White Christmas ?

 

Christmas is just around the corner and I am faced with the realization that once again all my good intentions of keeping up on my blog over the spring, summer, and fall have fallen flat. There seems to be one season out here that gives me the time to sit by the fire and hammer away at the laptop keys in a fit of inspiration.

Joe is out on the lake dragging a runway for a supply load coming in this weekend. Its been a cold freeze up with almost no snow. We got about 7 inches two weeks ago, but the wind that followed left everything pretty bare. We don’t have enough snow to do the snow machine trail, in fact we had a pretty rough go of things just trying to get a christmas tree. Each year brings new challenges, reminding us that life out here means always adapting to the weather patterns and rolling with whatever comes our way. It seems like after a few years we would begin to run out of firsts, but every season brings a new set of them. This year has been no exception.

We had our busiest tourist season yet, Joe and I barely had a moment to catch our breath. As always, we met wonderful people from around the world who made us laugh and shared stories of their lives, reminding us that we are not all as different as we think we are and that common ground isn’t hard to find……. no matter where you come from. While we were beyond thankful for a good season, by the time October rolled around we both were exhausted and dreaming of the quiet and calm days of winter.

This Spring, I did my first stay alone at the lodge for a few days, while Joe headed out to fish the copper river for our winter meat. I found a certain thrill in knowing it was just me out here in the vast wilderness, and that I had to figure everything out on my own. Howie wasn’t very good company during that time, since he got bitten up by noseeums (apparently herbal dog bug spray doesn’t work in Alaska!) and took to hiding in the shop. Not to worry though, Wilson turned out to be a very good companion……on second thought maybe too much time out here alone isn’t such a great idea! Thankfully, we ended up with plenty of salmon…….. nothing makes me happier than blackened salmon sizzling on the stove on a winter evening. (Joe doesn’t share my love of salmon, he would take a moose burger over salmon every time, but he never complains about how often it appears on our dinner table……smart man!)

Another first we had this year was that my dad finally made his first trip out to the lodge. It was funny as the plane was taxing towards the dock, I knew my dad was in the front seat because I couldn’t see his head over the dash. (now I know how it looks when I ride as co pilot!) Those of you who know my dad, know he is a pretty excitable guy, he was so excited his first day here I was a little worried he was going to give himself an asthma attack. Few people have as deep of a love of nature, fresh mountain air, and roughing it as my dad. I don’t have to look very far to know where I get my love of the wilderness. Joe’s dad came out for a while too, he had a moose tag so we were looking for a nice bull for him. Dad and I spotted a bull one morning and spent several hours just watching him, he was too far to go after, but we really enjoyed watching him. It was early in the rut, so the bull was starting to collect a few cows. Not many people can sit and glass for long periods like I do, usually even Joe and Howie get board with me and start exploring or playing with sticks, but with my dad I found the perfect companion…. we sat on the tundra for long periods watching the wildlife around us. For me, its therapeutic, as I scan the tundra all my tiredness just ebbs away, trying to find an animal is like a treasure hunt. (It’s weird to some people, I guess, but then again I think its weird to camp out on a side-walk outside of Best Buy so you can fight a person for a new television.) Dad’s time here was short, but we packed in as many adventures as we could, canoeing, hiking, glassing, he even got to see the northern lights. Hopefully, he will be able to make another trip out here before too long.

Now as winter settles in the sun barely peeks above the mountains before it begins its decent, but we don’t mind, we curl next to the fire with a steaming cup of coffee and read another book, watching the skies and dreaming of a white Christmas.

 

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Denali

Unfit For Passengers

 

