Adios, Alaska

Summer is over. Alaska seems to skip what I define as fall – this morning when I got up, it was 27 degrees (F) outside. So, as much as I’ve loved living here, it’s time to migrate south to sunshine and warmer weather.

The past two months were pretty awesome. Here are a few of the things that kept me busy while I was slacking on updating my blog:

Camping

A few nights in McKinley Lake cabin were a great way to spend a vacation…even though it did rain about 10 inches while we were there. That kind of rain really separates gear which claims to be waterproof from gear which is actually waterproof. Meaning that I was pretty wet. It was still a great adventure. We explored an abandoned mine scattered throughout the forest, went over Million Dollar Bridge to the very end of the road, picked lots and lots of blueberries and tried to find some bears.

Glaciers

Sheridan Glacier remains one of my favorite spots around town. Its accessibility and beauty rank it pretty high up on my list. Child’s Glacier was also pretty cool (no pun intended). We took a tour to visit the massive glacier which calves directly into the river, and it was well-worth it!

Exploration

I always start out on the trail, but when something catches my eye, I’m quick to blaze my own trail to go explore. Sometimes makes getting back a little tricky, but it’s always an adventure.

Half Marathon

Training for this has taken up a significant chunk of time outside of work. I successfully ran my trial run last week…so I’m now on the downhill slide until race day. I’m eager to get back to warmer weather so I can run outside instead of on a treadmill – it’s not quite the same as running in the sunshine. D-Day: October 15th. Alaska has really spoiled me with beautiful, scenic runs and fresh air. I can’t wait to see what Arizona has in store.

Northern Lights

They’ve put on an excellent show so far this fall. Generally green but sometimes with hints of purple and pink, they don’t disappoint. One night, the northern lights danced across the sky while otters splashed in bioluminescent water below. That was pretty amazing.

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Salmon, Salmon, Salmon

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat salmon from a restaurant or buy it in a grocery store again. Smoked, baked, fried, or raw. Silver, red or king. It. Is. So. Good. And then you have the various products, like homemade lox and freshly salted fish eggs. Oh man. Not once have I gotten tired of it. And I’m pretty sure I’ll go through withdrawal once I leave. I see it now: Liz and I…searching the menu in a cafe in Arizona…wondering how people eat boring chicken.

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What’s Next?

Though I’m sad to say goodbye to Cordova, I’m ready for new adventures. After a short trip home, Liz and I will meet up in Phoenix for some road tripping, sky diving, and half marathon running through Arizona and Utah. Then: Mexico! The plan is to relax on the beaches of Tulum, celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, then spend a few months in San Miguel de Allende. Stay tuned for new adventures – I promise to be better about updating!

 

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Updates from Alaska

I’m not really sure where the summer is going – or where July went for that matter. It’s been a month since my last post (oops). July was filled with lots of sunshine and picture-perfect weather, which doesn’t lend itself to sitting inside on my computer. And between the hikes, the dinners, the dancing, the berry picking, and the general summertime shenanigans there was barely time for work. But it was time well spent, of that I am sure.

Fourth of July

The month opened with lots of Fourth of July celebrations. What the town of Cordova lacked in a nighttime fireworks display they made up for in their awesome daytime activities. The morning started off with a Kelp Box Derby (think: soap box) where adults and children raced homemade vehicles down the hill on Main Street. This was followed with a town-wide block party, kid’s games, a massive BBQ, pie bake-off, and of course a square dancing competition.

Grand Finale of the Kelp Box Derby
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Adorable

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Berries

Salmon berries were in full swing and are just only beginning to peter out. Blueberries, strawberries and the highly revered nagoon berry have all made strong appearances and Liz and I are in full jam-making mode. We’re up to about three dozen jars and we haven’t even started on blueberry yet! And the berries are amazing. They are easily on my list of my favorite things about Alaska.

Blueberries!

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Picking blueberries is quite labor-intensive

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Watermelon berries!

