Alaska Winter Survival Guide

Hello, dear readers. Winter is upon us up here in the frosty north! We had our first day at 20 below zero last weekend, and to me that means it’s official: winter is here. I thought it would be fun to do a winter survival guide. Caveat: I am no winter expert! I have only been through 1 winter up here so far, and so this is coming from a new person.

I am so grateful to have grown up in Chicago winters – they were like training runs for the marathon Alaskan winter ahead.

 

Here are some tools that really helped me last winter/things that every Alaskan has to get through the winter:

  1. Make like REI’s marketing and opt outside. My coworkers last year told me this time and time again. For the first half of winter I was pretty content to stay inside and be all cozy and warm, but after a while I started to go crazy. So Derek and I went snowshoeing. We (I) tried to cross country ski, and spent most of that time facedown on the frozen Chena River questioning my life choices. (I am reevaluating my relationship with skiing, will update later, with hope that things will improve).
  2. Exercise. This means spending a lot of quality time with the treadmill. Last winter I went to a lot of yoga classes, too. Exercise is so crucial. It automatically improves your mood and keeps you healthy, and also keeps you from being too sedentary in the winter, which is an easy temptation. It is extra work in the winter to get to the gym or workout class, but always worth it.
  3. A winterized car! This was new to me, but when we moved up I had to have block heaters installed onto my car, and whenever it’s -5 or -10 or below I plug in my car at work. There’s a little plug sticking out of my car and I have a weatherproof extension cord I use to plug it in to outlets. I use I also have blizzak snow tires which are completely necessary. Salt doesn’t work on the roads when it’s -20 or colder, so the snowplows drop gravel. Roads in Alaska in the snow are TERRIBLE in general, so snow tires are basically a necessity.
  4. Vitamin D supplements and a happy lamp. Because we have such little sunlight in winter (think less than 3 hours, which I am inside at work during), both of these are necessary to help avoid seasonal depression and also keep our bodies healthy and happy. I usually sit in front of my happy lamp in the morning when I’m reading, and I can tell when I don’t take my Vitamin D supplements. (If you don’t know what a happy lamp is, it’s a lamp that imitates sunlight and helps your body produce vitamin D. I love mine so much and plan on using it even after we leave AK. Here’s a link to the one I have: Happy Lamp).Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
  5. Wool socks and super warm boots. Xtra tuffs are the boot of choice in Alaska, but I have the Sorel Joan of Arctic boots and they are incredible. It’s pretty much necessary to have a serious snow boot.
  6. Books! I am a voracious reader. It’s challenging sometimes during the school year to read consistently, but when I’m stuck inside I really enjoy escaping into a good book. This year I did the Goodreads challenge and just today met my challenge of 35 books for this year.
  7. Community. I have been consistently blown away by the beautiful, wonderful people God has placed in my life up here in Alaska. I have made the most amazing friends and I absolutely love my community up here. When I think about PCSing (military speak for moving) I get really sad thinking about having to leave the community. It helps to go through difficult things with others and to have people to spend time with!

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Winter is tough. The minimal sunlight and extreme cold make it really challenging to not want to stay inside all day. However, I do love that the winter last year taught me that I can do hard things. With God’s grace and a beautiful community of people experiencing the same thing, we learn that we can face difficulties and experience growth through them.

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Alaska Literature + Authors Breakfast

This weekend I had the privilege of attending a breakfast devoted to celebrating Alaska Literature and Alaskan authors. I learned that literacy among students in Alaska is incredibly low, and in part that is due to the lack of literature about Alaska. I can imagine that Alaskan students might struggle to relate to a lot of YA texts simply because their lives are so vastly different than those of the main characters in YA novels. Alaska literature makes literature much more accessible to students in this state.

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I got to hear from several incredible Alaskan authors and also purchase some Alaskan literature. It was fascinating. One thing about Alaska that has stood out to me is how much Alaskans take pride in and love their state. The literature I heard about celebrated things like recess at -20 degrees, the salmon run in the summer, and the stories of Alaskan plant and animal life. The arts community in Alaska is very vibrant. Some of the authors were also illustrators and photographers as well, and many were former educators. I absolutely loved hearing their stories and learning more about this unique place.

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This author was from Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, which is the northernmost town in the United States. (North of the Arctic Circle). Her husband is Iñupiat, and this novel is about the Indian Boarding School system that Alaska Natives were forced to attend in the 1960s.
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This author is from Seward, and this book is an autobiographical novel about moving from a homestead to Anchorage in the 1960s. 
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This picture book is for my husband, who loves musk oxen.
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This book is authored by the same woman who wrote the musk ox picture book!

