Friday, June 10, 2016

The Pendulum

Preparing for and taking the first steps of any adventure are pure moments.  All your energy and focus leaves the mundane path of daily life and for a short while you can be alone with one goal.  Everything else is superfluous to the transition.  Nothing else matters except getting where you need to go.

It’s freeing.  It’s addictive.  It can be as simple as a taking off on a long distance trail run or as complicated as moving halfway round the world.  It's becoming a parent, a partner for life, or the million other things that lift you out of your comfort zone and drop you somewhere new.  

A year ago we drove onto the ferry from Bellingham to Ketchikan.  I’ve covered that trip in an earlier blog post.   This is purely a reflection of where I am at twelve months later.

Ever since I was a child I wanted to live in Alaska.  I assumed I would even though I was growing up in rural Scotland, then California, then Scotland again - and several places within the country, then Washington state.

And now here we are.

This has been a year of high highs and low lows.  Alaska doesn’t come easy.  But then neither did rural Scotland or remote Washington State, or even California.   Living at a remote hatchery simply intensify these feelings, make them more extreme than they need to be.  When your life exists in a world of such limited radius it can be hard to see beyond your borders and not sweat the small stuff.  It's easy to let your internal pendulum swing too far and to lose your balance.  And it's in the void created by this over-swing, that the worries, the doubts, the anxiousness creep in.

 I’m glad I have the knowledge and life experience that allows me to recognize this, however sometimes (okay, a lot) I let myself get dragged down by minutiae.  It’s as if I’m watching myself through a window worrying and wearing myself down, while I’m banging on the glass telling myself to pull it together, that it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but the glass is soundproof.

I worry about people, the hatchery, how my family is adjusting to the move, whether or not the salmon will come back, if I’m good enough to homeschool my children, that I won’t be able to run or ski in the mountains ever again, that I’ll never kayak well enough to leave the bay, even trivial things have seemed large: that I won’t get a deer again this year, that we won’t get a halibut.  The list goes on.  There's been some other stuff I've HAD to worry about, things I'm not willing to talk about, not here not now.  But most things that have kept my mind whirring are those which worrying about won’t change, things that are out of my control, many of which in five years, or even a few months down the line, won’t matter.  But I've spent many days tied up in knots and had many sleepless nights over the past year.  I'm tired, my body hurts.  My spirit has been bruised at times, even fractured.

Steve deals with life in a linear pattern.  He has his goals and works towards them.  If he encounters a problem he deals with it then, not before, and moves on.  He sleeps well at night. 

I on the other hand like to have all my possible problems, and solutions for them, worked out ahead of time.  Just in case.  It feels like a safety net, but in reality it’s a weight around my neck.  There is a Swedish saying: “Worry gives small things big shadows.”  And so many things in my life are in the shade because of this.  Right now I’m working on being like the midday sun in a desert – ruthlessly shining on my worries, driving the shadows out from underneath them.  Reducing them to what they really are; the small stuff.

This is all a long-winded way of saying I’ve had a stressful year.   But with many, many enjoyable moments too: I’ve discovered I love homeschooling, I get to travel on floatplanes, I’ve met many lovely and interesting people, my family is close-knit and doing well, the wildlife is spectacular, I get to see more bears in an hour than most people see in a lifetime, seals, sea lions, humpbacks, orcas, wolves, otters, eagles, loons, and of course the splendor that is a salmon run.  I've seen four seasons of soggy southeast Alaska.  I’m finally living here.

And this is also a way of saying I wouldn’t have expected anything less.  Having moved so many times I know that the first year is always the hardest.  I get frustrated when I see people give up and leave places after only a few months, before they have given themselves and their new environment time to get to know each other.

Or when people give up on what they want because it’s hard.  Of course it’s going to be hard.  Everything worthwhile is hard and often it’s two steps forward, one step back.  The easy trail never leads to the mountain peak and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – the ones that do have never left the five mile interpretive path, trust me.

As we move into our second year here I am using my awareness of my weaknesses, along with my life experiences, to rebuild my strength of character which has in the past given me the courage to take on all sorts of adventures.  And I know there will be many to come.  My determination, which has been both a blessing and a curse in my life, will be an ally in keeping my pendulum swinging freely, but not too far in any direction. 