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Friends

Fishing isn’t too great this year, which is a tough break for all who make their livelihood from salmon. On the plus side, however, it means that all of my fisherman friends are hanging around town with nothing to do…which has made for a fun social scene. And hopefully the next run will be open soon. Fingers crossed!

Best hula hooper there is: The Magical Eloise

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Hanging out on the deck outside of our house and enjoying the sunset. And Teal, of course, photographing all she can. PS: she’s amazing. Check her out here!

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The facial expressions in this shot crack me up. I think we were talking about black slugs.

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Salmon Jam

Salmon Jam is a three-day festival with local artisans, yummy food, marathons, and live music. I ran in the 10K…I’m not quite ready for the half marathon yet….but soon! The entire town filled up with tourists, fisherman were around, and everyone came out to join in the festivities.

10K-ers lined up at the starting line

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Not a bad looking starting line. This made me think back to my 4am runs through the dark streets of Bangalore. This area may be slightly more conducive to running.

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Finish line!

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Hiking

The gorgeous weather has allowed for lots of hiking, exploring, and outside adventures. I finally made it all of the way out the road to see where the bridge (which used to connect Cordova to the rest of the world) was washed away. I saw a bear, but only the silhouette running away from us through the forest. Still working on my bear and moose pictures…I am very determined and I will capture some before the end of the summer!

Immature eagle snacking on salmon scraps while simultaneously fighting with crows

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Power Creek – I love how the glacial silt makes the water such pretty colors

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Beautiful sunset over the Sound

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Out the Road

Perspective is a tricky thing. It can make or break a situation. A good sense of perspective can help avoid arguments and provide compassion and empathy in difficult times. And gaining a sense of perspective is one of my favorite side-effects of traveling and living in other cultures. It’s easy to get caught up in the rote, minutia of day-to-day life. It’s easy to forget how lucky most of us are. If you’re reading this, it means you have access to a computer and internet. It means you have the time to find and read my quirky, little blog (which I obviously really appreciate!) and these two aspects, along with many other likely characteristics probably put you in a category better-off than many people around the world. This makes you lucky – it makes us lucky.

The other day, while picking salmon berries along the side of the road and watching eagles soar overhead in the sunshine, a friend said “We’re so lucky to live here,” which made me think about perspective. And, she is completely right. This town is so weird but oh so great.

Cordova is a very small town. It’s basically divided into 4 areas, geographically. You have “town,” which is about 2 city blocks and you have the harbor, where all of the boats are parked. There is one main road that goes through town. Leaving town and going west will take you to a hotel called Orca Lodge, where the road dead-ends after about 3 miles. Going anywhere in this direction is called going “out Orca.” Leaving town and going east, towards the main airport is called going “Out the Road.” The road passes Eyak lake, winds along the Copper River and passes the main airport, but mostly it is surrounded by wide-open expanses of land lined with snow-capped mountains. It dead-ends where the bridge which used to connect Cordova to the rest of the world was washed away years ago, about 30 miles out of town.

I love going Out the Road. There’s the Copper River  in all of its glory, there’s Sheridan Glacier (among others), There’s countless well-maintained hiking trails and endless wilderness to explore off the trail. There’s moose. There’s bears. There’s delicious berries. There’s fishing, kayaking, climbing, swimming, boating, and pretty much whatever else you feel like doing. It’s paradise. Running out the road is where I run to train for my half marathon. It’s where I ride my bike when I want to explore something new. It’s where people go to have a bonfire, celebrate holidays, picnic, and relax. And virtually all of the land around here is nationally protected, so it is acceptable to set up a little camp and hang out wherever you please. And, any time I get to say I “went Out the Road” I feel like a local using insider lingo. It makes me smile.

It’s easy to take Cordova for granted. It’s easy to feel stuck; without a road connecting you to the real world it can seem isolated. Mail takes forever to arrive, everything is expensive, and Grub Hub or Uber certainly don’t exist. Sometimes it feels a little like living abroad – for example, one half-mile stretch of road has been torn up and “under construction” for over a month because someone decided to repave the road without knowing that there is a national asphalt shortage. Really? A national asphalt shortage?? In the US? Ha. But it is totally worth it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in these details and forget what Cordova is – a paradise of naturaleza.

