Since we were going to be moving so far away from "home" on the east coast, the kids and I (and my sister Laura who had moved in with us following her college graduation spring 2014) made a whirlwind trip back to NC and VA to visit family since it is very unlikely we will make it back to the east coast while we're in AK. The boys loved hanging out and Nana's house, and we were fortunate to see as many people as possible while also visiting some of our favorite places (like the bike paths in Reston where my grandparents live.) Our last few weeks in Oklahoma were spent between move preparations and trying to soak up as much of it as we could. Max was able to do his riding lessons until the very end, and we spent as much time as possible in the Wichita Mountains wildlife refuge. We also squeezed in as many playdates with friends as possible, knowing that some very hard goodbyes were coming. And before we knew it Rob graduated from Captain's Career Course, and the time to leave was quickly upon us. One lesson the military life teaches you is that no matter what, Murphy will visit. Rob's truck (which pulls our trailer) had some significant engine problems as soon as we found out we were moving. He was able to put a new engine in it (himself!), and then find and replace a bolt that broke off after the engine installation was completed and had crippled the truck once more. As all of this was happening we were extremely stressed about it since it pushed our leaving back by a few days. But we soon found out that this was a blessing in disguise as a snowstorm hit the midwest right as we would have been traveling, shutting down highways and stranding travelers. We were so lucky that we weren't caught in it, and glad that we had given ourselves extra time to make it to the ferry in Washington so that the extra days in Oklahoma didn't harm our timeline. (and so so grateful for wonderful friends who let us stay with them so we didn't mess up the just-cleaned house) (Colorado Springs, CO) (Coeur D'Alene, ID) (Kopachuck/southern Puget Sound, WA) (Seattle, WA)
Before we knew it we were on the road, and were fortunate to be able to see and stay with family and friends on the way to the ferry. We traveled north to Kansas, then west across Kansas to Colorado, then north again through Wyoming and Montana, then west again through Idaho and Washington. We tried to do something fun everywhere we stopped, and loved seeing the landscape change the further we traveled. And though it felt like we did a lot whenever we stopped, most of the two weeks it took was spent driving. I got to know really well what the back of our trailer looked like as I followed Rob for most of the trip. There were good things and bad about driving two cars up; since there was no one to relieve us both Rob and I drove the entirety of the way, but Rob was able to take the two older boys with him in his truck while I had the two younger ones and Laura. My car is an awesome road tripping vehicle (which we already knew), but the truck and trailer really earned their stripes this trip. They made it through many miles and many mountain passes! The very last stop in the lower 48 was Bellingham, WA, where we caught the ferry. We spent several hours waiting in line with all the other cars and trucks to be loaded onto the ferry, so when it was finally our turn it was very exciting! We traveled on the Malaspina along the Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham, WA to Haines, AK. We all went up to the deck to watch as we left the continental US. It didn't take long for us to cross into Canadian waters, where we stayed for the next two days until we reached the southernmost point of Alaska. This was our first view of Alaska, as the ferry made our first (Alaskan) stop in Ketchikan. We loved seeing the landscape change as we made our way north. The beautiful green of the Pacific Northwest soon made way for mountains and snow and glaciers. We did not see any whales like we had hoped to, but the scenery more than made up for it. It wasn't all exciting, though. We were on the ferry for four days so we had to keep ourselves (but the kids, really) entertained. There was the cafeteria where we ate all our meals, a little play area, a movie "theater," the decks, and lots and lots of corridors to explore. We were also able to go down to the car deck whenever we were in port (or on the longer stretches, they would have a "pet call" where we were accompanied down while the boat was moving) to check on the dogs and walk them around. Since having kids I get motion sick easily so I was taking motion sickness medicine religiously and spent a lot of time with Viggo, lying down in my bunk with a book. This is what our cabin looked like (stuff heaped about and all). To the right of the door to the corridor is the door to the tiny bathroom. We had two cabins right next door to each other, and the other one was pretty much the kid zone. We were really lucky to get ones with windows; I loved being able to