January 3, 2018

A Fork in the Road

Filed under: Aurora,Calendar,Everyday Life,Family,Outside AK,Roadtrips,Travel,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 10:01 pm

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.

“Which road do I take?”, she asked.

“Where do you want to go?”, was his response.

“I don’t know”, Alice answered.

“Then”, said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.” ~ Lewis Carroll

It is Christmas day, and I am sitting in the living room with Steve, watching television. We had leftover roast for dinner – a feast I prepared last night for Christmas Eve. It’s always so delicious the second day, after the vegetables spend the night marinating in the au jus.

We ate early today – a little after 2pm. We tend to eat much earlier in the winter – no doubt because of the very short days. We often lose track of time, and now that Steve is retired, we have even less of a reason to pay attention to the clock. Needless to say, when the sun starts moving down to the horizon at 1pm, my brain and body convinces me that the dinner hour is nearing.

I find myself dozing off between 7-8pm. Sometimes it’s even earlier. A few hours later, Steve will rouse me from the sofa, and guide me up to bed. Only 3-4 hours after that (usually around the 2am hour), I find myself awake again, and ready to face another day. As always, winter is the season of messed up sleep patterns. Sometimes I’m happy for this schedule, as I get to see beautiful aurora displays like those I saw at 2am in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve Aurora, North Pole AK Christmas Eve Aurora, North Pole AK Christmas Eve Aurora over the house, North Pole AK


“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” ~ Lewis Carroll

I have been composing this journal entry in my head for months. (I wonder when I will finally publish it?) It has only been a matter of months since I began thinking about change, and life, and goals, and most of all, family. Sure, I’ve written about how much I miss my family many times throughout the last nearly 15 (!) years that Steve and I have lived here in Alaska. After my granddaughter Juliet was born (July 2016), I started thinking a lot more deeply about family, and opportunities for family time. Then, later last year, Steve started having problems with anxiety and was having a difficult time adjusting to full-time retirement.

We spent the next few months planning our summer roadtrip to the Lower 48. We were so excited about picking up our new travel trailer – the first step in our loosely-constructed retirement plan. We were also thrilled about seeing family and friends, camping in our new RV, and visiting as many National Parks as we could while we were down there exploring.

Planning for such a long excursion takes time and organization. Organization is my strong suit. The first thing I did was buy a notebook. I left it out on the coffee table or kitchen counter – jotting thoughts and plans in it as they came into my head. Writing things down is mandatory for me. And I must admit I have a love of list-making (and crossing things off of it).

I stressed myself out unmercifully in the months leading up to our departure. By the time we were within two weeks of hitting the road, I was having panic attacks and feeling anxious. I was also having nightmares about Steve towing the new RV, driving in the mountains, something happening to our house while we were gone, and a mixed up list of weird stuff. The closer we got to departure, the more tense things were. (As always, as soon as we pulled away from the house, a lot of the anxiety abated)

I’ll be honest with you – the trip had its share of anxiety, stress, small and large misunderstandings, and some tense breakdowns in communication. But are any vacations perfect? Especially long excursions? With that being said, the trip was also full of family, and friends, and love, and beautiful scenery, and a really beautiful travel trailer that we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. We also shared a lot of laughs and made wonderful memories. But we also learned a lot. Which is exactly what we had to do if we are going to embrace this RV lifestyle as more than just the occasional camping trip.

When we were first married, and having those “what do you want to do when we retire?” conversations, we always talked about buying an RV and seeing the country. Making the decision to sell our old camper and purchase a new – more comfortable and modern – camper was a no-brainer for us. This was step one in our *retirement plan*. The three month trip around the country last summer was step two. We had to make sure we could really do this for longer than the usual camping getaway.

