Gaining Traction

Farmgirls, I have a confession for you: My holiday season up until about yesterday wasn’t all that great. I tried, really, to see the best in everything and be full of holiday cheer. There were definitely very good times had by myself, my loved ones and some great friends, but overall, I was kind of down in the dumps. I even tried a faux Happy New Year resolution excitement in my last post on New Year’s resolutions; and you know what? I’ve already failed at most of those! Have I done yoga once in 2013? No! I did call a good friend; but I called my grandmother and she didn’t answer, when she called back I didn’t answer and haven’t called her back. I guess I have been a bit more organized. But overall, I’ve been somewhere between apathetic and discouraged.

There are many, many facets that played into this state of mind. Most notably I really miss my family. Another one is ice. It gets to me. I’m afraid of it at times and in total awe at others. We have been living in an increasingly icy world here in Palmer since before Christmas, so I’ve had a lot of time to ponder ice and its role in my life. Luckily, I’m gaining traction, both physically and mentally.

Moki gets a break from the ice in this snow at higher elevations.

As a child of the privileged nineties, these complaints and resolutions and whatnot may seem trivial–they largely are, but they still got in my head and wouldn’t leave. In many circles these are referred to as “first world problems”. But, bear with me here, it’ll get better.

It all started with the wind right after the solstice. Palmer, Alaska has to be one of the windiest places on earth with regular, hurricane force windstorms due to competing cold glacial air feeding the valley from two directions and ocean breezes attempting to come in from another. The wind is strong enough to move all of the snow into huge drifts–leaving bare fields with huge drifts along the edges at times. The wind also carries with it dirt and dust, making the farm look like a moonscape–pocketed and gray. The wind also creates a hard pack on the top of the remaining snow, sintering the snow surface together. The wind spell was followed by about two weeks of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw-you get it due to a winter Chinook which brings warm air from the lower reaches of the Pacific up here. The grand finale of this warm spell was a day of freezing rain followed by a day and a half of plain-ol-rain. Ugh.

Moki navigates the dirty moonscaped snow drifts.

So, it’s icy everywhere. I am in the final stretch of an eighteen day farm sitting stint at Sun Circle Farm (my usual farm sitting gig) and the ice has played a big role in this endeavor. First off, I am watching three dogs plus our new pup Moki. All of these dogs need some walks or they get cabin fever! So, we’ve been going on some pretty awesome walks around the farm, even if it hasn’t been very pretty. We’ve been hiking all of the trails around here and doing a fair amount of off-trail-blazing as well. The lack of understory in winter forests makes for good wandering. During the walks, I like to stop in the middle of my favorite hay field and do a bit of meditation on the always setting sun. One day during this meditation, I decided to focus on the beauty of situations rather than resorting to the easier, more apparent ugliness of many situations.

Perfectly preserved plant in the fen.

I had been growing increasingly weary of post-holing through the thick snow crust and gazing over fields of no snow/gray snow. In this meditation, however, I saw how amazing the forces of nature were and are. Some of these snowdrifts are like beautiful sculpted masterpieces, with the silty coating of glacial loess lying in perfect undulating lines. I recognized the great accomplishment in choosing the correct path across snow pack so that I didn’t fall through, and I took joy in breaking number-of-steps-without-post-holing records. I discovered that the fen (a wetland) on the farm had frozen perfectly and the snow had all blown off of it. The plants and mosses of the fen were frozen in full view, just under my feet in pristinely preserved greens, oranges, purples and pinks.

Moki takes a break to lick her nose in the fen–Look at those colors!

I had accepted the harsh beauty of this wind torn landscape, and I secretly hoped that this acceptance meant that it would change soon with snow! Alas, it did change, but with rain.

