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Home is Where the Hard is

My girlfriend in Norway texted me this morning. “Help” was the first text. “Help me choose a kitchen” with a link to a website was the second.

You see, she is remodeling.

And I guess we are too.

Two kitchens. Two continents. Worlds apart.

Since moving into The Chief’s house it has become our house. Our home. It felt like home the first time I arrived and has ever since. But, as I mentioned in this post, it was a bachelor pad, like a perma-bachelor pad. And so we have slowly been making it ours.

The thing is, projects in the woods can get a bit tricky. It’s not like we can hop in the car and take a quick trip to Home Depot and stop for lunch on the way home (oh to eat a meal and simply walk away from the mess, that is luxury). We can’t just pop into town.

Town is Anchorage.

Town is 8-10 hours away, depending on the weather.

It’s a three day minimum commitment. Your house will freeze along with everything in it and if you’re lucky enough to have work, you’ll have to take time off. You’ll have to brave glacier riddled roads and icy highways and you must be able to carry all the supplies on your vehicle because strangely enough, stores don’t deliver out here.

So, the best alternative is to do it yourself. Source your own materials and make it work.

The Project: kitchen shelving

The Plan: build them from scratch

The Materials List: it all started a few years back…

In essence, our kitchen project started years ago. Before we even found one another. Our neighbor cut down the trees that would then be taken to another resident’s property to be milled into the biggest size possible. The now beams were eventually brought back over to our joint property by another neighbor where they sat…and sat…

Fast forward to present day and a stretch of time off from work for The Chief due to…you guessed it…a need for more supplies. So, as the job site was restocking we made use of the time off and started a “simple” kitchen project. We figured it would take a day or two. That was cute of us.

Day one: After suiting up for the cold, The Chief headed  out to the beam site. Shovel and axe in hand he chopped and chopped through ice and feet of snow until he wrestled two free.

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Wolf patrol. So many things to pee on.

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Sniff it out, dig it out.

I suited up myself and helped him to lift the beams onto the sawhorse.

I’m a pretty strong little bundle of a 5′ 3 (and 3/4)” lady but this 12-foot hunk of future shelving was a serious workout. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.

The beams on the other hand, they were cold. Frozen to be exact and at ten degrees outside, they weren’t thawing out any time soon. This seemed like a serious threat to our shelf building escapade. Out came the hammers. We hammered away the large chunks of ice and used the other side (the Claw, I’m told) to scrape. It was slow going. We found angled metal that worked as a scraper too but still, a great deal of ice remained and there was no way we could get those beams inside the house to thaw. The Chief smiled. He had a little trick up his parka: a weed burner. It’s exactly what it sounds like (unless you’re from California, then see the following explanation): basically it’s a torch used to burn down weeds but hey, I’m all about multi-purpose tools.

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So we spent the next hour or so burning off the freeze and the rest of the afternoon logging for the next project.

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Logging means brush…which means bonfire time

The next day was colder and it was harder to motivate to head out into it. But, of course, in true Alaska fashion, once we did motivate and had just finished defrosting the second log friends from across the river announced their arrival via snow machine. Our work was done for the day.

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The next day was full of bright blue skies and recently refrozen rivers. We couldn’t just burn weeds all day, we had to greet the blue and so the project was pushed off again.

Sidenote: this whole “go with the flow” attitude isn’t natural for me. I’m learning it. It feels irresponsible because it sometimes chooses fun over work but isn’t it just as bad to choose work over play simply because you “should”? I’m still figuring that one out. Dang Puritan work ethic. But I do know that it seems criminal to live in a 13 million acre national park and not explore it when you have the perfect day to do so…so we did.

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The Chief testing the thickness of the ice off to the right

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If it can hold this little guy it can hold us, right?

Finally, on the fourth day, things started coming together. The weather had turned (this always seems to happen. Good thing we took advantage of the day before) to grey skies and snow. The Chief and I suited up and got to milling. The wood was actually in pretty good shape considering its snowy grave and we were able to get three boards milled.

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We made shelves until five o’clock when we realized we were going to be late for the dinner plans we had made at a friend’s house up the hill. Time for a pause.

Sidenote: By “We made shelves” I mean The Chief mainly measured, cut and screwed in the boards. I learned (relearned) how to calculate a hypotenuse (and just now how to spell it again), how the miller and saw worked and how to brace shelving. I was in charge of aesthetic and placement and that’s great but it’s one thing to tell someone where to place something and another to place it oneself. I wish I could say we were both out there at the same time doing the same work but the truth is, I just didn’t know enough and when you only have so many materials, it’s pretty essential not to mess up. And while there’s nothing wrong with being the one who runs to get the materials or reminds you both to eat an apple, I can’t wait for the day when I lead the work. Luckily, The Chief is happy to share the position. Outside of my mom, no one has ever had so much faith in me to be able to do anything I set my mind to. From teaching me to run a chainsaw to encouraging me to lead us home at night on snow machines, he’s the best cheerleader (and the hairiest) anyone could ask for.

Before. During. After.

A few hours later, too full from dinner and too excited to sleep, we started finding new homes for things and brainstorming the next steps. I love these moments together. Just the two of us, making plans, trying out ideas and laughing together if they fail, knowing full and well that we will make it work. There’s nothing like living in a little cabin to get your creative organizing skills flowing and there’s nothing better than a partner in crime to dream with.

The next day it was snowing again so we waited until it abated and then started on the corner shelves. It took up until the dinner bell at the neighbor’s house was ringing (two homemade dinners that we didn’t have to home make in one week?! Hallelujah!) to finish. Two shelving projects down and an infinite number left to complete but a serious pat on the back is in order.

