Snow started just before 9 this morning. I took this picture at 11:15. Then we got really busy clearing up the yard of things we might not be able to find again until Spring. But it’s clearing now, and most of the snow has melted away.
I came here knowing that winter transportation would not be simple. We have a snow machine due to be picked up late next week and just hope we can get it here before the snows arrive. My Subaru now has a battery warmer, battery blanket and coolants that won’t freeze until the temperature hits 55 below zero. Friends who live where the pavement starts about thirty miles from here have agreed to let us park at their place and plug into their power. All I need now are my snow tires and a space heater to heat up the engine.
Then, once there’s enough snow, we can drive an hour or two into town where the gas station is the grocery store; you can get any flavor of moon pie there, but don’t even think about an apple or a banana. If we have time to plan, we can email friends in town to pick up what we need when they go into Anchorage or Wasilla or Fairbanks. Otherwise we have to warm up the car and drive a good five hours to get to Anchorage and Costco.
What I didn’t realize is that this is a last resort. If we go to Anchorage or Fairbanks, everything will freeze at home while we’re gone. Apples, potatoes, and onions get mushy once frozen. So do many canned goods. We won’t even have the refrigerator for protection; it will be turned off when it gets too cold to keep the windows vented to prevent carbon monoxide build-up. Anyway, it’s not much needed in the winter when there will be cold spots in the house where we can place things we don’t want to freeze.
Next week when we go to pick up the snow machine, we’ll be making our last pre-winter grocery run. Every day I think of something I’m afraid to live without. How many cheeses can I keep through the winter? Do tortillas freeze well? What about freezing eggs? Are you supposed to crack the yolk or not? Is there such a thing as dried cream, or can I freeze it?
Here’s a question for you: what would be on your shopping list if you hoped to get by for four months without making a trip to the grocery store?
Well, at least some things are simple. What could be more simple and basic than water from the beautiful creek that runs through our property?
We’re not free of the risk of giardia here, so we have to filter or boil our drinking and cooking water. In the summertime we pump water at the campground down the road. BLM workers dismantle the pump after the end of hunting season, which was September 20th. So, on the 18th I took all my empty five-gallon water buckets to fill only to find the workers had come early this year. We’ve ordered a large ceramic gravity water filter, but meanwhile we’re using a Brita-type filter rather than go through the time- and fuel-intensive boiling method of purification.
When I was planning my move, I learned a lot about the logistics of daily life from the questions friends asked me.
A couple of months ago at work, Claudeen asked, “Won’t the creek freeze in the winter? Will you melt snow for water?”
Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.
Bad news: the creek does freeze in the winter. Good news: it doesn’t freeze solid. So we will take an ice axe, cut through the surface, and fill our buckets. We could melt snow, but it takes five gallons of snow to get one gallon of water, times the seven or so gallons of water we’re using each day. That would be tedious, especially since we’re in an area that doesn’t get much snow.
Compare the seven gallons of water we’re using to the fifty or more Gary and I were using each day in San Francisco, and you can imagine what a challenge it is to keep things—and ourselves—clean. So we are particularly conscientious about staying next to godliness at least for the stuff that counts. We wash dishes in near-boiling water with the help of thermal gloves. A couple of drops of bleach go into the rinse water. Our evening routines include good sponge baths using hot water and a variety of washcloths for various parts of our bodies. The wet washcloths are then hung over the wood stove to dry.
To wash my hair, I bend over a metal tub while Gary pours warm water over my head. While shopping in Fairbanks a few weeks ago, he vetoed the juicy apple shampoo (“bear bait”) in favor of shampoo labeled “ocean breeze.” The tub is just big enough to sit in for a bath and requires a fair amount of water, so baths are an occasional treat/hassle. But my shower should be ready to use soon.
The other day I tried washing my clothes. Sheets and towels pretty much have to wait for a trip to town, but we wash smaller items in a five-gallon bucket using a metal agitator that bears some resemblance in appearance and function to your basic toilet plunger.
Ella couldn’t take a picture of me using it, so this is the best I could do.
