Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye, 2015

This year was full of ups and downs, surprises and life changes. We adjusted to life on a tiny island, we traveled to Alaska for a surprise wedding (our own), we climbed mountains and kayaked lakes, we adopted a new fur baby, and we lived our lives the best we could. Now, as it all grows to a close, we look back fondly and begin to look ahead to 2016.  So, without further adieu, here are the highlights from 2015.

In January, we struggled to stay warm as the temperatures plummeted into the -20's and remained there for quite some time.  Luckily, new snowshoes brought about a new winter hobby that kept us busy and adventurous.

February remained bitterly cold and Lake Michigan became a solid sheet of ice.  We walked our way towards to the surrounding islands on the lake, which gave us some seriously spectacular views.  The sun seemed to shine every day.

March was the month of blue ice.  Lake Michigan began to form ice caves, which shone a bright blue.  We explored these little caverns and traversed the uneven ground of the frozen lake.  It was a very cool thing to witness.

April was the month of the surprise wedding.  Cody and I spent spring break in Alaska, which we had been missing dearly.  The weeks that followed were spent eating good food with friends, climbing mountains, hiking, and finally...getting married in our XtraTuff boots in the shadow of Mendenhall Glacier.

We finally warmed up in May! This was our first month of marriage, and it brought about a whole new type of adventure.  Our favorite hiking trails were suddenly no longer buried in snow.  Many weekends were spent either cooking out or hiking with our friends.

June was the month that we packed our bags and said goodbye to the island.  We had intentions of moving back to Alaska, but instead we spent the summer hanging out with our families in southern Michigan and Illinois.

 July and August were a whirlwind of visiting family and friends. We loved the summer weather that the Midwest gave to us and we hiked all over the place.  Much of our time was spent on Lake Michigan.  We kayaked, fished, and swam non-stop.

September brought about changes.  Beaver Island School had contacted me and told me that they were in a bind after losing two of the three elementary teachers on the island.  I agreed to come back to the school, so we repacked our bags and moved back to the island.  We also adopted a new puppy from the Little Traverse Bay Humane Society!

 In October we moved into a new house and began to truly settle into life on the island.  It was an adjustment to move back, but it's been an overall successful experience.

November was the month of feeling thankful.  Family visited the island, the dogs were content, my students wrote me sweet notes, and all was right with the world.

Finally, December showed up.  It's been an oddly warm month and we only just started getting snow and winter weather within the last week.  Christmas Break came at a perfect time and I am feeling rejuvenated and ready to start back to work. All is well in our little corner of the world.

Your turn...What were a few of your yearly highlights?
Currently listening to...24 Frames - Jason Isbell

Monday, December 28, 2015

Eight Things That Make Alaska Great

I saw this article the other day and it really spoke to me.  The author details the various reasons why he returned to Alaska.  As my long-time readers know, this is something that comes up in conversation a lot in my household.  We almost moved back at the end of last year, but one thing led to another and we committed to another year on Beaver Island.  Nostalgically, Cody and I talk about our time spent living in our little seaside apartment in the southeastern part of Alaska.  And, when I saw this article it just sparked a new longing.  I thought I'd touch on a few of the author's points from the article and shed my own spin on some of the things that make Alaska great.

1.) The Light. The light in Alaska is truly different from anywhere else in the US because it is so extreme.  In the summer, the sun never seems to set.  Darkness is equated more with dusk, and only then for a couple of hours.  Then, winter sets in, and the few hours of sunlight seem to be frozen in between sunrise and sunset, which makes for stellar skies.

Late evening in the middle of summer.
Afternoon sunset in the middle of winter. 
2.) Tundra. When we lived in Juneau we were actually living in a temperate rain forest, but when I lived solo in the Bristol Bay region I technically lived in the far southern tundra.  I've never lived in a place with only scrubby brush and truly harsh tundra climates.  It's on my bucket list though.

Spongy forest floor in Juneau.
View of the landscape in King Salmon. 
3.) Glaciers.  Yeah, this one gets me every time.  I get that there are glaciers in the lower 48, but Juneau literally has a glacier just chilling in the middle of town.  And, that's kind of the norm for Alaska.  These huge, majestic natural formations are just part of life.  Plus, Cody and I climbed into the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves one time and it was the most incredible adventure I've experienced, thus far.

Mendenhall Glacier in the spring. 
Standing inside of Mendenhall Glacier and looking up at the sky. 
4.) Wildlife.  You're not the top of the food chain in Alaska, which can take some getting used to.  The wildlife is so different than you can imagine without living there.  My best example of Alaskan wildlife is Romeo.  Stuff like that doesn't just happen anywhere.

