I’m a Basketcase

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Crafting has intrigued me for most of my life in some way or fashion. Five year old me would sit and attempt to emulate my grandmother while she crocheted. She had the patience to lovingly teach me her skill that I carried into my adulthood and will pass onto my girls. Yarn passing through my fingers as I create a warm wool hat or blanket for one of my children brings back many comforting childhood memories of her. All of my children, and my cousins’ children, have a “Grandma blanket”.  Taking the yarn and adding stuffing to make a beloved toy was one of my obsessions for a while.  Too bad that phase ended before we started having kids.  Oh well, maybe one day I’ll pull out my old patterns and make some babies for my littles to play with.

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Crochet went by the wayside as Ryan’s “hobby” became a full time job.  Now our days are filled with leather.  Little bags, big bags, knife sheathes, belt pouches, purses, belts, leather.  All leather, all the time.  Mark it. Cut it. Punch it. Sand it. Dye it.  Sew it.  Italian Calf.  French Calf.  French Bull.  Deer hide.  Buffalo hide.  Cow Hide.  Beeswaxed dipped.  Vegetable tanned.  Chrome tanned.  Oil tanned.  Going on 5 years now by the grace of God alone, between work and kids/cabin duties, there isn’t much time left for crochet “just because”.  So my hooks are packed away until a new hat is needed, which I was just informed by Ryan will be soon enough.  Our business has scratched my itch to create.  Much to my husband’s dismay, my sewing machine and I have just never seen eye to eye so making clothes is out for now.  Leather scratched my creative itch and I thought that was all I would need.  Man I was wrong!

“I’m going to teach you to make baskets.”  My neighbor was convinced that I needed to learn to make birch baskets.  I have to admit that I wasn’t jumping out of my seat to learn, but it sounded cool enough so I tried it.  What have I been missing my whole crafting life!  Ryan has been reminding me how he brought up the idea of basket weaving many times before.  Stubborn!  Imagine how many baskets I could have made had I listened to him.  Baskets have now filled every storage space available in the house.  Need a place to store the 3yo’s duplos set?  Oh look here’s a basket I made last night.  No where to put all the fruit, yep I’ve got it covered.  “Mommy, can I have a basket for my Legos?” Of course you can baby girl.  A basket for everything and everything in it’s basket.  That’s how that goes right?

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Suddenly my little piece of the forest paradise became a whole new world of creative inspiration.  Baskets had awakened a desire in me I never knew existed.  Sadly, I was told that if I wanted to make baskets I would have to wait until mid June when the sap is up to peel my bark.  Unacceptable!  With my knife in hand, I promptly marched myself out to the wood pile to run an experiment.  Could I harvest bark off of dead trees that we were going to burn?  I could!  I can!  I do!  Living in our cabin, birch is a daily requirement for cooking, heat, and hot water.  Why bother with peeling live trees in the middle of mosquitopocalypse when I have an endless need for firewood.  Instead of asking Ryan “how long until you’re done cutting wood” I now ask “hey do you need to cut more wood today?”

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White, red, and my favorite, silver.  Shiny, smooth, thin, and easy to weave.  Depending on the age of the tree, I can rub off the outer layer and expose gorgeous undertones of deep red and rose mixed with the metallic tones.  Being a thinner bark, it tickles the perfectionist in me (the result of years of leather torture, I mean work) because it will weave together nice and tight without gaps.  Red is thin as well with beautiful undertones of yellow and orange, though not as prevalent on our property.  White is the most common in our area.  It is a fun one to work with as well.  Varying from paper thin to too thick to touch, it is by far the most versatile.  I love peeling off the outer layer and exposing the thin rose bark underneath.  Big baskets to hold bathroom towels or books can be made with the thicker layers. Everything else can be made with the thinner layers.   Baskets have become my new obsession and I can’t walk down the trail without fantasizing about the basket each tree could make.

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IMG_3413Woven. Plaited.  Square.  Rectangle.  Circle.  Heart.  I’ve even got a hexagon to try.  Every basket is different.  Distraction.  Constantly.  Put the kids to bed and midnight arrives before I know it thanks to baskets.  If I’m not making one, I’m searching out new ideas.  Did you know that in Finland there are traditional bast shoes made out of birch?  Oh yes, I will crack that pattern.  Therapy.  Stress relief.  Leather is misbehaving and not going the way it should?  Put it down.  Grab my knife.  Peel a tree and make a basket.  Life is better and I can refocus on work.  Long, exhausting day keeping house, cooking, and tending to children?  Pull out the bark and make a basket after they go to bed.  It’s the best way to unwind and go to bed relaxed.  Baskets make me happy.  Baskets give me an outlet that is mine.  Baskets have organized my house.  Baskets are piling up on my porch waiting for new homes.  Baskets. Baskets.  Baskets.  I’m a basketcase.

