As I type this, I have one hand holding our babe and one hunting and pecking her way through the QWERTY-verse. Coming from a Mavis Beacon graduate (where my elder Millennials at?!) this is a sorry excuse for the flying fingers I’d unleash upon the keyboard just 30 days ago. Still, it’s a drastic improvement from my previous postpartum post. In this last month, I’ve come to learn about this little human I’ve spent the better part of a year growing as well as a few other lessons like…(more…)
Living In Alaska (Sometimes Means Living Apart)
6 plus years ago, I waved goodbye to The Chief as I drove away with our friend, Anchorage-bound. 5 minutes in, I was laughing through my bon voyage boo hoo. Fifteen minutes later, we were grounded with a wonky wheel that wouldn’t stay put and a need for a Plan B.
60 minutes after that, after The Chief raced to come get me and deliver me to the mail plane, my mighty steed for the day, where I bid adieu to my newfound love for the second time that day.
I was off to California for two weddings of four dear friends and five weeks later, The Chief would join me.
A mere five weeks. We’d spent our entire lives without one another, certainly a mere handful of weeks was manageable, right?
Was it fun?
While it was lovely to return to California to see friends and family and excitedly tell them about our new love, it was hard to part ways. I felt like I had found my magnet match, my opposite pole and now that we were separated, the pull of that other half was constant. I missed the balance, the feeling of home and the feeling of whole. Nevertheless, five weeks eventually flew by and once we reconnected, we resolved the five weeks had been about three weeks too long.
Something we conveniently forgot a few months ago when we made plans for this weekend. And now, it’s here. The weekend of shift, the winds of change, the time for The Chief to depart and for us to spend the next 6+ weeks apart.
Have I mentioned that I can be a little clunky with change?
While we’ve managed over the years to push the 5-week fact out of our minds long enough to plan a 4 week trip for me to visit family and a few one week stints here or there without one another, the windows of our timeframes apart have slowly been narrowing over the years, with our latest longest stint being just under a week.
So, why the sudden decision to go throwback status and spend a month and a half apart? Well, you see, there’s a secret recipe to pregnancy in Alaska. It’s a sort of Build It and They Will Come approach. First, you must buy a Subaru.
Secondly, you must START an addition to your house.
Why the unnecessarily aggressive all caps? Well, the key to this preggo plan is to start the addition. The second key is to race the baby to the finish line. Two of my best friends before me have cooked up this recipe in their own abodes and each time, we professed it would be the last time. And then laughed when it wasn’t.
Quick sidenote: I do NOT mean to be flippant about the difficulty of getting pregnant. For us, it took two years and it still doesn’t feel real. I know how hard it is to try and to be utterly grounded each month the potential passes. I did however see a pattern here that I couldn’t help but poke fun at. If you’re in the trying mode, I give you my sincerest wishes that you and yours welcome a babe to your bunch very, very soon. Hang in there, you’re doing great.
Start the addition we did. Now, the race is on. At nearly 6 months pregnant, I’m neither up for a 3,000+ mile roadtrip, nor do we want me plopped in the middle of a fume-filled construction zone. The solution? A division of labor and a division (momentarily) of our family.
Trina’s amazing Covid holiday card
Everything is fine.”
This is a quote I’ve replayed in my head dozens of times. It originates from a holiday card during OG Covid from a dear friend that just cracked me up. We’re all doing totally fine, right?!?!
Truth be told, I have ridden a mere handful of emotional roller coasters while pregnant. The dreaded pregnancy hormone monsters have been quite kind to The Chief and I. That is, until now, when the reality that my little fambam is about to split two and two, thousands of miles apart, has started to sink in. In the last week, someone turned on the waterworks and they have been plentiful. When The Chief realized he could leave a day earlier because we switched our midwife appointment, I teared up. When I looked at my two furry boys the other morning, cuddled up nose to nose fast asleep, I teared up. When I did my first full load of baby laundry, I teared up.
When the wind shifted, I teared up. It’s tear time.
So, where do we go from here? Well, there’s nothing to distract from tears like work to be done and so far, it’s gone about as smoothly as most of our journeys. Thankfully, we’ve been able to laugh through the hiccups – like having to drive two hours out of our way to pickup our Uhaul that someone decided to drop off at the wrong location to my pregoo brain driving it almost all the way home before we realized we hadn’t stopped at the storage unit on the way home (the whole reason for the Uhaul to begin with). Long hours, long days, swollen feet but still, two near-failed dinners and somehow…still fun.
Maybe because it’s the last few days together, or maybe becasue we are finally getting better at going with the natural flow of the best laid plans falling by the wayside.
On one of our last nights, after a big day and a wonderful last evening of drinks in the backyard with our landlords, I was beyond tuckered. I awoke to The Chief gently removing my book from my lap. I was still seated fully upright. He laughed as my post-deep sleep confusion muddled my words. He slowly removed the pillows from behind me and laid me down, tucking my enormous pregnancy pillow around me in all the right spots. “Goodnight, my love” he whispered as he shut off my bedside lamp.
I don’t want to go 6 weeks without that but I know time will only make returning to his comfort that much sweeter.
See you in 6 weeks, my loves.
See you in 2, sweet reader.
P.S. Do you and your spouse spend much time apart? How is it for you? Let us know in the comment section below!
Two Weeks in Twenty One Photos
After the weeks-long ramp up to The Wedding, we all took a long, deep exhale.
Then, it was back to work. The first order of business? Fall plans. The Chief and I had exactly one week before he shipped out down South to fight fire. We had an addition to build, laundry to do for him for the next month, bags to pack, and…I now had a house to shut down, and a serious road trip (unless I wanted to wait here solo until November for The Chief to arrive back home). 3,000 miles solo with a pup? No problem…right? After running through 10,000,000 scenarios for how to get everything done in time I chipped away at the logistical rat’s nest that can be trying to leave in Fall and started small. Where would my plant babies live?
Our focus shifted to the addition. With a small break in the weather, The Chief shored up the blocking and bracing and I got to painting. The next day, we installed the floor.
And then promptly covered it as the weather shifted (#classic). Throughout the day and into the night, we rushed out ever so often to poke the low spots and watch the resulting waterfalls.
