nature photography

Projects

Projects.
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.

Vine ripened tomatoes
When I planted these from seed, I forgot to think of the cages I’d need to build and the vine ripening that would take place long after the first frost, inside our house


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.

DIY trim
Trimmed windows. Is there anything better?


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.

Wedding in Alaska
Proof. Wedding day. Naked house. Oh well!


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.

Wildland firefighters of Alaska
Most of our quality family time was spent bobbing about in a huge fire truck, patrolling the area on my days off


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
Done!

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)

Lumber storage solutions
Foolproof storage, for sure

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
Success.
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)
Haul water
Run the generator
Shower
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)
Make dinner
Do dishes
29. Check on fire in the work again (it’s now 10:30 pm)
End of Day 2

DIY Hand-milled lumber
Goodnight, lumber


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.

Oh joy!

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.

DIY Planter Box
#worthit


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.

See, it takes no time at all!

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.

DIY Alaska


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
Done!

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!

Dryas Drumondii
Wishing on an Einstein


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.

With love,

from Alaska and some very tired arms

Fall in Alaska
Fall in Alaska




The Weather Gambler

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

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

Summer in Alaska

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

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

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


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

Stuck?

Yup.

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

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

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

Fall in Alaska
Blue skied beauty

Right?

Enter: Gamble #2: Rescheduling…Again

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

The Monday after that weekend everything changed.

Fall in Alaska
Cold and dreary but…beautiful

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

McCarthy, Alaska
Weeks later, still snow

Snow.

A lot of snow.

Oh.

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

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

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

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

Long Lake

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

Long Lake, Alaska
Thanks for leading the way!

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

Alaskan couple
The day we found our lots

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

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

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


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

Gardening in Alaska
Rainbow carrots!

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

Calendula oil
Calendula oil

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

Pickling
Pickles, baby!

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

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

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

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

Wedding arch
The arch. Thank you, again MT

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

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

Wedding in Alaska
Still my favorite photo ever


With love,

from Alaska

Fall in McCarthy, AK



P.S. What has been your favorite gamble?

Fishing Confessions

Confession: I have never been fishing in Alaska.

It’s a gasp inducing revelation, I know. Catch your breath, in and out. You’re going to be OK.

I come from fishing stock, a family where Alaskan salmon was so plentiful that towards Summer’s end, it became a bit more of a job than a joy to eat. Yes, I know how that sounds but as a kiddo, I didn’t totally appreciate the pink perfection of omega-filled goodness. I just saw filets for days and days and longed for a little variation.

Then, I grew up.

(more…)
Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, The Chesters of Alaska

Alaskan Puppy Love

Alaskan Puppy Love

A few years ago, I was talking to my nephew about our beloved dog Cinda. I was telling him how every morning, after her breakfast, she would set off on her neighborhood rounds. Around the ‘hood she would trot, bidding good morning and begging for treats, eventually returning home to stand guard of her kingdom.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Cinda in Alaska

My Lou, my love.

 

He was amazed.

For her persuasive puppy ways? Her treat-seeking ingenuity?

No.

For her ability to get through the fences.

He evaluated her, a regal dog lady in her later years, and remarked:

“Oh wow, Auntie Juju! How does she get through all the fences?!”

Fences?

Of course.

He lives in a sweet little wooded area himself and is no stranger to vast open areas of land but even the largest plots of land still have fences.

In a town where I could probably count on one hand the number of fences I know of, I had completely forgotten about them. Fence-less life had become so normal to me that his sweet surprise brought me back to reality: these dogs have it good.

No fences, no leashes, sometimes without so much as even a collar to hinder their wild spirits, with millions of acres to roam.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Hiking in Alaska

13+ million acres to roam.

 

Cinda had it good and trick or treat her way through the neighborhood she did all the way up until she passed. So, when we found our new ball of fluff and welcomed him home, we assumed he’d have the same fence-less life.

Right?

Well, kind of.

The poor pooch came down with Parvo before I was even able to pick him up. Then, once he puppy powered(!) his way through it, we were sequestered to the house for 6-weeks. Never once did he go outside without me and always attached to a leash. This grated against his punk rock Papa who made Cinda wear a collar, which he dubbed her “City Clothes” only when we went to Town. Eventually, Leto’s quarantine ended, and off from the leash he went, collar-less, mildly leash-trained, and ready to roam.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Leto in Alaska

Leto, when he was just a wee one.

 

Free to be.

Until a few weeks ago.

Among the multitude of COVID complications, I never would have guessed that puppy love would have become a problem. You see, Leto is a lover. He’s one of the most social dogs I’ve ever known. He LOVES people, big and small (though he’s especially fond of babies). Yet in the time of COVID, despite his fence-less life,¬† physical contact with his neighborhood besties, both furry and fur-less (well, maybe just less furry) has been notably challenging for this playful pooch. No going inside for his good morning rounds, no fun. And despite his fence-free life, he’d never wandered farther than the neighborhood houses he knows. Until…

Puberty.

Oh, what a joy.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Alaskan Malamute Attitude

Whatever, Mom.

 

You see, just as Leto hit the prime time for neutering, COVID-19 swept in. Not only was our trip to the vet on hold due to travel bans, but our banned travels would have been futile, as our vet had gotten stuck out of state and wasn’t allowed back in.

