Escaping the Concrete Jungle

Texas Couple Moves “off the grid” to live off the land in Alaska

Boy meets girl. Boy takes girl to Alaska. There is no running water, no indoor bathroom,  and the cabin is only accessible by boat. To an ordinary couple, this would be hell. To this couple, it is heaven. But this is no ordinary couple.

Nathanael and Jennifer live and reside in Austin, Texas. Nathanael was born in Alabama, but raised  his whole life in Cajun Country USA (a.k.a Lafayette LA). He spent all of his childhood summers on his grandfather’s small farm in Alabama raising livestock, growing fruits and vegetables, hunting, fishing, and living in the great outdoors. All of his adult life, he has dreamt of going back to that simpler way of living off the land as from his childhood memories with his grandparents.  Jennifer was born in California, and was raised predominately in New Orleans LA …and although she has spent most of her life in the city, she enjoys camping, fishing, hunting and outdoor fitness training. She feels confident about the journey she is embarking on….after raising three children as a single mother, she is prepared for any adventure. No longer do they want to be trapped…. they are “escaping the concrete jungle.”

The couple is each successful in their respective professions; Nathanael is a hard working small business owner. Yet, despite his successes, he is willing to leave it all behind for a simpler way of life. He is ready to stop living to pay bills and to start living to survive. Jennifer is a professional non-profit administrator with 28 years of experience in fundraising. Her success now will be growing potatoes and carrots. They both dream of living off the land in a remote area of Alaska. Now, their dream is coming true.

The couple has found a cabin in Haines, Alaska, nestled in the Chilkat Valley about 200 miles northeast of Juneau. As vast as Alaska is, they researched and looked at many properties all through out Alaska, but the Inside Passage had their hearts. Over the past few years, the couple started researching attaining the basics of a self-sufficient lifestyle, practicing at home with success in growing several large vegetable gardens, breeding rabbits and doves, raising chickens, and bees. Now, they are anxious to put their knowledge and passion to work. The couple is selling everything they own and preparing for the move. Turning in big screen TV’s for big views… Traffic crossing  for moose crossings… Instant hot running water for cold outhouses…

The property they have found in Haines, AK is a community of only 2,500 and everyone really knows your name (see Heather Lende’s book about this small town).The property is  on several acres on Chilkat Lake, surrounded and connected to thousands of acres of state land, which will be at their disposal. Their property is about 30 miles north of the center of town. They plan to create a self-sustaining homestead by setting up a garden, raising chicken, goats, and rabbits, and hunting and fishing. To get to the cabin, they will need to fly from Austin, Texas to Juneau, then take a small plane from Juneau to Haines. From Haines, they will drive one hour to a boat dock, then take a one hour boat ride to the property. For the big move, however, they will drive…a 28 ft. moving van, a truck with a trailer, boat, 4 wheeler, and 2 canoes (and two dogs, Tucker and D’Beaux) for over 3,000 miles through Canada and by ferry to Haines.

This will be the couple’s first experience setting up a homestead and living off the land, and off the grid. They will have no running water, no internet, no television, and limited solar electricity. They have very rudimentary skills, but they are hopeful that their adventurous spirits and strong determination will set them on a course for living their dream lifestyle.

Follow Nathanael and Jennifer on their journey. See firsthand their first visit to the property, and the trials and tribulations of moving to the Alaska outback from Texas. What will they bring to the cabin and how will they get it there? What challenges will they face? What wildlife and wild life adventures await them? Tune in…

BoBo the Bear!!

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As Jen and I settle into our Alaska lifesytle, we are reminded constantly of the obstacles we have to cross in order to live free. I always dreamed of living off the Alaska land, hunting and fishing for a subsistence way of life. However, we are finding out that we lived a more subsistence lifestyle in the lower 48 than we do in the Alaska outback! For example, the last couple of years we have applied for a “moose tag” to be able to harvest a moose, but we have not received one yet. The largest of all deer species wanders into our yard constantly, but we cannot shoot it for food, unless our name has been pulled in some lottery-style system.

You must have a tag issued from the ADF&G here in town in order to legally “bag” a moose and fill your freezer. I have been assured by the wildlife and game department that the permit awards are done on a points system, computerized by an algorhythm. Your chances increase by the more years you’ve been here, the more you hunt, and the more you rely on hunting and fishing for food. I’m beginning to think I’m on some sort of “black list” because I reported that I hunt for 100% of my food. I figured I might be on this secret “black list” because of all the small town rumors about me that have been spreading like wildfire. I have been told that people in town refer to me as “The Bear Killer from Louisanna”. I have heard several rumors of bears that I’ve killed In places that I have never even been. I kinda like the attention though and think it’s hilarious. I also sorta bring it upon myself. By law, every animal I hunt and harvest
out here has to be turned in to the fish and game to be “sealed”. This is a major hassle living remotely, but I comply with all of the regulations and understand the scientific data purposes behind it.

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On one occasion, I was bringing a black bear to be sealed at the department of fish and game. I knew there was a crusie ship in town that day. The streets would be flooded with tourists, and I figured they would love to take pictures of this beautiful animal. Maybe it was a little extreme to prop the bear up and tie him to the boat’s steering wheel, but I thought I could get some good chuckles out of some the tourists. As I drove the truck down main street pulling the boat, there was the bear, driving the boat in all his glory. I think I had all two thousand tourists that were in town stop and take a picture that day. People were actually running to my boat to see the bear. There was a couple of guys from Baton Rouge, LA that saw the Rajun Cajun sticker on my boat. I think they were cracking up the most. They said, “Only a coonass from Lousianna would have a bear driving a boat in Haines AK.” Not only did this attract the tourists, but the local game warden decided to come and see this boat-driving bear that everyone was talking about. He arrived, but I never did hear any chuckling coming from him. I advised him that I was on my way to the fish and game building to have the bear sealed, but the bear just wanted to stop for his 15 minutes of fame. Still no chuckles.
This game warden is familiar with me due to all the rumors that he’s heard about us out on the lake. He actually came all the way out to the property one day to give Jen and I tickets for having the wrong type of fishing licenses. Yes that’s right. Not only do you need a fishing license to live off the land and fish, but you better be sure you have the right kind. We thought the incident was so silly. The Warden heard a rumor that we were running an illegal fishing operation out on the lake and taking in thousands of dollars! We saw 3 or 4 people total that year out on the back lake so this was kinda humorous. Jen and I were both issued citations totaling $600, for having resident fishing license. We had both trucks and boats registered in the state of Alaska, we both had Alaska drivers licences, we were both registered voters in the State of Alaska and voted in the local elections, and we had paid Alaska property taxes for over a year. As he’s standing on my property, outside of my house, my dwelling, the place where we live, he insisted that we are still not residents of Alaska. I was really confused?? I felt like a “Dreamer”. What he was telling us is that we dont have residency anywhere. I guess Jen and I are in limbo and we can only say that we are residents of planet earth at this point. He read on our blog about our drive up here and assumed that the blog post date was our exact Alaska move date. He thought we had only been living here for 8 months therefore he said we needed nonresident Fishing licences. Here’s the kicker….it would have only been a $200 fine if we would have been caught fishing with no license at all. We took it to court and the judge considered me a resident but my wife a nonresident. Now I was really confused?? I felt so dirty and felt like a criminal. Here I am a resident, married and living with a nonresident. My fines were waived thankfully. I’m not sure if all the time spent to come out to our property issue us tickets and battle us in court, was a good use of taxpayer’s money, but It’s all water under the bridge, or at least I thought it was.
He is familiar with my boat and noticed that I had upgraded my motor. I went from a 90hp to a 115hp, for a little extra punch. He asked what was wrong with my other one and why the change?

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I told him, “Nothing was wrong with the other motor, I just needed something faster than yours”. No chuckles there either.
On top of all that, I felt compelled to tell him about the booger hanging out of his nose.
Yep…I’m definitely on this “blacklist!”
In another example of this struggle, we received a call from a FEDERAL Fish and Game Officer just the other day. He wanted us to meet him in town so he could go over the events of a bird encounter that he read about on our last blog post. Most migratory game birds are federally protected, so a special Federal Wildlife & Game Officer had to be flown in a from Jueanu for this bird investigation. The FBBI!!! He was with the Federal Bureau of Bird Investigation!! Yes This country is in a trillion dollar deficit, but the bird police are still on patrol.

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This FBBI Officer and my buddy, the local Game Warden, were on their way out to our property on the lake when they noticed our snow machines at the farm and that our truck was gone so they figured we were in town and that they could catch up with us there. He called me and we agreed to meet up with them at the local hotel. We were dumbstruck at all the resources and money that was spent to come interview us about our blog post. I guess we are getting all kinds of exposure, good and bad. It’s kinda cool though that so many people read about our adventures out here. Our witness protection officer isnt gonna think this is cool though.
I was flattered when we met with the officer he said he has been wanting to meet the “legend of Motes Mountain.”
I was advised that in order to kill birds that are attacking your chickens, you have to purchase a $100 permit. Yep…. you have to pay to eliminate birds that are attacking and killing your livestock. You may or may not be approved for this permit either. I know that being on the “black list”, I aint ever gonna get this permit! I’ll be out 100 dollars and out of chicken eggs. We sat there and listened to him tell us that it is upwards of a $1,500 fine for even having a bird feather in your possession. Then he proceeded to hand me a list of all the protected birds in North America. As I’m scanning through the 12 page list of thousands of birds, my 11 year’old self pops into my head. I see myself holding my Red Rider BB gun in one hand and the same bird list in the other hand. My 11 year-old self keeps nodding his head as he is scanning down the list and saying…”yep got that one, hey that one too,…oh yeah that one for sure…two of those…etc.”
After the investigation interview concluded, we were told to mail in the bird foot, and any feathers of any migratory game bird we had on the property. I have lots of feathers that we have collected through the years hiking in the woods. I have spent many hours bird watching out the window. I have set feeders up throughout the property. I’ve been researching and reading about Alaska’s birds and it has been one of my new hobbies. Yes, I’m a “birder” now.

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We even plan on putting up nesting poles to attract more Owls and Osprey.We have several Spruce Grouse that come on our property and mingle with the chickens every year. They are always followed by 6 or 7 chicks that we watch grow up throughout the summer.

I respect all birds, and all living creatures for that matter, but come on if another animal is attacking you or your livelihood, you should be able to protect yourself and your animals. I’m gonna be sad that I have to let go of my bird feather collection, but I must comply with the federal government. I’m horrified to think of the consequences. I could be thrown into federal prison. I can just see myself explaining to my new cell mate “Big Tyronne” that I’m in the slammer because of a bird feather collection. He then would call me his “Little Sparrow!” This would be my nightmare scenario!!!

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He then told us all these feathers are sent to a lab in Montana. It blows my mind that there is a federal building somewhere full of bird feathers, where countless hours and tax payer’s dollars are spent doing what? Hopefully, these feathers won’t go into an unsolved X-Files folder and sit in a cabinet ’till someone reopens the cold case file to solve the question of where these feathers came from??.!!! Who knows, maybe they are making pillows for Washington’s elite politicians. Either way, when they get my package, they gonna have some work to do! I’ve plucked every feather off all my roosters and stuffed them in that envelope!

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I’m sure I will not be getting any chuckles from them either. Let’s hope this doesn’t go as far as me meeting “Big Ole Tyronne”.
It’s a shame that we live in a world today where you can go to a clinic, remove an unborn human from inside the womb, discard it as waste and that it is tolerated by society. But the minute you harm a bird that is attacking your chickens, you’re breaking the law!!!??? Unhatched bird inside the eggs are valued as live animals and are protected by law as well. Unborn humans aren’t though!!!???
The FBBI agent told us that it was the local guy who runs the newspaper in town that called them after reading our blog. We can only assume that he was looking for a story to print in the local paper and thought if he could get us into trouble that it would make a good headline. Yes, this is the silliness that comes from living in a small town. We really enjoy this weekly newspaper. It has been a constant form of entertainment for us out here on the mountain. There is definitely a lot of small town drama that plays out on these pages. Reading this paper over the years, at times I feel like Im reading the Onion Publication. Front cover headlines are about chickens being attacked by hawks and learning to live indoors.

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You would think this guy would have some sympathy towards me since I was also attacked by a hawk. This is the same paper that weekly highlights the police blotter. This reports every police call that comes in each week.Most 911 calls are like someone saw a moose in the road, or someone found a box of cat litter on main street, or, in our case, someone called 911 to report harm to a bird at Chilkat Lake.

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We really enjoy this newspaper though. It makes excellent fire starter and they give it away for free after a week. So, I ain’t mad!
If he really wanted a good story, he should have interviewed us about the huge rattlesnake we killed under the house on our property this past summer. Let’s hope there’s no Federal Snake Police reading this.

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The newspaper guy could come out and interview us about our new friend on motes mountain….. BoBo!!
We have kinda taken in a juvenile bear since last summer. I call him “BoBo, the teenage bear”. He has been hanging around the property for months now. Staying on the edge and coming in and out to meet us. Recently, in the last few months he has made a perfect little bedding area under our cabin. Over time, he has warmed up to us. I think it took a total of 6 months and 84 bags of marshmallows to make him my friend. He still won’t let us get close enough to pet him though. I am determined to tame him and hopefully be able to ride on him one day.

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Now these are the types of stories people want to read about!!!! Put this in your paper!