In an effort to deal with the gloomy weather, I went on a wander, exploring new avenues off the beaten path of my daily rounds.
These cheery guys helped a bit. I call this one Balding Dryas.
Returning home to a whole wall built also helped.
Ending the day looking at three walls?! That required some high-fives, hoots, n’ hollers.
Despite the rain and the cold, these tough cookies persisted, and a few days later…
The roof was on! Added plus? I learned how to spell Biththene (pronounced Bitch-uh-thane).
That night, listening to the pitter-patter on the new roof, the call came. Chris would ship out…never.
In a logistical spin on things neither one of us could have predicted, suddenly, The Chief would be home sweet home with Leto and me. We both took a serious exhale. The mania of the last few weeks of prep, wonder, worry (on my part) and stress was done. Sort of, but also, all of our plans were suddenly caput. A blank slate lay before us. So, what did we do?
We did something we haven’t done in years(!?!?!). We went out to The Glacier. Leto was fully impressed and also fully pissed that we hadn’t made him privy to the fact that there has been year-round ice around him for the last two years.
The next day, by the grace of everything that is holy in this world, it was sunny. Even getting woken up at 6 am on a Sunday to a fire call (everyone is OK) couldn’t hamper the good vibes the sun was putting out. Leto and I soaked it in. I wore shorts. My husband was here to stay. All was right in our little world.
The next morning our wake-up call was equally jarring but with a happy surprise: the driveway gravel had arrived! Potholes be damned. Things were looking brighter.
Later that day, I had my last call with the group of women I’ve been meeting with for the last seven weeks. Life is better with sisterhood and accountability and this gathering served up both.
The rest of the week was spent wrapping up the addition and…prepping for the next task at hand: Town. It had been a while since we broke out our Road Warrior boots and so, in true off-grid fashion, we left at 6 am Friday morning, got to town by 2pm, got blood tests, doctor’s visits, and then…started shopping.
Our goal? 5 windows and a door, electrical and flooring. The end result?
I learned so much more about electrical than I ever wanted:
I found out that the perfect way to take a quick rest while home improvement shopping is to try on bathtubs.
Leto continued to be utterly terrified of all things Town and refused to get out of the car.
Somehow, we got 5 windows and the perfect door loaded into the truck plus electrical odds and ends (no butt slicers though, sorry) and all the flooring to finally tie the whole house together (flooring they had on hand solely because it was a return). ‘Twas a good haul and after 10 hours of shopping, we called it quits. Well, first sushi, then quits.
The next day, we left Town. On the drive we saw patches of sun and then, this perfect representation of the weather as of late: sun trying to break through the clouds, slowly being overpowered by grey all day.
Finally, we made it back home all in one piece, only to find the tent covering our tools, not so all in one piece.
The highs and lows of life off-grid never seem to end and the only constant here is change. There are grand achievements followed by grand frustrations. It can be a rollercoaster of emotions but…but…we focus on the good (most of the time). We’d made it home. We’d made it through stressful situations (read: figuring out how to wire our house, shopping when social anxiety kicked in….you name it) without getting in so much as a squabble, and Leto, though a bit traumatized, was happy to be home. We settled into a pizza and movie night, just the three of us. And while today awoke us with grey, I see a little sun peeking through because tomorrow, it’s two years since this sunny day. And instead of wishing him my love from thousands of miles away, worrying over his safety, we get to be here, together, where it all started.
All my love to you, sweet Chief.
With love to you too, sweet reader.
How to Travel with Your Partner: Round III
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The Chief and I have been lucky in love. Vacation, on the other hand, has been a beast.
From arguing our way through Ecuador to falling prey to a flu (oh, and also to arguing) in Mexico, our last two vacations have left a lot to be desired. So, after two years of being cooped up in a cabin in the woods (we jumped the gun on 2020 and deemed 2019 our Year to Stay at Home. Little did we know…), we found ourselves planning vacation number three. Third time is a charm, no?
Now, right off the bat, let me address the elephant quietly plodding about the room: Julia, you’re complaining about vacation?! No, no, no. Bear with me a moment.
Building Off Grid in Alaska: The Driveway Edition
Last fall, when I went to Town, The Chief painted our living room. Prior to leaving, I boxed up as much as I could to help him prep but on the day of, there were inevitably things to move and if you’ve ever moved things in a rush, you know what happened.
“Babe, have you seen my notebook?” I asked a week or so after I had returned and the dust had settled.
“The black one?”
“The one you draw in every day?”
“The one that’s always sitting right here?” Director’s Note: The Chief points to the side table in The Chester Family living room. All eyes are drawn to the location, hope and anticipation on their faces.
“No, I haven’t seen that.”
The hunt began. I can’t tell you how many times I looked for that damn book but my art stopped then and there until I found it. “Start in a new book!” you might be thinking to yourself and I agree, but my doggedly insistent side disagreed. That book or bust. I looked in every nook and cranny our house has and at 200 odd square feet (maybe), there aren’t that many places it could be. Still, I could not find it.
Until this weekend when I looked up and there it was.
Truth be told, I am certain to the center of my being that I scoured over that bookshelf time and time again but somehow, my Elf on the Shelf of a book found its way back and there she was. It felt a little witchy, like the time I had a dream in college that my rings were gone. I’d gotten them from a man in Berkeley who, upon meeting me, somehow knew I was wearing men’s socks even though my socks (indeed, men’s socks) were completely covered. He told me the rings were powerful. After the dream, I woke up and they were indeed gone. I tore my apartment apart. I’d been wearing them when I went to bed. No luck. The following weekend, I went to my boyfriend’s house. Freshly out of the shower, I lotioned up but the product was almost gone. I put my finger into the bottle to search for every last bit and what came out? My rings. Spooky.
So, spells, witchery or the truth that I am a terrible looker of things aside, the book was back. Oh, the simple joy of finding something once lost. I sat down with my old friend and stumbled upon an entry from exactly one year ago to the day:
“We went to Long Lake to look at property and we fell in love. The Chief looked at me as we approached the Lake and said ‘You just feel better out here, don’t you?’ I do. Once we’d snowshoed our way to the top of our favorite lot, a Bald Eagle flew overhead. The Chief took my hands in his and said ‘This is it.’ It was. It is.”
