Archive for the ‘Palmer Alaska’ Category

Summer in the Valley

Today was just one of those days–you know, when rather predictable, mundane chores turn into something else again. I started the day by driving into Palmer for an appointment, but was met at the door by the office manager who told me that it had been cancelled, as the physical therapist thought we were finished. Well, OK, that left more time to get into Anchorage for my afternoon appointment and a bike ride. So Tom and I loaded up the bikes in anticipation of a spin along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, always a favorite of ours.

However, the state troopers had other ideas. Seems they had the highway closed for HOURS, chasing a bad guy between Palmer and Anchorage. We cooled our heels in standstill traffic for over an hour before we could exit and  turn toward home.

I just couldn’t stand wasting the day however, so I had Tom drop me back in Palmer, where I changed into bike togs and hit the road. One of my favorite rides is around Farm Loop Road. There are several Community Supported Agriculture farms on this route; you know, where you buy a “share” and get a box of produce each week, allowing you to feast on whatever is in season. There are also several nurseries and greenhouses here–Palmer is the premier agricultural area in our Southcentral region. Here we combine two-to eight-foot topsoils with 19.5 hours of daylight in the height of summer to spectacular effect.

Earth Works Farm’s vegetable and flower offerings

There are hundreds of acres of flowers, vegetables  and hay grown here in the Mat-Su Valley, and I am very fond of telling my guests on the train all about the agricultural colony that was established during the Depression in 1935 in Palmer. Part of the New Deal, it aimed to settle the country, showcase Alaska as capable of supporting farms, and assist struggling farmers from northern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan.

Such a sweet little Colony barn.

There are still some fine examples of period homes and barns, like the one to the right here, still in existence. And though only about 20 percent of those relocated farmers were still on their land after five years, agriculture is again a staple of the economy here. With the surge in interest in local, organic foods, farming in Palmer is experiencing a renaissance. Even before the “locavore” movement really got rolling you could find locally grown potatoes, carrots, cabbage and greens in the grocery stores. Now there is everything from summer squash to herbs to cheese, milk, meat and eggs available at the farmers’ markets. There is really no excuse for not eating well in the Valley!

Matanuska River and Knik Glacier in the background

On the ride home I stopped at the Matanuska River overlook, about 500 feet above that braided-channel, glacier-fed river. Recently, swollen first by melt due to fine weather and then by heavy rains, this river has carved a new channel, chewing through established banks to claim several homes and outbuildings in its relentless rush to the sea. For years I have watched the river’s depredations, swearing that I would never purchase property in its flood plain and ridiculing those who had. Now, all I feel is sympathy for those folks, losing their dirt, their home, their dreams to the iron whim of Nature. The Matanuska is beautiful, powerful, unpredictable and sometimes grim, reflecting the larger reality of life in the Last Frontier.

Matanuska River panorama


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We have ducks.

Well, rather, Tom has ducks. We have not named them, even though they are cute, funny, a riot to watch and listen to. After all, they will be dinner this winter, and we consider it rude to make friends with beings that we will later eat.

After our dog Roxy was hit by a car last summer, Tom and I had a very serious discussion; we agreed that we would not have animals again until we stopped travelling so much. It’s really hard to find a reliable person to watch one’s livestock, and patently unfair to one’s pet to leave it with others for months at a time.

However, this summer we not only have ducks but have also been caring for our son’s blind, diabetic, aged husky. So much for resolutions, for laws laid down, for lines drawn in the sand. The heart decides otherwise.

At least all these animals are temporary. Son Tim will come home from his North Slope job and retrieve sweet Oliver. Tom will gird his heart with stoniness, remind himself of how wonderful duck grease is to cook with, and butcher the nameless ones.

First Sockeye!

At least it’s easier on the conscience to kill fish. They are not cute, though they are beautiful. We spent three days on the Kenai Peninsula with friends, harvesting and processing salmon. The first sockeye to hit my net leaped free when I pulled it in, a flash of quicksilver against the leaden sky, then gone. When I landed the next one, it slid silver and lively to the deck, slapping its tail with abandon, offering its beauty for my winter sustenance. I offered my thanks, grateful for the river’s bounty and my friends’ generosity.


