I look outside and the thermometer reads 34.7. I really, really need to take a shower since I did housework all day yesterday and I am going to see a lot of people in just a couple hours. The sun just rose but it will be a little while before the temperature climbs even one tick. I take off my pajamas, slip on my flip-flops, grab a towel, and take a deep breath before I open that front door. I run for the shower, turn on the water, and greet the rising steam from the outdoor stall like a best friend I haven't seen in years. Embraced by the thousands of hot water droplets touching my skin, I welcome the cold cold air all around me. Melting frost falls from our roof to a metal awning creating a satisfying "drop drop" that likens to the popping of a Snapple cap. The shampoo bottle requires a bit more muscle as the liquid inside has settled itself into a more viscous condition; even the shampoo can tell winter is coming and wants to hibernate. Through the rising steam, I see the backlit, golden aspen leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze forty feet above my head. Though I began the shower process with some trepidation, I determine that this was the single best bathing experience I have ever had! Boy, will I miss this when I'm back home in Colorado!
I had heard the phrase before but had never considered, before living here, what an "off the grid" lifestyle entails. There are as many ways of living in this way as there are people who do it but here is what it is for our family.
We do not have a faucet that gives us hot water that comes from a reservoir I have never seen. Our water comes from a spring a two-and-a-half miles from our cabin. In previous summers, we submerged a five gallon bucket into the stream and hauled it home dispensing the amount we wanted directly into our cups. It's been tested time after time and always proves itself, untreated, some of the best water anywhere. These days, we place our 65 gallon tank in our four wheeler trailer and drive to the spring. Our pump connects to the ATV battery and we stand and chat with passersby as the water effortlessly piles into the tank. Once full, we drive the unit home and use the same pump setup to send the water into our 220 gallon tank in the loft. Once stored there, we turn on our kitchen faucet or showerhead and out drops clean water. NOTE: I drafted this entry at the beginning of the summer. Since then, we've had an ongoing beaver issue: these not-so-cute-before-they-get-their-winter-coat pests have constructed a series of dams resulting in water backing up above the normal spring access point, a large stream pouring over our road (instead of through the dammed culvert), and a growing concern for water purity. It is a sticky situation since we are a mixed community of year-round Alaskans, seasonal workers, and National Parkies; year-round residents can kill the beavers but most of them have wells so they are not as affected by the issue, beavers do not yet have their winter pelts and thus are not currently valuable, and if the beavers are not killed but their dams are destroyed they rebuild. Over and over and over. All that to say, it's been a real struggle. We have adapted by going farther upstream for our water and using a hefty water filter (that previously was unnecessary).
Most of our daily powered needs comes from our 100lb propane tank. A local has propane delivered to his house and when we are in need, we drop a tank at his place with our name and number written on it in Sharpie, he fills them, we return a day or so later and leave some cash for him. Austin has plumbed lines from said 100lb tank to our tiny oven, stove, and fridge as well as to our (also tiny) on-demand water heater. Both water lines (sink and shower) pass through this fabulous unit so we have quick, as-hot-as-you'd-ever-want-it water as long as there is H2O in one tank and C3H8 in the other.
Alaska is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. Currently (NOTE: again, I drafted this in June), the sun is rising here at 3:49am and setting at 11:14pm and we have not even hit solstice yet! After sunset there is not enough time for it to get fully dark before sunrise. Thus, our one 100W solar panel gets plenty of sun, hanging from the south-side of our cabin. The power is stored in the deep-cycle battery and gives us plenty of electricity for lights (which we do not really need until later July) and charging our devices.
This is where I suppose our version of "off the grid" diverges from that of folks who adapt to this lifestyle for environmental reasons. Another local, with heavy machinery who completes many construction projects in this valley, has gasoline delivered to his shop and supplies our community members with gas using a similar system as that of propane. This fuels our generator which fires up our power tools, washing machine, and any other high-powered appliances. We do not use this often since solar and propane takes care of all our daily needs.
Compost, Burn, Nonburn, Creek.
We are hundreds of miles from the closest dump. Thus, we have to be conscious of how we dispose of our waste. First consider, "will this decompose?" If so, compost (except egg shells, the protein of which is a bear attractant). If no, think, "will this easily burn?" If so, put in the burn-trash bin. If no, ask, "can this be recycled or cleaned up enough that when thrown in a bin it will not stink?" If so, put in nonburn-trash bin for hauling to a faraway dump. If it does not fit in any of these categories (i.e. moldy bread I forgot about and now smells like death) it goes into the swiftly moving creek as fish food.
