There was one woman that we met on vacation that made a major impression on me. Her name is Gitte (pronounced Gee-ta), a Swedish woman who has lived in Alaska for the last 27 years. She was our guide during a 13-hour tour through Denali National Park. This particular tour took you into the park as far as you can drive, a 90-mile one way trip to the Kantishna Roadhousealong the park road. Gitte was a patient bus driver (when other drivers gave up on the potential for a bear or moose to come nearer, she savored the moment and we were rewarded with many close encounters), knowledgeable navigator, skilled wildlife-spotter, park expert, and fascinating person all rolled into one.
I could have listened to Gitte talk for hours about her life in the bush. It’s so different that anything I have known, could imagine, or even endure. Her husband (I think his name was Phil) was from Ohio and came to work at the park during his college years. (This is still very common; we met many students who had come to Alaska for seasonal employment and seeking adventure. Many go back home or to another exotic land; some return for several seasons, but hardly anyone stays over winter.)
Phil decided to take advantage of the then-homestead act in Alaska. The process was to find unclaimed land, stake it, and if you were the first to register it in the office at Fairbanks, it was yours. There were a few additional requirements: you had to build a minimum size structure and live on the land for a certain number of months during the year. He had lived there for several years when she met him.
When Gitte was telling us the story of him finding the place, she said, “He ended up in the middle of nowhere. Or depending on how you look at it, he ended up in the middle of everything.”
She definitely felt like they had everything. That was so appealing to me. She had keen awareness and unlimited appreciation for what the land and the experience offered her, despite the harshness of it. If things were demanding, she figured out to make them easier and more rewarding.
She told fascinating stories of their life there for 19 years, raising four boys, in a small shelter, heated only by wood. When the third boy arrived, they doubled their space from the original 16’ x 16’ cabin. They saved their money, little by little, to buy one window each year to replace their plastic film windows. Windows in a climate that reaches 50 below zero on a daily basis seem like a necessity to me rather than a luxury, but not to them. They used their 16-dog sled team to transport the first window; one of the triple-pane elements broke from the jostling of the sled so the following year they decided to transport the window in their canoe. When the last of the four windows went in, they realized they no longer could hear the sounds of outdoors as they had before; it was bittersweet to give up the closeness to nature for the warmth that the windows provided.
She talked about meal preparation and home-schooling the boys (the two oldest are in college now in Fairbanks). Their routines changed with the seasons. In the summer, they moved to the coast, one primary objective was to avoid the mosquitoes. Their family, along with others, had a small camp area. During the day, she and the boys would pack up the dogs, meals, and laundry and head to the sand bars in the middle of the rock-strewn river bed. That area gave the boys and the dogs a place to exercise and play and she had access to water for laundry – and the mosquitoes were hardly around! But the thing that got me the most was this comment she made: “All the other families stayed at camp to do their chores and then they came down to the river late in the day to join us for dinner. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t take the chores to the river and enjoy the day there.”
Gitte is a person who understands how precious every moment is and that we make every moment what it is – good or bad. She wasn’t shirking her responsibilities. She didn’t avoid the hard things. This was her choice to live in the bush and understood the responsibility of that. She made it better for herself and for those in her life. We should all find ways to integrate our “chores” – whatever they may be – into every part of our day.
I think dogs have this ability, too. They don’t try to overcomplicate things. They enjoy the simple pleasures and they are always ready to enjoy life. Last night when we were in the kitchen longer than usual and thoughts started to drift about wanting to be reading or doing something other than what I was doing; and this morning when we rose while it was still dark, I thought of Gitte. We all have things we must do in our personal and professional lives that are less desirable than others. The people who choose to make Alaska their home understand how those pieces are necessary and fit into the larger picture of what they want and desire.
I will always need reminders of that but Gitte and Grace are there to help me.