Once home the real work began. Tom cut and smoked the fish, and then I packed the glass jars and pressure-cooked them to preserve that smoky, oily goodness. There is nothing quite so satisfying to me as contemplating shelf after shelf of smoked fish, pickled beans, home-made jellies and canned cherries that I have put up with my own hands. Tom finds the same kind of heart’s-ease in gazing on three or four well-stacked cords of firewood that he has cut, linked and split; a job well done, necessities put by for the winter.


Six cases done, eight more to go!

Today it is 72 degrees and sunny. Times like this, it’s nearly impossible to imagine winter. But the fireweed spikes are in bloom nearly halfway up, my peonies are finished, and I have harvested almost all the strawberries. I have potatoes and carrots to look forward to, and berry picking in the fall rains. The exquisite sweetness of the short Alaska summer fills my heart today; my soul knows that winter will come in turn, but we are well prepared.

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Sweet Summer

“In summer the song sings itself”

–William Carlos Williams

It is finally summer. Today was 73 degrees here at my house, and I found myself irresistibly drawn to the outdoors, even though I was slightly exhausted from my 20 hour workday yesterday. In the late afternoon, sitting in my lawn chair in the shade with iced coffee, I was marvelling at just how brilliantly, reflectively green all the leaves were. They have finally matured, and now display that waxy coating which fully developed birch and cottonwood leaves have.  In the high summer sun and breeze they fairly twinkle, reflecting the light along like a fast-paced conversation.

Dandelion have not only gone to seed but now raise their bald heads proudly in the sparse grass. Sad to say, those hardy invaders have crowded out most of my lawn, and spread a golden glory along the driveway.  I almost–almost–hate to mow them down. They are spring flowers, and their time is nearly over. The Sitka roses are in early bloom, but another week of these temperatures will see them come into their fullness.

The strawberry beds are in full bloom, echoing the white of the snow that covered them only a few brief weeks ago. These spring flowers will bring showers of sweet lusciousness soon, and our chins will drip red while we forage in the late afternoons.

At this point we have the potatoes and the carrots in the ground and they have sprouted well. They’re really the only things we have room for, without the massive effort of tearing up sod. And with only the two of us, and me working strange schedules, what use really are zucchini, the glut of leafy greens or the worry of cabbage in moose habitat? My gardener’s soul demands something to harvest, but root vegetables are the most practical. I have my peapods, my dill, fennel, cilantro, rosemary. There is basil in the greenhouse along with a bumper crop of that scourge, chickweed. Time to use the weed whacker there. I’ve made two batches of rhubarb crisp and there are a couple of gallons in the freezer too, awaiting state fair time and the making of pies. I can stand on the deck and almost see those red stalks and broad leaves leap for the sky.

Thankfully the fireweed, that post-equinox flowerer, is still just a tender green spike, past its salad days but not quite ready for the honey makers. We still have time, though there is an urgent undercurrent to my days. In Alaska that sweet summer song has only a few verses, and they are short.

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My backyard

It’s not often that I take up the challenge to try something new. I’m pretty content with the recreational activities I am familiar with, and I seem pretty comfortable in this groove that I refuse to call a rut. But just lately I have been striking out into some uncomfortable territory.

When I applied for the rail guide job with Princess earlier this year, I thought it would be fun. I never thought that I would experience the level of doubt and stage fright that I found myself carrying around when it actually came time to lay it out in front of my fellow employees during our training run to Denali. I quickly got over that, but I have to admit that the five minutes between boarding passengers and the moment that I start talking still find me with butterflies in my stomach.

Silly me–my guests are so ready to set off on the next stage of their Great Alaskan Adventure that I could say anything and they would at least start to listen raptly!

I’ve started new jobs four times now in the four years that we have lived in Palmer. Each time I have had no problem with the learning curve; I have been my supremely confident self, knowing that I have the knowledge, experience and intelligence to enable me to accomplish whatever is demanded of me in the job.

I have not risen to  any new physical challenges, however. I have not taken up one new  sport, activity, hobby or skill. I have been content with my very limited repertoire of road cycling, gardening, writing, reading and singing in my church choir. No snow boarding, though I’ve told myself I’d like to learn. No hiking the Butte, though I’ve had a couple of friends wanting to go. No mountain biking on the local single- and double-track trails–until tonight.

I’m so far back you can’t see me!

