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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?

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018 Brunch Quiche

The Great Alaskan Adult Easter Egg Hunt

One of the first things I realized when I realized that I lived in Alaska was this: I miss my kids.

In California, I had kiddos galore.

Now, don’t get ready to call the authorities, I haven’t left a clan of little Julia’s running about stealing people’s pancakes and causing a ruckus. No, they weren’t little Julia’s, they were the littles of my friends and family and together, we ran thick as thieves.

I remember some of the first gatherings I went to with this particular group of friends turned family, over ten years ago now, and everyone laughed as they turned to see me, surrounded solely by children, not an adult in sight.

I was in heaven.

Growing up as the younger sibling of a brother 8 years my senior, things could get a little quiet around our house. I spent a lot of time alone, which I liked, but there had always been a part of me that wanted a big, bustling family.

Well, I got it.

Every week, at least once, we all got together to celebrate anything from Taco Tuesday to Frittata Fridays (actually, we never did Frittata Fridays but that is a genius idea. Jotting it down now). The point is, we were together all the time. From regular days to holidays, we were a great big extended family.

Those kids taught me so much: how to speak “Giggle” (as some of my adult friends now call it), how to make something from nothing, the art of a snack and the ease of pure love.

Upon arriving in Alaska, I missed those interactions, those lessons, those laughs and I spent my first Summer missing them more as I realized I was staying. Holidays were the hardest. Our first Easter here, I let float by with little more than a realization that it was, in fact, Easter. Without the littles running amok, what was the point?

Yet, thankfully, it wasn’t long before the families with kiddos became our friends with kiddos.

Hallelujah!

Since they aren’t always around, the littles I met here couple with missing the littles I’ve known in California for over a decade brewed a new reality: every holiday is cause for celebration, kids or no kids.

And so, along came Easter weekend, and there were kids and also no kids.

On Friday, I got my kiddo fix in the form of a lake party under a very nearly full moon to celebrate the birthday of a little lady of the lake.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Full Moon March 2018

A full moon and alpenglow? Lucky, indeed.

 

 

Although I didn’t know the kids as well, we had yet to establish inside jokes or hand signals, just being around them brought me back to the time of being surrounded by such intimacies. Plus, watching one of them fall asleep while in the middle of gearing up (boots, jackets, gloves, etc.) brought on the belly laugh that only kid foibles can.

Then, came Easter. The plan was a brunch but the day before, inspired by the kiddo time, we decided to add a little play into the brunch-y day.

The Plan: a sort of white elephant meets easter egg hunt, for adults.

Everyone brought a present or two to hide and by 5 pm, the frittatas, quiches and salads (gosh I love brunch) were eaten and the presents were hidden.

The hunt was on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter Egg Hunt

And so it begins…

 

 

I was fully impressed. Unearthed were a soldering iron, a movie, a jar of whiskey, a coconut ladle, a leather-bound journal, a backgammon set, a hat and a picture frame. Everyone scored.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Adult Easter Egg Hunt Alaska

Tadaa!

 

 

Before too long, the sun was starting to make its descent, and in following with my family holiday post-meal tradition, I suggested a walk. The boys were already in pyro mode, setting up for a bonfire, and so the ladies and the pups and I took a stroll down to the river.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Snow Spring Diamonds

Snow diamonds.

 

 

An hour later, and the bonfire was roaring and the seats around it filling up.

It was time for the second hunt.

Having fully enjoyed the childhood energy of searching for goodies, we decided this couldn’t just stop at ourselves and so, The Chief and I donned our Bunny tails again and hid a new kind of egg in the shape of a can and the colors of the American flag. That’s right, people: The Great Alaskan PBR Easter Egg Hunt.

The eggs lay in snow-covered trees and in snowmachine nooks, at the top of our library and plopped straight into the snow and one by one, a thirsty bonfire-goer would return victorious with the chilled golden liquid in hand.

Yet, like every Easter I’ve ever been too, one egg remained unfound. I had deemed it the “Golden Egg”, as in my family there is always a Golden Egg. It’s the Cats Pajamas, the Cream of the Crop egg, normally containing a treasure paramount to the other eggs and it is always the hardest to find. My nephew prides himself on his Golden Egg radar and we could have used it because the lone soldier still stands today.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018

Can you spot it?

 

 

The night faded and I tucked into dreams…

and awoke to one last wiggle of the Easter Bunny’s tail:

A girlfriend had come by and dropped off a chocolate Easter Bunny, and, in very Alaskan fashion, a scoby to make my own kombucha with.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Chocolate bunnies

What a combo!

 

 

How I love the woods.

Thank you, friends, for coming together for a beautiful meal, for testing and proving that a Himalayan salt candle does, in fact, also serve as a salt lick and for celebrating in kid-like fashion a day which I’ve missed celebrating.

Here’s to the lessons from the littles. I’ll miss you until I see you, but until then, I’ll try to live up to your liveliness.

Thank you.

Happy Easter, happy Equinox and happy Spring to you.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018 Brunch Quiche

Brunch: the best meal…until dinner.

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Polar Bear Alpaca

A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home

We’ve arrived.

After two weeks of shuffling and switching between sleeping spots, packing and unpacking and repacking again, we’ve arrived home.

Home.

From the moment we left California, everything was different (other than shipping a case of wine for free, that was the same. Thank you STS + Alaska Airlines).

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home CA view to AK.jpg

The goodbye glow.

 

 

 

For the first time, we returned to Alaska saying “Yes”.

For the first time, we returned with clear work plans for the Spring and Summer months.

For the first time, we traveled in our own truck with a working heater.

For the first time, we returned in late Winter.

For the first time, we returned just us two.

 

Once on the Alaska side of things, we were smoothly skating along.

Pre-Alaska wasn’t as easy. Our last day went a little like this: high stress, filled with rain, a broken car defroster + windows that won’t roll down = no visibility, locked out of our storage unit where ALL of The Chief’s new tools that he needs for the season were stored, soaked in rain trying to get in and then running my face into my car window in an effort to jump quickly inside, resulting in a sweet little shiner.

There were a few too many last-minute chores and odds and ends but, in the end, the skies cleared and we sat at the kitchen table, my Brother, my Nephew (the fearless, toothless wonder), my Mom, The Chief and I eating tuna salad and laughing it off. It was good and hard to leave. My heart straddles the states with neither part taking or leaving more. It’s good to arrive and hard to leave each time, each place.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Fresh Squeezed Lemonade

The simple joys of California living: making fresh squeezed blood orange lemonade in March.

 

 

But leave we did in the smoothest of fashions and arrived just the same. We were back to our well-oiled machine Alaskan selves.

I wait for luggage, you pick up the car (already running and warm inside. Pure luxury).

You drive the icy streets, I navigate.

We arrived at The Musher & Hula’s Anchorage abode around 2 am, you know, the normal hour for guests and immediately, I felt Alaska sinking in. After being gone for so long, I was missing that connection.

The smooth continued on into the next day when we gazed upon the two lists I’d made:

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Blood Orange Lemonade

List magic. The Chief is in the background pondering my superhuman abilities…

 

 

One listing everything we had at home.

Another, listing everything we needed.

The Chief congratulated himself on being genius enough to have caught such a genius fiancée.

Arriving at 2 am and leaving one day later sounded ambitious, but as we floated through our chores 12 hours later, we became giddy with the reality that we were indeed heading home tomorrow.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Costco.jpg

Just one basket!

 

 

 

After dinner at R&J’s with even more Alaskan friends, we were getting more and more excited to head home.

And, an early rise and a blood draw later (we had to at least throw in some medical issues) and we were off.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Alaskan Men.jpg

My moon, my man.

 

 

We’d heard tales of The Road, 60 miles of ice covered in slush and so we steadied ourselves for a tough journey but 6 hours later, as we laid our first tracks, it still felt easy, breezy.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home McCarthy Road

Easy, breezy because I wasn’t driving, that is.

 

 

After a few quick inhale moments (on my part, The Chief was relaxed, as always while driving in insane conditions) crossing through some tougher road glaciers, we were home. We arrived at our snowmachine, with the sled attached, at the end of our driveway, ready to haul our goods to an already heated house with working lights.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Snowman.jpg

Snow aliens.

 

 

It has never been easier.

Lordy, I love our friend family.

The hard part came in heart form when we awoke from our warm bed the morning after to the quiet. I quickly awoke, worried that I’d slept too long and Lou would be hungry. But, of course, Lou wasn’t there.

 

Just the quiet.

Just the two of us.

