Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Winter Sights, Scents, and Sounds in Rural Alaska

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

My strongest visual impression of a rural Alaskan winter is the narrow color palate.  It is a black and white world. Deciduous birch and willow, and black and white spruce trees stand still and strong in a landscape of white snow and mountains against a thin blue sky.  Even in snowy cities and suburbs, the color range is expanded exponentially by brick and painted houses, cars in parking lots, colorful billboards and shop signage, and the colored lights of stoplights, seasonal decorations, and flashing “open” beacons.   Out in the bush, we have none of those things.  The only color, really, is our laundry.

The impact of this view is a greater awareness of shapes - the triangle of a bleached out sky outlined by bent branches, shadows cast by an icicle or a corner of the cabin, or shallow or deep animal tracks puncturing the snow.  The landscape is so still, that movement startles, as when the wind blows snow.   We can track animals more easily than in the refulgent summer: snow shoe hares tracks dive under the snow, martins tracks skitter among and up trees, river otters slide along the banks of water courses not yet frozen.  One day we came across a mass of dark blood at the base of a tree.  As detectives, we looked for predatory footprints and found none, concluding that an owl or other raptor had swooped down and impaled a hare with its sharp claws and beak before the furry fellow could dive into its warren below the tree.  The long, straight lines of diagonal trapping poles and horizontal supports of hunting stations catch our eyes as foreign objects we do not see the rest of the year, when they remain hidden in the woods.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Weather, Light, and Temperature at Latitude 61

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

One joke I've heard about Alaska weather is the defensive line, "We do, too, have four seasons:  June, July, August, and winter!"  Read below to see if you think that is true or close to it.

Here in South Central Alaska, it is not as warm and rainy as South East Alaska (Juneau) and it lacks the extreme temperature fluctuations of the Interior (Fairbanks). Naturally, any place with as many mountains and bodies of water as Alaska has a huge variety of micro-climates. Anchorage, for example, is warmed by the Cook Inlet and gets only about 5 or 6 feet of snow per winter, and is protected from deep temperature drops.  Where we are, inland, summer temperatures range from 50 - 70 degrees and winter temperatures can sink to -40 (but the coldest I've ever felt was -30). It starts to snow in October and my impression, although we haven't yet spent a whole winter there, is that normal winter temperatures tend to range between -20 and +20. March is my favorite winter month, when it is sunny and the snow sparkles as it crystalizes when the afternoon temperatures rise above 32. Over the four winters we have partially spent there, snow depth has varied from 5 (winter of 2010-11) to 14 feet (winter of 2011-12), depending less on accumulation than on whether the snow warmed up enough times (or if it rained) to compact significantly. 

Bears: Hunting, Cooking, and Coexisting

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

Although there is no black bear hunting season in Alaska (they are considered a pest species), my husband and his friends tend to hunt them around Memorial Day.  The idea is that the bears have shed 1/3 of their body weight in hibernation, so they are lean and hungry.   People who ask, "Aren't they greasy and gamey?" may be thinking of fall bear, since during the summer, bears prefer to eat fish, which imparts a flavor, and are consuming 20,000 calories a day to fatten themselves up for warmth and calories during hibernation.

I enjoy target shooting, but have never hunted myself, just baited a bear stand.  So the following description is a wife's version of a husband's hunting experience.

The neighbors who own a seasonal hunting/fishing cabin fly in a group of Anchoragians for a long weekend of hunting.  During the week before the hunting weekend, Bryan and the hosts bait several hunting stations.  The rule is that these locations have to be at least one mile from any habitation (which isn't hard to do in Alaska) and, since bears tend to be solitary and roam over large areas, the stations are about a mile from each other, too.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


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

Most people who visit Alaska, whether by cruise or car or plane, will save some time for fishing and many will have their catches flash frozen and shipped back home for a future barbeque with a tale and a tail or two.

Fishing looms large in Alaskan history, whether commercial, subsistence, or pleasure, and it is a big issue today, too.  An entire section in the Anchorage Daily News (and other papers) is devoted to it.  Seattle business interests are often derided in the news for rapacious use of the state's natural resources.  Every sporting goods store posts pictures and comments about recent catches by shoppers. Anchorage businessmen pull on waders and take a lunch break at Ship's Creek downtown when the salmon run.  Even I, of all people,  subscribe to the fish and game automatic emails about updated fishing regulations for my part of Alaska, and have written both those administrators and the Alaska Daily News fishing editor with comments and questions (and they promptly wrote back.) 
A rockfish caught in Prince William Sound

Every Alaskan has lots of outdoor, seasonal "grown up toys" and the summer ones relate to fishing.   I've seen garages larger than houses.  In 2010 or 11, more than 100,000 (adult) fishing licenses were issued to Alaskans (out of a total population, kids included, of 700,000). Friends spend time and a lot of money on boats, shrimp pots, rods and reels and lures for every fish in the sea.  The real afficianados build separate kitchens for canning, smoking, wrapping, freezing, storing, packaging, and labeling the fish they catch.  Families preserve locations of fish wheels and fish camps for generations.  Many city-dwellers engage in what is called "combat fishing" on road accessible rivers on the first day of fishing season.  Every household has its own special recipes for the most delicious piscatory concoctions I have ever eaten.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Float and Ski Planes - No Roads, No Cars