For the record, I have the utmost respect for all of the local Wildlife & Game Officials and appreciate all the hard work they put in to sustaining a healthy population of wildlife. The Federal Officer that came out was very professional and really great. So is my buddy, the local Game Warden. I have been a wildlife conservationist my entire life (not counting my bird-killing spree when I was an 11 year old child.) I am an avid hunter and fisherman and do my part to help harvest and maintain wildlife population. This is the sole reason I moved to Alaska-to hunt, fish and live free! Hunting and fishing is the most important tool to wildlife mangement. Without wildlife management you will not have wildlife conservation. Although I don’t agree with a lot of the regulations, I understand their purpose, and I respect and obey all laws. I promise, this is my last plea for a moose tag!!! Anybody??
I have been told Alaska attracts all kinds of crazy people. Maybe that’s why I fit in this land so well. I respect and love all the people I have come across in this community! We hope to build new and lasting realsionships with many more people to come. Anyone is welcome to come out and stay with us on our property and enjoy the beauty of Motes Mountain. This blog originated for us just to let friends and family get an inside look at what we are up to out here in Alaska. The stories and tall tales are for entertainment purposes only. We appoligize if we offend anyone along the way.
Just remember though…. if you are ever out on the Chilkitty (The smaller part of Chilkat lake) and you see someone riding a bear in the woods….it’s probably the Motes Mountain legend “The Mighty Bear Killer from Lousiana!!!!”………….but then again all of this is just rumor;-)

A “Close Call”

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When you live in a remote locale, getting hurt could be a life or death affair. We are at least 2 hours from our small-town health clinic, and the nearest trauma hospital is in Seattle, which would require a helicopter transport after the somewhat challenging 2-hour journey to town.  Nate and I constantly talk about the scenarios of what would happen if one of us sustained a major injury. We are even prepared to perform triage on each other in the event of a serious accident. We have a stock of medical supplies that include things like a skin staple gun, needle and stitching thread for sutures, antiseptics, and other wound care materials.

 

Nate regularly jokes that if something happens to him that renders him unconscious or unable to move on his own, he would be out of luck since I’m not strong enough to carry him. We’ve had many discussions about how I would get him down the hill to our boat or snow machine. I assure him that in an emergency, I could roll him onto my shoulder and drag him down to the dock. Nate doesn’t believe me.

We have done a few test trials to see if I could carry Nate, but he gives up every time just as I try to heave him up because he’s afraid I’m going to drop him. I don’t think this proves anything. In an emergency, I think Nate will be either incapacitated or desperate, or both, and therefore, it will be easier for me to prop him up or drag him around. I also think Nate will have more faith in me when I’m all he’s got to save his life!  In the worst case scenario, I think I can roll him up in our cow hide rug, and drag him down the hill, or put together some kind of make-shift stretcher to pull him around. One way or another, I’m sure I can get him to the boat dock. What I’m less sure of is being able to get serious medical care in any kind of a timely manner.

We have heard that in a life or death emergency, you can call the Coast Guard and they might send a helicopter straight to our property for about $50,000. There’s also some kind of accident insurance that you can buy for $60 a year that ensures a free helicopter ride to medical care. Thankfully, we have only had a few bumps and bruises since moving here two years ago. Our friend walked the entire length of the lake and back on one of our zero degree days, and one of his toes developed frost bite. As soon as Nate heard about it, he called him up to remind him that he has all of the medical tools necessary to amputate his toe.

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Most of the time, Nate and I are both painstakingly vigilant about being careful and cautious so that we don’t get injured out here. We try to be careful every moment of every day, but, we had a serious “close call” the other day.

Last year, Nate rigged up a pulley system to haul heavy items up our front yard hill in the winter.  Using the 4-wheeler, he pulls a snow sled up the hill with a rope that he has threaded through a chain, secured to the foundation of our cabin. The pulley sled works great and we use it mostly when we are hauling large bucked pieces of wood to our cabin to use for firewood. Each of these bucked rounds weighs between 70-100 pounds, so the pulley sled makes moving 50 or 100 of these huge pieces up the hill a project that takes only a few hours, instead of a few days.

Our system is pretty simple. Nate stands at the bottom of the hill and fills the snow sled with 3 or 4 of these bucked rounds of wood. Then he jumps on the 4-wheeler and backs it up, pulling the sled up the hill to where the rope runs through the chain ring. I stand at the top and when the sled comes up, I empty the bucked pieces, then signal for Nate to move the four-wheeler forward, releasing the tension on the rope, and I push the sled back down the hill, guiding its path straight by holding the rope in both of my hands. It’s been a pretty great system so far.

 

The other day, we were using this pulley system and I had some trouble keeping the sled straight on its path downhill.  On this particular day, the ground on the hill was mostly smooth, slick ice, with very little snow, making the sled difficult to control. I lowered the sled down trying to direct its path, but it kept sliding down the wrong way.  I was in the middle of pulling it up again for the third time to try and straighten it out, and I didn’t realize that Nate had decided to help me by pulling it up with the four-wheeler. I had wrapped the rope around my wrist several times to get a better grip on it, and I was tugging the sled uphill when I heard the four-wheeler engine start. Before I realized what was happening, Nate starting backing up, pulling the rope with the 4-wheeler.

The the rope immediately tightened around my wrist, pulled me to the ground and dragged me across the snow to where the rope is threaded through the chain.  In my mind, I saw the scenario of what was about to happen. I saw my wrist getting mangled, or my hand getting cut off by the force of the 4-wheeler trying to pull the rope with my hand twisted around it through the small chain link . The only way I was going to avert a complete catastrophe was to somehow get Nate’s attention and make him stop the four-wheeler. I knew that it was going to be almost impossible for him to hear me. And, he could not see me because the trees were blocking his vision. But, screaming was my only hope. I screamed as loud and as horrific as I could. The sound of my scream even scared me, but I knew that this was a potential very bad outcome. This scream could save my hand.

Angels must have carried my voice down the hill to Nate’s ears because right when my wrist reached the ring on the post where my wrist would have met the resistance of the small metal ring, the 4-wheeler stopped. I laid there with my wrist still taut against the beam and the rope squeezing my wrist. I almost couldn’t believe that he had stopped the four-wheeler. I let out another scream to make sure that Nate understood that there was a problem. Luckily, he somehow figured out what was going on and he drove the four-wheeler forward to release the tension on the rope.

I quickly unwrapped my wrist, but I laid there stunned that my wrist and hand were still intact and unscathed. Nate climbed up the hill in about half a second and he was on top of me, assessing the situation. I’ve never seen his face look so scared. I told him that I was fine, that I only had a slight red mark on my wrist from the constriction of the rope. He said that he has never heard me scream like that before and it terrified him. Once he realized I was alright, he chastised me, saying, “Don’t EVER wrap a rope around your wrist again!”

We finished moving the load of bucked rounds up the hill using our pulley system, and afterwards, I was more tired than usual, probably because of all of the adrenaline running through my system.  Later that evening, when we were inside sitting by the fire recalling our close call earlier that day, Nate joked, “I’ll bet that’s the way you would scream if you were being eaten alive by a bear.”  It was an odd comment, but, honestly, that’s what I was thinking about, too. I always wondered if Nate would hear me scream if I was being attacked by a bear on our property. Now, I’m sure that in the event of an emergency, I will be able to muster the scream needed to get Nate’s attention.

I am convinced, however, that it was a miracle that Nate was able to hear me that day. It’s almost impossible to hear any voice calling out between our dock and our house. And, on top of that, Nate was sitting on a running 4-wheeler, which makes it even more difficult to hear anything.

I’m glad I didn’t have to board the coast guard helicopter bound for Seattle that day, although it would have been quite a spectacle to see that aircraft land on our little lake! I’m happy that all that I remember from that day is that a little miracle that took place.

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Cabin Fever

received_102043269364511901376101377.jpegI moved to Alaska to live an outdoor, adventurous kind of life. Before coming here, I was pretty active— running, hiking, biking, and lifting weights. I liked to challenge myself physically in all of these ways, so I was excited about the prospect of living in Alaska and pushing my physical limits every day. In reality, however, for much of the winter, we get trapped indoors. For nearly 4 months now, old man winter has been throwing everything he has at us in an attempt to keep me inside, clinging to the comfort of my chair by the fire.

 

Our cabin is literally wedged into the side of a mountain. The man who built our home a dozen years ago purchased a CAD digger, and brought it to the property in pieces, winching each piece up the hill inch by inch. I can’t imagine the effort it took just to get it up the hill. Then, he put it together on the flatest section of land he could find. He used this machine to carve into the side of the mountain and nestle the house back where it sits in its cozy little spot.

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The remaining carved out wall of rock and dirt that borders the back of our house is a mixed bag of beauty and beast. In the spring, the wall hosts millions of caterpillar cocoons that hatch into delightful butterflies. There are so many of these flitting insects in May and June that they look like clouds of smoke hovering in clusters behind our house. By summer, this man-carved wall is also home to a few small birds who, much to our excitement, build their tiny nests into the small crevices right at eye level. One end of the wall has even managed to nourish a large cluster of wild strawberries. This rock and dirt border is busy and productive all spring and summer, but that’s the beauty part of it.

In winter, this wall slowly transforms into the floodgates of hell. The mountain behind the wall is 1,500 foot high and literally extends straight up. This incline is wonderful for our gravity fed water system, which delivers fresh mountain water practically to our front door. In winter, however, this incline becomes a luge for melting snow. This creates havoc when the melting snow traveling downhill in front of our cabin quickly freezes, making our entire front yard a treacherous mountain of slick ice.

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We have tried, with little luck, to direct the snow melt. Nate has dug out little trenches behind the house that lead away from our cabin, then down to the lake, but the water has a mind of its own and doesn’t take easily to being told where to go. This summer, we will come at the wall with smoking guns, and build a large waterway with rocks and stones, and we will tame this water, if it’s the last thing we do!  For now, though, we have to deal with the ice skating rink of death every time we step out the front door.

The lake is frozen solid, over 2 feet deep, so its plenty strong to travel on. Our main transportation method in winter is snow machines, but they don’t work unless you have a few inches of snow. They typically overheat if you run them on ice, and they are prone to sliding and spinning. On one of our few trips on the snow machines this year, I was driving on the lake by myself, and my sled did a 360 degree spin. It was very scary to lose control of such a heavy machine, especially when I’m out there alone. Luckily, I was able to get back on track quickly. Later that same day, a guy who lives at the front of the lake wasn’t so lucky. He spun out at the same place I did, only he was pulling a trailer full of supplies which made his machine jack-knife. His supplies completely dislodged from the trailer and were strewn all over the ice. He was thrown from the machine and hit his head pretty badly. It just proves that even a trip to the grocery store can be pretty dangerous in these parts.

Because of the varying conditions of the lake during the early part of winter, in the past 4 months, I have only been to town a few times.  Last year, we made more regular trips because we had lots of snow. This year, we have been “holed up” in our cabin a lot.  There’s only so much “word search”, scrabble, trivial pursuit, reading and watching movies that one couple can do. My new workout room has helped to ease the monotony of indoor life, but 4 months is a long time!

Now that we have someone who lives on the back part of the lake with us, I conspired with her to walk with me to town and back in a day. While I knew it would be grueling physically to attempt 24-plus miles on foot, I was happy for the opportune adventure. Our plan was to walk to the car, which would take about 5 hours, drive to town and do some shopping and errands, then make the 5 hour trek back home. It seemed like a reasonable (and somewhat fun) idea when we thought it up. If we left early enough in the morning, we figured we could be home by dinner time.

The day began at 5:15 a.m. My alarm rang and it felt energizing to have somewhere to be, somewhere to go. I filled my backpack with the essentials for the day: hand warmers, a pocket knife, an emergency fire-starting kit, light snacks that could be eaten on-the-go, keys to the car, my wallet, an extra pair of socks and a change of clothes (just in case I step on a weak section of ice and fall into the lake), and a water bottle, which can be kind of useless because the water quickly freezes into an impenetrable block of ice.

I “suited up” in my cold weather gear, put on my backpack, and pulled studded “scratchers” on over my boots to help me walk along the frozen lake of ice without slipping. I stretched a headlamp around the top of my knit hat, and I ventured out the front door, ready for anything. It was still pitch black outside, and the front path down to the lake was a slick sheet of ice. I switched on my headlamp, and carefully maneuvered down the incline, placing each foot carefully, while gripping tightly onto a rope that we have laid out from the top of our property down to the lake, to keep us from falling and taboggoning down the hill!

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I’m relieved when I reach the lake because now I am on flat ground. I ready my sled that I am planning to pull behind me with a rope as we walk, and I set off for my friend’s cabin. I arrive at her frozen-in boat dock and everything is dark except for my headlamp. I wait for a minute, then I hear her voice, somewhere up the mountain in the trees, telling me that she will be right down. I look up, and I can see a tiny light high up, higher than our house. I watch as her headlamp moves across the side of the mountain as she meanders back and forth, making her way down to me. I marvel at her strength. Her house is three times higher up this side of the mountain than mine. She traverses down the icy strait. As she touches down onto the flat ground, the lake is making eerie groaning noises. When the lake goes through stages of melting and then freezing again, air gets trapped underneath the ice. As this air shifts and releases, the lake makes very loud, deep noises. Sometimes, it sounds like burping. Other times, it sounds like a large primeval creature groaning underneath the ice.

My friend grabs her sled, and we both start walking together in the dark, pulling our sleds, our two headlamps dancing like tiny dots across the icy tundra in this valley between several vast snowy mountain ranges. We walk for miles, literally. About halfway to the car, the sun rises, and we can see sunlight coming up over the mountaintop behind us. It’s surreal to us because we are without sunlight on our part of the lake until mid-February.

We walk across the surface of the entire lake, which is 8 miles long. Then we hike alongside Clear Creek, which is low, but not frozen. When we reach the landing, where the creek meets the Tsirku River, we see that the warm weather from the week before has opened up large sections of the river, which are usually covered with ice and frozen snow by now. We will have to wade across two areas of ice-cold rushing water that are about 50 feet wide. My neighbor has worn her knee-high rubber boots for this trek, and so this is no problem for her, but I wore my hiking boots with scratchers, so while I giggled every time she slipped on the ice in her rubber boots, the last laugh was on me because I was going to have to get wet to cross the river.

We sloshed our way through the water and bounded up to the road that leads to the area near the farm where the 3 or 4 of us who live on the lake park our cars for the winter. This 2 mile section of the road doesn’t get plowed, so it’s not an easy walk.