I clearly remember my first time handling an ATV, mainly because my dad and sister have never let me forget. My dad was out working on irrigation ditches, and my older sister and I were tagging along, the main benefit being that we all got to ride around on a 4wheeler. My dad has always loved to teach us how to handle new thing and situations, which led to Jenny getting a chance to learn to drive the 4wheeler, and then eventually came my opportunity. All I can remember being told was push the black throttle down, in my mind that meant push it all the way until it stops. There may have been other instructions, but at six this is all I heard. My sister is still convinced it was an attempt on her life, but what happened next was the start of my driving experiences. I pushed the throttle down as hard as I could with my little thumb, and the machine roared to life, leaving my sister and dad yelling, and hanging on for dear life as we raced forward, completely jumping an irrigation ditch. I don’t know how long it took for my dad to wrestle the steering away from me and bring us safely to a stop, probably a matter of seconds after clearing the ditch, but for a moment the wind whipped my face and I felt the thrill of power. Never mind that no one let me drive anything for a long time after, and to this day they continue to remind me of how I almost killed them on a 4wheeler. I think it was a steady piece of driving, since we jumped the ditch instead of crashing into it or flipping over. Needless to say, neither my dad or my sister offered to let me drive anything until I was old enough to go through drivers education and had learned to drive with a stranger. As it turned out, I am a decent driver in a car, no accidents or tickets, cautious, but not timid. That aspect of my driving has never been a problem, but once we moved out to Caribou Lodge, a whole new world of driving opened up to me in the form of snowmobiling (or as alaskans refer to it, snow machining.) Once again, I got to enjoy the thrill of the wind at my face and power at my fingertips. Joe is a good teacher and undaunted by my appetite for speed, of course he is sitting safely on his own machine, not clinging on behind me. Over the past year, I have learned to drive a snow machine pretty efficiently, traversing trails and the backcountry with ease. However, there seems to be a consistent hitch in my ability to drive…….passengers. The first time, I buzzed across the frozen lake with my sister in law hanging on the back, we were laughing and enjoying the ride, when suddenly as I leaned into a turn……there was a whooosh of snow pants and she was gone. I looked back to see her laughing and laying in the snow. That was only the beginning of my problem.

Recently, we had our first winter guests. While we have had our share of summer and fall guests, winter guests was a new adventure for us. As the plane dropped down onto the snow covered lake, we jumped onto our machines, with sleds in tow, to bring our new guests and their luggage back to the lodge. It all started out great, introductions and getting loaded up, the plane taking off, and then everyone got on the machines for the ride back to the lodge. I had two passengers, a father and daughter behind me, as Joe had the older son and luggage. As we tried to turn and make our way up the hill, I found the steering nearly impossible, we made a wide turn but as we headed up the hill to the lodge I felt us begin to slide sideways. As if in slow motion, we slid and the snowmachine tipped over dumping all three of us in the snow bank. As it was happening, all I could think of was the unsigned snowmachine wavers sitting on the counter in the lodge. All of us were unhurt and Joe came and helped us get the machine up and back on track and up the hill. As it turned out, our wonderful guests had a sense of humor about the whole affair, though I think they will probably be more selective about their drivers in the future.      Needless to say I have come to grips with the reality that I cannot drive passengers without dumping them off. So far, I have only one passenger who manages to stay on when I am driving, my dog Howie. Somehow, he has managed to perfect the art of riding with me, its a mystery, since he can’t actually hang on, not that it has been helpful to my other passengers. Sometimes as we bump down a rough trail, I look back at him and see him scrunched and wide eyed in the basket, other times as we fly along he leans into the wind and seems to smile. Regardless of our ride, he is always ready to go again. When we load up machines and I lay the cardboard down in the basket he climbs in and is ready for an adventure. He knows he is on his own back there, if he dumps out, he is in charge of getting back in whether I am moving or not. He also knows when things get tricky, its his job to bail out in order to stay safe. He can catch up with me and jump back into the basket while I am moving before I even know he is gone. He is the only passenger that I don’t have to worry about, he is also the only one with the necessary skills to stay on. In acknowledging the fact that I am unfit for passengers, I have decided a special insurance waver is necessary to ride with me. It will go something like this:

“ I _________________, hereby acknowledge that in selecting Bonnie Bramante as my driver, I take full responsibility of my own fate. I will be liable for any injuries sustained during my dump offs and or bail outs, as well as any sustained in my attempts to catch up and remount moving transportation. I assume full responsibility as a passenger to keep and maintain my seat and safety for the duration of the ride. I also acknowledge should other transportation be available to me, it is in my best interest to take it, as current driver is unfit for passengers.”

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Free Time?

People always ask us what we do with our free time in the winter, with tourist season over I think they imagine us spending our days sitting by the fire, reading books, and sipping coffee. Well, not to say that we don’t occasionally get to indulge in those wonderful activities, but I find there is less “free time” than I thought there would be. First off, you are a slave to weather, if it snows you shovel, (want to go the bathroom, shovel a path to the outhouse!) if the wind blows, you shovel the drifts, if it warms and the snow starts melting you shovel slush and fix trails. Then, there is getting firewood. This has always been one of my favorite activities, I have a lot of good memories of getting firewood with my dad. Its a little more fun out here, mainly because we go out with the snow machines, pulling sleds. I am finally learning how to use a chain saw!

