Despite this Pansy, it’s Fall

 I found a pansy today that I didn’t plant. I don’t know where it came from, but there it perches, under our back deck, beautiful and strong despite the snow a few days ago and the damp fall weather we’ve been having. 

So when I ran this afternoon–in long pants, knee-high socks, long sleeved undershirt, and t-shirt, it struck me how determined that pansy is. And how much it’s humble little picture deserves its moment of fame. 

  
  

Seasons

Okay, the first snow is unbearably pretty.

Usually.

For most people.

But I face the first snow with resignation mingled with a touch of despair.

A part of me cannot fathom the heavy white flakes, the realization that here, in Alaska, snow doesn’t come and stay for a day or two. Snow doesn’t fall and melt. Snow falls and stays.

Somedays I have to work harder than others to be content. This is an especially difficult time of year for me. When the leaves start to turn, I inevitably start to grow a bit depressed. Not in a clinical, I need meds sort of way, but in a sad way. I don’t want the oh-so-short Alaskan summer to end. I am never, ever, ready for it to end.

But it takes “constant vigilance” for me throughout the summer to remember that even though this summer will end before I’m ready, it will return.

There are few things in this life that we can be certain of, but we may be certain of the seasons. Winter comes, but it also leaves. Spring arrives, bringing new life and fresh, cool breath, summer follows closely on its heels around here. When fall comes, I know that there are a few oh-so-short weeks of summer left.

Even writing this post, I grow not nostalgic, but pained. I honestly feel a pain in my chest, a tightening as I realize how close is winter’s arrival. Fall is hanging on by mere threads, grasping fingers at the sky, begging the sun for just a few more clear days, a few days where the inhabitants can soak up vitamin D and pretend that winter isn’t approaching with relentless vengeance.

We can be certain of the seasons of this earth. Even if global warming continues, there will be winter, there will be spring, summer, and fall. And it’s true of life as well. “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Implied in that very statement from Mr. Shakespeare is that winter does not last forever. It will one day lift, and we will see it for what it was: a season.

Just a Berry-Picking Fool

If you wonder where I’ve been lately, I’ve been parenting, and in between that, I’ve been writing, traveling, parenting, berry picking, writing, berry picking, and, wait-for-it!, writing.

But summer is ending here in Fairbanks. Okay, really, once the leaves start turning, summer has officially ended in my mind. So what if fall isn’t “official” until the solstice? That’s just one of the things that doesn’t apply to Alaska. Summer begins to end around the first week of August, when the rains really hit.

This year was no exception. Rains came sweeping in with August, along with the Tanana Valley State Fair held in Fairbanks. Then we had a few warm summery days throughout August, including a nice past week. But we’ve had our fair share of rain, and now the trees are turning, and it’s clear that there is no reclaiming the summer.

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Although the berries in this photo aren’t (to my knowledge) edible, this toadstool was just too perfect to ignore!

I pretty much missed the blueberries this year. I haven’t really picked them before because blueberries aren’t my favorite. I had planned on going with a friend of mine, and our plans got postponed two weeks in a row. So by the time we got out there, the berries were pretty much gone. Although I found a few patches of blueberries in my backyard, they only contained six berries. No, I’m not joking. Blueberries: 6.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

So about the time I realized I missed the blueberry picking, I started recognizing the little bushes with their maple-esque leaves and realizing that they were already turning red. Those happen to be highbush cranberries. And although it was only the beginning of August, they were ripe on the bush and starting to fall off!

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you're looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

My berry picking instincts kicked into high gear, and I immediately began to forget about blueberries and move on to the highbush cranberries. Although they smell like sweat socks, they make an absolutely fantastic meat sauce. (Okay, my hubby calls it “sock sauce,” but don’t let that fool you. He actually helped me pick some berries so I could make more this year!)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year's new, larger sieve worked like magic!

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year’s new, larger sieve worked like magic! And yes, they really are that red–no photo touchup here!

Last year, despite having enough berries to do a full recipe of “sock sauce” as my husband so endearingly calls it, I did only a half recipe. I hadn’t made it before–hadn’t really canned before at all–and I didn’t want to waste all the berries on a recipe that no one wanted or that I ruined for lack of experience. However, after sharing my attempt with Hubby and friends, it was received well by all. So this year, I’ve already canned one recipe full, and have enough to do at least one more full recipe (which takes about 12 cups of berries!).

After you process the berries, you're left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it's about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It's quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember.

After you process the berries, you’re left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it’s about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It’s quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember. Oh, and make sure to ventilate your house well. It stinks.

Last year I was learning canning for a few reasons. One of them was my return to Alaska, and my attempt to make the best of a difficult situation. The other was simply a desire to do something. I really struggled last year after the birth of my son, and coming up with little projects that didn’t require a lot of time, that I could possibly do with him, and that made me feel slightly productive, was my way of coping in some small way.

I’m glad I taught myself this little skill. It’s really quite simple, and the benefit is a Christmas gift and tasty sauce that I can share with those I love.

