So here Sherrie, dogs, and I are, on the summer solstice, the one-month anniversary of moving to Haines—more precisely, to a gravel lane off Chilkat Lake road, just after mile 26 on the Haines Highway, about 10 miles shy of the Canadian border. Our five-acre homestead perches on a knoll a half mile off the Klaheni River—a post-and-beam horse barn with a small but pleasant cabin-like apartment upstairs, and a 450-square-foot yurt (a semi-permanent, wood-framed, circular tent) 200 yards down a narrow path in the woods. A stand of giant, old-growth cottonwood trees with some ancient, gnarled birch, and a few big Sitka spruce and hemlock rise over us. Rufous hummingbirds in their bright summer plumage wage war over the newly placed feeders, just several feet away from the window where I sit, writing at beer-thirty. It takes some time getting your ears used to the quiet—sometimes so deep I can hear the whir of a hummingbird’s wing through double-paned glass, or the white-noise rush of the river as it spills across its gravel floodplain toward its junction with the Chilkat.
Our nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away, tucked back in the trees. All around us, ragged mountains rise, their lower slopes glowing green with new growth, merging into last winter’s snow. Bear scat—dark clumps, some the diameter of a human wrist—spatter the road. We’ve spied one grizzly by the roadside a mile from the house, considerably smaller than the one we watched saunter through the yard last fall; and on our third evening here, just after we’d erected a hasty wire fence to separate four opinionated, well-trained, but high-spirited dogs from the local wildlife, Sherrie and I watched a big coyote cruise past, just on its far side, much to the chagrin of Loki, Sal, Brisa, and Chase.
The standards of civilization here are comparatively luxurious—a land-line phone and DSL Internet; electricity; a good well, and on-demand hot water, featuring a downstairs shower. No cell service, no TV, no washer or dryer, and an outhouse down the yurt trail (which I sometimes travel with bear spray in my back pocket) round out the ambience—a sort of halfway house between our former, Alaska-suburban lives in Juneau, and my 20 years in the northwest arctic, a thousand miles north of here, 250 miles off the road grid. It’s a balance of pluses and minuses: the mosquitoes are thick at times, and it’d be nice to watch Sports Center on ESPN, and it’s a half-hour drive to town, where gas teeters on the edge of five bucks a gallon. On the other hand, I’m not wasting time watching life instead of living it, and the drive to town is about as scenic as any you could imagine, with those jagged mountains soaring over the braided Chilkat River, bald eagles perched in big cottonwoods as the first sockeye salmon make their way upstream. The dogs are thrilled to fetch balls in aptly-named but gorgeous Mosquito Lake, and to explore gravel bars pocked by moose tracks, and to sniff where wolves have passed. My jet skiff sits out front, awaiting new adventures. Sherrie, who’s never lived in a place quite like this, is totally digging the solitude after the increasing racket of Juneau, and having a grand time tuning up a rough-around-the-edges place with her never-failing aesthetic touch.
Maybe it’s a halfway house, but feels like we’re all the way home.