Wednesday, January 13, 2021

December: Rain, Snowmachines, and Lame Holiday Crafts

Honey, would be any trouble getting the potatoes out of the cold hole?

Believe it or not, December began with RAIN!  A “Pineapple Express” weather system brought a stream of warm, damp wind up from Hawaii, slammed into the tall mountains along the Alaska coast and caused all sorts of havoc, including historic records for rain, plus ice (and car crashes) and landslides (and loss of homes and people).  A mess.

Here, we were spared any damage, but temps rose to the mid-30s and the hard rain pelted some snow off roofs and hardened (finally) the soft snow in the yard.  The surface was no longer pillowy soft and smooth but looked like a patchwork of lightly melted marshmallows.  Over the course of the month the temperatures plummeted to -10F, and then jumped back up to the +30s.  These dramatic shifts felt like the weather version of bumper pool.

When the snow paths firmed up from the rain, we decided to groom them into wider, smoother, and harder surfaces.  This entails dragging a passive groomer (looks like a horizontal fence with angled iron bars) behind the snowmachine.
Laura with cross country skis
Two conditions delayed the task: 1) the snowmachine skis were coated in lumpy layers of ice and  2) the snow that had been sheltered from rain beneath the vehicle remained deep (several feet) and soft, between higher and harder paths pelted by rain.  So, we toted a sled of supplies and got to work.  First, we tipped the machine over on its side to melt the ice with a heat gun (like a hand hair dryer), powered by the generator and  scraped the ice off with a garden spade and a screwdriver.  When we tried to power out of position, the heavy rear treads predictably sank into the soft center snow.  Plan B:  we tied a strap around the base of a spruce tree ahead of us and I ratcheted the tow strap as Bryan climbed, a few inches at a time, out of the soft hole and up onto harder snow.  Then, he was able to whiz around the property and for about four miles into the woods, smoothing paths and widening curves, for pleasant afternoons of cross country skiing and walking.

For a month, our internet and telephone connectivity were inconveniently haphazard.   Apparently, one of our service providers had installed some upgrade for customers on the grid, but the old equipment they sold us to install several years ago is not compliant.  They gave us a 90% discount to turn off the service until spring, when can upgrade, too.  
Wood inventory Dec 28
Living remotely means that we have lots of back ups and work-arounds.  This is true for communications, too.  So this month, we could reliably make phone calls from the unheated power shed, but not from the warm cabin.  If I wanted to call my 89 year old dad, I had to bundle up and call from there.  It was worse for Bryan, whose business has been busier than he expected this time of year, with 5 or 6 business calls each morning.  He dressed up in his quilted Carhartts, bunny boots, glove liners, hat, and balaclava, standing among power tools and beekeeping supplies, hoping that the other guy didn't want a Zoom visual feed as they discussed business services.  Then “Mr. Popsicle” would return to the cabin, for some hot tea and a sweet treat.        

My husband and I are not big on decorating for holidays, but this year I was encouraged by a crafty friend who gave me a bag full of buttons, bows, and Christmas lights and told me to “DO SOMETHING” with them.  My arts and crafts instincts are sadly lacking, but I dutifully looked through Pinterest photos.

Buried chicken coop

My evaluation:  pictures on Pinterest look A LOT BETTER than my lame attempts.  I decorated a “Charlie Brown tree” of spruce bows I wired together and decorated with Betty's lights, bows, and bullet casings (hey – they are shiny), topped with a flimsy branch star.  Then I assembled a tree like decoration of mason jar rings, green flannel, and buttons.  Frankly, everything looked like something my children made in elementary school.  They wouldn't win any blue ribbons, but I must admit that I really enjoyed the process, and the results made me chuckle.  That was not a bad outcome during a month when our world sorely needed laughter.

Next crafts project:  I am thinking of making earrings from the bullet casings, maybe with washers for some dingle-dangle appeal.  Stay tuned.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

November: Snow, Food, Predators

November temperatures varied from the +30s F to below 0 F. During surprisingly warm periods in the upper 20's F, a 25 hour storm dropped 3 feet of snow over the weekend of Nov 7/8, and then again over Thanksgiving weekend. (So I made a big batch of snow ice cream each time) Because of the soft, light snow, we lumbered about in the yard in awkward snowshoes almost all month, patting out paths, shoveling out doorways at the coop, outhouse, and greenhouse, and digging out the burn barrel.

Snow shoes don't skate along the top of soft snow. They spread out one's weight so a large area is pressed down, after which you lift the snowshoe up over the next two feet of snow and press down again. This is tiring – like climbing a stairmaster in a gym. I feel the exercise at the top insides of my thighs. A clear work out! We widened each path four snowshoes wide to provide a firm surface for the snowmachines, but the temperatures remained so high (20s and even 30s) that the upper layers never hardened up for our (admittedly old and heavy) machines. After they got stuck twice, we ignored them and continued to strap on the snowshoes for the rest of the month. (“Why fight” I think about this every season.) 