In the months before I left San Francisco, a number of my friends expressed intense curiosity about how I would be dealing with basic hygiene and bodily functions. It’s another thing that’s more complex than I imagined. I knew we had an outhouse, but what I didn’t know was that because the water table is so close we’re using a 55-gallon tank. Is that big? How long will it last? I really don’t know; the only way to find out is the hard way. What follows may be too much information for some of you, and it’s more than I really want to write. But inquiring minds (you know who you are) need to know.
Once the tank is full, we will bury it and dig a hole for another tank. That’s not something we want to do more often than necessary, so Gary explained the protocol for using the outhouse. Mainly, I don’t get to pee in it. It’s not unusual, first thing, to find Gary, Ella and I outside together (well, not too close together) having our morning pee. Given that in my prior life I couldn’t abide having a bathroom door ajar when the toilet was in use, this has required an attitude adjustment.
But there’s more. It turns out that toilet paper takes up unnecessary space in the tank, so it has to be burned. Gary keeps matches in a coffee can in the outhouse together with the toilet tissue. A small skillet is there, too, for our burning convenience. Next to the toilet is a bucket of ashes from the wood stove. We spread a scant half-cup of ashes into the toilet after each use to keep down flies and odor, and it’s actually very effective.
To avoid getting ashes on the toilet seat, the seat needs to go up after every use. This was the source of some confusion on my part. You see, Gary had told me the outhouse was a simple squatter—basically just a hole—but in anticipation of my arrival he built a box for it. The box was rough-hewn and uncomfortable; the risk of splinters and falling in seemed very real. But I was happy to have a seat so I didn’t complain. After a few weeks here, I found a standard-issue toilet seat on the box. Gary had been busy building the woodshed, so I didn’t know when he could have installed it, unless…and yes, sure enough, the seat had always been there, but in the up position. I just never noticed it. Every so often I still catch Gary laughing about it.
Well, if the simple life isn’t always so simple, it does have its advantages. At least we don’t argue about who will clean the toilet!
Sights and Surprises
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” Robert Frost was right. Gary suspects my workmanship, but I think it was an immutable force that brought down my fourth row of wood. What a mess!
Gas (regular) $4.60 per gallon.
The northern lights! Last night I saw wonderful plumes and curtains and bows of cloud-like light in subtle shades of purple and green. Just at the aurora’s peak, though, I got scared. Out with Ella near our vegetable garden, I heard the sound of a distant animal-skin drum and rustling that seemed to be coming closer and closer! Ella wasn’t scared, but I ran back inside. This happened two more times, as I was drawn against my fears to the beautiful sight. Today I discovered that the watering can, when kicked, makes a drum-like sound. Inside was a red-backed vole, plump from eating all our veges before drowning last night. I’ll spare you the photo.
Porcupines! Sorry, they’re shy. Shyer than I am, apparently.
Sunrise: 7:51 a.m.
Sunset: 7:43 p.m.
High 45 ° Low 14°
Sunny and clear; a few clouds rolled in late this afternoon, bringing enough breeze to (briefly) run our wind turbine, which was successfully installed in the rain on Saturday!
Ah, the simple life: partaking of the beauty and bounty of nature. Free as a breeze.
The breeze—our new Air Breeze wind turbine, that is—is neither simple nor free, as it turns out. The tower was free; friends in town happened to have an old one. Gary hurried to dig a three-foot hole before the first hard freeze and fixed the tower’s base in cement.
We knew we were in trouble as we struggled to get the next 10-foot section of this metal tripod settled onto the base, which topped out at about seven feet above ground. Heavy and unwieldy, it waved awkwardly in the air and threatened to crash before we got it settled. Gary thought better of simply trying to muscle up the next 10-foot section; he affixed a pulley rope so I could assist. The tripod had to be lifted up above the 17-foot target, then down very carefully. Gary looked awfully vulnerable even tied in as he was to the tower and ladder. We decided three of the four sections would have to be enough, and counted ourselves lucky to get that third one fixed without a major mishap.
That turned out to be the easy part. I tried to find something useful to do near, but not too near, as Gary hooked up the turbine. Ella was nervous too, and I couldn’t distract her even with a game of fetch. Eventually we discovered the turbine didn’t work, and Gary had to take it down. He was not happy. After failing to get anything more helpful than a ticket number from customer service in response to our e-mail on Monday, we drove into town Thursday to call tech support. We got someone live, but after running several tests this past Friday, we were back in town again on Monday to ship it back for repair. It will take weeks to get it back. Meanwhile, we’re losing about an hour of sunlight every week, so we ordered a second turbine and are having it delivered to my cousin Glenn, who will bring it this weekend when he comes to close up his cabin for the winter.
