Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

Discovering amazing places in the world is a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because it shows travelers the beauty and diversity of the world, a curse because it leads to this draw away from the comforts of the settled life and a struggle to choose where to call home.

When I was at The Pub a few weeks ago, I chose to wear my New Zealand All Blacks shirt from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which NZ hosted and won while I was working and traveling there. The man seated next to me asked me the reason for the shirt, and I proceeded to happily talk to a complete stranger about my country for a chunk of the evening.

Over the course of our conversation, this father of a first year college student and a free spirited teenage daughter heard tales of my travels in NZ, China, and Mexico. Some of my adventures worried him as he thought of his own daughter, but mostly he seemed entertained by my tales. Toward the end of the conversation he asked, “Since you love New Zealand so much, what’s keeping you from going back?”

After my usual bs mumbling about visas, needing a job, and the cost of living, I stopped and reflected on how I’ve compiled excuses for not making a move to my favorite country happen. A few years ago I read a blog post about dreams and whether we pursue them or not. Unfortunately I can’t recall the exact line or find the post, but it said something like:

When our dreams seem too difficult to realize, we convince ourselves we never really wanted them that badly, and then we force ourselves to not want them any more. In making up excuses and moving around our dreams, we abandon them and never know what could have been.

The Importance of Big Dreams – similar yet different post by a great blogger

As someone who still gets more fired up to talk about New Zealand than anything else, that idea saddens me. I haven’t let the dream die, but I’ve realized that something else has gotten in the way. To explain, we have to return to the South Pacific.

Wanaka, a cute town in the Central Otago region of the South Island, wanted me to slow down and stay awhile during my travels. I arrived with only 5 days left in my ~4.5 weeks of wandering everywhere I could squeeze in down south, and I was greatly saddened that I had to catch a flight so soon. Though it’s a town situated on a beautiful lake and just down the road from ski areas and the Southern Alps, Wanaka seemed rather unassuming and quiet compared to the nearby tourist-saturated Queenstown. I quickly decided that its character and 4 season climate made it my preferred area to live.

While walking down the main street, I noticed The Picture Lounge – NZ Photographers Gallery, home of what I discovered to be a gorgeous collection of landscape and adventure photography. Naturally, I went inside to check out the beautiful images. As I took in the pictures hanging on the walls and flipped through the many albums, the unexpected happened. I began to cry.

I cried because New Zealand is too unfairly beautiful. I cried because I’d fallen in love. I cried because I had just about 2 weeks left to spend there.

As I struggled to contain myself, an employee walked over to chat with me. When I looked up from the album and he saw I was in tears, his expression changed to concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I smiled through my tears as I worked on wiping them away. “Sorry, just give me a minute.”

Once I’d closed the albums, I was able to walk up to him and explain I had no interest in leaving his amazing country. He was relieved to know that was the only reason for a teary visitor, and of course he appreciated my mentality. Kiwis know how fortunate they are to live in a gorgeous country and be so distant from the rest of the world; one simple t-shirt design reads “Living in a better place… New Zealand.” I bought one.

Despite not wanting to return to America, I left New Zealand on schedule and have spent the last 5 years frequently daydreaming of my hobbit home and when I will return. Alaska – specifically Fairbanks – has been my home base ever since, but it hasn’t necessarily felt like home.

Being a homeless couchsurfer who typically floats into town for just a week or so between jobs hasn’t allowed me to establish my post-college life. Yes, I’ve found time for backpacking, dogsitting, biking, The Pub, and visits with friends. Until recently my stints in town have been too brief to really feel like I’m part of the community, though.

Now I’m back in Homer – home of the headquarters of Alaska Maritime NWR – and just a week away from leaving civilization for another summer on Buldir. After visiting Saturday’s indoor Farmers Market, I decided to step inside businesses I’ve ignored on my last 2 seasons’ worth of stays in Homer.