Six weeks after that entry, after endless phone calls, emails, forms and signatures, hiccups and happenstance and help from our family, we closed on our property. Over 20 acres of raw land in the Alaskan wilderness were ours. We couldn’t believe it. After growing up in California where a small house on a tiny plot could cost upwards of $500k, my dreams of owning a house felt more like pipe dreams. Yet, it had happened. We were landowners, The Chief and I.
The daydreaming began. The first goal? Access. Oh, you thought the property came with a road on it? One can dream, but this dream of a deal didn’t include any of the niceties I’d always assumed property would (when I let myself have those wild pipe dreams). As the snow melted and the summer came full force, we started making trails. Machetes come in super handy for such tasks and whack away we did. By the fall, we’d had our first fire, a true Alaskan milestone.
We celebrated! We were getting closer to our goal. Still, after all that work, there was no way even a 4-wheeler was getting up there, much less our behemoth of a truck. So, we continued to work and this winter, we got our first vehicle up: the snowmachine. After building a ramp, cutting brush, stomping trail and crossing our fingers, The Chief made it up onto the land. As the winter wore on, The Chief would steal away in between work days to work on the property and finally, he got the trail all the way up to the ridge. Success! Access granted.
Still, true access, at this rate, would be years and years off and if we wanted to build a road, due to permafrost, it would have to be in winter and if we didn’t do it this winter that meant another year of hacking and sawing our way, little by little. Which is fine (and definitely the norm) but if we could, we wanted to speed things up. Thankfully (thanks, Pops!) my Pops was able to expand on his loan and thus, we were able to expand on our loan and so, we planned the fast track: a driveway. Like all things in Alaska, a decision didn’t necessarily mean action. We made the necessary calls, The Chief walked the land with the builders and then, we set a date.
And another date.
And another date.
Time and time again I forget: Mother Nature makes no promises. The first few setbacks were due to weather as the builder had a cutoff of 0 degrees (mainly for his machines. I’m sure he would have been out there at -20 if it wouldn’t have affected the equipment). Then, the equipment had a hiccup, needed a trip to town for the doc and then an inspection. Finally, months after our first call, all lights were green.
And then the weather took a turn again. -20 to -30 for a week straight. Hello late winter wonders!
Finally, the cold spell broke and it began. Breaking ground.
For the first few days, The Chief was at the property to help and trouble shoot but a few days in, they were cruising and he could leave to come grab me in Anchorage. On our way home we got the call: “You can drive up your road tonight, if you want.”
The moonlit drive became that much more magical, the snow all lit up and sparkling mimicked our excitement. As we pulled up, we let out hoots and hollers. I couldn’t believe it. It was a real driveway. We ran to the top and hugged and kissed. It was in.
The next day, after a few finishing touches, the road was completely done and despite feeling absolutely terrible from his second shot, The Chief rallied. “We have to go see it in the daylight.” Snow was forecast for the next day and we’d already gotten a foot or more in the past week. After that, we probably wouldn’t be able to drive it for the rest of the Winter. So, off we went.
It was glorious.
This weekend, we headed out again, this time to put in a snowshoe trail up to the second ridge from the top of the driveway, the place we think we will eventually build. Why didn’t we get the road all the way up to it? Right now, even though we are in a long-term relationship, we are still getting to know the land. We want to spend time there, feel the breeze, watch the earth as it shifts in seasons to be sure before we build. We assumed we’d never make it up the driveway with the fresh snow we’d gotten on it but I knew once I saw that look in The Chief’s eyes that we were going to try. Some expert driving and a few attempts and there we were again, up on top, greeted by this:
Leto was certain this being was an intruder, one not to trust. He growled his face off until we finally got him out of the truck at which point he promptly peed on the welcome guest (thanks, Long Lakers! We love you!).
After a few hours of snowshoeing, we were both beat and ready to call it a day and what did we do? We drove off of our property. Drove! We are both still getting used to that reality, still in shock that this is truly starting to happen. Long Lake.
So, what’s next?
Phase I: Find a property and go through the rigamarole of buying it: DONE
Phase II: Gain Access: DONE
Phase III: Build
Building will be a ways off at this point so our Phase IIIa will be to buy an Airstream and setup shop on the land. It’s always easier to work on a property you don’t have to commute to and this way, we can truly watch the land go through the seasons. So, we are in the market, looking for new digs for our new drive.
What a difference a year makes.
Cheers to you and yours and to new ventures, big and small.
P.S. Have you started a new project lately? What’s next on your list?
P.P.S. If you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to the blog (at the top of the page) and if you have friends you think would enjoy it, please do share it!
P.P.P.S Thanks to the wonderful welcome bonfire, friends! On Sunday the skies were bright blue and we decided we needed one more trip up this weekend. I cut down my first tree on the property and we were greeted by all of our friends, our first visitors on the land. It felt amazing.
This word strikes both glee and fear into me simultaneously. Glee for the change, the new, the progress. Fear for the time, the mess and the inevitable “oh shit” moments. This year, we’ve been in project go-mode. Having stayed home for the entire year for the first time ever, we truly had a moment to see what needed doing and oh boy, it’s a lot. Like any good project, each one began with hope and progressed like an unending nesting doll. Projects within projects (within projects, within projects) have an uncanny way of popping up.
Still, cross them off the list we did. There was trim to cut and paint and a ceiling to stain, tongue and groove to mill and paint for interior siding, a trillion tiny projects and umpteen garden projects and somehow we had the lumber for them all, lucky us.
The funny thing about living 8 hours from the nearest lumber yard (well, 4 if you want to pay double but that’s not often a ride I aim admittance to) is that when you buy lumber, you often buy a little extra. Mistakes happen and a buffer is key. The other “funny” thing about living so far out is said lumber must find somewhere to stay dry and cozy until it proves time for its project to commence. So, with a little extra and a lot to store, we set aside our lumber to side our house.
One year ago.
Last Summer we had hoped to have it up and done before the wedding. Did that happen? It sure didn’t.
With The Chief working 12-14 hour days for 42 days with one day off and me working full-time while planning a wedding and tagging in as his co-pilot firefighter a few times a week, we didn’t exactly have a lot of milling hours in us.