As I wrote earlier, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. There were glitches. There were stressful issues we needed to deal with (like tags and licensing long distance, trying to find a campsite over July 4th weekend, and getting Steve a refill on his medication while on the road). There were personality conflicts too. Two people living in less than 350sf isn’t the easiest.  But it’s hardest in the beginning, when you’re still trying to find a place for your stuff, while figuring out the personal space too. (Which recliner do you want? Do you have a preference for where you sit at the table? Which side of the closet is yours?)

We were also dealing with health issues along the way, so the stress levels were even higher than usual. (Steve was having a hard time adjusting to some of his newest meds, and was experiencing some unpleasant side affects, and I was having problems with altitude sickness and overexertion in CO, with my asthma condition making things even worse). When we were not having a good day, I honestly wondered if this extended RVing thing was right for us.  I’m sure Steve had the same worries. When we returned to Alaska, we both had our medical care fine-tuned, and I’m happy to report that we’re both feeling much better now.

We both relaxed once we were home. We were both so happy to see our house and our yard and our beautiful trees. Things were lush and green, and our lawn maintenance guy had our lawn looking beautiful. And we could spread out again.

Autumn crept in. And the temperature dropped. And the leaves fell. And the light disappeared. And it was time to get the house ready for another winter: scheduling boiler tune-ups, checking weather stripping and caulking, and raking leaves.

I flew to WI in November for several weeks. I was with my family for Thanksgiving, which was such a joy! I wished that Steve could be there with me, and was so thankful that friends invited him to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. At least he wasn’t alone.

I had several worrisome phone calls from Steve while I was in WI. He sounded so depressed. The darkness was really getting to him. He was pretty much a shut-in, as he didn’t want to go out and do anything. He had several anxiety attacks while I was gone.

In the meantime, it was 64F in Reedsburg WI on Thanksgiving Day. The sun was shining brightly, and Brandon had the windows open in the house to cool things down. Becky worked hard in the kitchen, preparing a feast for us. Although the winter days are short in WI too, they are not a brief 6 hours. Later that evening, while talking to Steve on the phone, we came to the decision that it was time to leave Alaska. Possibly for good.

The original plan was to give snowbirding a try, come back to AK in March or April, and then decide if we were going to make snowbirding a lifestyle, or leave AK altogether. But I have been so stressed out about finding someone to watch our house while we’re gone.

Leaving a house alone through the winter is risky – not only weather wise, but also security wise. So, at the very least, we would need a house sitter who would preferably be willing to stay here most of the time – if not all of the time. I don’t know if I could travel all over the country if I was worried about our house way up here in AK – especially in the winter.

And then there’s the expense. Even if we’re not living here, we still have to pay the mortgage and utilities. This is not conducive to a stress-free life.

When I first came to terms with leaving Alaska (several days before Steve was fully on board), I was really sad. Alaska has been our home for 15 years (this June). Fifteen years spent in one of the most beautiful states in our country. What a blessing this has been for us! What an opportunity we were given! Now, although I still feel sad about leaving, I have been instead focusing on all the amazing things that Steve and I have seen and done and experienced over the last 15 years. And I am hopeful and excited about the amazing things that Steve and I will see and do and experience all over the rest of our country (and our second favorite country: Canada).

Making this decision is so hard for so many reasons, but we also believe that it’s the right decision for us right now. That’s about as sure as we can be at the moment.

The new tentative timeline is to talk to a realtor in the early spring. If we decide this is really it, we will need to list as soon as we can, as most people want to be settled before school starts (mid August). We don’t plan to leave AK until September, as we want to enjoy the summer here, but depending on what happens with our house, that could change.

Which leads to downsizing. Serious downsizing. Forever downsizing.

Being a military family kept us in check, for the most part, when it came to accumulating lots of stuff. With weight limits placed on every military move, we knew we’d be paying dearly if we went over. The army moved us every three years. This is the best way to stay on top of clutter and unnecessary stuff. But we haven’t been packed up and moved since 2003. We have stuff.

So we have been de-cluttering. We have been purging. I plan to start selling and donating and giving away. I only want to move mementos, personal effects (clothing, etc), and a few choice pieces of furniture (antiques).