Enter Ptarmigan Arts, a co-op art gallery full of Alaskan photography, paintings, drawings, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and woodworking. While browsing through the gallery, a feeling hit me as I realized…

Alaska. Alaska is why I haven’t focused my life on returning to New Zealand. Although I shed no tears, my visibility grew fuzzy, and I had to hold myself back from light crying as I gazed at the beauty – and more so the character – of Alaska captured by cameras and carved in wood.

I love Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, tundra, trees, flowers, and hot springs; its boats, lakes, rivers, islands, and ocean; its moose, bears, wolves, otters, and other furry animals; and its birds. I love its small towns, breweries, dry cabins, outhouses, plaid and Carhartts, hiking boots and XtraTufs, potlucks, and puppies. I love its funky daylight cycle and aurora borealis. Perhaps most importantly, I love its people who have welcomed me to stay for almost 10 years.

I love New Zealand. I don’t like being American, but I do love Alaska. Even though I don’t really have a home, friends always welcome me back.

So what to do? Beats me.


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cookiesAs I sit on my brother Jeff’s couch, eating a few cookies from the batches of my Grandma’s snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies I just made, family comes to mind. You see, I’m a fantastic sister. I arrived at Jeff’s in California a week ago, and part of his condo tour included specifically letting me know where the cookie ingredients were “in case you want to do any baking.”

With empty cooling racks on various surfaces and crumbs beneath as reminders of what had been and could be, I took the hint and did some baking. My brother and I are very different people, but his baking cupboard showed me that we do share that interest.

Jan 89

Jeff and I also share a love of the outdoors, reading, and travel, but our interests and intelligence vary beyond that. He went to MIT to study computer science; I went to UAF to study my own interdisciplinary major of nature photojournalism. He plays ultimate frisbee, reads court cases, and even travels to Washington, D.C., to sit in on U.S. Supreme Court sessions for fun. I hug puppies, play in the kitchen, and run for fun. In other words, my brother is smart – as in naturally intelligent.

Jeff’s brains took the family to D.C. for his 3 years as a contestant in the National Spelling Bee. While he was busy working his way to tying for 5th in the nation, I was nervously pacing upstairs in our hotel room.

Whether he knows it or not, I truly don’t know what I’d be like as a person if it weren’t for him. He was one of those kids who got straight A’s in school without needing to put much effort in, so I just grew up assuming there was no reason for me to not get A’s. The difference was that I had to earn them with late nights and a few actual tears of fear for Honors Chemistry. (Of course not too far in I learned that Chem is awesome and ended up taking AP Chem.) I graduated from high school with a high GPA and carried that work ethic and need for good grades throughout college.

Ultimately none of that really matters, though, since I can now sit in a brewpub and watch football on the screen above Jeff’s head while he’s watching on the screen over mine. (Although somehow he did get the hideous gene that makes him support the Wolverines. NO approval from me on that one.) Both of us got the quieter side from our Dad rather than the talkative gene, and while we don’t talk much or live close by, we get along reasonably well. He has his tech life, and I usually find puppies.

I’ve realized that I probably wouldn’t be exactly where I am without the influence of my human brother and canine sister. Because Jeff was part of a very active Boy Scout troop, I was always envious of his outdoor excursions. When it was time to decide on a destination for Jeff’s senior trip – a family trip following graduation from high school – we all had been interested in Alaska, but Jeff is the one who officially requested it.


RBDII on twin trip in 2004… unless I somehow was flying when I took this

Little did I know in 2004 that a month of Alaskan summer would lure me to college in the Last Frontier. Nor did I know that my ride on the Riverboat Discovery would be the very first of dozens; when wildlife fieldwork failed to pan out 8 years later, I became a deckhand for the 2012 season. When riding the Riverboat in 2004, I first laid eyes on Trailbreaker Kennel, home of Susan Butcher and David Monson. Being a dog lover, that was obviously the highlight of the boat trip for me.

When I heard that Trailbreaker could use a hand in 2012, I quickly offered my help andΒ  became a dog handler for my 2 days off the Riverboat per week. Being on shore with the dogs was so great that I made a few appearances late in 2013.

