I guess I didn’t worry quite enough.

Early this Summer, after a lovely night planning our wedding menu with friends over probably a little too much champagne, I decided to impress my husband-to-be with a little acrobatics. We were headed home and after crossing The River, we approached The Gate.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Kennicott River

My last picture of the night. On The Bridge, leading to The Gate.

 

The Gate.

This gate is one I’ve opened and closed countless times. We all have. Early in the morning, late at night, multiple times a day. It was high time I spiced it up. “Riding The Gate” is a term my fellow friends are quite familiar with. It refers to when one is opening The Gate and jumps on for a ride. The arm swings open and once it hits its full extension, the gate post sends you back as the car drives through.

Yet I had something different in mind. Something reminiscent of elementary school and flips on the parallel bars.

I took a running start at The Gate and by the time I hit The Gate’s full extension, my speed was such that I didn’t do a flip as planned but rather catapulted myself forward…

Straight down some feet below into a boulder below.

My body went limp and I came to as I felt the reactionary force dragging me and my open mouth backwards through the gravel. I stood up long enough to feel my mouth fill with a metallic taste and the sides of my face grow warm and then cool and decided that I should probably lay down.

I said out loud, to no one in particular: “I’ll just lay down for a moment.”

Needless to say, I hadn’t stuck the landing.

The Chief rushed to my side as I tried to comfort him.

“It’s fine” I promised. “I just needed to lay down for a moment.”

He went into full WFR (Wilderness First Responder) mode, checking my vitals and my comprehension. I went into full bravado.

“It’s no big deal. I just need to spit these rocks out and I’ll be fine” I said as I started to get up.

“Julia, stay where you are. You are not OK. There is blood everywhere.”

At that moment, looking at him looking down at me, eyes wide with fear, I started sobbing. The bravado melted away. It was bad. I knew it was bad.

Other friends and acquaintances crossing the bridge pulled up behind us and ran in shock to our side. From the stifled gasps I could hear as they approached the scene I knew it wasn’t good. The Chief called the head Ranger of our park for backup and once he cleared me for a spine injury we decided to go back to our house to reassess. The entire group followed, all helping, all concerned, all planning our next steps.

We got home and I was determined to clean the wounds to see how bad it really was. The head bleeds a lot and I was still certain that a few bandaids later, I’d be on my way to bed. Our friends helped me warm water for rags. I wetted them and started to try to clear the embedded gravel from my face. The pain was excruciating. I kept trying but within seconds I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I was sick to my stomach from the pain. The Ranger offered to try as well and I sat on my hands on our couch so as not to bat him away in automated self-defense. He kept apologizing as silent tears rolled down my face. It was all we could do. We had reached the limit. We were done for the night.

Or so I thought.

“I’m calling the 24-hour hospital, I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”

The Chief nodded.

Huh?

Before I knew it, someone was making tea for me, another making coffee for The Chief as he fired up the truck and off we headed for a 5 hour trip into the wee hours of the night. Off to the hospital.

Well, this was certainly unexpected.

I waded in and out of sleep, the pain increasing with each opening of my eyes.

We arrived around 5 am to a team readied for our arrival. After trying for over an hour to numb the area (I am apparently one of those people who doesn’t respond to topical pain medication) I submitted to feeling more than planned for. Again, I planted my hands firmly under me as the doctor picked and scrubbed and irrigated everything from rocks all the way down to the glacial silt out of my face. Tears streamed, my stomach seized but a few hours later it was done.

The Chief took a 30-minute catnap as the doc finished the liquid stitches, leaning over me to spread the “good word” as he held the two halves of my face together while the glue dried.

5 more hours later, we were home. The Chief helped me into the shower and gently washed the blood and rock from my matted hair. He tucked me into bed and when I awoke, I thought for just a moment that perhaps none of it had actually happened.

My reflection proved otherwise.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scarring

Good morning, sunshine! The morning we got home. Pre-shower.

 

A split second had changed everything. The face I had come to know and embrace would forever be changed though how it would be changed, I didn’t know.

Everything changes, even your face.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scars in Alaska.jpg

The next morning. Swelling ensued.

 

About five weeks after the accident, the final stitches melted away, the final scab fell and I stood face to face with my new reflection.

Well, hello new me.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Injuries

My first look. Not so worried about those sparkles now, eh?