 

Through all of the beautiful, growing up life changes we’ve welcomed since we’ve left from and returned to Alaska, that jarring sadness still remains. It followed us through California to Ecuador and back, all in different forms, despite the thought that I might escape it. It’s smaller but it’s there.

Thankfully, so are our friends.

After a cry and a realization that we needed the house to fill up with more than just our own sounds, we heard a call. Just like that, our needs were met, as our neighbor (who had set our house up so cherry for us – which was no quite feet given the inch of solid ice under all the snow. That’s a lot of Ramp of Doom chipping…) hollered as he walked over. An hour later, another neighbor followed with his pooch and after him more and more of our family (canine and human) arrived until we found ourselves amongst half of the valley, at a bonfire in our backyard.

We’ve arrived.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Polar Bear Alpaca

My favorite spot. Patterns, much?

 

 

 

 

 

Home again, home again, different as it may be and same as it always was, joys and sadnesses set in balance by those we share this place with and are lucky enough to call our friend family. Thank you for making it easy, physically and emotionally, to snuggle in so sweetly again.

Welcome home.

Love,

Winter & Friends

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home True Romance.jpg

With love, The Scribe & The Chief

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.

But me?

No bears.

Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:

“Please let me see something…safely.”

And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.

But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier Danielle

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.

Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…

they flew.

Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09- 25-17 A Very Bear- Y Summer 4-Wheeling Bonanza Mine

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.

Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.

An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.

Beneath the Borealis 09:25:17 A Very Bear-Y Summer McCarthy Alaska

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.

Easy-peasy.

We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.

Right?

Wrong.

Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Mine Kennicott Alaska

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Peak

Ominous, eh?

 

 

I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.

And we did.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier 2

The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.

 

 

It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.

Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.

Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanaza Mine

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.

What time was it anyway?

We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.

I was an idiot.

Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.

We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.

Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.

We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley Virga

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.

Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley

 

 

A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.

“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”

It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?

Gulp.

We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.

But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.

A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Cinda + Diesel

Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…

I was face to face with a bear.

The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.

And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.

Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset Skip to My Sunset Lou

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

DOGTOWN, U.S.A Part II: Full Circle

I felt Death knocking.

I felt Death knocking and I bolted the door against her advances. I covered the cracks in the door frame, piled the furniture high and steadied myself against her pounding.

And all the while holding vigilant against her overtures, I scolded myself for my loss of optimism. I deemed myself cynical and paranoid and told myself to ignore my gut.

I felt Death knocking.

I hoped I was wrong.

And then she came in.

She pushed away our barricades as if they were nothing and in one fell swoop confirmed my worst fears in a swell of sadness that swept me away.

 

I lost my best friend.

 

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On Wednesday after the worst week of all three of our lives, we made the hardest decision we have yet to make together:

We bid farewell to our Cinda.

Together we held her as she took her last breaths and together we wrapped her body in a blanket. Together we secured her onto the backboard her Dad had made for her. Together we said our goodbyes to those whom had kindly housed us in Town in our worst time.

Together the three of us went home.

It felt like a cruel joke.

The last time we had gone to Town, I had brought Cinda with me because I was concerned about her health. She and my Mom and I had piled into the truck that too was having issues. The ride there was quiet as a feeling of panic spread over me. I was paranoid about her health. Our town had already lost two dogs this Summer, I couldn’t handle her being next. And so I said a prayer over and over in my mind:

“If something has to fail, make it be the truck. Anything but my girl.”

And my prayers were answered.

Two days later Cinda and I had made it home with the help of a girlfriend and her trusty steed. Our truck hadn’t made it back but Lou? She was fine. The picture of health. It had been superstition after all. I had been paranoid and I had been wrong. I shook off the feeling of Death. We were together and she was healthy.

And that was all that mattered.

 

 

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Cinda Bones scaling the glacial walls like it’s nothing. 

 

 

There would be more trucks.

 

And then there was a new truck and The Chief went into Town to get it.

A few hours later Lou and I followed, catching a ride with a friend when I realized that her condition was worsening.

The whole way I again prayed to anyone and anything that would listen. I told myself Death was just taunting us, knocking louder now but that she could be quelled like the last time. She would stop. Cinda was at the top of her game. Svelte and happy and healthy. The Vet had told me so only weeks before.

Still I prayed over and over along the drive and in the week that followed. I offered up my own health, our home, money. Anything. Everything. “Please, take what you want. Anything but my baby. Please let her make it through.”

 

 

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One week later, The Chief and I drove home together hand in hand in a new truck with our baby’s body in the bed.

We returned home to an oppressive feeling of emptiness and to the most painful full circle experience I’ve ever had.

When we walked in the door we were greeted by a dinner left for us by our neighbors and to a beautiful note of condolence. Those were the same kindnesses and love we had bestowed upon them only a few months before when they had to make the transition of walking through their doorway for the first time without their baby.

Full circle.

Life is cruel and beautiful all in one.

In the morning we awoke for the first time in our house without our baby.

 

You never realize the quiet until it comes.

It’s deafening.

 

We spent the day digging her grave. The spot where she and her Dad had slept together in a tent the first Summer they had lived on the property was where we laid her to rest. As we walked the property earlier that morning to find where she would rest, the spot had called us in and put its arms around us the way only the Earth can.

We dug until we were up to our shoulders in an earthen grave, until we had to help one another out, until we were sure she would be safe from the wilds of the woods.

All the while, her Brother watched over us. He had come over from next door and had greeted us with his head down and without so much as the twitch of his tail. He was solemn and stoic as he let us bury our faces in his fur. We sobbed into him. He slept beside the ever-growing hole that would be her grave and as I dug my heart was broken again and again as I would look up and catch a glimpse of his tail and think that it was hers.

But it wasn’t.

And then as we left to prepare her body, her Brother left too.

We cleaned her and dried her and cried into her fur and then wrapped her again in one of her Dad’s blankets from their early days. Slowly we lowered her into the grave and said our final goodbyes. In the hours that followed we filled her grave with dirt and covered the top in moss and rocks and flowers.

Our baby.

 

 

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Our first Christmas.

 

 

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Our last family ski

 

 

Cinda was our first baby.

And she was my very best friend.

She was the reason I made it through my first Winter when The Chief worked all the dark day long and I was left in an unfamiliar place all alone. In the cold and the vast darkness she was my light and I was no longer alone. I talked to her more than anyone else. She waited patiently as I learned to ski and made me feel safe in the big white world I had found myself in.

 

 

 

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Keeping me company while I organized totes.

 

She showed me around and taught me to navigate the place I called home. At every turn she would wait for me to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

 

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This way, Mommy.

 

 

She was my best friend and I lost her.

I lost her and still, she is everywhere.

I hear her though she’s not there. I smell the way her paws smelled in fleeting moments and it taunts me. I find her fur at every turn. I see her footprints in the soft landings of the river’s shore.

I still look for her in her bed under the house every time I walk up the stairs and I wait for her to peek up at me over the table in our living room. My heart breaks in expectant surprise when I turn around in the kitchen and she isn’t there to sample what I’m making. I feel as if I’m just waiting to turn the corner and see her again, as though I’ve simply lost her and not that she’s lost her life.

 

 

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Sneaky, peaky T.

 

 

She visits us in our dreams and in the memories of our Friend Family who have been there every step of the way to kneel at her grave and cry, to wrap us in their arms, to feed us and to tell stories that make us able to laugh again.

It’s a constant up and down whirlybird of a rollercoaster on a ride I never wanted to go on that I never paid admittance for. It feels as if we are here by accident, by a terrible joke.

But we aren’t.

This is our new life. Just us and the quiet.

 

Despite the despair and the pain that feel infinite it was worth it. I wouldn’t take back getting to love her in order to avoid this but I would do anything for more time together.

I love you, Cinda, dog of unflinching personality and infinite nicknames and lessons and love. There will never be another like you. Thank you for letting me be your Mom, for as one of your Grandmas said with a laugh: you didn’t have to let me be your Mom but you did.

Thank you. We will see you on the other side.

We miss you. So much.

 

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Lessons Learned…and then Forgotten: Cauliflower Strikes Again

Oops, Britney Spears, I did it again.

Why in the world I tried after my last debacle, I’m not sure.

Did I think my skin had changed? Or perhaps that it was merely a fluke?

Well, it seems that yes, I did think those things. I must have.

Because…

 

I gave myself cauliflower armpits again.

 

Again!

Oops…

You see, since that post last year, things have changed a bit. That little hair removal flub had me off waxing for a while. I quit cold turkey (after only two forays into the wily world of waxing). My home salon was put on pause, eyebrows aside and I went back to my boy blade and shaving. But then, Winter got the better of me. I was intrigued again and I started the process. I grew out my little hairs and rrrrrrriiiiiiiip! Out they came.

