Monday, January 9, 2012

What Do You DOOOO All Day?

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Over the past four years of transitioning from a high rise Southern lifestyle to a bush Alaskan one, we have received quite a number of quizzical looks and questions.  Virtually all of my relatives and close friends have said, at one point or another, "Laura - I never thought you would do this" and I certainly don't disagree.

Some of the questions can be divided by gender.  For example, from male friends, Bryan heard two opposite ones:  1) "How on earth did you get your wife to go up there with you?" and 2) "Why on earth would you want your wife up there with you?"  I'm not sure whether the sentiments say more about the questioner or about their impression of me, but I can say that I have never had any women ask me those questions about my husband!
The questions from women fall into two camps, too.  One group is interested in how we do things.  I think of these as the Laura Ingalls Wilder questions.  The other group is made up of individuals, who, for the most part, have no interest in words like "kayak" or "bonfire."  I think of these as fish-out-of-water questioners, like Eva Gabor in "Green Acres" because that is how I first felt! They ask, with a disbelieving shake of the head, "What on earth do you do all day?" Each one finds some particular aspect of our life appalling. 

For some, the outhouse is the absolute non-starter.  For others, it is the idea of living and working in such a small cabin with one's husband for company, day in and day out.  These women will tilt their heads and say, "I love my husband but I could never do that."  Other ladies can't imagine extended periods without the sponteneity and public aspects of a city. They find our life socially narrow and confining.  Others are concerned about the remoteness.  "What about a doctor?"  Well, I must admit that I thought a lot about that one, especially as I watched my husband's naive confidence just before he tipped over a snow machine or got a chain saw stuck in a tree, or hiked across a lake booming as the ice cracked around him.  (See blog article on "Visitors among other Invasive Species" for stories about both groups of questioners who did venture out to see us).

I wonder what Meyers-Briggs and other personality indicators would reveal about people who do and don't like this sort of lifestyle.

I think the short answer to the question, "what do you doooo all day" is divided into three categories.  1) What do we not do that we did in a city  2) What do we do that is the same in both places, and 3) what do we do that is distinctive to a remote Alaskan locale.

1) What we don't do is easy to list.  Because there are no roads where we are,we don't engage in any of the following daily activities of a city or even of a country town: we don't commute to work, don't get stuck in traffic jams, don't shop or run errands.  Other than e-mail, we don't get mail delivery.  We don't watch TV.  I don't miss any of that.  Weeks or months will go by without rummaging around for keys or wallets.  When we are in cities, I find I have become much more sensitive than I used to be to the sounds, smells, and sights of an urban environment, and I find them all less appealing as time goes by. Perhaps because the setting of Anchorage is so stunning, between the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet, its unattractive, cheap looking architecture seems even more of a blight on the landscape than in other places with similar big box stores and strip centers.  But even in other locations, like New York, with its more interesting architecture, or Hawaii, with its lovely setting, I feel assaulted by the crowds of people milling by.  I may be wrong, but so many of them don't seem to be enjoying where they are or often even whom they are with, but are talking into cell phones to someone else, somewhere else about something else.  That seems a shame to me. 

What I miss most about a city is the variety of "easy inputs" not dependent on me, like a restaurant meal or a TV show, or a leisurely stroll without a gun or bear spray. When we fly to Anchorage or Outside the state, my favorite "town treats" are to wander through museums or sit down to a five course, wine paired meal of cleverly integrated ingredients. I download a bunch of Kindle books I have previously selected and schedule a manicure, pedicure, and haircut.  And if I am lucky, I enjoy a deep, hot bubble bath with a glass of wine and classical music playing.  It is a pleasure to see friends and relatives. 

2)  The aspect of our life that is the same is that my husband has designed his businesses so that he can conduct them anywhere with a laptop and a cell phone and colleagues around the country.  Since he built a power tower with solar, wind, and satellite power at the log cabin, he can interact with his clients and business contacts as congenially from a log cabin in Alaska as from the Yale Club in New York.  Much of my work involves writing and research, which I can do from anywhere, too.  Thanks to the Internet and cell phone, we communicate with our family and friends just as we always did, so that a note from a friend often begins, "where are you now?" 