When I first came to McCarthy in 2013 I was most concerned about having to use an outhouse. Previously, I had only experience with rarely maintained port-a-potties at trailheads and fairs. I soon learned to love outhouse life. While there are some homes with flushing toilets they are uncommon because of the need for leach fields. These require enough effort and money to construct that most forego this little luxury. Plus, cabins here tend to be only as large as necessary (think money to build and space to heat when it gets cool). Outhouses do not stink if cared for properly: no rotting toilet paper in the hole and peeing in the woods whenever possible. It is so refreshing to do your business outside, away from everyone, while watching leaves rustle in the trees and listening to nearby birds whistling. Our outhouse features two seats (one adult and one toddler); a custom door built by yours truly with her handy mom-in-law complete with a spruce tree cutout to let light and air pass; old window with wavy glass (also installed by we women) with a cafe curtain (made by my sweet mom); a magazine rack providing literary options in the aviation, home decor, speech therapy, and anthropological genres; and a vase with a wildflower perched on the sill. It is a super getaway.
Our cast iron house heater runs on wood we find on our property (we'd never run out!) and matches. It heats this place up in no time and the warmth helps dry clothes indoors when it is too wet and rainy to hang them on the line out back.
[wpvideo jW4EcYDf ]
Yes, it takes effort to live in this manner. No, I am not tough or crazy or a pioneer-woman. There actually is freedom in spending time working on living and ignoring the things that do not actually matter: talking to friends at the water hole vs. sitting in a car in traffic, walking through the woods gathering firewood vs. watching television shows. It is simple. At least it is in the summertime. I do not plan to ever be able to speak to off-the-grid living in Alaska winter.
What a sentence: "We flew." For the entire length of history, until the past 100 years, all humans had only viewed the earth from one perspective: with feet on the ground. Flying is something we all dream of doing (my flight dreams always involve a swimming kick-board and I breaststroke through the air) but we already have the means... planes (and helicopters and gliders and jetpacks, etc.)! In just over a century we have become so used to flying that we'll casually say, "I gotta take two flights to ______" next week. We board the plane hoping the passenger sharing our armrest will let us sleep so the time will fly while we do too. It's an elevated bus ride. I do not get excited about flying in commercial jets, partially, I think, because the flight is at such high altitudes the beauty of the ground below is often unseen or obscured by clouds. Small plane flying is a whole 'nother deal. While buckled into a metal machine the size of a minivan, hurling through the air twice as quickly as you might on the highway, it becomes difficult to check-out and forget you're flying. Flying lower to the ground than in jets, one spots bear, mountain sheep and goats below, and finds familiar trails; these are constant reminders that there's nothing between you and the earth but thousands of feet of air. Mountains that appear large from the ground are revealed as the breathtaking masses they truly are. You learn that rainbows can form a full circle when spotted from great heights.
Married to Austin, I've ridden along on flights over the past few years observing scenery that has astounded me; some of my favorites have been this summer.
Austin's folks came for a visit and he took us up for a 90 minute "flight-see" to an area of the park where I had never visited. First, we travelled up the valley to where the Erie mine still clings to the mountainside. Many hikers eager to see what was left behind when the copper mine closed in 1938 turn around well before they arrive at this bunkhouse, though some brave hikers (including Austin with my cousin last summer) make it all the way and are not disappointed in the relics they find.
Below us, as we travelled north through the valley were cracks, crevices, blue pools of water on the white ice of the Root Glacier. We then came to the Stairway Icefalls, almost vertical portion of the glacier from which huge chunks (think bus sized) sometimes calve. I've heard that these are the tallest icefalls, outside of the Himalayas.
We swung around toward the west and headed for our local monster mountain, Blackburn. Some of our guides summited this beast in May which blows my mind. It stands at 16,390' (5th highest peak in the US) and was first summited by a woman, Dora Keen, in 1912 and her route has never been successfully repeated. From here, Austin took us around the backside and this is where it really got wild. I'd never been on this side of the park and boy did it deepen my love for this place...
Bluebird skies, snow, and rock as far I could see. I really have no words to describe this beauty and my pictures are in no way comparable to the real deal. You'd just have to come see this for yourself. Next up... Mount Wrangell! She tops out at 14,163' but has a mass of 560 square miles. I've heard that's 10 Mt. Rainiers!
As we approached, we could see steam billowing out from a crater and ash covering the snow. This is the park's only active volcano. You may be able to detect icicles in the opening.
After this portion, we wound our way back home enjoying jagged peaks coated in overhanging snow, more abandoned mine sites, tundra-like vegetation where snow had melted but trees and shrubs do not dare grow (the latter two not pictured - at this point I gave up attempting to represent well what I was seeing with photos).