First came the freezing rain, which put a nice inch thick coating of ice on everything. Even grassy patches were coated. This was followed by almost two days of rain–making the ice even slipperier than ice is normally apt to be. Doing farm chores in this was one of the most frustrating things I have ever, ever, ever had to do. I fell, hard, about twenty times on Monday, once while carrying two five gallon buckets full of water–one of them spilling all over me and creating a nice luge for me to slide down and get soaked (Carhartt’s are far from luge proof). Miraculously, the other bucket barely lost a drop. I fell other times too–getting hay, moving between barns, mucking the yard, traversing the short distance between house and barn, playing with the dogs, getting out of and into my car, standing still, blowing my nose (okay, those last two aren’t true). Needless to say, I’m a pro at falling on ice now. But, I have been gaining traction.

I’ve fallen all over the ice partially for this guy–Maybe (his name is Maybe). And how does he repay me? with a horn to the jaw. It hurt, and hurts.

My ice-stabilization muscles are in full operating condition, and luckily my hips are still cushioned a bit from holiday eating/overeating. I have picked the best routes to maneuver between house, barn, hay bales, water spout, car, front door, etc.

As a kid, this kind of ice storm was awesomely amazing. The world was my ice rink. I remember, one winter, when all of the branches on the skeletons of the trees throughout our city were coated in ice. They glittered and cracked and were beautiful. But I was a kid then, adults dont like ice storms, right?

This ever pervasive and increasingly icy landscape has me thinking a lot about my brother, Evan, who I already think about daily. He died ten years ago this year when he and his girlfriend, Jackie, were out driving after dark on Lake Minnetonka, near my childhood home. Driving on this lake in the winter is normal and many people partake in ice sports and using the ice roads to cut down on commute distances. My brother’s car, however, crashed through a quickly growing hole in the ice. Jackie got out of the hole, but she succumbed to hypothermia about 100 yards from shore, my brother drowned. He was 16 and she was 17.

My brothers Evan (dark hair) and Ian (little guy) at a family reunion ca. 1994.

They were amazing young people, and I wish every day that I could see what kind of adults they would have become. He was amazingly selfless, always putting others before himself–even to the detriment of his own progress at times. She was much the same and had a deep love for Bob Dylan. We were all in track and cross country skiing together. We spent time at home together. I wish we had been even closer. The last time I saw Evan and Jackie, they asked to borrow the car so they could trade in Evan’s saxophone for a banjo.  It was the day before they died. I was excited for him to play the banjo. I remember it so vividly…

It finally snowed yesterday. The snow over the thick layer of ice is tough to navigate, but snow cushions the fall; and like I said, my ice-stabilization muscles are in full working order. The snow helps, a lot. Just as it quiets the landscape, my mind has been quieted.

A snowy nest in a high bush cranberry plant.

The walk I took with the dogs yesterday was a long and winding one. We traversed the natural ice rink and I made two snow angels holding hands. We discovered a cottonwood graveyard where years of grazing cows had allowed the trees to grow huge without competition and fall under their own weight. We played between huge stacks of hay bales, and we jumped over the creek, tempting the chilly waters to nab our feet. I finished off the day with some skiing up at the Hatcher Pass road run (the road run is a very accessible, free, downhill ski/snowboard run nearby. It is very fun and very convenient. I did, however, lose my phone there the other day when I fell due to the icy crust on the snow, and Amazing Farmer Amanda came with me, in the dark and sleet/graupel/rain to locate it on a ski slope. We found it due to her help and my fiancee’s technological know-how. She and he have been angels the last few days!).

Tilly and the hay tunnel.

So there it is: the icy world I inhabit for the moment. The ice has hurt me in so many ways, but I still am attracted to it. Walking, sitting, slipping or sliding over water is miraculous. Perhaps it is because we are composed of so much water that we are drawn to it, even when it is frozen. Perhaps the frozen nature of ice is even more appealing than plain water. It is water preserved, water suspended in time. Perhaps we want to do the same, we want to preserve special moments in order to thaw them out later. Or maybe we just like the awe and risk involved in trusting such a fragile thing. As I know, that trust can be broken in tragic ways. One might think that I would hate ice, perhaps fear it and avoid it. But, I am still drawn to it.  I think it can be beautiful and fun, I think it can bring the worst out in people, but it can also bring out the kid in all of us.  I know it can change some lives and take others. I am in awe of this icy, winter world; and I’m learning to navigate it as best I can.