3) What we do that is distinctive to a remote Alaskan location involves power, transportation, and entertainments.  As described in other blog entries, we have an outhouse and lake water for the shower and kitchen (when the lake is not frozen).  We heat our home with a woodstove, and in the winter, we cook on it and melt snow on it (for water), too.  We have one set of full time neighbors down the lake, but other than that, during the summers, when no one without a private plane can get to us, we can go weeks or months without seeing anyone else unless we have invited them.  As a result, I find that I may go days or weeks without looking in a mirror or wearing makeup or even attractive clothes until a float plane lands and starts taxiing toward our little dock at which time I dive into one drawer "for company" and retrieve a lipstick, a bra, and a shirt that doesn't have flour or paint on it.  (One pair of "visitor" pants retained the packing creases all summer!) Some women might hate this, but I find it rather liberating.  If looking like this is OK by my husband, it is OK with me.  

Below is a description of a typical day.
Between the two of us, my husband and I average a normal night's sleep.  He awakens several hours before I do and, because of the four hour time difference between Alaska and NY, conducts most of his business emails during the morning, sitting at the kitchen table next to the wood stove.  If it is neither sunny nor windy (meaning that the solar and wind power will be inadequate), he'll walk up the hill to start the generator in the power shed.  Some mornings he will cast a few times off the dock for the huge pike that love the shady side of the lake, especially if we "chummed" the water the day or so before.  (See blog on "Fishing.")

When my husband thinks that his Rip Van Winkle wife has slept long enough (which usually means that he is ravenous), he turns on the propane stove under the percolator. In our little two room cabin, the sound and smell rise up the opening of the spiral staircase to the bedroom above. Bleary eyed, I pull on a jacket and take the hot coffee out on the front porch before having to talk to another person.  I wake up by watching the swans, loons, Sandhill cranes, or scoters on the lake, listening for the rushing water in the creek, noting how quickly the flowers have grown overnight.  Then, feeling guilty that my husband has let me sleep so long, I always cook a huge meal of breakfast burritos or pancakes and bacon or banana nut muffins and yogurt and fruit.  (Since I am not a quick to rise morning person, I have labeled bags in which I have premixed dry ingredients.  We don't have a refrigerator or large pantry in the cabin, so I gather the perishable ingredients the night before from the cold-hole or food shed.)

After business and food priorities are addressed, quick changing weather over the course of the year determines the the rest of the day's endeavors. It is true that living like this requires more time to address basics than in the city, but I think Mary Poppins had it right in that charming movie.  Make a game or a goal out of each project and it is fun.  For us, we are learning so much that mundane activities are still entertaining.  On sunny days, Bryan builds support structures, monitors the lake pumps and power supplies.   He likes to chop wood, partly for the upper body exercise and partly as a time for meditation. I paint and stain the various buildings, work and learn in the vegetable and flower gardens (I'm taking an on-line distance learning master gardener class), trim old wood off blueberry bushes in May, forage for raspberries, rose hips, dandelion leaves, fiddlehead ferns, spruce tips, chickweed or yarrow for one meal or medicine or another and then test them out on my husband.   Watching the fantastically fast rate of growth in 20 hours of daylight, I now understand the phrase, "watching the grass grow."  For trash and garbage, we burn, bury, or mulch.  If it is hot, I like to pull on waders and bank eroding parts of the shore with rocks dug up from one project or another (like the cold hole) or retrieved from within a rocky spot on the lake. If it is buggy, I build a smoky fire in the firepit, which, because of the prevailing wind, blows toward the cabin and garden areas in which I tend to do projects.  We smoke meats and fish, make wine and beer, piddle around.  For a decadent pleasure in the middle of the afternoon, I kayak out into the middle of the lake with a book and a snack, and bob along in the prevailing breeze with great contentment. 
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My son chopping wood by the Outhouse
Since summer mornings are often so foggy that you can't see the mountains, the far side of the lake or sometimes, even THIS side of the lake,we tend to do interior projects then.  I think I have become a better and more creative cook by being out in the boonies.  Certain meals or treats become focal points. All food is made from scratch, of course, including bread, in a tiny kitchen, although I'll often knead the bread out on the front porch, listening to the loons and spruce hens and spreading flour hither and yon.  Maybe because of the active outdoor lifestyle, I bake a lot more sweets than in the city: there are always batches of cookies and cakes for Bryan to eat throughout the day.    (See blog on cooking in a tiny kitchen). 