And off I was in a new romance with muslin cloth strips and allergen-free water-soluble wax. As I’ve said, taking a shower here is no easy task and so unless you want to stand naked and shave every morning in a birdbath (in the shape of a tote), you’re not going to have much consistency and you know what I’ve come to realize?

I want consistency.

I love soft legs.

I’ve battled back and forth with why “Am I not enough of a feminist to wear my leg hair with pride?” until I realized that that little quandry was ridiculous. I think I’m plenty full of feminism and I’ve rocked a serious sweater on my gams if that’s something that you think proves it (it’s not) but in all honesty, I just don’t like it as much.

In a relationship with a furry man like I am, I’ll always be the smoother of the two of us but I realized that I don’t just want the smoother title. Besides, being smoother than him is like saying I’m an excellent runner simply because I’m faster than a turtle.

 

 

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Bigfoot!? Oh, no just a hairy Chief man.

 

 

There’s no comparison.

Nope, I didn’t want to just be smoother. I wanted my uber soft legs back. And so, my waxing romance has been going strong, you may or may not be happy to know. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can hold a conversation while doing it. Painful? Mmmm, a little but it doesn’t really bother me. It’s so satisfying.

My goodness I’m starting to sound a bit obsessed, eh? Well, don’t worry, a mishap was bound to happen, right?

It did.

A little bit of laziness came in. The thing is, the waxing that worked for me and my super sensitive skin takes a while. It has to heat up in water in a pot on the stove until it’s just the right consistency (the I Won’t Give You Third Degree Burn Consistency, preferably) and then, typically about half-way through I have to heat it up again, sometimes twice. It’s messy and although it’s water soluble, that doesn’t mean that it’s a breeze to get off the floor or out of my clothing or my non-waxing hair. And then, since it’s reusable (the strips are at least, it’s not magical self-regenerating wax, not yet at least) there’s the whole process of cleaning the strips.

The whole shebang last for hours and in the woods, where everything takes three times as long as it should anyways, the romance I’d had was starting to putter out.

With Summer’s arrival seemingly overnight and a month since my last appointment at Spa de Juju it was time.

Time for the perfect storm apparently.

You see, my girlfriend asked to borrow my wax since she was out and since I still was rocking the leg sweaters with no free day ahead of me to book an appointment with myself I figured I’d just go ahead and give her mine and order more. Some day I’d have time and then, it was back to the old Bic for a while until the manic time warp of Summer was over.

 

 

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and the first bloom of River Beauty tells me that will be a while…

 

 

But then, I got leg envy. I brought the wax to Town for her but we never connected and everytime I looked at it and then looked down at my leggies I wanted to act. But the wax was for her, I couldn’t take it back and so I tried the next “best” thing.

I used the fast and easy, ready made Cauliflower Armpit Inducing Strips from last year (that should have already been at my other girlfriend’s house since I had said that I’d give them to her last year, tucked away safe from my tempted self). I did one strip on my leg and waited a day and it was fine.

And so, I went for it.

I had the waxing bug where you just get ready to get it over with, like waiting to jump out of a tree on a rope swing. You just have to go for it. I was going for it, full backflip into the water and all.

And…it was amazing! I took a break from work and it was done in 30 minutes, no heating or reheating or sticky drops all over the floor and when I was done, it all went bye-bye into the trash.

I was feeling very proud and very metropolitan (and slightly guilty of being wasteful).

Until this morning.

You see, the mosquitos are out in full force. They are fast and ruthless and can keep up with me even at a fast clip. They don’t mess around. And so when I awoke this morning to an itchy armpit I knew immediately who the culprit was: dang mosquitos!

I heard them buzzing about and whipped out a few karate chop moves (even though they are jerks, I still feel badly plotting murder but it had to be done). Once I’d secured the area I went back to itching. This was a bad one. It felt like my entire armpit was on fire and it hurt more than most bites do and boy was it swelling.

Oh well, back to bed.

It turns out…I was wrong.

It wasn’t a mosquito, it was me.

That whole backflip into the water thing?

Belly flop.

 

 

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Yup. Still allergic. Still sensitive. Still the same old me, just none the wiser.

Even as I was going through the “easy” waxing and giggling to myself at how easy it was, I had a sinking feeling as I saw the bumps start to rise. But then, they vanished and off I went on a long (probably agitating) walk to Town followed by a game of Softball.

Whoops!

It seems a lesson learned by me is also a lesson quickly forgotten, as if time is some sort of magician who distorts reality.

And so now, I’m stuck with another round of Cauliflower Armpits. At first I thought it was just the one but no, no, no. How could it be?

 

 

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That look says it all

 

 

Perhaps, in my fourth year, I’ll learn. I wont’ commit the foibles of my freshman, sophomore and junior Summers. I’ll be a senior, big man on campus and perhaps, when I high-five people they won’t have to stare into the abyss that is a Cauliflower Armpit.

Perhaps.

We played a show on Saturday and despite the threat of rain and the chill that came with it, I was onstage with little more than a tank top because of the pain my pits were giving me. So I tried to give them air (and tried not to frighten the crowd with my angy armpits).

I think, now that I look back that a little part of me dismissed the irritation last year as being caused by shaving afterwards (I wasn’t very good at the whole waxing thing back then and had given up after a small effort) and another little mischevious part of me planned to see if that was true.

Well, wasn’t that a fun little game to play with myself.

I sure am glad we picked up our plant babies.

Aloe, to the rescue.

Sort of. Really, relief I think is spelled T-I-M-E and as I realize how impatient I am with it, I hope, hope, hope that I will finally learn this lesson, two sets of painful armpits later.

Fingers crossed.

Be safe out there, kiddos and try to remember the lessons you’ve learned, but especially those you’ve forgotten.

Happy home-spa-ing to you!

Ouch.

 

 

 

 

Dogtown, U.S.A

Two weeks ago our town lost a dear friend. She was spirited and kind and quirky and one hell of a runner and…

she was a dog.

 

 

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Io in the background at the beach in California

 

 

Her passing made me realize that for a year and a half I’ve written about so many reasons why I love where we live but that I’ve neglected to explain one of the biggest reasons: our dogs.

When I first thought of Alaska, I thought of glaciers and grizzlies, not dogs but I arrived to a very different reality. At the first party I went to here I was sitting on the grass and before I knew it, there was a dog on my lap, a dog on each side and endless others coming up for kisses. And those were just a small contingency of the partygoers. For the 100 some odd people there, there were probably half that amount in dogs (and if everyone at the party had lived locally, the number of dogs would have probably matched humans).

I had landed in doggie heaven.

Which to me, pretty much meant people heaven too. I couldn’t believe my luck to be surrounded by pups.

We live in a dog town, a place where people greet each dog with the same love and admiration that they give their humans (sometimes even more). Dogs out here aren’t just protection or entertainment, they are family. We trust them more than I’ve ever seen dogs trusted before. They run off leash (we didn’t even have a leash for Cinda until we first went to California) and if they leave for some reason, I trust them to come back. If I’m lost, I trust them to guide me home and if they don’t like someone, I trust their intuition (and have seen the proof in their judgements come through).

Dogs are the special ingredient, the umami of taste. Their essence is what makes this place the unusual concoction that it is. They make it our home.

Each and every one of them.

And I forget how very rare this is until I leave this place and see how free our pups here are.

Some days I’ll walk with Cinda to Town and when the time comes to turn off for my work she’ll take a different route, looking back as if to say “See you later, Ma. I’m going to the bar.” And off she’ll go for a few hours, doing her rounds, seeing her friends, checking in on her Town. She’ll hit the local grocery store where they have treats waiting, she’ll see if the local bar owner will let her in to the restaurant…

 

 

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C’mon. Let us in.

 

 

…she’ll go up to work and check on Dad and then at some point, she’ll come back down to me where she plops herself right in front of the doorway of The Restaurant acting as a sort of bouncer.

Every dog has their own routine and habits and scratch spots and we all know them because they are every bit a part of the community as we are.

 

 

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And they always get the best seat.

 

Talking on the phone the other day to a girlfriend I mentioned that we were watching a neighbor’s dog for a couple weeks.

“A couple of weeks? Geez! That’s crazy!”

And I get that it sounds that way but it never feels like we are put out because here there’s a constant symbiosis of care. If you see a thirsty pup, you water her. If you’re going on a walk and a dog dad or mom aren’t home, you bring their dog with you so they get out enough. It takes a village.

