blogger

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.

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

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Honeybees

The Fluff

I jumped the gun, counted my chickens before they hatched. I promised exciting news before it was in my lap.

The Chief and I have been milling around the idea of getting a puppy. We’ve gone back and forth and around again until we were furry in the face from all the pups we’d looked at. We were offered three different husky pups, one which was taken back just as soon as it was offered and two that rang just too true to our Lou. Nothing felt quite right. We paused looking on and off for months. I was waiting for our dog to jump from the screen and choose us but it just wasn’t happening. Looking for a pup brought up a mixture of excitement, guilt, and trepidation. It was a step forward into a new chapter, it was a new start that we weren’t totally sure we were ready for and so, it seemed, it wasn’t ready for us either.

There were multiple times where it almost worked, and then at the last moment, we were like ships in the night. Something just wouldn’t line up.

With a girlfriends’ trip to Town fast approaching, I looked like mad for our little furball but the puppy shoes I tried on didn’t quite fit. I decided that it just wasn’t in the cards for us at this moment. We’d wait until after the wedding this Fall and start looking again. I gave myself plenty of reasons why this was the right thing to do and I was pretty convinced.

Almost entirely.

Two days before our ladies’ trip I decided to allow myself one more look. If the “perfect” dog was there, we’d get him.

And there he was.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Malamute Puppy

Cuteness abounds.

 

Our “perfect” dog was not the dog in front of me. He was bigger and in completely the wrong geographic location but immediately I knew that he was our puppy.

After everything that happened in the passing of our Cinda Lou and all of the loss we’ve experienced in the last year and a half, we wanted to make as many guarantees as we could that our puppy would be healthy. This pup had everything in that realm. His Mom and Dad both had bios up with healthy hips and all that goodness. The Mom was a beauty queen and the Dad a mushing dog who could “pull all day”. After a Winter of Skijoring, we were looking for a working dog but also a family dog, a dog who wanted to be our number one. His parents looked healthy and happy as could be. It just felt right. In his picture, he was even standing on the same rug in his kitchen as we have in ours.

The Chief came home for lunch that day and I asked if he wanted to look at one last puppy. I tried to conceal my smile but it was near wrapped around my face. Without pause, his smile erupted too just upon seeing the picture.

“That’s our guy.”

He was the last boy left in the litter.

By the end of the day, I had put a PayPal deposit down on our pup (which is by far the best online purchase I’ve ever made). We were elated. I couldn’t stop looking at his picture.

Still, we had quite the journey in front of us: we were going to do the Alaska Triangle.

What is the Alaska Triangle, you ask?

Well, clearly we made it up! But I think it could have some staying power. The Alaska Triangle, framed from our neck of the woods, would be our trajectory for the week:

Our neck of the woods to Anchorage: 8 hours

Anchorage to Fairbanks: 8 hours

Fairbanks to our neck of the woods: 8 hours

Now, this may seem like an excessive amount of driving but when you’re used to driving 8 hours to get your groceries, your perspective shifts a bit. Plus, like a dog with treats, every leg of the journey held insanely wonderful incentives:

Our neck of the woods to Anchorage: Here laid the root causes of our trip: First, we would get to listen to the heartbeat of the newest addition to our girl gang! Our beautiful friend is having a baby girl and these aunties were going to get to hear her little heart beating. Second, we were also shopping for wedding and bridesmaid dresses (a task I was inclined to think of more as a chore on my own but with help, actually thoroughly enjoyed). Finally, there laid bloood draws and doctors visits and all the other delightful town duties.

Anchorage to Fairbanks: 8 hours: Puppy pickup! (‘Nuff said)

Fairbanks to our neck of the woods: 8 hours: We’d trade off between driving and puppy pets, bringing all of our precious cargo homeward. Then, introduce the Chief to our little one.

We pretty much squealed with excitement the whole first hour of the trip. Puppies, babies and wedding stuff?! This really was a trifecta of goodness.

The trip was even longer than the triangle too because the first day of the trip was actually spent driving to the end of The Road (60 miles of dirt and busted glaciers) to participate in a fishing derby. By participate, I mean show up in time for the awards and food and miss all the fishing, unfortunately, but when you’re packing for The Alaska Triangle, time gets away from you. We drove 12 miles back down The Road towards home, despite every inch of my being telling me I was going the wrong way, to spend the night at our friends’ cabin that they graciously loaned us for the night. We all felt the excitement building. Finally, the next morning we were off. Back down The Road, Round II.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Honeybees

Keep your eye on the prize.

 

Everything went perfectly. Appointments we needed had last-minute openings, our Airbnb was cheaper than even the dead of Winter rates, everything was looking up.

The next day we got to hear the baby’s heartbeat and in true Auntie fashion, we were in tears. It was a beautiful start to the trip, full of hope and happiness.

Later that day we shopped for wedding and bridesmaid dresses and found something for everyone.

Still, just to be sure, the next day we went to another wedding dress location.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

As someone who needs to comparison shop even the smallest of items, this was helpful to me to verify that we should, in fact, get the dresses from the day before.

Everything was going so perfectly!

I called then and there to order my dress as there were only two in stock. No answer. In the growing hours of daylight, I had lost time and the dress shop had closed. I felt a little panic well up inside of me. As soon as I hung up, I noticed a text I’d missed:

“So, the pups are acting a little “off”. I don’t know if you can delay your trip or not but I am taking them to the vet tomorrow to get checked out.”

A sinking feeling in my chest forced me to sit down amidst the fluffy white gowns. I took a deep breath and called the breeder.

“It’s probably nothing” he assured me “but Parvo is rampant here so I wanted to be sure. He’s still eating and drinking so he should be fine. But if he does have Parvo he could die within a few days.”

As a vet tech, he had mountains of information he delivered matter of factly that I needed to hear but in that sea of white, what I needed more was to get off the phone so I could cry. I fell into the arms of my girlfriends outside.

I couldn’t believe it.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Anchorage Alaska

Reflective weather.

 

We spent the night talking about and distracting from the subject but it hung close. This puppy felt like the new start we had hoped for and again, here we were faced with possible death.

Still, maybe it wasn’t Parvo.

We had planned to make our next leg of The Triangle in the morning but without information as to the pup’s health, we figured it best to stay put. We unloaded once again into a new Airbnb. It was beautiful and colorful and felt like home. It also felt like sadness, like there had been a loss but in some ways, that felt comforting because amidst the loss, there was so much love and happiness. After I got this feeling, I went into the bathroom where there was a painting of a woman kneeling over a dog, the dog’s paws were holding onto her legs in a gentle embrace and blood was pooled around the dog. Yet, the dog’s spirit came up from him and turned into a raven. The painting was titled “Grief and Healing”, two things we’ve done a lot of in these past years.

A sort of calm came over me as I realized that I had grieved before, I could do it again but what was most important at that moment wasn’t me, it was him. This little fluff of a pup was fighting for his life. I wanted him to live for him.