Living in this little bubble is unlike anywhere else in the world. I’ve picked 15 quarts of Salmon berries within a 15 minute walk of my house. I have the ocean at my door, grassy meadows and snowy mountain peaks within walking distance. People wave when they pass on the street. People use the phone book to look up phone numbers (which, by the way, is 5″ by 7″ and about 50 pages long). Trump supporters are neighbors and best friends with  Clinton supporters. Different religions, races, and ethnicities coexist peacefully. I can get (almost) wherever I need to go without owning a car, but I am in the middle of nowhere. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty amazing. And I think I am pretty lucky to be here. I am trying to appreciate this, knowing that when I do have access to Uber and Grub Hub again, I will certainly not be able to ride my bike out to a glacier and pick wild berries. It’s just my perspective, but I think it’s pretty great 🙂

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The Copper River

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One of the many, many meadows Out the Road

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Liz, hanging out on the Copper River. We spent the afternoon watching the trout jump and laughing at the kayakers that flipped over (they were ok – only their egos were bruised)

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Midnight Jam Session

Last week we had a midnight jam session – Alaska style. Meaning: we picked about 10 quarts of wild salmon berries and made some homemade jam while rocking out to Beyonce.

Salmon berries, which are about 2-3 times as big as raspberries (and equally large seeds), made an early appearance this year due to the mild winter. Being the competitive person that I am, I wanted to make sure that I got out before everyone else ate all of the berries…so as soon as they ripened, I was ready!

Salmon berries are pretty common around here and apparently less interesting for the locals. Blueberries and Nagoon berries, however, are all the rave. People get really serious about their berry spots, and it is apparently rude to even ask others where they go to pick their goodies. Oh, Cordova…

I couldn’t find the recipe that I wanted…so I tried to piece together pieces of different recipes I found online that matched my memory. I also thought I was supposed to use gelatin instead of pectin (oops) but it all worked out in the end.

Hot tip to thicken jam that comes out a little syrupy (courtesy of Jam Master Brenda): add chia seeds!!

Here is the process in photos, from berry bush to jam jar 🙂

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There are three varieties of salmon berries here: red, pink, and yellow. I think the yellow are the sweetest.

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After filling my bucket (and then filling Liz’s and Annabelle’s buckets) we were ready to head home and make jam.

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Step 1: wash berries and sterilize jars.

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Step 2: mash up the berries to strain the juice away from the seeds.

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Step 3: heat to a rolling boil with sugar, lemon juice and pectin (NOT with gelatin)

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Step 4: I like to seal the jars the easy way by inverting them. Our jam/jelly (because almost all of the seeds were strained out) was mostly a success. And…we have about 10 more cups of juice in the freezer to make the next batch, ready to go!

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Do you have a salmon berry jam recipe or hot tips? Let me know!

 

 

Walkin’ On Glaciers

Seeing a glacier has been on my to-do list for quite a while now. A month or so ago, a friend and I hiked to a glacier only to find a pool of teal water in its place. Thanks a lot, global warming. Yes, the disappearance of a glacier was inconvenient for me – that’s the real problem. I kid. But it was disappointing.

Last week, I finally got my chance. Sheridan Glacier is about 10 miles outside of Cordova and is pretty accessible to the public. And…like the rest of Cordova…it looks like a page straight out of National Geographic.

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Sheridan Glacier is named after the US Army General Philip Sheridan. He was a Union General in the Civil War who used some pretty questionable tactics to win his battles. Naming a glacier after him is a little like celebrating Christopher Columbus…but it is what it is. Regardless of the name, Sheridan Glacier is a breathtaking sight to see.

With a little extra attention given to where you step…you can easily walk right onto the glacier for some up-close exploration – which is exactly what we did. A close look at the surface of the glacier will reveal thousands of little black squiggles: ice worms. These little, creatures live in the glacier, burrowing little tunnels with their enormous mouthes.