What a gift it is to fly. To dream to soar, fashion a machine that actually ascends (and descends!), and brave the skies. When my feet leave the ground and I see snowy peaks cast in rose gold light, my soul is grounded in the apparent love of my Maker.
Yesterday was the big day - Kennecott Trading Company is now open for the 2017 season. I've been working at store set up almost every day since arriving to McCarthy and it's looking great.
I think managing this store might be the best job in the world, though Austin says flying over America's largest National Park everyday is stiff competition. Each spring I'm given a sum of money and told to buy whatever I think travelers would want to purchase while vacationing here. My boss (and friend) is always available if I need help or have questions but is thankful that he, largely, is uninvolved with the shopping.
Many other souvenir shops in this state display Alaskana themed gifts but if you turn over the merchandise you read "made in Taiwan". I suspect if I were a tourist making a commemorative purchase I'd wish my item were actually made where I vacationed. Therefore, (and also because I love working with Alaskan artists) when you visit my store you'll note that almost everything is Alaskan-made. We boast beautiful wood-turned bowls from a world-renowned mountaineering guide (Wassilla, AK), apparel designed and hand screen printed by a friend in her home (Chugiak, AK), delicious taffy and fudge by Alaskan confectioners (Anchorage, AK), high-end and customized jackets constructed and sewn in-state (Cordova, AK where my brothers fish - check out Will's and Jesse's blogs!), and our best selling merchandise comes from a jewelry artist in our own valley who owned and operated our very store for years and years. This is a very small taste of what we provide. I also love that the prices of our treasures range from $ to $$$$. There's a little (or big) something for everyone.
Once my shopping is accomplished, wholesale purchases are made in the spring, and I land in Alaska the really fun work begins. When I first arrived in Kennecott, turned the key, and opened the door I found display furniture and boxes of merchandise from last season blanketed in a fine layer of dust. Here and there were new piles of boxes that had arrived at our mail shack prior to my own arrival and awaited my opening them with eagerness rivaling that of Christmas morning: "Oh, wow! These turned out great! People are going to love this!"
Subsequest trips up to Kennecott ("trips" is a great word here as it is a 35 - 45 minute four-wheeler commute to the store from my cabin) are followed by hours of unpacking a box, counting the items inside, comparing numbers to the invoice, noting any price increases from previous years, printing barcodes and prices, tagging each item, and setting it all aside so I can repeat the process for the following 40+ boxes of merchandise.
Once every individual item has been addressed, I clean the furniture and organize and display our treasures. Ceramics might pair well with fine art prints. The aromatic nature of hand-made soaps draw customers to locally picked and pressed flowers embedded within glassware. This part of the set up takes several days. It is amazing how a display will draw or repel customers: an overly full area communicates to a potential buyer's subconscious, "nobody else wants this so I won't spend time looking here" while a display with sparse items says, "this is picked over already." There's a fine line between the two.
The final appearance of the store is my work-of-art and like any masterpiece, is time consuming. Though I was more prepared for this preseason receiving, displaying, and setup than I have been in previous years and spent several very long days working with great help I'm also opening later than I ever have. I'm attributing this to difficulties in having a teething, running, climbing, limited napping 17-month-old with a cold at the store everyday. We could really only get work accomplished while she was napping. Anyone want to volunteer to be my unpaid nanny next summer, say in late May to early June? Yeah?
Since you stuck around to the end of this rambling blog, how about some pictures to make it worthwhile?
We landed in McCarthy, Alaska a week ago. It's been a whirlwind of catching up with friends, summer preparations, colds and teething, mad grocery shopping, and store set-up. Of our three flying days to get here, the last was my favorite. It might be because the closer we got to home, the more excited I became but I think we truly live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Here are a few photos of our last day of flying...
We live in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. While I'd seen Mt Wrangell (a huge mass - think 10 Mt. Raniers!) a number of times, I'd never seen all of Mt. St. Elias - our park's middle name (the top, left photo) but we flew by it on our last leg into town. It. Is. Impressive. Standing at 18,008 feet, you can see its entire height as it rises from the ocean. It was one of the most impressive scenes I've ever observed.
We made it to Portland... and here we'll stay. We fought head-winds during all three legs of our flight yesterday, Linde threw up twice, poor Eddie hit his head on the ceiling during one large and unexpected bump... we were very happy to land. Our friend Meghan Thomas picked us up and brought us home to her 5 incredible kiddos, spaghetti dinner, and strawberry shortcake - a great way for Austin to finish his very long 35th birthday!