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Also, winter is one of the best times to haul supplies in and out. Recently, we got all the new mattresses for the cabins hauled into the lodge. We had a great crew of friends and family that helped out. Joe and I have spent a lot of days on the trail the last month, between supplies and visitors, but we are so thankful to have both.

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Winter being our slow time for guests, also means its the time to repair and spruce things up for tourist season. When I sit down to make a list of what needs done for the day, I find there is always more than I can complete in one day. The most surprising thing of all about winter, I am always sore. Winter has made me use muscles I didn’t know I possessed. My left arm is sore from using the chains saw, my right arm is sore from using the axe, my neck and shoulders are sore from snowmaching on a rough trail, my back aches from shoveling, and my ribs, who knows why they are sore. This may sound like a pity party, but in truth, I love it, because I know with each new ache and pain, I am getting a little stronger. At the end of the day, when I crawl into bed, my mind and body tired, I know its been a good and productive day. Now, in case you start to think winter is some kind of hellish nightmare for us out here, let me just say, in spite of all the work, we do get to enjoy some down time. Some days when the winds howls outside, we get lost in one of our favorite activities. For Joe, it is working with wood in his shop. I used to say I wouldn’t see him all day if he didn’t have to come in from his shop for food, but here recently I noticed he took a candy jar out to his shop for snacks, so maybe I won’t see him at all! Anything Joe does, he perfects. He even sewed himself a leather apron for his wood shop. The other day he came in and informed me it needed pockets for his pencils, and he spent the evening sewing them. I am always amazed at his ability to design and create things, and his persistence in perfection.

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In my free time I am a little less practical and resourceful, I love to ramble with my dog on my snowshoes, soaking in the outdoors. I sit and scribble down my thoughts or get lost in a good book. I also love to make messes in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. As for Howie, he spends his abundant free time playing with sticks and bumming rides off people. Occasionally, he does his job and lets us know about the coyotes across the lake or that there is a snow machiner on the horizon, but mostly he hunts for sunny spots to nap or someone to scratch his belly. IMG_1333

Howie would rather ride than run, even if he gets a face full of snow.
Howie would rather ride than run, even if he gets a face full of snow.
"So, is someone going to pull this thing or what?"
“So, is someone going to pull this thing or what?”
Howie scammed a ride from his new best friend, Jake. Even got to ride in the front seat! Not sure which one is happier.
Howie scammed a ride from his new best friend, Jake. Even got to ride in the front seat! Not sure which one is happier.

Winter is passing quickly, the sun stretching a little higher each day, the birds have been singing in the bushes as if it were already spring. With each extra moment of daylight, we find another chore that can be completed before the sun goes down. IMG_1491

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

 

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of holidays, family visits, weather, and sleepless nights. Our Christmas was quiet and simple with just Joe and I out at the lodge. While often, it’s a struggle to focus on the true meaning of Christmas in the madness of holiday shopping, presents, family and food, this year the celebration of the greatest gift ever given was on the fore front of our minds. On a quiet, snowy Christmas morning, we read Luke 2 and gave thanks for God’s gift of his son Jesus. We kept the tradition from Joe’s family and had homemade ravioli for dinner, which frankly, was delicious! We had planned on going sledding in the afternoon, but a blizzard rolled in and we lost our motivation. It’s not as fun to think about going outside when you have to wear goggles just to make it to the outhouse. (Hmm…how bad do I actually have to go???) We spent the next few days shoveling and re shoveling our paths to and from buildings, since once we were finished the wind would drift snow back into all our paths. It felt a little pointless at times. I watched once when Joe was shoveling the deck and as he threw a shovel full of snow over the railing the wind blasted it all back in his face. I was torn between laughing and feeling sorry for him.

The cache all decorated with lights. We have to start the generator to enjoy the lights.
The cache all decorated. We have to start the generator to enjoy the lights.

Once we got our paths in order, it was time to haul water. When Joe went down to make a snow machine track to the water hole and get things uncovered, he sunk into the 6 inches of slush and water under the snow. The weight of the snow on the ice had pushed water up through the ice hole and all the cracks. Since  there was still a foot of ice underneath, and two feet of snow on top the slush and water, we had a mess. When I went out to take Joe another shovel and help out, I noticed Howie sitting on the porch. This wouldn’t be abnormal if Joe wasn’t down working on the lake, usually Howie is right beside us anytime we leave the lodge. I got down to where Joe was working and he just looked at me and said, “ I am not going to say anything because I want to swear!” I quietly went to work and looked enviously at Howie on the porch. You know you’re in a bad spot if your lab doesn’t even want to hang out with you. After, a few minutes of shoveling slush and water, as it seeped into my boots. I realized I was keeping my mouth shut with the same disgruntled look on my face as Joe. Well, no one ever said life out here was easy! We eventually got a path cleared and waited a couple of days to haul water to give it time to freeze.

