Palmer, Alaska

Have you ever heard of the Matanuska Colony Project? In 1935, the US government transported 200 families from the Midwest to the Matanuska Valley in beautiful Alaska. It was a social experiment funding by the government to escape the Great Depression and begin a new life. Each family homestead constructed a barn 32 feet square and 32 feet tall. That explains many of the barns that are found in and around Palmer, Alaska. I believe this “barn” was actually a sign for a giftshop that was in operation for some time on one of the original farms.

If you are interested in more of this fascinating history, you might want to check out the book “The Matanuska Colony Barns: The Enduring Legacy of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project”,” by Helen Hegener.

It is one of the best things about living in the Land of the Last Frontier. My closet is full of clothes that are in style and it doesn’t look like the fashion is going to change anytime soon!
Muck boots or XTra Tuffs are perfect for any occasion. They can be found out in the bush, in the grocery store, and can even be spotted at church. They are worn over a nice, thick pair of Darn Tuff socks.
Blue Jeans are perfectly acceptable, either wet or dry. Those nylon pants that can be turned into shorts by zipping off the legs are also pretty handy when it is hot (75 degrees) or when there is a possibility of getting wet. They dry quicker than my jeans. Many women in Alaska also feel like leggings are acceptable apparel. That can definitely be debated. I wear them at home, but if company comes, I slip on some “real” pants. When we see a woman with them on in the grocery store, Shon usually comments, “Hey! That lady forget to wear pants!”
Most of my shirts are long sleeved. I like t-shirt material because it is comfortable. Cotton is ok, but polyester seems to help with the mosquito bites. I have found that a bandana sprayed with OFF tied around my neck also helps keep the little devils at bay. If they are terrible, I wear a head net.
I often wear a vest. It helps keep me a little warmer without constricting my arms and it covers my pistol. Yes, many women in Alaska are packing. I don’t particularly like wearing a gun, but then we see a big bear with cubs and I find myself strapping it on, even without Shon’s encouragement. It probably wouldn’t stop a bear if it were determined to get me, but it might scare one away.
To top off my fashionable attire, I pull my hair up into a ponytail and slip on a ball cap. It helps keep my headset in place when flying and is a wonderful “shelf” for my sunglasses when it is cloudy out.
Gloves are optional, depending on the situation. I prefer leather gloves because they usually last an entire season. I decorate mine with a Sharpie so Shon doesn’t accidentally confuse them with his.
When I really want to get dressed up, I put on a pair of earrings and slip on my wedding ring. And I know I look especially nice, because Shon will comment, “Woo Hoo! You sure are dressed up fancy today!”

Have you ever heard of chaga?  I never did until we moved to the cabin on Cub Lake.  I went with a neighbor from across the lake on a walk one winter and she pointed some out to me.  She said it had wonderful health benefits and many people around here harvest it.  It looked like a big piece of charcoal stuck to the side of a birch tree to me.  I was intrigued, so I did a little bit of research.

The useful chaga is not the black stuff that you see on the tree, but an orange substance underneath that rough exterior.  It is a mushroom, a fungus, that mainly grows on birch trees in cold climates.  It has been used to treat diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease.  It is high in antioxidants, can boost a person’s immune system, and fights inflammation.  In fact, I came across a pretty extensive list of its many benefits.  That is what I found on the internet, so take it for whatever that is worth these days.

Now that I have you wondering about this wonder fungus, I am sure you are curious as to how to consume this disgusting looking tree mushroom.  Shon and I cut a tree down the other day that had a clump of chaga so I decided I would give it a go.  Shon knocked the chaga off with a hatchet and gave it to me to process.  I took it in the house and used a knife to get the black stuff off.  That wasn’t easy, but I read that it gets more difficult the longer you wait because it dries out and hardens.  I put it in a freezer bag and hit it a few times with a meat tenderizer to break up the big chunks.  When we turn the generator on later, I will send it through my food processor to make it even finer.  After that, I will spread it out on a cookie sheet and let it dry for a few months.  When it is dry, we will be able to make it into a tea, add it to our coffee, or we can even make chaga hot chocolate.  I will let you know how it tastes and if we are miraculously healed of all of our aches and pains.    

I have just started this chaga journey, so I am learning and am open to any fungus advice.  Feel free to comment with any tips if you are a chaga expert! 

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We marked the runway with 3-foot stakes with black trash bags tied to the top during the fall.  They helped make our frozen airstrip more visible.  At the beginning of breakup, the stakes were stuck in the deep ice.  A couple of weeks into our warmer weather, Shon went out and picked up the ones he could.  He got a little nervous about the condition of the ice on the east end, so those markers remained.  Saturday morning Shon and I decided we needed to try to get the remaining stakes.     

We have been watching the lake lose its snow and ice slowly over the last five weeks, watching the markers tip over and fall as the ice finally gave way.  About a week ago, we took the canoe out for the first time, but could only paddle around the west end of the lake.  Now that over half of the lake was ice-free, and much of what was left looked rotten in places, we thought we might be able to navigate to the runway stakes that were floating along the still-frozen runway.

It has taken us about four years to travel in the canoe without arguing over our paddling, our lack of paddling, paddling on the wrong side, not paddling hard enough.  We have developed a system over the years that seems to be working, finally.  I sit in the front of the canoe, Shon in the back.  I paddle from the right side.  I can’t even think about paddling from the left side because it messes everything up.  Shon steers from the back and paddles from either side, sometimes using the paddle as a rudder. 

The challenge of maneuvering through the ice tested our skills like never before.  We had to communicate like a team, discussing where the floating ice looked like we might be able to get through.  We identified a course of action, then paddled like never before to try to break through.  It was reminiscent of the game “Red Rover” we played as children.

Sometimes we were successful, other times we found my end of the canoe on top of an iceberg, with Shon’s end still in the water, which wasn’t nearly as painful as being unsuccessful at “Red Rover” as a nine-year-old.  We tried the scoot method, trying to shift the canoe enough to go up and over.  That never seemed to work.  I had to dig my paddle into the ice and push backward, freeing the canoe.  When we were both floating, we had to find another passage.  One time we hit a section of ice and tipped the boat a bit to one side, eliciting blood-curdling shrieks and screams from me.  Shon said nothing until we had righted ourselves.  Then he calmly stated, “That would have been really cold.”

We finally found our way through the maze of ice to the edge of the frozen runway to retrieve the floating runway markers.  We paddled home, proud of ourselves. By the end of the day, the lake was free of ice. If we had just waited a bit, gathering our markers would not have been as challenging, but not nearly as fun!

Shon in the canoe
Our icy runway