We made it to the car by 11 a.m., and we both felt good about what great timing we were making. We were a little tired and sore from the first leg of our walk, and my feet were soaking wet, but we were happy to be driving along the long road to town with the heater on. We arrived in town at noon, and proceeded to get gas, pick up mail and packages, and get a few groceries. We ate our backpack lunch in the car as we left town, heading back about an hour behind our planned schedule. We parked the truck, then began unloading our supplies onto the sleds we had pulled out. We quickly realized that we had way too much stuff that we were trying to bring back, so we had to sort through what we would bring back with us and what we would leave behind in the car for some other day. We packed each sled like a game of Jenga, until each one was loaded to capacity and we secured each load with a network of bungee cords. We lost another hour doing this. When we finally started off pulling our fully-loaded sleds behind us, it was 4 pm.

Pulling a 150-200 pound sled is somewhat easy when you are on a flat, icy surface, like our frozen lake, but the first leg of our journey was a snow and ice filled road that’s never plowed. Although much of it is down-hill, it can be challenging to control or maneuver so much weight traveling fast downhill. There are also lots of ruts in the ice, where a few snow machines and 4-wheelers have driven in the wet snow and now these track marks are frozen solid. The uneven surface dumped over our sleds more than a few times, and we made our way down slowly, alternating between pulling, chasing a runaway sled, and repacking a sled that has fallen over. Are we having fun yet? What was I thinking? We made it to the river crossing safe and sound, but it was completely dark now, and my toes were killing me from trying to grip the ground to slow down my sled from running away from me.

We still had 10 more miles to go, but first we had to figure out how to get our loaded down sleds over the two areas of rushing water. We decided to unload the sleds, and hand-carry each box of supplies across the river separately, then reassemble and repack the sleds on the other side of each bank. It took about a dozen trips back and forth across each section of rushing water. This worked, but it took us about an hour and by the end of it, my feet were completely soaked again. At one point when we were carting stuff back and forth across the river in the dark, a guy on a 4-wheeler drove by us, which is a strange site out here in the middle of nowhere.  He stopped to say hello, and when he saw what we were doing, he asked, “Are you girls opposed to machinery, like snow mobiles and 4-wheelers?”

I guess he assumed that anyone who was walking out to cabins on the frozen lake, pulling heavy sleds behind them had to be some kind of stubborn-minded individuals who didn’t believe in four-wheelers, or who were trying to save the planet by not using gasoline. I just smiled and said something cute, but I wanted to say…. “No, we did this for the adventure. We did this because I was getting cabin fever and needed to get out. We did this because the four-wheeler wouldn’t carry the both of us, plus all of these supplies. We did this because…this is why we moved here…to do this!”

Once our sleds were loaded back up on the other side of the river, we started on the next phase of the journey. The next half mile would be the most challenging, physically. The narrow trail is up and down, but mostly up. We would need to pull our heavy sleds up each of the many small hills and inclines. At the end of this trail was another larger hill leading down to the flat marsh that runs alongside Clear Creek. The uphill trail was tough, but, luckily, we traversed it quickly, and the downhill way to the marsh was full of powdery snow, so it was easy to slide the sleds down.

We were happy to be in the flat marsh, but the marsh is stinky, and in some areas, the ice is thin, so we broke through and had to slosh through a lot of it. And, my feet got wet, again. At the end of the marsh, we reached Chilkat Lake, and we stopped to celebrate that we had made it halfway home. It was a boost psychologically to know that the rest of the way was smooth, flat ice. It was approaching 6 pm. We ate a small snack, and surmised that it would take us about 2 1/2 hours to walk the remaining 5 miles, but we felt like we were in the home stretch!

The rest of the way was a mixture of blur and euphoria. We turned our headlamps off and walked in the dark for most of it. Although the moon wasn’t visible, there were a million stars out, providing enough light to see the shadows of the mountains, which would guide our way to the narrows, the section between two mountains where the lake narrows before opening up again into a small lake.  We walked along in the dark, staring at the celestial sky and the snow-capped mountains. I felt so small. I thought about me and my neighbor, two women, trekking 24 miles by foot, heading home with sleds full of provisions. I thought about how women through the ages have always gathered foodstuffs and carted them back home to their families.

Although my feet were still wet and cold, and my knees and back were aching, I thought that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment. I felt so alive in the cold night air, with the mountains towering so majestically above me, and my feet scooting haphazardly below me. I pulled the sled’s rope up over my shoulder and tugged the sled behind me with ease. Although the earth was dark and quiet, our sleds scratched noisily along the top of the ice, making it almost too difficult for us hear one another say anything, so we both retreated into our own thoughts.

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I listened to the sleds scrunching the ice underneath us, and I watched the light of my headlamp as it made the ice in front of us dazzle like it was filled with a million tiny diamonds. I thought of how the beauty of nature can both overwhelm us, and numb us. No one in their right mind would walk 24 miles pulling a 200 lb. sled, crossing frigid water rivers in freezing temperatures for a bag of flour and a few other provisions. But, someone might, if they were surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of foreboding mountains, an Alaskan night sky, and an 8 mile river which was completely frozen and glittering like crystal.

I arrived home at 9 p.m. Okay, a little past dinner. It had been a 15-hour trip to town, most of it on foot. Standing on the lake looking up at our cabin with a small light glowing in the window, I was happy to be home.  The contents of my sled took 4 trips up and down the icy hill to our front door. The last trip up, I thought my feet and legs would give out on me. I was beyond exhausted.

In the house, Nate had prepared my bath water, and made me dinner. He shook his head and laughed as I retold him the stories of the day. He said,  “You are crazy for making that trek.” I replied, “Isn’t that why we moved out here— for the adventure of it?” I fell into my chair next to the fire, and smiled. My cabin fever was gone.

 

The Eye of the Tiger

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Going into our 3rd year in Alaska, I feel as though I’m in a constant boxing match with mother nature. I’ve never been in a place where you have to constantly fight against weather, animals, and the forest! I have never lived in a place where the woods actually fight back—-where if you go for a stroll in the forest you have to always be on high alert for man-eating bears, or a place where if you’re not dressed properly and the weather changes, in an instant you can be in real trouble.

Cutting trails and paths around the mountain has been a regular monthly duty. This will make hunting, foraging/berry picking, and hiking much more pleasant around the lake. So we set time a side for this about every month. The more exploring and trail blazing we do, the more I realize the fight with the woods is futile, and that this is Alaska!

As I chop through an impenetrable patch of Alder bushes, they literally start fighting back with me. Constantly, with every swing of my machete, on immediate contact with one branch, another branch from behind will smack me in the back of the head. This will go on all day as I’m cutting. Now surely the branches and limbs are just getting snagged and are snapping back at me as I’m walking along!?! But, it seems so strange sometimes, like they really are hitting back. At times, the woods have no remorse. I have had them take some low blows at me. Occasionally, I will step on a limb and, immediately it will shoot right up at waist height, making contact right in the man parts. When this happens I’m usually forced to my knees to catch my breath. Then, another limb hits me in the face out of nowhere and I fall back. As I lie there in disbelief, I tell myself, “I can’t believe the woods are beating me up like this!” And, how is that even possible?? As I cut away more and more, I start to feel like I’m gaining the upper hand, and now this round is mine! With every slash of my blade, I anticipate the counter whip coming from behind me, and I turn and grab it inches from my face.

I guess all those switch whippings as a child has given me ninja-like reflexes. Years of trying to block my dad’s fury as he was trying to whip me with the switch is now paying off as an adult. As I’m chopping along and feeling that I’m gaining momentum, I suddenly come into a “Devils Club” patch! No this isn’t a bar on Bourbon St. These are evil little plants that really can work you over.

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Once Jen and I were hiking though the woods and she decided to start down the mountain on her own trail instead of following me. I’m sure she regrets this now. As I sat waiting for her on the edge of a devil’s club patch, I realized she had made a wrong turn and was now right in the thick of it . I could see the tops of these plants moving around and could hear murmuring coming from inside the dense patch of briars!

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As she got closer, I could tell the murmurs were more cursing then anything else. Cursing is rare for Jennifer, so I knew she was getting beat up pretty badly. As she emerged, she looked defeated and started crying. The devil’s club had whipped her with its spiked clubs and she had thorns all over her clothes. She also got attacked and stung by some sort of Alaskan wasp. The woods had definitely beat her up.

Now, there are a lot of names of species of animals and plants out there that really are spot on! For example,

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“The Kingfisher”…a native bird to Alaska and all over north America, that lives near ponds and river banks and thrive on catching fish….hence “King Fisher”… or “salmonberry”, another Alaskan native, it’s a bramble plant that fruits beautiful red berries similar in color to the flesh of salmon…hence “salmonberry.” Pic below courtesy of Alaska Floats My Boat

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But, of all the names of all the species out there, I think “Devil’s Club” is the most accurate! If ole Lucifer had a club that he would carry around and beat poor deserving souls with…..well this would be it! The Devils Club!

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As I continue my trail blazing, I notice that the woods have stepped up it’s game. I’m blocking swings from the bushes, but the hits are getting more painful. But, as the end of the day approaches, I realize that real progress was made, and we now have a safe pathway through these brutal woods! I feel as though maybe I put up a good fight after all.
Mother nature this year has had some major mood swings with the weather as well. We would have 2 days of negative temperatures followed by high 40’s and rain. This is particularly aggravating because the 2 feet of snow on top of the frozen lake has melted from the warm air and all the rain. This creates 6 inches of water on top of the frozen lake. If you have anything sitting in this water and it freezes again over night, then it will become a permanent fixture stuck in the ice until spring arrives. I have found a pretty neat solution to this problem. I call it “pulling the plug”. I drill an 8 inch hole in the ice and drain the water just as if I had pulled the plug in the bathtub.

BEFORE…

AND, AFTER…

When I think that I’m putting up a good fight, mother nature will take a another swing and knock me back down to humble me all over again. 3 days after draining the lake, we were hit by an 8.0 earthquake in Anchorage. Although we didn’t feel any tremors, something must have shifted in the earth on our property. It was as if the earth was crying and started releasing water from the side of the mountain behind the house. Temperatures dropped below freezing, so the water started to freeze. It continued this process until a huge glacier formed and slowly moved down the hill. It looks like this is a fight I just can’t win. I have to watch it travel down the hill and just hope for the best!

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On top of all the weather and forest battles, I have to mention a little about the animals. We all know about the bears in this part of the country and how easily they can harm you, but I never knew that the birds could go around and around with you as well. As I settle in to take a nap one afternoon, I heard the chickens going crazy outside. I looked out of the window and saw a huge Falcon on the doorstep of the chicken coop. It then disappeared into the coop. I quickly threw on my boots and ran out to the coop. I looked in and I could see the falcon had a chicken locked in its talons. This was a huge bird, just a little bit smaller then an eagle. Now for whatever reason, at that moment, I thought, “Here is my chance to catch a falcon and make him my pet!”

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I had some delusions of walking around with this huge bird of prey perched on my gloved arm. I would make a squawking sound commanding it to take off and fetch rabbits for me.

In a split second, I jumped into the coop and closed the door behind me. I thought “ha, now your trapped!”..but at that very moment, the falcon looked up at me with his black/red beady eyes and cocked his head to the side. It looked as though he was saying “oh, hell no! Now YOU’RE trapped!”. He released the chicken and flew right at my face. My switch deflecting, ninja reflexes kicked in and I was able to grab the two legs of this big bird inches from my face. There I was, gripping his huge talons as tight as possible, while he was continuously swatting me with its huge wings, pelting me in the face. All the while, I’m backing up, trying to get to the door. Then, I tripped on a couple of frantic chickens underneath my feet and I fell on the ground.

I thought, “awe, he’s got me now!” I didn’t know where this killer pterodactyl was at this time because I was crawling as fast as I could towards the door. That’s when I felt it jump on my back. It started pecking me on my neck and on the back of my head. I panicked and all I thought to do was, “Stop, drop, and roll.” So, I rolled all the way out the door. I’m not sure who flew out the door first, me our that evil bird, but as i jumped up to my feet, I was in amazement that the bird was swooping down still trying to get me!

As I was running, I realized he was out for blood and wasn’t about to retreat. I reached the porch and grabbed the first thing I saw to help detour this crazy creature from clawing more of my bald head. There leaning on the porch was my machete. I grabbed it and sporadically swung it as I spun around not even knowing if the bird was diving back down on me. As I was spinning around everything was in slow motion. I saw this enormous bird about a foot from me suspended in air with his talons out in front of him and wings all the way stretched out behind his body. He was going in for the kill!!! My blade must have made contact with this large bird deflecting him to the ground because he made a loud squall and fell right to the ground . He regained his composure and flew away in an instant.

My heart was racing and I was all banged up. I didn’t recall hitting him with the machete because I didn’t feel much of an impact against the blade as I swung around. Plus, I had shut my eyes to protect them from getting clawed out. I didn’t see if I even hit him. That’s when I realized that maybe after losing the whole round against this bird, I still might have won the bout. I felt horrible but realized I lobbed off one of his feet!!

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There on the ground was a large bird foot. I felt so bad and thought surely he flew off and would die. But I spotted him two more time since this run-in occurred. It was a couple of days later and he was perched up in a big Cottonwood tree on the property. Clearly standing on his one foot. I’m positive he’s waiting for his moment to dive down and peck my eyes out for taking his leg.

As I was walking back from the outhouse the other day, Jen thought it was cute to stick her head out the window, and start screaming..”Watchout!!!! The falcon is coming!!! As she was waving and pointing behind me. I panicked and took off as fast as I could, swatting the air above my head as I hauled ass. I ran right into a porch column as I was looking up and almost knocked myself out. I wasn’t the least bit amused and she has been warned that her day will come.

I think the bird is just hanging around looking for an easy meal of a chicken. But, from now on though when I step outside the door the first thing I do is scan the tree tops.

No matter how many blows mother nature throws at me, I’m determined not to give up and give it my best. I’m willing to go round after round with her. I wake up each morning anticipting a new adventure, and saying, “bring it on”…I have the eye of the tiger! And the foot of a bird….

Town Trippin’ …in an Instant

We have been stuck back here only about 5 weeks now and I’m already backpacking out to Bear Beach to uncover a canoe and head to civilization.