Alaska is such an amazing and mysterious place. It seems that every new experience I learn something more, and I simultaneously learn how much I do not know about Alaska. It is a really awesome paradox. It made me think about how lucky I am to get to be a teacher in this state. I get to interact with such unique and wonderful people who have really beautiful stories to share. I am excited to learn more through these books and support Alaskan arts.

 

Alaska Travels: Sitka

If you have seen the excellent chick flick The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, you may recall that Ryan Reynold’s character was from the town of Sitka, Alaska. Fun fact: the movie was filmed nowhere near Sitka, and the movie’s representation of Sitka is a C- on the accuracy scale. (Still worth watching).

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Sitka Harbor. It was salmon season!
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Mt. Edgecumbe, a volcano, in the distance

When we were planning our Tour de Alaska this spring, I suggested looking into Sitka. A lot of local Alaskans I know through work had suggested Sitka to me, and after finding a good deal on flights we decided to add Sitka in for our travels.

Sitka is a fishing town in Southeastern Alaska, and is also only accessible from Fairbanks/Anchorage via plane or ferry, which is why we flew. (We actually flew out of Anchorage, making the trip to Sitka a 6.5 hour drive AND a 3 hour plane ride. Alaska is huge, guys).

When the Russians came to Alaska they settled in Sitka and also in Kodiak Island. In Sitka there is a Russian Bishop’s home that was restored to be a replica of what it would have looked like in the time the Russians were settling. This was the most interesting thing we did. We took a tour and heard about the relationship that one bishop in particular, Father Innocent, developed with the Tlingit people. (In a pleasant turn of events, unlike most colonization stories, their relationship was mostly positive!) The house was beautiful and we really enjoyed seeing it.

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Russian Bishop’s House
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Russian Bishop’s House

The other highlight was Sitka National Park. They have a totem pole display with a lot of huge totem poles, and also beautiful trails to walk on. The ecosystem is Coastal Temperate Rainforest, which is completely different than Fairbanks. (Read: the winter average temps are in the low 30s. Above zero).

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Beautiful hikes in Sitka National Park

One other thing to note is that we went to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. If you know me remotely well, you may have heard about a harrowing experience I had involving an owl the summer before my senior year of college. As a result, the Raptor Center was not my favorite thing, but it was cool/terrifying seeing bald eagles up close and personal.

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Injured bald eagles who cannot live in the wild. They actually take these eagles to the salmon run so that they can get their own fish when the salmon are running!

One thing we considered doing, but decided against, was a whale watching tour. Sitka is known for having beautiful ocean views and the whale watching can be gorgeous. It’s also expensive, and we had already done a whale watching tour in Seward, so we decided not to. But if you ever do go, definitely try one out!

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Cutest little homes
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The incredible foliage is everywhere!

Sitka had a completely different feel than anywhere else I’ve ever been in Alaska. It honestly felt more like a posh Seattle suburb than Alaska to me, which was weird. (For example: everyone manicured their lawns immaculately. What is this, a country club?) I honestly found myself missing the authentic and rustic Alaskan feel while I was there! I am really glad we had the opportunity to go to Southeastern Alaska, especially because it’s not easy to access from where we live. It seems like there is always something new to learn about Alaska. It’s so big and mysterious and wonderful. With every new place we go I fall a little more in love with this state, and Sitka was no exception.

P.S. Take me anywhere, and I will find a bookstore. The bookstore in Sitka was incredible. Take all my money. Take all of it.

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I want it all
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Does this smell like Mr. Darcy?

Alaska Travels: Seward

Good evening, readers. I have a lot of lesson planning/grading/general schoolwork to do, but instead I am here, typing this post. When writing inspiration strikes, you must obey. Kids can teach themselves To Kill a Mockingbird, right? If you are a devoted follower of Riding Westward (lol), you may recall in this blog post that I promised a recap of our summer travels. Well, it is now the first week of September and I am delivering you said promise.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetDid you hear that sound? No? Well that was the sound of school starting. Aka me frantically scrambling to assemble my life together in time for the school year to start, only to realize that there were a million more things I needed to do/prep/plan/photocopy/re-photocopy because I found a typo after making 100 copies of said document. You know the deal.

Anyways, Seward. We decided to spend 4 days in Seward celebrating our first wedding anniversary, July 4th, and summer in Alaska. It did not disappoint. We had already been to Seward once before, for a day trip during Labor Day weekend of 2016. While in Seward for the first time we went on a day cruise with Kenai Fjords cruises to do some whale watching, see nature, and also otters. The first time we went we fell in love with this cute little seaside town, and were very excited to go back.