Two years ago this Fall, I wrote about our naked house and how, despite loving what it holds inside, I am embarrassed for its lackluster outside. Now, one year after buying the lumber to do it and umpteen Winter, Spring and Summer projects that required completion in between, siding our house had still found itself on the projects back burner (or on an understandable but equally frustrating seasonal delay). Our house still remains naked. So, we set to clothe it.
The siding project (in our heads) went something like this:
1. Order and pick up lumber – Done! We’d done this last Summer. Ahead of the game already!
2. Grab the boards
3. Mill the boards
4. Sand the boards
5. Stain the boards
6. Put the boards up
Had I looked at that list when we hatched this siding plan, I might have let The Chief twist my arm to pre-built siding just to take a few of those steps out because…in addition to the above steps, our process, thus far, just to get to the third step (Mill the boards) has been:
1. Move an old couch that somehow got place in the way of the boards (Day O)
2. Organize the work tent so there is room to work in it (Day 1)
3. Uncover the boards (start of Day 2)
4. Set up sawhorses for the boards to stage them for milling
5. Discover that after a long Winter’s rest, some boards (which are 12 feet long) have gained a little weight (water weight, that is) and are wet
6. Set up another set of sawhorses for wet vs. dry boards
7. Sort the boards into wet and dry and move them into corresponding sawhorse piles
8. Set up another set of sawhorses for milled lumber
9. Get two generators from their two different sides of the property
10. Get the gas can and filter
11. Fill them with gas
12. Bring out the saw
13. Level the saw
14. Set up the guides on the saw to create the tongue and groove
15. Get another set of sawhorses to help hold the boards as they are milled
16. Try the first board
17. Realize that the sawhorse system isn’t working
18. Try another board
19. Mill each board through twice (to get both sides)
20. Get through 14 boards before it starts to get dark
21. Set up two more sets of sawhorses inside the work tent
22. Start a fire in the work tent to dry all boards, milled and wet
23. Move milled and wet lumber inside the tent, stacking and stickering (essentially placing another piece of wood perpendicular to each row so as to create airflow) them to cure (dry) overnight
24. Move both generators back to their respective places on the property
25. Move saw back inside
26. Re-cover remaining lumber
27. Count remaining lumber while covering
Realize that it will take you another day to finish all the milling
Go inside (it’s now 7 pm)
Run the generator
Run the air hose through the shower to make sure it doesn’t freeze and break in the sub-30 nights
28. Check on fire in the work tent (it’s now 9 pm)
29. Check on fire in the work again (it’s now 10:30 pm)
End of Day 2
So, yes, it ended up being a little longer of a process than my 6 step process had anticipated and while I didn’t count the steps like hauling water or running the generator for the house, it’s all a part of the process too. It’s all part of why things take as long as they do, because there’s always another Russian Doll popping up.
In between finishing up and counting our progress on Day 2 towards the overall product, we also realized (or rather, re-realized) another “funny” thing about living in the woods? When you buy a little extra for your project, sometimes you forget just how much extra. Saturday, we found out. Through the variety of necessary projects we’d completed in the last three seasons, we’d managed to go burn through everything “extra” and straight on into our required materials. In fact, we have less than half of what we need.
I vaguely remember The Chief and I discussing this while shivering in 20 below zero weather. “We can just replace it when we are ready!” I can hear us saying. A statement we promptly forgot while we finished the ensuing projects: the trim, the tongue and groove interior siding, the planters, etc.
Still, whether starting with everything or just a less than half our necessary materials, start we did and while it took far longer than either of us had anticipated (surprised?) we came out ahead because we came out at all.
Sunday, we found our groove.
We were outside bright and early in the below 40 degree weather and had milled and re-stacked half of the remaining pile by 10:30 am. The work tent was warm and after a brief intermission for a volunteer day at the VFD, The Chief returned and we finished the non-wet pile. 63 boards, all 12 feet, a total of 126 passes through the mill, all finally finished.
So, what remains?
8 boards to mill once they are dry.
A Town trip to grab 80 more boards.
Milling said boards (160 more passes through the mill) and then, just those few simple steps:
Sand the boards
Stain the boards
Put the boards up
I’m sure it will go just as easily as the first 63 boards went and by that I mean, not easily at all but deeply, deeply satisfying to see to completion. Perhaps our weather gambles will pay off and we will be able to stain in the late Fall sunshine or perhaps (fingers and toes crossed, no!), we will have to finish the project next year when we can again paint outside (you know, toxic fumes inside a tent heated by a flaming stove, not a great idea). Only time (on the weekends) will tell. Here’s hoping!
To you and your projects, I wish you good luck! May your process be speedy, your materials be plenty and your clothes smell of sawdust and congratulate you of progress.
from Alaska and some very tired arms
The Weather Gambler
I’ve never been much of a gambler. Despite going to Las Vegas a handful of times, the most I’ve ever lost was $100 and it was $100 a friend had given me to encourage me to “Get on out there!”. Get on out there I did for about 1 solid hour of Juju gambling time and then…meh. It’s just not me.
Recently, we had the chance to gamble twice. You see, the weather a month ago had been absolutely gorgeous. Bluebird skies. Not a cloud in sight. Warm, sunny days.
So, aiming to finally get “out” before the Fall closed in, we had scheduled a backcountry trip (where you fly in an airplane into even more remote Alaska). We met to match schedules with the flight company, deciding each to take one day off from work, and lo and behold, we found the perfect weekend. It was settled.
Then, The Chief’s boss switched around his work schedule. Suddenly, if we took the trip he would have missed one normal day of work AND one day of overtime instead of just one regular day. Being that his work season is coming to a close, the squirreling of dollars has begun and we couldn’t really swing it. Plus, one of the people who had given us the trip was visiting said weekend and we would have missed getting in some quality time with her.
So, novice gamblers that we are, we risked it: Gamble #1: Rescheduling. We scheduled for the last weekend the flight company was open: last weekend. Labor Day Weekend, which also happened to be our one-year anniversary. The visiting girlfriend who had given us the flight and had worked at the flight company had worried that it might be too cold or that we would get stuck in the backcountry. “Go! Dont’ worry, we will see one another soon! I don’t want you to get stuck or not go!” she cautioned.
