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.
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’!”
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.
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.