I think the most difficult thing for me has been evaluating belongings as to whether they are really needed. But since Steve and I finally came to the same conclusion that we should move, I have found it much easier to stand in the middle of a room and look at my surroundings objectively. Mostly I ask myself “Is it worth paying the transportation cost to get that to a storage unit in the Lower 48?” Because that’s what it’s going to be – a storage unit. Which we will pay for every month until a) we decide to settle or b) we give it away or donate it because we realize we don’t need it after all.

Eventually, we’ll settle down somewhere in a stick-built home. As older folks, we don’t expect we’ll be able to spend the rest of our days in an RV.  I’d like that to be as close to my kids and grandchildren as possible. Chris and Kimmie are due Feb 6th, and we just found out that Brandon and Becky are due with baby 2 at the end of April! Even if we put down roots in another cold location (like WI), we can still snowbird as we originally planned to do from Alaska. At least we’ll be a lot closer to the rest of the country.

But right now, we are entertaining the thought of being full-timers, instead of just snowbirders. If our house sells, we are thinking we might just enjoy being mortgage free for awhile, and live in our camper for a year or more. Which takes us back to the conversation about two adults living in less than 350sf!

If any of my readers full-time or snowbird, I am totally open to any advice, info, etc! Email me at   susan@susanstevenson.com.

So this is where we stand. I hope to update periodically, so that you can follow our journey. But I know it’s been so many months since I updated and I’ve probably lost a lot of readers. If you’re still here, thank you. Big changes ahead….


April 25, 2017

“Attitude is the difference…

Filed under: Aurora,Photography,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 12:22 pm

— between an ordeal and an adventure”

Spring is slowly arriving here in North Pole, Alaska. We are up to nearly 18 hours of visible light each day, the temperature has warmed into the 40s and 50s, with overnight temps in the 30s and 40s. The snow is quickly melting in the warm sunshine, and there are puddles and mud everywhere. Our yard is still snow covered, but it is very soft so walking in it requires waterproof boots. Break-up boots as some call them.

Here at home, life has been extremely busy and hectic at times, but other than that, things are going really well. With so much to do in the planning of our extended trip, we’ve had no time to sit around and be bored. The additional hours of light, and ability to get outside every day has done wonders for our spirits (as well as Raven’s). I can’t say we have any kind of routine, but as long as we keep busy we feel accomplished. We also allow for down days of nothing but Netflix watching, as well as scenic drives to Denali or walks at Creamers Field. We survived another winter!


Our travels will take us from Alaska to Wisconsin at the end of the month, where we will be spending time with my sons and their families. Steve will finally get to meet Juliet, and of course I can’t wait to see her! We’ll be staying with Chris & Kimmie in Madison, while waiting to take possession of our new travel trailer. Once we do a few practice runs with it in WI, and get it stocked to hit the road, we’ll be moving on to MO to spend time with Steve’s family. I am excited to finally meet Eric’s wife Lacy and Steve’s granddaughter Regan.

From MO, we’ll head west to CO, and then north – following the Rockies – all the way back to Alaska. It’s going to be a long drive – the longest we’ve made since we drove from FL to AK back in 2003. Estimates put us at about 10,000 miles for this trip! Talk about an extensive maiden voyage! We aren’t towing our old camper out of here. We plan to sell it up here to avoid any additional wear and tear on it. We’re prepared to truck camp in case of an emergency, but will be staying at hotels along the way. The goal is to get through Canada in 6-7 days, which makes for some very long driving days.

Raven is accompanying us on our adventure south. Health wise, she is doing better. She’s not as lethargic as she was, although she does get out of breath quickly. She loves to play though, so we have to slow her down or she’ll keep going. Her hips have been giving her occasional pain. I started her on a chondroiton/glucosamine supplement about 3 weeks ago. I don’t really know if it’s helping, as results aren’t usually seen for 4-6 weeks. I do hope it does help. I hate that she can hardly climb the stairs some days. We had to build a ramp for her to get in and out of the truck and camper. Thankfully, she still has a great willingness to play Frisbee, and to chase squirrels in the yard. I think Raven will enjoy hanging out with Percy while in WI too. And Steve’s son has a couple of dogs. Hopefully there will be plenty of opportunity for doggie play dates.