The next day, we didn’t have to rush out of the house first thing. For the first time in the trip, we got to just sit for a few hours. We all ended up working, I had a huge project due by week’s end and since the drives I had been planning to work during suddenly weren’t happening I had to squeeze every moment in that I could. After we checked out, we set to do the chores that we never do in Town, the ones deep down on the long list of To Dos which always end up in the “Screw It” pile after chore fatigue sets in. On the way, I got a text:

“He has Parvo.”

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Alaskan Winter

 

I am not a fainter. I am not a damsel in distress. Yet, this news took me over. My chest started radiating in a tingling sensation that only got worse with each breath I took in. I was sobbing as my arms started to go numb and my vision tunneled. I pulled over and just cried until I couldn’t cry any longer while my girlfriends stood guard and rubbed my back. I felt numb.

A few minutes later I got another text:

“We are going to treat him for it. Vet says his chances are good because we caught it early.”

The girls did chores, some of them mine (I love you ladies) the rest of the day and let me dig into work. The deadline was fast approaching and the distraction helped. I broke the bad news to The Chief (just as he had told me that he had cleaned up all the poop in the yard to prevent any Parvo issues) and almost simultaneously heard his heart break for the millionth time. We’ve done so much crying together these past years. Here we were again. Our little beacon of hope might not make it.

The girls and I reconvened again in the evening to do our final chore run: Costco.

We were leaving Town the next morning and going home with almost everything.

The trip had been such a success in so many ways. The baby was healthy, we all would be showing up to the wedding with clothes on (yahoo!), we had done chores we hadn’t even dreamed of getting done and stayed in beautiful homes. We had bonded and eaten delicious food and seen good friends and…we wouldn’t be returning with our puppy.

Still, fingers permanently crossed, I was hopeful.

Yesterday, as The Chief and I prepared to take our annual Pack Test I suddenly felt like we had news. I checked my phone:

“I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, but I am optimistic about your pup. Part of the treatment is that I force feed them Nutri-Cal every 2 hours. I just went out to do that and he greeted me with tail wagging. First time his tail has wagged in almost a week. I take that as a positive sign. Once he starts eating without being forced we will know that we are in the clear. Should be within 48 hours or so.”

The Chief and I just held one another. It was a good sign. Finally. Our little fluffball was fighting.

Later on that night, exhausted from 4 hours of driving in order to go carry 45 lbs. 3 miles (are we just gluttons for punishment?) we got this:

“He is eating cooked Salmon on his own. Yeah!!!”

“He is eating a lot of it too. I am going to watch him. If he keeps it down that’s an awesome sign.”

Included was a picture of him and his sister:

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Malamute Puppies of Alaska

The fluff is strong with these ones.

 

Still, we weren’t certain. He wasn’t giving us the green light but things were looking up.

This morning, as I sat down to write that I had jumped the gun, I had no sooner gotten that sentence down than I received the following text:

“He has eaten several times now and is running around like a puppy again. I would say that he has it beat.”

The Chief and I cried happy tears for the first time in a long time.

I hope with all my might that I have not jumped the gun again but there was nothing else that I could write about this week and so write about it I did. This is real life. This is what’s happening. It’s the only thing on my mind, the last thing I think of as I go to bed and the first thing I think of in the morning.

Thankfully, this morning, it was with a bit of peace in my heart for our little fluffball fighter.

We love you so much already.

Please send your good thoughts his way. Happy, healthy thoughts sent out to all of you and yours.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis Post The Fluff 4-15-19 Poppies of rebirth

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Shopping in Alaska

Do the Hustle

(The moment this title, “Do the Hustle”, came to me, I’ve been singing the tune of the classic “Do the Hustle”. Wanna sing along? Do it, do the Hustle).

Here, the Hustle (Alaskan name: The Shuffle Hustle) is a dance even those with two left feet know well. In our cabin, from the moment we return home to the next time we leave to resupply, the floor of this cabin looks like a jumble of Arthur Murray dance diagrams. You see, the dance is always changing.

The First Dance: The Big Haul

Shopping.

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Shopping in Alaska

Heaven…unless I’m in a hurry.

 

Returning from Town is a trip of endless possibilities and outcomes but in most cases, especially in the Winter, no matter how early our start, we tend to return in the dark and the cold. Headlamps light our way as our sleepy though psyched selves haul in everything that can’t freeze. And what might that be? More than I realized. Everything from bottles of wine to bags of produce and even some sauces (I’ve even had vinegar explode). What can freeze? More than I originally realized as well: bananas, peel on and all, kale (though be prepared for tiny kale pieces and spread about your freezer in a sort of healthy confetti), cheese, tortillas, guacamole even.

If you’re smart, which occasionally we are, your totes (in which you haul your Town booty) is organized by freezables and non-freezables. Yet often, your Town bounty overfloweth and cannot be contained by totes alone. You return home and despite your best Tetris efforts, the back of your truck might look like this:

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Tiny House Alaska

Let the panic ensue.

 

You open the back door slowly to reveal a crumbling mountain of goodness which, despite your caution, often tumbles out towards you, out of the truck and into the snow.

As you know by now, a Town trip is basically a continual reconfiguration of things, a process of stacking and re-stacking, packing and re-packing. Messes made, messes cleaned, messes eventually just lived with for another hour or two. But now, that you’re home the process can stop, right?

Wrong.

The packing and re-packing of Home though at least comes with a theme song: Do the Hustle.

Finally, endless trips up and down the Ramp of Doom and you have finished. The anticipated (read: idealized, unrealistic) 8-hour trip turned 12-hour (duh) trip due to extra stops and groceries and packing and re-packing and finally unpacking at home is now complete.

 

 

*Year one’s haul on the left (Kitchen: two-burner camp stove, chest freezer, desk, no oven, no room). The evolution on the right (stove, refrigerator, lots and lots of fresh veggies, still not a lot of room but better utilized).

 

The Hustle, however, has just begun. Your first dance steps are tracked upon the floor where countless others will follow.

The Second Dance: The Shuffle Hustle

You’ve brought the first wave in, the non-freezables and you’ve secured them in their respective safety zones…for now.

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Tiny House Alaska Organization DIY

After. Shelves, water buckets, and fridge all full.

 

You see, everything has its place here until it doesn’t.

Since we don’t have a pantry or a fridge large enough to store all of our goods, our house becomes our perma-pantry and perma-refrigerator where the Shuffle Hustle begins (cue the music please). Different corners of the house serve different purposes at different temperatures so the cold corner from one night where the low was 10 degrees Fahrenheit turns to the frozen corner the next night when the temp drops to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Which means, that if the cold corner had delicates (lettuce especially), it’s time to get those precious dainties on the move. Do the Shuffle Hustle to find a new home…for now.

Our goodies storage, in order to make up for a small pantry and even smaller fridge,  consists of the hodge-podge following:

 

 

4 totes on the floor stuffed underneath a counter’s shelf

1 mini fridge/freezer combo

1 wall pantry measuring about 2 cans deep, 3 ft. wide and 7 ft. tall (shower hardware at the ready)

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Tiny House Alaska Pantry Organization

Oh, the meals into which you’ll go!

