As the jet speeds down an icy runway, gravity pulls me heavily back in my seat. At the same time, there is a lurch of exhilaration as the aircraft breaks gravity’s grip and lifts off. We are underway, heading Outside for a short respite from Alaska’s long winter. That sensation, the simultaneous resistance along with the lift, perfectly reflects my mixed feelings about whether to stay or to go during Alaska’s darkest season. Our home and ranch pull at me while the yearning for daylight and warmth throttle me forward.
Except for brief trips like this one, my husband and I have cast our lot squarely in the “stay” camp. Our retirement includes a small ranch and animals. Lots of them. That means leaving town is a huge endeavor requiring sometimes months of planning, and which saddles someone else with the responsibility of our five horses and two dogs.
Meanwhile, Eagle River friends Johnny and Teri Jarnagin, choose to “go,” sailing on a graceful 42-foot boat that they commissioned for their retirement. Johnny was a pilot and Colonel in the U.S. Airforce when he retired in 2000. Teri retired from her practice as an Eagle River dentist in 2009. These days they spend several weeks in the spring and fall sailing their boat in the blue waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. During the colder winter months, they visit their grandchildren who live Outside.
While it might seem like an anchor to some, the ranch that holds us here, even in winter, is a place of refuge and solace.
Here our daily routines are augmented by the rhythm of the seasons. In summer, we grow a garden and nurture a greenhouse. In autumn we harvest vegetables and cut firewood. Before freeze-up, we can hear the water from the Little Susitna River rushing over its rock-strewn bed. Whatever the season or weather, chores need to be done, and this daily routine is a kind of meditation. In the dark of morning, the horses nicker when they hear our footfall in the snow. Stars shine bright overhead and when we’re lucky, the northern lights dance. We’ve come to know the outside temperature by the squeak of snow underfoot and the amount of frost on the horses’ whiskers. Work itself can be a panacea to the winter doldrums. The harsher the outside conditions, the more there is to do to keep the horses comfortable. Extra hay, occasional blankets, and warm mash all help take the chill off.
Yet when we’re out chipping at frozen manure, or water lines freeze, or when a horse needs doctoring during the coldest days of winter, we sometimes wonder about this choice we’ve made. Maybe the Jarnagins had a better idea.
I caught up with Teri in September while they were moored off the coast of Sidney, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. They had been underway for six weeks.
“I compare sailing to what is so great about Alaska; it’s wild, spacious and beautiful,” Teri said. “We chose this as part of our retirement plan because we love the water, getting away, and the challenge of constant learning while underway.”
The Jarnagins were not new to boating when they chose this sailing lifestyle.
“We bought our first boat in 1974, a San Juan 24 when we were on our first assignment to McChord Air Force Base in Washington,” Teri said. “Sailing is like flying only the wings are vertical, with the same principle of lift. Johnny, as a pilot, understood the principle and off we went. We ended up donating the San Juan to a Christian boys’ camp on Lake Texoma, Texas.”
In 2005-2006, they commissioned their current sailboat, a Valiant 42 cutter rig, with a mast that has a mainsail and two foresails. It has a water maker that filters saltwater into freshwater. They also have a dingy so they can motor to shore and go exploring.
“We wanted something strong, sturdy, and capable of going anywhere in the world,” Teri said. “It also had to be a boat that could be sailed by one or two people with ease.”
On a farm, living things like horses and dogs depend on us – they can’t be parked in storage until the weather clears or we are in the mood.
This is both the downside and the reward of the lifestyle we have chosen. And unlike many of our retired friends, our children and grandchildren live in Alaska, so that certainly factors into our choice to stay.
Occasionally, we do take a break and leave for a short time. Our winter breaks are largely made possible by our dear friends, Tom and Tina Victory from Chugiak, who come out to the ranch and live here while we are gone.
When Alaska’s summer sun is out and during the changing seasons of spring and autumn, the decision to stay on our little ranch in Alaska seems easy. Just as the Jarnagins love the freedom of ocean sailing, we love the rhythms of farm life. And winters are just part of the deal.