I don’t know how much I will be able to formally blog while traveling. I will do my best, but it will also depend on wifi and internet access along the way. I don’t plan to spend much time on my laptop while seeing our beautiful country. However, if you are on Facebook, I hope to update my photography page with photos and commentary on a regular basis. (Here is my Susan L Stevenson Photography page)

Lately the temperature has been warming into the 50s. I know it will be getting warmer the further south we go. I look forward to finally getting out of my fleece and into short sleeves again. Since this will be our maiden voyage in the new RV, we want to revisit the National Parks we’ve already seen (31) and see those we haven’t visited yet (28). This time we plan to have a National Park book stamped. On this trip, we will visit Rocky Mountain National Park (never been), Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP (never been), and Great Sand Dunes NP (never been) in Colorado.  We will also re-visit Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. Passing back through Canada we plan to visit Banff and Jasper (Free entrance to all National Parks in Colorado in 2017 in celebration of their 150th anniversary).


Steve and I visited the ice park one day while it was open. I used to buy season passes, as I enjoyed visiting the park several times during the season to photograph the artists and the sculptures as they materialized out of ice. I liked collecting the Ice Park pins too. A few years ago, I was just too busy to justify a season pass, so I decided instead to buy a day pass and then visit the park during the day and again at night. I did the same again this year, with Steve. We had a lovely day visit, and when we returned to see the sculptures under colored lights, we were welcomed with a beautiful orange sunset.

One of our favorite sculptures was the multi-block tribute to David Bowie. Always a fan!

A beautiful sunset behind the train station

Sunset over the Ice Park Tram Station, Fairbanks AK

Held - Ice Alaska Changed Evolution - Night and Day - Ice Alaska Chained Evolution - USA - Ice Alaska
Tribute to David Bowie Tribute to David Bowie - FB Viewers Choice - Ice Alaska Ice slides


October 19, 2016

For the strength of the pack is the wolf…

Filed under: Aurora,Interesting Things,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 1:13 pm

… and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

On October 7th, my friend Joyce and I took a drive to Denali Park in the late afternoon. Our plan was to get to the park early enough to drive to mile 30 and then stay for what we hoped would be a beautiful sunset – especially if Mt. Denali was visible. Then, if the forecast looked good for clear skies and aurora activity, we’d hang around down in that area and wait for the sky to light up.

I did this night drive with my friend Amanda a couple of years ago. On that night, the aurora came out to dance, and the sky was crystal clear. The stars were so dense and plentiful we could not identify the Big Dipper. It was very scary in an “I am so inconsequential in this vast universe!” sort of way. It is a very long and tiring day – more than 12 hours in the car. But the opportunity to view and photograph the northern lights in the park makes it a little easier to stay awake.  As does strong coffee, conversation with a fun friend, and…

… encounters with wolves!!!

Joyce and I arrived at the park around 6pm.  We could see the grand Denali on the horizon throughout our drive, and we knew the odds were good to see the mountain from within the park too. But where would the best vantage point be for sunset? We drove slowly and decided on a scenic overlook 20 miles into the park. The color change was gradual, but soon the mountain was bathed in a soft orange hue. Opposite the setting sun, the moon was climbing higher into the sky. And behind us, the mountains were soft pink in the early dusk. Near silence enveloped us; the only sound being the wind in the willow bushes. It was quite peaceful.

We knew we had about 30 minutes before headlights would be a necessity and it became too dark for viewing or photographing wildlife. We decided to continue all the way to the end – mile 30 – since it was only another 10 miles in.  By the time we got there, walked out to the overlook to look for wildlife (bears), and used the facilities, it was dark enough for headlights.  It is a totally different experience to drive the park road in the dark, and we were happy for moonlight, clear skies, and rapidly appearing stars.

