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!