Fast forward to March 2017 when I was fresh off of 2 months in the heat and sunshine of Mexico. I’d returned to Alaska earlier than necessary in the hopes of catching a few weeks of winter. At the GCI Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race I ran into Laura Allaway, an Iditarod musher and fellow dog handler at Trailbreaker.

She mentioned her winter tour business had been shorthanded; I mentioned I was back in town with a whole lot of not much to do until summer. It’s not hard to put the pieces together from there. She told me she couldn’t offer me much money for helping out but that there was an open cabin next to the dog yard.

I was SOLD.TBK home

dog teamMaybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but it looks as though it’s thanks to Jeff that I’m a dog handler for Golden Heart Dog Tours out of Trailbreaker Kennel. God probably had a slight hand in it, too. πŸ˜‰

Being a sled dog handler in winter had been an idea since coming to Alaska, but needing income to pay off student loans had put it on hold. Now that I’m free, the dream is real! As of this past week, I finally had the chance to hop on a sled pulled by my own little team! From my childhood with Pixie to present times, puppies have always been the best.

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Since my own mom seemed to think I didn’t understand Alaska’s geography, I just wanted to note that I was being humorous with that last post. I’m very aware of how far south I am in relation to my usual Alaskan bases, and I know that the sun rises later when you travel west in a time zone. Having all of Alaska in one time zone is rather absurd, given the state’s vast spread both north to south and east to west. In fact, I’m actually not living in Alaska Standard Time for the summer; Buldir operates on Aleutian Standard Time (with Adak), which puts us an hour behind the rest of Alaska. In conclusion, I’m happy to say that I am living in another dimension. I wanted to clear that up so that no one would be left questioning my intelligence. πŸ™‚

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Tastes of Home

Whenever I cook one of my Grandma’s recipes, a goofy grin spreads across my face as my nose registers the odors emanating from the kitchen. Whether I’m baking her dinner rolls, making cucumber salad, or creatively building a bundt pan to bake her sour cream coffee cake; I can’t help but think of her house. By the time I take a bite of the familiar food, I’m fully smiling and saying aloud, “It tastes like Grandma’s house!”

As a peripatetic person, specific foods always become associated with certain periods of my life. Kiwis obviously will always bring up memories of New Zealand, as will cold cereal in tupperware, PB&J, and applesauce bread. Breakfast burritos (potatoes, refried beans, Lots of bacon, eggs, salsa, and some cheese) make me think of Tutakoke field camp and how my boss Thomas would deliver them to us while we sat watching for migrating birds for 2 hours every morning.


Night’s Watch from Camp Tower

Delicious fresh peaches make me think of post-hunting stops at the Oakland County Farmers’ Market with my dad in Michigan’s autumns. (I even called him from NZ to let him know I was thinking of him as I ate a peach from a farm stand down there.) Persimmons bring up memories of Thanksgivings in California. Raspberry wheat beers remind me of the Pub on UAF’s campus.

Tonight I wanted a beer after thinking about all my issues with our society for the majority of the afternoon. With delight I pulled an Alaskan White from the fridge, took a sip, and declared, “It tastes like home!”



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In about an hour from now (around 01:00), I will have landed to visit UAF for a long weekend exactly 8 years ago. My, how the time flies.

A few weeks ago I realized that – for the first time ever – I had completely forgotten that March 20th marked the anniversary of my puppy Pixie’s passing. If anyone missed my sob story about how she directly connects with my college decision, here’s the link to My Journey North.

After living the first 18 years of my life in the same house, I can say I haven’t spent more than 4 consecutive months in one residence in the last 8 years. In fact, while working on my federal background check for my US Fish & Wildlife position, I’ve determined that I’ve “lived”/traveled in over 20 places in the last 5 years.

All of my moving around in the 4 years since I graduated college has definitely been a bit tiring and stressful at times, but it’s also always exciting. Just looking through my pictures gives me the travel bug. Although maybe I’ll never have enough money to retire, I’ve taken to saying, “I can’t wait to retire!” Being only 26 and having never held a normal job for longer than a year of school, it’s safe to pronounce me “doomed.”

