off-grid living

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Welcome to Alaska, Enjoy Your Stay

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Best Friends

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Home Sweet Home

Last year. Finally home.

 

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

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

 

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

Home sweet California Home (or one of them).

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Beneath the Borealis, Stay, Alaska

The back-backyard.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Alaskan Home.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

I’ll miss my O snuggles for sure.

 

With love,

from Alaska

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

and Leto at 3:30 pm.

 

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

Porcupup

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

 

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

Handsome hubby.

 

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

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

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

 

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

Chester Family photo, September 2019

 

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

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

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

Leto with a face full of porcupine quills.

 

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

The Porcupup

 

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

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

This was bad.

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

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

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

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

Quiet night?
I think not.

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

Tonight.

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

 

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

Still smiling (or just very stoned).

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Still a stoney baloney

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

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

 

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

At least it was a beautiful drive.

 

What a Sunday. What a start to the week.

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

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

Home sweet home.

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

 

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

Hello, handsome dude!

 

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

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

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

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

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

Knit cap brigade.