 

3 large totes, 5 mini organizers in the loft upstairs (aka our bedroom)

Multiple cold to potentially frozen corners of the house

1-2 (weather permitting, meaning, it stays below freezing) totes outside.

 

Do the Hustle.

The initial landing places of most things will inevitably change as the goodies get eaten and the rest of the truck gets unloaded. From one day to the next, the fridge can go from chock full to half empty and then right back to filled to the brim again. As one thing moves or proves hearty enough to shift, another, perhaps more delicate flower takes its place.

But this doesn’t just happen with produce. The beans and canned good and frozen fun, they too get in on the dancing.

Let me set the scene of a typical evening:

The dinner of choice: Pasta with Pesto, Shrimp, Peas and Carrot Ribbons

The Dance: Shuffle Hustle (Techno Remix)

As the water comes to a boil, The Chief might ask me: “Babe, do you know where the pasta is?” I might say “Totes!” and point him towards the milk crate in which we store “grab-ables”, AKA, the high touch items like pasta, tuna, canned tomatoes, chocolate (when we have it) and snacks. Needless to say, this is my favorite spot of the house. But alas, The Chief replies the dreaded response: “Nope”.

The dance begins, the music gets louder. Up I head into our Loft where I try to remember the clues I left myself as to where everything was last year. I know both totes are freezable (or at least hope I know that otherwise, I’m likely about to discover a mess). I know one tote is mainly freezable (fingers crossed) condiments and canned goods while the other tote is filled with grain-type goodies: pastas and noodles of all varieties and some coffee to top it off. Which one? Does it really matter? Just open them both, right? Well, the thing is, it’s not just the opening of a tote, it’s the dance, the constant moving of one thing to gain access to another. In this case, it’s the moving of one large tote or five smaller totes off the food totes held captive beneath them. I close the hatch to prevent a spill. I choose the one with the one large (and I’d forgotten, very heavy) tote atop it.

Wrong.

I proceed to move the heavy tote back and unearth the other. With everything finally up and off of the tote, the true tote of my desire is now exposed. Pasta! I grab a couple of bags in order to stave off having to do this particular Shuffle for a while and make a mental note of the contents of both totes to speed my next foray into the “pantry” as I put everything back in order.

Downstairs I head. This dance is almost over, there’s dinner to be had. Until…

We need the shrimp and the peas. Out The Chief goes to dive headfirst into the frosty haven that is our new freezer. Despite our best efforts to catalog just what lies beneath, still, disorder sneaks her swift paws into our frozen bliss. Finally, he finds the shrimpy pals and heads in. Onions and garlic going, I move to toss in the shrimp and ask for the peas for the shrimp’s cooking company.

“Shoot!”

Out again The Chief heads, this time to the frozen totes near the house (which only the week before had to be completely emptied, goodies stored elsewhere, due to a three-day stretch of warm, sorry “warm” weather. 33 degrees Fahrenheit I don’t think should be so nonchalantly labeled as warm. But here, it is as it’s simply too warm to keep a frozen handle on things). The peas smile up at The Chief as he collects them and delivers them to his bride to be. Yet, just as soon as he starts to take off his boots, I toss them back his way, realizing that due to our recent lemon juice ice cube making marathon (due to lemons who wanted to go bad within a week of purchase. What gives?!) our inside mini-freezer can’t spare the room. Again out he goes to put them back into their frozen holdings.

The Chief finally un-boots and prepares a movie for us as I put the finishing touches on dinner. Carrot ribbons spun, it’s finally time. The pasta is twirled into bowls, the shrimp and peas plop atop and the pesto…

The pesto.

I go to the cold northern corner of the house, a wonderfully consistent corner for cold-hearty condiments and champagne alike.

The pesto is not with its chilly friends. The champagne looks up at me with a shrug.

The pesto, we realize, we forgot to replace (by bringing a new one in from the freezer) when we finished it the last time we made our pesto shrimp feast and now, we are about two hours too late.

This time, figuring this evening had tortured The Chief enough,  I head out to the freezer to do the deep dive to find the pesto and find it I do, but not until I’ve dove to the depths. Oh joy! Chickens and vegetables and frozen fruit get tucked back in again and I bring my pesto prize proudly into the house ten minutes later to the presence of now cooling pasta. Back everything goes, into the pot as I fight to scoop the frozen pesto onto the awaiting pesto pasta dinner.  A little warmer and much more of a pesto pasta than before, the meal goes back into the bowls, preparing for their crowning glory: carrot ribbons. They prance atop the highly anticipated twenty step dinner and as I head into the living room/dining room, I reflect on what seems ages ago when I ventured into the loft to start this pesto pasta process.

Dinner, my friends, is served.

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Tiny House Living Alaska Champagne for Everyone

I felt approximately this happy. Champagne for everyone!

 

The final dance of the night is the cleanup step. Thankfully, there’s room in the cold corner next to the champagne for her newest pesto friend and room in the tote under the open cabinets to keep the leftovers. Yet, tonight it is cold, in the near -30 Fahrenheit range and so, in order to prevent the pasta from freezing (the texture of brown rice pasta once frozen is lacking, to say the least) I take one of my puffy jackets and wrap it up like the present it is. A present into which a lot of work and a whole lot of Shuffle Hustle dance steps went.

The music dies down.

And just like that, just as you get comfortable with your jacket wrapped leftovers and your pesto placed just right. Just when everything has its place and your tiny world is contained enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by it all, a friend calls…and asks if you need anything from Town.

Let the tumbling crumbling mountain of goodies dance begin again.

The things we do for love (of food).

Do the Hustle.

 

With love,

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis - Do the Hustle - 2:11:19 - Backcountry Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Donkey Mexico Jalisco

How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico*

How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico*

*If your idea of “perfect” is getting completely sick, fighting with your fiancé (and still having a good time)

A real vacation report

Every vacation report is a “real report”, however, in our world of perfectly posed playbacks of everything from our day-to-day Starbucks pics to our dripping with decadence vacays, I think it’s important to display the not so pretty and the nitty-gritty, the sand in your trunks, sunburn kind of report, along with the good.

A little context:

The last few months in California have been less filled with hiking and friends and sunshine-filled days of relaxation and more crammed with 10-hour stress-filled workdays. Which, honestly, I thought was fine. I could handle this.

And I did, for a while.

Enter: Vacation.

We flew to Mexico right after Thanksgiving (which we had spent in St. Louis seeing a little of my family and a lot of our hotel room as I had gotten sick and ended up working 12 hour days in bed). Flying on or near the holidays, we quickly realized, is never ideal. People travel no matter the state they are in and so, as we flew to Mexico, we found ourselves amongst a cacophony of coughing and sneezing and the like. Still, having just gotten over the flu myself, I figured I was immune to whatever bug was bugging about.

Wrong.

I also assumed that all of the stress of the past few months would instantly melt away the second we walked onto that airplane heading to the land of Mexico.

Wrong again.

We flew into Puerto Vallarta, a spot where I’d only ever visited long enough to drink far too much tequila and leave. I figured it was more of a stopover town but had heard great things so we decided to stay for two nights before heading off and I’m so glad we did.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Puerto Vallarta

The view of our room from the pool.