Mid-Summer, it’s actually pretty fun to fly out to places that have difficult landing strips or are prone to weather delays and experience the maybe we will, maybe we won’t adventure of getting stuck in the backcountry. I mean, who doesn’t want more time in the mountains, right? As the Fall closes in, the chances of weather delays and rough landings increases and…this was the last weekend the flight service was operating. So, if they couldn’t pick us up, we’d have to Winter over in the mountains.
Just kidding! But…it would delay their closing if their ability to pick us up was delayed.
Still, the weather had been beautiful and if it were anything near how the weather had been last year at our wedding, we would be totally fine. So, we scheduled it. Labor Day weekend, goodbye! To the backcountry we go!
Enter: Gamble #2: Rescheduling…Again
As we cruised through the following weekend, post reschedule, the weekend we would have been in the backcountry originally, the weather showed up in style. It was GORGEOUS. T-shirt weather mixed with the leaves turning made for an epic precursor to Fall. Everyone reveled in the good luck we were having. What weather!
The Monday after that weekend everything changed.
We awoke to Fall. The sky was overcast and cold, and the temperature was in the 20’s. As Leto and I took our morning constitutional, we looked into the mountains.
A lot of snow.
The gloomy week continued and as the trip grew nearer, we had a gamble to make: we could go into the backcountry and risk getting stuck or we could cancel our trip until next year.
1. Next year, we could go earlier in the summer with (potentially) warmer weather
2. We could harvest our garden which, given the current weather conditions, was unlikely to last through the weekend and greet us upon our return
3. We wouldn’t risk missing extra work (more than we could really budget for)
4. We essentially live in the backcountry, so even without a plane, we could get out into the wilderness on our own. This, however, is more likely in Winter though, which means temperatures far colder than Fall weather. But…I’d done it before!
1. Not being in the backcountry
2. Waiting an entire year to get into a plane and go in the backcountry
3. Feeling like we “never do anything”
4. Staying home and not getting that backcountry release one can only feel when phones are off and all is quiet
Come Wednesday of the week we were finally set to depart, the forecast gave us nothing. It was dark and cold and the predictions were about 50/50 cold with sun to colder with snow. After a dinner sit down we decided to call it: The backcountry would have to wait until next year. Having worked on our garden since March, and trying to stay true to our aim to live better off the land, we would have been devastated to come home to a spoiled crop. And, although there’s nothing quite like the backcountry, we did have one trick up our sleeve:
You see, this Spring we did something crazy. We bought 21 acres of raw land, 3 seasons sight unseen.
What does that mean? The Chief and I trudged about the property for a month in the heart of Winter. Snowshoeing in hip deep snow to create trails to discover the property lines of the different lots and choose which would be ours.
We ended up with two and come this Spring, we saw them for the first time in Spring. Come this Summer, we saw them for the first time in Summer. Come this past weekend, we finally saw our property in Fall. Finally, all four seasons, sight quite seen.
The property sits across The Road from Long Lake, a place that has always held a special place in my heart since I arrived. It was, in fact, the first place I ever stayed in our area and it had me from my first mosquito fleeing boat ride across it. I never dreamed we’d actually be able to live there but The Chief and I had always hoped, deep down, that someday it might work out and then…it did.
So, no, we didn’t go into the backcountry last weekend. On Wednesday we decided to cancel and guess what?! Come Thursday morning, the sun was shining bright as ever, the birds were singing and though crisp, the day was “warm”. The night and day shift in weather continued into the weekend and trust me, I doubted my gambling abilities, even going so far as to try to ruin the first few hours of our first day off together by drowning in self-doubt. Still, every time I looked up to the mountains, with its steady accumulation of snow, and down to our garden that lasted just until Saturday morning, when we harvested the last bits, I knew we had made the right choice.
To gather some of the backcountry vibe we were so desperately in need of, we turned off our phones for the weekend for the first time in months (hence the lack of photos). We spent the weekend pickling the vegetables from our garden. Carrots and zucchini and cucumbers found their way into jars and basil was hung to dry and set aside with carrot tops for pesto. The tomato plants with their fruit still green, were cut down and brought into the house to ripen on the vine and the last wild Alaskan medicinal herbs that grace our property found their way into tinctures and oils and onto drying racks.
It was a tidying up, a recommitment to our base values.
Then, it was adventure time. First, a hike out to The Toe of the glacier and then, a night at the property.
Being on the property felt magical. The Chief cut down the first trees ever, we started working on our trail and we had our first fire. We spent the night under the stars (it’s Fall, y’all and stars are back!), listening to howling coyotes and hooting owls. By dawn, it had started to rain and we threw on the tent fly, scooped up our Leto and cuddled into our family nest, cozy, safe and sound.
The next day, our one year wedding anniversary, we packed up and headed homeward. We spent the day unpacking and tidying, reading and napping. Then, as the night closed in, we 4-wheelered down to our somehow still standing wedding arch and toasted to a wonderful year together.
Our first year of marriage. As we had done during our wedding ceremony, we made vows to one another and promises born from the lessons we’d learned in the year past. Then, as we had done after our wedding ceremony, we walked down to the river, found a rock along the way and hollered our wishes as we threw the rocks in to the icy waters below.
As I tossed in my rock, I looked up to the snow-covered mountains and felt that, for once in my life, I’d made the right gamble. The biggest gamble of them all. I’d unknowingly gambled on Alaska and in it, I found the love I had never dared to dream of. Just like the weather, there have been moments to test me, to make me question myself but always I come back to here, back to you. With all of my heart, thank you to Alaska and to The Chief for gambling on me and helping me to see I’m right where I need to be.
P.S. What has been your favorite gamble?
How Does Your Garden Grow?
I’ll admit it, I’m hell-bent on patterns.
“Patterns?” You ask? Yes, dear friend. Patterns. And no, not the plaid and houndstooth of the world. No, no, no. Patterns! You know, the type of patterns that aren’t actually patterns at all but rather one time happenings we aim to replicate into eternity!