watch the scenery while lying in my bed. It was pretty exciting to finally disembark in Haines! This was the view we were greeted with as we drove off the boat. We then left Haines to make the two day drive up to Fairbanks. The drive through Canada was my favorite part of the trip. We went through a small part of British Columbia, then the rest of the time was spent in the Yukon. We knew from research before we left that this part of Canada was sparse, but it is still surprising when you actually experience it. From Haines on there were no chain anything, anywhere until we entered North Pole (just ten miles shy of Fairbanks). Gas was bought at mom and pop shops, that usually doubled as other things too. The buildings were all like stepping back into time, but the people were amazing. We stayed in Destruction Bay overnight, a "town" of only a few buildings, right on Kluane Lake. I don't know if I can adequately describe how beautiful and foreign the winter landscape was on this drive, but it was absolutely breathtaking. We're talking Lord of the Rings type vistas, epic mountains and lakes completely frozen over. It was the sort of thing I only thought I would see in movies, not actually experience. Had we not been trying to finally reach Fairbanks, and there actually have been a shoulder, I would have stopped frequently to take pictures. The handful I managed to get with my phone while either driving or stopping for gas do no justice to what we saw. I spent the whole drive wishing that everyone could see this amazing place, while being glad at the same time that so few do so that it remains unspoiled. Our very last day of travel we crossed back into the United States, and the landscape gradually changed from mountain vistas to rolling hills covered in forests of pine and birch. By the time we reached Fairbanks we were exhausted and so ready to be settled. The first day we were there were spent mostly taking it easy and trying to catch up on some sleep. It was mid-March by then and we loved the two to three feet of snow still on the ground. We wanted to live on post, but there was a wait list for housing. it was projected that we would have to wait 3-6 months for a house to open up, so after a week in the hotel we found a little house in North Pole to rent until that happened. Despite not being able to move-in quite yet (and feeling a little in limbo as a result) we fell head over heels for Alaska pretty quickly. We were able to witness a show of the northern lights within a few days of arriving and it took my breath away. The pictures do not do it justice (especially since I didn't have my tripod yet), nor has anything I've ever seen truly replicate what it is like. They really do dance above you, pulsing and moving unpredictably. The norm is to see just green, but this very first show we saw had bits of purple in it too. We were also able to see a real, live dogsled team not long after arriving, and Laura and the boys got to go for a ride. We had missed the beginning of the Iditarod (it usually begins in Anchorage, but because of lack if snow there it was moved to Fairbanks) by only a day or so, so this was amazing. Despite not being in our house and having the bulk of our stuff, we still threw ourselves into life up here. We made friends faster than we expected, involved in church and on post. Laura even entered an art show and won second place. After several years in the desert, and then a bit on the prairie, we loved going for walks and enjoying an Alaskan spring. I especially loved getting to put jackets on the boys, something that wasn't necessary for very long in El Paso. And then after only two months we had a house! There were three options we could have ended up with, and we were fortunate enough to get our first choice. I was a little disappointed for a few minutes when I realized it wasn't on the side of the street that backed up to nature, but quickly realized that backing up to a playground was probably even better for us. And oh it is! The kids spent most of the summer outside, playing. Most of our neighbors have boys around my kids' ages so Max and Nick were in heaven. Oskar and Viggo are still too young to go out there without a parent (or Laura), so whenever they did go outside of the fence was the best day ever as far as they were concerned. Fort Wainwright from the top of Birch Hill (which is probably about the same height as Mount Scott in Oklahoma. It's funny how perceptions change depending on the surroundings. In flat Oklahoma it was a mountain, in rugged Alaska it's a hill). It is a pretty small post, something we have discovered we prefer. That is the airstrip on the other side of the river, there are lots of helicopters up here and we love to see them flying. We tried to go on as many adventures as we could while it was warm, including this hike up to Angel Rocks. I love seeing my little mountain men climbing rocks. We are far away from the ocean up here in the interior, but managed to soak up some sun spending the