 

Our hotel was nestled in the Romantic District, a cobblestoned beauty that gracefully balanced old and new. The city was booming with the start of tourist season (December is the official start of “open season”) but there wasn’t the crazed clamor you can expect in other cities. People were kind and open and helpful beyond belief. Our taxi driver dropped us off and left us both with a hug and a “welcome to Mexico!” adieu.

I adore Mexico.

That’s the pretty picture.

The not so pretty?

On my first week off (as in, “Honey, I swear, I’m totally turning my computer off and not answering work calls”, off) in two years, I was…

Working.

I spent the entire flight over typing in a manic panic amidst the sneezing chorus. I worked at full-tilt from takeoff straight until my battery died (the plane didn’t have outlets). Thankfully, The Chief slept most of the flight (we had awoken at 3 am after a quick 3-hour snooze) so I didn’t have a witness to my panic or a scornful eye to give me the “I thought we were on vacation” look I knew I fully deserved.

That came later.

After our taxi sweetly dropped us off, we were ready to get into vacation mode!

…I just needed to do a little more work.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Hotel Puerto Vallarta Romantic District

Not a bad place to work, if you have too.

 

 

Enter: the scornful eye.

A few hours later, we finally made it out of the hotel and down to the beach. Immediately, I was taken over by the colors. I absolutely love the use of color in Mexico. Lime green? Bring it on! Fuschia? Yes, please. All together with every other color palette, you can imagine? ¿Por Qué No?

Still, the colors couldn’t quite lull me out of responsibility into vacation mode. My mind was still with work and The Chief could feel it. So, as you probably could guess, the night didn’t exactly go as swimmingly as it might have had I actually been present. We ended the evening in a tiff over the very important (to me) specification of adding “County” after “Sonoma” in a sentence (I am from Sonoma County, Sonoma is a town in the County. I am not from Sonoma).

We followed this up with a second tiff the next night regarding Tom Petty (Tom, I had your back, but it might not have been worth it and in reality, The Chief was on your team).

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Graffiti, Mexico

Perhaps, it’s time to listen. Not talk. Two ears, one mouth, they always say…

 

 

Things were off to a great start!

Not quite able to shake the very important arguments of nights past, we grumbled our way through the cobbled streets, The Chief lugging our communal suitcase through the not so suitcase friendly alleys and hailed a boat to the remote town of Yelapa to spend a little more time together in close quarters. That always helps, right?

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Casita

Bay to the right, iguana to the left

 

By dinner time, we both were through with our tiffs and I was finally relaxing into vacation mode. We were in a jungle paradise, sitting outside in short sleeves in the balmy eve amidst a candle’s glow at an outdoor restaurant. I had even bid an actual “Adios” to my work (even after repeated attempts to convince The Chief that this week “off” might be a great week to actually catch up at work. Thankfully, he nixed that genius plan). We held hands and wondered how Sonoma and Tom Petty had ever found their way between us and vowed to do better as the stress slipped off and we slipped into vacation mode.

Things were looking up.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Tropical Flowers

Jungle blooms about our casita

 

 

Right?

On our walk back from dinner, The Chief mentioned he felt a little funny.

By the next morning, he was wearing a shirt, sweatshirt, pants and socks, all under a load of blankets and still, was shivering.

It was 85 degrees in our little casita.

Then, it started storming.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Storms

Big warning clouds…

 

 

I headed out to find sickness supplies and made it all the way out of the jungle and to the store before I realized I had forgotten my money. I trudged back, only about 50% certain of my path through the mossy backyards of jungle abodes, collected the coinage and headed back out.

By the time The Chief felt better a few days later, down I went. Our roles of patient and caretaker did a quick 180 as I burrowed down into layers and blankets and The Chief, still quite ill but in better shape than I, busied himself making me tea and warming me up.

Like I said, things were looking up!

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Graffiti in Yelapa

Public art makes me happy.

 

 

And, in all honesty, they were. We were back to giggling together, back to feeling lighter, despite feeling absolutely awful. And hey, we still were in Mexico, in the jungle with iguanas as neighbors and a view of the ocean. Things could be worse.

We spent our last day in Yelapa on the beach (you walk through the hand laid paths of cobblestone and then cross the river to the beachside, hoping for low tide) sipping fresh juices and hoping to soon be sipping margaritas. We were on the mend.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa beachview

The view of the beach from the trail above

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa River to Ocean

Wading the river to get to the beach

 

The next morning, The Chief did not look mended. We contacted a local doctor who said that she and most others would be off that day due to the Presidential Election (whoops! Clueless, much?). Thankfully, the woman whose AirBnB we were renting in our next locale of Punta de Mita suggested we visit a pharmacy with a doctor on hand (how convenient is that?!). We found just that and 50 pesos later (about $2.50) we had paid for our visit and found that The Chief had a throat infection. I decided not to get looked at because I was feeling better. The local lady of pharmacy (not a pharmacist but very helpful nevertheless) in Yelapa had given me a tablet of who knows what and I was feeling good.

After the doctor, we were ready to get on our way to Punta de Mita. We unintentionally put on our We Don’t Know How to Get Where The Heck We Are Going faces and within moments, a woman was explaining the bus we actually wanted to take and setting us up with someone who would watch for the bus and explain to the driver our trajectory.

Again, Mexico, you amaze me. Thank you for your kindness.

A few hours later, we made it to Punta de Mita, a town known for the dichotomy of mega-ritzy hotels and great surf (and thus, non-ritzy surfing culture). Our Airbnb host, who had been checking on us and The Chief’s status all day was there to retrieve us when we were given incorrect directions and collected us and our luggage on her scooter.

Despite it being the last weekend night before I was about to start working again (I only was able to take off one of our two weeks there from work) we both were too tired to do anything other than walk down to the beach for a waterfront sunset and tuck in for the night.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Punta de Mita Sunset

Shapes and colors.

 

 

We needed to rest up so we could do what we came here for: Surfing.

Rest up we did. Surf, we didn’t.

When the pills the Yelapan grandma had given me wore off, I too started getting worse and despite a round of antibiotics, The Chief was not improving. He was white as a sheet and I sounded like someone shaking a bag of popcorn and a dog barking combined when I coughed (which was constant). The Chief’s earache kept getting worse. Finally, we both went to the doctor and were granted the reality that we both had throat infections and The Chief had an ear infection as the cherry on top of our sick sundaes.

Still, we were having fun.

Still, we thought we might surf.

We rented boards and carried them all the way to the beach. I’m pretty sure that 6-minute walk qualifies as one of my life triumphs thus far. We arrived and I felt like someone had punched me in the chest. I was exhausted. By the time I paddled out, I knew catching a wave was not in the picture and so, I laid on my board and watched the sunset while getting to chat with our Airbnb host who had paddled out to meet us. The Chief did catch some waves. Someone had to represent for the family. After it was dark, we slowly paddled our way in, letting the waves guide us home. We walked the boards home and delivered them back promptly the next day. Surfing would have to wait for next year.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Punta de Mita Casita

The hammock view from our Punta de Mita casita.