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The walk to “Bear Beach” and the “Narrows”

The weather has been extremely cold(-3/-6 and highs 5 or 6 degrees).I know that a true northern Alaskan would laugh at me labeling -3 as extreme, especially when they hit -40 and -50. But for this southern boy, -3 is extreme enough. The Little Lake is frozen thick enough for me to walk out. The ice is right at 7 inches deep. I take a 3/4 inch paddle bit and walk out every other day and check ice depth by drilling into the surface until I hit water. If it gets cold enough, the hole just freezes back over. After falling through the ice several times last year, my goal this year is to not get WET!! 7 to 9 inches is more then adequate to be walking out on the lake, so I decide that it is safe to go out. What I’ve been told is that all you need is for the ice to be 2 to 3 inches to be able to walk on it. I really should look that up one day!!!..but herein lies the dilemma. “Off-grid” means no “instant” anything…I don’t have the privilege of just looking something up on the internet and instantly getting an answer.We have to jot down any question that we might have in a little book and wait until we get to town to the library where we get the world wide web. This is how we get our answers. It’s as bad as, Jen and I will be arguing to one another about something stupid. A couple of days later, I’ll see in our little book that Jen has stuff written down to look up about our argument. We will be at the library and she will lean over and say “see i told you there are 16oz in a pound” and ill retort ” that was 4 weeks ago, why you bringing up old shit?” This can be a good thing at times though, like when I am messing with her and she can’t fact check me “instantly”. I just hope that she will forget about it and not put it in the book. All answers used to be just a few swipes and types from a cell phone and satisfaction “instantly”.
I orginally told Jen that I was gonna stay all winter back here without going out! I didn’t know that within 5 weeks I would be eating my words. Now the true reason for this journey out was all due to the fact that we were missing a single 12-inch piece of flue pipe. Without this connection, the new chimney in the workout room can not be completed and fired up. Jen and I both thought we could wait till Jan or Feb but some nights I would look out into the window of the workout room and see Jen in there. The thermometer reading 19, 21, 24 degrees etc, and then I decided it wouldn’t hurt to go to town. After all, our mailbox was over filled and we had packages piling up at the local airport. Every UPS package arrives by puddle jumper at our little airport in Haines. And nothing gets to Alaska “instantly”. I remember a time leaving my wallet in Texas and had it mailed to me overnight in Mississippi. I dont think i will ever see overnight shipping up here. Everything takes longer to get to us. It is truly snail mail up here.

I think about how in an “instant” back in the lower 48 I could have shot over to The Home Depot and been done with all this in less then an hour. But then again, I would have “instant” heat back in the lower states as well. All I would have to do is walk over to a little thermostat on a wall move the arrows up or down to desired temp and “instantly” have the comfort I was looking for. No crumbled up newspaper, no kindling, no loads of firewood(not including going to chop the wood), no matches…just a few pushes of a button, and voila!

So in the AM we set off to go recover the canoe and embark on this adventure. Something that may seem so mundane and normal to most is always an adventure for us.

Going to the hardware and grocery store consists of a series of events and challenges this time of year. We originally staged a canoe over at a place we call Bear Beach, respectfully named due to the high bear activity. Bear Beach separates the large lake from the little lake where we live. Due to our close proximity to the mountain side, back in the little lake, we tend to freeze about 4 to 5 weeks before the large lake starts to freeze. This is mainly because the mountain starts to shield the sun completly during the day this time of year. Today, Dec 6th, The Chilkat Valley mountain range is getting about 5 hours of daylight. The sun comes up around 9am and goes down at 3pm. We don’t get any sun rays being so close to the mountain side and being cast in its shadow.

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1:00 p.m. in the afternoon: the sun just won’t come over the mountain!

This is frustrating when you look up behind the house and about 1000 yards up our side of the mountain is lit up with sparkling sunlight. Because of this, we are trapped a few weeks longer than the few people that live over on the large lake. This happens during break up, in the spring as well. Our lake always freezes first and melts last. Freeze up and break up definitely don’t happen in an “instant”.

Learning this from last year’s winter, we anticipated this and figured we could just walk over on top of the lake to the canoe and then paddle out from there. That is the 1st leg of the trip, a 1 mile walk on top of the lake to Bear Beach. This short walk can be hair raising. Now for the most part I’m confident that the lake is a good 7 inches are so. This doesn’t mean there are not weak spots. We learned this out the hard way when the 4-wheeler crashed through the ice with us on it last year(refer to old blog). As we walk down to Bear Beach, I am zigging and zagging around some of these weak spots. We can see them for the most part. They are typically 1 to 12 inch clear round holes with visible water within. I can only assume this is from warm gases being released from the lake’s bottom. I tend to walk at least 30 to 40 feet apart from Jennifer when walking on the ice. She has a weird fascination of walking right over to these spots and if they are iced over a little, she will take her walking stick and smash right thru them. I don’t argue with her about how dumb I think this is cause I’m sure it will just be added to the fact checking list somehow.

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Once at Bear Beach we must dig the canoe out from the snow and then from there it’s a 5 mile canoe ride to Clear Creek. As we arrived at Clear Creek we notice that the entrance to the creek was completely frozen in with 3 inches of ice. We have to travel up Clear Creek about a mile and a half to get to the river. The ice is way too thick for us to break through with our paddles. We have to detour and go back about a mile where the ice meets the shoreline, get out, park the canoe and walk the back trail all the way to truck.

 

The 3rd leg of this journey is a 6 mile hike from the back trail to the truck parked over by Chilkat Valley Farm. Right about this moment in the trip, I start to realize how nice it would be to just walk out to my truck in my garage, kick on the heat, and in an “instant” be ready for a warm ride to the store.

So we made it to the truck in little under 5 hours, but the work is still not done. We have about 4 feet of heavy wet snow that the truck is buried under. This all has to be cleared in order to move the truck anywhere. After about an hour of shoveling snow and freeing the vehicle from its snowy coffin, I get into to the truck and look foward to starting the engine and blasting the heat. It’s 24 degrees at the moment and very frigid. We jump in the truck and with the turn of the key, I hear that most unfortunate click,click,click,click,click…. the battery is completly dead!

Maybe i do get “instant” in Alaska. Cause I instantly started cursing and pounding on the steering wheel! I instantly start questioning myself why am I even going out in the first place, and I instantly realize all the “”instants” Alaska has—

-Weather can change in an instant.
-River water dangerously rises in an instant.
-You can get hurt bad in an instant…..and help is nowhere close.
-A bear can attack you in an instant….. and kill you
-You can break through the ice and in an instant.. drown
-You can catch hypothermia in an instant….and freeze to death!

…I could go on and on.

We lucked out and found someone that was “out and about” over at the farm. So they rushed over and gave us a jump. Finally after about a 6 hour endeavour we could sit back in the truck seat, crank the heater, pull off layers of wet clothes, and let out a long sigh of relief as we pressed our fingers up against the hot vents.

This getting to town adventure still has a 30 mile, white knuckle drive on ice packed roads to get to town. Now I was always told before moving out here that the state does a great job of maintaining the highway. After all it is the only highway that connects us to Canada and the rest of Alaska. Haines is also know as the End of the Road. There’s only one way you can go on this highway to get anywhere and that’s to head due north. From Haines to the Canadian border is roughly 40 miles. The Highway ends when it hits the coast of the Lynn Canal in Haines. Now whoever it was that told me that the highway was well maintained obviously must have stayed home alot in the winter, or didn’t listen to the one radio station that we catch out here. They always make announcements of when the highways are closed and it seems to be quite a lot. We have really bad mudslides coming off the mountain when we have lots of rain as well. When these occur it can take all day to clear the debris before they can reopen highway. I have driven this road alot, and I can honestly say I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes several times. Although I have not had the pleasure of out-running a mudslide down the highway, I have become a pro at pulling out of icy death spins. I think at times Jen is nuts cause when I thought we were going over the mountain side, flying off into the river, or the one time when I was skiding on the ice back and forth, then spun into a complete 360, pulled it out and started driving in the right direction, just as nothing ever happened. I would turn to look over at Jen with a white sheet of death on my face, hands welded tight to the steering wheel, and eyes bulging out of my head…she calmly looks at me and says “dang baby you’re a good driver!!” I sit and wonder if she had closed her eyes briefly and didn’t see any of what had just conspired. I said “baby that was Jesus driving just now, not me!” I thought man she must be crazy if her heart isn’t racing as fast as mine. I had no control over what was happening on that icy highway at that moment!!

The video above shows a good driving day on the Haines Highway

This video shows a “not-so-good” day driving on the Haines Highway
As I arrive into town tired and beat, and a few years less, I approach a stop sign and the truck comes to a complete stop and dies. It’s dark at this point and after 5pm. Due to it being Saturday, nothing is really open, well at least the not the only auto parts store in town. And even worse, everything is closed on Sunday.

Haines is a small quaint little town that still is so small that we don’t even have a single stop light in town. Most businesses close down during winter and not if the town wasn’t already at a slow pace it slows down even more this time of year. I remember back in the day when nothing was really open on Saturdays and Sundays. Back when television would go off the air, followed by the national anthem. Back when if you wanted to talk to someone on the phone you had to wait until you got home. Before, when there was no such thing as 24/7 anything. If you needed something Friday night you would just make due until the following Monday. Those days are a thing of the past for most people. The majority of us can get just about anything we want or need “instantly!”

We chose this slower pace and we try to roll with whatever is thrown our way. But, now I’m sitting at a stop sign with a dead battery. I’m realizing a simple trip to town has now turned into a 3-day trip unexpectedly.

I can’t lie, it sure was nice to get a hotel and enjoy some of the modern and instant conveniences of back home. I got to take endless instant hot showers, surf the internet, and watch mindless crap on cable TV, plus lots of football!! Come Monday after being stuck in town for 2-days, I couldn’t wait to get back home. I got a temporary battery because the parts store didn’t have the right size. They will have to order it and that can take a few weeks to get here. I would never have this problem in the lower 48. I can go pretty much anywhere and get a battery “instantly”. I take off to get back to the lake just to do the journey all over again, except this time I have 3 huge boxes stuffed from post office, grocery store, and hardware store to cart back home!!!

As we paddle back home with the canoe way over packed, I realize no matter what kind of challenges we encounter out here, and all the instant conveniences we give up, that this is still the way I want to live….at least for now!

 

Going Home

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As the temperatures steadily drop, and snow begins to appear on the tops of the mountains, a gentle panic sets in. Nate and I both begin to recount a checklist of everything that needs to be done before the harsh winter weather hits us, turning our little slice of heaven into a frozen, unforgiving tundra of ice and snow. In addition to finishing up our active building projects, taking stock of our firewood supply, pulling the boats out of the water, preparing the garden beds for over-wintering, inspecting and protecting our gravity-fed water system, getting the snow machines ready, and so much more, we become consumed with preparing for the season when we cannot leave the lake. We need to prepare, both physically and mentally, for being “shut-in” and alone (with each other) for 6 to 8 weeks.

I don’t mind the “couple” solitude so much, or giving up the weekly trips into town. But, I do miss being with friends and family for the holidays. Last year, our first year on the lake, we were trapped on our property from November 15th until Christmas Day. We had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves, which seemed remarkably strange after spending a lifetime sharing the day with tons of family and friends, under the motto, “the more the merrier”. As Christmas day drew closer last year, we reached out to some friends on the lake who invited us to join them for Christmas dinner. We accepted happily, but with the caveat that our presence would be dependent upon “old man winter” cooperating with us. He did, and by Christmas morning, Chilkat Lake was sufficiently frozen enough to drive our snow machines across. We enjoyed a wonderful Christmas dinner surrounded by new friends. We have been warned that luck was with us last year, and this year, and every year, we shouldn’t plan on being able to get out much past our own property during the holidays.

As much as I enjoy the peace and solitude of our life, a tiny panic sets in when I think about being apart from my loved ones during the holidays. To assuage this longing, I booked a trip to Austin at the last minute, in late October, just before the weather begins to ruin any possibility of travel, to get my fix of family and friends before our shut-in begins. My heart was filled with excitement at the thought of being with everyone, and especially seeing my young grand nieces, and meeting my grand-nephew for the first time. I was also thrilled to spend a few days connected to the Internet and to shop for some items that are nearly impossible to acquire in Haines, AK.

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It was a 3-hour journey to the ferry, and a 4.5-hour ferry ride to Juneau on Day 1. The next day, I boarded a flight to Austin, via Seattle, which took 9 hours.

 

During the flight from Seattle to Austin, I became homesick. As I looked around the plane, every person was staring down at an electronic gadget. As someone who has been living off-grid for the past 2 years, it made me miss the simple way of life on Chilkat Lake. It made me wonder what we did on airplane flights 20 years ago. I try to remember a flight I took shortly after high school. I remember bringing a book, and meeting and talking to various, interesting people. It seems rude to try and strike up a  conversation with someone who is watching a movie. The woman sitting next to me has several devices. She plays solitaire on one of them, Sudoku on the other one, and she goes back and forth between the two throughout the flight. I don’t think it would be rude to interrupt her game with a conversation, but I get distracted from this thought. It seems that the people on the row in front of me have become bored with their electronics and they start talking to each other. I’m thrilled.

They learn that they are all travelling to the same conference in Austin. They are energized by this discovery, and they all start introducing each other, and talking excitedly about the conference, and their plans for fun in Austin. Not long after they start talking, the three firemen sitting behind me join in on the conversation and I am in the center of it all, just listening. In a brief exchange with one of them, I mention that I lived in Austin for almost 20 years, and this starts a flurry of questions about where are the best places to eat and “party”. I answer their various questions here and there, but I mostly just eavesdrop on their dialogue with each other.

While I am delighted that the humans on the plane have put down their electronics and have begun interacting with each other, the absurdness of their conversations make me feel even more homesick, but also affirming my decision to move off-grid to a remote lake in Alaska.

Here are a few of the many irksome comments I  overheard…

 “I’m really into Tom Brady’s thoughts these days.”

“I was considering buying a boat, and my boss told me I was a (blank blank) if I didn’t, so I did!”

“I create money-making machines for people.”

“I might not be able to go. My son, who is 10 months old, doesn’t like riding in the car, so if he throws a fit, I will need to stay home.”

“My boyfriend and I have invited another girl to join our relationship.”

“The people who hired us encourage us to get drunk before we show up to run the giant bonfire.”