These photos were taken in the park… a lovely sunset:

Denali Park Sunset over Mt Denali Denali Park Sunset Denali Park Moonrise
Denali Park Sunset Pink Denali Park Road at Sunset

As the sun sets, the sky turns a warm yellow above Mt Denali in the distance:

Denali Sunset over the mountain

We drove the park road back to the entrance, where there was a cellphone signal, so we could check the aurora forecast and weather report. Everything looked good for clear skies, but the aurora forecast was mediocre. We didn’t mind if the aurora was low or not very bright. With a clear sky we knew the stars would make for some incredible night shots. Any aurora appearance would thrill us.

We drove back into the park to the Mountain Vista area (mp 12). (If the park road is accessible to this rest area, they usually keep at least one vaulted toilet open, which is convenient in the off season.) This part of the park road has some open areas around the drainage ditches and washes, where the trees are minimal and the mountains are visible on the horizon. The elevation is high enough to get some good night sky photos, with little foreground interference. And if the mountain is out, you can capture it even after dark with a long shutter (you can see the mountain in the first couple of photos below)

The aurora appeared and we set up our cameras. The Milky Way was amazing and the stars blanketed the sky by the billions. Being out in the open was cold though, and we were both glad we brought our snow pants. I kept hearing noises in the bushes, but Joyce insisted it was the sound of the water running in the nearby drainage ditch. My imagination does tend to run away with me…

I suggested we drive a few miles deeper, to see what the aurora looked like over the Savage River valley. It was too low – behind the mountains, but there was a little bit of green at the end of the valley. The light reflecting on the river was pretty. The wind was even stronger there, where it funneled down the valley. We didn’t stay long.

Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora
Milky Way, Moon behind mountains, and Mt Denali Moon behind mountains and Mt Denali, Denali Park Road Denali Park Aurora


We drove back toward the entrance, driving very slowly to scope out different vantage points to set up our cameras. We were only a couple of miles down the road when I saw several sets of eyes glowing in the dark. They were just off the side of the road, and about 50 yards ahead of us. I had my high beams on because it was so dark, and as we neared the area where I saw the eyes glowing, we saw more glowing!

“What is that?!”, I wondered aloud. “Lynx? Fox? Coyote?!!” Joyce and I strained our eyes to see if we could make out any shapes in the dark bushes.

And then suddenly – s/he was on the road in front of us! We were both so surprised, we didn’t even think of our cameras. We stared, mesmerized by what we were seeing in front of us. I think we were both worried that this sighting would be a brief one, and we didn’t want to look away.  And then two more wolves came out of the bushes just off the road. Even with three wolves on the road with us, we could see several more running down off the shoulder – in and out of the bushes.

The wolves on the road with us, particularly this beautiful tan/cream wolf (I’m assuming alpha), were rather bold – but never did we feel they were behaving aggressively.  A minute later they disappeared into the bushes – although we could still see their eyes glowing in the dark.

We continued down the road, and a mile or so later, we again saw eyes glowing along the side of the road. I stopped and we watched several wolves ran along the shoulder, until they met up with several more further down the road. This group looked to be about the same size as the first one (at least 5 in the first pack), but they weren’t as curious. We lost sight of them in the bushes.

I turned around and drove back through the area where we saw the first pack, as we passed another photographer (a female) photographing the aurora before we came to the wolves the first time. We wanted to warn her of our encounter only a mile or so from where she was set up.

Imagine our delight and surprise, when four of the wolves (to include the beautiful alpha) came out of the bushes and stood in my headlights, letting us see them again! And then, just like that, they loped off – escorting us along the park road about a hundred yards before they dove off into the bushes. What an honor and a privilege to see these beautiful creatures!
Denali Wolf