The mostly windless and temperature stable days and nights retained the pretty white layer above black branches and angled tree trunks. I find this so beautiful. But this also meant that the roofs retained their load of snow, too. Fortunately, half of our buildings have 45 degree roofs (1”:1” rise), so they shed snow easily. But the 30-33 degree roofs (1”:3” rise) needed some early attention to slough off the heavy load of precipitation. I found a website that helps one calculate the increasing weights of fresh, settled, wet snow and ice over a given expanse of roof. Yikes! A two foot snow dump can weigh 15,000 lbs on a 20 x 12 roof! I pity the families and work crews attending to the surprisingly shallow roofs I spy throughout this part of Alaska. Sure, flatter is cheaper to build, but... 20 years of maintenance?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Silence and Solitude at a Remote Home

Contemplating kairns on bench at lake
After living in the silence and solitude of our pretty little cabin in the woods, I find trips to towns something of an assault on my senses, so I routinely go four months without seeing anyone other than my husband, and sometimes six months without a flight to a town.  Bryan says that at home, if we want to hear a human noise, we have to make it.  We enjoy the quiet – no hum of electric appliances, no whiz of passing cars or blaring horns.  Instead, we hear the wind in the trees, the slap of water on the dock, the effortful wing work of a raven overhead. 

Some people find this quietude deafening.  One friend looked forward to “getting away” to a remote cabin but discovered that she needed to turn on her radio the whole time to fill the void.  A few of our visitors have talked constantly – perhaps they found the silence unnerving.

One disconcerting aspect of silence is the company of one's own thoughts.  Maybe we rely on various forms of entertainment to keep them at bay.  The first summer I painted and stained all of our buildings, I found my mind drifting toward topics of regret and recrimination.  At first, I, too, pulled out a DVD player and watched old Perry Mason episodes, in which, of course, all muddled conflicts are wrapped up neatly in 50 minutes.  Toward the end of that summer, it occurred to me that perhaps I SHOULD contemplate those issues that were bothering me, to resolve them in some way, rather than evade them.  I apologized to three people and, voila!, I learned that my misdoings bothered me more than the other people.  This allowed me to go a bit easier on myself and to avoid some mistakes of he past.  Silence helped me do this. 

Solitude puts the onus of entertainment on you.  Obviously, this can involve passive forms, like listening to music or playing games or watching TV.  My general impression is that the rural people I know tend to have more creative, productive, and outdoor hobbies than many of my urban acquaintances.  Military spouses are also exemplars of  embracing “making do” when alone for extended periods.  

Silent winter walk
Now that so many people are isolated, and social interactions are so limited, I can understand why extroverts, in particular, may find the constraints so emotionally challenging.  I have become more introverted, myself, since living in the boonies.  Some of the experiences and insights I have gained from silence and solitude are almost spiritual, especially those gained from a walk in the woods, or a kayak around the lake watching ducks teaching their fledglings how to fly and dive. These are not pleasures I sought much in the city, but ones I savor now.  I hope that readers find some peace and contentment, or creativity and productivity, from intentional choices they can make in their isolation, too.   

Friday, November 6, 2020

Freeze Up at an Alaska Cabin

Freeze up is a brief and dramatic transition.

The first snow always makes me feel like we have suddenly switched from a color movie with sound to a silent black and white one.  The only colors remaining in view are the yellow needles of the tamarack (larch) trees and a few glistening red cranberries dangling from denuded branches.  The only sounds are of wind,  snow sloughing off our steep roofs and lake water freezing. 

First snow in the front yard

The first sunny day after any snowfall is gorgeous, with the diamond-like glints of snow crystals, reflected light, and the complicated geometry of sun and shadow formed by trees and the lumpy terrain of snow coated ground cover.

October 25 featured a full day and night of wet, soggy snow, in mid-30s F temperatures, coating the yard and topping the stumps with 6 inches.  Early the next morning, Bryan heard branches cracking and snapping under the weight.  


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

October at a Remote Alaska Homestead

 October is the start of freeze up.  This year, during the first half of October, snow started to cling to the apex of Mt. Susitna (about 4400 feet).  On the 16th, it appeared at the top of Little Su, too (about 3300 feet).  Most of the deciduous trees and bushes dropped their leaves (except for the yellow needles of tamaracks and the fat green maple-like leaves of the large domesticated currant bushes).  We raked up tarps full of birch leaves to mulch the raised bed gardens as well as two trellises of domesticated raspberry bushes.  We also re-wrapped the lowest 1-2 feet of young berry plants to protect them from under-snow girdling by hungry voles and hares.   Having lost several prior apple and cherry trees to such predation, I hope we can finally outsmart those little rodents.  

Reflections of birch along lake shore

 During the first half of the unusually warm month, we were still able to gather fresh salads of sorrel, mustard, and nasturtium greens every day.  Tomatoes continued to grow in the greenhouse, even though I stopped watering in September.  A wonderful treat was our first small harvest of horseradish.  We divided the plants, cut the skinny horizontal roots for the kitchen and replanted the stronger, thicker tap roots for next year's growth. The ones I harvested for our use were so thin that I just used my thumb nail to scrape off the hairs and thin skin, then pulverized the roots with mayonnaise and yogurt for a tangy sauce.  It was so delicious that it lasted a mere 2 weeks!  I look forward to much more sauce in years to come, since the plant flourishes in our Alaska climate, and since our jalapenos seem to taste milder than those we grew in Texas.