 

When I first saw the scars I thought “That’s pretty badass” and that has been the overwhelming response from the crowd as well (another is that I look like the ultimate Harry Potter/David Bowie fan). It looks pretty tough and while Alaska isn’t a bad place to look like you can handle yourself, it’s not always the me I want to present. What if I want to look gentle or kind? My blank slate had been slashed. Or has it?

I’ll be honest, my road to acceptance has taken some turns and I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. In truth, it’s been a lot like the road of grief. Apparently, the universe wasn’t fond of my Henny Penny self and felt I still hadn’t learned the Everything Changes lesson, the lesson of impermanence and gratefulness and grace. I’m trying. Some days I love my scars. Some days I forget that they’re there. Others, I’m bombarded with Yikes! What Happened to You’s and it makes me remember.

Sometimes, they fill me with regret, with frustration and self-punishment. Sometimes, I wish I could just wake up and I would be the same old me. Sometimes.

Mostly, the scars make me remember to be gentle with myself. To remember how fast everything can change in an instant. To be grateful that more damage wasn’t done, that my eyes and nose and teeth are safe, that my brain wasn’t too terribly shaken. Mostly, appreciate my scars for what they remind, what they warn, what they promise. Mostly.

Always, my scars remind me that this too will change, as does everything.

The other day, my first Icelandic Poppy bloomed. It was brilliantly, joyously red. It unfurled, beaming with brightness, hope, youth. By the next morning, the colors of the petals had ever so slightly faded. A few days later, the last petal, still beautiful but more muted in her brilliance, fell.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Gardening Poppies in Alaska

 

All good and bad come to an end. What is to follow, we won’t know until we get there but chances are, you will be better off for it. And, if you don’t listen and learn the first time, the lesson won’t fade but will instead find new ways to tell you:

Everything changes (even your face).

 

With love,

 

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Families in Alaska II Malamute

 

// May you be gentle with yourself and not require too extreme of reminders. May you be gentle with those you love and those you encounter. May your last words to those you lose be words bred in kindness because it all can change and it will, in a moment. Let us aim not to let the fear of the future freeze our present. //

Six Funerals and a Wedding

Two years ago, although occasionally mired by a rainstorm or two, our life was pretty much rainbows and puppies, sunshine and ice cream. I’m not going to lie, we had it good.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Couple photo

A Sunday kind of love.

 

I had somehow happened upon the life of my life, despite being tucked in the woods as he was, and we fit together seamlessly. I felt like the knight who had rescued Rapunzel (or however that went) and off we had ridden into the sunset.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom Sunset

Olive grove sunset

 

And then the sun didn’t come up.

Two years ago in August, we lost our dog Cinda Lou in a terrible, and preventable accident.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Cinda Lou's Kingdom

Cinda’s Kingdom

 

Eight months later, the Chief’s mother died suddenly in a car accident the day before his 40th birthday.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Family portrait

Donna, Chris, The Chief & Mychal

 

Less than two weeks later, his grandmother Jane passed.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jane

Sweet Jane.

 

A few months later on a cold morning this Winter, I received a call that my godmother Ellen had passed away suddenly. She had gone in for routine surgery and never come out. She was a beautiful jeweler and we were designing the wedding rings she was going to make for us. Suddenly, she was gone. The news hit me so hard it took my breath away. I sat there catatonic as a meeting for work started. I just stared forward, numb.

Times were dark. It felt as if the world had closed itself off to us, as if we’d hit our limit on happiness. We had been so lucky. Maybe too lucky.

We waded through the pain and stumbled as we reached its new depths. We tried to hold one another close but felt alone. We fought endlessly, our anger at the world had nowhere to go in a tiny wintry cabin and so it found its way towards one another. Still, we remembered how it once was.

And then, a ray of sunlight.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, The sun will come out

Sunshine morning on the olive ranch

 

Somehow, almost suddenly, The Chief and I came together again. The anger lifted. We softened. I hadn’t realized how far we’d gotten from one another, how cold our new normal was. Grief has a way of sneaking you away from yourself, away from your loves without your even realizing. It leaves you alone.

Yet we could finally see we weren’t alone. Our sun was back. We cuddled again, sat entwined on the couch again, lingered in one another’s embrace again. The sadness was still there but for the first time it wasn’t blinding, we could see past it. We could find the beauty in what remained and the excitement for what was coming.