Alaskan Fireweed and The Dregs of Summer

In the week since I’ve taken the above photo, the fireweed has nearly bloomed itself out. If you grew up here, you measure summer by the fireweed blossoms. In spring, the fireweed sprouts and begins to bud, shooting up several feet into the sky. By early summer, the lowest buds on the plant have bloomed pinkish-purple and you begin to notice them in the fields and on roadsides. By midsummer, the fireweed has overtaken fallow fields and roadsides. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the tips of the fireweed still haven’t bloomed yet.

As summer fades, the fireweed fades as well. By the end of July, the tips of the fireweed begin to bloom, and the earliest flowers on the plant go to seed, splitting open and releasing feathery white puffs. That’s how you know that summer is ending.

We’re in that stage now. Summer is coming to a close. The past week has been rainy and full of unusual thunderstorms (Fairbanks doesn’t get a lot of thunderstorms, but we’ve had plenty lately). The roadsides are starting to fade, the bright pink/purple hue of fireweed diminishing into green and thin purple seed pods that will begin to release their white feathers soon.

It’s always been a bittersweet time of year for me. A lot of Alaskans endure the winter to enjoy the summer, and I’ve always been one of those. I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before, but I’m a summer-sport kind of girl, not being one to go snowmachining or skiing or anything like that. With the exception of running out of doors in the winter, my ideal winter day is spent curled up next to the fireplace with a good book.

That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the beauty of winter–it is beautiful, but it’s also cold in more than just the literal sense. It’s isolating and frigid, it’s exhausting and terrifying. But that’s a post for another time of year.

Now, I want to enjoy the last dregs of summer, gearing up for that winter chill which will inevitably steal fall from Fairbanks and descend before anyone is truly ready.

Out Camping in Denali

Last week Hubby and I celebrated a whole nine years of marriage.

To celebrate, we did something that we’ve only done once before during our marriage: went camping.

That’s right. My hubby, who used to be a Denali trail guide before I met him, and I have only camped once before last weekend. And you want to know the real insult? It wasn’t even Alaskan camping–it was in Washington state!

I’m hiding my head here, because it’s really so pathetic. I think we just got so caught up in life and everything that we didn’t make time to get away.

Last weekend though, we dropped the kid at Grandma and Grandpa’s, and drove a few hours into Denali National Park. In recent years, they’ve opened up the park road to 29 mile, Teklanika camp ground. So instead of taking a bus in, we were able to drive our car out to the campground.

Now, let me preface this by saying that this is light-weight camping. There were outhouses–nice ones–and potable water at this campground. But it was still “camping.” We didn’t have cell reception, so we were unplugged all weekend. And it really felt nice.

I was able to finish a short story while I was out there, and read some of Geraldine Brook’s The People of the Book, which I am starting to enjoy more, although it’s different from her other books and I don’t like it as much.

But I also managed to take a few pictures, and just had to share.

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The entrance to our campsite.

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We took an evening walk the day we got there, and the area surrounding the campsite was classic Alaska. The light was so great and created such a peaceful picture. I was tempted–if I didn’t realize how much wildlife as out there–to sit under a tree and read my book!

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This little creek meandered through the area, eventually disappearing under the tundra.

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We half expected to see a moose around the corner, or a bear, as we found many moose droppings in the area. But, no luck. No moose.

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The next morning we woke and went on a morning hike along the Teklanika River. This is the view from the riverbank. It was a gorgeous day, with few clouds and nice hiking weather. Not too hot, nor too cold.

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Some of the mountains still have snow on their tips, and probably won’t lose that snow all year round. Even so close to June, we found shaded spots and creeks with hardpacked snow still there.

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Another classic Alaskan picture. The skinny trees, the mountains in the back, this could be anyone’s backyard. Only it’s in Denali National Park.

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On our three hour hike along the river, we found thhese bear tracks on the way back to campsite. Later we heard from a camper we ran into ok our walk that a bus saw a Grizzly watching him pass by along the river.

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With claws like this, who wouldn’t want to run into this guy?

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Caribou tracks. Saw a lot of these along the river–tracks, not caribou.

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These pretty little flowers grew along the riverbank in patches.

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Wolf tracks. Saw plenty of these, as well as some fox tracks. But no live ones, unfortunately.

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One of the few animals that posed for me, this graverobber visited our campsite a few times looking for food.

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We didn’t want to get any closer to this Grizzly Bear we found right off the river from our campground. He looked a little too big to mess with!

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If you look closely, you can find the Griz right in the center of this pic. My lens wasn’t good enough to get a better picture, something I’m still upset about…

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As we drove out of the park Sunday morning, we were given a beautiful farewell by Denali herself.

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Denali, or The Great One

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Views like this is why people move here.

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I couldn’t decide which picture was better… This was one of the best views I’d ever gotten of The Mountain.

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The best wildlife shot I could get was of this ptarmigan! Silly bird didn’t move from the side of the road as we drove by.

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But attention turns back to Denali… Who can tear their eyes from her?

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She really dominates the scenery…she’s big!