The washing machine in our wash house is the same as a low water city version, but we have no dryer (all heating appliances use enormous amounts of power).  So we line dry everything between the wash house and a large birch tree.  With the prevailing wind, that works well... until it rains.  It is true that laundry smells great when it is air dried like this, but not so great when it has rained for three days in a row!  So except for bed and bath linens, we have shed cottons and woolens in favor of faster drying fabrics.

I've gotten into the "zen" of repetitive motion tasks, like painting and staining our buildings, washing windows, gardening.  At first I listened to books on tape, but now, particularly on the outdoor projects, I have stopped that.  I rather marvel at the silence, punctuated by the breezes, the water and particularly, the animals. 

I have "water neighbors" (the aforementioned fish and fowl) and "yard neighbors:" spruce hens and weasels and squirrels.  This summer, we had two families of spruce hens, each with its own set of personalities.  The mothers would coo their little broods to safe places to eat grass seeds or fluff their feathers in a sunny dusty spot. One mother seemed young and skitterish, and made the alarm call more often, but the other was calmer, and perhaps for this reason, both her young and she seemed fatter.  If I needed to, I could walk amongst this family to get to something or other in the yard.  They are so tame in this regard, they are sometimes referred to as "fool hens."  A family of weasels starts out the spring in tunnels under the spruce trees but then moves into the woodpile.  The adults are so brave!  They will stick their heads out and chitter at us when we walk by, and keep Bryan company when he chops wood.  When, in the fall, we moved a hefty portion of the wood pile to the back porch, one of the weasels was displeased.  He (or she) moved into that pile and started pushing out pieces of wood, as though to dismantle the pile and move it back where it belonged.  We are delighted to have them, not only because they are entertaining but also because they are fantastic hunters, and keep down the vole population (little furry mice) that breed five times a year, in warm, cozy places... like human cabins.  We have found three voles in our cabin (one startled me from the sink when I went to wash my face in the morning!).  I worry each year that one will get in and repopulate the place.  So far, though, between the weasels and good construction, my fears are unfounded.  For good measure, I have planted mint and yarrow around the outhouse and cabin, too, since I hear that such scented plants deter little voles, and I love the nodding white heads and soft leaves of the latter and the sweet oil of the former.

While other animals in Alaska tend to be larger than in the lower 48 (particularly moose, bear, and porcupines), our squirrels are tiny.  They remind me of chipmunks. They wouldn't bother me except that they try to get into the cabin too, although they wait until we are away.  Our first winter we negligently left the screen door on the second floor deck.  When we returned, the screen was totally ripped up and the deck floor indicated that squirrels had spend quite a lot of time in that endeavor.  Aside from that, I like watching these busy fellows.  After a good rain, they wander amongst the Alice in Wonderland - like fungi that pop up in brilliant colors like orange  or red with white spots.  They'll clip a cap many times wider than they are and carry it back to their favorite spruce tree, which they will endeavor to climb.  Higher and higher they go with this cumbersome load.  I find myself holding my breath, as though watching a circus performer, waiting to see if they lose their grasp and careen through the air toward the ground.  In late August- early September, I'll wake up in the morning to a seasonal sound like a "crunch-fall/crunch-fall."  It is the squirrels shaking loose the spruce cones from branches, after which they rush down the tree and secrete the cones in middens under the tree roots.  They make me feel like such a slacker.  