For example, The Chief and I have a really nice evening. We happen to have meatloaf for dinner. It happens to be Monday and suddenly…poof! Meatloaf Mondays are born. That kind of “this was good, may it always be so” type of pattern. I’m always trying to sell The Chief unsolicited tickets to my patterned events: Sunday Strolls. Take Out Tuesdays. Sweep Up Saturdays. Chop Wood Wednesdays. It seems I’m a huge fan of “always” and a downright devotee to alliteration.
And perhaps that’s OK, no? A little bit of organization never hurt anyone, right Marie Kondo?
In my search for continuity, I seem to “find” patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
So last year, when I had a downright banner year in the garden, I assumed (read: decided) that was how the garden would go from there on out. Perfectly.
All the warning signs that I was experiencing pattern blindness were there. Some of the best gardeners I know had quite difficult years last year due to pests or pole vaulting moose or the reason scariest of them all: the unknown. Eek! Still, despite seeing the ebb and the flow in even the best gardeners, this emerging seedling of a green thumb looked at my beautiful brassica bounty and assumed it would always be so.
Clearly, I’m not winning any Best at Living in the Here and Now awards.
As the season came to an end and I did my best to put up what I’d grown and as the snow came, I tucked in the garden until next year.
The year that should have been just as good as last year. No, better!
I get attached to “patterns” even when they’ve yet to begin, even when their outcome is unlikely.
Yet sometimes patterns pan out, like seeing the same first flower every year, year after year, once the snow starts to melt:
I “see” a pattern and decide it’s a downright guarantee and while that’s totes adorbs and all, it turns out that even though I can apply mandatory patterns regarding food consumption or chores to myself, applying those patterns to others doesn’t go so hot. Especially when that other is Mother Earth. Mama don’t play that game.
Or does she?
If you’re still wondering, I have photographic proof that she, in fact, does not.
My cabbages that grew big as beach balls last year seemed not to have gotten their return tickets to 2020. This year’s cabbages have made no suggestion that they might decide to head up, lounging instead as small to medium leaves acting as shields for more delicate crops in our rainy year. In fact, the largest cabbage I have in my garden to date is one I threw in the compost last year that somehow overwintered and came back to life as a triplet. I kid you not.
So, I stand corrected: one cabbage got a return ticket this year and petite as she is, she’s putting all her leggy, leafy brethren to shame.
So, clearly, this year, the year to beat the banner year has been a bit of a dud in some ways. Certainly, it started out with a thud. I started my seeds early, earlier than I ever had in order to get a jump on things. The world was (is?) falling apart (yet never fear, here are some tips to wait out the apocalypse) as we know it and food shortages seemed to loom in our future. Being a “mere” 8 hours from the nearest large grocery store, I hopped to it. I would provide for our family for the summer and the following months to come.
My seeds had another idea. Since people were running about all Henny Penny and seeds were bought up faster than you can say “The sky is falling!”, I recycled them from the year before. Normally, a girlfriend and I share an annual seed order because we are thrifty like that but this year, the seed stores were low and shipping times were prohibitive so we opted to simply reuse last year’s pups. Big mistake?
Or maybe the problem was that the soil was bunk or the trays had a funk or maybe 2020 got wind of our plans and decided to throw her doomsday fancy footwork into the show. Either way, germination wasn’t exactly my strong suit this year. I may not be a pro but I’ve been consistently able to get the finicky Delphinium to germinate so to not be able to pop up a nasturtium, welcome some kale or greet a snap pea? That was weird.
My girlfriend experienced similarly lackluster results with flowers and veggies that were equally old hat to her. A few weeks later, I went for another round, and luckily some of those who hadn’t thrived earlier popped into play. I had the basics and the garden would go on.
The spring sunshine, however, would not. We’ve had the rainiest, coldest summer I’ve ever known anywhere. Like Hawaii, we’ve had afternoon showers almost daily. Unlike Hawaii, we didn’t experience much in terms of t-shirt weather until July, and now, come August, we are back to winter layers that never even had the chance to get put into storage. So, needless to say, the slow start of the seedlings never found a helping hand in the weather and certain things show it.
While others thrive.
Though I may not be rich in sauerkraut from cabbages this winter, we will certainly have squash goodness galore. While my arugula itch never got scratched this summer, beautiful heads of red, butter and romaine lettuce led the charge into the salad bowl. Despite not a single snap pea coming to fruition, the climbing fence The Chief fashioned for me holds a plethora of sweet peas whose scent transports me every time I breathe it in. And further developments like the new stacking boxes he fashioned promise potatoes aplenty.
And while doubles were the wildest combo I’d ever seen my zucchini flowers produce, I was lucky enough to see triplets this year!
So, how does my garden grow?
In a way all its own.
Patterns, while consistent and trustworthy, leave little room for the here and now. I’m certainly not keen to give up some of them (Meatloaf Mondays forever. If you haven’t had meatloaf since the 80’s, I implore you to give it a revamp and another try. Thank me later) but I think, I hope I can make a little more room for the abstract to come and share its wisdom as well. Despite learning the lesson that everything changes (even your face time and time again (though hopefully not ever again in that manner ever), it’s still a hard one for me to accept. Yet, when I take a step back to truly see what change reveals, it turns out the picture is uniquely beautiful, every time.
It may not have been a replication of last year but this year’s garden was drop-dead gorgeous and super productive in so many other ways. The sun didn’t shine into the 80’s every day like it did last year but perhaps we were better off without the wildness a relentless midnight glow can bring. I didn’t buy a single flower this year, as I always have in the past and hoped my few starts would brighten up the place. It’s been the best flower year yet.
The garden didn’t produce in the same way as last year but it did in so many other ways and because the garden took longer to take off, I’ve found myself foraging more in the bounty that surrounds us. Picking fireweed blossoms and wild raspberries, mint, chamomile, yarrow, and more in our yard. Discovering the joy of Orange Delicious mushrooms, thanks to the teachings of a friend.
Moving away from the old made room for discovering the new, perfectly imperfect as it is.
A year’s passed and life has sure has changed. Last year I was up to my eyeballs in cabbage and greens. This year I find myself a zucchini queen. Last year I was prepping for a wedding, this year, an anniversary. Imagine that. Change. Despite the feelings of safety a pattern might elicit, trying to force it to stay finds us ripping at the seams. So, I’ll let go…
P.S. How does your garden grow?