This morning, Austin learned the weather was not suitable for a departure today but is hopeful that the weather systems will clear by tomorrow. I always thought rain and snow were the biggest hurdles for flying. However, wind, ice, thunderstorms, and low clouds really impede flight. Austin looks at all aspects of weather forecasts days before we leave but often has to change the plan within an hour of our planned take-off. This has happened many times, but I still have trouble remembering that most cross-country flights do not go as planned. Sometimes you get a great tail-wind that pushes you faster than you thought you'd travel. Often you have to re-route because of slow-moving storms that won't clear. Other times, like today, you just can't leave at all.
We're excited to be "stuck" here today because we're with friends in Portland. Could there be a better place to be weathered in? Austin and Linde are taking a much-needed nap and when they wake up we'll hit up a famous bookstore in Portland and, of course, down some coffee.
Yesterday, Austin solo'ed a talented young student on her 16th birthday and I got to watch with this fun group of celebrators waiting on the ground. What a great way to start the summer!
Now that Greeley work is done, the three of us (and our furry friend) take to the skies for the Great North.
Here's hoping for tailwinds pushing us to Portland tonight, Ketchikan tomorrow, and home sweet home in McCarthy on Wednesday!
I believed Austin and I had been experiencing the adventure of adventures with our Colorado-Alaska back-and-forths but have recently realized our greatest undertaking has only just begun. Folks said having a baby would be the best, scariest, most rewarding journey on which we'll ever embark. I thought there was probably some truth to this exaggerated statement. However, we're only weeks into this life-change and I see see that they were completely right. This parenting thing is awesome! We welcomed Linde Jordan Robel into our family on December 30. She has been very good to us, sleeping soundly most nights and is already easily fitting into our daily routines. She is commonly my coffee shop and errands-running companion, though she is not usually aware that she is even there.
The day we went into labor was supposed to be our move-in date to our "new" 1924 home, so our sweet families moved our furniture and beautifully staged our house. Our first night here was Linde's first outside the hospital.
The Linde that photos cannot portray... ⁌ STRONG AND MIGHTY. She lifted her head the night she was born and held it up for 20 seconds only days later. ⁌ VOCAL. She snorts like a pig when she is angry. Linde has also recently begun to coo. Though she seems to become confused: "cooo...coooo...coo--wait, why am I making these sounds? I must be angry. Uh... agghhh... AGGHHHH... WAAAAAAAH!" ⁌ CHAMPION SLEEPER. In the beginning she slept so much we had to set alarms to awaken and feed her at night. She slept "through the night" (7 hours) on Saturday evening for the first time! ⁌ 80'S ROCKER. That Mohawk is completely natural. ⁌ SHANNON 2.0. Though her looks are constantly changing and she occasionally makes faces that look like Austin or his dad, Tim, she looks an awful lot like my baby pictures. Lots of dark hair, same dark blue eyes, long fingers, and even the same little red spot on her left eyelid.
As we're settling into life of a family-of-three we are finding just a bit of time to complete house projects. Posts with before and after pics to come... as soon as any projects reach the "after" state. :)
Well, baby's crying.--Gotta go!
Que les vaya bien! Shannon
When I was a kiddo, my parents decided to do just a few house updates to our 1970s Texas home. About a year later, the few projects had turned into major diy in multiple rooms. They describe such house renos as pulling a thread on a sweater--it starts small but there's really no good place to stop. This past year, Austin and I purchased a 1924 home in our favorite neighborhood--near to a park, my parents' home, and the university. It has rental property in the basement (our main motivator to sell the house we were in - as we could leave for Alaska and have our home still occupied with rent money coming in), hardwood floors throughout the main level, a wood-burning fireplace, charming old windows, south-facing sunroom, and large and mature trees. However, it's the eyesore of the block. Below is the image of our house I just found on Google's street view. Note that the "hedge of protection", (what Austin lovingly calls the awful bushes) that completely obstruct the passerby's view of the home. It's a bit scary.
A little anecdote to demonstrate how scary this place looks... My parents were gone on Halloween but I ran by to grab some items I'd left there. During the three minutes I was in the house several groups of trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell of their lovely home, though the porch light was not illuminated. My parents live near a park but certainly not on a major through-street. I then drove straight to our house and saw herds of children wandering our avenue. Austin was busy working on the interior of our home and accidentally left on the porch light. However, despite the masses of wandering children and universal "come on over and trick-or-treat" beacon aside our front door, none ventured past the bushes. Perhaps they didn't see our house beyond the brush border? Perhaps they were afraid of our house, itself?...
On the agenda for renovations...
Kitchen: Tear out cabinetry and install Ikea cabinets, rip out parquet floor and refinish hardwood floor or install black & white cafe-style vinyl tiles, install new back splash, move a pantry wall (and electric) one foot to accommodate the fridge, install plumbing and 220 wiring for washer and dryer, build a vent hood and vent through the attic, re-texture and paint the walls, install new lighting.