In the afternoons, Bryan and I often do something outdoors together:  target shooting, hacking paths through the woods, tracking animals, learning about the plants in the eco-system, kayaking, fishing.  Just before cocktail hour, Bryan is often sitting on the front porch sharpening saw teeth or cleaning guns while I make some appetizers from supplies well suited to long storage or from our garden.  Favorites include dates stuffed with nuts wrapped in bacon and broiled, or sundried tomato and olive tapenade with homemade breadsticks, or slow cooked kale leaves, brushed with olive oil and salt (like green potato chips).  The rule is that cocktail conversation has to be interesting - something we read or thought about that day on which we want the other's thoughts.  


During the winter, the morning routine is the same but the afternoons are different. People think of Alaska winters as dark and that is certainly true in December/January, but by late February we enjoy 10-11 hours of daylight (growing about 5 minutes per day to 20 hours mid-summer).  The outdoor projects often involve chopping down trees we have marked in the summer, since, without their leaves, the birch trees are much easier to deal with, especially if we noticed a bee colony within a rotted core.  Every winter afternoon (if the temperature is above -10 and not fiercely windy) we take a long hike or cross-country ski through the woods.  This is a particular pleasure because we can't go so far in the summers (too many bogs and creeks) and we can't see as far through the dense stands of alder and birch.  We hike in the always-warm bunny boots if we follow packed snowmachine tracks, but in snowshoes if we don't (which is rigorous exercise).  At first the bunny boots seem so heavy (they are about 5 lbs a piece) that we can only walk about an hour, but we  build up strength and endurance.
Lynx tracks,  I think
I am learning to differentiate the winter tracks of animals, and was particularly pleased to find lynx tracks. These beautiful and elusive creatures have such wide feet that they can walk above the snow, despite their size.  Therefore, their tracks are distinctive.  They look like four softballs that gently cracked the crust of the snow, with a shallow footprint in each.  The most common animal we encounter is moose.  Like us, they prefer the packed surface of snowmachine trails, particularly near where water runs free later in the winter than other places.  Otherwise it is high calorie work to plow through the deep snow.  I don't understand how such large creatures can survive the winter on what little browse is available, but I can certainly understand why they are so ornery that time of year!  (In the winter of 2011 -12, the snow has been so deep that many moose are probably starving and as a result, more than usual are walking along/across roads and groomed trails.  The number of fatal or aggressive moose-human encounters has been high.  420 moose killed by cars, I believe, just in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.  Snow machiners carry pepper spray or guns. Volunteers are leaving bales of fermented grasses in off road locations in an effort to feed moose away from human population centers and roads).

Unless the weather offers freeze - thaw cycles that compact the snow, the surface is so powdery and light that it is exhausting to traverse in boots - you would sink to your thighs with every step.  This is particularly true where the snow has bowed over whole alder thickets into hollow "igloos" (favored by snowshoe hares).  One day, even with snow shoes, Bryan fell through such a "structure" all the way up to his armpits.  Because we walk with ski poles, I was able to stay a safe distance away and reach toward him with something firm by which to pull him out. I think we should probably hike with a rope, too, since we hike over frozen lakes.  We hike with a daypack containing water, a snack, extra socks, and fire starter.  (Little weight for a lot of peace of mind)

I am amassing a growing collection of Alaskana books and resources, both fiction and non-fiction.  My new hobby is to learn about this fascinating, enormous state - its human and geological history, its flora and fauna, and slowly, too, I am learning about resources within myself that had remained dormant until this opportunity.  As long as we have something new to learn or try, we are never bored.

The next time we decide to fly to Anchorage or beyond, we put bear shutters on all the windows (plywood sheets), bear bars across the doors, and bear mats in front of them (plywood sheets with nails sticking up).  Then, we sit on the deck and wait for the floatplane or ski plane to retrieve us and renew our acquaintance with cars, noise, people, and money. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I have a new appreciation for your Alaska trips, Laura. I'm eager to read more.