The complexity of the simple life didn’t escape my former colleagues. When I was planning my move, the logistics of daily life were a staple of conversation at work.
A couple of months ago in the lunchroom, Ashley asked “What about energy? You have a back-up generator, don’t you?”
I knew we had solar, but I hadn’t heard anything about a back-up generator. Now I know: we have solar panels on the roof, propane for the stove and refrigerator, propane and battery-powered lamps and, yes, a gas back-up generator. In addition to the new wind generator, Gary‘s expanding the solar array; he also bought a larger gas back-up generator. We use wood for heat.
Some of you have heard the story about the wood. Dave, the gas-delivery guy, told Gary that someone named Mel might deliver logs out our way. Mel has a phone but no e-mail; Gary has e-mail but no phone. So I called Mel from San Francisco back in July. We talked a few times about the price, delivery, and the mix of birch and spruce, settling on 75 percent birch, which burns hotter, and 25 percent larger-diameter spruce Gary could mill for lumber. Mel needed to know if he’d be able to pull in and turn his 60-foot trailer truck around on the property, so I called Dave, who had just delivered some fuel.
“Tell Mel he’ll be able to turn around fine,” Dave told me.
Mel was happy to hear it and confirmed, “That will be $2,100 cash. We should be there Tuesday or Wednesday next week.”
“Cash? As in a check, or would that be cash-type cash?” I asked.
“Oh. OK. I’ll make sure Gary will be ready for you by Tuesday.”
There’s an ATM in town an hour away, but no bank. It would take Gary several trips to town to withdraw that kind of money. So what else could I do? I got the cash, put it in an envelope, put the envelope in a magazine, put the magazine in another envelope, and sent it.
But wood, source of warmth and light through the ages, that’s still one of the simple things in life, right?
Well, Gary had to build a third woodshed, which at 8-feet by 16-feet now looks to be too small by half. Every day he cuts logs with his chainsaw until it runs out of gas and then splits the wood with an axe. My job is to toss it into the truck bed, drive it to the woodshed, and stack it. It’s all ready to use–well, it will be next year, after it’s dried. This wood was just logged and is still green. Since we can’t wait until next year, we’ll use Gary’s supply of well-cured spruce to get the green birch burning.
Next time: In Part II I’ll talk about the complex simplicity of some of the other logistics of daily living: water, washing and (for those of you eagerly awaiting or wanting to avoid the topic), the whole outhouse thing.
Sights and Surprises
We went to town Monday to mail off the defective turbine; then on to the local bar/café to do some laundry and—since we were there—take a shower. There’s a whole story for another time about our experience in what is one of the least likely places for any sort of exercise in cleaning. That ordeal over, we dropped in on some of Gary’s friends. I’ve met about three percent of the town’s population now; these are wonderful people with a culture of real hospitality.
At the first home, our host warmed our coffee with whiskey—to help me warm up from the near-freezing shower. By the time I finished my second cup I was plenty warm. We stayed on for a hot and spicy bowl of chicken soup, and I noticed a Canadian Jay and several birds I didn’t recognize at the red feeders hanging just outside the kitchen window. Suddenly I realized that one of the feeders was a rib cage, maybe 18 inches long, and the other looked to be the vertebrae of the same animal, whatever it was.
The next home we visited was small even compared to ours, but our friends—Gary’s friends, my new friends—somehow found room for a banana tree, which had survived many winters in its indoor garden.
It was after 8 that evening when we got on the road to go home. Gary had told me that the sure way to see a moose was to leave the rifle at home. He did, and we did! An enormous moose cow crossed the road right in front of me. No risk of an accident, though, at the slow pace required on our little highway!
Sunrise: 7:34 am
Sunset: 8:04 pm
High 55 ° Low 35°
Cloudy morning, sunny afternoon
It’s a small cabin with sky-blue metal roofing. You don’t have to look closely to see it’s been built in installments. Gary added on to the tiny original building years ago, moving the kitchen and adding a porch. A new addition is underway; he’s building me a shower and adding storage.