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Breaking Up and Moving In

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Everything is brown and wet.  This is the first time I’ve left my property in a week and our kids haven’t gone farther than our neighbor’s cabin or the creek for 3.  Mud is everywhere and the snow machines are parked until November.  Breakup is here!  I both love and hate this time of year.  For about a month each spring our little piece of paradise becomes a nasty, muddy, mucky mess as the pristine winter snow melts away and makes room for the lush greenery of summer.  Each outing becomes a guessing game.  Imagine the surprise of driving the snow machine out to be met with flowing water at the creek.  Can’t cross by machine?  Let’s walk.  Not just yet as the bridge is still flooded.  Time to break out the nerves of steel as Ryan drives the snow machine across open water.  That was a cold splash in the face!

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Today, we donned our muck boots and walked through calf deep creek flowing over our footbridge to hike out.  Things get interesting and wet.  The kids stay home.  Thank God for good neighbors with children so we can socialize and have fun being “stuck in”.  We are never actually 100% stuck in.  Ryan can always get out, it’s just a matter of which method he has to use to cross creeks and wetlands.  The kids and I choose to stay home for safety, ease, and speed of travel most times.  Three kids and mom indoors trying to stay occupied.  The weather is warming up, but we can’t go out and play just yet unless we want to mud wrestle.  The yard is solid puddles and mud for a couple more weeks.  Cabin fever can set in, but we stay busy enough with preparations for summer and gardening, and spending time with good friends.  And cleaning.  Sweeping 3 times a day.  Extra laundry thanks to the inevitable dirt that finds me or my children when we step outside.  Dirt and mud everywhere.  Ugh!  Breakup is not my favorite time of year by far, but it leads to the promise of long, sunny days full of fishing, gardening, grilling, berry picking, and all things that are great about summer in Alaska.

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This breakup we are surviving by finally “moving in” to our cabin.  While we have lived here for over a year, we have done little to make our cabin our home.  I’m sure this comes from habit of my husband and I renting for so long.  This is the first time since we left our house in NC back in 2010 that our lease isn’t up and we aren’t moving.  It’s a nice feeling.

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 Since we are planning a garden that is about three times larger than last year’s, we had to solve the problem of where exactly to put all of our seed trays once we started our indoor seedlings.  What was a pile of scrap wood that had been laying next to our shed has now become a beautiful set of shelving in my living room.  Add in a few fluorescent lights and we now have our own greenhouse of sorts for our seedlings to start growing.  Books that have been half stored, half forgotten about now have a place.  Pictures of our children hang in re-purposed frames on the wall.  Our family albums are unpacked and able to be enjoyed.  I’ve added a few of my newest creations as well.  I have learned to make birch baskets.  We even have an Alaskan Black Bear paw that was shot by Ryan’s grandfather 50 years ago when my children’s grandmother was the age of our oldest daughter.  Our cabin finally looks like our home and it makes a world of difference.  It’s so funny how we never realized what we were missing until the family heirlooms and books were finally unpacked.

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Last month, we finished the upstairs.  When the cabin was built years ago, the upstairs was left with clear plastic covering the insulation.  The two bedrooms had a framed wall between them.  We created privacy by hanging sheets and curtains between the rooms.  While we were on vacation, my father in law and neighbor finished the bedrooms with birch bead board.  Once we got home, rough cut spruce from the local saw mill was put in place on the walls and ceiling in our work space, Ryan has his leather shop setup in the extra space upstairs.  There is something quite motivating to have a completed work space and bedrooms.  An old dresser that has lived on our porch has now been hung as shelving in the bathroom.  That dresser has been in my life since before birth.  Bought by my pregnant mother over 34 years ago for $5 at a yard sale, it held my clothes as an infant and young child.  Now it is a daily use as shelving full of birch baskets in the bathroom.  Again, I never realized the value of good storage until I had it lol.  How did I survive prior to home improvements?  Breakup can be a huge test of nerves and cause us to go stir crazy.  This year we have just about survived the mess by moving in and making a home.  We have new space.  Our stuff is unpacked.  Comfort and memories.  Moving in and moving on to summer…

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Winter Ain’t Over Yet…

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My relationship with winter has gone through a few phases through my life.  As a kid growing up in TN and KY, snow was a mysterious thing that may or may not make an appearance each year.  We always hoped for a white Christmas, but more likely got rain or 70 degree weather.  It was a miraculous thing to wake up on a school day and hear those wonderful words “snow day”.  Sadly, as quick as it showed up it disappeared.  I can honestly only remember two times in my childhood that the snow stuck around for more than 2 days.