BackCountry Bicycles here in Palmer sponsors rides every Thursday night for women. Sometimes these are road rides, sometimes mountain biking, some nights there are both, like tonight. I have not joined any of these in the entire four years that I have been in the area. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons–I forget, it’s at dinnertime, it’s all the way into Palmer, I have to work tomorrow. Whatever; I have never gone. And yet I loudly bemoan the fact that I feel so disconnected from the community; that I am having such a hard time making new friends here who share my interests.

This is a rut as high as the Great Wall, keeping new experiences out as if they were the Mongol Horde.

So, I determined to join the group tonight. I vacillated; should I go with the roadies or the muddies? I am most comfortable on my hybrid road bike, I am confident in my skills, I know the routes the group most often rides. Comfortable. I called the shop–which route was the road group taking? The usual leader, Erin, said that one would be an unled ride–the group would decide its own route; did I have a suggestion?

She, Erin, would be leading the other group, the muddies, in a beginner session of hills, tree roots and gravel at Matanuska Lake. I hemmed. I hawed. I wasn’t up to it. I would be the oldest woman there. My old mountain bike didn’t have suspension. They wouldn’t wait for me. They’d all look cuter in their bike shorts. I examined all that hogwash, upbraided myself (with my husband’s help) and loaded the mountain bike. I had a ball.

The badge of honor

Yes, the hills were hard. Yes, all the young women looked better in their bike shorts. Yes, I was the oldest woman there. Did everyone feel the same way as I did? Well, we are a group of females, so from experience I would guess yes. Were we all challenged in some way? Yes. Did we all have a great time and learn something new, gaining a bit of confidence along the way? It certainly seemed so. Will we come back again next week for a slightly tougher route? I hope so. I wrote it in my engagement calendar–no more “forgetting” excuses. It’s still biking, so it’s in my comfort zone–just. I have the bike grease tatoo on my banged up calf to prove that. It’s enough of a challenge that I feel like I’m striking out into new territory, a satisfying thing. Is this all just an excuse to buy a new bike? Maybe so.

It’s not snow boarding, but then winter is still a long way away.

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I live in such a small town! And I mean that with all the attendant good things about small town life, and none of the bad.

Today Tom and I took advantage of the 50+ degree temperatures and rode our bikes into Palmer, to Vagabond Blues, the local coffee house. Along the way, we saw the bike shop owner and his wife, decked out in the shop’s logo jerseys, taking much speedier advantage of the great weather. Greetings exchanged, we all pedaled on.

Upon arriving at the coffee shop we leaned our bikes against the wall, hung our helmets on handlebars and walked away. There were a couple other bikes keeping our steeds company, but nary a lock in sight. Just down the street there was a table with one adult and several pre- and young teens. They were selling lemonade.

Now, lemonade stands are common everywhere, big city, small town, even rural crossroads. Lemonade stands often have a dog in attendance as well, smiling, tongue lolling, adoring his kids. Less often will this dog be a yearling Great Dane, but there he was, happily dashing up and down the sidewalk with his girl on a leash.

“Lemonade 4 Sale!” proclaimed one hand-lettered sign. The kids promenaded themselves and their pets back and forth in front of the stand, waving at the traffic and beckoning people in to buy. Three girls, a boy, a dog–and a goat. Watching this little private circus from the comfort of our windowside table, we hooted with laughter; the 12-year-old on the other end of the goat’s tether was clearly shocked and embarrassed when it left its calling card on the public sidewalk.

Responsible and resourceful young woman that she was, she soon returned with a snow brush she found in her dad’s car, and commenced sweeping the little dark marbles into the gutter. So intent was she that she failed to notice the woman behind her, who had to jump around a bit to avoid the enthusiastic cleanup.

It was then that we saw the second hand-lettered sign. “Lemonade 4 A Goat!” What? They already had a goat. What’s the story? Upon our exit from the coffee shop, our investigations revealed that today is National Lemonade Season kickoff. There is actually a nationwide, non-profit organization, Prepared 4 Life, dedicated to teaching kids basic business practices by encouraging them to set up and run lemonade stands. These entrepreneurs would use the monies raised to buy another goat, presumably another business investment. We bought chocolate chip cookies and left it at that, satisfied that the future of capitalism in Palmer is in good hands.

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