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In Cordova these creatures are somewhat famous. February 3rd is Ice Worm Day, which is celebrated with the Ice Worm Festival – a winter carnival with lots of family activities and competitions, like putting on survival suits and jumping into the icy harbor for a little swimming race. Sounds fun…

Ice worms are cool…but nowhere near as cool as the view. Small, icy peaks gave way to jagged, looming mountains in the distance. And walking across the crisp, crunchy surface and stepping from one giant chunk of ice to another is quite humbling to say the least.

It was all pretty amazing…and I can’t wait to go back. Here are some other photos from the adventure.

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An Inside Look from an Outsider’s Perspective

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I decided to come to Alaska for the summer. In typical Cindy fashion, I got it stuck in my head that I wanted to go to Alaska…and then I made it happen. Was there really that much research that I needed to do? I mean…it’s part of the US, I speak the language, how different can it be? Well…as it turns out…very.

Cordova certainly has character – of which I am am big fan. Here are a few Cordova quirks that distinguish my little town from pretty much anywhere else I’ve lived.

“Saying Hi Means You’re Flirting”

As a female in a town filled with men, I get lots of unsolicited attention. No shouting or touching or obnoxious staring like in other countries…but an over-eagerness for conversation in the hopes that I’ll fall in love (or into bed) with whomever I’m speaking. I’m generally smiley and chatty and always have a witty comeback (No comments from the peanut gallery – you know who you are) or at least I put up a good front of conversing and feigning interest. In a town where saying hello is basically flirting…I’ve had to tailor my responses as to not feed the rumor mills. Or…at least feed them less.

Which brings me to my second point – men and women cannot be friends. Cordovans are super jealous. I’ve been warned by several friends, several times. If I talk to a man…it is obviously because I’m sleeping with him (oh boy). And if I see a guy in the grocery store who I know and he’s with his girlfriend…I’ve been instructed not to give him any more attention than I give her. Otherwise I’m likely to find myself in a fight. It’s a little like I’ve found myself in a grownup version of high school – all of the social rules, cliques, and behaviors tend to leave me scratching my head when friends explain to me the rules of the game.

And apparently the fears are generally based in reality. Most of the men that live here are fishermen and spend half of the year sleeping away from home. People are basically expected to cheat. Women, too. And the single people that stay here over the winter are so lonely after spending all those months in the cold and dark that “hello” is all they need to hear.

Such a strange little bubble. It will be an interesting next few months to say the least…if nothing more than the people watching. Key word: watching. I hate drama and plan to avoid the aforementioned fights. Stay tuned.

Rain

It rains here. A lot. Basically every day. We’re currently in a 2-week stretch…forecasters say that we will have a sunny day in 12 days (May 15th). The clouds pass so low that I can’t even see the mountains looming over the town. The first day that I arrived…the sky was clear and the sun was shining. That was April 1. Since then…we’ve had two other days of sunshine.

I’ve invested in some rain gear, which makes a huge difference. Being able to splash around in my boots and rain pants with my big hood over my head keeps me warm and happy. And it means that I can still go on hikes and get out of the house when the weather isn’t too bad. It’s usually not. During this past month …I’ve kind of gotten used to it. It’s like living in a cold rain forest.

Just 12 more days. Bring on the sun 🙂

On a Scale of Crazy to Cordovan Crazy…

For the most part, the people here are your typical friendly, small town folks. Almost everyone I’ve met is very kind. For example, they’re always willing to give me a ride when I get one too many Amazon packages at the post office (which I greatly appreciate). There’s just this tight-knit sense of community, solidarity and being neighborly. I like it.

But I’ve been warned by locals. No judgement involved – but the people here…they are just a little…off. Any person who lives in Cordova will likely laugh and agree. And I say that with nothing but love for the people that I’ve met so far…in fact…they’re the ones that have shared the insight. People in Cordova spend all winter in the dark, they work intense hours for only a few months a year, and they live in a town with no road out (ferry/plane only). It takes a certain type of person. So…if a Cordovan tells you that someone is crazy…you listen. Cordovan crazy is a new level.