We’re where we are supposed to be right now, of this I’m sure.  And I’m looking forward. 
I just have some small stuff to put to bed.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Just a memory

“For something to be born, something has to go. That’s balance. It’s tough and you’d better be tougher.
“I’m not talking about when you give up something in order to make another, better, thing happen and it’s all roses and bluebirds from then on out.
“I’m not talking about giving up your life’s dreams so your kids can have the future you mapped out while you live through them - and not regret your choice.
“It’s not about cutting out the things that make you happy but are killing you, so you can live a long, long life. The whole time wishing you could still drink, fuck, numb or gorge yourself without making your way to an early grave. No, you have to crush the need completely. You have to gouge out the want.
“True sacrifice is when only death can kickstart something else into life.
“Death of an ideal, a love, a life – you choose, fill in the blank. Death is death. There’s no grey area here.
“And there’s nothing pleasant about it. Utterly destroying something will hang over you like weighted chains. It’s not nearly as freeing as we’re led to believe, this is the truth. When you excise something so deeply there will always be pain, guilt, what ifs – like you’ve cut off a limb but can still feel its presence.
It’s how you use these feelings.
“If something is sacrificed then you better damn well make sure that sacrifice was not in vain. That is your responsibility. Otherwise something died for no good reason.
“Take those feelings, twist them round. Make anger your strength, fear your ally, turn hopelessness into the rival you want to beat. Make something priceless out of them.
“Life follows closely in death’s foot prints – understand this, it’s the least you can do.
“Don’t screw this up.”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The King and I

This blog could have been about my nascent love affair with King Salmon.  About how I set out with safety and good sense in mind - "Lex you can go up to your neck, as long as you can cast, because I trust you, Jake, you can go up to your ankles.  Wait, the fish are coming in, dear god are we sure these are salmon, not sharks, they're huge!  Okay, everybody drown, it doesn't matter, just catch a fish!!!"  Or something like that. 
But this post is about something bigger, and something I feel honored to be part of.  It's about who rules us, who truly is king.  And the Chinook is just a courtier amongst royalty.
For the past few days you can feel the tension building.  Actually tension is not the word, but I'm not sure what the right one is, probably something fabulous in a foreign language - but a feeling similar to waiting for a thunderstorm to break or for the snowstorm to hit or even for a spring seed to break the soil.  And it's been building up to the chum salmon run. The biggest and most significant run in the area. I've only been here four weeks and already I feel it; I'm listening to the seasoned staff, to the fishermen, watching the weather and the water, reading about other salmon runs, waiting with butterflies in my stomach.  Trying to work out when they will arrive.  I'm willing them to arrive. I have an irrational fear that this is the year they won't.  And this is something to bear in mind, are we changing things so much that someday there won't be salmon runs?  At all?  Because so many depend on it.
The chum are what bring the bears to the beach.  Already, out of nowhere, there are bears around everyday.  They just know what's about to arrive and how it will prepare them for the winter.  Although I'm used to bears, what I'm used to is seeing them run from me on the trail, or break into my garbage (pepper spray story), but this is different, the bears are just here, existing alongside us as they wait for this fish run to arrive.  They act as if they own the place.  And they too have the feeling and it's awe-inspiring to see them have fisti-cuffs as they start to mark out their space in anticipation for what is about to happen.  It's also an exercise in bravery in when you see a bear walking along the beach, you know you are going to meet it at the road and you take a deep breath and keep on walking - because that's what you have to do, because that is life here.  And you meet, and it's okay.
The eagles feel it too, and I'm sure a multitude of other creatures which aren't so visible, but are part of the giant picture.
And that's the gist of it.  There is a giant picture and we are only one small part. 
The hatchery here is set up to augment the salmon runs so there is fish to fish in the waters around here.  It is a valuable asset to fisheries in Southeast Alaska and I'm proud that we are part of it.  The salmon, if you look at it, provide so much at the end of their life-cycle to helping others carrying on.  It's symbiosis defined, it helps you realize just how everything works to keep things moving here on our little blue planet.  Death sustains life, life gives way to death and then carries on as a result - in my mind it's the beautiful game defined. 
It's so beautiful.
And knowing, that when the hatchery releases the millions of fry out to the ocean, we, the fisheries and the environment are reliant on these salmon going out to sea and making it back to spawn is bigger than there are words for.  How many businesses can you think of that rely on a fish to make it work?  For a fish to make it's way back from the deep ocean, to the stream it was spawned, to give up so much to provide for so many. 
That's royalty.  There's the king.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Alaska or Bust, Literally