My favorite dog time is when I spend the day at home and inevitably all of the neighborhood dogs come by at some point in the day to get some love and maybe a treat or to just keep tabs on the place. They make their rounds, dropping in for a few minutes or a few hours.  And if a few days go by without seeing each of them, it feels as if something is amiss.

And then something was.

Because our town lost one of our dear dogs. She was a German Shorthaired Pointer by the name of Io. She and her parents are our family, our next door neighbors. In my few years here, her Mom and Cinda and I spent countless hours on walks together. Those walks are how we built our friendship, walking a path worn between our two properties, created by years of footsteps and paw prints back and forth, to greet one another and head deeper into the woods.

One of my fondest memories of Io was on such a walk. It was Spring, last year and though the chill of Winter had faded and the rivers had broken from a warm sun, the water was as cold as ever, just above freezing. Io was running circles around us, lapping us over and over, as per usual, but at an even faster rate. She had spotted something she liked and had taken off after it barking, running at full speed, tearing through the woods. She raced past us again as we all neared the river’s edge and before we knew it she was belly down, plopped into the freezing cold waters of the river. She looked at us smiling, cooling herself from her output and we laughed and marveled at what an amazing animal she was. Afterwards I wondered allowed what she had been after and her Mom said: “A squirrel. That was her squirrel bark”.

 

 

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Outnumbered again.

 

 

That’s how well they knew one another, just by the tone of her bark her parents could know. And Io knew them in return.

Before her Mom would have even gotten her garden tools out, Io would be digging away in the garden. If she went upstairs to get into workout clothes for a run, Io knew it before she’d even gotten up the ladder. Oh, and the ladder: Io could climb the ladder to the loft where she would sleep as the little spoon with her Mom and Dad every night.

They knew one another inside and out, backwards and forwards.

She’s family.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never written about the dogs here, because they are so inextricably of us and in our souls that in every piece I wrote, there they were. Already.

I still feel her here. We still take our walks, the walks that built our friendship and I feel her still running circles around us. I picture her raging through the brush or peeking out from beneath a blanket on the couch. She is everywhere. But still, she is deeply missed.

There is a saying around here: “When I die, please let me come back as a dog in this town” and I have to say that if the dogs had a vote, I bet they would all wish for that too.

Here’s to our dogs, to the ones we’ve loved and the ones we’ve lost. Here’s to embarking upon the journey of having a dog, knowing full and well that it will end in pain, yet going whole-heartedly into it nonetheless because it is so worth it.

And here’s to you, sweet Io. We love you.

 

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An Alaskan Transaction (The Most Alaskan Thing I’ve Ever Seen…So Far)

“Sis, all you need is something simple. A dependable old truck. Say, a Ford F-250, diesel, low mileage, late 90’s. Something like that.”

My brother said this to me as we sat on the couch in the living room of his cozy seaside home. He made it all seem so easy. You know, will it/wish it/do a dance for it and it will come. Well, we had been doing just that for a newer truck, or so we thought and nothing had come our way. We had our perfect truck in our heads: diesel, manual, low mileage, minor to zero mechanical issues and we willed it, wished it and danced for it daily via constant searches and credit applications and still…

Nothing.

Apparently the diesel + manual combo equaled something out of a fairy tale – think pink unicorns that smell like bubble gum and pass gas in the form of sparkles. Amazing. It just wasn’t happening.

After two months of looking, we were both starting to feel the time crunch. Summer was breathing down our backs, the time where the pulse of town feels like a constant rave compared to the calm of Winter and the idea of finding time to leave and buy a vehicle is laughable (but having the capability to leave in case of necessity via the possession of a vehicle is highly valuable). And so, we started to resign to the reality that this purchase might have to wait for the Fall. It’s a strange thing being out here without an exit. Sure, we always can get out, but this ability relies either on the kindness of friends and the borrowing of vehicles of hitching a ride (and despite the magic way this place makes these opportunities happen, it would be nice to be able to offer instead of always receive) or on our pocketbooks (to fly out is no cheap option). The feeling of freedom this place brings is always slightly hampered by the reality that we are without our own way to leave. We aren’t totally free.

And so all of this was circling my brain as we talked and then…my Brother said his magical words.

The next morning, I awoke at my his house, we readied my Nephew for school and we were off. My Nephew and I were picking out what music to listen to on the way to school (Lego Batman? Guns n’ Roses? Beastie Boys? This kid cracks me up) when a text came through from one of our friends in Alaska: “Check out this truck I found on a local Facebook group. I think it’s a good buy.”

I had asked for help in our search from a few savvy friends both in California and Alaska and suddenly it had paid off.

Or had it?

I clicked on the link and there it was in front of me:

A late 90’s Ford F-250 diesel truck with low miles.

It was exactly like my Brother had said.

I contacted The Chief. He was in. He contacted the seller. We hadn’t heard back but already I was contacting a friend who just happened to be in the area where the truck was for sale (4-5 hours from all of our homes) to see if he could test drive it for us.

The next day he went to check it out and as I made my way to the airport with my Mom, The Chief phoned to tell me the good news.

Oh, did I not mention that all of this was done with a 3,000 mile distance between us? I had been in California, St. Louis and Portland visiting family, friends and a new baby, all the while trying to purchase a truck either in California 3,000 miles from The Chief that he would have to sign off on sight unseen or he was going to purchase one 8 hours from him in Town, 3,000 miles away from me that I would have to sign off on sight unseen. It was mayhem.

Or so we thought. Now we were both going to buy a truck, sight unseen.

More mayhem?

“I think it’s a great deal, babe. I think we should do it.”

Our neighbor had given the truck his approval and it felt like things were selling fast, plus we hadn’t found any other leads. We needed to make our move. We talked about finances and sussed out the details and decided to move forward with a cash purchase (like my Brother suggested) instead of the loan option for a newer truck that we had been planning all along all while I bumped down the country roads, in and out of service, to the airport, trying to hear this important conversation. Finally, we arrived, parked and I could gather my bearings enough to say:

“Let’s go for it.”

The Chief phoned the seller and told him that we would be there to get it…in four days.

You see, this truck wasn’t 5 hours from our house in the right direction. I mean, of course not, right? It was in the opposite direction that The Chief would take to come collect me and so, we asked him to hold it. And, like a true Alaskan, he held fast to his word. No money, no contract, just a verbal agreement.

I arrived in Anchorage that night at 11:30pm at which point (after many “Oh my gosh I missed you”‘s) we went back to our hotel. Home sweet home for the night. Right?

Wrong.

Unfortunately, the party next to us was just that: a party. Though they were a party of two and an unhappy party at that, they made the noise of a party of twenty. The front desk tried to intervene and the yelling would simmer down for a few minutes, just enough time for us to almost fall asleep and then…bam! Something would slam or an angry word would be yelled and up we would be. This depressing charade went on like this until 3 or 4am when we finally drifted off.

And then our alarm went off at 6am.

3 hours of sleep and we were off. Town Day (can you hear Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana playing? I can).

It started off with a 7:30 doctors appointment for me. Oh joy! It had taken me an entire month and hours upon hours of faxes and phone calls to get this appointment (changing healthcare when one moves states is no pancake picnic, I’ll tell you that) and no 3 hours of sleep would make me miss it but oh Lordy, was I tired and not in the mood for someone to be poking and prodding me. The Chief waited expectantly during the very unpleasant 2 hour procedure after which I had the roughest blood draw of my life. My vein became the size of a pencil and my gauze was soaked. It was lovely. I came out looking quite the sight apparently as The Chief received me into his arms and asked:

“Baby, are you O.K?”

I’m amazing. I feel so amazing.

I was nauseous and grey faced but it was nothing that pancakes couldn’t take the edge off of. And so, at The Chief’s suggestion, we headed to fluffy hotcake heaven. I was so nauseous I could barely eat, but I muscled through. Pancake champion.

Next up? The dentist! Could this day get any better? Round two of pancakes might be in order. Oh, and…I had a small cavity. They suggested that they just fill it then and there and so I settled in for a longer stay than hoped for. Then the Laughing Gas started. I hadn’t had Laughing Gas since I was a child and within minutes I felt too high to even speak. They would ask me questions or prompt me to do things with my mouth and I would just smile and they would have to move my mouth for me. I was totally incapacitated. Each instrument’s particular sound took on the shape of a personality that I could envision and a cartoon of the tools working away on my pearly whites played on my own personal viewing screen of my mind. Needless to say…

I was unbelievably high.

I floated out of the office (thank goodness I had done the paperwork ahead of time) and waited outside in the sunshine for The Chief. He too had a doctor’s appointment but it turns out we were left in quite different states from our quite different appointments.

He picked me up and immediately started talking finances. My head started vibrating. I blurted out: “Babe, I’m so high.”