Shoveling the slush
Shoveling the slush

New Years rolled around and we spent the day prepping for Joe’s brother, Zac, and his wife, Alyssa, to come spend a night with us. Zac and Alyssa own the lodge, so the boss man was coming!!! Joe and I snow machined out and met Zac and Alyssa at the trailhead and then we all snow machined back into the lodge. We spent the time having important business meetings and getting things ship-shape…. just kidding, we went sledding and played like kids. It was so nice to have some time with them, just enjoying the beauty all around us and planning and dreaming for the future of the lodge. The next day, after a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we all snow machined back out to the trail head. Joe and I put on 50 miles of trail in 48 hours, we were pretty exhausted by the time we got home.

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The last few nights have been filled with sleepless nights as the northern lights have danced overhead. We had every intention of going to bed early each night, only to become mesmerized and end up staying up all night. Last night, we actually made it into bed before we saw all the activity out our window and climbed out of bed to watch. Its been worth every sleepless moment.

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Yesterday, we decided to go out and explore on the snow machines. It all started out wonderful, we saw three bull moose and the day was clear and sunny. However, things quickly headed down hill after Howie cut his paws up on the ice and had to ride behind me. Then, Joe’s snow machine steering broke and we had to tow his machine back to the lodge, dumping it over twice, while trying to navigate a hillside without steering, and almost running over Howie who had fallen out of the basket. I was so relieved when we finally pulled into the lodge, it was one adventure I was ready to see end!!!

The three bull moose walking the ridge line.
The three bull we spotted on our snow machine trek.

So, its been a month filled with celebration, family, struggling against the elements, and earning a little more of that sourdough grit that is required for life in the Alaskan bush.

“Going to Town”

As I write, I am sitting in the lodge, sipping coffee and soaking in the sunrise. For the first time in weeks I feel quiet and the scene before me soothes away the stress and chaos of the last few weeks.

In Alaska, when most people talk of “going to town” they are talking about anchorage, in the bush however, when we talk about “going to town” it means going to any town. A town being anything with a store and more than five people, Talkeetna can be town!

In November, we made plans to go out for Thanksgiving and Joe’s sisters wedding. A lot goes into planning a trip away from the lodge. First, finding the right caretakers, mainly someone who won’t burn down the lodge and likes our dog. Then, coordinating a flight in for them and a flight out for us and someone to pick up and drop off at the Talkeetna airport. From that point on Joe and I were in a whirlwind of preparations, filling water tanks, updating caretaker’s notes, making supply lists, cleaning, laundry and packing. Lastly, since Joe was in his sisters wedding and needed to look respectable, I gave him a hair cut. He was starting to look a little bushy! He just about froze since I cut his hair out on the deck to use the light, and it is only the second time I have given him a hair cut, so I wasn’t particularly fast.

Giving Joe a hair cut, trying to look respectable!
Giving Joe a hair cut, trying to look respectable!

On the wednesday before Thanksgiving our friends Josh and Bailey flew out to caretake for us. They brought their dog Cinder to keep Howie company. He was beside himself with excitement and I think he scared his new friend! Nothing says “welcome” like 90lbs of muscle flying at you jumping and barking, and racing around like a lunatic.

After a quick walk through with Josh and Bailey, we loaded up our gear onto the plane. It was a tight fit with all of our stuff, my bag tried to take over my seat the whole flight back to Talkeetna. One of my favorite things about our life in Alaska is flying in a bush plane, I absolutely love it. It was a clear and beautiful day for flying.

David from Sheldon Air landing on the lake.
David from Sheldon Air landing on the lake.
Gear loaded up and waiting.
Gear loaded up and waiting.

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Flying into Talkeetna, the Alaska Range with the beautiful Mt. Mckinley
Flying into Talkeetna, the Alaska Range with the beautiful Mt. Mckinley

When we got into Talkeetna, we loaded our stuff into the car and headed for Palmer. While, Joe and I love life out in the bush, there are a few simple pleasures that both of us miss from town. Our first few stops were to indulge a few of those guilty pleasures.

My first latte in three months!!!
My first latte in three months!!!
Joe's favorite burger!!
Joe’s favorite burger!!