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Love in the Woods: Year Five
Five years ago, I met my person.
All I had to do was:
go to a Friday evening softball game.
There he was. Apparently, whims can work.
On the way to the game, I had felt so incredibly out of my element. I didn’t even know what to pack for an evening out, as evenings out for me in my oh so recent past had consisted of packing a wallet and chapstick and at the last minute leaving my jacket at home due to its cumbersome nature. In Alaska, my girlfriend guided me through stuffing my pack (not purse) to the brim with layers on layers upon layers, bug spray, a knife, water bottle, drinks, snacks, etc. All for an evening out.
Like I said: out of my element.
Until I met The Chief.
It may sound cheesy (but cheese is delicious so, whatever) but the moment I felt his hand in mine, sealing our introduction, I felt like I was home. That knowing touch was all I needed to dive head first into what would be the adventure my heart had yearned for: deep, lasting love. And so I dove, full of fear of the unknown, diving anyway. Just because a love is right, doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
A few weeks ago, I was going through some old posts and found this one: Love in the Woods: Year One. Our first anniversary. I’m a sap for anniversaries (clearly) and celebrate every chance I get and here we were, approaching five years. Year one beckoned me in. Who were we back then? I read along:
“I feel a foundation, now one year old, that has been strong enough to hold us together through all we have seen already.”
Reading this, I felt the heavy weight of a soothsayer, of a future known, already written, unchangeable. I simultaneously felt scorn for my naïveté and wanted to shield my unknowing self from what was to come.
At the time, I thought we had been through so much together. And for the time, at the time, we had. Joining our worlds, traveling, moving, parenting our pup, surgeries and sickness, all of it posed challenges, to our newborn love, yet forward still we went.
Thank goodness. Lucky we were for those small victories that at the time felt so large to prepare us, for we had no idea what was coming:
In half a decade, so much has changed from those early, easy days of love at first sight. We’ve lost more than I would have ever believed, had my soothsayer self tried to warn me. That base we developed early on served us well to weather the blows but cracks still found their way into our foundation. Grief has a way of encircling its victims, pulling them away from their pack, isolating them. Despite our strength, grief still tugged us into our own quiet worlds, away from one another, and we’ve had to fight hard to come back together. Fight to remember the ease of the beginning, to focus on the good, to love our base and nurture its cracks.
Such is life, such is love.
Right before our life flip flopped upside down, I was taking a pottery class. In it I heard about Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese technique where broken pottery is mended, not by using a clear adhesive but by way of a golden seal. Kintsugi translates to “golden journey” and is meant to celebrate an artifact’s past by illuminating its fractures, rather than hiding them.
Five years ago, our pottery was fresh from the kiln, the warmth of our creation made us feel safety we’d never known. Five years later, we’re a storied piece, alight with gold. Our golden journey hasn’t always been easy. At times, I’ve wished to simply cover our cracks, to go back to how we were when life was light and easy, but instead we must honor our cracks. We must nurture our simultaneously fierce and delicate love.
Five years ago, we celebrated all day. We at pancakes, went hiking with our Lou and toasted that night with champagne (the cork from which I still have) to our accomplishment: one year. Five years later, the day was far more utilitarian. We spent our anniversary day in a training together and came straight home to prep for a long work weekend ahead. Our celebration was quieter, smaller, a little less bubbles, a little more depth.
In this year, year five, we’ve seen loss but we’ve also finally felt the light return. The separate corners grief iced us into have melted and the ease we felt when we met, the inner calm has only grown. In this year, so much good has come:
We found our Leto
We had a magnificent garden.
Our marriage was blessed by an overwhelming showering of love that continues still to this day.
We stayed put all Winter and nourished our souls in the beauty that is this place that we live.
Another year, unique as can be.
Five years ago I met my person. The person who drives me to be my absolute best and who loves me at my absolute worst. The person who knows me so well he can tell I’m upset just by the cadence of my breath. The person who smiles ear to ear at every concert, who cheers me on even when I’m sure I can’t do it. The person who dove with me, headfirst into our love and swam with me, hand in hand.
Our beginning was something out of a storybook and thank goodness for that because it convinced me to pay attention to the gift that life was giving. It gave me the undying understanding that this is where I’m meant to be.
Diving into love isn’t the scariest part, it’s navigating the waters afterwards. It’s keeping your head above water, it’s holding your love up when it’s too tired to carry you. Yet, it’s worth it. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s messy, finding The Chief has set my heart at ease, it has brought me home, to our golden journey.
Cheers to love, always,
Cabin Confessions: Putting Up
I’m not sure what was in the air or the water or the stars this October but for some reason, the month brought with it many confessions. From candid to long-hidden, confessions came from dear friends and new friends alike, as if the month held a sort of truth serum that all of us had unknowingly drunk (for, of course, I had confessions of my own).
In this growing age of online versus in-person, of creating personas based on snapshots and moments in time, it’s easy to assume that another’s life is just how he or she portrays it: downright near perfect. That’s not to say that across the board, we all simply share the good times and hide the bad. I’ve seen plenty of Instagram feeds with hilariously relatable “fails” or beautifully honest posts. Yet overall, the online personas we often see showcase the best of the best of the very best sides of all of us and sometimes, I think that too flows into our in-person lives.
I think the truth is catching and it caught like wildfire. The truth serum must have been drunk at a gathering of gals early on in the month and from there it spread. That night I learned “dirty secrets” (that were neither dirty nor did they need to be secrets) that made me feel…
Since that night, I’ve aimed to honor that honesty and spread the good word: we all have things we think are odd, weird, ugly, bad or boring when it comes to ourselves but unearthing those hidden weirdos, bringing to light what you consider bad might just make you feel a little bit of good.
And so, in that honest vein, I bring to you: Cabin Confessions, a sort of mini-series within BTB to keep the truth moving through us all, self-included. May it spread your way and help you to feel a little better, brighter and lighter. Or, just a little more normal.
Cabin Confession: Putting Up
Sometimes it feels that upon moving to Alaska, you’re supposed to have already learned all of the “Alaska Skills”.
Chop wood? Of course I can!
Fish? Sure, old hat for me!
Garden? Duh, easy peasy.
Survive in the woods? Yesireebob!