After months of anticipation, I am excited to see my new home. Stepping in the front (and only) door for the first time, I find myself in a full kitchen with a sink, propane refrigerator/freezer and—to my surprise—a propane stove (I thought we only had a wood stove).
The kitchen has plenty of counter space and storage but just a tiny, faucet-less sink. On the floor next to it are two, five-gallon, covered buckets of water; two well-dinged metal pans–one a bit larger than the other–hang above them to ladle water for dishwashing or cooking or drinking. In summer months we pump water from the campground well nearby; otherwise it comes straight from the creek, and we will have to filter or boil it for most uses.
As I step into the main room, the view grabs my attention. Windows on all sides take advantage of the glorious setting, with the most dramatic being the Alaska Range to the north beyond an expanse of tundra and spruce.
Looking around the room I notice how each wall, beam, and bench, each space under a counter, table or sink, is storing something. No fewer than six fishing rods hang on the ceiling beams; boots, jackets, wet socks, tools, towels and kitchenware hang from the ceiling, on walls, over the stove, and at the tops of window frames. I see my books among the many lining the shelves along the uppermost part of the wall. Along with my books, I had mailed part of my large collection of boots ahead, and find them hiding in a small chest under the dining table. Though the table is small, Ella’s bed fits under it too. It will take me a year to discover all the art hanging on the walls and in every window and corner.
We keep huge stockpots of water on the wood-burning stove centered in the main room. Soon we will keep the fire burning throughout our waking hours, but days are warm enough now to let the morning fire die and heat water on the stove.
A long wide desk-height counter runs the full width of the cabin on the north side, with two rows of shelving underneath. I use the left side for my workspace, and Gary has the right side for his. On the wall opposite the dining table is a sink—a bathroom sink, but for want of a bathroom.
I climb six steep ladder-like steps to the bedroom loft, bumping my head on arrival. Even so, my first impression is that the room is huge. The loft shares the contours of the A-frame roof sheltering it, and its high ceiling peak makes up for the low outer edges. There are no closets; storage consists of trunks and cardboard boxes under the bed and beneath shelves built along the low walls of the room. Only the chimney coming up from the wood stove below interrupts the sense of openness.
We read long into the evening without artificial light. It used to make me crazy when, in our San Francisco apartment, I would find Gary reading in the dimmest evening light; now it seems natural to conserve when we don’t know whether tomorrow will bring sun for our generator. Last week Gary put in a lamp over the dining table, a big improvement over the propane lamp that is dim and too high for me to reach.
You can’t go home again. But when you go there for the first time, is it home yet?
My mother used to say, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house to make it home.”
I see all the work Gary’s done to create space for my things, to make a place for me. Knowing how much I enjoy my showers, he set out to build me one. He’s worked hard these last three months to make this a place we could call home. For a few days I did feel like a guest, unsure where things were, where they went, or even how to manage washing the dishes or bathing. But the care that shows itself in all that has been done or is planned for my comfort, for our comfort—that is the heart of a home. I still have a heap o’ livin’ to do here, but this spot of light and warmth in the wilderness is fast becoming my home.
My brother, Richard, volunteered to fly out from Atlanta to make the long drive from San Francisco to Alaska with me. It was his bride Gloria’s idea. Gloria has too much good sense to think it was smart for me to make the trip alone, and is too generous for her own good. I accepted Richard’s offer before Gloria could find out how long it would take to both make the drive and give Richard a couple of days respite before heading home.
“I said you could borrow him, not adopt him!”
She was joking, but just.
Richard and I drove for nine days. Actually, Richard drove for nine days. He drove more than 4,000 of the 4,375 miles from San Francisco while I nodded in and out of consciousness like someone who had retired during the Nixon administration instead of last week.
Those final weeks in San Francisco had taken a toll: physical, mental and emotional. Packing on nights and weekends, I looked at everything I owned to decide whether to take, store, sell, donate or dump. There must be some equation explaining how hundreds of small decisions are the equivalent in stress to a number of much larger decisions. The weekend before we left I rented a trailer, hired a guy to help me load it, and drove my furniture and everything non-essential to life in Alaska up to Oregon for storage. Between the packing and work and goodbye dinners I was already exhausted, and with the trailer the seven-hour trip took me ten hours. When I got back I had one day to get out of my apartment. It took three. With no bed and no apartment, I was lucky to have dear friends who put me up and put up with me and all my remaining belongings and even, on that last night in town, my brother! At work I tried to tie up all sorts of loose ends I had successfully procrastinated during my 15-year tenure. But that wasn’t the hard part. Leaving my friends and colleagues, knowing that however close we remain it will never be the same – that was the hard part.