While puberty was a bit, umm, obnoxious (think: newfound possessiveness over his body-length moose bone, constant grumpy face instead of the happy to see me puppy of the year past) it wasn’t any worse than anything we’d already dealt with from our little Leto beast. It turns out, however, that puberty attitudes were nothing compared to the next hurdle his steadfast testicle friends posed:

Puppy love.

A friend’s dog we’d dog-sat last year named Piper, is one of Leto’s favorite girlfriends. She chewed on his face so much that she gave him hotspots and still, he went relentlessly back for more. He was enamored. I would look out the window and there he would be, on his back with her dragging him by the neck through the mud. Leto was the ultimate pushover for her (are you also having flashbacks of your twenties right now? Eek!). The puppy love bug was strong.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Alaskan Malamute I Love You

Love bites.

 

Although they hadn’t seen one another in months, every time The Chief would return from seeing Piper’s Dad he would go crazy. Still, he stayed home. Until one day when he decided that if his girlfriend wouldn’t come to him, he would go to her. It was the farthest he’d ever wandered but I figured the isolation was getting to him and this behavior would be a one time blip on the radar.

Silly Mama.

You see, it turns out he discovered something on that visit, something I wasn’t aware of:

Piper was in heat.

His courting started coyly, with Leto greeting each early morning with a long and lonesome “Hello” howl to her. Unaware of the cause of the howling, I assumed it was just a new phase, he’d found his voice. It was cute and a daily reminder (though 13 hours early for the 8pm Howl) that we were all in this together, this quarantine life.

Apparently, the message wasn’t for us, nor was it getting through.

A few days after his howling Hello’s had begun, I got a call: “Leto is here” Piper’s Mom said. Miles away he had gone, again. I went to retrieve him and Piper’s Mom said: “I think she might be in heat”.

Oh.

No.

Still, to be honest, I didn’t think much of it.

Leto, on the other hand, did.

Transformed by the visit, his morning howls grew in intensity and frequency.

All

day

howling.

All

night

howling.

Our neighbors love us.

So, we brought him inside more often than not and listened for hours on end to his lonesome lullabies.

 

 

 

His once cute and mournful cries were now hoarse from exhaustion. He would howl so hard his voice would give out, howl so hard he would knock himself over.

It was lovely.

Working from home was even more lovely. I’d watch longingly as The Chief would set out for the day. “Bye! Let me know what life without earplugs is like!” I’d think.

Three walks per day still weren’t cutting it. When he wasn’t howling, he was sleeping from the sheer exhaustion the howling caused.

Finally, one night at 2 am, we broke. By 3 am, I had consulted every puppy resource I had and the verdict was out:

Good luck!

This won’t end until her heatwave does.

More good news?

Heats can last from 2-4 weeks.

Oh, joy.

It turns out that in comparison to the horror stories I read online, we actually had a pretty cush situation with our Leto.

So cushy, huh?

About as cushy as sleeping on a pinecone.

Two weeks and 74,000,000 howls later, we’ve discovered a semi-successful Ignore and Reward system but boy oh boy has working from home with a howling 1-year old Malamute been a pleasure. Thank goodness for the mute button in online meetings and noise-canceling earphones. Sometimes, they even work!

And so, in his first year around the sun, we’ve come full circle: quarantined again. Every move he makes is attached to a leash, except for the few times I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt and been sorely reminded that no amount of treats can dissuade nature’s call. Again and again, I’ve made the drive over to Piper’s house to retrieve him, tail wagging.

“Mom! So good to see you. Thank goodness you’re here. Can you let Piper out for me? We have some, uh, business to attend to.”

Two crazed puppies in love.

One night, he stayed under their stairs all night long. A real Romeo, you know.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Peek a Boo

One of his best tricks. Peek a boo!

 

Finally, we are staring down what must be (please, oh please) the last week of her heat. The howling, so loud it rattles the walls, has become ever so slightly less frequent and his manners have improved. He is, however, on a seemingly love induced hunger strike this weekend but, as I’ve been reminded time after time, this too shall pass. Leto has finally accepted his tied up fate (something we vowed he would never do to a dog) for the most part and has even become a bit of a gentleman on the leash.

A few months ago, at a Ladies Night, back when such things weren’t relegated to Zoom, I mentioned that Leto wasn’t as leash trained as I had wished.

Be careful what you wish for.

Despite the fact that we live in a leash-less, fence-less place, my goal had been to train Leto to acceptable standards. What were those standards? The Chief and I had different ideas of what acceptable meant and without an agreed-upon agenda, things got confusing for the young lad. Enter: puberty and things started getting messy.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Shake it Off

“Shake it off, Mom” – Leto, in the lower left.

 

Lucky me, I got my wish, and training became a must, as did a family plan. Forced by the piercing cries of our oh so lovesick pup, we had no choice but to land on the same page and for that, I am grateful. I’m also grateful for understanding neighbors and for trees to somewhat bury his lovesong sounds.

Oh, Alaska, you sneaky beast, always lying in wait to serve us up the lessons we avoid best and need most.

Thank you.

Despite the frustrations of the last few weeks, the family fights and the utterly “I’m going to lose it” inducing cadence of his howls, Leto has provided us with an opportunity to grow as a family. I’m not saying it was pretty but it was worth it. Hopefully, someday soon, to the vet, we will go.

Cheers to you. May your unexpected COVID conundrums be few or if many, may they soon subside. Best wishes in these strangely trying times.

With (puppy) love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, The Chesters of Alaska

Family portrait, minus the Fluff