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For the last two days, every time we would walk into the kitchen (which means every time you come in the house or walk from the living room. Tiny house, remember?) we would marvel at our completed project.

And then this morning I got the Norwegian text and it made me realize how different my world has become. Never in my life did I think I would help mill the tree a friend cut down and make my own shelving (shoot, I’d never even met someone who’d cut down a tree for lumber before). Never did I think I would work in the snow and the cold in the middle of winter in Alaska. Never did I think I’d meet my person in the middle of the woods. Never did I think it would happen, but I did hope for this life.

I was looking for a “hard” life, even if I didn’t know it. And it is hard, in the best ways. Things take three times longer. Each project becomes a town effort as you run out of screws or borrow tools but the “hard” is what makes it feel so good to hammer in that final nail. The “hard” shows you how hard things could actually be and how lucky we are. The “hard” is what makes it home. Our home.

 

 

Swallow Your Pride (A Lesson from the Sorest Hands I’ve Ever Had)

Swallow your pride. Better yet, be rid of it.

Pride has no place here. There simply isn’t room for it. When things need to get done, you either do or don’t know how to do it and depending on how fast it needs to get done you’ll either learn now or get out of the way.

Easier said than done.

Personally, I hate not knowing how to do things, especially when I’m the only one who doesn’t know and especially when it involves my survival (I’m guessing that’s a universal dislike).

We arrived at night and by the morning I realized that there were more things than I could have imagined that

1. Everyone knew how to do

2. I didn’t

and

3. They all involved my being able to survive out here.

Surprise!

Alaska has a way of taking the things you’re most afraid of (and most likely to avoid) and shoving them back at you. This quick slap in the face was repeated with every new task:

Running a generator at below zero

Pumping water (wear waterproof clothing)

Building and maintaining a good fire (our only source of heat)

Chopping wood (our only fuel for heat)

Lack of light

Driving a snow machine

Running a chainsaw

Cutting down a tree for firewood

Learning the trails (which were all suddenly brand new to me as the winter paths differed from the summer)

Driving in snow (again, I’m from California)

The battery bank (how, seriously, how does that work?)

Dressing for winter (too hot, too cold – it’s a daily Goldilocks routine)

Driving a stick-shift (in snow/ice)

Learning to ski

Not breaking things (things apparently break in the cold. I tried to lift a plastic bucket and it shattered. I know, it seems obvious now to me too)

 

The list went on and on and as it did I felt smaller and smaller. What the hell was I thinking moving out here? I was grounded 60 miles down an ice road and even if I wanted to leave, I couldn’t even do that on my own.

The learning curve was overwhelming and the lack of independence was stifling.

Not only did I not know how to do all the above things but I also had to create new systems for things I’ve always known how to do. You know, the basics…bathing, dressing, laundry, cooking, even making coffee was a whole new experience with a hand grinder. It was like being at step one. I felt totally out of my league without any of the comforts or competence I had known. And then, the sink stopped working.

Everything in my world was turned on its head and all that I had learned to do in summer was suddenly different because now, it was  winter. I couldn’t just walk outside and start the generator to pump water because the generator was frozen. I needed a fire to thaw it.

I needed to get better at building fires. I needed to get better at everything.

It didn’t take long to realize that what I really needed to do was to swallow my pride, slow down, learn, practice and accept help.

Ugh. Not my favorite medicine but I took it.

I started to check off the list of “dont’ know hows” with learning to chop wood.

When we arrived, the woodpile looked like this:

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After my first time chopping wood in 20+ years, it looked like this:

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This stack of Paul Bunyan toothpicks took me hours.

The Chief came out (after hearing me cursing a particularly knotty log) to remind me that chopping logs was a stress reliever, not a stress inducer (a.k.a, maybe you need a break, tiger). I was sweaty and out of breath, a real fine sight, but I was determined. Once it started to get dark, I came inside.

All done, babe?

Nope (grabbing my headlamp – thank you Spenard Builders Supply for the freebie!)

Finally, when I could no longer see and had become a pink-nosed popsicle I bid adieu to the pile for the night.

I was exhausted.

The next day was poker night. My forearms and shoulders were a little sore during the day but it wasn’t until I went to shuffle that…

I couldn’t.

My hands were so sore that I couldn’t even squeeze them together enough to shuffle cards. I grew up playing cards. I can shuffle in my sleep.

Not that day.

A little triumph: my little wood pile, coupled with a little reminder: you still have a long way to go.

Every time I start to get ahead of myself, Alaska throws a banana peel in the road and for that I actually feel lucky. Sometimes you fall and other times you see it and slow down.

The next time I chopped wood I did a little better:

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Yea, I took a close-up.

And the next time after that I started finding that elusive stress-reducing zen The Chief so casually mentioned. Feeling my swing improve. Seeing my target and hitting it and then…sometimes not. Getting cocky, talking back to the log, hitting it with the axe handle and feeling it jostle you from your arms to your feet. The triumphs and the reminders.

Now, a month in, I’m more comfortable with a lot of things. I’ve been in 20 below and I didn’t die (I wasn’t so sure how that would go). I can run a generator, I feel comfortable to hold down the fort when The Chief is away and I can chop up wood for a few days without disabling myself for days. And, the second I feel I have it all under control, a new challenge comes up.

Like harvesting the wood to be chopped…

 

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FYI: He’s not short. The tree is tall.

Next goal: to be the lead instead of the assistant (no offense to the assistant, I hear she’s awesome).

Such is life in the Alaskan wilderness. The work is never done and neither are the lessons. And the chores will leave you sorer than you realize.

Thank you Alaska, you sly fox, you.

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