The road trip itself was a lot of fun. When else would I ever have had the chance to spend so much time one-on-one with my brother? We laughed, cried, talked about our shared past and saw the same old stories through new eyes.
If you ever drive from the lower 48 to Alaska, you will find you have many routes to choose from. We were visiting friends and family in Washington and Montana, so crossed the border near Great Falls, Montana. Not knowing exactly how long the whole trip would take, as we headed into Canada we decided against the scenic route via Banff and Jasper along the Columbia Ice Fields. Instead we headed past Edmonton, Alberta to Dawson Creek in the Yukon, which is Mile Zero on the Alaskan Highway. Neither of us had seen Muncho Lake or the Liard Hot Springs in the northern part of the Yukon Territory, so we headed that way.
As we approached Muncho Lake we saw more wildlife than on any other day of our trip. We got a good soak in at nearby Liard Hot Springs. At Haines Junction we stopped at one of the good bakeries there for coffee and wifi. Getting back on to the highway we missed what is possibly the largest, least subtle junction road sign in all of North America.
We began to suspect something was wrong when we re-entered British Columbia, since our next border should have been customs at Port Alcan. Well, Richard began to suspect something was wrong. Still drowsy, I espoused the theory that British Columbia had just put up the sign in the wrong place. About 45 minutes from Haines Junction we were stopped by a flagman (woman) to wait for a pilot car to lead us through the construction zone. In a land where there are only a few short months to improve the roads and correct for the roller-coaster-like frost heave, we found ourselves waiting for pilot cars a number of times. Richard got out and asked:
“Is this the road to Haines?”
On our last day of travel, more than 4,300 miles from our start, a hazard light on the dashboard warned of a flat tire. We were in the final stretch, on a dirt and gravel road 20 miles from a B&B that ostensibly offered tire services and free coffee. A visual inspection showed nothing amiss, so we decided to go on 10 more miles and check again. Sure enough, my left rear tire had lost its characteristic firm, round quality. We felt every rock and bump in the road acutely as the Forester limped the final 10 miles.
We drove up the steep dirt driveway of the B&B. A man with a gray beard looked handy, standing as he was on a ladder nailing tarpaper onto some sort of extension to the main house.
“We seem to have a flat tire,” I told him.
“You’ll need to talk to Jennifer” he said, motioning toward the lodge-like house.
I found Jennifer at work in the kitchen. She offered coffee, and we accepted. Jennifer conferred with the man on the ladder, who confessed to being less handy than he looked. As he and I were similarly useless in this situation, we passed the time chatting about his real passion: bow-hunting. He was working for his room and board in order to be able to stay in this caribou and caribou-hunter’s paradise.
Jennifer emerged from the house with a young man in his early 20’s; Benedict said he had fixed three or four tires in his life. That was more than the rest of us combined, so he got the job. It took a while to unload the car sufficiently to get to the jack and spare. Richard positioned the jack, and Benedict took over from there. A rock emerged from the tire; it was the shape of a nail but considerably thicker. Benedict patched the tire, and the three men decided to put a lot more air than was called for, “just to be safe.”
“What do I owe you?” I asked Benedict. He shrugged and sent me back to Jennifer.
“Whatever it’s worth to you,” Jennifer told me. “Just pay the kid.”
Whatever it’s worth to me? That was not the answer I was looking for. I was less than 40 miles from my destination, the cabin where Gary was waiting for me. We had emailed ahead a few hours earlier and told him we’d be there for dinner. The going rate for the tire fix? Probably twenty dollars. What did I pay? Sixty dollars. What was it worth to me? Priceless.
When we got to the cabin, Ella found us first. She wriggled and wagged and talked and leapt. Her paws on my shoulders, she hugged me and kissed me copiously. Who knows where her mouth had been, and who cares? This language we share, and after almost three months apart we had a lot to say to each other.