The first thing that’s amazing about Seward is not even Seward itself: it is the drive. The drive from Anchorage is insanely gorgeous. You feel like you’re in another world of magical fjords, glaciers, greenery, and beauty. It is highly recommended (by me) that you play Sigur Ros while driving to Seward.

While in Seward we went sea kayaking, which was cold but also very fun. Seward is on Resurrection Bay, and there’s a lot of fishing that happens in the area. There is also a ton of wildlife: think seals, otters, puffins, whales, etc. etc. etc. We sea kayaking and also went on a small hike as part of our tour. It was really beautiful and a neat way to sea the bay from a different perspective.

Another thing we did was go to the Alaska Sea Life Center. It’s an aquarium of local marine life and it is incredible. There are two dream jobs that exist here: 1) sea otter fluffer and 2) baby walrus massager. Neither of these are a joke, readers.

The highlight of being in Seward was the July 4th Celebration and consequent Mount Marathon Race. If you remotely know Derek and I you know that we love running, and we were geeking out the entire race checking splits and talking strategy. It was inspiring and beautiful to watch these people finish a grueling and gutsy race. I wrote in detail about Mount Marathon in this post, but watching it was an incredible experience. There was so much excitement and town spirit surrounding the race and a lot of Alaskan pride. Interestingly enough, Mark Zuckerberg was in attendance along with his wife. We saw them several times. Apparently he was touring Alaska.

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Awkward placement, but best photo I could get of Mount Marathon.
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Mount Marathon Race start.

Aside from the touring, we did a lot of relaxing, went on a nice long run, and also ate excellent food. If you are ever in Seward, check out the following:

From the deck of our BnB!

In short, Seward is an awesome nautical town. It feels very Alaskan and very different than Fairbanks, and it was a refreshing getaway for us. Derek and I kept looking at each other and saying, “we love being here!” because we did. If you are in Alaska for a short time (or a long time!) be sure to go to Seward. It is incredibly worth it!

“You got a dog?”

If you know me, you know I have waffled about getting a dog/pet in general for a while. In college I went through an anti-dog phase. I was pro-cat. I had fond memories of my childhood cat, Alvin, and had forgotten the havoc he wreaked on our household. Thankfully, I had my mom to remind me of Alvin’s passive aggressive habits whenever I said, “I want a cat”.

Derek and I talked back and forth about getting a dog for a while, and finally decided we would table the conversation until our one year wedding anniversary. After we returned from our vacation this past July we decided to start looking at dogs.

I was super nervous. Neither of us grew up with dogs (or pets, really. Alvin passed in 1999, may he rest in peace). I have had some bad dog experiences before. But Alaskan winters are dark and cold, and my husband spends a lot of time gone, and I really wanted a companion for such times.

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We would hesitantly look up pets available for adoption on our local petfinder while trying not to get our hopes up (I believe evangelicals call this “guarding your heart”). One Saturday we decided to visit our local animal shelter. While there we saw quite a few dogs, including a cute little black Alaskan Husky mix named Craig. (CRAIG. I KNOW. I am sorry if you have a dog named Craig, but I just thought it a rather odd dog name). He was adorable, but I really didn’t want a Husky. I just thought they might be too energetic.

We returned back the following Monday evening, and even visited another dog, but it wasn’t a good fit. Little Craig was still there, bopping around in his cell and being cute, but again, no Huskies.

Wednesday I get a text from Derek, “want to go to the shelter and just see if Craig is still there?” Le sigh. I agreed, and headed to the shelter that evening and met Derek when he got off work.

Little Craig was still there, which to me is pretty amazing because dogs get adopted very fast in Fairbanks. I’m not totally sure of all the reasons, but I think some of it has to do with the popular skijor/sled dog culture. Anyways, we decided to visit with Craig.

Readers, it was not fair. The little fellow walked into the visiting room and put his chin on my knee and stared at me with his brown eyes. He then plodded over and did the same thing to my husband. Either he is incredibly emotionally manipulative, or just an incurably sweet little dog. I vote the latter. I looked at Derek, who looked at me, and we both felt totally sunk. It was Craig.

 

We adopted him right then and there, and changed his name to Mac. I initially wanted to name him Macbeth, because I am that English teacher. But he was so sweet and cute and I couldn’t give him the name of a villain. So he became Mac.