Huh?

He looked utterly perplexed. It being 4/20 that day he thought I was just being funny, until he looked at me. So high.

“Laughing Gas? Since when do they use Laughing Gas?”

Now, babe. They used it now.

Still, I tried to soldier on and talk money. We were trying to figure out the best way to take out monies from different accounts to make our truck transaction make the most sense.

However, nothing made sense to me. I started doing calculations that sent me off to space.

There is nothing worse than feeling incapacitated on a Town Day because there’s nothing to be done other than buck up and keep going. We still had to go to the pharmacy, do our non-perishable shopping and then do our Costco run.

Costco? High? I thought I might faint.

And so, I started chugging water and opening and closing my eyes. That would work.

It didn’t.

At first.

Thankfully, a few hours later and the more minor stops completed without too many incidents and the Laughing Gas wasn’t so funny anymore. As we walked into Costco I felt a slightly tighter grip on reality. A few hours after that and we had finished our errands and were heading to our friends’ house (the ones whom had found the truck) to catch up and unload our perishables for the night before returning to the hotel.

On the way back, I called the hotel to ask if our lovely neighbors of last night would again be our neighbors tonight.

Legally, they couldn’t tell me but after battling through the day I’d been through, this was just a verbal roadblock. I could handle this.

And I did. Unfortunately, what I unearthed was that we had two choices: risk it and hope that our neighbors had a change of pace (and heart) from the night before or move rooms.

We weren’t in the gambling mood.

By the time we arrived it was 11pm. We gathered our belongings in the old room and hiked to the new room, unpacked and plopped down on the bed, exhausted.

But it was all O.K. because…tomorrow, we would be home.

A few stops for perishables and filling up on gas (thankfully just our fuel tanks instead of our fuel barrels. The Chief had already filled the over 2,000 lbs. of gas the day before I flew in and saved us almost an hour, like a champ) and the like and we were off. The drive was beautiful and the heater even seemed to be producing a semblance of heat. After meeting two sets of friends to drop off their fuel barrels and say “hellos”, we were finally home. We spent the mandatory hour unloading and then tucked our sleepy selves into bed.

The next day, The Chief had to drive out again to almost the end of The Road (60 miles of dirt and rock which we had just come in).

My little Road Warrior.

He had to complete testing for the Fire Department which meant class time and the Pack test which meant completing a 3 mile hike with 45 lbs. of weight strapped to him in under 45 minutes. Yikes. I, on the other hand got to the task of unloading the house (meaning handling organizing all of the unloaded goods from the night before). It was daunting. Things needed to go into the freezer or find a cool spot, herbs needed to go into water, lettuce wrapped, etc. And, since the seasons had changed since last I’d been home, it was a whole different ball game. No more putting things outside in totes to stay frozen, no more Super Cold Corner and Mildly Cold Corner to store veggies. Oh no. Game change. Spring time. Thankfully, friends stopped by all day and broke the task up into much more pleasant bites. Teeny tiny ones to be exact so that when a group of friends called to say that we were all going shooting, I had to hurriedly stuff the last bits away and leave some for another day…it was time to slay some clay pigeons. And by slay I mean not hit a single one, but still have fun.

The next morning we were up early and off! On The Road again. Today we were getting our truck.

Road Warriors.

 

 

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The 4-5 hour drive took us 5 hours and just as we hit the edge of town, looking for the address, we decided to call and check in.

They were all the way at the other end, at the start of town.

Whoops!

We turned around and headed back out, passing the places for errands we would later run. Even though we would have to come back that way after the transaction, we wanted to get the truck first before doing any shopping. We looked for the Yard Sale signs and pulled up in front of their house. They were in the process of trying to buy a house and so were selling off that which they didn’t need. Including the plow truck.

That’s right.

A plow truck.

Our plow truck?

That remained to be seen.

The Ford F-250 my brother had envisioned hadn’t had a snow plow attached to it, but this one did and as we bottomed out simply pulling back into the driveway after our test drive, I started to get more and more nervous about driving another 5 hours back home with only 6 inches of clearance between the plow and the ground. The Road is beyond bumpy with huge frost heaves. I made the I’m Not So Sure This Is Such A Good Idea face and The Chief made the What Other Options Do We Have Face and thankfully, the seller hopped on in between with an idea. What if we could detach the plow and put it in the back of the truck?

Well, yes, that would be amazing. However, the reality was that I hadn’t seen giants roaming the streets lately and the hundreds and hundreds of pounds of metal weren’t going to lift all on their own and with a pregnant woman, a man who just had hernia surgery, The Chief and myself, the odds of getting that thing in the back of the truck were about as good as getting the abominable snow man in the back of the truck (not to say pregnant ladies aren’t strong, they’re stronger than I know, but lifting impossible weights was not advised in this prenatal plan). And so, after a moment of brainstorming and a few calls, I was set to witness the most Alaskan thing I’d ever seen.

So, we put it into action and set to finalizing finances and transfers of title, all the while waiting for the final transaction: the moving of the plow. The Chief and the seller practiced unhooking the plow and set up for the action.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Soon it was already 4pm and we still had to pick up groceries for people in town, fuel up and stop at our friends’ house on The Road to pick up our plant babies we dropped off in December (we are very neglectful plant parents, apparently). I was starting to feel like we would never get home when suddenly, I heard it.

The roar of the excavator.

Yup, that’s right.

The seller had called a fellow townsman to see if we could buy his time on his excavator to lift the plow into the back of the truck. You know, just a casual stop by with an excavator.

Who just owns an excavator? Alaskans, that’s who.

He came rolling up the street and stopped, looked at the truck, looked at the plow, said “Hello” and told us to rig up the chains.

 

 

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We chained up the plow and looped it over the teeth of the excavator which promptly lifted the plow off the ground.

 

 

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The men steadied the sides of the plow (as I envisioned it smashing through the truck’s back windows) and slowly guided it into place. 10 minutes and some balancing acts later, the plow was successfully placed into the back of the truck. We cheered and thanked him and asked what we could pay and he replied:

“Nothing, it’s your lucky day. I needed to get it out for work anyways.”

Nothing.

A man, who didn’t seem to be in construction per se, owned an excavator, had just driven said heavy piece of equipment 40 minutes to their house, loaded our plow and driven away and he wanted nothing? It was the most Alaskan thing I’d ever seen and it just kept going.

The sellers then brewed us coffee in our to go mugs to make sure were O.K. to drive the long trip home. So kind. So Alaskan. We all said thank you and goodbye and off we went to run the final errands before we were off on the long way home.

I was starving but the salad I had packed myself was impossible to eat when I had to steer through the mountainous drive and so I sang to Cinda instead as she looked on out the window at Dad up ahead.

At the halfway point we switched vehicles. It was my turn with Big Blue. She puff purred in her diesel fashion, lulling me onto the road. From the outside, the truck didn’t seem so huge but with the seat pulled all the way forward I still felt like a munchkin. We stopped for popsicles and gas and finally, to see our dear friends and our plant babies. After keeping them (the friends, not the plants) up way past their bed time while catching up (a conversation filled with some very important and wonderful life advice) we headed home with tired eyes. We still had a way to go.

Finally, a pee break later and we pulled into the driveway. Our driveway, with our brand new (to us) truck. It felt amazing.

We fell into bed, exhausted and happy yet again.

The day after the next was The Chief’s birthday party and boy was it. Everyone who’d endured The Winter felt the surge of Summer coming as the party grew to 30 or more, more than twice the amount we’d ever had at any Winter gathering. The mosquitoes were out and a fire was blazing and…

we had 30 people at our house.

My wheels got to turning.

That had to be enough to lift the plow. I talked to The Chief who gave me a Your Brilliant look and he yelled to the crowd: “I need hands!” In true Alaskan fashion, the hands appeared and followed him to the truck. I went to help and quickly realized that we would need even more help. I went back to the fire and yelled: “More hands!” and the rest of the party rallied to our cries. Soon enough there were 10 plus people in the back of the truck.

 

 

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The Chief yelled out a plan (as he had already set up an unloading zone) and everyone groaned under the weight. Within a few shorts moves, the plow was unloaded. We had thought that we would have to do the excavator move in reverse and spend some serious money doing so, but with the help of our friends, there we were, all trucked up and ready to go.

 

 

 

 

 

But there was nowhere to go, not that night. Instead, we toasted the man I love with good food, good drink, good friends and German chocolate cake.

In a day’s time, my Brother’s suggestion became possible.

In a week’s time, my Brother’s plot came to fruition.