 

When I got off of the plane in Austin, my sister said, “Are you glad to be in civilization?” I said, “No, I want to go home. Nothing here is ‘civilized’!”

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During my travels on this short trip, I met several interesting people on the ferry but once outside of Alaska, I had only one memorable interaction with a stranger and it was with an old man wearing a toupee who was working as a cashier at a Walgreens in Austin. Maybe I am just drawn to people who are wholesome and authentic. It made me wonder, “Am I just an old soul, with a longing for things to be like they were in simpler times?”

When I get into my sister’s car, there is a radio show on, and the man is talking about people who are moving the wrong way. They aren’t moving forward, they are stuck in the past, and they need to stop wishing for things to be like they used to be. He says the times are different and everyone needs to move on and be open to new experiences.

I take his words in, but I can’t help but think about how the people on the airplane whose lives were connected to the conversations I overheard would be saying such different things if they lived simpler lives: hauling their own water, growing their own food, working their own land every day. I can’t help but think how their talk would be more wholesome, more life-affirming, and oh, so much more engaging!

I made plans to visit with several friends while I was in Texas. With one particular friend, I had a hard time scheduling a date and time that worked with her busy schedule. On my last day, I told her that I would be at my sister’s house all evening, and asked her if she could just drop by sometime to visit. Instead, she offered to pick me up and take me to show me her new house and her new pool. I declined her invitation. We had a short but reminiscing phone conversation.  She mentioned that we had so much to catch up on. So much had changed in our lives since we last saw each other. We hadn’t seen each other since we both got married. I told her, “You wouldn’t even recognize me if you saw me in a crowd.” This, of course, was only a joke, but there was some truth to it. We had both changed in ways on the inside that made us almost unrecognizable to each other, making it difficult for us to make room for each other now.

On my first morning in Austin, I went for a run. I was overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of birds everywhere. I wondered why I had never noticed how many birds there are in Austin and how loud they sing. I felt like I was in a tropical rainforest. As I ran, lost in my thoughts about the birds, I was taken by surprise when a large buck ran out from the bushes and darted across the road about 10 feet in front of me. I had to stop suddenly so that I didn’t collide head-on with him. After we almost bumped each other, he slowed his gait, and casually walked across the road and into the woods, glancing back at me once before disappearing behind the brush. It felt like a magical interaction, and I look around to see if anyone saw it, but as far as I could tell, no one around me saw it, or if they did, they didn’t think much about it. I told this story to my friend later, and he said that I need to be careful when I run. He has now heard stories of me running into both deer and bears.

It’s the night before my flight home and my suitcase is stuffed to overflowing. I fill two extra travel bags to lug all of my treasures back to Alaska. I have one bag full of frozen deer meat given to me by Nate’s friend. The deer meat along with the salmon and bear meat Nate froze a few months ago will be  our sustenance for the winter. I pack 5 pounds of reading material I am bringing home for Nate. I know that it weighs 5 pounds because my bag was 5 pounds over weight until I removed all of the magazines and newspapers I picked up for him. These will keep him busy when we have short periods of daylight in the winter. I have gifts from friends to bring back as well…clothes, candy, books, movies, and some pictures that my grand-nieces colored for me.

 

In the morning, I’m on the first plane ride of the day, at the beginning of a 13-hour journey to get home. I took the fast way home, choosing a puddle jumper flight from Juneau to Haines instead of the ferry. It cuts 4 hours off of the trip, but it’s triple the price. I’ll only be traveling for one day instead of two. I’m glad to be on the fast track home. I can’t wait to get on the puddle jumper flight. It’s only a 25 minute flight from Juneau to Haines, and the small plane flies just over the tops of the most beautiful mountains and glaciers I have ever seen. It’s an amazingly beautiful flight.

The trip from the airport to our cabin will be what my mom would call “a rude awakening”, especially after spending the past week surrounded by all of the creature comforts a big city offers.  Nate has warned me that the temperature has dropped and there is 100% chance of precipitation. I sit on the airplane thinking about what lies ahead for me when I step off the puddle jumper in Haines… putting on additional warm layers, sliding my rain gear over my bulky clothes, repeatedly loading and unloading my bags and suitcases (first from the plane to the truck, then from the truck to the boat, then from the boat to the house, and all of it in the cold rain), weathering a long boat ride home with the icy wind whipping off the mountains chilling me to the bones, freezing cold rain hitting my cheeks and nose, with my eyes shut tight to keep my eyes from being stung by the hard rain.

While he drives the boat, I will nestle in closely to Nate to shelter my face and body from the elements, but also to feel the comfort of being with him, of being home. Every few minutes, I will open my eyes to have a quick look at the Chilkat Valley mountains and our lake. I missed the sight of them while I was gone. I kept looking up at the sky in Austin, expecting a breath-taking feeling, but it was always a disappointment. The Chilkat lake scene will take my breath away. It  always does.

 

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I will climb the steep hill on our property that leads from the boat dock to the cabin, sludging through the mud and rain, carrying my heavy bags. In my mind, I count at least two, maybe three trips up and down the hill to unload. I close my eyes and see myself sitting in front of the fire in our cabin. I am ready now to be shut in for the winter. I had my fill of everything I thought was missing, and now I am going home to everything I could ever want.

 

 

A Day in the Life

The other day, I was visiting with a friend, and her 10 year-old daughter overhead me talking to her mother about how we live off-grid on a lake only accessible by boat. I saw this young girl become quite interested in our conversation. When I explained about how we have no Internet access and no electricity, the girl dropped her jaw and gasped, “What on earth do you do all day?” Although I laughed and shrugged it off, it is actually a question that we get quite alot. So, I thought explaining a day in our life on Chilkat Lake might be a good blog post.  Obviously, every day is not exactly the same, but this will give you a good idea of how we spend our time.

During the summer months, I wake up around 7:30 am. Typically, Nate has already been up for an hour or longer. He has made coffee, let the dogs out, and is usually drinking his cup of “Jo” at the kitchen table, reading a book or magazine when I wake up. I make breakfast for the two of us, then heat up a pot of water to wash the breakfast dishes. For breakfast today, I am making cream of wheat for me and eggs, grits, and toast for Nate. After washing the breakfast dishes, I straighten up the cabin, make the bed, refill the water containers in the kitchen and bathroom, and fill up the Burkee water filters. I empty the bathroom wastewater bucket and my honey pot in the hole in the ground outside, clean both buckets and bring them back inside. I plan lunch and dinner at this time. If we have leftovers, I will take them out of the fridge and leave them on the counter until lunch time, so that I don’t have to use too much propane to heat them up. Today, I am making grilled sandwiches and soup for lunch, so I do all of the prep work for the soup, and put it on the stove on low heat. This is also the time I usually bake something. Every 2-3 days, I bake a fresh loaf of bread, and once a week, I make a batch of Nate’s favorite cookies, or if we are having guests, I might bake a pie, homemade cinnamon rolls, doughnuts or moonpies!

 

By ten o’clock, I am dressed in my work clothes, and I catch up with Nate outside. No doubt, he has already done a million things by now, like change the oil in the generators, light the trash burn pile, sharpen the chainsaw, service one of the boats, or start on any of the numerous building projects we have going on around our property. When I join him outside, he lets me know what we will work on that day. Typically, we are doing a building project together. This could involve any number of things…pouring concrete, hauling, measuring and cutting lumber, staining wood, nailing and screwing plywood and planks, performing math gymnastics to figure out how to do the pitch on a roof correctly or how to cut the side rails for a set of stairs, hauling, cutting, and nailing aluminum roofing, installing doors or windows, hanging insulation, stapling black tar paper, or many, many other such things!

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In the winter, we might be downing a tree on the frozen lake, and hauling bucked pieces back to our property for splitting, or we might be cutting a hole in the ice to do some ice fishing, or shoveling snow and making our walkways safe enough to walk on.

We break for lunch between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon, and after lunch, we have a rest time. Typically, Nate tries to nap on the couch while I read or get some writing done. If the sun is out, I take in some rays on our sun deck. Sometimes, we both nap. We try and protect this time of rest and peace, even when we have guests visiting us. Often, our guests will go fishing or hiking without us, or have their own quiet time.  In the winter, our days are too short to nap.

After our rest, Nate returns to our building project, while I get a head start on dinner preparations. I am making pizza today, so I prepare the fresh, home-made dough and then put it in the fridge. We make so many of our meals from scratch that alot of my time is dedicated to the preparation of our meals. Meals with meat also require advanced planning since most of our meats are frozen and thawing can take a full day or longer.  We also wash all of our dishes by hand, so meal preparation and clean up afterwards can take a good deal of time as well.

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Homemade pizza: Canadian bacon, bacon, and pineapple!

Once I have dinner preparations underway, I join Nate outside again. We may continue an earlier project, start a new one, or we may go hunting or fishing. Yesterday, we took the canoe down to the end of the lake to scout for bears. Nate has a permit to harvest a black bear and a brown bear, and he is scouting the mountains for bear activity. For the past 2 weeks, he has been watching a sow (mother bear) and her two cubs where the lake “narrows” and creates a beach on one side that is nicknamed, “Bear Beach”. I tell Nate that his BIG grizzly bear is down at the end of the little lake, down a small creek that is nicknamed, “Bear Alley”. He takes me up on this challenge, and we take the canoe and paddle down this creek. It is a spooky place. The creek is only about 12 ft. across. The shoreline here is thick with tall grasses that grow up about 3 feet high. So, you’re paddling down this narrow waterway, and you can’t see over the top of the tall grass. The side edges of the canoe is almost touching the shoreline, and every few yards, there’s a spot in the grass that has been pushed down into the muddy bank, where a bear or a moose has been lying down. There are moose and bear tracks everywhere. All of my senses are on high alert. I am scared, but excited at the same time. I feel like I am on a ride at Disneyland, only the ride is a cross between the haunted house and the log ride. I am riding a log, waiting for something scary to pop out from behind the tall grass. Only, out here, what pops out could kill you.

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On days when we catch fish, we filet and freeze the fish as soon as we return home. If we harvest a big game animal, we skin it, gut it, process the meat, begin soaking the hide, and/or, if needed, prepare the animal for transportation to town for counting and “sealing” at the Fish & Game office.    On summer days, when we are not hunting or fishing, or paddling up scary creeks, we may spend the afternoon in the garden, preparing the soil, hauling dirt, digging trenches, planting, watering, or harvesting. Late in the afternoon, I usually start the hot tub fire. It usually takes 3-4 hours of stoking the fire to heat up the water sufficiently. I squeeze in an hour-long workout in between stoking the hot tub fire, and refilling 8 five-gallon water containers and hauling them into the house.

On this particular day, we decide to take a boat ride to the landing where we park our truck. We accidentally left our cell phone in the truck last time we went into town, so we want to go and retrieve it. We’re planning a quick trip out and back, and that shouldn’t take us longer than about 2 hours. We’re always cognizant of the time because we never want to be boating home in the dark. As we head out, the weather is calm and clear. It’s about 50 degrees outside, but much colder over the water. Our boat travels about 35 miles per hour, so the 30-40 minute boat ride is chilly. I’m dressed in layers, with thermal layers underneath a rain-proof coverall, a winter jacket, knit hat, and rain boots. (Feeling pretty…not!)

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The scenery of the mountains along the lake is amazing. The mountains are completely green (all of the snow has finally melted), and the trees and brush are thick. Sitka spruce trees fill the mountains with their dark green hues. The tops are beginning to turn brown and dark red.  The birch trees and cottonwoods that line the shore are starting to turn yellow and bright orange. It’s an array bursting with beautiful colors. Puffy, white clouds dot here and there just above the mountaintops and the sky is perfectly blue. The lake is smooth, except for our boat which glides along making a white capped pathway behind us and sending waves reverberating across the water. We come upon a flock of  twenty trumpeter swans, and the noise of our oncoming boat sends them all running across the water on their gangly legs, flapping their wings loudly. Their fleeing flock sounds like a wild ruckus of excitement moving across the water. Their honking noises echo up and down the empty hollow of the cove. As we motor along, small water fowl challenge our boat to a race. They dart out to speed alongside the bow of our boat, flitting back and forth in front of us, teasing that they won the race. (They always win.) They follow the boat for hundreds of yards before losing interest.

 

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Trumpeter Swans

The boat slows down as we near the entrance to Clear Creek. The creek is very shallow at this time of year, so it’s wise to maneuver carefully through the boggy water. This creek reminds me of a Louisiana swamp. I have to remind myself that there are no alligators or snakes in this part of the world. The sticks and logs poking out of the water in this marsh will make you think that somehow, someway, maybe there’s one here. I guess that’s the result of spending so much time in the south. We drive slowly for the quarter-of-a-mile trip through this winding creek where we typically see dozens of bald eagles perched in bare trees, moose cows with their baby calves sludging through the tall grass, and bears perched up on fallen trees, just above the water’s edge.