The next two days were filled with family, food, football and friends. It was so nice to enjoy time with family and watch the Seahawks play on tv, instead of listening to the game on the radio. We even made it to the movie theatre with the family. Saturday, was Carleigh and Jake’s wedding and reception, lots of laughter and tears

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Sunday, Joe headed back to the lodge with a friend, while I hopped on a plane to Denver, Colorado. My beautiful niece, Aleena Grace passed away just before we flew out from the lodge. It was a bittersweet time with my sisters, I always love spending time with them, but standing at Aleena’s grave saying my final goodbye was heartbreaking. I spent a week with my sister and then flew back to Anchorage.

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We had enough snow to snow machine back into the lodge, so Joe and Ben met us at the trail head in Talkeetna.  Joe’s parent’s and I had supplies, so we loaded up the sled and Ben and I swapped places. He headed back to Palmer with Joe’s parent and I started my first snow machine trek back to the lodge. I felt a calm begin to settle in as we raced over the snow and the familiar mountains of home began to come into view.

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Our time with our families was special, playing with nieces and nephews, catching up with brothers, sisters, parents and friends, celebrating new life and marriage, grieving losses and saying goodbyes, but as we crested the ridge and dropped onto our lake and headed up toward the lodge, I felt like I could breathe deep for the first time in weeks.

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We are always excited for our trips into town, for time with family and friends, but nothing is sweeter than coming back home.

Foraging

Winter has been creeping in slowly, the nights colder and the sun slower to rise up over the mountains in the mornings. However, our snow has held off, other than a few skiffs that quickly melted. We have been trying to take advantage of the delay by foraging for late bog cranberries and collecting cottonwood seeds.

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I had to keep an eye on Howie during my berry picking, since the bog cranberries are harder to get to he was tempted to just help himself to my bucket!

I have always heard about a way to make the ” balm of gilead” (mentioned in the Bible) from the seeds of the cottonwood tree (or any tree in the poplar family) and have wanted to try it. It is supposed to be excellent for cuts and scrapes, as well as sore throats and coughs. I love finding local herbs and plants that have medicinal benefits, it is quickly becoming a lost  art. So, Joe and I headed out a few days ago to collect the buds, we have a  small clump of cottonwood trees on the north bank of the lake.  When picking the buds, it is better to wait until they freeze, because the resin is very sticky. We probably should have waited another couple weeks, we did get a little sticky, not too bad though. We used the acidity from some high bush cranberries to help get it off.

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The beavers have been busy preparing for winter as well, they had already taken down a few of the trees and were busy working on another! I am always so amazed at their work! How they get some of those trees and branches through the tundra to the lake puzzles me!

Anyway, I simmered the buds with coconut oil on the wood stove for about 24 hour or so, strained it with cheesecloth and then poured it into a jar and let it solidify. (You can use other types of oil, but i prefer coconut oil for using on the skin) I can’t wait to test it out! I am hoping to also use it on Howie’s feet this winter. (He is always cutting them up on the ice and hates wearing booties) I will let you know how it turns out!

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Its amazing how quickly we adapt to becoming resourceful when supplies aren’t readily available. I find myself thinking more and more about how to harvest and preserve the natural resources around us. I am so thankful for knowledge passed down to me from my parents on how to live from the land. There is still so much I don’t know, but life is a schoolhouse and every day a chance to learn something new.

Laundry Day

Today we tackled laundry, not a big deal for most people, but since the spring has frozen we have to haul the water for the laundry and use the old wringer washer. (I never realized how much water you use to do a load of laundry!)

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First off, Joe had to heat up the motor for the wash machine with a heat lamp, so it would be warm enough to start. Then, while I put the soap, warm water, and clothes in, Joe hauled water for the wash cycle. There were times when living in town I thought my wash machine was noisy, well, i changed my mind…..it purred like a kitten! The Maytag wringer motor is so loud you have to wear ear plugs!

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The washing part is simple, just keep and eye on it. Then, my favorite part…. the wringing. (seriously, it is my favorite part)

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Then, all that’s left is to hang them on the line. Its funny, it takes twice as long, but I have a new appreciation for clean clothes and a sense of accomplishment.

Success!!
Success!!

So, for the rest of the winter the old Maytag and I will keep us all looking (and smelling) respectable! I have to admit it was kind of fun…. not so sure I will feel the same when its below zero.

Until Spring!!!
Until Spring!!!
Its a good to not need to wear clothes!!!
Its good, to not have to wear clothes!!!

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