day at the lake with friends. There is a Hawaiian shaved ice hut here and we made sure to visit often. The boys love blue raspberry mixed with banana or boysenberry; my favorite was blackberry and boysenberry. We may not have the awe-inspiring mountains and glaciers of the coastline, but the birch forests up here are amazing; I don't think I will ever get tired of walking through them. I was fortunate enough to have a couple photo shoots within the birch trees this summer and they make for a magical backdrop. The summertime up here also means lots and lots of light. At the solstice, despite the sun setting for a couple of hours, it never got dark. Sleep is harder to come by since you lose track of time, but it doesn't seem to matter so much when there is so much to do and enjoy outside. And as much as I wish time would slow down, this little boy has grown so much since we left Oklahoma. He's gone from a baby to a little boy right before our eyes. His sweet nature and excitement for life (plus those blue eyes and dimples) have us all wrapped around his tiny finger. He also throws himself into whatever his brothers are doing, so when we got a little trampoline he took to it just as much as his brothers (even if he wasn't walking and jumping on it yet). Alaskan summers tend to be a bit rainy, and we ended up not minding it at all. It helps when there would be giant double rainbows following a storm. I know most people are scared of the cold up here, but the trade-offs are worth it! The climate and landscape are just what we like; not too hot, and lots of plant life. (basically, the opposite of El Paso) We loved finding berries growing in the wild; we went berry hunting with friends and even though we were unsuccessful this trip, we had a lot of fun. But berries were found all over, in giant berry patches, to random plants in the most unlikely places. They, of course, taste ten thousand times better than store bought berries. Blueberries are even growing on me now, something I never though would happen. One of the prevalent plants up here is fireweed. It's a tall, pink flower that grows everywhere during the summer. You'll see huge fields of it, small patches on the side of the highway, basically anywhere not cultivated. It is beautiful to see it swaying in the wind, and it's passing signals the start of winter (the saying is that after it all "cottons out" snow is only two weeks away). A friend and I took our kids out for a little photo shoot in front of the fireweed before it all disappeared. I have very few photos of all four boys together, so my mama heart loved catching these. We didn't make it out to camp as much as we had hoped to (unpacking and setting up the house took up much of our summer), but we did go to our ward camp out in August. We're used to August being the hottest month of the year, but as this camp out proved, in Alaska that is not the case! It was in the 40s the whole weekend, making us very grateful that we rented a cabin and that it had a wood stove. The kids didn't mind the cold so much though, and had lots of fun hanging out by the fire and participating in the activities. Summer in the Harmon house means lots of birthdays; all of ours fall between the end of May and September. (we eat lots of cake in the summer!) This little guy had a special birthday though, turning ONE! He loved being the center of attention, and after experiencing all the other birthdays before his, knew what the cake and candle meant. With September came the start of school. We decided to continue homeschooling up here in Alaska, which means we can stick to our Hogwarts timeline of starting September 1st and going through the end of June. Alaska is a very homeschool friendly state (I suppose they have to be with so many remote towns and villages) so we have a wonderful homeschooling community here. Like most other parents of school age kids I make sure to take start of school photos of my kids too. Max started 3rd grade, Nick Kindergarten, Oskar Pre-K, and Viggo mischief maker. We loved spring and summer in Alaska, and fall was just as amazing. The golden forests made for gorgeous breathtaking views. The kids spent the fall in swim lessons, and are proving to be little fish. Oskar made quite the (good) impression on his teacher, which made me happy since his boisterous personality isn't always appreciated. It was so cute to hear him bellow "OH-TAY!" whenever he was given instructions and have it echo around the arena. Unfortunately fall is brief up here, so we spent as much time as possible soaking up the sun and waning warmth before winter set in. Even the dogs seem to sense that change was coming and sun bathed as much as possible. And just like that, snow! We had our first snowfall at the end of September. Much to the kids' excitement it was the perfect snowball snow (once it gets really cold up here the snow turns to a powdery consistency) and they had a blast playing in it. This initial snow did end up melting, but by the end of October