Living with packed bags on a prayer has made me realize a few things:

  • Fairbanks must not be a bad place. It’s as close to a home as I’ve had since leaving for college…
  • … yet I always find myself leaving. Whatever I’m hoping to find just isn’t here right now.
  • I’m not very skilled in the ways of normal life, such as dealing with car ownership, the details of housing agreements, budgeting for a typical month, treating myself to nice dinners, indoor jobs, etc…
  • … but I’m good at finding myself cheap transportation and lodging for budget travel, trying to reconnect with friends in travel locations, trying local foods/food joints when I’m hungry, people watching during solo travel, living in the middle of nowhere, and working with wildlife.
  • I’m fortunate to have supportive parents and friends who think I’m crazy but don’t actively try to stop me from enjoying my different kind of life.
  • … and I couldn’t do it without them.

I live off my own means and work on paying back student loans, but my Dad is my unofficial financial adviser who lets me know about consolidating my random retirement accounts, opening IRAs, and suggesting when a certain amount of money should go where. Since apparently my high school and university – like many – aren’t wise enough to require every student to take a personal finance course as part of a core curriculum, I have virtually no useful background in money management or the language of finances. Ours is a complex world that will swallow one’s money if one is not careful, so fortunately my parents raised my brother and me to be thrifty. I’m also fortunate that my parents are admittedly envious of places I’ve worked and the type of work I do.

Lastly to my friends near and far, in Alaska and the Lower 48, New Zealand and Europe. Maybe we were good friends in high school and you’ve now dealt with my infrequent visits or haven’t even seen me for years. Perhaps we were study buddies, lived in the same dorm, or watched the aurora until 03:00 from the campus trails at UAF. Some of you I’ve only known for a couple years through post-college town and field jobs. A couple of you were placed in my path through some faulty planning of my own. One of you I’d never even met until I got off the train in Vancouver, and I was just trusting a friend’s reference. Whoever you are and for however long I’ve known you, thanks for being a friend and for reading this, because I’ve also learned that as much as I’m grateful for everything,

  • My thank you’s are never as complete as I’d like them to be.

So many of my travels would not be possible without my scattered friends. Since so much of my life involves solo travel, it’s nice to be connected to friends when I’m on the road. To anyone who has put me up on a couch for days or weeks, given me a mattress on the floor, shared a tent, let me sleep in a kennel, or given me a spare bedroom and storage: you have my deepest gratitude. I’ve been so thankful for the chance to visit, sleep, and keep up with your lives. Thank you for the rides, bike loans, food, beer, and laughter. Through your generosity I’ve been able to continue with these trips; believe me, I’ve already concocted a possible option or 2 for fall.

Whether I know you or not, thanks for reading the sometimes random thoughts of a wandering ginger. Hopefully I’ve entertained you or somehow added to your day with my entries.

When I flew here to Fairbanks to visit 8 years ago, I didn’t fully realize how much my life would change. I guess I really should be saying, “Thanks, Alaska.”

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For people who have homes, reminders of memories are typically visible all around. Photographs, trinkets, books, music, and artwork decorate the walls and shelves that surround lives. There’s the photo of the family in front of the U.S. Capitol from one of our 3 free trips to D.C. for the National Spelling Bee. There’s the book about the the creation of the national parks. There’s the Taco Bell hot sauce packet – with the line “Will you marry me? – that was given to me by Taco Dave the night of a somewhat annual backyard campout. In front of the fireplace stand 3 pictures of our Polish, German, and Belgian exchange students. Back in my parents’ house, practically everywhere I look reveals objects that hold memories.

Thanks to my nomadic, seasonal lifestyle, I have no home of my own. I affectionately refer to my storage unit as “home” – although I have yet to sleep there. When I’m living in a field camp, I typically have minimal possessions with me. I don’t have much “fluff” beyond the obligatory clothing, camera, music player, computer, and books/Kindle. The touches of home are fairly absent from camp until our crew creates inside jokes that give the camp personality. Thus, I don’t see many visual cues that trigger memories for most of the year.



