For those of you that may have missed our introduction article, your hosts at Planet Alaska are a mother/daughter duo. My mother is a writer and lives at Mickey’s Fish Camp in Wrangell. She has published several books called “The Dead Go To Seattle,” “Hide of My Tongue” and “Traveling with the Underground People.” She sits on her porch overlooking the water and dreams up stories, poetry and myth from this land and ocean that defines us. She’s living the dream.
I am your jack-of-all-trades host that lives in Sitka. My partner and I, and our two dogs, live on our boat, a 37-foot Puget Trawler that we are rebuilding. We work as guides, and have a small business making medicines and foods from the forest. Boat life isn’t for everyone. It has a lot of pros and cons that we are constantly reassessing. Multiple times a year older men visiting Alaska walk by us when we are working on the boat and say, “You’re living the dream.” This is now the phrase we use while laughing hysterically when something goes wrong. We use the phrase almost every single day. We are living the dream.
This is the most affordable way to live in Southeast Alaska. That is, if nothing ever goes wrong on your boat, and you don’t need to get several storage units to help with the lack of space on your boat, and you don’t live in a place with ever increasing electric rates and boat slip rates, and you can find a friend who lets you put a freezer in their garage so you can still store your fish, crab, shrimp, caribou, moose, spruce tips and berries. These are the foods of Alaska that fuel our life as we live the Alaskan dream.
Then there is everything that doesn’t make it into the snazzy sunset Facebook photos with Mount Edgecumbe in the foreground. The clogged toilets, the tiny spaces with nowhere to put anything, the five minute showers that turn cold in a fraction of a second, that leak you can never find the source for that only drips on dry days, the ever-lingering smell of old boat on everything, and that one sunny day when you feel like painting over every piece of teak and then barbequing at the beach. Two people and two dogs on one boat. Adult Tetris all day and every day.
We have three storage units. One for my stuff before I met my partner, one for our stuff, and one for our business. We spend way too much time moving our belongings from one spot to another. As we are hauling our weekly groceries and laundry down the 10-minute walk from the dock to the boat when it’s raining sideways, we often pause to look at each other and say, “We’re living the dream.” We make it to our boat looking like drowned rats and haul our stuff on board just in time to see a sea lion come up behind the stern as fish jump and a rainbow begins to form over Arrowhead Mountain. That moment right there is why we do it.
We dream of having a house with everything in one spot, on our way out to the storage unit for the fourth time in a day to get more devil’s club/wormwood salves and oils for another order. As the devil’s club stalks begin to take over our storage unit my partner questions my hoarding decisions, but I’m going to make drumsticks and walking sticks one day I swear. I’ll make them this winter when things slow down. Yep, I’ll add them to that long growing list of things I’ll be doing this winter when everything “slows down.” Today is sunny and we struggle with the task of needing to caulk the boat and needing to feed our soul on the beach picking berries and eating good food with friends. We push ourselves to make it all happen. We are living the dream.
We get off work so we can go to work for ourselves. Harvesting devil’s club and wormwood for medicinal oils. We also take people out with us to learn how to harvest respectfully. When people in charge of outdoor programs working with kids call us to ask if we can come talk to the kids about sustainable harvesting, we stop everything we are doing and meet them. We make time. This is what Alaska is about for many of us that live here. It’s about working and playing hard. It’s about having your car stuffed full of gear like you’re the Clampetts. It’s about 16-18 hour days filled with things to do. It’s about passing on this way of life to the next generation.
It’s not easy living off the land in Alaska while working a regular job, owning a small business and living on a boat. It’s about jumping into the harbor and getting your husky out of the ocean when she falls in before the sea lion that is fast approaching reaches her. We’re living the dream.
We go to the public library to check our website for orders since we get the spinning wheel of death when trying to use our phones in the harbor most days. We wave at our neighbors who are leaving the library parking lot with a handful of DVDs because a storm is coming and we are all preparing to hunker down for a couple of days. We borrowed buoys from another neighbor because we hear the winds are going to be strong. It’s best to live the dream with good neighbors and a strong community.
Today the tourists have been greeted with a short overview of the Alaskan life (if they only knew the reality), the devil’s club stalks were moved to another corner of the storage unit, devil’s club/wormwood salves and oil have been shipped, groceries and laundry have been hauled down the dock, the dogs have been walked and have spent time greeting the other harbor dogs, another spot on the boat has been caulked, the tarp has been repositioned again, the boat lines retied, another few gallons of berries yet to clean, and a caribou steak from Kotzebue is thawing for dinner. As the sun begins to set and the transient fishermen pee off their boats, we look around at the soggy groceries and wet clean laundry and just as we look at each other to laugh and say, “We’re living the dream” as the fish jump and the sea lion chases them as an eagle flies up to the top of the mast next to the boat to enjoy the view with us.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.