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Living remote in a Seldovia yurt, but still very connected to modern Alaska

Erin McKittrick
Erin McKittrick trekking across Alaska with her family. Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking

SELDOVIA -- Another email: "New docu-series about off-the-grid communities -- would like to discuss." It's the fourth reality TV pitch we've received in a year.


But I'm avoiding my email. I plunge my arm into wet leaves, ignoring the thorns that mark my wrists with a berry-picker's tattoo, fingers feeling for the smooth lumps of plump salmonberries. Overripe berries, fuzzy with mold from early fall rains, plop to the ground as my arm rattles the canes.

My husband and I are "those people who walked..." or sometimes "those crazy people who walked..." To the Aleutian Islands, around Cook Inlet, along glaciers and coastlines and thousands of miles of Alaska wilderness -- first on our own, and later with two small children in tow.

That's probably how the TV people found us. Even if what they're interested in seems very far from wilderness.

Salmonberries, powerlines, TV tower

I'm standing on a path of grass and dirt that slices a tunnel barely wide enough for a four-wheeler, littered with hacked-off limbs and wilting leaves, where my husband and a friend took machetes to the jungle. A hand-painted sign -- "TV Tower Trail" -- marks where the path turns away from my gravel driveway, steeply climbing the mountainside.

The salmonberry bushes were always here. But the trail is here because of the powerlines, which are here because of the TV Tower. In the view from Homer, its blinking red beacon marks the hill above my Seldovia home, on the south side of Kachemak Bay. One of the antennas on that tower beams high-speed Internet – including that email -- to a receiver on a tree beside our yurt.


I pause at the tower, listening to its mechanical hum as I look down at the ocean 1,200 feet below. It's calm today. Mid-tide. The smooth gray water of Seldovia Bay blends into Kachemak Bay, and then into Cook Inlet, its far shore obscured by clouds.


We're walled off from the highways by water and ice, but powerlines make the leap. They follow our gravel road as it winds through the Seldovia sprawl of three- and five-acre lots, small strings of T-shaped poles connecting homes and cabins along the way. The lines arc across the fjords of Kachemak Bay -- Jakolof Bay, Tutka Bay, and Sadie Cove.


They hang over the wind-blasted McKeon Flats -- culprit of many winter power outages. Here, the lines plunge beneath the ocean, to Homer, to the road system, linking up with the rest of the Railbelt grid that stretches north to Fairbanks. From the TV Tower, the distance to Homer is about 15 miles as the plane flies, 30 as the wire runs, and more than 60 as the packrafter journeys.

Camping with cameramen, or camping with toddlers?

The TV people toss around the words "grid" and "off-grid," but they don't really care about electricity. Last fall we let a British film crew visit for a week -- discovering that camping with cameramen is more complicated than camping with toddlers. They ignored the power lines in favor of the outhouse, the gardens, the shallow well and the lack of a highway -- symbols of our disconnection from their modern world.


But we are connected.


Powerlines connect us. Money connects us. On paper, 75 percent of the electrons we buy zing down 300 miles of wire from Beluga, from the Cook Inlet gas that powers the vast majority of the Railbelt.


Water connects us. This spring and summer, my family walked and paddled the 800-mile shore of Cook Inlet. A week from home, we reached the lines arcing across the McKeon Flats. We wore puffy coats and mittens, the toddler wrapped up in half-inflated sleeping pads against a bitter April wind. Two months from home, we paddled past the Beluga power plant in the simmering heat of late May, beside the arcing backs of actual belugas. We're connected to the belugas, and to the power plant. We're connected to the people in Nikiski and the oil rigs in Trading Bay and the salmon in the Kenai River and the cars on the Anchorage streets.


My berry bucket is full now. I screw on the top over the label "8lbs Gourmet Popping Corn", wondering about air space and juice and whether 8 pounds of salmonberries take more or less space than 8 pounds of popcorn. Whether in the end, they are more or less expensive.


It's been a good berry year. I have around 30 gallons of berries (blueberries, salmonberries, strawberries and currants) in the freezer already, sharing space with fillets of salmon and blanched garden greens. Even these are connected. By the bugs that attack the berry bushes, the policies that balance the fisheries, and the weather that grows the kale. And that electricity -- coursing through the elements in the guts of the freezer.


I pick up my bucket and begin the steep and muddy walk back down the hill. To my rustic little yurt -- connected to the world.

Erin McKittrick is an writer, adventurer, and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. Author of A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot Raft and Ski, and Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska. You can find her at Ground Truth Trekking.org