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.┬áNow 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!