MiiR contributor and freelance photographer, Gretchen Powers and her wife Kaleigh, set out on a new adventure when Kaleigh joined the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska. Gretchen shares the good, the bad.. the rainy on how they have adjusted to calling this beautiful place home.
I was halfway up a mountain in Maine with a kayak on my back this October when I got enough cell service to check my text messages. “KODIAK, AK!!!!!” came through in all caps. I tripped on a rock, face-planted into my fear, and lost my breath for a moment. Alaska. Woah.
I definitely uttered a few expletives under my breath as I huffed up the mountain. Move to an island in Alaska where I don’t know anyone but my wife!? OH GEEZ! (and HECK YES! all at the same time)!! As many of my friends will tell you, I’m rather obsessed with Type Two Fun and am always, always up for an adventure. Four months later I’ve found that while learning how to adapt to life in this rugged, gorgeous place has been challenging, saying “yes” to adventure is always worth it.
We moved to Kodiak, Alaska in December after my wife Kaleigh was stationed on the USCG Cutter SPAR as an Ensign after graduating from the US Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. We were shocked to learn this time of year offered a maximum of 5.5 hours of daylight. The sun takes its sweet time to rise around 10am and sluggishly moves across the horizon before plunging us back into darkness. Now that it’s almost summer, it gets light out before I want to be awake (around 6 am) and doesn’t set until 10pm.
I wake up to the National Anthem every morning at 8am sharp. The bugle sounds and then it’s the same notes that I found peaceful at first, a reminder of what we’re doing here, living on this isolated Coast Guard base, and now on particularly frustrating or lonely days, I find grating. The sound of helicopters flying by overhead at all times of the day and the C130 airplanes taxiing through our backyard replace the car horns and sirens of Portland, Maine--a place we called home for the last four years. Kaleigh is up before the sun and works a normal schedule when in port: Monday-Friday 6am-3pm. Her buoy tender has an irregular enough schedule you’d think a kid made it with an etch-a-sketch. They go underway for anywhere from three days to two months at a time. Any time we get to spend together exploring this island is precious.
The eagles populate the island like seagulls and apparently, there are more bears than humans. Luckily they are still sleeping, so I haven’t had to deal with that reality quite yet (though I do carry bear spray and a VHF radio on every outdoor adventure). This is a wild-weathered space with winds and rains as dramatic as my emotional highs and lows. I already battle demons in my head and my gut on a regular basis and this place has simply made that fight a little harder. There is so little consistency in my life as a freelance photographer and filmmaker and so I have to find consistency in the little things, like a morning cup of tea, or an afternoon yoga session or the daily romps I take my pup, Ella, on. I’ve found plenty of new inspiration for my work as the colors of this space are unparalleled.
The ocean is the deepest greenish blue on stormy days and bright cerulean on sunny ones, perfectly contrasting against the brilliant turmeric of the dried grasses. I keep being told, just wait until summer when everything turns green, you will not believe how gorgeous this place is! It has been a refreshing change for my photography and filmmaking work, which luckily, thanks to supportive clients I’ve been able to pack up and bring with me.
After a morning of working on my computer or hiking and photographing and keeping Ella from being picked up by eagles or eaten by bears, I run errands - fun fact about living on an island - everything is affected by the weather! There’s an exchange on base, your typical convenience store (plus Coast Guard swag) and a commissary - a small grocery store which carries most things you might need. There’s a Safeway and tiny health food store in town that are a 20 minute drive, and the only other food stores on the island. The barge comes every Wednesday --weather permitting--but we’ve learned not to plan meals around the schedule of that behemoth sea vessel.
Dinner is often decided simply by what the store has in stock and what produce can be used as fast as possible. You see, the shelf life of spinach by the time it actually arrives here is about as long as it takes to fly from AK to our old home on the east coast (approximately 24-32 hours). The four hour time difference is challenging for keeping in touch with friends, family, and most clients on the east coast and in the first two and a half months it took for us to get our furniture, the blank walls in our home echoed. I know I’ll be happiest if I spend most of my day outside hiking in brown rubber boots through rain or shine, across ridge lines and along deer trails without more than a topography map, bear spray and bottle of water and snacks in my pack.
Most rainy days after dinner, I settle in with my pup Ella and Kaleigh too if she’s home and build a small fire in our fireplace which is hands down the best feature of our military housing. If I sit facing it, with twinkle lights hung above and around, the brick reminds me of our New England home and life doesn’t feel quite so foreign. Wet wood has finally steamed its last breath and the flames have taken over. Flickering and flecking sparks up unto the darkness. Ella grumbles at every snap of the wood, jolted out of her dreams of chasing bunnies across the vast mountain terrain. Sometimes home is found in the littlest things and being brave and bold is possible if you say yes to the opportunities that will push you past the edge of your comfort zone...yes to faceplanting into the things that scare you the most.