Living room, Office, Bedroom #1, Bedroom #2, and Hallway: repaint walls, ceiling, and trim, install picture rails/crown molding, refinish the floors, and paint fireplace.
Bathroom: Tear out floor to get to plumbing, reroute plumbing for a new fixture configuration, refinish old free-standing pedestal tub, install new sink, put down white hexagon tile flooring.
Exterior: Repaint the house a colonial blue, paint the front door bright yellow and trim white, remove the ugly shrubs and replace them with others that cannot grow to such heights, take off the carpet on the front porch (and stain/paint the concrete?), build bench/railings along the edge of the porch, reroof the garage, build privacy fence.
And I think that's all. I'd like to say we're like the cool people on TV that do all of the work ourselves...but we're not. We'd like to move in before the kiddo is born and our pace has been pretty slow thus far. We've had a number of friends and family aid in most of the processes and we've paid those who're professionals. However, Austin has done a ton himself and I'm constantly amazed at what he knows. Did he know how to rerun electric or plumbing before? I don't know. Maybe he learned it on this house. But I love that he tries and, so far, hasn't hit any big hurdles.
We did it! We purchased 11 acres just outside of McCarthy, Alaska and have begun construction on our new cabin. We've enjoyed our four-month summers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park for the past three years. We've rented three different cabins--never having seen each prior to the start of the summer. With a kiddo on the way, we figured it'd be nice to have a place we could call our own, set up especially for us, and to be able to leave some things there and not be so transient. Wrangell-St. Elias Ntl Park is unique in that it did not become federally preserved land until 1980, allowing for many private individuals to claim and purchase property within the Park's current boundaries. It is estimated that there are one million acres of privately owned land within the Park's 13.2 million acres. Needless to say, private land here has the added benefit of being forever closer to "wilderness" because of the Park's presence. We purchased the land at the end of the summer (September) and had to move quickly if we wanted to live on the property by end of May, 2016. The ground freezes in late fall and is too hard for prep-work digging in the spring. Fortunately, there is a family in McCarthy who specializes in construction and each family member enjoys his own niche in the business. One of the sons in this family had been taking flight lessons from Austin and, when he'd heard we'd bought land, offered to sell us logs. This young man had planned on building himself a 24'x26' shop a couple years ago and had his brother mill the logs for him. His interests had shifted (having just turned 16, he had his eye on a truck for his construction business) and now he had no use for the logs and was willing to sell them to us for less (and more quickly) than if we were to have logs milled today. Meanwhile, this young man's eldest brother stated that he had time this fall to begin construction and his father was willing to get the driveway and pad cleared. Before we knew it, everything was in place!
Our plans for the cabin: Logs are 3-sided in a "D" shape so that they lay flush atop each other, the inner wall is flat, and the exterior portion is the classic curved log look. The structure will be winter-able though we have no plans to live there year-round. We'll use a wood burning stove for heat. The home will be wired for electricity which we'll generate via a combination of solar, deep-cycle batteries, and a small back-up generator. No inside bathroom as we did not want to set up a septic system, so we'll utilize an outhouse (we are in the back woods, after all--and if you've read my previous posts, you know how I love a good outhouse) and an enclosed, outside shower. We will either get water from a well we'll have drilled in the spring or haul water from a creek into a large tank that will gravity-feed the kitchen and outdoor shower. We'll have a half-loft in which the walls will extend another two feet vertically before the slope of the roof begins; this is called a "stem wall" and allows for a bit more standing room (the roof is, essentially, elevated two extra feet at the loft base). There will also be a good-sized dormer that will further give more room in the loft. When at the edge of the loft, you'd be able to look down into the living room and dining room. Inner walls will be the smooth side of the D-logs, ceiling of tongue-and-groove, and floor will be floating laminate wood. The floor plan is a slight modification of the cabin my granddaddy had in Florida when I was a little girl; he loves Alaska and we love him and the memories we made in that place. However, we've decided to live in the cabin as a one-room home for the first summer to decide the size we'll want for each room. The cabin itself will be 24'x26', plus the loft footage, and a six-foot-deep covered front porch with a bit of a view.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: We are also in the process of renovating our 1924 home in Greeley, CO (more about that later) and successfully removed the kitchen cabinets from this old house and will take them up to McCarthy in the spring for reuse in the cabin. We'll also haul other furniture that will not fit in the 1924 house (it's smaller than our last one) to furnish our Alaska living (futon, bed, table, old farmhouse sink with metal cabinets).