 

 

Without surfing to occupy our time, I woke early and worked before The Chief was up, sitting on the rooftop to watch the sun come up and then, by midday, we were free for adventuring.

Which, despite still feeling terrible, we did.

We met a long-lost friend of mine in La Cruz, a town South of Punta de Mita and met his potential new roommate (a HUGE iguana that decided to plant itself on his fence).

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Bougainvillea

My favorite.

 

 

The next day, we rented a scooter and scooted our way North to the town of Sayulita (also a surf town) to stroll around for the day. I adore Sayulita, even if it is a tiny Sonoma County in Mexico. It had everything you could want: easy waves, smoothies, music, chocolate covered bananas (not my thing, but apparently, I’m in the minority so I put it here for you all to be enticed by) and I’m sure all of the things that top your list.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Sayulita Mexico

Beach, please.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Sayulita Church

Oh yes, and gorgeous churches, always on the list.

 

On our last day, we snorkeled around the Islas Marietas and even snorkeled into the “Hidden Beach” (which at super high tide, you have to hold your breath and swim through the cave to the beach, we thankfully only had to bob our way through). We saw lots of boobies (Blue Footed ones, you perv) and the bluest of blue waters.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Islas Marietas

Too busy looking at other tourists to smile for our camera

 

On our last night, we bussed about and found ourselves in Bucerias, a town south of Punta de Mita (closer to Puerto Vallarta). We arrived just as the outdoor market was shutting down (apparently an amazing time if you’re a bargain hunter. I’m more of a pushover payer) and I found the perfect wedding cake topper for The Chief and I. We dined on the beach and bussed our way back home and I barely got carsick.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Bucerias

Ponies on the beach, lovers in the water

 

That night, we went to a beach bar with our friends we’d made in Punta de Mita and sat in lounge chairs with our toes in the sand around a bonfire. It was a beautiful goodbye for now, and fully assured us that we were coming back to “do it right”.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Mala Suerte Punta de Mita_1024

Mala Suerte…we know all about that one

 

 

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and off we bussed back to Puerto Vallarta and back to the States.

So, that’s how you do it, folks! 13 days in Mexico filled with so much guacamole I probably shouldn’t be able to zip my pants, very little margaritas, two very petty (pun intended) quarrels and a sickness to bring it all to the front: what’s important?

Working too much, so much so that when you have time off, you can’t actually be off and when you are, you end up sick?

Not important.

Experiencing new things together, meeting new people, speaking new languages?

Important.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Storms

De colores

 

Although those two weeks didn’t exactly go as planned, I’d give the itinerary to anyone because it did help me filter through whatever I’d been operating on as fact and focus on the reality of what really matters to me:

Watching the sun rise and set on the same day.

Cuddling with The Chief.

Being outside.

Singing.

Stepping outside my comfort zone.

Working, but not killing myself to do it.

Holding The Chief’s hand.

Feeling the warmth of the sun.

Trying new things together.

Eating good food.

Being in love.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico This is the Light

The Love Light.

 

And so, folks, that’s how to plan the perfect Mexico vacation, as long as your idea of “perfect” means getting completely and utterly ill, fighting with the person you love most and still, through it all, having a good time.

Here’s to the honest report. May mine help you to feel less alone in yours, or at least provide you a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. May you share your stories with those who need to hear them most.

Here’s to things not going as planned but helping you instead get back to basics.

Here’s to you and yours, may it not get petty.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico RideOn Scooter Rentals Punta de Mita Mexico

Super Scooters!

 

//How have your vacations gone? Feel free to share your stories, as planned or otherwise in the comments below//

Finally, thank you to Mexico, as a whole for being such a beautiful, open, kind place to us. You and your people are truly special. We are honored to spend time on your soils and plan to be back very soon.

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

Under Pressure

I hate to say it, but I often perform best under pressure.

//Obviously, we all are going to need to listen to Queen’s “Under Pressure” now. Come on, you know you want to.//

Throughout the past ten years or so, I’ve been able to start to curb the maddened procrastinator’s panic and channel it a fraction more usefully by ever so slightly planning ahead. Yet still, that edging towards a deadline, that building of pressure seems to always produce something a little more magical than that which is created without the deafening drumbeats of time.

Or maybe, that’s just the procrastinator’s validation because, really, there’s no true way to test it.

All that I do know for sure is that sometimes I need a little fire beneath my feet in order to jump in.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Ozarks MO

Jump on in, the water is fine. There may be a Water Moccasin or two but…

 

 

Alaska, in and of herself, is a fire underfoot. She pushes you to do things now because later will often look very different. And so, to her, I am grateful for the small procrastinations she’s helped me to shift. To do the little things immediately, before you can’t. The generator is warm? Run it now before it cools down outside and you find yourself having to build a fire to bring it to temperature, all while your computer battery is now suddenly dead and you find yourself suddenly approaching a deadline. Do it. Now.

The other way, perhaps a bit sneakier, that Alaska has set a fire beneath my feet is in the way of a simpler life. I wanted a simpler life. I read about it. I dreamed about it. But my life was so plentiful that I didn’t have scarcity to be my guide.

Never fear, Alaska is here.

I needed the scarcity of Alaska to really learn to take inventory and advantage of what I have. To use everything to the very last drop and savor it, knowing that it may be months before I can replace it. To get inventive in stretching meals when unexpected guests come over without simply going to the store to pick up more. And don’t get me wrong, there are times when I wish we could do just that, but I also love the communal effort that ensues when you’re short just one egg for a recipe and suddenly, the neighborhood search is on.

Scarcity has forced me to repurpose and reinvent that which is no longer available and to use all of that which is abundant.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Conjoined Summer Squash Gardening in Alaska

Conjoined Summer Squash was all this baby wanted to produce. Twinsies for days.

 

So, when our garden had gifted us it’s very last labors of love and was ready to be put to sleep, I turned my attention to our final product: herb salt.

After a girlfriend gave me a heaping jar of this salty goodness, I could not get enough. It’s a finishing salt (something I didn’t even know existed until another girlfriend introduced me to Maldon salt. Try it, thank her later) that goes on, well, everything and I absolutely adore it.

And so, since that first gift, I’ve been taking anything and everything from our garden I can to make herb salt.

Fennel salt?

Sure!

Chive salt?

Bring it on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

Hello, gorgeous.

 

 

My usual suspects, sage and rosemary were only flying at half-mast this year (the rosemary was a no go) and so, the old steadfast oregano came in for the win.

I spent the better part of an afternoon in my gardening overalls, watching the sun make it’s journey as I sliced and diced and salted to my heart’s content. I layered pink and white sea salt and labeled away and as the sun started to make her descent and the chill came on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

 

 

I packed up, using my garden bounty baskets I’d collected the herbs in (which feels very fancy and fun. Funny how one small wicker basket can bring you such delight) and was almost inside when…

I spilled the salt.

Of the dozen or so salts, my favorite, the one I had written birthday wishes upon for my girlfriend crashed to the ground, breaking the delicately crafted layers of pink and white and green into a swirled mess on the ground at my feet.

