Judy Huntley, Washington, had only been living in Slana, Alaska, for a few months when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck there Nov. 3, 2002.
People here may not even remember the quake, but living through it was so life-changing that Huntley made it a chapter in a novel she’s written, “Northbound Into the Wilderness,” about a woman running away from an abusive relationship to pursue a lifelong dream of living “a subsistence lifestyle in the Alaskan wilderness.”
If you shop much at the Washington Farmers’ Market, you may know Huntley. She has been a vendor there for several years, selling suncatchers and jewelry made with porcupine quills from Alaska, where she lived from 2002 to 2005.
It had been a childhood dream of hers to live in Alaska — she was inspired by the John Wayne movie, “North to Alaska.”
Another lifelong dream of Huntley’s was to write. When she was young and in school, teachers had encouraged her, and Huntley said she did write some short stories, but she never did anything with them.
“I never had anything published. I never really tried,” she said.
Her grandkids pushed her to make this novel a reality.
“They always wanted to know my stories (of Alaska),” said Huntley, “a bear in the school yard, the earthquake, the caribou . . . I knew I had to get these down before I die.”
Huntley began writing “Northbound” last June and spent every day putting her stories in print.
The story is fiction, but based on true events, said Huntley, noting she shaped the main character, Casey, on herself.
Life in Alaskan Interior
Like Casey, Huntley once worked as an 18-wheel truck driver and had long wanted to experience what it was like to “live off the land,” as they do in Alaska.
She and her then-husband moved to the Alaskan interior in summer 2002.
Huntley, who has a master’s degree in social work, was a substitute teacher for Athabaskin children, a tribe of native Alaskans who traditionally lived in the interior region.
Slana, where Huntley lived, is “a very remote part of Alaska,” she said, noting the temperature there can get as low as 70 below.
Even though moving there was something she had long wanted to do, Huntley admits the reality of it was much harder than she expected.
“It’s such a different way of life than we live down here,” she said. “There people really depend on each other a lot.
“It’s like the way people lived here 200 years ago. It’s an interdependent community where everybody shared what they had.
“It was very hard coming back here to this way of life,” said Huntley. “Just going to the grocery store was overwhelming because of all the choices.”
Huntley weaves her personal experiences of living in Alaska into “Northbound” through Casey’s story as a “cheechako” or newcomer.
“When Casey moves her log cabin, that’s true,” said Huntley. “We really did that. That’s how we proved ourselves.
“The whole town came out. John (her husband) lifted it onto a trailer and moved it with a 5-ton truck about four miles. He was a truck driver too, and noboby else could have done it.”
As much as Huntley loved living in Alaska and wishes she could have stayed, she admits it’s just too hard, especially for someone as they get older.
“It’s a risky place to live. You have to be cautious,” said Huntley. “I had a .44 magnum Black Hawk with me whenever we cleaned fish because the bears would come in from the smell of fish.
“You always looked around you.”
Although she now loves her life in Washington, Huntley said her heart will always belong to Alaska.
“It’s in my soul. I would like to die up there,” she remarked.
“The cabin was moving from here to there . . . the road was like a roller coaster . . . it stripped the trees.”
Huntley, who often speaks of her experiences living through the quake for groups led by local geologist Phyllis Steckel, said the quake itself may not have lasted long, but the trauma it caused her did.
“It felt like you were walking on a bowl of Jell-O,” she said, noting aftershocks occurred every 10 minutes. “You couldn’t trust the ground under you.
“I slept with my flashlight and in my clothes, so I could get out if there was another one.”
The quakes left Huntley, who had already lived through a series of three quakes ranging 6.9 to 7.1 when she lived in Northern California, with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she tried to soothe by getting together with others in the community to talk about it.
“The entire community pulled together to help each other,” said Huntley.
Still, the experience left her torn mentally.
“It was so serene, then the next minute it was so violent,” she said. “How could a place so beautiful be so violent?”
Porcupine Quill Suncatchers, Jewelry
Another part of the Alaskan culture that Huntley picked up was using everything and wasting nothing.
“It’s so hard to come by anything, that you look at what the land can provide,” she said.
That’s how she came to make suncatchers and jewelry using porcupine quills. Porcupines are everywhere in Alaska, she said, and it’s not uncommon to see them lying in the road after being hit by a car.
She kept gloves and plastic in her car to collect dead porcupines from the road when she came across them.
“I would pick them up by the legs — you have to do it very carefully,” Huntley stressed, noting the process is made even harder by the weight of the animal — as much as 50 pounds.
But the materials just one porcupine provides are worth the time and effort. Just one porcupine can provide as many as 2,000 quills, Huntley noted.
Huntley clips both ends of each quill, which is hollow, so she can run a thread through it.
“I always wore goggles because there was no doctor nearby, and I always wore slick clothes and did it outside,” she said.
About three years ago, Huntley visited Homer, Alaska, where she found “a beautiful porcupine” that had been hit.
“Now I have enough quills to last me four or five years,” she said, noting she stores them in plastic bags to keep them fresh.
When Huntley lived in Alaska, she sold her suncatchers in gift shops where tourists and visitors came through. She still has those contacts, which is helping her in marketing her book.
“They’re very interested in it,” she said, noting even Princess cruise Line has expressed interest.
“People are loving it. They are calling it a page-turner.”
Huntley self-published “Northbound” through Create Space working with an editor out of Kansas City.
The cover was designed by her friend, Linda Jo Huber, who also helped her with formatting the copy.
The photo featured on the book cover is one Huntley snapped of the Northern Lights while standing on her front porch.
Copies of the book are available at Huntley’s booth at the Washington Farmers’ Market, which is open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The market’s Wednesday hours begin in June.
“Northbound” also is available online at Amazon.com.
Inspired by her experience with this first book, Huntley said she is already working on a second.