As an adult in KY and NC, I began to detest winter.  For those of you that aren’t familiar with that area…winter can be finicky at best (I like to refer to it as “hormonal”.  It’s ok, I’m a girl so I can do it.).  You can experience three seasons all in one week.  The weather can’t decide if it wants to be sunny and 70’s, rainy and 40’s, or just down right ugly and cold with an icy mess on everything.  I lived for March when the cold and ice would go away and the sun would stay around.  Yet here I find myself in Alaska :).

My biggest argument to moving here permanently was the fact that I hated winter.  Imagine my surprise when we arrived here during the biggest snowfall on record and I couldn’t have been happier.  I quickly discovered studded tires for our little car (I never drove in snow before our move) and off I would go to work or the store.  The biggest difference in winter up here is that once it arrives, you know it’s going to stay.  The winter is long, but it is dry so the cold isn’t as bad.  Now once October rolls around I wait with growing anticipation for the first snowfall to break out our machines.

Here we are now, two days away from the first official day of spring and it has been dumping fresh, powdery snow for close to 5hrs now and I couldn’t be happier.  We thought for sure that breakup was going to make an early appearance this year after having 2 solid weeks of mid 40’s and full sunshine.  I had prepared myself to say goodbye to the snow and fight the creeks as they flooded.  I am praying that the bridges will sustain through breakup and that we won’t have to break out the canoe, but I know it will happen.  Now it appears as though we have been granted an extension before the nasty, muddy breakup begins.  We have gotten at least 4″ of fresh, beautiful snow in the past few hours and it keeps coming.

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Snow is fairly vital to our lives living 2 miles off the road system and every bit that we get is a blessing.  Travel is so much easier via snow machine vs hiking on foot with 3 littles in tow.  We can bring supplies and groceries in via a cargo sled on our machines rather than hiking everything in on our backs.  Gathering wood, while not ideal in -15 degrees, is a lot easier with a snow machine that will go wherever you want.  Not to mention, it’s just plain fun to drive a snow machine :).  I have spent the last 4 years, especially this past year since moving to our property, finding a brand new appreciation for snow and winter up here in the wild north.  So while I’m sure most of you reading this are more than ready for summer sunshine, I will go to bed a happy girl knowing that the snow is sticking around for a few more weeks and looking forward to my ride out to church in the morning.

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Boreal Forest Paradise

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I woke up this morning to 10 degree weather, snow on the ground, and silence so perfect that I could hear the trees snapping in the distance from the frost…I am home.  Going back to the lower 48 for the first time in over 4 years was a good experience for many reasons.  It was nice to reunite with friends and family.  It was good to step away from our busy lives for a while and reflect.  Most of all it was so good to come home.  I was surprised at the emotion I felt when we landed in Anchorage at 4:45am after a long evening and night of travel with our 3 littles.   After a 5hr nap at a local hotel and a 2hr drive to our trailhead, I heard a familiar sound as snow machines were driven to our trailhead by our neighbor and pastor.  My soul filled with peace knowing that I would soon be racing through the woods on my machine to our little piece of paradise.

I’m sure those who have known me prior to my Alaska life wonder “how did she get there?”.  Honestly, knowing me prior to 4yrs ago, I would have asked the same thing.  We always talked about visiting Alaska someday but never a serious thought to actually living here.  Living off grid was always a far off dream, even a week before we bought our property it was still a dream that we hadn’t figured out how we would get there.  I was pretty much a city girl growing up and even into a good bit of my 20’s.  After meeting my husband, I started enjoying the outdoors more, but I still preferred a shopping trip and meal out.  The last time many of our friends and family saw us, prior to our move to Alaska, I was a fairly successful RN that loved my job and had no desire to quit.  I was also a new mom trying to juggle life with 2 little girls and working while helping my husband build his leather business.  We had our life plan, but God had other plans in store for us…

4yrs later, we have just returned with a new appreciation for our simple life in the woods.  Our lifestyle may be “simple” according to today’s standards, but it is anything but.  I am now a mother of 3 littles that keep me on my feet daily, if not hourly :).  Each morning starts as I feed the wood stove so it warms up the cabin and I can start breakfast for everyone.  After 2 1/2 weeks down south, I missed my wood stove and the heat it produces.  The stainless steel percolator goes on the stove for coffee for my husband.  The cabin comes alive with little feet as one by one the kids wake up and make their way down the steps.  Let’s eat.  Clean up.  Time for school, we homeschool (one of the many things I love about my new life). By the time lessons are done, it’s back to the stove for lunch followed by dishes and nap time for the youngest one.  Nap time…my 2hrs of “downtime” to guess what, work.  I get as much work done for our business as possible before he wakes up and it’s time for making dinner.  Dinner, clean up, stories, and bed.