Construction to-date: The driveway has been cleared, pad-site leveled, outhouse hole dug, concrete pillars poured (many houses in our area construct this way so there is a crawl space below for plumbing, etc. and the home is slightly elevated--ours will be about 3 feet above ground), ground filled back in, cardboard Sonotubes removed from the dried concrete, and subfloor is finished. At this point, we planned to cover the floor for the winter and resume construction of the walls and roof in the spring. However, our builder friend just informed us that they are having an "Indian summer" (which he described as "highs in the 40s and lows just below freezing"--not what I'd consider mild--especially as they had a couple snows in September) and he may be able to get the walls up and topped with the roof before winter hits. We are not counting our chickens before they hatch but are thrilled that this is even a remote possibility. Below, I'm placing a video of the footage we've captured so far, documenting the changes from the time of purchase (early September) to the time that Austin left Alaska to return home (end of September). Enjoy! [youtube=http://youtu.be/zfSKksdDYuI]
Dryas. Is. Really. Stinkin'. Cool... Maybe my favorite plant. Reminds me of Belize, where you can gaze upward and find tiny explosions of green foliage clinging to crooks made by intersecting bridge beams thirty feet above your head, crooks that would otherwise exist forever unremarkable and unnoticed.
Here, in the Wrangell's, this unassuming plant is THE reason ANYthing grows. This incredible feature of the unbelievably intricate system that exists here will grow in pure rock. It doesn't need soil because it gets all the nutrients it needs from the air and the water, but it becomes soil for everything else that comes after. It grows like a carpet, and spreads like wildfire by shooting up seed pods, reminiscent of a dandelion, to be whisked along to the next clump of bare rock one valley over. Dryas is constantly dying, decomposing, and turning itself into dirt (which can be easily observed by lifting its leaves enough to see underneath the green). Allowed to continue, this process enables a host of flowers, brush, and eventually trees to also grow and die in the soil that is produced over time... So basically, given a few hundred years, this "simple" feature of the North, has been given the incredible ability to turn a gravel pile into a spruce forest :). Like I said, really stinkin' cool, eh!?
Flat Top. Anchorage. Thank heavens for great friends! Ruth Remple and her family have hosted me and my brothers countless times during our Alaska entrances and exits. She has helped me with store decor, prepping food, selecting merchandise, and--as pictured here--my personal Anchorage tour guide. She and her daughter Savannah took me to Flat Top Mountain where we had a beautiful view of Anchorage from above. We observed about four moose up close during the drive back down the mountain. In this picture I'm demonstrating that, even a month before summer solstice, shades were needed at 10:00pm.
Shaz vs. Porcupine. (I'm "Shaz". So named by my niece who couldn't yet say "Shannon". I think it's a good, feisty, name--perfect for one who's battling a porcupine.) I arrived in McCarthy a week or so before Austin or Eddie and independently moved our giant load of groceries down our overgrown four-wheeler trail and into our new cabin rental for the summer, a mile downhill from Kennecott and three-ish miles uphill from McCarthy. I woke up one of my first mornings here to what sounded like someone sawing off the corner of our roof. I grabbed my bearspray and cautiously walked outside to assess the situation. A porcupine was gnawing on a low portion of the cabin (they love the glue in wood composite and treated lumber) and stopped when I yelled at it. It turned around, showed me its nasty yellow teeth and I quickly retreated back inside (while, maybe, a slight yelp emerged) and I called a friend who grew up in this area to ask what one does to chase off such a critter. I followed her recommendation and scooted him off the porch and into the woods with a broom. It showed me its bristled backside but I kept sweeping and he didn't come back for a few days. By then, however, Austin and my brother Jesse were here to take over.
Outhouse View. I love using an outhouse. Especially one that is large and has a beautiful view. I really do miss outhousing it when I return to Colorado. I don't think I can really explain the magic of an outie. Maybe it's because I really like having a bit of time each day to myself. Maybe because it feels rustic. If you take care of the outhouse it really can have no smell (peeing in the woods and not putting toilet paper down the hatch or adding sawdust to absorb the smell/liquid). But, I especially love this outhouse. The seat is perpendicular to the door and large corner windows provides a view of wildflowers and forest in the foreground with the glacier and Fireweed Mountain in the distance. Sitting there, unrushed, in the mornings is a start to a beautiful day.