It was enormous.  A monstrosity.  All the other tents spoke casually of leaving no trace on the Pacific Crest Trail, or allowing their owners a decent night's sleep while clipped in to a rock face.  Our tent screamed WE CAR CAMP WITH TWO KIDS AND FOUR DOGS!!!.  It outsized all the other tents so much we renamed it "Denali".  It blotted out the view, it blotted out the sun.
I was mortified, embarrassed that we didn't have a Big Agnes tent you had to collapse yourself like a folding knife to get into.  Oh the shame.
And this is how our ferry trip to Alaska began.  It went downhill somewhat from there before swinging back up, like an upside down bell curve.
We had left Tonasket the moment the school year finished.  It was important to me that the boys didn't have to wait around another day in an empty house.  All our furniture, along with Steve, were already at Neets Bay, and we had been camping in the house for three weeks.  Our hearts had already headed north, it was time to go.  So we said our goodbyes to Ursa's grave first thing in the morning, I picked them up after classes ended and we were gone.  Our goodbyes to friends already spoken over the past few weeks.
The trip over the North Cascades was beautiful and uneventful - until we started heading down the pass.  First the ABS light came on, worrying Jake with it's binging.  And shortly after a grinding noise began in one of the wheels.  Assuming it was the wheel bearing but unable to do anything about it I just gritted my teeth, said everything was fine (which is was, at least the brakes still worked....) and kept on driving.
The noise got worse and worse and by the time we pulled in to my dear friend Jenny's house I was feeling a tad frazzled.  All the frantic moving, packing and cleaning and now a breaking down truck that had to make the ferry to Ketchikan - my brain was full.
We limped to the airport to get Steve,  the screeching of the wheel dampening our joy at seeing him only a little.  "What have you done to the truck?"  was pretty much the first thing he said to me, and I don't blame him.  It sounded like we had strapped squirrels to the wheels and they were screaming every time we ran over them.
My only goal at this point was to get onto the ferry not matter what.  Utter focus.  We had one more restful night at my friend's and then it was only twenty miles to the dock at Fairhaven.  Some goodbyes with dear friends and we made it.  The sound of the dying squirrel wheel amplifying as we drove inside the belly of the ship.
Valium.  This was my trick for keeping Vlad the Vizsla calm on the journey.  It worked like a treat over the mountain pass.  Instead of his usual "I may be sick" heavy breathing he was in a place of utter peace and calm, possibly for the first time in his hyperactive life.  At this point, stressed by the truck, overwhelmed with the leaving of the Okanogan Highlands and the impending arrival in Alaska and horrified by the way our tent stood out like a lone massive mountain amid foothills, I was wondering if I could join him in his happy place.  But my better person won out and I put on my brave face.  At least temporarily.
Ever since I was a little girl I have wanted to live in Alaska and here I was, on my birthday, as a grown mother-of-two, finally making this dream a reality.  We had a lovely meal in the dining room and settled down in Denali for our first night on board.
It had been my idea to tent it on the deck rather than get a cabin.  When Steve was booking the ferry, which travels up the inside passage from Bellingham to Ketchikan and beyond, I said something along the lines of: "We don't need a cabin, we are Alaska tough, we can sleep on the deck."
Something should have clicked when our little gang of nearby tenters included an Australian girl, a young guy from Colorado heading up to Juneau to become a pilot and a bloke from the Midlands in England.  Clearly the real Alaskans had more sense than to sleep in a thin piece of fabric duct taped to the deck of an large boat.
I woke up thinking I was Dorothy in her house in Kansas about to be blown into Oz.  That night the wind, to quote Robert Burn's Tam O'Shanter, 'blew as 'twad blawn its last'.  Blasts buffeted Denali smashing its sides into my head and body as the boys slept fitfully between us.  I honestly had to remind myself that our combined weight was probably that of a small horse and no way would the tent be lifted up like a balloon and dumped into the sea.  Later, when I had recovered my sense of humour, Steve declared it was windier on his side, he was wrong, let me tell you.  I was the one who sheltered the entire family from the gales.  I saved us all, I'm sure of it.  But I'd had enough.  "I don't care how you do it, but I want a cabin.  Now."  Poor Steve, he even went down to ask if there were cabins left (no, there were not), and sensibly didn't bring up that tenting on the deck had been my idea all along.  He's a clever man.
At about 5:02am I finally got back to sleep.  And at approximately 5:03am the captain came over the tannoy:  "Sorry about the early morning wake up call, but there are some killer whales to the starboard side of the ship."
My immediate thoughts were: "I hate killers whales, I hate ferries and I particularly hate the captain's calm soothing voice."  My second thoughts were: "Suck it up buttercup, there's orcas out there, get your ass outside."  My third thoughts were:  "Which side is @%$#ing starboard?".
I searched for my glasses, which I didn't have.  In my disorganized full-brain boarding condition I had brought nothing sensible up from the car deck.  I then searched for my contacts.  And by the time I could see further than my hand the whales were gone, but all was okay, I woke up to this:

My black mood lifted like an early morning fog dissipating into the sunshine.
I was further heartened to see that we were one of the few who had made it through the night on deck.  Most of the other tenters had given up during the gales and moved inside. We followed their lead, packed up and agreed to sleep on the floor in one of the viewing galleries.  Best decision ever as the following night we all slept like the dead, even though I drifted off with a creepy man standing at the end of my air matress (no, not Steve).
The rest of the trip was, pardon the pun, smooth sailing.  The Alaska Marine Highway is there to provide a service to the communities which are dotted along the coast, but it's also stunningly beautiful and the wildlife came in out in force to greet us.  Along with the orcas, there were pods of dolphins, seals of course and whales, humpback whales, the captain had to swerve once to avoid hitting one which breached and dove right in front of the ferry.   We must have seen three, I had no idea there were still that many whales in the ocean.
We arrived in Ketchikan early on the Sunday morning, our ferry dwarfed by the cruise ships already in dock.  A few hours in town and then onto the float plane.  The man at the office said he'd asked the pilot to take us the scenic route, but the turbulence was too great.  It was apparent shortly after take-off that we were indeed going the scenic route as we rollercoastered up and down over the most stunning scenery imaginable.  The good thing about small planes is you can see the pilot not panicking.  And if he wasn't panicking then technically I didn't have to either so I just nonchalantly maintained a death grip on my seat and shut my eyes like that was how I always travelled in planes (which it is, fear-free flying is not my specialty).

Who was panicking was Vlad the Viszla, and Mei the Mutt and Jack the Jack Russell were also a little stressed about the flight.  Bug the Border Terrier is too old and senile to care about bobbing around 1000s of feet up in the air.  It added to my tension, especially since I could see Steve holding Vlad down - I had visions of him freaking out (no, again, not Steve) in the plane and killing us all.
By the time we arrived, safely and professionally despite my terror, at the hatchery I was done.  Thankfully the awesome crew here at Neets welcomed us warmly, which added to all the good parts of the journey and helped me put aside the more difficult ones. 
We had arrived.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Beer Bottles and Signs

Tucked away on the top of the bookcase in our bedroom are two Alaskan Brewing Company ale bottles.  Almost 20 years-old now, the labels are so faded it's hard to tell what the picture is on them.
But I can tell you.
In the background are snow and tree covered mountains which shelter a log cabin.  And in the foreground is a floatplane moored to a dock.
Steve and I drank these when visiting my parents in California.  We'd travelled, as we did each year, from Scotland, and at the time were just starting out together, and kept the bottles as a reminder of what we wanted out of life.  So much has happened since then - the death of my mother, the birth of our sons, three homes bought and sold, emigration, the thrill of career advancements, bitterness at job losses, brief homelessness, loss.  Hopelessness and joy, heartache and celebration, fear and strength.  I think most people can relate, we're not unique.
But one thing remained constant throughout all these years, a desire to live somewhere like the illustration on the beer bottle.
And now it's actually happening.  And it came out of the blue.  We're moving to a remote bay in southeast Alaska, accessible only by floatplane or boat, so Steve can manage a salmon hatchery there.
I have to keep repeating this to myself.  After the year from hell it's sometimes hard to accept our fortunes have change so dramatically.
Going from a holding pattern to having goals again has turned my mind around and I feel strong, warrior strong.  I know we have made the right decision.
In our previous two trips to Alaska, I felt almost disappointed.  I'd assumed I would arrive there and that would be that, I'd never leave.  But neither place we visited felt quite right for us.  The people were great, the scenery stunning, but...but sometimes you just know.  Both times it felt like Alaska was saying not now.
This sounds trite, but every time we have made a move we have looked for a sign.  Hoping for a good one like a rainbow or something seemingly twee like that.  Once, and I kid you not, we were en-route to a new home and a crow fell stone-dead out of the sky right in front of our car.  The place ended up not being the right fit for us and we quickly moved on.
Signs are simply a way of getting your head to believe what your heart already knows.  And arriving in Ketchikan on the clearest of days, in one of the wettest parts of the US, was a good omen.  Flying north we could see clearly what we were getting ourselves into, ocean alive with seals and sealions, endless mountains covered with trees and snow.  Steve spotted a bear and her cub, the snow was dotted with mountain goat tracks.  Getting out of the little float plane at the dock  I was immediately reminded of the beer bottles.  It was a dream, for whatever that's worth, come true. 
Yes, there was rainbows.  I knew it was right.
Trust me, I don't expect every day to be beer bottles and rainbows.  We've lived in so many places we're experts on the challenges faced when adapting to new environments and communities .  But this is what we are good at, this is our strength.  And maybe Alaska wanted us to wait until we had gone through some really, really tough times to make sure we were ready for what she is about to offer us.  We long ago decided not to take the comfortable path in life.  And this seems like the next logical step.
But it's not easy leaving the Okanogan Highlands either. 
We have lived in some incredible places, both in Scotland and the US. Beautiful places.  The kind of places people want to visit and are on postcards and calendars.  I well up with tears sometimes when I think about friends I can no longer just be with, without having to talk, just enjoying their company and listening to what they have to say.  We are very, very lucky people.
And Tonasket has been even more than that.  We have always been searching for the right place for us to stay forever.  I know I personally want to find the place where I would be happy for my bones to bleach when I'm finished this life's adventures.  So far each time we've moved on, that's it - I leave part of my heart and take away memories, but look straight ahead, never thinking about turning back.
But, if I had to come back to somewhere it would be here, in the ponderosa pine, the sagebrush, the snow and the wildfires, with the bears, moose, lynx and wolves. With people who take time to enjoy the truly simple life and don't worry too much about what the rest of society wants us to do.
And two of the best dogs a person could hope to have in their pack are buried under the thin, sandy Okanogan soil.
But for now, it's all about heading north. 
That's where life's compass is pointing.
It always has.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fairy Tale