A little sea star that we found on the beach. 
Giant moose throwing water with his antlers. 
5.) Aurora. At one point, I subscribed to get aurora notifications sent to my phone.  Every time the notification went off I would be scurrying outside to see if I could catch a glimpse.  Unfortunately, my cellphone pictures don't do justice to the magnificent lights, and they say that the farther north you get the more intense the light. I hope to watch the lights from north of the arctic circle once in my lifetime.

Northern lights over Juneau.  Photo courtesy of this link.
6.) Wilderness.  One visit to a big city in Alaska will have you rethinking the term "city."  Even the land right outside the city borders are true, untouched wilderness.  I once hiked and camped in Katmai National Park, which is a park that covers more than 4 million acres.  You want true wilderness?  Head to Alaska, but make sure you're prepared.

Carefully planning a hike using a maps and trail guides. 
Fish Creek in North Douglas. 
7.) Mountains.  Oh, the mountains.  We've all heard the saying, "The mountains are calling and I must go." I pretty much feel like that whenever I think of Alaska.  There is nothing like spending the day climbing a mountain (without seeing another human), sitting on the top, and overlooking the world.  The views from the top make every adventure worth it.
Wilderness warnings on the mountain tops. 
Tall mountains on a distant shore. 
8.) The People.  People from Alaska are just different.  They have different sayings and unique body language.  Their culture is alive and vibrant and unwavering.  My time spent teaching for the tribe taught me more than I could ever explain about cultural diversity.  Also, some of our best friends in the world have come from Alaska.  They are just different, in their own kooky, lovable way.

Cody and the neighbors filleting halibut. 
With our best friends at a rustic cabin.
Your turn...Have you ever visited Alaska?  If so, what was your favorite part?  If not, would you ever consider it? 
Currently listening to...Going Home - The Shins

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Holidays

The holidays were a wondrous and low-key affair on our little island. Much food was eaten, many presents were given and received, and quality time was spent as a family.

First, let's rewind to last week...We went on a tree hunting mission at a friend's farm on the east side of the island.  It was a windy day, which made for a quick and rather uneventful tree hunt.  Previously, the weather has been mild, but for a few days around Christmas the wind howled and caused a dip in the air temperature. Because of this, we quickly settled on a very pretty pine, which has turned our house into a giant, festive pine-scented candle.

Then, on Christmas Eve, insane windstorms ravaged the island and left us without power, and our power and internet continued to flicker in and out over the coming days. Rumors of 20+ foot waves on Lake Michigan have been circulating.  It was that windy. Trees were down on the roads, which essentially blocked us into our house for a short time.  We didn't mind one bit though.  It gave us the perfect excuse to stay in our pajamas and not leave the house for the two days of Christmas.  It was an absolutely wonderful way to spend the holidays.

To pass the time (and have little fun), we did a ton of cooking over the holiday.  As a tradition, Cody and I like to cook "breakfast for dinner" on Christmas Eve.  This year we did homemade waffles, eggs, and fakin' bacon. We got extra lucky because a family from the school gifted us with homemade maple syrup.  Then, on Christmas Day we made big salads and individual pot pies.  We do a lot of "individual" food dishes in our house because it allows us to make one option meat-free and one option meat-y.

The few days following the holiday have brought us relaxation, projects around the house, and hiking. Other than the windstorms, it wasn't too chilly during Christmas week, so we've been trying to get outside and enjoy ourselves.  I know that this oddly warm winter can't last forever and it makes the dogs happy to frolic in the semi-warm weather.

All in all, it was a beautiful holiday. We took part in some of our old family traditions, and then we started a few new ones.  The weather was unpredictable, which allowed us to get out and enjoy ourselves one day and trapped us without power the next.  It was a great balance and kept us on our toes.

Your turn...What were your holiday highlights this year?
Currently listening to...White Christmas - Bing Crosby

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Start of Christmas Break

Christmas Break has begun, much to the excitement of teachers and students alike.  I think that we were all very ready for a couple of weeks of down time.  My students decorated a small tree in our room two weeks ago.  They had a blast making ornaments and decorating the room.

As is island tradition, we also went caroling to the homes of a few of the elderly islanders.  The students sang a handful of songs and we handed out bird feeders and cookies to each house.  It was a beautiful and much appreciated tradition.  Many members of the community showed up and took part in the singing. The students were freezing and tired by the end, but they were troopers and did their best at each house. Check out this great video of us singing!