And within that week I saw the most Alaskan things I’ve ever seen and it just kept coming. It was a wonderful welcome home to the place I love. Sure, the seasons have drastically changed, snow has been beat out by sun and the ground has surfaced. The population has started its surge and will only go up and the bugs are out. Things have changed but the song remains the same. The heart remains the same.

The loading and unloading of that plow wasn’t just about end results, it was about this place. Here, or four hours away, up in the North or down in the South. There’s so much about Alaska that brings us together and gives us the opportunity to help one another. We have to. Or I guess we don’t, but the beauty is that people choose to help. It’s the Alaskan way and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

So, jump on in the truck if you need a ride because finally, we can offer.

 

 

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//A big thank you to my Grandmother for her help in procuring this truck. She’s spreading the original Alaskan spirit (Grandma goodness) all the way down in Missouri. We couldn’t have done it without you and we are forever grateful.//

The Breakdown: A Winter Edition

With an arsenal of two snow machines and household of two people, our Winter transportation situation was looking pretty darn good. We were sitting pretty on two machines that while imperfect, were perfectly fine.

We came home, anxious to ditch four wheels for two skis and ditch them we did, promptly upon our return to Alaska.

That was, until we fell of our high ponies and onto our feet.

And even though I knew not to be surprised, I still was. Actually stunned is more appropriate. Surprised, no. You see, living here, we are used to the breakdown. This place can be hard. Hard on clothes, hard on the body and hard on vehicles. And so, when things fail (which they surely might) you aren’t surprised. You are, however, encouraged by necessity to find the next best option.

This past Summer, both of our trucks failed. Oh joy. Thankfully, we could get pretty much get by without them. They were a help, a treat and apparently too good to be true. Before their demise I often chose to walk instead of drive anyways, but the lack of a choice made me suddenly wish I had one. I took to walking or riding little Bluebell or…riding our new to us four-wheeler (!) while The Chief patrolled with the fire truck. We were both covered, until we weren’t. Without a truck of our own, we were at the mercy of the elements and in a place like Alaska where the weather changes faster than you can say “Look at that thunderhead coming in…” I can’t count how many times I was caught in a downpour.

Oh well.

Time to walk or ride or drive the 4-wheeler a little faster. Shelter awaits at home.

 

And so, it was quite the relief this Winter to come home to a snowglobe like magical land where the roads were covered in 16 inches of snowpack over which it was preferable to travel by snow machine.

And we had two.

Two people.

Two machines.

 

 

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Extra extravagant mail day taking two machines just for the hell of it.

 

 

Too good to be true.

 

The first month was flawless. While both machines had some steering issues (the Polaris I mainly ride takes all the muscle I have to turn and braking? Well, that’s more of a suggestion than a reality. The Tundra The Chief mainly drives has more play in the steering than a Kindergarten class at recess but still, she drove just fine as long as she had a vigilant rider ready to dig her out) we were feeling beyond lucky. The Chief fired up the machines first thing the morning after we arrived. They started right up and he looked like a kid with a Christmas Day toy driving circles around the property making trails for us so we wouldn’t have to trudge through the hip-deep snow to get everywhere.

That was then.

And, in fact, that is now as well, sort of.

But the in between? Well, that’s where the story and the game of Musical Machines, for which we didn’t sign up, begins.

 

It was a sunny day in February amongst a string of solid grey weeks. Those days call to the Locals as if they were summoned with a bullhorn. Get up! Get out! And so, before we had even gotten through our first sip of coffee for the day, the phone started ringing.

River Trip.

Within minutes of the first call, the yard started filling up with willing participants. A few machines were stopping for mail or whatnot on the way over on the other side of The River and so we waited and caffeinated up and packed snacks for a day out on the ice. The plan was to head down The River trail to The Confluence and then head upriver to the wide open wilds of the even Bigger River nearby. It was a scouting mission. No one had gone up yet (that we knew of). Talk turned to years past, predictions and approaches and the excitement and anticipation grew.

The Tundra had been having trouble the week before, stuttering ceaselessly and so badly that The Chief would have to stop every minute or so to turn off the machine and restart it, making his 30 minute drive home from work closer to an hour in the sweet sub-zero temperatures of February in Alaska (I made a lot of stew and other warm hearty meals that week to try to take the chill off of him when he walked through the door). However, after many a discussion and just as much input from others, The Chief thought he had it narrowed down to bad gas. I swear, I heard the term “bad gas” more times in that one week than I have in my entire life. The Chief didn’t mean an odorous situation, he meant water in the gas due to temperature fluctuations but I giggled every time nonetheless. Our friends who filled our yard had brought a gas treatment (ha!) with them to rectify the problem and so, after gassing up and adding treatment the machine started up just fine.

Problem solved.

We were stoked to have the machine back to normal. The problem had been going on for a week already and the frustration was mounting, especially since The Chief had just made his final payment on it. The machine was ours and…suddenly, it didn’t work.

But all of that was behind us now.

The day was calling and soon, everyone was there. The final layer process started. Gloves started going on, face masks and hats and hoods were arranged and lastly, goggles and ear protection. Everyone was suited up and ready to go. The Chief went to start our machine and I jumped on. Amongst the roar of the 7 or so other machines around us, I couldn’t tell what was wrong but I knew it was something as I saw The Chief’s face change from excitement to a furrowed brow. I took off my ear protection to a very particular sound:

Silence.

Our machine was the only one not rumbling.

Oh.

No.

The ready riders were looking around, giving thumbs up or head pats to signal readiness, but slowly word got around via signals. We were grounded.

It wouldn’t start.

Out of nowhere.

Ten minutes earlier, it was fine. Now, nothing.

And so, ten heads came together to try to figure out the latest problem with our problem child machine. Tools came out and cowlings came off. Battery tests were done, inspections completed. Hoping that the battery was simply low due to the constant stopping and starting it had taken to run the machine the week prior and thus, in its weakened state couldn’t power the starter, we got out the gas. We filled the generator and proceeded to lose layers as the cold machine would refuse to start. The Chief pulled and pulled again and again. We traded. I shed layers and took a few turns. Tired out, we traded again. He finally got it started. It died. He started it again. One minute of running. It died again. The next fifteen minutes continued in this fashion until finally, she was purring away. Hot and tired, we then hooked her up to our charger, hoping a simple bit of battery juice would have us up and running in no time. The River Trip was still a reality.

We rotated with the sun, trying to stay in her rays as she moved across the sky, each step bringing us closer to no trip than the last despite how much we wanted to go.

In an hour, the battery read charged but still, nothing.

Words like “the starter” began to get thrown around.

Ruh roh (obviously said in a Scooby Doo voice).

Just hearing that word made dollar signs appear in my eyes. We opted to hope that the battery was in fact reading ready when in fact it was not. We decided to leave the charge on.

 

The sun was starting her final descent and the fervor of the day was dying down but instead of lose the day completely, we decided to all pile onto the working machines that we did have and head down to The River to catch the view and have a snack. Adventure time would come again but for now, it was time to warm up in the sunshine. Despite our attempts to follow the sun, she was an elusive lady, weaving in and out of our grove of Spruce. We were chilled and antsy and so, we headed out for a little bit of adventure in the little bit of day left.

It was gorgeous and the sheer excitement one feels when riding in a group en masse down to The River makes even a short ride feel like an epic adventure.

A few hours later, dark was upon us and as we settled into the cabin, an exhausting list of potential problems for the machine ran through our heads but the word “starter” circled most prominently. We crossed our fingers and cozied up for the night.

The machine, it turns out, cozied up for the month. After further tests and dollar signs that seemed to be multiplying we finally weeded out the problem. It was the starter. We hoped. We waited for the part, praying it would be the one to solve the problem. But, in the mean time, reminded ourselves that we were lucky: we had the Polaris.

The trusty old steed had gotten The Chief through many a Winter and had been the first machine I had ever ridden or drove. We both had a soft spot for her and her very 90’s pink and blue bedazzling. Riding around together we felt nostalgic and grateful to still be up a machine while also down one. Things could be worse.

What did you say?

Things could be worse?

Well, yes, they certainly could!

A few days after the Tundra gave out I was at our neighbors’ house. They were just getting in for the season and we had spent the few days prior breaking trails around their house, first by snowshoe (sidenote: I thought that snowshoeing was some sort of leisurely stroll through the woods. Something people in Norway do with sweet pink cheeks and holiday-ish sweaters to boot. I assumed it was followed by a picnic. Wrong. Very wrong. Within minutes I was shedding layers and still sweating. My whole face was red instead of the adorable blush I had pictured. Leisure? No. Lots of work? Yes. Still fun? Yes.) then by our trusty machine over and over again until they were packed down. The Chief and I had ridden the Polaris over to greet them and grab our goodies. The Chief left to help the guy neighbor and another friend get settled in the driveway while I talked with the lady neighbor, one of my best friends. An hour went by before we realized that, well, an hour had suddenly gone by. The boys still weren’t home. Where were they?

