Gossip, Extreme Sports & Devil’s Club: Life in a Small Town

We chose to move to a remote cabin in a small town in Alaska because we wanted to escape the rat race. And, we love life in our little place on the lake, but the small town we live in has its challenges. It’s a town that’s driven by tourism and the schedule of the cruise ships. From May through September, we have a quaint little hodge-podge of restaurants, museums, gift shops, and other retailers that open and close at various hours and on various days, depending on cruise ship schedules and the whim of owners. Now that we are entering October, many of these shops are closed or preparing to close for the winter. Our little town is preparing to be a ghost town for the next six months.  There is a Bald Eagle Festival  in November that  keeps some retailers open for a few more weeks, but that is the last hurrah for the stragglers that are still open.

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The only other winter tourist event  is Heliskiing. I had never heard of this until I moved to Alaska. Extreme sports enthusiasts love the wild terrain of the mountains in Haines, and they have created a small cult of folks that flock to the 33 Mile Roadhouse Café in March and April to be taken to the top of a mountain via helicopter, and dropped off, with the thrill of back country skiing down the mountain.  This is truly an extreme sport. The cost is extreme at some $500-$800 per helicopter flight, and the risks are extreme. Nearly every year, at least one person dies in a heliskiing accident.

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We won’t be heliskiing this Spring, but I feel like traversing our lake in the wintertime will be an extreme sport in itself.  In preparation for our seclusion for weeks at a time, we purchased an AM/FM radio, which surprisingly picks up one signal from KHNS, a local public radio station. With access to the station, we now feel connected. We are grateful to be able to listen to local news and weather, but because they stream National Public Radio (NPR), their national news coverage is very biased and liberal.  It’s hard to follow what’s really happening in the world when the news only presents one side. Alas, these are the trade offs when you live in a small town.

We are also learning about small town politics, gossip, and more. We had a visit the other day from an Alaska State Trooper. He came to our property by boat, so you know it must be serious if he came out to our remote property. He was investigating a reported rumor that we had started a hunting and fishing guide service. We said maybe in a few years, but for now we’re just interested in hunting and fishing for our own sustainability. We found out that our fishing licenses were not valid because even though we own our own home and have paid taxes on the place for the past 18 months, Fish & Game does not consider us residents. They count 12 months from the day you move your belongings here, so we are a few months away from being residents according to their way of calculating.

By the way, if you ever thought that moving to a remote lake in small town Alaska, you could disappear, think again. In this town, everybody knows your business. Everyone already knows most of our business because we publish this blog, but hey, we have nothing to hide. (Even the trooper who visited us read our blog before he came out to see us). I feel bad for the kind of folks that get into trouble or don’t follow the law. The local newspaper publishes every 911 call into the police station. And, everyone here calls 911 for everything, so if you get into trouble, the whole town is likely to read about it in the newspaper. Here’s a sample report of a 911 call published in this week’s newspaper:

“A resident from Piedad Road reported somebody was attempting to break into her home. Police responded and found a stray dog trying to get in through the dog door. The dog was taken to Haines Animal Rescue Kennel.”

Everything exciting or stupid that happens in Haines ends up in the paper in some kind of way. If you get arrested, you might end up in the police report section, or you may even get your name published in a headline story about how you got arrested. A friend of ours who likes to drink alcohol on occasion was found drunk on the side of the road. His friends called 911, and he was air lifted to a hospital in Juneau. We read about it in the paper. We also know another guy who had an argument with a restaurant owner and shot out his truck tire with a gun. This made front page headline news. (By the way, the owner of the local paper was just elected to the Haines Borough Council, so he is selling the paper, if you are interested. Visit www.chilkatvalleynews.com)

While this small town life takes some time getting used to, there’s a lot about it that’s super cool.  We have only been here a short time, but it feels like we have lived here forever. The ladies at the bank know our name. We know everyone by name who works at the library, grocery store, restaurants, and other places we frequent. Our favorite hangout is the 33 Mile Roadhouse, and lots of locals hang out there as well. The owner is a good friend, and the staff and locals are some of the best people to know around here. Walking into the restaurant is a little bit like walking into “Cheers”.  Everybody knows your name. There’s something lovely and comforting about being welcomed like that. We have had the blessing of meeting several people in Haines that will be life-long friends. It’s amazing that we were able to find such good friends so quickly. I think that’s much harder to do in a big city.