 

 

 

 

 

The Chief’s dad, Christopher was part of that beauty. We grew very close in the month and a half we spent together in California after Donna and Jane’s passing. His consistency made me feel so safe in a time where it felt like our world was collapsing and again he was there when Ellen died and it felt ready to collapse again. Despite the immense pain he felt in the losses, he always found a way to be kind. When issues would arise or plans would change he would simply, softly say “Ok, dear” in a way that made my hardening heart melt ever so slightly. He was a steady port in the storm and I clung to him.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom

Christopher’s Kingdom

 

Two months ago, he died of a heart attack.

The anniversaries of Donna and Jane’s passing had hit us hard in the week leading up to his death. One year gone already. Gently, we navigated through the reminders, trying to remember the good instead of fall deeply into the pit of sadness. Two days after Jane’s passing anniversary (which also happened to be her birthday and Cinda’s birthday) the call came.

The man who had become a beacon of hope for our newly blossoming family, who had tied us all together when the seams started to fray was gone.

He was a man full of surprises. As an ex-military man, full of discipline and prestige, I was intimidated by him at first. I would set alarms just to make sure I woke up “early enough” because I feared he’d think me lazy if I slept in. When I did manage to get up, the payoff was wonderful as I’d get to accompany him on his walks. Every day he walked the property to check on his thousands of olive trees and despite his love of solitude, he welcomed my presence to become part of his norm too.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Take a walk

One of many family walks in the orchards.

 

He was methodical and principled and repetitious to a T but just when I’d think I had him pegged, he would surprise me again. He would send me random texts to say “Hi” or “What’s your weather like today?” with a picture of a bluebird morning at the farm. I once received a text from him with a picture of himself, sweaty as can be, in front of a hot yoga business. Since it was pouring rain, he couldn’t be outside and get his exercise and so, he tried something new. I loved that about him. He didn’t care what anyone thought, he didn’t have to stay put in any idea others had about him. He was his own person, through and through and I will forever wish he were with us still.

Despite his ashes in our living room, his death still feels unreal. I still expect a text from him to remind me not to worry, that he will do all the cooking at the wedding and to offer other help I didn’t know I needed. I still wait for a call to randomly check in and tell us he loves us.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher

C.E.K.

 

These days, the simple ringing of a telephone strikes fear in my heart. I feel fear constantly and picture death and destruction in even the safest situation. I fear for the family and friends I have, for our Leto, for The Chief, for myself. I fear for the worst for I know it’s face, I’ve stared right into it’s eyes and still it doesn’t back down.

Yesterday, the phone rang again, this time to tell me that my grandmother Gam had died.

I had just worked up the nerve to tell of the loss of my father-in-law, to write about him here, to tell his story and what he meant to me. I was not prepared to write two obituaries. It feels odd and unseemly to group two of the most important people in my life into one post, yet they are interwoven, all of our losses are.

My Gam is the reason I feel comfortable calling myself a writer at all, and only because she called me one first. She was the person I was most afraid to tell I was moving to Alaska because I was afraid she’d think I failed her. I was so wrong. She beamed at my choice, prized my passion and applauded my leap of faith. She once told me that if I loved The Chief, I had to love all of him. I hadn’t realized that this was how she had loved me, all along. She was smart as a whip, did the crosswords every day and could hold a conversation with anyone. She was an avid reader, a teacher, a lover of art and nature and jazz and a constant help to those in need. She stood up for herself in a time when women were expected to be quiet and continued that strength until she passed. When she had had enough of you, she would tell you “I’m ready for you to go”. She adored The Chief. He was the only man I ever brought to meet her about which she said “I like him”, with a special emphasis only she could put on “like”. I can hear her say it now. That was a very high regard. She gave us her blessing and when she found out The Chief was planning to propose, she immediately offered him her wedding ring. I wear it now and forever.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jeanne and us

Giving her blessing. Don’t mind the black eye, apparently it runs in the family.

 

I adored her. She was a force to be reckoned with and I will deeply miss her.

I hope, ever so much that these are the last obituaries I write for a very long time and that instead this place holds happiness in its tales of the Last Frontier. I hope with all my might that a phone ringing won’t always make my heartbeat quicken and that in every way I won’t always fear for the worst. I hope The Chief and I can continue in kindness and gentleness and hold tightly to the even keel we once had and that our wedding in September can move us forward, together in love and lightness. I hope our ancestors gather around us to celebrate in spirit. We love you.

I wish for you that you and yours are safe and sound.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Giant Dandelion Wish

A giant wish.

