WWOOFing in Talkeetna, Alaska

_MG_8261WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and the organization has been around since 1971, now established in 99 countries all over the world. As WWOOFers, Nick and I volunteer our labor on an organic farm in exchange for free room and board.  In this case, we worked for Brian Kingsbury of Talkeetna Grown and lived on the farm in a camper.

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We met Brian on a rainy Saturday night at the Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe.  After seeing organic bread, vegan cookies and wood-fired pizza on the menu, Nick and I knew we would be back.  At the time, we didn’t realize that Brian and his wife Anita own “the Squirrel” and live next door with their 7-year-old son, Oliver.  We also met Lina, a college-aged intern from D.C. who has been working on the farm since the beginning of May, when snow was still falling heavily on the ground.  We made dinner and enjoyed our first shower in over a week (and the first time I washed my hair in 10 greasy days).

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Brian’s farm was about 20 minutes away at Birch Creek Ranch.  Brian’s parents acquired the land in 1982 as an Agricultural Land Disposal Parcel, which meant they had to clear a certain amount of their land for agricultural use.  Out of all the original land parcels, theirs is the only operational ranch left. The outdoor vegetable farm is about two acres and the greenhouses and tunnels make up around 5,000 square feet. The rest of the farm is used for hay production.  I won’t list everything that is grown at the farm but highlights include tomatoes, strawberries, kale, pumpkins, green beans, peas, corn, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower and squash. The land is beautiful, with sprawling green pastures and small mountains framing the eastern horizon.

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Our first task was to shovel rancid barley and hops from giant crates to a compost pile.  We layered the hops with hay in order to make a steaming compost pile.  The smell was reminiscent of an old, rotten IPA and when the slop accidentally splashed onto my clothing, I looked like I had a battle with some unsavory bodily functions.  Then, Nick and I weeded a very large greenhouse, with the distracted help of little Oliver (who has a future in micromanaging).

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Monday, we headed into town for a day off.  We spent some time at Brian’s house, washing our clothes for the second time ever. (Next time I travel like this, I am bringing twice the amount of underwear.) In downtown Talkeetna we stopped for lunch at Denali Brewing Company & Twister Creek Restaurant. I had the single best beer of my life, the I Squared, brewed with six malts and hops from all over the world.  We walked down Main Street to Talkeetna River Park, where we stacked and skipped rocks for a while, marveling at the fact that we were actually in Talkeetna, Alaska.  We picked up Lina from the side of the road and had a pasta dinner at Brian and Anita’s house.

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We were out in the field by 8 on a sunny Tuesday morning, picking various veggies and learning a lot in the process, like how to estimate what 10 pounds of kale looks like. Tuesday is a market day, so Lina headed out with our fresh picks in the afternoon.  I spent the rest of the day weeding and Nick learned how to use a rototiller.  Wednesday the weather turned for the worse.  We picked for the CSA share and an upcoming wedding which would feature locally grown produce. By the end of the day, muscles we never knew we had were aching.  That is when we began our nightly massage exchange, something we continue to do now.

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Thursday was another off day, so Lina, Nick, little Oliver and I went to a Ranger Talk at the Talkeetna Ranger Station.  The talk was about the technical challenges of climbing Denali, complete with maps, photos, example gear and a scale model in the middle of the room.  It took place in a museum exhibit about Denali, so we got to see a bunch of photos from Bradford Washburn’s personal collection, flags from recent Denali summits and other pieces of recent history.  We went back to the ranger station to watch a short video on climbing Denali, which was so inspiring.  All the climbers register and begin their life-changing journeys from the Talkeetna Ranger Station – right where we were sitting.

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Brian met us in town and took us out for drinks at the Wildflower Café, which had about 25 Alaska-brewed beers on tap.  After that, Lina took us out to lunch because “even though I don’t make much money, you guys aren’t making anything.”  I am fine with accepting pity in the form of pizza.  We went back to the camper and the plan was to nap for a couple hours before going out to “Hip Hop Night”, but the nap turned into a long sleep.

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That turned out to be a good idea because Friday morning we were picking feverishly at 8 in order to be ready to go to the market before noon.  Lina and I headed off to the market, though fitting everything into the van took a serious amount of calculation.  The market was rainy and smaller than normal, but we sold quite a bit.  We met  Nick, Brian and Oliver at an art opening at the Squirrel.  Nick had spent the entire day tilling and hilling potato fields and told me we were not going to have potatoes in our future garden.

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Saturday was another early picking day, but we had an established routine and things went smoothly.  Nick spent an hour in the strawberry field, which to him felt like forever, but I had fun helping him for a few minutes and snacking on overripe or misshapen berries.  The day ended rather early, so we went into town for drinks and dinner and met up with Lina. We went out to a bar to watch Aloha Bluegrass Band, who was a lot of fun and inspired some violent dancing.  Lina and I rubbed elbows with a climber who had just returned from the summit of Everest. I was star struck.

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Our original plan was to leave on Sunday, but Brian extended our welcome another day, so we worked on the car all day.  It was our first time under the Subaru. Due to my misdirection and error, we accidentally drained the transmission fluid, which needed to be changed anyway, but we weren’t prepared to do it then.  Luckily, Anita was doing a grocery run, so I went with her to buy replacement fluid. After changing the transmission fluid, I also changed the motor oil, which is cleverly hidden under the dust shield.  This was all done in the rain after our last shower for over a week, so there was plenty of colorful language involved. We spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen warming up and watching Brian, Anita and Lina freeze pack about 100 heads of broccoli.  Preserving surplus food for the winter is going to occupy the upcoming months, as it is now autumn in Alaska.

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On Monday, we left town. Getting to know Brian, Lina and Oliver was the best part of our experience thus far and we really enjoyed working on the farm.   We both agree that if we could repeat just one thing from our entire Alaska trip, it would be the time spent in Talkeetna. Their elected mayor is a cat named Stubbs… how could we not love the place?

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