This past month has been a whirlwind of activity. We took a trip to Chicago to see my son graduate from Navy boot camp. We were starry-eyed walking around a big city, and we had the pleasure of tasting some Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

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But, in the end, we were reminded of how awful highway traffic is, and how that hustle and bustle lifestyle is never missed. We were happy to arrive home. Once home, we had a few visitors. Nate’s mom and brother came for a week, and a day after they left, Nate’s friends, Eddie and Eddie, came for a week. It was fun to share our love of this lifestyle with friends and family.

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We enjoy hosting visitors. I asked each one what they found surprising about their visit. Nate’s brother said he was surprised at how well we live. Nate’s mom said she was surprised at how much water (Rivers, Oceans, and Fjords) is all over Southeast Alaska. Nate’s mom summed up her visit in one word, “Adventurous”. (She never grew fond of the outhouse, but I was proud of how much of a trooper she was when the boat broke down and she had to march through deep mud to wait on the bank for our friend to rescue us. She also amazed me when I took her for a short hike up a groomed trail. We ended up off of the trail, in deep ‘devil’s club’ thicket, walking along downed trees 12 feet off of the ground. She did great. She said she has never felt her head sweat before! Back at home that night, Nate was pulling Devil’s club needles out of her back and arms with tweezers, shaking his head at me. I think deep down, she really enjoyed her Alaska adventure, even though she also never got used to Nate’s long beard.)

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Eddie said his trip is summed up in the word, “Breathtaking”. The other Eddie said he was most surprised at how well we eat with three home cooked meals each day.

Before our guests arrived, we were on a mission to finish painting the guest cabin, which is now completed, except for some touch up work that might get done before winter, but then again might have to wait until next Spring.

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Nate is still busy finishing the roof on the back house extension project, and he is determined to get it done before the snow comes.

There’s a “snow pool” at the 33 Mile Roadhouse. You write down the date you think the first snowfall will hit Haines. Every chance costs $1, and the winning date gets all of the money in the pot, which is also matched by the roadhouse. Nate and I have picked several dates. We are told that the first snowfall that sticks is usually here the last week of October or the first week of November.

The cold weather arrived last week, as we saw temperatures dip into the low 20’s at night, and only getting up to the high 30’s during the day. We are losing a lot of sun now, as our sunrise is at 7:30 am, and our sun is setting around 6:00 pm. We are seeing the effects of these cold temperatures all around us. The tops of the mountains are full of snow. Nearly all of the greenery is now yellow, orange, or brown.

You can actually “hear” fall in Alaska. The devil’s club leaves are so large and heavy that when they die and fall off the branch, you can hear them hit the ground. When the leaves first started to fall, I was standing at the edge of our property and I thought there was some kind of “critter” in the woods coming towards me. That’s how loud the falling leaves sound.  The water in our lake is unusually low right now, so the low temperatures have already resulted in some parts of the lake freezing up. At the back end of our section of the lake, the ice is already three inches thick, and impassable by boat. Just the day before, Nate was fishing there with his brother, and the next day, Nate brought his friends to the same spot that was now full of ice.

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We pulled all of our winter gear down from the attic (including winter jackets for the dogs!), and we are getting ready to fire up the old wood stove and learn to cook on it. As soon as our last guests leave, we will be in a mad rush to cut some more firewood. Between heating our cabin, the guest cabin, and the hot tub, we have used a lot of the firewood we cut, so we will be back at it, downing more trees, rolling bucked logs down to our log splitter, and stacking firewood. Nate told his mom, you have to work for everything you use out here, everything from making a fire to stay warm, to hauling water inside for cooking or bathing, or more. It’s a lot of work, but I will take all of it any day over a drive on the freeway.

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