Running Water. For the first time, we rented a cabin with running water! The mother of the family we rent from came over before Austin arrived and showed me how to get the water running and how to troubleshoot at the creek if the intake became clogged with leaves. I cannot express how excited I was when I took this picture. It really was not a big deal to live in a dry cabin the past two summers (I imagine 10% of folks around here have running water come from their tap). But, it did involve filling large 7 gallon buckets with spigots at a creek or having a kind neighbor with a well offer to top off our jugs every few days. Running water means easy dish washing, teeth brushing, French press coffee making, cooking, the potential for hand washing laundry and showering etc. We became spoiled very quickly. However, all good things come to an end. Because this area (and much of Alaska) had very low snowfall this winter our creek of melted snow ran dry within one month. So, for the remaining 2.5 months, we're back to hauling water. We do have other conveniences at this cabin we've not before experienced, which softens the emotional hit of losing water, such as fridge, freezer, oven, and stove. These amenities are, in my opinion (as the one who does not physically haul the water), bigger perks as they allow us to keep food for weeks and make dinner in our own cabin instead of traveling to McCarthy to cook each night.
Tony the Espresso Machine. This beautiful espresso machine was born in Italy and reconfigured to reside on a cart that also houses a small fridge. It eats propane and drinks water we haul from the lodge across the street. It's name is Tony ("Antonio" since he's Italiano). For espresso beans and other coffee supplies to get to Tony, they must be picked up in Anchorage. Then the driver drives 6 hours to Chitina where the paved road ends. The supplies then travel 60 miles on a dirt road until that road (the McCarthy Road - an old railway bed with most of the rails removed or set aside) dead ends at the Kennicott River. Once the river is crossed (either via footbridge or private vehicle bridge if you've paid the several hundred dollars for a pass) the supplies are hauled five miles uphill to my store. Once here, customers enjoy delicious Kaladi Brothers lattes, cappuccinos, americanos, etc. that Europeans routinely claim is the best they've had since they left X country.
Austin Arrives. This was truly one of the best days of the summer. I'd been in McCarthy for over a week prior to Austin's arrival. He took off from Boulder, Colorado in a small plane (Citabria) that holds very little more than one pilot and one cramped co-pilot directly behind. It's a tail wheel, or taildragger, plane which means that it has two larger tires up front and one very small wheel below the tail. These are great planes for backcountry flying and off-airstrip landings. The Citabria belongs to our friend, and Austin's fellow Wrangell Mountain Air pilot, Martin. He brings it up each summer and puts it on floats so he can take it to lakes on days off. Austin flew in with a student pilot who wanted tail wheel time and they landed on a Sunday afternoon just as we arrived back to McCarthy from church. Hungry, we all made a beeline for "the pizza bus" for pizza, espresso, and cokes. It was so fun to show him around our new cabin and demonstrate my "tough girl" abilities in setting us up for the summer.
Walk to Work. Eddie and I get to start our mornings by walking one mile slightly uphill to Kennecott. We leave anywhere from 8:00 to 8:30 and leisurely stroll to Kennecott Trading Company. We have been fortunate to not run in to any wildlife on these commutes which does surprise me as there have been many reports of a large black bear in the neighborhood along with occasional transient moose.
Ed's Adventures. Ed has been a real trooper this summer and has grown up quite a bit since last season. His highlights of this summer include swimming in the swimming hole, making countless running trips from Kennecott to McCarthy (while Austin and I ride on the dirt bike), exploring the glacier, treeing squirrels, and taking the "polar plunge" (jumping into icy, blue glacial pools on the Root Glacier) over and over til he shivers all over. He's proven himself to be great with kiddos--finding a nice quiet spot when he needs space but otherwise patiently enduring not-so-gentle petting and eyeball poking.
McCarthy Cuisine. Though we are remote and don't make it to the grocery stores very often we eat well. That is, if we eat out. There are about six restaurants between McCarthy and Kennecott (two to four open simultaneously at a given hour) and all boast incredible food. Options include burgers, pizza, fries, wraps, salads, French dip, prime rib sandwich, halibut, salmon, steak, soups and chowders, pastries, and fancy schmancy delicious creative morsels at "Fine Dining" in McCarthy. In this photo Austin enjoys a cold beer and take-out pizza from our local pizza bus.
Moscow Mule Mugs. One of the most fun and challenging aspects of managing the gift shop is identifying what tourists will want to purchase, knowing how much to spend, and the quantity to buy. Last season a few tourists asked for shot glasses. While these would likely sell, I didn't want to find cheapo shot glasses that only appeal to a few. So, I set about drawing a picture of our Mill Building and was fortunate to discover that a friend in Greeley has the capability to laser the drawing onto copper mugs. These have flown off the shelves. I'm happy that it reaches out to those who'd be interested in shot glasses while still appealing tourists who love the idea of buying a copper piece of art in Kennecott.