“Can you tell me that story now, Mom. Please?”
“There is a planet, hanging in space, hanging in the balance and waiting to be found wanting. Part land, but mostly water, it could be described as beautiful, complicated, both fragile and resilient. It is a bit of a mess these days.
A long time ago it worked. Life wasn’t necessarily easy or even very long, as it still isn’t for so many of this planet’s inhabitants, but there was an understanding between all the creatures and... life lived, died, disappeared and reemerged. Existence went on, even if individuals did not.
Then one group of beings decided they were better than all the rest. And agreed among themselves they had the rights to comfort, safety, obedience, long lives and dominance over all others. They no longer hunted for their food, they demanded it grew right where they were. They began to get soft and lazy with pudgy minds and, losing their connection with the rest of what lived on the planet, they broke away. As they took over, some of the other species hid in another part of this world, now forgotten.
These soft, lazy broken creatures created ways to make things simpler for themselves, while making it difficult for everything else. Their single-mindedness rivalled that of a weasel about to kill a rabbit. Utterly focused on one thing, themselves, they lost their place in Everything.
After a while they began to notice they didn’t always get things right and, as they were not bad just lost, they tried to fix things. But they were too far gone. Too split from what made them part of Everything and, on some level, they realized this didn’t make them happy. Whole industries were created to make them happy – entertainment, pharmaceutical (that means medicine), therapy. Still they were not happy. They argued whether they should save the plants, or the animals, or themselves. Puffed up with their own self-importance different groups made big claims as to what the solutions were. But not enough looked to the rest of the planet for advice and those who did often didn’t want to go back to that visceral way of living (What does vizzsherall mean? This means using your instincts rather than your mind) – they had lost their stomach for it. They were weak now, thinking only with their minds. Hardly any suggested just stopping what they were doing. Bigger new ways of fixing things, better ways of living all were suggested and argued against.
The broken ones invented new gods, made grand plans, they discovered new ways to fight with each other and nothing was fixed. Some decided that world peace was the solution and would fight to the death with anyone who didn’t agree, but peace was never part of how this world first worked. It was life and death, just on a less personal level than war and anger.”
“What happened to this world Mom?”
“It’s still out there, battling on.”
“I feel sorry for it.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


“When something is gone, and I mean completely, irretrievably gone, there comes a calm, if only for a short time before all the other emotions kick in.
“Stay in this moment as long as you can. It is a gift.
“Of course the most obvious example of this type of finality would be death, but in truth it could be the end of a relationship, a loss of a job, the collapse of a dream, the implosion of everything you believed to be true - whenever you realize you cannot change or fix anything.
“Because there’s nothing left to fix.
“But on the other hand you can’t break anything further either. What it is, is just what it is. It’s the simplest, quietest, clearest moment you will ever have. Nothing else matters and nothing is all you have.
“Nothing absolute.
“It just is.
“You’ve become a bystander. What you feel or need no longer really matters. Your part is over, you’ve done your bit. You’re on the outside now. You don’t even get to look in at the window, the curtains have been drawn.
“Life carries on regardless, but before you’re swept back into its current, savour the peacefulness that comes with finality. And know there’s strength in your helplessness. Think of the desolation after the worst storm you can imagine. Nothing will ever be the same, but something will take root and grow – you just don’t know it yet.
“It’s okay. You’ll be alright”