I will not sugar coat this and say it was easy. Tears were shed. Favorite teaching tote bags were chewed. We have been learning a lot. But overall it has been so wonderful inviting little Mac into our lives. I am the last person I thought would transform into a dog person, but it is happening to me. Mac is sweet, feisty, a little obstinate, and an incredible little companion to come home to every day. Here’s to more adventures in dog ownership.

Peonies (and an Alaskan cabbage)

Each summer when I am not working I try to volunteer somewhere at least once a week so I have a reason to leave my house and not sit on the couch eating Oreos and watching Call the Midwife or whatever show I decided to binge watch. My first summer after teaching I volunteered at World Relief (shameless plug – literally one of the best nonprofits ever. Check them out). Last summer I volunteered for myself by planning my wedding. This summer I decided to try something new and I am volunteering at the Georgeson Botanical Gardens in Fairbanks. After my gardening failures of early summer (read here for more info) I decided to learn more by working in someone else’s garden.

In case you are not on Pinterest, peonies are a big deal right now. I can’t say I blame anyone. They are dang gorgeous flowers. I had them in my bouquet at our wedding. But fun fact: peony season doesn’t really match up with wedding season in the Lower 48, so it can be hard to have enough peonies to go around. They are also fickle creatures and can be picky about growing. Cue Alaskan summer! Alaska has totally capitalized on the peony boom and peony gardening in Alaska is incredibly popular. Because of our intense amount of sunlight, they thrive up here. Many peonies in weddings in the Lower 48 are supplied from Alaska!

Even better news for you, peony lovers: there is a peony garden at the Botanical Garden. Their blooming season is just about over, but yesterday I went to check them out before I was volunteering. I had to share some photos with you all! They are gorgeous and HUGE. I hope you enjoy this little (#nofilter) walk through the garden.

Some of them, I am not exaggerating, were as big as basketballs. If you can see my hand in the picture, it is because they were literally so big I had to hold them to get a photo. Aren’t they beautiful? I want to weep at how gorgeous they are!

And finally, a photo of an Alaskan cabbage for good measure. I included my feet for scale. The thing is massive.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

 

Seward: Mount Marathon

Derek and I just got back from an absolutely wonderful trip around Alaska. I can’t put into words how grateful and thankful we are to get to have this time and the resources to go on this trip. I will be writing a bit on those travels in the coming days and weeks, but today I wanted to focus on one specific circumstance.

Seward, Alaska is easily our favorite town in this grand state, and so when we planned our summer travel, Seward was one of our first stops. We spent 3 days in Seward and one of those days we were able to observe Seward’s 4th of July festivities, which include a 5k race. It’s not just any race – it is a 5k that has a 3,022 foot elevation gain. The fastest time ever run was 41:26, which is insane. (For some perspective: the current world record for a 5k is 12:37. Which is nuts as well). The runners run up and down a mountain and it is hard. They finish bloody and muddy and exhausted. And it’s awesome. (Read more about it here).

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The Mount Marathon race includes a junior race, a women’s race, and a men’s race. One fun little activity that they hold is also a “mini-marathon”, where they put race bibs on little kids and let them run the first 200 or so meters of the start of the race and the crowd cheers wildly. It’s really adorable. They do the mini marathon about 10 minutes after the women’s race has begun.

The kids got out of the start fast and we cheered and clapped and then the noise died down. People started walking away or turning to each other and chatting as we expectantly waited for the top women to return from the top of Mount Marathon. But then a little flutter of noise began to erupt from the crowd and people started clapping and cheering again. I turned to Derek and asked what they were clapping for. He pointed back to the start line.

A little girl who couldn’t have been more than three or four was still participating in the mini marathon. She was wearing a Belle costume and was assisted in her run by a walker, her mother, and leg braces. Each step was clearly laborious to her. She was trying with all her might to do that mini marathon even though her peers had long finished.

The best part – the crowd went wild. We cheered and clapped and yelled encouragement. People cheered just as hard for her as they did for everyone else, even for the top finishers of the race. As I clapped I felt my throat get tight as I thought about the beauty of it all.

This moment encapsulated what I love about running, and about people. There are no tryouts and you can’t get cut from the team. Everyone can participate. You don’t have to be fast, but you can be, and that’s okay too. Running teaches us that we can do hard things and that when we do, we will have people cheering for us on the sidelines.

The runners really fought in the Mount Marathon race and it was incredibly beautiful to watch. I will write more later about watching the race because it was so much fun to see and to celebrate people running such a difficult race. I love watching the ends of races no matter the distance because I just think it’s a beautiful triumph. They showed immense courage and fortitude and it inspired me to no end.

But I have to say that I think the person who showed the most courage that day was a little girl in a Belle costume who conquered the mini marathon.