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Clear Creek

Near the end of the creek, where it meets the Tsircou River, Nate kills the engine. He clears the jet engine of weeds that were sucked up into the motor on the way here, then he listens for any sounds of boats coming from the other direction. The entrance into the river is a sharp turn with zero visibility on either side, which could spell disaster for any boater who doesn’t stop to listen for oncoming traffic. The coast sounds clear, and Nate starts the motor up again. He pushes the throttle wide open and we go barreling around the corner into the river. We are taken by surprise at how much the river has dropped in the past few days. The river is dangerously shallow. The waters are still moving swiftly, but gravel bars have appeared everywhere, with only sporadic spots for a heavy boat to pass through unscathed. Nate whips the boat around the curve and hugs the far shoreline where the deepest section of water runs. Low branches screech across the sides of the boat and threaten to slap us in the head if we don’t duck real fast. Nate spies a deep slew that leads to the landing, and he turns the boat and guides us perfectly to the edge. I stand up, ready to jump ashore and tie up the boat, but Nate motions for me to sit back down. He is not sure about parking the boat here. He is worried that the landing here is too wet, too muddy to hold the boat securely. He scans the shoreline up and down, and up and down again. He is quickly assessing where the best and safest place to tie up might be. I am quiet. He is an expert at this, and I have learned that he thinks better when it is quiet. Meanwhile, the throttle of the boat is wide open, pushing the front of the boat against the shoreline. The raging waters of the river are pushing against the sides of the boat, nudging it backwards. We rock back and forth gently in this suspended state, like the calm before the storm, then Nate makes his decision. He tells me he is going to kill the engine because we sucked up some rocks that are making it sluggish. Once he does this, the boat will be pushed back into the rushing waters. He wants to let the waters push the boat back about 100 yards and he will tie up there. I can see the slew of water that he sees along the edge of the creek. It looks plenty deep for our boat. Nate kills the motor and we begin to drift back, slowly at first. Nate picks up the motor and begins to pull out the debris. The waters push hard now and it spin our boat in a circle and we are now rushing down the river, the boat traveling sideways. Nate sees a low area in the water where we thought there was a slew and he instructs me to jump on the bow quickly with the paddle to try and keep the boat in the deeper water, but the boat moves faster than me. I jump up on the bow and lean over with the paddle just as the boat crashes hard against a gravel bar. The impact throws me overboard. I fly over the front of the boat, with the oar still in my hands. It is shallow, only about a foot deep, so I am in no danger of drowning or being swept away, but I land on all fours, slamming both my hands and knees into the rocky bottom. My face and full front of my body goes in the water. I stand up clumsily pushing back against the rushing water, and lunge back towards the boat, which is moving out of my reach quickly. Nate yells out for me to move away from the boat, and to go towards the shore instead. I slog through and in just three quick steps I am on the shore. Nate lowers the motor, re-positions the boat, then starts up the motor and speeds over to the shore and parks the boat.

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The landing at the Tsircou River

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The shore along the Tsircou River (it looks convincingly mellow in this picture)!

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Shallow gravel beds are difficult to see from the shore on the Tsircou

I am soaking wet from head to toe. My hands and wrists are throbbing, and I can’t figure out if I have broken both of my wrists or if the stinging is just a combination of the shock of the impact and the freezing cold water temperature. I am walking now, but my knees are weak. My hands and wrists hurt so bad that I can barely hold the paddle I am still carrying. Nate has already secured the boat and walked over to our truck. He is driving it across the landing to where I am. He has to drive through water that is pooling deeply in slews all over the landing. I walk towards him. Lucky for me, I have a change of clothes in the truck. I sit in the truck, change, and try and get warm. It’s a busy day at the landing, and while I am sitting there, four more boats come in to the landing from the lake. I say “hello” to all of my lake neighbors and recount my “falling into the river” story. They all smile and nod their heads. They have all been there. There’s no one who lives on the lake that hasn’t fallen into the river on one or more occasions.

I am mostly dry when we park the truck again and climb back into the boat for the ride home. I brace myself for a bumpy sludge through the river, but Nate opens up the throttle, the boat climbs in step, and we sail through the river in a flash, arriving at the entrance to Clear Creek in a matter of seconds. It’s smooth sailing from here to home and I settle in for the ride. The short ride through Clear Creek is peaceful as Nate meanders the boat through the shallow areas. Lots of salmon glide past us, their green-gray and red bodies visible through the clear water.  We wave to our friends working at the Fishing Weir in the creek, and then drive past the American Flag that Nate put at the entrance to Chilkat Lake. The lake is widest at this opening, and the view that hits you immediately is stunning. Mountains on all sides, and a teal blue-green clear lake tucked in this glorious valley.

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Our boat moves along in the center of this heaven. The image always takes my breath away. I feel lucky to be living here, and I feel as close to God as you can get. The boat speeds along, and I stare out the side of the boat. My mind wanders, and I think about my family in the lower 48. I say a prayer for my sister’s health, and I pray for the well-being of my three grown children. Then, right in front of me, I see a tiny rainbow. It is suspended on top of the boat’s wake on the side of the boat, so close that I can almost touch it. I am reminded that a rainbow is a sign of God’s promise, and I smile, knowing that God will take care of my family members far away, and I need not worry.

I feel the boat turn away from the shoreline we were following, and I see we are headed straight for “Bear Beach”. I look at Nate, but his gaze is locked on something he sees in the distance. He presses his binoculars to his face, and then passes them to me, and says, “There’s a bear”. I peer through the lenses and I see a lanky brown bear slowly walking along the shoreline.  Nate slows down as we get closer, then he stops the boat about 20 yards from the shore. We watch the bear wade in and swat at salmon in the water. Nate and I argue over whether the bear is a male or a female. We talk about how old she might be. We watch her walk out onto a tree branch that extends into the water. She jumps from the tree into the water and fishes some more. She is oblivious to our presence. I pull out our cell phone and record her movements for about 5 minutes. Eventually, she becomes aware of us. She makes a huffing sound at us, then very, very slowly she edges back into the bushes and fades from our sights.

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We wait a few minutes, then start up the motor, and head for the narrow part of the lake. The weeds are bad there, so Nate drives swiftly in a zig zag method to avoid sucking up the pesky overgrowth into the motor. Once through the narrows, Nate stops the motor to pull weeds out of its shaft. In the quiet minute we sit there, our boat rises and falls gently, and I can see the edge of our dock a short distance from where we are. Nate lowers the motor, then starts the engine and heads towards our dock. He slows down as we pass our neighbor’s property. We can see their large tent nestled high in the trees hugging the mountainside. The back window of their dwelling faces the lake, and we see the silhouette of someone standing at the mesh window. We wave and we see the silhouette wave back at us. Our boat coasts along and eventually Nate slips the boat alongside our dock and we tie it up. Our quick trip to the landing to retrieve our cell phone turned into out to be quite an adventure.

So you see, when someone asks me what we do all day, it’s difficult to describe in a single answer. Any simple task can lead us into an adventure, some welcome, some not.

Around 7:00 pm., we head inside for dinner. I heat up a pot of water to wash the lunch and dinner dishes. Afterwards, we go outside for a soak in the hot tub. Then, Nate starts up the generators and I haul in 4 five gallon water jugs to do a load of laundry. Nate builds a fire in the wood stove, and when the laundry is done, I hang it up to dry over the fire.

It’s 8:30 pm., and we put on a movie. Tonight we’re watching “A River Runs Through It”, and we both struggle to stay awake until the end! Bed time happens around Midnight most nights, but in the winter, we’re typically in bed asleep by 7 or 8 pm. I put some cat food outside for a cat that we never see. (He was given to us by a friend and hides under the house, only to come out at night when we are asleep). I turn off the solar inverter and the house goes dark. The night outside is black as black and there is no light anywhere. I feel my way to the back of the house where our bedroom is. I hear Nate snoring. I climb into bed exhausted. As sleep creeps over me, I wonder to myself, “what on earth did I do all day?”

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Our invisible cat!

 

Feeling Manly

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“The Man”

I felt as though I had follow up to Jennifer’s “Feeling Pretty” blog…

As I sit in my chair in the cabin reading her blog, I’m sparked with all kinds of emotions. I start to contemplate…..Hmmm, when was the last time I’ve even taken a bath?….and with that thought I yelled, “Darling, I need to feel pretty! Fetch my bath water!” With that said, my pot of water was boiling away on top of the wood fire. I proceeded to pour the water in our 5-gallon shower bucket….as I’m pouring cup after cup of hot water on myself, making sure not to get carried away, ’cause I only get about 18 cups per 5-gallon bucket….I’m projected into an old spice commercial…Wrestling bears and slaying salmon, while flying on an eagle….as I near cup #14, I realized that my shower had been as short as a commercial. I step out and the cold autumn air coming in from the window hits me and for some reason I don’t feel any prettier. Instead, I feel more more manly!!! I guess we all have different struggles living in a remote cabin in Alaska.

My struggle lately has just been trying to learn the new skill of bear hunting. How manly can one man feel than when he is grizzly bear hunting, one-on-one with a man-eater, in his backyard?!!! Having the privilege of growing up in southeast Louisiana aka.”Sportsman’s Paradise” has been a blessing. I was also blessed with a great father and grandfather that forged the skills of hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation into my soul. They passed down and taught me the basic knowledge of hunting and to respect all of God’s creatures. So, I was confident that I’m manly enough to go hunt this beast.

I’ve always felt at peace and in my element while being in the woods, however, I’m learning that no hunting I have ever done growing up has prepared me for hunting in Alaska. Not only are the animals different here (They are alot larger and they can kill you), but the mountainous terrain is equally as challenging. It has definitely been a struggle to feel manly and be at peace in the Alaska bush while hunting north America’s largest predator. I’ve enjoyed viewing these magnificent creatures from the safety of my boat, 15-feet from the shoreline.

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“The Beast”

As brown/grizzly season approached, I spent countless hours cruising the shorelines and spotting bears…. watching their patterns, their reactions to me, and how much and what they are feeding on, times, etc. I’ve also been keeping logs on the times of the day when I see them. I’ve actually been able to get one large sow that has two 1st year cubs get pretty accustomed to me in the late afternoons. She no longer scurries off with the cubs when she sees me. I can sit for hours now and watch the 3 feed without them fleeing. I feel as if they have now conclude that I’m not a threat. It will be fun to watch the cubs grow up over the next 3 years. 90% of all the bears I’ve observed on the lake were big sows followed by 1 or 2 cubs. I saw only a handful of boars in the last 2 months. Most of the time, I was looking through binoculars, watching 15-foot bushes spread apart and shake as something very large walked right through them. This would go on for hundreds of yards down the hillside. I always hoped that they would eventually come into an opening, but it never happened.

I was getting discouraged about hunting for a big grizzly boar on the lake. I realize now how exact the local “Tlingit” natives are about describing their land. I’ve heard that they call this lake “the land of sow and cub”. I have a theory that all the big boar bear were all closer to the fast moving river and streams where the fish are still silver and full of fight and life, as if the big grizzly was kinda manly and only wanted to be near the action, and that the mommy only wants to stay as far away from the big grizzly bears as she can to protect her cubs, thus pushing them over to the lake.

I was shocked to learn that a male grizzly will eat 30 to 40 cubs in his lifetime. I’ve learned that they do this so the female can go back into heat and he can breed with her again. That sounds pretty manly! The fish that make it to the back lake have made it to the end of their long journey and to the end of their life so they are more lathargic and are easily picked off by the young cubs.

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“The Cubs”

But, I have seen males and females everywhere and I’m no biologist. It’s just an observation and a theory.

As the season opened on the 15th of Sept, I’ve come to the conclusion that I think I’m manly enough to go stalk one of these monsters in the woods. Although I never hunted a creature of this magnitude, I sure have become an expert on bear attacks. In the last 2 years, being here, I’ve read every bear tale and bear attack book published. With story titles like, “Come quick, I’m being eaten by a bear”, “Bear attacks of the century”, “The grizzly skull cracker”, and “Dinner bell bears”(I could go on and on), you would think these books would be counter productive to building up my manly courage to go after these animals, but something deep inside was drawn me to read these stories. Maybe it’s in my genes from dodging predators with large teeth eons ago. I don’t know, but I have gained a lot of knowledge on what to do and what not to do if I was ever attacked.

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“The Terror!!”

I also learned a lot about the mistakes people make and actually provoke an attack, and what mistake they made during the attack. I also really love recanting the stories to people as if they were my own, and seeing that same fascination and disbelief in their eyes..and hearing that proverbial “woooow!” Needless to say, I have gained ultimate respect from viewing these animals in the wild and researching them. With that I decided I had to leave the lake and make my way to the river near the bottom of the mountain in the Porcupine Creek area. If I wanted a big boar, I was gonna have to go live in the bears’ domain. Manly enough, right?

My plans were to take enough food for 3 to 4 days, an air mattress, plenty of blankets, and a little stove. I planned on hunting in the morning and evening, and sleeping overnight in the back of my truck under the safety of my cab. I thought I would feel safer than being in a little tent. I told Jen to stay home and stay pretty. I’m not coming home till I get a bear!!

So as I’m leaving the cabin, the “Stupid List” comes into my mind. The “stupid list” is like “it’s stupid to drive a car without wearing a seat belt”, or “it’s stupid to ride in a boat without a life jacket”, but in Alaska #1 on the stupid list is: “stupid is going hunting by yourself”! I didn’t care. I took a 5-gallon bucket shower that morning and I was feeling as manly as ever!! Nothing was gonna stop me. I was on a mission!

I secured my boat to the river bank and drove about 20 miles to a place where 4 different salmon streams merge and where chum salmon litter the shallow waters…it was a bear buffet! Fish were everywhere. As I pulled up to park, there was a young sub-adult feeding 100 yards from me, and I knew this was a gonna be good spot. I backed the truck up and started to make camp, so I wouldn’t have to do it in the dark when I got back from my hunt.

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“The Bait”

But, as a began, I saw about 4 piles of bear scat and tracks heading right to the salmon stream from behind where my truck was parked. I picked a spot that was a direct trail from the forest behind me to the creeks across from me. That’s when I thought maybe I’m not so manly ’cause I ain’t sleeping in this bear path. Jeremia Johnson might have been disappointed, but this coonass wasn’t getting eating by nothing! Not tonight, not never! So, I commenced to packing back up and decided to just move when I get back from the evening’s hunt.

With gun loaded, binoculars, warm clothes and a full ghillie suit, I crept into the woods on high alert. I was amazed and intimidated at how many bears were in the area. They had been feeding on all of the chum salmon. The air stunk of dead salmon. Chewed up, torn caucuses were strewn about everywhere.

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“The Ghillie Suit”

I now positioned myself with my back against a tree in hopes that the bear would come from the forest that I’m facing and not from behind me. I’m totally concealed in the ghillie suit and pretty confident that no animal can spot me. As I’m not worried that the bears can see me ’cause they have poor eyesight, but more worried about my scent. Bears have amazing noses, so for a week I’ve been soaking clothes in scent killer in preparation for these hunts.