Sorrel (a giant Alaskan Malamute) next to a downed cottonwood.

On one final note, Farmgirls: this winter has been weird, everywhere. The temperatures have soared and plunged and snow has dumped and waned. Ice is powerful and weak. Please be careful, make sure ice that you go out on is clear (white ice has often been weakened by compacted snow wthin) and thick (at LEAST four inches for walking, and at LEAST twelve for driving), Also, make sure the ice has a level surface (dips or bumps indicated active water underneath the ice surface) and know how deep the water under it is. Teach your kids how to diagnose safe and unsafe ice conditions.  Lastly, just don’t drive on it if you don’t really have to. Walking, skating or skiing pose much less risk.

Muskeg’s futile attempt to get at the water under the ice.

After a rocky start to 2013, I’m hoping to continue to seek beauty in even the most discouraging of situations. I hope your first weeks of 2013 have been wonderful, and that you, too, seek beauty in all you do.

Sending you peace and love,

Alex, The Rural Farmgirl

  1. Diana Henretty says:

    Good Morning from the Ozarks,
    How well I know the feeling of "ice" everywhere!
    In 2007, we had a huge ice storm here in the Ozarks that caused our electricity to be out for 13 days.
    We were not ready for the isolated feeling, the sounds of the trees crashing around us in the woods, and the dreaded lonely feeling when the sun set.
    For a long time after that winter, I dreaded the sound of ice rain tinkling outside.
    We have learned to prepare all year though so there are no surprises.
    We keep solar batteries charged, we keep our little "ice storm pantry" filled with everything imaginable, and that seems to help.
    We found out that when we get iced and snowed in, taking our sled to town for forgotten items is a way to combat cabin fever, going to thrift stores thru the year and buying books and crafts helps keep our spirits up, and reaching out to others in our little town who might be needing firewood or
    emergency items helps too.
    That was the worst ice storm in 84 yrs. we were told by an elderly friend,
    but it taught us so many lessons in life, sharing with others, and being prepared.
    Fight the fear of winter with fortitude my dear, and remember, after a long winter, comes the beauty of spring! ~Hugs from Diana in the Ozarks!


    What an incredible story–13 days without electricity!  It sounds like you came out on top with new experiences and skills to share with others. I have an inkling feeling I’ll turn out the same :).  Thank you for your words of encouragement!

  2. MaryJane says:

    When I lived remotely, winter cold and ice had a way of getting to you, bone deep. Outside chores made it better (fresh air) but they also made it worse. This I do know, someday you’ll value the memories.

    I’ve been fishing on frozen lakes in Minnesota. Everyone drove their cars onto the ice, but having never done that before, I was nervous the entire time. I’m so very sorry to hear about your loss. Losing a sibling in such a way must have been horrible. Heartbreaking to this day I’m sure. Hugs.


    Thanks for your kind words Mary Jane!  You are absolutely right about outdoor chores making it better and worse.  It is a blessing to be forced to go outside at least a few times per day.  The animals are definitely happy to see me, too. And hey, my ice-stabilization muscles are getting a workout.  Evan and I were close in age and demeanor, it was and is hard, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without his presence and absence…Hugs to you, too!

  3. Adrienne says:

    My heart goes out to you, sweets, especially at this time of year. Many friends have SAD (Seasonable Affective Disorder) due to death or other traumatic experiences during the holidays. Life is not easy under the best of circumstances and it helps to remember the warm, pleasant events when the snow, rain and ice permeate your world. I’m holding you in my thoughts and wishing you a better new year.


    Thank you Adrienne!  I have friends and family with SAD, too.  I don’t think I totally fit the bill, as you are supposed to feel it for two years in a row…but it is a likely possibility.  I think this year will be just fine, hopefully the hard times were just packed in to the first few weeks…Thanks for your thoughts, Best, Alex

  4. Kat Oliver says:

    Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts during a tough time for you. Winter is one of those seasons that provide challenging and profound moments. I too deal with a few demons and lovely chores raising sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens. We have gotten 4 straight days of rain and expecting snow at any moment. I spent the last hour moving animals around, feeding them. I am soaked and it did not help that I too fell trying to move a ram. But I like the fact I own my farm, work for myself, make my schedule and don’t have to dress nicely everyday. And I would rather have animals for co-workers. Enjoy the rest of your winter.