Riding the Red Thread. Our first summer in McCarthy, we invited one of Austin's old-time friends to come visit for a while. This friend is called "Wild Op" because he's generally up for anything even if it's unconventional and involves a bit of risk. Work was slow so he flew up planning on being up here for a "bit". Landing in Anchorage, he had to find a way to make the eight hour car trip to see us. So, he procured a dirt bike from Craigslist--pause--Wild Op is well over six feet tall with a large frame and this bike was made for someone my size many, many years ago and was in no way road legal--resume--and began his long journey to see us. Knowing there would eventually be a long stretch without fuel stations, he did what any resourceful young man with gumption would do and searched through some garbage til he found an empty kitty litter container that he could fill with gasoline and bungee to the bike behind him. Of note: he strapped his hiking backpack longways to create a shelf behind him and then had a place to hold two bags of groceries and the kitty litter fuel reserves. After a day and a half of driving at night (to avoid confrontation with the popo) he arrived in McCarthy tired and cold and with a bike that seemed to violently vomit oil. Wild Op ended up getting a job as a shuttle driver and stayed the remainder of the summer during which he and Austin spent countless hours nursing the Red Thread back to health. The "Red Thread", as it became known, continued to hang on to dear life by that thread and has served us well for the next two summers. Though we have often wonder to ourselves "is this its last trip up the hill?" Thank you, Wild Op for bequeathing to us such a fine riding machine. And thank you, Red Thread, for so faithfully serving us day after day with only a few rumbling complaints.
Summer Solstice. This photo was taken at midnight on Summer Solstice. People often ask me what I like about the Alaska-Colorado back-and-forth and one of the main benefits is that I get to follow the sun. They say that Colorado has 300 days of sunshine each year. This, plus the dry climate, makes winters pretty easy and enjoyable. The summer daylight in Alaska, along with the mild temps (usually in the 70s), is a great compliment to our living in Colorado. Born in Florida and growing up in Texas, I've come to love me some vitamin D. The sunlight gives a great rhythm to the summer too. Arriving in Alaska in June, the days are notably longer than in Colorado and it gets me excited to stay out with friends and catch up on life since the previous summer. As the summer continues and draws to a close, the sun sets earlier and prepares me for returning to Colorado.
Fireweed in the Rain. I love Fireweed. It's my second favorite plant that grows here (my favorite is "dryas"). I like the look of it, but mostly I like how dynamic this plant is. It is the first plant to grow after a wildfire and exhibits pink-fuschia colored blooms that begin on the bottom portion of the flower stalk and work their way upwards throughout the summer. It marks the changing and passing of time and presents ever-changing displays of beauty. Toward the end of the summer, when the blooms are all spent and the lower once-blooms have changed to pods that release cotton-like seedlings into the air, the entire plant becomes a vibrant, rich, and deep red that can cover an entire mountain side. This is a great compliment to the yellow-leafed birch and aspens here.
We're Havin' a Kid. This was our online social network baby announcement. We couldn't think of a way to spread the news and not be cheesy about it so we went all out. The caption read, "this glacier is getting smaller... But our family is getting bigger! Expecting baby Robel in January, 2016!" We are excited about this huge life shift but really don't know what to expect. We plan to continue our seasonal lifestyle and are excited about the benefits this can have on our "Sprout"... Learning to live and thrive in community in two very different cultures, gaining city-life skills in Greeley while also developing the ability to live in the wilderness, become flexible, love travel, etc. We are not going to find out the gender before the birth--I'm a huge fan of surprises and think it'll be nice to have that extra punch of excitement after hours of intense pain. One of the things I'm most looking forward to is seeing Austin become a dad. He's gonna be great!
Softball T-Shirts. Another huge success of the store this summer--though not my brain child--was thought up by a guide from the guiding service next door. They give tours of the historic town of Kennecott and, in these tours, talk about the old Kennecott Bearcats vs. McCarthy Tigers baseball games that were epic social events. Even today, most of the town collects at the baseball field (same place as in the old days, I believe) every Friday night and plays two back-to-back games. We made these throwback t-shirts to celebrate the history between these two towns, and it's been fun to watch almost exclusively locals purchase the McCarthy t while tourists almost always go for the Kennecott shirt. In this picture, some of the gal guides pose with their new shirts the day they came in and we had the doggies model the opposing team's jersey.
Ahhh Day Off. Days off work are lovely here. Whether you do nothing (as I did the day I took this picture) or use it to go hiking, these are the highlights of the summer. I began this post almost one month ago and have slowly chipped away at it during days off. It's a fun way to reflect on what has happened and what there still is to look forward to. Today, like many of my off-days, I slept late, caught a ride down to McCarthy, did a couple loads of laundry, ate an ice cream cone, said hello to the museum folks, and will eventually make my way back to the cabin for a late afternoon nap, reading, and yoga on the front deck. I just love life here.