As I sit on the ground, I wish I had a tree stand so I could be 20-ft up the safety of a tree, instead of being on the bears’ arena floor. I start to reconsider this whole manly thing. After sitting for about an hour, of course, growls and roars start coming from behind me. With every snap of a branch and whoof from a bear, I sink and morph into the tree. I’m praying that I’m so camouflaged that the bears will just walk right passed me and not even notice me. Hoping that he doesn’t want to for some odd reason just take a bite out of a random tree. At this moment, my feelings of manliness turn into feelings of stupidity. Just as I’m remembering the “stupid list”, I’m calling myself “you stupid son of a …”  2 large objects appear from the tree line. It’s 2 large bears at 75 yards. They were walking down into the stream, and they started chasing and grabbing salmon. They recover their catch and retreat from the stream to eat on dryer ground. Just as I’m glassing the 2 bears, trying to choose which one I’m gonna take, my manliness kicks in, and, of course, it says “go bigger!” Us men always seem to want big!… Big trucks, big guns, big TV’s…what is this manly “big thing” I ask myself? All of a sudden, another bear pops out of the bushes to the other side of me. Great, now my exit to the east is blocked by a large bear and my exit to the west is blocked by 2 larger bears. The salmon stream they are feeding on is in front of me and the thick brush that they are all are coming out of is behind me.

I watched the 3 bears for over an hour and I saw several others in the far distance. I was very thankful they were keeping away and that I was only trapped by 3 bears at this time. As 7:30 pm approached, the sun started falling quickly behind the mountain. I thought surly the darker it got the more bears are gonna come out. All of the sudden, the 2 large bears to the west of me break out into a brawl over a fish. It was super-intense to watch. I think to myself, I’m definitely not going that way!! I get up and head towards the single bear, although I don’t want to shoot this one for he was the smaller of the 3, and my manliness is telling me that I have got to get a bigger bear.

The state of Alaska allows each resident to harvest a brown/grizzly bear every four years in my area, so if I have to shoot this smaller bear, I can’t get another till 4 years later. When I say small bear, I’m talking 5-foot, 400 lbs, can easily maul me! As I get closer to this bear to pass him, I notice he is preoccupied with catching fish and hasn’t even noticed me 50 feet away. Every time he looks up I freeze in place. I felt like I was in a Caddyshack movie or a cartoon. Because I was in a ghillie suit, i looked like a big bush. So, I would move slowly with both eyes on the bear and when his head came up, the bush  stopped moving. This went on for the next 10 mins even though it felt like hours. The camouflage and scent lock worked, and the bear never noticed me, or at least didn’t seem to care. I think maybe he just didn’t feel like eating a bush that night and much rathered the salmon.

Once out of range from the bear, my manly pace picked up to a brisk walk. I didn’t want to scare off the bears so that I could have good hunt the following morning, so I was scurrying along as quietly as possible. At this point, it’s pitch black and I can only see about 5-feet all around with my headlamp. For some reason, the “stupid list” keeps popping into my head as I’m darting out of the brush, in complete darkness, in bear country. Right then, the truck comes into view. I’m moving towards it as though it’s a ribbon at the finish line of a long race. As I make it to the truck, I hear bears splashing and roaring as if they are fighting in the streams over fish. I start to laugh out loud. Then I look in the truck and see my big spot light sitting on the passenger seat. In my manly state of mind, I decide I’m going to go over to the creek and spotlight them in the water, just as I used to spotlight for little bullfrogs in the swamp back in Lousianna. Thank God at that very moment, I had an epiphany—
manliness and stupidity…..I think are the same thing!

Now that I have been awakened by a miracle and I didn’t run down that stream with the spotlight in hand, I get out to higher ground. I move down the road about 10 miles. As I park the truck and kill engine, I get out and hear bushes breaking and branches falling. Something big is running hard through the woods. I had got out of the driver side and left the door open and walked around to the front of the truck over to the passenger door when I heard the crashing in the woods. I never once stopped my stride. I didn’t have to stop and listen to see what it might be. I just kept walking right passed the passenger door around the back of truck and slid right back in the driver seat. I felt like I was in a Chinese fire drill.

From an arial view, it would have looked like I stopped, got out, ran around the truck real fast, and then took right off. I finally decided that 10 more miles up, I can sleep right on the highway next to 3 roads and 2 bridges. That’s gotta be less bears right?Last year, Jen and I were told of all THE places in our town, that one was the place where a local saw the biggest bear of his life, which was odd ’cause it’s a wide open gravel pit with a little pond, and quite a few cars pass on all the roads and cross the bridge frequently. And, there is so much construction with the completion of the new bridge going on, I thought that no bear would be around for miles.

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“The Final Campsite”

One thing I was shocked about is how hard it has gotten for me to drive in the dark. I hardly every drive at night because we live remotely, and you can only get to our house by boat, and you have to cross the river to get to our lake, and that has to be done all before nightfall. That’s why I had to sleep out if I was gonna make an evening hunt. You can’t cross the river at night. It is too dangerous. Actually, this was the 3rd or 4th time in 365 days that I have driven a vehicle after dark.–Funny thought–

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As I pull up, I step out into the mud and I look down at what I’m stepping in. Of course, I see the largest bear tracks I have ever seen! the top paw measured 10 inches across. They say for ever inch of paw print that’s a foot of bear. Now the paw print is an impression left behind from the pads on the paw that contact the mud. There is another inch to inch and a half of flesh on each side of the pads which is the bear’s feet. This was a 10 to 12 foot bear and the mud was fresh, so it passed thru this spot early that morning.

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“think i need a bigger gun”

I felt like I had no where to go to get away from these bears. After all, I’m in bear country. At least I can see 360 degrees, 100 feet in all directions at this location. I make a huge fire and trust that I will be safe in my hard shell cab on the back of my pick up. Still, I know I won’t be able to sleep well. This is when I hate myself for reading all those bear attack books. It seems like a majority of attacks happen at night and a lot were in tents. Surprisingly, I slept very well. When my alarm went off at 4:45 am, I told myself I would stay in bed till 5 then get up. Exactly 15 mins after the alarm went off, I hear a steady slow thumping! I immediately knew it was a bear! This wasn’t the small pitter-patter of running on rocks that a wolf or coyote would make. This sounded like an elephant walking, and Alaska is not known for elephants. I could tell the bear was coming to investigate the truck, maybe he even caught the scent of a protein bar wrapper I had in the main part of the truck.

At this time, the blazing fire I had going had long went out some time around 2am, so it was pitch black. The steps were getting so close that I could hear individual rocks slide out from underneath the creature’s paws from its weight. Time stood still. I think I was literally able to stop my heart from beating for about 5 seconds so that there wasn’t a sound on earth around me! That damn “stupid list” popped in my head in those 5 seconds “stupid is leaving your .338 rifle in main part of truck ’cause it’s too long and cumbersome, and sleeping with only a glock 40 cal instead”. They say a bear of that size attacks you and if that’s all you have, you’re better off turning the gun on yourself and make it quick. All I know is, I’m gonna unload every bullet in this bear before he eats me.

Then I hear a loud, deep, “RUUUUFFF”!!! It felt and sounded like 2 feet away.  I’m thinking that the only thing between me and a monster bear is 1/2 inch of fiberglass. I immediately turned my flashlight on and started banging on the roof of the cab with the glock, and I start yelling “HEY BEAR!!!” with the flashlight scanning back and forth along both side windows and large back window. Everything was condensated and fogged up. I felt like I was in a coffin freaking out or in a scene from Jurassic park. It took all my manly emotions to swing open the back window and to bring on what I thought would be a grizzly flying in to devour me. I dropped down the tailgate and fired off 3 rounds in the air, hoping to scare it off. I sure was awake now! I turn the truck on, all lights on the inside, headlights, turned radio on, heater full blast, and I even turned on the windshield wipers to make more noise.

Now it’s 5:30 am. I had to make my way in the truck 10 miles up the road. It was so foggy and I could only see about 20 feet in front of the truck as I was driving. Out of the darkness and fog in the middle of the road, appeared a large running grizzly bear. I was so shocked, I put on the brakes and came to a complete stop. It kept running and disappeared back into the darkness and fog beyond the high beam’s reach. I progressed forward. The figure came back into view further up the road. I stopped and again, it never slowed down and disappeared back into fog. This was a very big bear and I thought this was the bear I scared a few minutes earlier at camp and now started down the road.

..Or, I should say, “the bear that scared me at camp”?, but that wouldn’t be manly. The 3rd time I caught up with him, I didn’t stop. I positioned myself about 10 feet on the bear’s heels. I looked down at the speedometer and I was doing 35 mph. I was amazed at the size of this animal. I was checking out the size of his pads on the bottom of his paws, every time he left the ground, with each gallup. He turned in full stride and looked back at me. I could see his mouth open and he growled back at me just as a huge wad of slobber flew from his mouth and landed of hood of truck. I was amazed he was not darting off into the bushes on either side, left or right. Finally, after about 2 miles, he disappeared into the bushes on the right and that was it. I tell you what, I felt pretty manly chasing down that bear. He’s lucky I didn’t run his ass over for scaring the shit out of me at camp, but then again it would have destroyed my truck.

Now that I was feeling manly again, I was ready for my morning hunt, but not until the sun was up completely. I stepped out of truck at 7 am and started to walk up the salmon stream. At 7:15 am, I walked up over a mound and at the same time a nice 6-year old male boar walked over to meet me. We stood about 50 yards apart staring at each other. At that moment in time, all my instincts kicked into motion and I knew this was a good bear to take. After 2 months of scouting and hunting, I was ready. I instantly made a clean kill shot!

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“The Hug”

I know that I joke about feeling manly in this blog and by no means taking this amazing and beautiful animal made me feel anymore manly. Instead, I feel grateful and humbled to have had the opportunity to hunt and be surrounded by such a awesome beasts. I live in a country favored by the biggest carnivore that walks the earth and feel more and more connected to this country every day. The grandeur of this country is beyond description. Everything came together to make this a truly special experience!

NOTE:  I spent much time reading about and researching these animals and felt confident that I could accomplish this hunt alone. I don’t recommend anyone to ever hunt these animals alone. I set out to prove my manliness to myself and I suggest no one be as stupid. Thanks for reading about my struggles to feel manly!!!!

Feeling Pretty

 

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This website is supposed to be about chronicling our adventures in remote Alaska. This particular blog, however, is about an inward venture. I won’t be detailing a near-close encounter with a bear, or telling about how I survived a four-wheeler crash in the frozen lake. This adventure is more poignant than thrilling. It’s about an inner journey I have experienced since moving here. It didn’t happen all at once, but, instead, has been a succession of small moments that have rolled into one giant “ah ha” moment where I’ve pieced it all together and discovered something about myself that I never even set out to learn. At the crux of it all?  Feeling pretty.

To some, especially members of the opposite sex, the concept of “feeling pretty” might seem trivial or even silly, but, to a lot of women, feeling pretty is an essential part of a network of complicated layers that make up the full labyrinth of what it means to be fully feminine. To be fair, the concept of “feeling pretty” is different for every woman. For some, it might mean the simple experience of having a fresh shower, clean skin, hair and nails. For others, “feeling pretty” might mean wearing makeup or new clothes. And, still others might require more advanced techniques like tanning, teeth whitening, manicures & pedicures, hair color, Botox, or even plastic surgery.

I’m not necessarily talking about vanity here. More simply, I’m defining how specific things make a woman feel good about herself. It’s a little different from self-esteem which remains somewhat constant over a long period of time. “Feeling pretty” is a roller coaster of ups and downs that women try hard to maintain on the upswing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “feeling pretty” as I have had to pick and choose what few basic things I require to maintain my positive well-being.

As I prepared for the transition to live remotely in Alaska, I knew that I would have limited access to things that for as long as I can remember have been part of my regular routine of things that make me feel pretty. Some things that I have given up were easier than others. Some things I freely relinquished, like painting my fingernails. Other things which I thought I couldn’t live without took some time, but I have let go of them. Others I have fought tooth and nail to keep.

When I lived in the lower 48, and worked a full-time job, I was able to go to the hair salon, tan, workout at a gym, shop for new clothes, and eat an abundance of healthy foods. In remote Alaska, I have had to learn to do without most of these in some kind of way. I had grown accustomed to the way all of these things worked together to make me “feel pretty”and healthy. (For me, feeling “healthy” is something that feeds into my psyche of feeling pretty.)  What I have learned is that the common denominator in things that make me feel pretty is one thing: an endorphin boost. So, how would I get my endorphin fix in my little cabin on on the lake?

To be truthful, some of the items on my list could be acquired in our small town of Haines, or through a short 30 minute plane ride to Juneau. But, we came to this lake to live a different kind of life, and without the regular monthly salary that comes with a regular, full-time job, the funds don’t exist for “extravagances.”

Since shopping for new clothes or slipping on something brand new can give many women that endorphin high, I have resorted to periodically “going shopping” in Nate’s closet.  Even though his warm up pants and flannel shirts are a little too big for me, I’m amazed at how rejuvenating just putting on something different can make me feel.

I have purchase a total of THREE new articles of clothing in the last 18 months: 2 pairs of leggings, and 1 shirt. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to get used to. Most of the clothes I owned before moving here are still packed in boxes in our attic. Skirts and high heels don’t work well here. My daily attire is heavy-duty work pants with leggings underneath, layered shirts, and slip-on, rugged boots. To be certain, it’s hard to feel pretty in this outfit, which is why I am a big fan of lip gloss.

Several years ago, I read an article about a young woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was scheduled to have a double-mastectomy. On the morning of her surgery, her anxiety was very high, and one of the few things that brought her comfort was putting on lipstick. To her, this was a way of being able to maintain her femininity, amidst the assault on her womanhood. Although I have never had to survive such an ordeal, I do know firsthand how beautiful lip gloss can make you feel.

I wear makeup everyday, but I’ve discovered that I could probably do without all of it–everything except mascara and lip gloss, of course. My hair has been more of a challenge. When I lived in the lower 48, I went to the hair salon every six weeks, spending about $200 each time. Not only is that figure not part of our Alaska budget, but the nearest location to have such a service completed would be in Juneau, which would require $240 in roundtrip airfare and about another $200 for overnight accommodations and incidentals, in addition to the fee for the salon service. I did this trip once, last year, and in the end, decided it was too cumbersome, too expensive, and a waste of 3 days. I’ve opted instead to do my hair at home, by myself, with a box of L’oreal hair color. It costs me about $13. My hair doesn’t look as great as I think it used to, but I’m happy that I can maintain it myself, and I’ve learned to live with it.