the snow was here to stay. Along with the snow came the darkness. We had an even amount of day and night during the equinox at the end of September, and from there on gained more and more darnkess everyday. By the winter solstice (right before Christmas) we only have about 3 1/2 hours of sunlight, and then we make our journey back towards the sunlight. We don't mind the darkness though! Despite only a few hours of sun a day, there is twilight for a couple hours before and after the sun rises and sets, so it is not the pitch black we were imagining. And with the dark returns the aurora, which is worth the short days to us. Halloween ushered in the holiday seasons, and I had a lot of fun making their costumes again this year. Max was Star Lord (from Guardians of the Galaxy), Nick Hiro Hamada (from Big Hero 6), Oskar Hiccup (from How to Train Your Dragon), and Viggo Finn (from Adventure Time). They all looked so cute and loved their costumes, which makes all the hours slaving away on them worth it. I was able to go to Denali National Park with a friend for the road lottery. The road into the park is about 90 miles long, but the general public is only allowed to mile 15. From there you must take a bus into the park, but even that doesn't go the full distance. Once a year the park opens the full road to those that won a spot in the road lottery, and my friend that won one invited me to come along. We traveled the full length, taking all day to see the beautiful vistas and lots of animals. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see Denali itself since it was a snowy day and the clouds obscured it, but I'm hoping I will on my next visit there. The park did not leave me disappointed though, the beauty of the tundra is obvious.
Since we found out we were moving to Alaska we have had comments about how much our arctic dog is going to love it, and none of them were wrong. Yula loves Alaska more than I thought possible, spending lots of time outside lying in the snow. Saoirse loves the snow too, but she doesn't have the same tolerance for the cold. When it dips into the negative temperatures she will go outside and do her business, wanting in as soon as she is done, while Yula will take her time and enjoy being outside for a little while before wanting back in. I was a little apprehensive about the winter in relation to the kids' energy levels though. There are times where I wish I could just send them outside for a few hours like I could in the summer, but with a little creativity and planning we are doing ok. We have a membership to the children's museum, and there are lots of other indoor areas for kids to play. Cub Scouts has been great for Max, and Nick was even able to tag along for the tour of the Blackhawk helicopters a friend's dad flies. They've also moved on from swim lessons to ice skating lessons. We also invested in a gorilla gym, which hangs in the doorway like a pull-up bar, only it has attachments like a swing and a rope ladder and a trapeze, etc. Unfortunately the boys are not super into crafting like I have always hoped they would be, but they do indulge me every so often. They also love to go out in the snow when we have warmer days (20 degrees is considered warm in the winter here), with sledding a favorite. Overall, we are finding the winter not so bad, although by the time March arrives we may be ready for some warmth and outside. I have never been apprehensive about the winter where I am concerned; I have too may hobbies to keep me occupied indoors. I really love the snow too though, and have picked up cross country skiing. I'm still slow, and manage to fall pretty much every time, but I love it and I love being outside in the cold. We got Oskar some little skis and I'm hoping he will love it as much as I do.
We do not mind the cold so much, but that is only true as long as we are dressed properly. I love the quote "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." because it is so true. Long johns are our best friends, along with wool socks and lots of layers. I had Rob snap this picture of me when we went up on top of Sage Hill for a reenlistment ceremony. It was about -15 degrees and, while we were only outside for a few minutes because of it, we were all bundled up and survived just fine. My favorite part of the day right now is right about noon, when the sunlight hits the tops of the trees before dipping back below the tree line and buildings.
Life has taken us in quite a different direction than Rob and I first thought when we got married, but (almost) every day we marvel at how amazing our life is. We have our challenges and frustrations like everyone else, but we are so blessed that the good outweighs the bad. The past year took us across thousands of miles and hundreds of degrees, a baby turned into a boy, and we grew and learned so much. We have big plans for 2016, and are looking forward to not moving for the first time in two years, but 2015 will go down as an epic year in the Harmon book of life.