  5. Sandy says:

    You are missing the Brainerd Ice Fishing contest on Saturday! The ice is at least 16 inches thick. The temp should be about 15 with a 40 mile an hour wind. See what you are missing?

    About this time of the year I miss green vegetation. Anything. A few years ago we went to Maui in February and I absolutely drank in the green and the flowers. Absorbed it. Felt much better when we got back to Minnesota! SAD is a definite possibility.

  6. Laura says:

    Hi Alex,
    I was moved by your story. Deeply, as winter implies. Touching something inside, profound, true, soulful. Like the beauty found under the ice.
    Thanks for sharing your winter challenges, and being brave and adventurous in the face of them.

  7. Denise says:

    My heart goes out to you…I think the other ladies have said it all, hang in there, life will get better continue to find the joy in the little moments love and hugs xxx

  8. Susabelle says:

    Hello from sub-zero Colorado. This is only my second winter here, so I’m still figuring out what winter is like just east of the Rockies. I am originally from Missouri, and I know ice storms well. You need some Yak Trax to give you better grip on snow. 🙂

    I have, unfortunately, had my own trouble with the winter precipitation. Three weeks ago I went up to Rocky Mountain National Park to sight-see, and fell in a small patch of snow along a road. I broke my ankle in three places (two fibula, 1 tibula) and dislocated it to boot. I have plates and screws and a hot pink cast and no walking for six weeks. What am I saying? PLEASE BE CAREFUL and get some Yak Trax.

    Winter landscapes are, to me, just as beautiful as winter, even though it is mostly black and white and grey. I can find beauty in all seasons, and I rejoice in all seasons.

  9. Lilyrose says:

    I am sorry to hear of your loss. You have a beautiful and lasting memory of him. You, right now, are living and vibrantly alive in one of your most important times in your life. You have the right attitude and gumption to pick yourself up when you stumble, slip, slide and fall.

    Go ahead and make that time to call or hand write your loved ones, and be with them as often as you can. It is and will be the most important thing you can do in your life. As for the beauty, awesomeness and fierceness of ice there is much respect to be had when facing God’s creation.

    (I’m not so sure you are aware of it or not, but popular as Yoga may be for physical health, it is still a religion. The movements have meaning, there is worship of a god, and it promotes a certain way of living your life. I, for one, am glad you have been lazy with it. Stick to that wonderful, rugged, outdoor life you are blessed with. It’s a workout.)


    Thanks for your thoughtful words, Lilyrose.  You are right, ice demands much respect.  I have been practicing a semi-yogic lifestyle for several years now.  It isn’t a religion, it is a lifestyle. There are gods respresented in asanas, you’re right. But, at least to me, these gods aren’t spiritual gods in the same way that the Christian, Hindu, Wiccan gods or goddesses.  Instead they are representations of different aspects of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves. Some religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, have branches that include yoga as a part of their practice.  I still love my outdoor lifestyle though too–there’s nothing better than doing yoga high on a mountain!

  10. Oh, wish I could reach through the screen and send you a big ol’ hug! And I’m so sorry you lost your brother!

    As for the ice, having moved from Texas where right now it is in the seventies and eighties, to Connecticut where it is cold, grey, and icy much of the winter until Spring, I understand how you feel, especially the part about missing family. What I like to do is find things I enjoy indoors (knitting, baking), turn on some great music, light up all the lamps, and focus on happy things. I also find fun things to do outside like ice skating or even sledding! Some days you just need to find some fun!

    Alaska looks really beautiful, and my daughter and I really enjoyed seeing all of your animal friends. Big hugs, your blogging sis, Nicole (Suburban Farmgirl)

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