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Here are some cool clouds I saw the other day on my way to the store – a wicked storm headed out to sea. The blue sky only lasted five minutes until it was chased off by the next storm system…but it was nice while it lasted! Soaking in that vitamin D 🙂

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The Salmon are Coming!

Salmon is a really big deal here. Really big. Most people in Cordova are fishermen (and women) and everyone is gearing up for the big day – May 17th. The Salmon Opener. The next few months are when most people in Cordova make their annual income…and it’s huge. Boats are taken apart, cleaned and inspected. Pick-up trucks drive precariously along the roads pulling their boats down to the water, and drivers give them a wide berth. Moving boats on land is very stressful. Fishermen do their laundry and stock up on mac and cheese. And it’s all in preparation for salmon.

There are five types of Pacific Salmon which are fished out of the Copper River and the surrounding bays, and there is a really handy little mnemonic device using your five fingers to remember the different types:

  1. Chum Salmon (Chum rhymes with thumb.) Chum Salmon got their name because natives used to feed this type of salmon to their sled dogs. There were so many, that the dogs had a delicious salmon feast each night. It is the second most common type of Pacific Salmon.
  2. Sockeye Salmon (pointer finger – the finger you would use to poke someone in the eye). Also called Red Salmon. They are red in color, but their head turns green when they return back to the rivers to spawn.
  3. King Salmon (middle finger, it is the longest finger; or you could be saying “fuck the king!) This salmon travels almost the entire length of the River (about 300 miles) so it needs to put on a lot of oil to make the trip. The King Salmon is the richest and oiliest (and generally the most delicious) of all the salmons…but you probably couldn’t eat it every day.
  4. Silver Salmon (ring finger – rings can be made of silver) Also called Coho Salmon. This Oregon staple is also pretty common up here in Alaska.
  5. Pink Salmon (pinkie!) This is generally the one you will buy if you buy canned salmon and is the most common type of Pacific Salmon.

Though I don’t have a strong desire to work on a fishing boat, I’ve been enjoying going on rides around the bay with friends as they test out their engines on their nice, clean boats. Locals refer to it as “yachting” aka…driving around with no purpose. On the rare days that the sun decides to shine, a boat is a pretty cool place to check out the views and watch the red, glowing ball sink below the mountains in the distance. And…snack on some yummy smoked salmon, of course 🙂

Pictures below of some water adventures to a nearby island (yachting)

Not to bad 🙂

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Intoxicating Alaska

It’s official. I love Alaska. Most days are rainy and don’t get over 40 degrees (4C) and I don’t even care. It’s just so pretty. The 37 minute flight from Anchorage to Cordova was easily the most scenic flight I’ve ever been on. It could have been a sight-seeing tour if the stewardesses would have stated a few facts as they served drinks. I spent most of the flight snapping pictures of the gorgeous mountain tops and the sparkling blue water as they slowly passed by my window…each landscape seeming better than the last. The burly fisherman who sat next to me on the flight was definitely judging me for being so touristy…but I just couldn’t stop. I was obviously from out of town – a contrast to the majority of the other passengers on the flight. I’m pretty sure most of them knew each other based on the greetings in the airport. Neighbors saying hi to old friends who had migrated south for the winter and were making their way back to town for the summer.

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I haven’t quite adjusted to my new scenery yet. The picturesque, snow-capped mountains which are always there, in the background, in every direction, give me the feeling of being on vacation. Even when I’m at work. Sometimes I look out the window to the looming peaks and for a split-second, I need to remind myself that they are real – not a backdrop or something fleeting, like a rainbow. It’s like living in a National Geographic photograph. I’m sure my friends will quickly tire of my Instagram photos consisting of one mountain after another…but oh well.

Yesterday was a sunny day, so I took advantage of the (almost) clear skies and soaked in some of the gorgeous views on some local mountains. There is one chairlift in town with some awesome ski trails, but there’s not enough snow anymore to ski this season. Oh well…it’s still great for hiking! Bald eagles and hawks flew above in close circles as we admired the views from on top of the mountain. The  wingspan and the sheer size of the birds was impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever been that close in the wild. It was amazing.