 

With love,

 

from Alaska and a couple of hand holding, “don’t embarrass me, Mom” pups to make you smile.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Husky and Malamute holding hands

Best friends caught in action.

 

The Sunshine Blogger Award

A couple of weeks ago, amidst the unknown of our little Fluff, a comment from a woman named Maggie came up on the blog:

So heartbreakingly beautiful! ( I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Enjoy! https://fromcavewalls.wordpress.com/2019/04/19/sunshine-blogger-award/ )”

A blogger’s award?
For me?
I was completely flabbergasted.
The blogger who nominated me, Maggie, writes a daily blog she started last October as a challenge accepted, a 365-day challenge that is! She is rolling and writing right on through it. Today’s post marks day 214. I am in awe of her dedication to the craft and continuity. Thank you for the inspiration, Maggie!
Check out her blog here: From Cave Walls
So, what is the award?
The Sunshine Blogger Award 2019
The Sunshine Blogger Award is an award given to bloggers by their peers. It is meant to acknowledge bloggers who are creative, positive, and inspiring while spreading sunshine to the blogging community.”
Thank you again, Maggie. I am honored.

 

The Rules: 

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
  3. Nominate up to 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
  4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog

 

Maggie’s Questions:

Where do you find inspiration for your blog?

Everywhere. In nature. In music. In people. In graffiti. In contrast. I think it’s easy for me to get far too serious so I appreciate the time writing makes for seeing things in a light renewed.

Country or city or somewhere in-between?

While I adore cities for all they have to offer, I prefer to visit them nowadays, rather than reside in them.

Have you ever seen a glacier or the northern lights?

I have been lucky enough to experience both! We live just a few miles from two glaciers that are both approachable and awe-inspiring. The northern lights make their appearance all over where we live and we’ve been lucky enough to view them from the comfort of our bed even! Beneath the Borealis was named for the northern lights (the Aurora Borealis).

Where do you feel most at home?

In Alaska in the Winter. I can think of nothing better than listening to a crackling fire in the woodstove while reading on the couch with my love.

What talent do you wish you possessed?

I wish I played an instrument, piano and guitar, specifically. Growing up I was surrounded by musicians and I was always the singer. I didn’t push myself to accompany myself. I hope I do.

What animal would you consider your spirit animal?

Back in the days of honeybadger stardom, I hoped myself a honey badger but…I do give a shit (the honey badger, he doesn’t, apparently). I’d say my inner spirit animal is most like a Lynx and my outer spirit animal, the one most people see is a dog.

Have you ever been on television?

Not that I know of.

Can you play a musical instrument? If so, what?

I play the voice. There’s not much else in the world that makes me feel as free as singing does.

If time travel were possible, what time would you like to visit?

Ancient Rome. I went to the Colosseum in Rome once and it felt like I had been there before. I’d love to see what life back then was all about.

Is music an important part of your life?

Hugely. I always have a song in my head and randomly break out into song. Singing and performing and discovering bands that I need to hear on repeat for forever and a day are the ultimate inspiration to me.

What is the one thing your followers don’t know about you?

One thing that shaped me greatly as a person that I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned was that I used to be a competitive Irish dancer. After I quit, the “Lord of the Dance” became very popular and so when I mention my competition days, it seems silly to people but in reality, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I used to sneak out of class when I was in Kindergarten in order to watch the older girls take their lessons and eventually, after a lot of pleading, my Mom let me join. By then I knew all the beginning dances by heart. Quitting was one of the harder decisions I have made and though I’m glad I did, I still wonder what might have happened had I continued.

 

Here are my questions:

  1. Why did you begin your blog?
  2. What is the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning?
  3. How do you soothe yourself when you’re having a bad day?
  4. What is your ultimate favorite meal or food item?
  5. If you could only recommend one place to go in the world to everyone you met, where would it be?
  6. What is your favorite pair of shoes?
  7. Do you feel like an adult?
  8. What makes you feel alive?
  9. What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?
  10. Do you like where you live?
  11. What do you need to do for yourself to feel good?

My nominees are (check them out, they are superb):

Chasing Piggens

Paul Scannell Photography

The Jealous Curator

The Travel Season

Tales of a Stitcher

Alaska from Scratch

Nizina Naturals

Smitten Kitchen

The Alaska Life

Viola!

Nourished Kitchen

 

Thank you, again, Maggie and to all of you for reading along. I am genuinely honored by your presence.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Sunshine Blogger Award, Alaskan Malamute