My hair is naturally wavy and unruly, so my hair dryer and curling iron are a necessity. Both of these appliances require a lot of energy usage, more than our solar panels generate. So, to use either one of these tools requires the use of our generators (and, gasoline!)  I try to only use my hair dryer once every 2-3 days, but the curling iron is needed daily, if not more than once a day if I wear my hair down. Needless to say, there are lots of days when I have learned to be happy with my hair up in a pony tail, or wearing a hat.

I very rarely wear jewelry any more. I have never taken off my wedding ring, but I’ve learned that jewelry, especially earrings, are not suited well for this climate or lifestyle. In the frigid temperatures of winter, wearing jewelry is like putting a piece of frozen pipe on your bare skin, no thank you. When working outside, you also don’t want anything that could get tangled up in a piece of machinery or an earring that could get caught on something and rip your earlobe off. Jewelry does, however, have a way of making me “feel pretty”, so sometimes when we take an overnight trip to Haines or to Canada, I will pack a pair of earrings and some bracelets. When I put them on, because I haven’t worn them in so long, I feel like an egyptian princess, or a little girl playing dress up. It makes me laugh to think about how such little things can make me feel so magical.

I miss having a beautiful bronze glow on my skin in the summer. Getting sun-tanned has been a challenge in Alaska, since the sun hid from us most days this summer, and it’s not convenient to go to the one tanning bed that’s available in town on the days when we are there. Happily, Nate knows how much the sun makes me feel beautiful, so on the dozen or so sunny days that we had, he encouraged me to spend the afternoon on our sundeck, which I did. I got enough of a base color that I felt glowing.

The one thing I have been able to keep up which gives me the ultimate best endorphin high is exercise. Now, I don’t mean taking a walk or a hike. I don’t even count working on our property as exercise. To me, an exercise “high” comes only from being breathless for about an hour. Whenever I work out hard enough that I am gasping for air, I have an incredible sense of euphoria afterwards that ultimately feeds my “feeling pretty” emotions. Before working out, I can look at my face in the mirror and decide that I need Botox or a facelift; however, after sweating for an hour, I can look in the mirror and be extremely content, even happy with the skin on my face. I don’t know if it’s the endorphine high clouding my eyesight, or if the extended perspiration on my skin improves its elasticity, or maybe it’s a combination of both of these things. The one thing I do know: I look better after a workout. I also feel better.

Even though I have incorporated hour-long workouts into my daily routine, I do miss a lot of the specific equipment at the gym. Without access to a leg extension machine, inner/outer thigh machine, and a smith machine, it’s more of a challenge to build or sculpt specific areas. I have learned to improvise and be more creative with free weights. I also do more full-body workouts which are probably healthier for me anyways. I alternate weight training with cardio and plyometric DVD’s. I am also diligent about getting a run in every time we venture to town. This can be challenging, but it helps me keep my workouts balanced. It’s not convenient to get in a 5-8 mile run on the way into town, then try to “washcloth” shower in the bathroom at the library, and spend the rest of the day in town feeling dirty and spent, but I’ve come to accept that the emotional rewards are greater for me than this little bit of discomfort.

In our little cabin, we only have two mirrors. One is a half mirror that is in the bathroom where the lighting is not very good. The other one is full-length, but it is also in a dark area, propped up against a wall where you naturally don’t walk in front of it, so you have to go out of your way to see yourself in it (or not see yourself because there’s no light there!) Mirrors lie anyways, right? I read a story of a lady who had a near death experience and she talked about her spirit/soul coming out of her body and looking back at her physical body. She described being surprised by her own beauty. It was the first time she had seen herself in 3-D. I read another story about a woman who decided not to wear makeup or look at herself in the mirror for a full year. She concentrated her efforts on things that made her feel good, like taking yoga classes and eating healthy foods. She said during that year she never felt more beautiful, and people regularly commented on how her face “glowed”. She had more men ask her on dates than at any other time in her life.

What I have learned through all of this is sort of cliché: what makes us feel pretty is what comes from the inside…the adrenaline and endorphin rush that comes from things like working out, and feeling happy and content with your life— all of which shows on your face. I notice the lines on my forehead, in between my eyebrows, and around my mouth are more pronounced when I am sad or stressed. But, when I am at peace, the lines seem either like they turn upward, or their lose their depth. I’ve learned that feeling beautiful is a state of mind. They say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but I believe that true beauty begins in the mind and spirit behind the face, not in front of it. Making your eyes or your skin glow is something that comes from treating your body well, feeding your soul, being gentle with yourself, loving others, feeling peace, and finding joy in simple things.

 

 

 

 

Summer, Salmon, Bears & Waving Nate

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Summer in Alaska: Gardening Woes

We were excitedly looking forward to our 2nd summer in Alaska. After months of cold and snow, we were looking forward to working in our mountain’s rich soil to grow a plethora of tasty, fresh vegetables, and beautiful flowers.  We started hundreds of seedlings indoors in February and March. Unfortunately, in our excitement, we had begun the growing process too soon, and many of our little seedlings were being suffocated in their small pods inside, while we  were waiting for the ground outside to thaw and for warmer temperatures to come. We waited and waited, and eventually, we planted lots of seedlings too early and they struggled to take root in the cold temperatures and lack of sunlight. Some vegetables did fine, but others, not so well. We started another batch of seedlings indoors, convinced that even though they were started late in the growing season, they would do great.

 

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2nd set of seedlings started indoors; First batch struggled in the cold temps and lack of sunshine.

When we finally started moving seedlings for planting outdoors, we ran out of space quickly. Nate made four new terraced bed areas, and dug out a wide spot to the side of the house for planting potatoes. We spent weeks digging in the dirt, and hauling dirt into the new terraced beds.

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This was the scene outside our window for most of the summer.  The weather forecast every day: “Partly cloudy, chance of rain”

We kept waiting and waiting for the beautiful summer we had last year to arrive. But, the gray clouds, cooler than average temperatures, and drizzling rain continued.   Everything in the garden struggled. The vegetables that are doing well are ripening very slowly. Even the flowers have tarried with the lack of sunshine. We cultivated our wild strawberry patches this year, and they brought in a good harvest, although about 6-8 weeks behind last year’s crop. Last year, it seemed that the blueberries, salmon berries, and high bush cranberries all fruited about the same time and we spent hours, days, and even weeks berry picking. I haven’t seen one blueberry or salmon berry yet this year. I recently picked all of the high bush cranberries on our property and I am noticing them fruiting around the lake and around town, but I think they are in much smaller quantities than last year. The wild flowers that were so beautiful last year tried to start blooming in May, but most of them died quickly, and the wide variety and succession of differing varieties never came. Last year, there would be miles and miles of dandelions on the side of the road. These would die and then another wildflower would bloom and die, then another and another, until the beautiful blooms of Fireweed would appear as the final act. In Alaska, they say that when the last Fireweed bloom dies, winter is coming. Unfortunately, we only saw two or three successive wildflower blooms, and the Fireweed appeared in early July and was all dead by August. Lets hope that the folklore about the Fireweed is not true or that would mean winter is coming now.

We were able to harvest some lovely vegetables from our garden, including a variety of lettuces, beets, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini and onions. We are still awaiting the final ripening of our garlic, potatoes, carrots, and edamame.  Rhubarb grows great here. I don’t think anyone has trouble growing Rhubarb.

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Fresh from our garden: lettuce, peace, cauliflower, broccolini

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Kale, wild strawberries, zucchini, broccolini, wild mushrooms

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Tray of wheatgrass

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Farmer Nate, shelling fresh peas

With an eye toward the future, we also planted about 150 berry bushes, 50 of each blueberry, raspberry and blackberry. Bramble bushes do very well here in this climate. We also planted 4 cherry trees. The transplants have done well so far, but they won’t be ready to fruit for a few years. This year is an “establishment year” for these berries.

4 Days of Summer

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When I was just getting used to the fact that this doom and gloom will be our entire summer, the clouds lifted, and the sun came out to remind us what summer feels like. We had four beautiful days of high 80 degree temperatures. We put on our bathing suits and drove around the lake. Our neighbor had a party, and there were tons of boaters on our lake. (You have to understand that 5 or 6 boats in one general area is a “ton” here!) That weekend, about 20 people were swimming in our lake. Nate jumped in, but he drank more beer than I did. It was probably 50 degrees. The news reported that we broke all kinds of records for high temperatures during those 4 days, including one for 88 degrees and one for 89 degrees. The Chilkat bridge reported a reading of 93 degrees. Those kind of temperatures are unheard of here.

After 4 days of summer, the clouds returned and have remained since then. Our gardening friends with greenhouses are the only ones who are reaping a really good harvest. We do have “build a greenhouse” on our to-do list for this summer, and we are learning first-hand how important this will be in the future.

Construction Projects

We have many other building projects on our to-do list to get done before winter. Most of the summer has been spent on new construction projects.  Our first project was building a new boat dock, including a fish cleaning station and storage area with a roof. Our old boat dock was 4 ft wide x 20 ft. long. The new one is double that, 8 ft. wide x 40 ft. long. 14 feet of the new dock is covered and partially enclosed. This project was a major undertaking, and I was amazed every day to watch Nate’s ideas take shape. The way that this thing came together is incredible to me. Nate cut down 4 large trees on the property, cut them to 40 ft. long logs, then tied them together, put a frame around them, filled in any gaps with large styrofoam, then built the dock on top. Nate cut down 2 100 foot trees on top of the ice, with the idea that he would float them over. Once the ice melted, he floated these down to the dock place on the water.  It was mind-numbing to watch Nate calculate and build it. I am in awe over the carpentry skills he has amassed while living here. It’s hard to believe he never built anything before moving to Alaska (Although he did build a pretty cool chicken coop the last year we were in Texas.)

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Two 100′ trees cut down during winter to build our new boat dock

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Tricky balancing act: Framing the new boat dock

 

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New 40′ boat dock base completed

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New dock, complete with covered fish cleaning station

 

We are finishing up the addition to our cabin, which will be a first-class work out room. We also put a large deck with stairs around the workout room, connected it to the house, and started building a wrap around deck in front of the house.

 

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We also added another sundeck in front of our hot tub.

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One of the difficult things about undertaking so many construction projects, is getting the supplies to our property. Every piece of wood, bag of cement, bag of screws, aluminum roofing, and more has to be purchased in town, transported to our boat landing using our truck, then loaded into the boat, driven on the lake to our property, then unloaded from our boat dock up the hill to our house. Since I am the grunt construction worker apprentice, most of the hauling of the supplies up the hill to our house has been my job. I don’t mind getting in a little extra workout this way, but some of those 16 foot pieces of wood are cumbersome, and the bags of concrete weigh 60 lbs! Our physical labors being what they are, we typically require a nap every afternoon. It has become a requirement that we have “quiet time” every day between 2-4 pm. We stick with this schedule, even when guests are visiting. We just let them know ahead of time that they are welcome to rest in their own quarters during this time, or do something quiet on their own (basically, leaving us alone to re-energize at that time.) With this late afternoon power nap, we are able to continue working outside until around 8pm in the evenings. (For most of the summer, it doesn’t get dark until midnight.)

Our to-do list before winter includes cutting lots of firewood, building a greenhouse, and replacing the roof on our guest cabin. We re-painted the aluminum roofing on the guest cabin last year, and we were heartbroken when the snow and ice melted off of it and took the new paint right along with it. It was alot of time and money to repaint that roof last summer to lose it all in one winter, so we have decided to simply replace the aluminum roofing, and fix it for good.

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Last summer, we painted the guest cabin. Here it is nice and pretty!

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The winter snow and ice took its toll on our little guest cabin.

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Side view of the guest cabin shows the peeling paint

 

While we’re showing pics of “out with the old, in with the new”, it feels like we should mention that the borough replaced the bridge that we cross from the main highway to our little Chilkat Valley Road. Our quaint little steel bridge was replaced with a more modern cement bridge. Our small road also leads to Porcupine Creek Road, which takes you to the famous Gold Nugget Mine. We’ve heard that the new and additional mining being done up Porcupine Creek Road necessitated the building of the new, stronger bridge. (Although the official news report says that the old bridge had structural issues.)  Maybe Nate and I should be panning for gold out here in our spare time!

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New bridge on the right: Old bridge on the left

Summer Guestbook

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Although we have been busy with lots of home improvement and garden projects, we have made time to host lots of guests this summer. My daughter came for a week. Nate’s friend, Supa, came for a week, and Nate’s mom and boyfriend came for 2 weeks. We also hosted a couple that lives in town that had never visited Chilkat Lake. We have also made time for enjoying the outdoor life. During the “salmon run” Nate netted silver salmon (sockeye) in the river, and caught 30 large ones in a short couple of hours. They are so big that the meat has almost filled our freezer completely.

Salmon & Bears

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The silver salmon begin molting when they reach our lake. They return here every year to spawn and die. It is amazing the numbers that return every year. So far, the fish and game counting weir station has counted 20,000 salmon returning to our lake to spawn and die. They pool in shallow areas, which makes them excellent bear bait. They pool in large numbers on the banks of an area we call, “Bear Beach”. Nate says it looks like a coy pond where these bright red and orange fish pool together.

Needless to say, Bear Beach is a great place to see a bear (or two, or three)…

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Nate is also still hoping to tag a brown bear and a black bear during the second season for hunting. He has his tags ready, and he is confident that he will meet up with some brownies and blackies soon. Our friends were able to secure moose-hunting tags this year, and we will accompany them on their annual moose hunt—a weeklong camping trip in the woods by a river. It should be fun watching them hunt for a big moose.

Waving Nate

When Nate’s friend, Supa, was visiting, he remarked at how Nate waves to every passing boat, truck or car whenever he is driving. Supa says he does this incessantly, even though lots of people don’t even wave back. It doesn’t deter him. Supa says in a few years, Nate should run for the mayor of Haines, and when he does, his campaign slogan should be, “Vote for Waving Nate”

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