A few minutes later they pulled into the drive. I heard what I thought were the two machines and I saw the right amount of faces to go along with those machine and so I thought nothing of it. That is, until I saw The Chief’s face (it’s pretty telling).

“I swear, I wasn’t doing anything too ridiculous.” (a clear sign, later to be proven by confession, that he in fact had been doing something a little ridiculous, thought not too ridiculous)

“What happened?”

The boys then relayed their tale.

The machine had broken down. Our trusty steed, grounded. The track had essentially been stripped. She couldn’t even get home. She was stranded on the road, he hadn’t even made it all the way to the neighbor’s house. It was dark and cold and our friends had been traveling for months. A rescue mission was in order but not tonight. It would have to wait for the sun to rise.

And rise she did.

We awoke the next day to the realization (which perhaps should have sunk in on our walk home) that we were now completely without any machine and all the while quickly approaching the best month for snow machining: March.

Aside from adventure, our machines are highly utilitarian. Hauling firewood? Machine, please. Hauling goods to and from mail? Machine, please. Going anywhere not nearby or that will carry over into the evening.? Machine, please.

 

 

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Tire delivery! My first time hauling a load behind me.

 

 

Oh, and then there was the slight issue of caretaking.

Yup. As perfect Alaskan timing would have it, we were at the very beginning of a two-week house/pet caretaking stint. The house was a little over a mile away and by snow machine the whole process of turning on lights for the ducks and chickens, collecting eggs, filling their water bowls, cuddling the pup, scooping poop and shoveling fresh snow, feeding him breakfast or dinner and watering him as well, turned into a 40 minute escapade if I was rushing. Without a vehicle, this twice daily early morning and late evening set of tasks was about to be daunting.

I set off on skis that morning, our second day of caretaking. An hour and a half later I returned. It was 20 below that morning. Before I was even awake I was out an into the elements. Thankfully(?) the cold slapped me awake. My eyelashes were clumped into icicles and my hands were so cold that I had broken an egg because I couldn’t feel how tightly I was gripping it. Thankfully, it was so cold that the yolk froze almost immediately and I could break the little yolk-cicles off of my gloves in clumps. What an adventure. And in about 12 hours, we were set to do it all over again. Double days. I felt like I was back in high school soccer hell week.

 

 

 

 

The Chief phoned another neighbor, not yet in Alaska for the season and asked if pretty, please with sugar on top could we use his snow machine until we could get one of ours working? Thankfully, he gave us the green light.

Borrowing things in the lower 48 is one thing. Sure, I’m still careful, but there’s a less ominous feeling around it. Borrowing things out here is completely different. You break it, you buy it still may hold true but when things are hard to come by, waiting for a replacement is less than ideal. With the mechanical luck we were having, I started to feel a bit like we were snow machine cursed and the idea of borrowing our friend’s only machine when he was coming home in just a few short weeks terrified me.

What to do…?

We used the machine delicately and brainstormed for a solution that involved us only and didn’t risk anyone else’s property. In the middle of our mental thunderclouds we remembered: a couple of friends had found an abandoned snow machine a month or so back. They had eventually found its previous owner who wanted nothing to do with it and so, a running snow machine was suddenly in the valley, a sort of traveling workhorse with no home that might fit perfectly in our suddenly abandoned stables.

A few days and some figuring of whom it was we actually needed to contact about the machine, a handshake and an exchange later and we had a running snow machine again! The Chief spent the next few days fixing the beauty up and before long, she was as good as new.

Suddenly, a weight was lifted. We high-fived one another, giddy with disbelief at our seemingly intertwined mix of good and bad fortune.

We had a working snow machine.

The Winter again opened up in front of us. There were rivers to cross, trees to haul and trails to put in. And suddenly, we could go.

 

 

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Testing out the new digs. She’s got what it takes.

 

 

Finally, one day, the part for the Tundra was due on the mail plane. The Chief and a neighbor had gone to mail and, surprise, surprise! It had shown up. I was at the neighbor’s home, visiting with my girlfriend when I heard the good news. I headed home to see how it was going.

We had been invited to a dinner party across the river that night but since I was still nursing a neck injury we had planned on staying home.

Yet, in the excitement of the part arriving and the potential for yet another working machine, I got riled up. “If we can get it working, we will go” I thought to myself as I walked home and…

She fired right up.

The whole debacle took little more than ten minutes and that was mainly to get through the packaging. Within the hour, we were suited up and off to dinner on our newly working machine. The ride home became a bit more treacherous as we tried to navigate the windblown path. Our tracks were almost gone and the night was dark and the trail rutted. The starter had fixed the mechanical mishap but the steering was still off and the ruts tipped us over.

 

 

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Imagine this crunchy top layer from rain then freeze but all covered up with new windblown snow…and pitch black. Surprises everywhere!

 

Thankfully, we made it home all in one piece but something was off.

But the machine was sputtering again.

All that work, a month of trial and error and hundreds of dollars and hair-pulling hours out in below zero temperatures and the initial problem was back.

The next day, The Chief went to inspect it further.

Same thing. Still sputtering.

And so, we were back down to one machine of our own and one to borrow.

Up one, down one. Up two, down to nothing. Two steps forward, one mile back.

It felt like an awkward dance of two stepping that neither of us had signed up for. When people would come by, they would count the machines to see if we were home. 4 was the new magic number. Our front yard was quickly starting to look like a junkyard with the old Polaris towed home, the new Polaris parked proudly, the Tundra in a constant state of undress and the Bravo ready to save us. Our little arsenal was a rag-tag team but hey, it was a team nonetheless.

In all honesty, sure it’s frustrating, but going into the Winter equipped to the nines with a snow machine for each person? What were we thinking? Of course something had to go wrong, we just weren’t prepared for everything to go wrong. Nonetheless, the lesson still rings clear.

Each day the machine starts up, I feel a little sense of relief, but I also know that if it doesn’t, we will be O.K. In the midst of everything, when we were down to zero machines and our neighbor with whom The Chief often goes logging had zero working machines as well, we still were O.K. Another neighbor had offered his machine but not before we had already started planning our neighborhood log hauling party. We would divide into two teams: one team to clear brush and carry back lengths of trees to the houses, the other team would take down the trees. We would Hi-Ho Hi-Ho ourselves in Seven Dwarf fashion back to two full wood sheds together.

Thankfully, the next day the neighbor’s machine magically started working again and he spent the day with The Chief hauling firewood back and forth for our wood shed. Sure, he could have done one tree for him and one for us but instead, he focused on setting us up because he was now the one with the machine.

It’s things like this that make me feel like I truly landed in the right place. There’s no question. Everyone helps. There’s no need for tit for tat tab keeping, heck, there’s rarely even a need to ask. Everyone jumps in. We are family.

Thank goodness for a valley that provides random snow machines and those ready to rescue them, to the kindness of friends and the necessity of neighbor-family. And thank goodness for a place like Alaska that puts it all in perspective. I’m trying not to take it for granted.

Thank you for Winter transport and for the trials. They’ve put it in perspective.

That being said, perspective intact, can we please, please can we have a Summer vehicle this year?

Pretty please? Sugar on top.

Only time (and some serious mechanical fenagling) will tell. Until then, fingers crossed and snow machines savored.

 

 

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BTB //

 

 

 

The Mail Plane

I love getting mail.

Don’t you?

Real mail.

Not bills.

Not solicitations.

Not catalogs that look like they’ve logged an entire forest for each shipment.

Real mail. Something you see and it immediately draws you elsewhere, to the place and the person whence it came.

Certainly, in our digital age where I can find out what a friend had for breakfast and what her day looks like without even talking to her, the handwritten letter has become outpaced.

Yet there isn’t a single person with whom I’ve exchanged addresses that upon the end of our transaction doesn’t immediately say (insert slight squealing inflection) “Oh, I love receiving mail!”.

And, to add a cherry (Amarena, please) to that sundae let’s talk about the best kind of mail there is (besides, perhaps, a love letter): care packages.

The first time I ever went away to Summer Camp my Mom brought up the now never-ending wormhole of the world of Care Packages (she had no idea what she was getting herself into).

What is this I hear? Special packages? Just for me? It’s not my birthday or Christmas or any other present day. So what is this magical package you speak of and how do I get my hands on one?

My mind did a backflip as I tried to steady myself long enough to answer emphatically that yes, of course I wanted a care package. Care packages would be best, if you get my drift.