The final day before break in my classroom we had a big, all-day party.  The morning started off with "Books & Toast."  "Books & Toast" is another island tradition in the classrooms.  The entire elementary wing declares a pajama day and the students spend the whole morning curled up with blankets, pillows, and good books.  They read in groups or solo, depending on their level and who does/doesn't need reading assistance.  Meanwhile, the teachers serve up a variety of breakfast foods, with the main course being some seriously fancy toast options.

After our morning of reading, we spent the afternoon watching "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (the original version), having relay races and playing games in the gym, building (cheater) gingerbread houses, and enjoying a gift exchange.  I always try to do something homemade for my class each year.  This year, I filled quart-sized mason jars with all the ingredients to make peppermint brownies.  It was a hit!

I left the school on Friday afternoon feeling completely exhausted.  Normally, Cody and I travel for the holidays.  This year, we decided that we would stay put and try to get a little r&r. It's very nice to not be spending my precious break in airplanes and rental cars, zooming from one location to another.

Your turn...What some of your holiday traditions?
Currently listening to...You've Got A Friend In Me - Randy Newman

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Island Thanksgiving

Yesterday marked the first time that Cody and I have ever hosted a holiday at our home.  We've spent so much time traveling and moving around over the last few years that we've never hosted anything, and we haven't spent very many holidays even together. Typically, Cody heads down to southern Illinois to visit his family and I head to northern Illinois and/or southern Michigan to see mine.

This year, my mom and her boyfriend, Mark, volunteered to come visit us for a rainy, island Thanksgiving. It was soooo nice to not have to travel and worry about packing, booking flights, or renting cars.  Instead, we worried about planning a meal.

We opted to forgo the turkey this year because they were nearly $40 on the island, and 1/4 of the people attending our meal were vegetarian. The carnivores made a batch of homemade chicken and dumplings. Then, for everyone we made green bean and mushroom casserole, rolls, potatoes, and giant Greek salads.  We wrapped up our wonderful meal with two pumpkin pies for dessert.

It was a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Our holiday consisted only of relaxation, doggy fun,  and baking, which was perfect for the rainy holiday. And, as much as I love to be a bit of a traveling nomad, it was extremely nice to be at my own house, enjoying a holiday free of airports, hotels, and vending machine food. 

Your turn...How was your holiday? 
Currently listening to...Flapper Girl-The Lumineers

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Stacking Firewood

This is our first year heating our home with wood, and I've got to tell you, it's quite the adventure. Before this year, I'd always romanticized the idea of heating a home with only wood.  The thought of cutting our own wood and providing our own heat seemed very idyllic and homestead-y, which is sort of my goal in life.

To be fair, I do love snuggling up by the fire and reading a good book, or cuddling with Cody and the dogs. It is romantic and ideal in many ways.  It is also a huge amount of work though.  Aside from cutting the wood, which we did only a minimal amount of this year because of how late we moved in, there are many other chores. We clean the inside of the stove each morning before starting a new fire and this requires venturing out into the brisk morning air to dump the ashes into our designated ash bucket, which never sounds fun at 5 o'clock in the morning. 

The biggest chore that we are focusing on now is stacking the wood.  It took us quite some time to stack all of the wood that we had acquired for the winter.  Many, many hours of serious manual labor were put into this endeavor.  We have stacked about seven face chords of wood total (I think).  We don't fully know how much wood we will need for the winter, but we are crossing our fingers that we don't need to find more mid-winter.

Half of our wood went into our hut, which is an insulated building that sits next to our house. It actually has electricity and heat, so it has been used as a "tiny" house before, but we needed a designated wood shed. It's the perfect place to keep the wood dry.

The other half of the wood is stacked on top of pallets on the opposite side of our house.  The stacks that are outside are covered with tarps to help keep the rain and snow off of the logs.  We plan to gradually move more logs into the hut as winter progresses.  We may start moving them sooner though.  Wet wood is a big worry.

We also keep about 40 logs in the house at one time. These logs sit in a small wood closet next to our front door. Typically, we have been hauling these in on Sunday, but I assume this will get more frequent now that the temperatures are dropping drastically. I anticipate that we will have to fill it 2-3 times per week, but at this point it is all guesswork for us.  Lots of guesswork is going into keeping the house heated right now.  I've heard from others who heat exclusively with wood that it takes a while to figure out what is right for your house.  Here's to hoping that we figure it out soon! 

Your turn...Have you ever heated your home with wood?
Currently listening to...American Heartache - The Wood Brothers