A Cessna 185
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura) 

Because Alaska is so vast, and because any arbitrary straight line intersects more mountain chains and bodies of water than people, it is sensible that Alaskans rely so much more heavily on air transportation than roads. A look at a map reveals very few highways, with numbers like Hwy 1 and Hwy 3!   Since the capital, Juneau, is squeezed in between mountains and the sea, it is accessible ONLY by air or water (and that is true for many communities).  Its grand total of 42 miles of road lead nowhere outside the municipality.  To drive elsewhere, Juneauans load their vehicles onto the Alaska Marine Highway ferries in order to depart at Haynes or Skagway for highway connections to the rest of the continent.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Alaska has the highest per capita ownership of private planes in the country, most of them small, old, beaten up, and beloved.  

With about 280,000 residents, the largest city in the state, Anchorage, contains about half of the state’s population. Logically, the city also hosts several airports for private planes.  The ones that visitors are likely to encounter for flight tours are Merrill Field, primarily for wheeled planes, and Lake Hood, the largest float/ski plane airport in the world, adjacent to Ted Stevens International Airport (ANC).  We fly in and out of Lake Hood on float planes and ski planes to get to our bush cabin, because we have no roads or grass strips for a runway. 

What is it like to commute by float plane?  What would your experience be?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Building a Log Cabin 40 miles from the Nearest Road

(For specific details, on plumbing, solar and wind power, furnishings, and storage, see other articles on this site)

Building a home in a remote location without road access is a long, slow process with very careful planning.  You can't run to Home Depot when you lack a bolt or tool.  Fortunately, our only full time neighbors had constructed a few kit cabins and were willing to tackle a "real cabin" from spruce trees they could harvest on our property, as well as a small 8x10 dock and two sheds.  They did a great job, but the simple box structures took 2.5 years to finish!  

The first was an 8x12 plywood shed on the high point of the property. Its most important function was to hold the battery bank for the solar panels and wind turbine, that were installed the first winter by my husband and two nimble, brave people who climbed the 120 foot power tower they assembled in -10 degree weather.  This little shed also provided much needed storage for the ever increasing number of hand and gas powered tools we needed to accumulate for future projects.   During most winters, the snow on the roof eaves touched  the “ground” level and we have to dig down another five feet to open the door. 

Another initial outbuilding closer to the cabin is the outhouse/storage shed.  Our strong teen neighbor dug a 5x5x6 ft outhouse hole (which was awfully large just for the two of us, but he was a human steam shovel), over which was quickly built an uninsulated, unheated 8x12 building that serves as an outhouse in the front third (4x8) and a storage shed in the back (8x8) for items we needed close to the small cabin.  It contained dry goods, seasonal clothes and supplies, a propane refrigerator (that unreliable purchase and its low tech replacement "cold hole" form another story) and chest freezers, powered by solar/wind.  In a fit of pique to exert some control over something, somehow, I firmly announced the rather ridiculous demand of two stained glass windows for the outhouse, and I hired a friend to design them with Alaskan flowers.  


Embarking on this construction was a complicated logistical puzzle, since there is no road here.  By that I don't imply even a gravel path.  We fly 20 minutes over three rivers or snowmachine 3.5 hours to get to the nearest road.  So every tool that our neighbors did not have and every part we needed to buy, had to be scheduled for delivery by plane (small and light parts) or by snowmachine during an 8 week hauling season when the rivers were frozen hard enough to serve as an ice highway.

Glass windows, plywood, polystyrene insulation, trusses, 2x4s, log screws, roofing metal - all was triaged and delivered over two winters in the order the builders thought they would get to that stage of construction.  And during the summers, we hacked at alders, devil's club and downed spruce and birch to clear small spaces for these structures, disrupting millions of mosquitoes and thousands of wasps and bees in the process. One summer, we encountered a nice big, steaming pile of bear scat almost every morning near where we were working, just to let us know that he/she was watching us through the high grass.   It was hot, dirty, buggy work.  I, for one, was not a happy camper, although my husband was thoroughly enchanted by each day's exertions.      

Once my husband finished the power tower and determined that he would be able to work by Internet and phone from that location, construction on the cabin commenced.

We positioned the cabin exactly where the old homesteader had built his shed, on a little elevation about 50 ft from the lake’s edge.  Our 750 square foot home has two stories, with one room up and another down, subdivided into functional areas, but not rooms.  It is 16 x 24 feet, plus covered decks (10 x16) for all those days when the temperature is pleasant enough to be outside except for the multi-day light drizzles we get here.  The front of the cabin faces west, with views of the lake, two close mountains beyond and a more remote, higher mountain range to the north.   The front door is a sturdy 3 foot wide, 4 inch thick door outfitted with a cast iron bear bar that looks really impervious to intruders until you glance left to the 5 foot picture window next to it! (which we cover with bear shutters when we leave).  (Note: for human intruders, most hingers are on the inside of doors.  To deter bears, the hinges are on the outside, so they can't push a door in as easily).