My snowshoes sank deep into the flat plain of white snow as I wove my way between the ankle-thick conifers. This was virgin snow, no-one had been across it before. The shadows of the trees were blue stripes across the whiteness. Beyond, just visible, was a stand of tall spruce and birch. It was March, one of those bluebird days that makes you never want to live anywhere but Alaska. Except I wasn’t in Alaska. I was in Europe. Central Sweden, to be exact.Breaking trail on snowshoes by yourself is exhausting work, especially when the shoes are too small and the wrong shape. I used wood and babiche snowshoes when I was younger, and like anyone with that background I’m a big fan of the new aluminum tubing models. But they don’t make them in the right shapes and sizes for serious woods use. The pair I’m on seem to have been made for lightweight yuppies to strap on their packs to affect the rugged mountaineer look. I’ve only come about a mile, but with the effort in the soft powdery snow I need to sit down and take a break. Maybe build a fire and make a little coffee. I’m at my leisure here anyway, with nowhere to be and no hurry to get there. Using my borrowed axe, I cut several arm-thick dead pine trunks and chop them into manageable three-foot sections. I mash up some tiny kindling and break a handful of finger-sized sticks. I find a pleasant space between some trees in the full sun and use one of my snowshoes to shovel out a pit maybe six feet wide, down to the caribou moss and teabushes. I strike a match and light the kindling, then pile on the sticks. The flames crackle and climb as I add the bigger stuff. The dry pine burns beautifully, and before long I’ve got a good blaze going. I settle three thick sticks onto the fire, then set my billy can full of water against the growing coals to boil. With coffee on the way, I sit on my snowshoes at the edge of the pit and contemplate the boreal forest that surrounds me, so familiar yet so alien.I’d come to Sweden to see an old friend from my Fairbanks days who currently lives there. I confess this was my first time in Europe, and the journey there was full of both exhaustion and intrigue. People in the airports of Amsterdam and Stockholm looked so much more chic in their leather coats and dark blue designer jeans than I could ever aspire to be. After several years of bouncing around between wall tents, work camps, and remote cabins, my wardrobe is all about function, not flash. I’d managed to find a nice shirt for the trip in the bottom of a laundry bag that lives under my bed, but I kept wondering where these beautiful people find the time (not to mention the inclination) to shop for such obviously impractical attire. Blue jeans were, after all, created for miners and factory workers, not suburban nitwits with iPhones and Kindle readers glued to their hands. I freely admit that this is mostly just the garden-variety inferiority complex common to rubes from the territories on their first trip to the old country. Still, we live in an age when Americans do not enjoy a glowing reputation around the world, and it can be unpleasant to know you stand out in the crowd like a sore thumb. Then again, I’m a funny-looking specimen, regardless of what I wear. The clothes, as they say, do not make the man.Thankfully, my friend doesn’t live with the beautiful people in the city. She lives way out in the sticks, at the northern edge of Sweden’s agricultural belt where the farms meet the woods. The area, with its patchwork of re-grown clear cuts and stands of old forest actually reminded me more than a little of my place in the woods near Anchor Point. The gravel roads covered over with winter hardpack and bird tracks in the new snow along the road edge felt disarmingly like home.One often hears it said that the subarctic boreal forest is really just one big forest, the largest single ecosystem on the planet. Here in the woods near Grimsö, I’m on about the same latitude as Anchorage. The forest is largely pine, something new to me, though it does remind me of the lodgepole pine woods around Whitehorse. The snow is certainly no less cold, and the glare off it no less blinding. I take a sip of water and lean my head back against the tree trunk. From far out in the woods comes a deep throaty growl. This, I’m told, is the mating call of the capercaille (that’s capper-kaylee) a member of the grouse family that grows to the size of a turkey. That’s a difficult concept to grasp until you actually see one. Being almost as addicted to upland bird hunting as I am to surfing, the knowledge that the open season on these fowl is about to start makes my fingers itch for a shotgun.The odd familiarity of all this is no doubt enhanced by my familiar old woods clothes—Carhartt pants, wool undershirt, blue flannel shirt and wool vest, with Xtratuffs on my feet. Pretty much what I’d be wearing if I was sitting on my snowshoes in a hole in the snow back home in AK. There’s more than a little irony in knowing that I’ve flown halfway around the globe to engage in one of my favorite activities—namely, walking around aimlessly in the woods and stopping to build a fire and make coffee—when I can do it for free back home.Yet there is an undeniable delight in being here. There is silence all around me but for the twittering of small birds in the treetops. They’re about the size of redpolls, but they’re not redpolls. I don’t recognize them, though no doubt Erik the Red and his band of merry Vikings would have. All around me the pine and spruce rise straight as matchsticks and my eye instinctively sizes them up for cabin logs. Most of them have only an inch or two of taper over 30 feet of trunk. It becomes suddenly clear to me why there are so many 400-year-old log buildings in the nearby towns. If I had timber like this to work with, I’d build baronial manor houses too. Looking up at the lofty boughs there is the very New World thought that I’d love to have 40 acres of these woods. I could bring out an axe, my chainsaw, and a few tools and build myself a snug little cabin. Outdoor plumbing and Coleman lanterns for light. Get around by snowshoe and snow-go. Here in rural Sweden, these things seem eminently possible. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m in Europe.I can recall having similar thoughts in Tasmania, the only place I’ve ever seriously contemplated leaving Alaska for. Unlike most of the rest of Australia, Tasmania’s forests have not been completely leveled to make way for sheep pasture. There’s some logging, yes, and a few pine plantations, but much of the native eucalyptus and huon forest remains intact, at least in the places I saw. Having driven all over the island and surfed on beaches with water as clear as gin, having seen feral deer crossing the dirt roads at dawn and dusk, and prized abalone from the rocks of Fortescue Bay, I was left with the beguiling notion that with a rifle, a chainsaw, axe, a good truck, a pair of Xtratuffs, and a freezer for meat and fish, one could live a remarkably Alaskan life on the shores of the Apple Isle. This was followed by a pleasant fantasy of chainsawing out a window opening in the wall of a log cabin with the pine sawdust piling up in the folds of the sleeves of my favorite blue flannel shirt, while above me a gaggle of colorful parrots squawked and whistled as the wind riffled through the gum leaves. This segued into an image of me nailing a set of fallow stag antlers onto the end of the ridgepole, Dick Proenneke style, with my freezer full of abalone and kangaroo meat humming quietly and a fourwheeler parked nearby under a blue tarp.This was tantalizing in no small way, the thought of being able to live the Alaskan dream without having to listen to the endless debates about subsistence and land use, gaslines, oil taxes, commercial versus charter boat catch allotments, or anything out of the mouths of the Palin family. It seemed to me that to live an Alaskan life, one might actually be better off leaving Alaska, if only for the sake of maintaining one’s mental balance. Then there’s the unsettling thought that someday, perhaps in my lifetime, the planes and cargo ships from the States might just stop coming. Whatever shall we do then? My guess is that most Alaskans have some notion that we can all pull together, go back to our roots, and live off the land, but that only betrays the ignorance most folks have about just how tough such a life truly is, especially when there’s no more gas for the snow-go.Of course, Tasmania has its own problems, problems of which I no doubt would grow weary. They have corrupt politicians down there that make our own legislature look like a Sunday school class. Steady work is hard to come by. And the famous Tasmanian devils, the world’s only remaining marsupial carnivore, are dying of some mysterious disease that noone can figure out. But none of that is part of the fantasy, mind you. My vision of a bright future consists of several acres of raw forest in which I can, as unobtrusively as possible, create for myself a modest home, maybe 16 x 18 feet, one room, with a couple south-facing windows (or north-facing, were I to be in the southern hemisphere). I’m not a hermit, nor am I a survivalist nut-job. Rather, I take to heart what historian William Cronon said about the Indians before Columbus: They were wealthy by desiring little.The plain fact of the matter is that, aside from my writing career and my desire to go surfing every day, living in the woods is really about the only thing I truly aspire to in life. This is good for me, because frankly it seems to be about all I’m cut out for. But were I to immigrate and try to recreate abroad what I love about Alaska, would I not just be running away? That guilt trip has been laid on immigrants throughout the ages by those who stay behind. It’s a bullshit notion to start with, the stuff of silly-assed TV drama. Everyone has to follow his or her own path in life, and sometimes that path can challenge your very notion of self, of who you think you are. I have a good friend in Fairbanks, born and raised in Juneau, who lived in Tasmania for a while. He recently hinted to me that perhaps he had made a mistake coming back to Alaska. He outlined a fantasy of an independent life on five acres of forest in Tassie that was not so far removed from what I just described. Lew’s a pretty committed bushman, loves the trees and the mountains, the life Alaskan, and as a thrush threw out its song from the woods behind his cabin, a sound seeming to come from every corner of the woods all at once, I could sense his conflicting emotions. I hope he finds what he’s looking for, one way or the other—almost as much as I hope he’s not too pissed off about the leftover macaroni and cheese I forgot to clean out of the fridge in his guest cabin back in June.Of course, Sweden along with the other Scandinavian countries has its own tradition of woodsmanship that goes back a long, long way. Looking around this forest it’s not hard to understand why so many Scandinavian immigrants fell instantly in love with Alaska. It was country they recognized, a place they knew how to make a living in, but without all the fetters and hobbles of the old country. Just as their woods are recognizable to me, and make me see the possibilities of a life in the woods without all the bureaucratic bullshit one must swallow to have the life I want and need in modern-day Alaska.Maybe it’s that notion that draws me to the notion of living the Alaskan lifestyle somewhere other than Alaska. It’s the very nature of the frontier that what was new and free and exciting for one generation becomes old, dull, and intolerably restrictive for the next. So that new generation moves on, pointing their faces to the setting sun. Except now there’s no more frontier left to go to, which is to say nothing of the fact that what we call the frontier is really the place where freedom was taken from native peoples and bestowed upon us crackers. Granted, restrictions on land use in Alaska are a far cry from those in Europe, but by the same token it’s no big secret that life in Alaska ain’t what it used to be. Still, I have no plans to leave Alaska. It’s not a judgment against those who leave. I just like it here, plain and simple. I’ve seen a fair bit of the place we call Outside, and none of it fills my soul like Alaska. Every time I come back from travelling, one of the first things I do is to pull up a handful of Labrador Tea, crush it between my palms, and inhale the aroma. Nothing else in the world smells like that, and nothing else smells like home. Oddly enough, the teabushes in Sweden, when crushed and inhaled, don’t smell the same as ours. So here in these pine forests with my fancy European coffee perking away, I find myself inspired more than ever to keep living in Alaska, the place I was born, and the place I keep coming back to.And for the life of me, I can’t really envision a Little Alaska springing up in Sweden, or rural Tasmania. Yet. • Kris Farmen was born in Alaska, and grew up both in a house in Anchorage and in various wall tents and plywood shacks in the bush. He still lives in Alaska, with no fixed address. His novel, The Devil’s Share, is available from McRoy & Blackburn publishers. Look for an excerpt in an upcoming issue of ‘Mushing Magazine.’


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