The days are getting longer and the generator isn’t on as often.  This makes me excited for our garden.  Last year’s garden was sort of an after thought since we moved in just a couple months before gardening season.  We are prepared and waiting for the first bit of exposed ground to put our tiller to work.  My kids are looking forward to long days spent in the Alaskan sun getting dirty.  This morning’s breakfast discussion was about swimming in the creek.  Let me tell you how awesome it is to walk out behind your house on a hot day, jump in the cold creek, and not be concerned about snakes (another one of my favorite things about Alaska).  We are still months away from that, but for now I will be happy to be home and wake up to 10 degrees and silence.

Home is a north wind blowin

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We got back a week ago yesterday.  The plane touched down in Anchorage to an overwhelming sense of relief.  We’re home.  I never thought I’d be so happy to see Anchorage, but here it was in all its Alaskan splendor, and I was genuinely happy to see it.  I had once mistakenly equated Anchorage with other cities in the lower 48, but after spending 2 1/2 weeks in and around Nashville, TN, I had a new appreciation for this city where the ocean meets the mountain air.  Anchorage is a major hub towards all things Alaskan, and though I prefer to spend my time far outside the borders of cities and towns, I do appreciate that they hold their place.  We weren’t actually home until after a 2 hour drive north, and the brisk late winter wind had reminded us that winter wasn’t quite over as we sat on our snow machines for the first time in nearly a month.

 

The  cabin is a sight for sore eyes.  No shiny faux finish.  It is what it is.  No pretense.  The wood stove is hot.  No dry air blowing through dusty vents.  Pure radiant heat as the beetle-kill spruce crackles to heat the stove top for dinner.  Real food.  Simple, pure.  Cooked in animal fat.  Delicious.  Pretty soon it will be summer.  We’ll be grilling hotdogs over spruce wood.  My favorite.  Sleeping in my own bed is wonderful.  Too bad we’re all sick with this chest destroying head cold.

The difference between this place and “back home” is astounding.  I wasn’t prepared for how much I had changed in 4 years.  Daily life at the cabin requires a moderate amount of physical activity on a daily basis to have the basics (i.e. mainly cutting, splitting, and hauling wood), before work is even considered.  It was nearly like traveling back in time to the land of unlimited electricity, flat screens, cable, and high speed internet.  A washer and a dryer in every apt.  Video games, movies, tv shows…grab a bite to eat at the bite to eat grabbin spot.  Watch people make and talk about food on the tv.  Now I’m hungry again.  I did like the show about buying a house in exotic locales around the world…the first morning we ate breakfast as a family at the table after getting back to the cabin was like some long lost memory from a movie or something.  Like our cabin was the vacation and we get to stay.

The viruses and bugs hit us hard in the lower 48.  Stomach virus fresh off the plane.  I spent a night in the hospital for my troubles, the wife and kids all having weathered the storm at least well enough.  Some Vaykay.  Afterwards my kids start running noses and coughing, and haven’t stopped a week after we’re home.  Seems like everyone is sick all the time anymore.  Weirdo.  At least we’re home now.  Cough and all.

Just finished the upstairs inside the cabin, with a ton of help from my neighbor.  Got my shop put back together.   Working hard on leather.  Splitting and hauling wood.  Helping my neighbor skid logs for cabins he’s building.  Hauling supplies in the snow machine from the car.  Life is much more demanding up here.  I can’t hardly imagine living any other way.  The snow will be melting soon, just got a new tiller for grubbing out roots and building the permanent raised beds for the garden.  In the next couple of years I’ll have an acre or more planted with something to eat or herbs to make stuff out of.  This year, God willing, we’ll be putting food away from the garden along with fresh moose from the hunt, and smoked salmon from the river.  And wood.  I’d like to be a few years ahead of that wood pile.

So anyway, this first post and new blog is inspired by the first breakfast back in the cabin.  Our mismatched enamel and corningware dishes at our worn wooden table, looking over our homemade breakfast and steaming hot coffee out into woods that went to the river and met with woods that went to the mountains and there is not much in between all that.  Except this little piece of it is mine, and I am a steward of all that is around me here, and my little place is large indeed.  Its just that now I have a larger appreciation for what it is we have here.  Priceless.  Worth the endeavor.

Authentic.

Ryan
.Cabin.Table.Family.