Take your chores to the river
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.
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What an inspiring woman. I practically have chills just thinking about living there without solid windows though!
I’m totally with you. I was curled in a blanket last night and it’s not even winter yet.
Since today I’ve had to get up at 4 am to finish my work, this is exactly the thing I needed to read. A very inspirational post about a very inspirational woman…No way I’m going to complain about getting up early now. I’ve seen documentaries on TV about people living in the middle of ‘nowhere’ (rain forrest, countryside, etc.) and I’ve met people who live on canal boats or communes over here, and they always seem happier than anybody else. We ourselves lived in a caravan for one whole summer, and we’re still talking about it as the happiest period in our family life. I think it’s the closeness to nature that makes you feel that way and helps you put things into perspective. Because we’re quite disappointed with today’s society and their lack of morals, because we’re half home-schooling anyway and because we’re not materialistic, my husband and I have often thought about packing up and moving somewhere remote, most likely in the highs of Scotland. The only thing that’s stopping us are certain ‘benefits of civilisation’ that we want Brianna to have access to should she choose so (clubs, better medical care, etc.), plus the fact that she wouldn’t get much kiddie interaction. If we had more than one child, things would be different.
So yes, I really admire Gitte for choosing an ‘alternative’ lifestyle. It looks like Alaska really works for her and her family, and I can see why. It’s beautiful and unspoilt. Its harsh weather is most likely what kept it this way. If it was a luke-warm, comfortable place to live, it would have been invaded by millions of people by now. It did take a Swedish to move up there, though. I’ve met a few years ago, and they were tough. They all wore T-shirts when I was wearing a winter coat, and complained that they were hot!
Brilliant post, Robin, I’ll have to pass it on to my husband to read later on. You never know, if next I write a comment on your blog it will be from the Shetland Islands, it will be your fault 😛
Hi Didi. I agree that the closeness to nature has a huge impact on how we view things. It gives us a whole new and different, more grounded perspective, where we notice the important things and realize that the things we thought were important, really aren’t. Grace helps me with that, too. I think it’s fascinating that you and your husband had such a meaningful experience living in the caravan. Gitte talked about the challenges of raising children; even though they had four, the kids stilled experienced some of that isolation. Yet she talked about them now and they certainly sound like completely “normal” kids with lots of friends. I bet they really had valuable (and unusual!) life lessons instead of being tied to a computer screen like so many of the kids today. Always trade-offs, aren’t there? If you move to the Shetland Islands, I’ll eagerily await tales from George there! 🙂
My comment is for both of you, 🙂
My heart warmed reading about Gitte’s dilema over being warm yet isolated versus drafty yet hearing the world outside the window. I can So relate to that. I am always rather sad when that fall day comes and I know I have shut the window for the last time until some day in far off spring.
The gal who owns the shop next to mine, selling interesting architectural antiques, lives in an isolated wood, a camp somewhere local. No heat or electricity. Her kids are grown, She chose the lifestyle, enjoying it. For someone without electricity she is surprisingly well informed and a mind sharp as a whip.
The hubby often mentions the same idea, always we wish to be closer to nature, sometimes even think of the Highlands. Though for us, such a grand move is not likely. A Caravan? Oh how I wish you had a personal blog!
Hi Sara — somehow I missed this comment until now. Great insights you’ve shared. I think the impression you mention (about the shopkeeper living without electricity was surprisingly well informed) is common — in that those who choose to live without conveniences may lack in education or motivation. It’s an opinion that I have learned myself is inaccurate; in fact I now think that those who live life in the most simple ways are extraordinarily bright and wise. I think they understand life’s real meaning and purpose more than those of us who value less important things. So interesting!
Hi Robin:) Thanks for visting and I’m glad you commented. I’ve just started following you too (via enjoying your comments at Didi’s), but haven’t had time to read any post but this. They are so ‘not fluffy’ like I consider my blog to be and take some digesting:) Which is a compliment!
And thank you for your kind words about Josh. He truly was a very special little dog who gave himself a job to do and did it without complaint and always made the best of things. I need to take a leaf out of his book at times.
Such an interesting post about Gitte and her life in Alaska. I guess it’s just as well we don’t all think like her or Alaska might be over populated … or the Shetland Islands:) While I enjoy my home comforts I do admire people with the pioneering spirit.
Did you try subscribing to our blog with Google Friend Connect or RSS feed or email? I haven’t had anyone mention a problem before, but maybe they just haven’t bothered to tell me!
I’m looking forward to having time to go back and read more or your posts. Grace looks lovely.
Hi Sue. Thanks for stopping by. I very much enjoy my home comforts, too, and could never live like Gitte; having those differences makes it all the more interesting for us to learn from each other. Several of us on that trip were asking Gitte about her life and towards the end she said, “Now I want to hear about all of your lives!” She definitely had a curious nature and I was drawn to her.
Fantastic read Robin. Sheila is from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland where the landscape is just as remote. Having been there I can tell you that even though it feels like your at the end of the world, it was probably one of my most favorite places to stay ever. The stories the she has of the farm animals that run wild across the land or on the beach is fascinating. In those days she lived in a 12×16 stone cottage with a thatched roof and a dirt floor. She drank her milk straight from the cow. She even had to bathe in a small pond (lochen) that was is front of the house, as the had no bathroom. The only heat they had was burning the peat they cut out of the bogs as there almost no trees where they lived. Yet, despite of all of this, she never has a unkind word of her youth. It was just the way things were back then and she loved it. She still does. I absolutely love your post as it reminds me of this wonderful place.
Wow, Sheila’s childhood home sounds wonderful. It’s lucky you have been able to visit it and experience it. Thanks for sharing it with us. I bet she had the strongest of foundations with what she gained from living there.
Gitte is such an amazing woman. I couldn’t have imagined taking the Denali tour without her. She was so knowlegeable and interesting to talk with. She has such a great sense of humor too. She made a remark about trusting your driver when whe driving along Polycrom Pass. I was a little nervous being so close to the edge, but she was a pro. She was watching the clouds, and noticed that their might be a chance to see Mt. McKinley — so we agreed to keep rolling and not stop for wildlife for awhile — and sure enough — “The Mountain was out!!” It was amazing to see.
Gitte really made the trip remarkable. THANK YOU.!!!
Gitte is amazing, isn’t she, Mary Jo? It’s great that you had the same type of experience as we did. And that she helped you experience the whole of Mt. McKinley — what a great story. Thanks for stopping by!