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Is it nostalgia?
Our little pocket of the Goldstream Valley sits above the temperamental O’Connor Creek. Sometimes it is a trickle, sometimes a raging torrent that chews up culverts and blueberry bushes. In the winter, it’s a highway for wildlife: fox, hare and moose tracks intertwine. Depressions in the snow beneath low hanging trees are evidence of nighttime bowers for coyotes and wolves. Away from the creek, the forest transitions from spindly black spruce and austere tamaracks to birches and towering white spruces.
When I felt lonely and defeated, I rarely went to the creek for solace. Its fractiousness was the source of much angst and difficulty (not to mention money), so I didn’t find comfort in the tea-colored waters. Instead, I would settle into the base of one of the massive spruces. I was steadied by the rough bark at my back, by the rows and rows of branches reaching into the sky. I thought about the changes those trees had seen, to the valley, to this bit of land. And felt reassured that whatever frustration I faced, it would pass.
Recently, a post came across one of my social media feeds about someone wanting to run away to an off-grid cabin. They rhapsodized about the simplicity of life; how peaceful it would be. I’m not an asshole, I think everyone deserves their dreams and if that person wants to idealize that life, good on them. But as I was drifting off to sleep that night, I started cataloging what a typical day looked like living at our place during the winter.
6:00 am: Wake up. Convince self to leave cozy loft to start the woodstove.
6:15 am: Let the dog out. Build a fire in the woodstove, send a plea to the fire gods that it would draw the first time.
6:20 am: It takes the dog less than five minutes to do her morning business, so the temperature must be cold. Decide whether it is cold enough to bundle up and carry the generator out to the car to plug it in. (-11 F, I can probably get away with cold starting it, anything colder meant plugging the car into the generator).
6:30 am: Miraculously the fire is raging. Time to feed the animals and make my coffee.
7:45 am: Cross my fingers that the car will start after an hour on the generator. Let it idle while I damp down the woodstove and get the pets settled.
8:00 am-4:00 pm (or later): Work. Sunrise is around 10 am, sets at 3 pm.
4:15 pm until bed: Take the dog for a couple walks. If I’m lucky there are coals left in the woodstove to rekindle the fire. Split wood and kindling. Haul out the grey water bucket. Carry the generator outside again to charge the house batteries. Did I mention that it is dark? There is fresh overflow on the ice of the driveway, so the car needs to be parked on the other side of the creek. If it is cold in the morning, I’ll have to drag the generator up on a sled to start it. Keep the woodstove fed. Carry the generator inside after the batteries are charged.
I could go on, but what would be the point? Not so simple and relaxing, is it? And we chose that lifestyle. But I had no idea how much work it would be on top of my full-time job. I didn’t really grasp the toll it took until we moved away. Your mind is constantly thinking of the next thing you need to do. Building a fire in the morning is not about ambience, but the frantic need to get warm. If there was a big storm, no one was coming to clear the snow from our 1/2 mile long driveway.
It wasn’t all bad. For the many times it brought me to tears of frustration, it also brought tears of awe at its wildness and beauty. It refused to give an inch. It was a heavy burden, living that way. But occasionally when I am in that place between consciousness and dreaming, I think I hear the pop of the woodstove or the hoot of the boreal owls. It didn’t break me, but it was a close thing.
When Dave arrived at the cabin in May this year, one of those ancient spruces had fallen during a windstorm and blocked the driveway. It was a tree I knew well. There was a huge patch of lingonberries that grew at its base and a cleaved dent in the downhill side of the trunk was perfect for sheltering from the rain. It also had rivers of pitch oozing from the bark, signs that the tree was not healthy. Dave chain sawed it apart to clear the way and counted 130 rings of growth. That may not seem that old to some of you in other parts of the country, but that tree survived logging, fires, and the harsh conditions of growing in interior Alaska. Our cabin was built in the 1980s, so its existence was only a small blip on the life of that spruce. It was a witness to our time on the land. One spring, beneath it’s branches, I collected at least ten tennis balls, lost by our dog in the snow of winter. A rubberized version of an Easter egg hunt. The pets are gone now and so are we, but the remaining trees stand sentinel. The creek throws its fits. The foxes cavort in the snow. Everything changes and everything stays the same.