So is life.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Seeds Gardening in Alaska

Herb castings.

 

 

Thankfully, there were others remaining that I could also dedicate to her and thankfully, a little bit of that good old-fashioned Alaskan fire underfoot had made me take the day to turn our garden’s goodness into something that would last all year.

I needed that fire.

Thank you, Alaska for always providing a little incentive (sometimes a lot) and for always giving a last-minute reminder to not take it too seriously, spilled salt and all.

With love, and a little bit of get ‘er done pressure,

From Alaska.

 

P.S. Want the recipe? It goes a little like this:

Dried or fresh herbs (they say to refrigerate the fresh herbs but I’m not so worried about it – up to you). Mix and match to your heart’s content. My favorite combination has been sage and rosemary. What’s yours?

Your favorite salt or salts. I adore me some pink Himalayan salt if for nothing but the color alone. Everything is good. It’s salt, what could be bad?

Mix or layer to your preferred ratios.

Enjoy!

//I know this recipe is more of a suggestion than hard numbers. If you like those, I totally get it, I’m exactly the same. Dashes of this and pinches of that used to stress me out. But, consider this a little fire under your feet, a little stretch to try out winging it. I know you’ll do great!//

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Lavaterra Gardening in Alaska

The loverly Lavaterra, greeting the day.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-24-18 100 Alaska Winter

100

Well, I doggone done it…two posts ago.

I watched for it.

Waited for it.

Planned for it.

And then…

I plumb forgot.

100 posts.

Celebrated at 102.

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-24-18 100 Cocktails.jpg

Icicle cocktail, anyone?

 

As someone who is always ready to celebrate a milestone, even those that aren’t my own (Happy anniversary to you! Happy birthday to your dog! It’s Tuesday! Let’s celebrate!) it would be truly out of character to let this one go by (any further) without at least a virtual toast and a little reminiscing.

Shall we?

The first post was born with me cuddled up on the couch in a cabin belonging to a love I barely knew in a season like nothing I’d never experienced. It was born from a place where the best things grow: intuition. Intuition told me I was missing something, something that had been a part of me, something I had lost. And so, I sat down to write, and in the process, I found what I had forgotten.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-24-18 100 CindaLou Huskies of Alaska

My intuition incarnate. I’ve never been set as straight by anyone as I was by my Lou.

 

 

As we all grew to know one another and this cabin became our home, I also found a home in myself. Writing this blog has brought me back to my basics and forward into who I want to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-24-18 100 Self-Portrait

Self-portrait.

 

I never dreamed that day, sitting on the couch that I sit upon now to celebrate 100 postings, that I would reach this milestone. I never really gave it any thought back then. I only followed what my body asked and that was to write.

Within this 102, I’ve found myself, my person and my home. We’ve met utter despair and undeniable elation together and through this medium, I’ve recanted our stories. It has been a way to move through pain, relish in joy and discover a life anew. As life goes, so this story will read, the beautiful, the beastly, the sometimes buried beneath waiting for the light, telling of a life in the woods.

And so, I thank you, with all the warmth of sweet sunshine on a biting Winter’s day for coming along with me.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for participating. Thank you.

 

A toast to you.

A toast to 100 (and two).

 

Cheers!

With love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-24-18 100 Winter in Alaska

Winter…it’s coming.

 

P.S. Did you miss the 100th post? Me too! Here it is: Follow me, I’ll take you there

 

I Am an Artist

I am an artist.

I can’t tell you how many other artists just cringed at reading that.

Not because they deem it false or have questions as to my membership in the club. In fact, not because of anything to do with me at all. It is, in my experience, because they are wrestling with their own membership in this club or remembering the first time they announced their arrival.

This may not be true for every artist. I dare not declare it universal, lest the unicorn artists who knew they were just that from birth come and correct my wrong statement. I will say, after spending a weekend with artists that it seemed a nearly universally hard statement to conjure up for the first time for everyone. Some, even those on panels, were still choking on it.

Yet, I’ve said it.

You see, last weekend I attended the Alaska State Council on the Arts biennial conference in Fairbanks.

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK.jpg

Rainbow hills. Rainbow leaves.

 

I first heard about the conference a few months ago when a friend, who’s helped me more in writing this year than I can explain, mentioned that it was coming up. I looked at her and said something along the lines of “Oh, that will be fun!” She looked at me as if to say “Yeah…that’s why I’m telling you about it.”

A few minutes of her explaining it later and I still didn’t get it.

Finally, she put it in terms I could hear:

“Julia, it’s an artist’s conference. You’re an artist. You should sign-up.”

Oh!

Oh?

Oh…

I’m an artist?

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK hunting.jpg

Artists: Enter Here.

 

When I first started this blog, it unleashed in me the well-kept secret from myself that I, in fact, do want to be an artist. Yet I wasn’t ready to call myself one. As a youngster, I knew I was an artist, as kids simply know themselves without ego or fear. I was a singer and a writer and I knew it down to the depths of my little lady being that an artist was what I wanted to be.

How?

Because I felt alive.

Alive when I sang.

Alive when I wrote.

Yet, as I grew and grades and prestige and stability became a focus, I let that knowledge go and I covered it up with the “shoulds” of existence which placed more emphasis on succeeding than feeling alive.

And soon, I felt deadened.

Moving here allowed me to step outside of myself. It allowed me to bring with me not only that which was useful from my old life but to re-invite those aspects of myself I had lost. It felt like I was traveling. I was free to be whomever I deemed myself to be. And without thought, I suddenly found myself in a band, singing again. I had invited art back in and it had entered my life with a warmth I hadn’t felt in decades.

That first Winter, writing invited herself in. She opened the door, kicked off the snow and asked not why she’d been sequestered for so long but if I was, in fact, ready to begin.

I was.

I am.

I am an artist.

It may not be easy to say, but once you do, it’s like walking through the closet door into Narnia. The world feels a little more magical. It’s exciting and important and alive.

You don’t have to be a full-time artist to be called an artist. You don’t have to be in a gallery or be published or be the director of a Broadway hit. Art can lie in the simple act of taking the time to study a flower that strikes you, in letting your mind play. It can be as small as decorating a salad you make or as big as a complex canvas painting you’ve spent hours on end creating. It can be the notes you scribbled on a piece of paper towel 30 years ago that become your book 30 years later. It can be a photo that inspired reflection.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK downtown.jpg

Urban mirrors.

 

There are no entry fees, merely the self-realization that you cannot be anything else.

Do what makes you feel alive.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Small Commitments Anchorage Museum AK

Small Commitments

It turns out that the decision to say “Yes” is, in fact, the doorway through which one passes into the Narnia of endless decisions. Did I say Narnia? Perhaps, it depends on the mood. At times it feels more like a battlefield. Cake? Love it. Finding a cake vendor? Bleh. Boring. Tasteless. Never thought of it. Trying cake, on the other hand, sounds amazing. Point being, the first decision to say “I do” is just the beginning (albeit the most important decision of the bunch. The companion decisions pale in comparison, yet I’ve heard and I’ve seen them aim to carry the same amount of weight. Yet they just can’t, no matter how delicious.