I had never heard of such a thing.

But sure enough it was real and apparently a secret everyone else had heard as well. I arrived at camp and not a day later kids were receiving care packages. One day? This seemed excessive. Most of us lived a mere 15 minute drive away from the camp. Big whoop. Get a hold of yourselves. One day. Sheesh!

Yet by day 7, when I received my care package, my tune had changed. I nearly ripped the wrapping open with my teeth I was so excited to see what was inside. And within the box there was (cue the angels singing in the background)…

A Mama Note (always read the note first. Always).

Trinkets that I can’t exactly remember but for which I am grateful, nonetheless.

and…

Brownies!!!

???

Wait, did my Mom just send me brownies? My Mom? The Mom of mine whom offers me dessert in the form of grapes or strawberries (both of which I would accept quite gratefully at the moment), if I am lucky? Sure there was the occasional ice cream treat or dessert birthday or random bag of Milano cookies that I didn’t love but would eat nonetheless. Yet for the most part, we rarely had sweets in the house. Friends would always mention it when they came over. Where are your sweets?

Heck if I know but…we aren’t at home anymore and some sweets just showed up…in my care package.

To my 9-year old self this wasn’t just about the chocolatey goodness, it was about the freedom for my sugar craving self to ration these brownies however I liked. And how did that go? Well straight to Stomach Ache City, of course.

Despite my tumbling tummy, since then, the idea of a care package was the ultimate in extended stays away from home. My Mom once sent me a cake in Washington, D.C. where I was going to school, for my 18th birthday. It was an Almond Torte, the official cake of our birthdays ((we are one week (and I guess also some years) apart and so our birthdays were often a communal celebration)). She shipped it 3,000 miles so that I would have a little piece of home with me.

That’s really what it is…it’s a piece from somewhere else. A piece of you that you send to someone else or perhaps a pieces of them they didn’t know they were missing.

And out here, scarcity makes those pieces even more special.

You see, out here our mail comes in via plane. There’s no mail man or mail woman roaming the backwoods in search of our mailbox because we don’t have one. The mail goes to the nearest Post Office about 4 hours away where we all “have” P.O. Boxes. This creates quite the fuss. Even the Post Office will tell you that our address doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to coax people into just sending something anyway. I know the address doesn’t come up as real. It’s not. There are no P.O. Boxes in the Post Office for us. Instead, there is our Mail Shack, 4 hours away with our boxes inside.

 

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Weather permitting, mail comes in twice a week.

Twice.

Weather permitting.

In the Winter, those three words mean quite a lot.

This last week we were pummeled by rain and the planes couldn’t fly. Last month snowstorms made flying impossible as well. Now before you judge away, know that these aren’t newbie pilots; these pilots will fly when I will barely even step outside. Yet sometimes even they meet their weather match and find themselves grounded by intuition or regulations or both. And so, we wait. For each day following a non-delivery, they attempt to come in. Sometimes the next day’s skies are Bluebird (I love this expression and I’d never heard it until here. Bright blue skies as far as the eye can see), sometimes they follow suit with the day before. Either way they keep trying until eventually, the next mail day comes.

 

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A panoramic which flips the buildings but still, the airstrip is the big gap in the middle.

And when it does, it’s quite the site to be seen. Sure, The Chief has seen it a million times and so has everyone else and I’m the only one sitting out there, mouth gaping wide in amazement at how this tiny little plane can land in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter in the middle of a snowfield. I look like the newbie and that’s O.K. because I don’t know if it will ever cease to amaze me.

 

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The runway. Not exactly flat, eh?

 

Down the plane touches and the group of mail-goers gather around the little plane, shouting greetings to the Pilot. Mail Day is quite the social event around here. If you need a familiar face, or just a face other than your own (I’m always surprised by how many people I still don’t know at Mail), Mail is the place to go. Twice a week (ideally) there you are, amongst what feels like a bustling town (let’s use bustling lightly, shall we). The most people I’ve ever seen at mail was the coldest day we’ve had here: 10 people at 30 plus below zero. That was a crowd! Mail was sorted in no time.

Sorted?

Yep.

Remember how there’s no one roaming the woods to deliver the mail? Well there certainly isn’t someone to sort it either

 

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Ooooo! We got one!

 

And so, after the mail is hauled off the plane and everyone grabs a pile to sort and plays bundled up bumper cars with one another as they try to get the mail to its rightful destination and people admire the different packages coming in and call out “Which box is Garrity?” and someone (or a few someones) answer(s) “#62B” and the piles get smaller and the boxes get fuller…well then, mail is done.

Someone watches everyone shuffle out and calls last call for the heater before they switch it off and shut the door. There’s no lock, no key. It’s the people’s place. Soon, everyone starts to pack up their packages and mail into whatever receptacle they carry them home in. Some people haul their treasures behind them as they ski all the way home (I’m always impressed by one woman in particular, she lives out past our house and does the long slog back and forth). Some ride bikes. Some walk. Some drive snow machines with boxes and sleds for goodies and still others drive from farther out. And just like that, it’s over

 

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The mountains behind Mail

 

It’s like a big birthday party, everyone is there and then…no cake. Party’s over.

Or is it?

Because despite the dwindling crowd, you still get to go home with your bounty. Our bounty usually includes bills, Costco magazines and lots of mail for the Fire Department.

Yippee!

But sometimes, that yippee drops its sarcastic undertones (those weren’t serving it anyways, right?) and becomes its true yelping self.

Real mail!

Now, on occasion, the package is from none other than yours truly. Oh, you shouldn’t have! With the advent of Amazon, ordering a self-addressed care package is a little easier but there are still so many things that won’t even ship to Alaska and still fewer that will ship to our little P.O. box so the world-wide web of wonder really can still be quite limited. And besides, since we find ourselves in the middle of Winter on a middle of Winter budget, ordering treats just doesn’t really happen very often.

Which makes real mail that much more special.

Chocolate?! Homemade cookies?! Special doggie treats for Lou-Lou?! A card just to say “hello”?!

This is what mail magic is made of. The scarcity of the woods makes even the littlest thing unbelievably special. When I think of the journey a simple note had to make to get to us, I’m humbled. It brings those whom I love closer. They enter my home with their letters even if their feet have never set foot on Alaskan tundra. They make our home truly ours as their drawings are hung to see and their chocolate is consumed slowly – savoring each piece (this is a big change for me). It keeps my far away family close and keeps traditions going.

 

Back in California, my Mom and I do the local paper’s crossword together every morning.

Actually, let me rephrase that:

Every morning, my Mom makes a copy of the crossword for me. Then does the crossword herself, waiting for me to wake up and follow suit. It’s a tradition that I love, that we started a long time ago but only recently perfected before my first Winter in Alaska.

Now, since she can’t leave a copy for me on the dining room table, she sends me installations. Sometimes I get behind and then do a week’s worth in one sitting and sometimes I do them every morning. I have a backlog for long flights and lazy days but I keep doing the new ones when I get them because each time I open one, I feel the time she put into it. I can see her going to the copier and folding the paper just so. I can see her driving to the Post Office and talking about her daughter in Alaska to whom she has to get a special package. I love these thoughts and images and the memories they bring up with them.

When I first decided to come to Alaska, I didn’t realize just how far out I was going. I never even thought about the mail situation because despite never seeing a mailbox, it didn’t occur to me that mail flew in. Plus, I wasn’t staying, right?

It’s almost two years later and it seems that, in fact, I am staying. I’m staying in a place at the end of 60 miles of dirt road which is now 60 miles of ice (thanks, rainstorm). I live in a place where there’s no running water or guaranteed electricity, where washing my clothes takes two days and where we send in blank checks or clearly too much money to the Postmaster because there’s no Post Office to tell us how much a package will cost to send (the Postmaster then fills out the check or sends us our change in the form of stamps). I live in this place and it still tickles me to realize that this very non-normal place has become my new norm.

 

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It’s a place that has brought me back to simple pleasures and childhood excitements. When I look at the clouds, I see animals and faces again instead of simply puffs of white. I enjoy the special treat of a chocolate bar and… I write and receive letters (and some super stellar care packages) again. People always say this place is like adult summer camp and it’s times like this when I couldn’t agree more.

So if you’re so inclined, I encourage you to send someone a letter or a package. It doesn’t have to be much. A little goes a long way. I can guarantee they won’t be disappointed and I bet you’ll feel pretty darn good about it too.

May your mail be speedy and full of real mail.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

 

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P.S. Thank you to those steady soldiers who show up to Mail every Mail Day and sort for the town. I appreciate you.