After more than 40 years of living with little light, Merilee Watts didn’t hesitate to paint her work room in Georgia the color of sunshine.
A longtime resident of Alaska, Watts has lived in her Forsyth County home for several years, though her thoughts often drift off to the Quonset hut she loved and called home for decades.
From her bright Southern house, she has detailed the snowy nights, outdoor adventures and family recipes in a book she wrote for her grown sons and then published as “Alaska Woodsmoke” in August.
Watts’ tales range from enduring a month of temperatures 60-below to getting a group of bears permanently off her family’s 160-acre tract.
Life in Alaska isn’t like the “lower 48” or “outside,” which Watts explained is how the locals refer to the other states.
“We’re just rough and tumble,” she said. “You have your gun in your truck and you go out and pick berries and make stuff and you’re self-sufficient.
“The attitude is we don’t care what you do in the lower 48, we do it here. We do it differently. It’s just that pioneer attitude that still prevails.”
Watts moved from Texas to Alaska with her family at age 11, with her father taking advantage of a government conservation program offering large tracts of land. She transitioned from sand to snow and adapted to the culture and added responsibilities in her new home.
Despite the difficult conditions — including 10-foot snow walls, hard work and long periods of darkness — Watts has a personality a close friend described as “warm.”
Rosie de St. Aubin said she never would have known about the roughness of Watts’ Alaskan life until she read her friend’s book.
“I had breakfast with her recently, and the first thing I said to her was ‘You’re one tough lady,’” de St. Aubin said. “Boy, she could handle anything.”
She was impressed to read about Watts getting out of a situation where a river pushed her truck sideways.
Maybe 5 feet tall and often smiling, Watts didn’t strike de St. Aubin as such a fearless woman.
Though Watts learned how to live in Alaska, she plans to stay in Georgia for the rest of her life.
“It’s not the cold. It’s not the snow. It’s the dark that gets to you,” she said. “Coming into this house, we were both just amazed at the light that comes in. We’d lived in our Quonset half underground for years.”
Watts met her husband, Jesse, a north Georgia native, in Alaska, where he’d moved for work.
The couple raised their two sons on land about 100 miles north of Anchorage, but decided to return to his home state after the boys grew up.
Once a year, the go back to visit family in Anchorage — during the summer months.
Though the warm weather surrounds their Georgia house, the inside is filled with crafts and photos reminding them of their beloved home in the cold.