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Know of some great hikes near Cordova? Let me know!

Five Alaskan Life Hacks You Probably Didn’t Know

Alaska is pretty disconnected from the rest of the lower 48 states. In fact, I see more similarities on a daily basis that resemble life in a different country than I see connecting it to my own. If it weren’t for the fact that I still have cell phone service, I might forget all together. The sheer size, the new culture and the contrast in climate make it completely different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before.

There are also some completely different norms here, which only add to the feeling of living abroad. Here are five ways that Alaskans seem to have life figured out just a little better than their neighbors to the south (and elsewhere).

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Three Checked Bags Within the State

It’s a big state. And in most places (cough cough…Cordova) there is limited access to pretty much everything. Thank god for Amazon Prime…but that’s a different story. Most things here – if they’re available – are pretty expensive because they’re imported. It’s almost like living on an island. So in Cordova, for example, most people do all of their serious shopping (groceries, clothes, etc.) in Anchorage. To accommodate, Alaska Airlines gives all passengers traveling within the state 3 FREE checked bags on every flight. So a family of four going on vacation to Juno would get to take 12 bags with them. Or, a mother taking her son to Anchorage for his monthly orthodontist appointment can bring back 6 suitcases-worth of shopping.

And by suitcases…I mean Rubbermaid totes wrapped in duct tape. Sitting at the Anchorage airport for an extended period of time means that you see lots of people rearranging their groceries to stay under the 50 lb limit – heads of cabbage and bags of oranges are flying everywhere.

Fresh Air

Alright…so this is a little less of a life hack and a little more of me being extra-appreciative of the fresh air after spending the past 7 months in India. But Alaskans sure do know how to have some gorgeous cities with fresh air. And in the past week, I don’t think I’ve heard a horn honk…even once. I loved India, but this is just so nice. Okay, okay…I’m done.

Livin’ on Berries

When I found out that my house would be a cabin…I had visions in my head of a quaint, little cabin where I could finally have the space to make a little garden. Fresh tomatoes, basil, lettuce, you name it. I even arrived in the beginning of spring – perfect timing! As usual…nothing ever turns out quite as expected. The soil in these parts is terrible – nothing can really grow without a greenhouse and a person with an extra-green thumb. I have no greenhouse…and my thumb is basically black…so I guess there won’t be a garden.

What I will have is lots and lots of berries. Blueberries, kyani berries, salmonberries, nagoons, cranberries, and so many others whose names I’ve already forgotten. Wild berries everywhere. I love berries. And according to a study done by the US National Institute of Health in 2013, the berries here specifically have “extraordinarily high antioxidant levels” making Alaskans some of the healthiest people around. Now if I could just find some fresh goat cheese to pair them with…

Lots and Lots of Sunlight

Bring on the Vitamin D. Today, April 5th, the sun will set at 8:39pm and will rise tomorrow at 6:39am. Right now, Southern Alaska is gaining about 45 minutes of daylight per week. It won’t be very long until the Midnight Sun makes an appearance. There aren’t many other places around the world where someone can work all day and then climb a mountain, ride down the Copper River or hike up a glacier afterwards.

It’s a shame the soil is so poor in Cordova, because in other parts of Alaska vegetables are enormous due to all of the extra photosynthesizing going on.

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Working Half of the Year (or Less!)

Winter is pretty brutal in Alaska, (Or so I’m told – I’m not quite brave enough to fact-check this one myself.) so many business are only open half the year. Fishermen and hunters have a very limited season, some of them earning their annual wages in just a few days. As long as I don’t have to spend my winters off here in Cordova…this seems like a pretty sweet set-up – work six months in Alaska, and go migrate somewhere warmer once the temperature drops. Normally when I travel for work, I like to fly in a little earlier or fly out a little later, allowing myself to travel and explore. Arriving here before April, though, or leaving after October 1 just don’t sound that appealing to me, though. We’ll see.

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Know of other cool tips and tricks that are unique to Alaska? Let me know!