The list goes on and on. The truth is, when I moved here my first Winter I scored about a wobbly, uncertain 1.5 out of 6 on the list above and the above just breaks the surface. Heck, I didn’t even know how to dress myself (and in truth, when the weather changes these days, I still find myself wondering how I did it last season). So, when it came to Putting Up (a term I had never even heard before) I felt my familiar “friend” creep over my shoulder. Hello, Overwhelm.
Four years later, I still feel that sense when it comes to Putting Up food.
What is Putting Up?
Canning fish, pickling cucumbers, drying herbs, making sauerkraut, freezing bulk garden goods, etc.
Basically, to Put something Up means to harvest and preserve something you’ve bought or for more Alaska gold stars, something you’ve grown or harvested (typically in the warmer months), so that you can enjoy it for the colder months to come.
Confession: Nope. Not for me.
Certainly, some Putting Up I fell in naturally with. I love harvesting, though sometimes I have trouble with the follow-through if the follow-through involves more than drying. Thank goodness for tea!
Yet, for some reason, putting up fermented foods has always made me feel more put down, by myself. The phobia I had discovered in California didn’t suddenly melt away upon moving to Alaska (I must have missed the Alaska Newbie Handbook), it froze solid. I can’t tell you how many cabbages I’ve bought at the store to make sauerkraut or kimchi that ended up moldy in the compost. Wasting food out here, where the nearest grocery store is 4 hours away is a serious no-no. Sure, food going to waste happens, but it’s often more of an accident; someone gifted you something you couldn’t quite finish or you had to leave for a few days unexpectedly and your refrigeration failed in some way. It’s not often because you have been staring down your food, too scared to fail and thus too paralyzed to do anything with it, that it goes bad. This year, to ensure I’d really learn the kraut craft, I grew my own cabbages.
The pressure was on but it was ok because this year I was making sauerkraut, no matter what.
A few days ago, I peeked at my last harvest of cabbages, 5 beautiful cabbages I had been lovingly caring for since starting them from seed in April. Watering, feeding, guarding, admiring every day, watching grow bigger and bigger…
They were rotten.
I’ll give myself a slight out to say that food storage in a tiny cabin where the temperature fluctuates between 90 and 40 degrees almost daily is a challenge but…I had also procrastinated for almost a month since their harvest. Sure, there had been an unexpected Town trip and well, I definitely needed to deep clean the oven…twice. I had procrastinated them into oblivion.
* I did, however, eat these first babies up!
My last harvest of beautiful cabbage babies met their end in the compost, joining the many before them.
Not only was it disappointing in the sense that all this time and energy had gone into this food that now lay spoiled before me, not only was it disappointing to have lost 5 good cabbages which could have made endless meals if not kraut, but the disappointment that again I had failed after 6 months of preparation was almost too much to bear. I was so disappointed…in me and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had, yet again, failed.
Thankfully, The Chief was in the next room, a few feet away to hear the sigh.
“It’s OK, we just won’t let this happen next year. It’s OK, Julia. Plus, we still have one cabbage left!”
Oh great, one more cabbage to stare me down as it degrades.
Yet, instead of going down that path, I remembered honesty. I told everyone about my ruined cabbages and as I listened to others lament about kraut cold feet or pickling paranoia I suddenly felt better. Not in the misery loves company way because they were no longer miserable as I was, in the way that I felt I could (finally) get over this, as they all had.
The last cabbage left was a behemoth of a babe that my girlfriend had grown this year. She is an epic gardener (you can read all about it here) and after a dinner date at her house this Fall (read: 2 hours out, 2 hours back. That’s an Alaskan dinner party, if I’ve ever heard of one!) she gifted me one of her gargantuan gals.
I may ruin storebought cabbages and I may ruin my own, but I wasn’t going to ruin hers.
Finally, the answer was “Right”.
Three weeks later.
Meh, better late than never, right? I had been battling this fear for years, three lousy weeks weren’t going to take me under this time (plus, I had some gentle nudging from a friend, moving me slowly but surely along).
So, three weeks later than I had planned on doing something with her cabbage, I finally did.
1 Quart for experimenting
1 Big Bowl of Potluck Coleslaw for Poker Night
1 Big Crock
later and the enormous cabbage was finally gone and…
Kraut is on the way.
I’ve psyched myself up time and time again to do the Putting Up I dream to do here but time and time again, I’ve found myself talking myself down, stressing the details, deciding I’ve failed before I’ve even started and thus, never begun. Perfectionism sure is a sneaky beast that robs you of entering new experiences with lightness or confidence, if you enter into them at all. Yet step by step, uncertainty by uncertainty, I moved forward this time and I owe it all to honesty (and certainly to some truly non-judgemental love from The Chief and friends and to my furry Leto, who sat on my toes or watched me squish cabbage the whole way through).
Opening up about my own shortcomings, or things I just see as such, has helped me to see how normal they are. Certainly, mine may not be yours. You might be scoffing at this little backwoods cabbage waster but I’m certain there is something for you too. Some half-finished project, some goal yet unmet, some hidden habit that you feel guilty or sad or embarrassed about. The good news is: you don’t have to! Who knew?! Feeling bad provides little impetus for change. Feeling bad leaves the cabbages rotting and the sauerkraut supply still empty. So go and tell your tale of your closeted self, whoever that may be. Chances are, the person you tell might really, truly need to hear it and I guarantee you’ll feel better.
Best wishes to you and to all of your quirks and flaws and beauty that make you who you are. You are doing just fine.
Cheers to you.
Cheers to honesty.
May it spread to you and yours and beyond.
With love (and sauerkraut),
P.S. Do you too have a fermenting phobia? My friends pointed me towards Nourished Kitchen, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and searching Facebook for helpful groups. There are many salt to cabbage ratios but one tried and true method I’ve heard (and tried) is to make it as salty as the sea. If that’s too vague for you, I totally understand. Let the professionals guide your way, it’s not as scary as I thought. I promise.
P.P.S Beneath the Borealis has been featured on Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2019. Thank you, Feedspot! I’m honored. Check the good company we keep here: Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs
This post is dedicated to Danielle. I love you. Thank you for always encouraging me to keep trying new things in the kitchen and beyond.