 

Beneath the Borealis Small Commitments City Museum St. Louis MO

Rows of decisions already made (City Museum, St. Louis, MO)

 

The reasons they start to gain weight and demand presence is somehow lost on me but present for all those I know who have danced the aisle before me. Where does this pressure come from and how does one avoid it?

I say this because I, Julia “Pancake” Page, tried on wedding dresses the other day and I can say with utter honesty: I’ve never given one thought to what I’d wear on the day I married my person. Perhaps it’s because I was weary I’d never find him – and had I known he was hidden 8 hours outside of Anchorage in a small town in Alaska, almost absconded from the world via long dirt roads and Winters of solitude, I might have felt even wearier – but find him I did, and now, lest I appear at the wedding day naked, clothe myself I must.

 

Beneath the Borealis Small Commitments Wedding AK

The perfect squash blossom bouquet.

 

The first of many small commitments posing grandly before me.

“How do you mean?” you ask.

Well, have you ever seen the show Say Yes to the Dress? Back in the day, when I used to have television, I would occasionally happen upon said show. The premise: person enters with family and friends to find the “perfect” dress. Said person deals with “oohs” and “ahhs” among “no’s” and “yes’s” and eventually often wraps up the episode in a tidy bow of saying “yes” to the dress. Now, reality television, as I have experienced first-hand while living here is often, let’s just say, dramatized. The tense music leading up to a decision, the be all end all of every decision is often fabricated but in the case of the dress show, I’m not sure they had to manufacture anything. It builds itself. Even in my intimate environment that day, with a saleswoman who really didn’t crank up the sales talk all that loudly, I still felt the be all end all feeling. Which now, so far away, sounds silly but in the moment of “Shall we order this?” and thinking of alterations and fittings and all the things I hadn’t factored in…it gets my palms to perspire.

Thankfully, a cocktail hour followed by a late night after-hours stroll with my friends (who have been my friends since before we all hit double digits) complete with ducking and hiding from the park guard and all, a la 5th grade, really brushed off the stress of the day. And don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful day, but it was also eye-opening on how fast the wedding ponies can go and then suddenly, they run away with you.

Yet, this was just one of the many commitments to come. The smalls that feel big.

The smalls started growing as the ever-expanding possibilities of commitments opened up before us:

Was there a theme?

A color scheme?

A flower?

A bridal shower?

How tall would my heels be?

Would there be a signature cocktail or three?

Would I shrink or expand and ruin any alterations?

What to wear.

How to do hair.

The makeup.

The things.

 

Beneath the Borealis Small Commitments Anchorage Museum AK

Choices, choices, choices.

 

Things that I’d never thought of and wasn’t sure I cared about. Food? Yes. Hair? I’d always just done it myself. Makeup? Same. Food. Yes. Did I say that already? Well, double “yes”.

Suddenly, the things started barging into our little wedding and once they did, it seemed as if they were growing.

The small commitments had found their way in and they were like multiplying monkeys let loose in a museum.

Utter mayhem.

Thankfully, the first commitment brought me back, by way of a late-night call to my one and only. In the humid warmth of a St. Louis summer eve, his words sunk into me, lulling me from the small commitments back into our grand, beautiful treaty: our lives, together, always. Between the warm Midwestern night with its gentle breezes whispering of Fall and the lull of The Chief’s strong, gentle baritone, I felt our love wrap around me, shielding me from the small commitments.

What mattered most was at the other end of that phone line.

 

Beneath the Borealis Small Commitments The Chief

My moon, my man.

 

While that realization was true, I still couldn’t sleep that night. Were we to elope and bid “Adieu” to tradition or hold a grand double header wedding? Our already highly untraditional life gave no sort of outline and my somewhat traditional self didn’t know what or where to hold on and what or where to let go.

The thing is, I am those two opposite ends: traditional and non-traditional. My life consists of ends of the spectrum so far from one another they need passports just to meet in the middle. We go from outhouses and cold (sometimes) running water to bathtubs easily filled to the brim with bubbling goodness and endless electricity. I go from wearing clothes that are always dirty to clothes that almost feel too clean. We don’t go over 30 mph for months and suddenly, we are whizzing about 5 lanes of traffic going a “moderate” 75 mph.

The dichotomous nature of our life is so unbelievably representative of my inner natures that I couldn’t have planned it better myself but sometimes, the inconsistency is jarring. Nevertheless, it keeps me on my toes.

And so, barefoot in Alaska, heeled in California, we aim to find the perfect compromise. Something that feels like us, despite our constantly changing nature.

Perhaps we will plan away, perhaps we will simply go with the wind. Either way, the most important commitment rings true:

Every day I say “yes” to you.

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Alaskan Firefighters

Yes, please.

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott River

Swimming

In Alaska, I’ve had to learn a new language. It’s one I didn’t know I didn’t speak and certainly didn’t know existed until I stumbled into it. The focus of my learning has been less on dialect or accent and more on meaning. Take, for example, the word “hike”. To me, coming from California, I considered myself a pretty good hiker. I’d go off on my own for a few hours, traversing the mountain lion, rattlesnake filled fields and feeling very brave along the way. That was a hike. In Alaska, or at least in my neck of the woods, a hike may mean something very different. My first “hike” in Alaska turned into an 8-hour day, for which I was neither in shape nor mentally prepared. I came back feeling like I had gone through a battle. I had gone through an Alaskan “hike”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott glacier Alaska

A “hike”. Ice climbing was just a quick add-on.

 

 

Another example is the word “cold”. California cold is anything colder than 50 degrees. Freezing is just insane. “Cold” in Alaska? Let’s just say, during my first winter, when I first experienced a week-long stretch of the negatives (25 degrees below zero, to be precise) that was considered “warm”. When I used the word “cold” to describe how I felt (like someone was sandwiching my fingers and toes and nose between ice cubes) people would downright laugh.

Laugh!

At 25 below zero.

So, needless to say, there’s a lot of play in what means what and to whom and Alaskans just have a different threshold of what’s normal to me.

“Hike”: Anywhere from 4-10 hours

“Cold”: 60 below zero

“Hot”: Anything above 70 degrees

And so, I’ve learned this language as I go along, oftentimes by finding myself in the midst of a situation I thoroughly thought I understood only to realize I was sorely mistaken and highly under-packed in snacks. So, to avoid said misunderstandings, I try to avoid assumptions and never leave the house without at least three other layers, a change of socks, a rain jacket and snacks enough for a half-day endeavor. Therefore, even if I don’t fluently speak the language, at least I might have the tools to survive whatever I’ve gotten myself into.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Hiking Alaska

Another “hike” before I got the terminology down. It was 6 hours long and included a barefoot river crossing and ice climbing through caves.

 

 

The most common area of the Alaskan language that I still find myself tripping over is scale. “Hills” here are what I would consider “mountains” and “creeks” are often what I would deem “river” material. Just the other day, scale popped up again when my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to take a stroll.

Stroll (my definition): a lackadaisical walk, perhaps with ice cream in hand – no, scratch that, definitely with ice cream in hand, in footwear ranging from flip-flops to none at all across even terrain, preferably covered in soft grass, or sand.