Today I ended up working on unpacking from my latest travels and organizing in my unit for a few hours. “Lost in My Mind” is a song by The Head and the Heart that I frequently find running through my head. Being an introvert and often on my own, I get lost in my mind all the time. When I’m digging through my possessions, my mind bounces along on various tracks.

One box in storage contains mostly things I feel inclined to save from my college years + field seasons. Contents have been pared down, so the remainder has meaning. All I have to do is open the box to see the few pictures and signs that decorated my dorm rooms and cabin. Opening the black raspberry scented candle sweeps me inside my freshman dorm and into a bank of memories surrounded by year-round, in-room Christmas lights. When I open the small bag of NZ-related travel information and unscrew the cap of a tiny bottle of manuka oil, I’m instantly transported to the East Cape of NZ around New Year’s. A whiff of a liner glove takes me back to last winter’s fish processing. Skimming my field journals reminds me of how goofy some field crew members have been.

I look at my photographer’s backpack and think fondly on the North American Nature Photography Association’s Summit in McAllen, Texas, I attended on a college student scholarship. One tour of my box of outdoor gear makes me reflect on recent backpacking trips and the stories behind various pieces of gear. As a result I find myself practically hugging my backpacks and dreaming of the next trips. A look inside my boxes of dishes and cookware (oh how I miss using you, crockpot!) elicits a sigh of desire. Just pulling my bike out of storage and walking it around town brings back memories of my summer working on the Riverboat Discovery.


Bands I replaced on black brant on the YKD in summer 2014

The specific moment that almost evoked a slightly red-faced response came when I saw my field maps and color bands from black brant work on the Tutakoke River. Each band has a story and belonged to a bird with a unique life history; each dot on that map represents a specific nest I found and followed through to hatch. That map shows part of my coverage territory from last summer, and it’s killing me to know I won’t be back there checking to see where nests are this summer. The Tut camp impacted my life, and I’d like for nothing more than to be right there and on St. George at the same time this summer.

The general result of all this digging around is exhaustion. Going through the stuff isn’t physically exhausting, but it sure is emotionally as my mind races from one memory to the next. Most of the time I end up slightly sad as I try to relive episodes from the past. While this sounds strange, a part of my core must appreciate it. Recently I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and was categorized in the INFP group known as “The Idealists.” Previously unbeknownst to me, I’m part of a group of people who are often attracted to sad things. I’ve known for awhile that quite a few of my favorite songs could be classified as sad. Somewhere in the psychology of thoughts and emotions, making myself sad must actually be fulfilling.

My guess is that – in this case – essentially looking at my life thus far makes me recognize how fortunate I’ve been for the variety of experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met along the way. I’d love to be able to call up friends from various stages of my life to just hang out whenever the way normal people do. Unfortunately that’s not how my lifestyle works. My time with everyone is compounded to a degree where I have to enjoy every moment deeply, whether good or bad, and then remember it later. Living with Kelsey again over the winter confirmed that we really do lead rather lonely lives. (We’ve seen each other more than anyone else over the past year, and I’d say it’s rare for 2 field techs to spend seasons working together on various projects.)That’s why time to see friends is so satisfactory. I’m an introvert when I’m in town, but I crave to see the people and puppies I care about. (it’s actually another trait of INFPs)

Fairbanks is as close to a home as I really have, and it’s been good to me. “Stubborn Love” by The Lumineers has a fitting line that I think about frequently when I face these strange bouts of sadness … or whatever I should call it:

It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all / the opposite of love’s indifference.

My gratitude for friends and experiences can sometimes border on pain, but that’s how I know I’m alive and human. If I was indifferent to Fairbanks, Alaska, New Zealand, Washington, Alberta, or California; you wouldn’t know me.

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Rather early on in my years in Fairbanks, I’ll admit I wanted to list myself as being in a relationship (on Facebook). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to specify my partner’s name because Alaska didn’t have an account. I couldn’t say I was β€œIn a Relationship with Alaska.” Little did I realize just how correct that statement would become.

