Friday, March 1, 2013

Winter Afternoons Around an Off-grid Alaska Cabin

Although the temperature outside this March is below + 10F degrees in the morning, and above that  in the afternoon, the sun is so extravagantly reflected from the snow into the cabin that by late morning through afternoon (on sunny days) the interior is comfortable without a fire.  So every second or third day, after breakfast/dishes/spit baths, we let the fire die out (if we have enough melted snow for water).  Once the stove is cool, we clear out the ashes and use the embers to burn trash in a snow pit in the back yard.  About once in the spring, fall, and winter, we sweep out the chimney too.   What a dirty job that is!  But we don’t want any uncontrollable creosote based chimney fire in a log cabin in the middle of the woods.  

We tend to have hearty breakfasts and lunches (followed by light dinners). For example, today we had ham and spinach omelets for breakfast.  For lunch, we had salmon salad and crispy cabbage wrapped in a tortilla, browned on the grill, served with stewed apples, followed by  peanut butter cookes topped with Reeces bites and tea.    
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Chicken coop & snow machine commute

After a morning working on business emails and phone calls, Bryan is eager for outdoor energetic projects.  Sometimes he said that he gets into the "zen" of the work, particularly something repetitive like shoveling. Other times he "processes" some business goofball he talked with earlier in the day.  Yesterday, he chopped down a huge birch bough that had crashed into and was hung up in an adjacent tree ( a "widow maker").  Wearing a helmet and Kevlar chaps protected him from most chainsaw depredations, but the snow was so powdery that maneuvering in snow shoes on unstable snow while hefting his Husqvarna 455 seemed less and less prudent so he gave that up (without my having to haul out my widow's weeds). 

Last week he built a chicken coop which we hope to populate next summer with the fluffiest, cold hardy chickens you could ever hope to see.  But I wonder, why am I the only one concerned that the building will fall at a damaging tilt when the 8 feet of ground snow melts in April? 

Building this was a multi-step process.  First, Bryan and I huffed and puffed as we stomped around the chosen meadow in snow shoes to harden a snow crust for a construction site.  That lowered the surface about four - six inches.  The next day, Bryan drove his snow machine over that area, to further toughen the surface.  Despite the weight, that endeavor lowered it fewer inches, maybe three more.  But with two good freezing nights, we felt confident about the building site for something as light as what we intended.  The third day he left at 6 in the morning with his snow machine and sled to commute cross country and down river to a boat launch area where Home Depot agreed to deliver one set of construction supplies at 9 am and the carpenter agreed to meet him with the prebuilt/and disassembled chicken coop to rebuild on site. Fortunately, everyone arrived on time; otherwise, it would have been a long, cold wait in the parking lot by the river.  Both vendors had well wrapped pallets of materials that they transferred easily by forklift and tilt trailer respectively onto the snow trailers. 

 The intrepid carpenter commuted to work by hauling his tools and  supplies on his own snow machine trailer.  The two of them arrived at the cabin about noon, just as I pulled out some fresh buns for a hot lunch to fortify them before a sunny afternoon of work.

I sent photos to my in-laws who independently pronounced the coop as pretty as a guest cabin.  So maybe we can have our shorter guests stay there if feathered friends don't work out (it is insulated)! 

We need to roof the chicken run as protection from eagles and ravens.  Bryan had to  find the 8 x 4 foot metal roof panels he had stored and tarped on a pallet of other construction supplies last fall... after this winter's record snow fall.   This required treasure hunt like digging over several days.  From the depths of a pit about 6 feet deep and 9 feet long (a cubic foot of snow weighs about 20 lbs!) he found and freed the panels that we then dragged over to the construction site.   Locals have advised us that traditional chicken wire is too flimsy for the predators here, so we will use metal hardware mesh and Bryan will dig a trench a foot or more deep to sink the fence in order to deter weasels and other wily carnivores.  I love watching the eagles and weasels here, but I like to eat chicken eggs, too, so I guess we’ll see whether Bryan’s construction can foul an ancient evolutionary chain.    

For non-project based exercise, we have been learning to cross country ski.  We primarily follow packed snow machine trails.  My husband is more naturally athletic so in contrast, I looked pretty ridiculous at first, like a comedic marionette, careening wildly with both arms akimbo as I overcompensated to balance.   Especially when you are new and your movements are so inefficient, it is terrific, all-body exercise!  We'd return to the cabin and even at +20 degrees, we'd strip off several layers and sit out on the sunny porch to cool down.  Over three weeks of afternoon jaunts, though, I became smoother and longer in my movements and more confident on the down hills.   I am starting to look forward to it, starting to regard it as fun, and maybe starting to sense an affinity for it.  As the afternoons warmed up, the trails started to get icy, and since skinny cross country skis have no metal edges, we slid hither and yon.  I thought that would be the end of my practice but one afternoon and evening it snowed to an accumulation of 8 - 14 inches in various sections of our property.  We decided to try cross country ski in that.  It was eerie!  Our skis sank through the powder and proceded forward without breaking the snow. Looking down was like watching Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man."   I could see my pants to middle calf, and below that nothing, even as I moved forward.  Every once in a while, top snow would suffuse downward, as though pulled, as it was, by the unseen skis.  (Creepy musical passage plays now).  

Yesterday, when we returned from skiing, we saw three military helicopters appear at barely treetop level, flying very slowly in some training maneuver, presumably (Elmendorf Air Force Base is in Anchorage).   I don't imagine that such is the case in populated areas, but a retired pilot friend told us that up here, trainers will sometimes devise “scavenger hunts” for new pilots learning heat seeking equipment by looking for occupied winter cabins in remote areas.  I guess they earned points that day by finding us!

Later during happy hour, we saw six or more dog mushers race by on a 120 mile amateur race.  What a contrast in human locomotion from the helicopters to the dog sleds!  The animals are consistently smaller than I expected, and all muscle, heart, and enthusiasm.  When we skied the next day, we came across a few of the little booties the dogs wear (who knew!) to keep ice from forming between their toes (I gather).  

Energized by our outing (and the thawed food choices), for cocktails that day I made up a new appetizer.  Since I wasn't sure how it would turn out, I served it with a favorite of Bryan’s (since that was all I was planning for dinner).  The favorite is almond stuffed dates wrapped in bacon and roasted.  Hot, sweet, salty, and greasy.  What’s not to like?  The new one was intended to be a major contrast on all counts. I sliced and cooked potatoes on which I layered garlicky spinach topped with salmon, served with a dollop of yogurt sprinkled with lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Rather pretty.   The rule during cocktail hour is that each of us is supposed to raise a topic of interest to the other person, but sometimes, we lapse into silence.  We take in the serene silent beauty of the mountains and snow.  We sniff the birch smoke, sip our wine, and smile.  I'm not sure what my husband thinks at the moment, but I know I felt well satisfied in such a pretty place, with a not yet topsy turvy chicken coop, a kevlar protected, chain saw toting husband, and I didn't fall or falter as I skied.  It was a good day.           

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