Stroll (her definition): a 4-6 hour hike (hiking shoes most definitely required) through a forest, followed by scaling a rocky hillside to a bolder-laden steep peak surrounding a glacial lake far below and eventually ending at another lake requiring sidehilling (read: trying to emulate mountain goats, or in my case, falling with style – or not) and then doing it all in reverse. Call me crazy but this, I would call an “adventure”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Trundling Alaska.jpg

This is where she wanted to go. My first time to The Toe, with the boys who became brothers.

 

 

So, yeah…a clarification of terms and scale is helpful.

But it’s not always the obvious trip-ups like scale either, sometimes the Alaskan language is a little sneakier.

The other day, when I decided to sign-up for the 3rd annual Women’s Packrafting Clinic, I felt very secure in my decision because I knew what I was going into. There were no unknown Alaskan terms and the conditions of the day were understood. We’d practice some skills, self-rescue techniques and then have an awesome ride down the “creek”, which I knew to be more of what I would consider a “river”. The “creek” was raging from our hot days we’ve finally been having (hallelujah! Welcome, Summer weather. We missed you) but I knew that already. The day would be long but beautiful and I had just enough snacks. No surprises here.

However, I felt a little tingle as my spidey sense alerted me to something that suddenly felt closer to me than I was comfortable with: swimming.

“Swimming” was a verb I felt competent I knew the definition of until moving here. When I first heard it used, no one was smiling, but there I was with a big grin. Swimming! Fun! No, no, silly.  “Swimming” to me conjures up images of pool floaties or Ethel Merman-esque swimming caps. It has a lightness to it, an easy, breezy, “these are the days of our lives” feel to it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Poolside Santa Cruz

Like this. Poolside cocktails with my favorite cookie.

 

 

That definition also exists here but there’s a second “swimming”, the “swimming” I heard where I was smiling solo, a “swimming” which would perhaps be more aptly named “falling out of a boat into a freezing river”. It doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it? And so, “swimming”, I came to find out, means two things here: fun swimming (smiles included), and potentially scary swimming (less smiley). I opted to stay on the smiley side.

I’ve been packrafting (an awesome sport, check out Alpacka Raft for a look into the wonderful world of bringing your boat wherever you go) a couple of times each Summer here since my first three years ago and it’s a sport with an instantly addictive quality. The Women’s Packrafting Clinic is one of the highlights of the year and since I missed it last year, I was stoked to join in. 35-ish women teaching and learning from one another, packing up boats and hiking a few miles upriver and then boating down? Amazing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting

First clinic.

 

 

Still though, that spidey sense was kicking. Swimming. I’d never “swum” before and for some reason, it felt like it was knocking on my door. During the freestyle practice time in the local swimming (fun swimming) hole, I did something I normally don’t and I practiced falling out of the boat and self-rescuing. I practiced three times and on the third flip, something tweaked in my neck, sending it immediately into spasm. Oh joy!

A few ibuprofen, some lunch and an hour or so later, the spasming had lessened and I figured my spidey sense would too but there it was. “Careful, Miss Pancakes!” it warned, “You’re going to swim”.

Always listen to your spidey sense.

Perhaps I swam because of that voice in my head. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps, it was simply time. Three years without a spill was starting to get to me. I kept wondering when it would be my time to “swim” and how would it go? The anxiety of its looming inevitability had crept up and so, by my own doing or by pure chance, inevitability finally showed her face.

One moment I was up, the next I was caught on a rock and the next? I was coming up for air, facing the wrong way, flipped to the wrong side, heading face first into Class III rapids.

I was swimming.

Thankfully, instinct and training kicked in and I flipped onto my back and turned myself around, feet first as I rode the next set of rapids while trying desperately to grab my boat. I had managed to hold onto my paddle and used it to the best of my ability to steady myself as I aimed to keep my head above water. It wasn’t going well. Each time the water would go over my head, I’d come up just in time to hit the peak of the next wave and take on more water. I started to panic. I wasn’t getting enough air. I couldn’t see. I was hitting my feet and seat on rocks as I sped through the mid 30’s-degree water. Then, I heard the voices of the women that day.

“If you find yourself swimming, stay calm. Keep your feet up, hold onto your paddle and don’t worry about your boat, worry about your life.”

In that moment, I realized that my attempts to catch the boat were going to be fruitless. As I gave up on rescuing the boat and focused on rescuing myself, I slammed into a rock, coming to a stop as I watched the boat speed away. Slowly, I assessed my surroundings. I was sandwiched between the rock that had caught me and the current that was pushing me into it. Thankfully, it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t move and so, ever so carefully, I steadied myself to find my way to shore. Foot entrapment was also something we had gone over that morning and as I felt the shifting rocks below me, I again heard the women’s words:

“Slow and steady. People have drowned in even the shallowest water from getting themselves trapped in a mad dash for the shore. Slow down.”

Slowly, steadily, I made it to the shore.

Just then, the rest of the group showed up, saw my predicament and eddied out to help. After they checked in with me with the double “Are you ok” (the first happens immediately, the second comes a few minutes to make sure you’re telling the truth when you reply “yes”) we devised a plan where two of them would scout for the boat and the other would stay with me. Upon their sighting of my craft, I then hiked downriver and they all rafted down. Finally, after bushwhacking along the moose track laden shore for 10 minutes, I caught up.

There they were, my group, waiting with smiles, and my boat (which had beached itself – see, don’t worry about the boat, worry about your life) to greet and congratulate me.

“That was a long swim! Nice work!”

I love those ladies.

The rest of the ride home, I talked myself through the rapids as I always do, pumping myself up as I go and congratulating myself on doing it…

I had finally gone swimming…

and I was exhausted.

Staying afloat in those icy cold waters is no ice cream-toting stroll in the park and the fear that kicks in could tire a horse. Yet thankfully, this pony was headed back to stable.

As I came into town, sleepy and sopping wet, I made my way to our truck to change and regroup. There, under the center console was a cookie, just for me. The Chief had bought me the little treasure earlier that day and I sniffed it out like a kid finding hidden Christmas presents. It was glorious, like a hug from within.

Learning to speak Alaskan has pushed me into situations I might have otherwise wiggled out of. It has coaxed me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It has given new meaning to words I thought I knew and still new meaning as I learn what they mean for me. “Swimming” was a word I lived in fear of. When would I swim? How would it go? Learning the word and living the word are two different things and here, there are still so many words I only know the definition of. Yet, despite the bumps and bruises that sometimes come with learning them, I’m excited to add my own stories to my Alaskan dictionary. Cheers to learning a new language, even in the place you call home and to learning a new side of you along the way.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting Kennicott River

The fabulous K. I always feel good when she’s on the water with me. Plus, she’s got the best drysuit I’ve ever seen.

 

 

Cheers to our very varied definitions of terms and to learning to speak the language of the locals.

Cheers to swimming, in all it’s forms.

 

With love, from Alaska.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Glacial lake.jpg

I think we can all agree on “beautiful” for this one, eh?