Apart from Michigan, Alaska is the place where I’ve spent the most time. I have an Alaska Driver’s License, am registered to vote there, and store the majority of my belongings there. However, it’s not the place to find winter wildlife research. The birds are down south, the bears are sleeping, and most everyone else gets forgotten during the cooler months.

I’m spending this winter working for The Nature Conservancy around the Sacramento area of California. Although I enjoy my co-workers and don’t mind the work, I’m not a California girl. I feel like I’ve abandoned Alaska this winter. I’ve lived through the driest January on record, but that’s not my style. I’m wondering,

Where’s the snow?

Hearing about the big snowstorms hitting the Midwest and East Coast is breaking my spirit a little. Being able to run in shorts and a t-shirt in January and February is convenient but just feels wrong. I don’t have the pleasure of frosted eyelashes, wearing Yaktraks, and wondering how many layers to wear. The ground here is generally green, but fields and trees are dead; the snow and frost of Fairbanks would sure look a lot more pretty.

As people grow they develop certain tendencies and interests. Whether by genes, fate, or interest; I became a northern girl. The 4 seasons make life beautiful, and I don’t particularly want to live in a place where they just differ by rainfall. Fall and winter are probably my favorites, and since my eyes seem to be more sensitive to light than most people’s, Alaska’s wintry darkness is the best. I’ve also found that warmth + light put me to sleep, so the dark chill of winter actually keeps me awake.

Apparently others have noticed my northern ways, as numerous friends have commented that my recent travel to Hawaii seemed rather out of character. One friend said, β€œOf all places I expected you to visit in your lifetime, Hawaii wasn’t on it.”

Areas of warm weather and higher densities of people are two traits that typically don’t attract me. A co-worker from Tutakoke round #2 said he was surprised to hear I was headed to California for winter. When I commented that it wasn’t my ideal location, his response was “Yeah too many people, haha.”

thumbs down

Too many man-made structures = thumbs down

My field co-workers know I’m not one for being around many people. At the peak population this summer, we had 17 people at Tutakoke. When I saw the spread of tents on the horizon, I wanted half of them to disappear. How was I to sit in my corner and read or journal with so many people around?

I mention all of this because – as I feel like I belong in New Zealand – I can tell I don’t belong in California. I know there’s a lot more to this state than the Central Valley, but I just feel it’s a state I’m supposed to pass through as a visitor. Despite the fact I’ve only been here for about 1.5 months, I already have itchy feet.

When I lived in my dry cabin in Fairbanks, I often enjoyed late night walks home under the Northern Lights. I’m not one for singing when other people are around, but I sing along to music when I’m alone all the time. At some point I decided I can decently sing along with U2’s song “With Or Without You,” a song that I find rather beautiful. It became my go-to song to sing when spinning around with eyes turned up to the sky, on my walks back home. With brilliant colors dancing overhead and the chill warming up my spirit, I’d belt it out to the skies.

“I can’t live with or without you…”

Only now do I realize just how fitting the song title is for my perspective. I dearly miss my Northern Lights. While in Hawaii and even now here in California, I’ve found myself getting excited about wisps of cloud that look like pale green lights, only to remember I’m not in Alaska. I miss -40F and hearing everyone complain about it; I know they actually secretly love it. I miss my puffy coat. I miss skiing to cabins and then climbing into a gigantic down sleeping bag. I miss waking up to the frosty inside of a tent and having my good friend Tad greet me with a friendly “Good morning beautiful.” I miss my failed sled dog friends. I miss gatherings of plaid-clad friends enjoying a pint in the Pub or in dry cabins tucked in the snowy woods. You can’t find camaraderie like that of Fairbanks folk frozen together for the winter anywhere else.


Start of Yukon Quest 2008

white mountains

White Mountains National Rec Area

But at the same time, what am I to do in the winters up there? Permanent field tech positions are few and far between. Also, travel in and out of the state isn’t exactly cheap, making it a less-than-ideal home base.

It seems I can’t live with or without Alaska. I suppose there are worse dilemmas in life.

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