Monday, November 18, 2013

Remote Cabins: Cost of a Water Supply

Perhaps the most effective way to organize the daunting task of developing a remote homestead is to prioritize tasks and expenses based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs: water, food, warmth, shelter, and safety. This article describes how we developed a reliable water supply. Subsequent articles focus on food, warmth, shelter, and safety. Each piece outlines our experiences, good and bad, in developing such resources as a water and food supply, including some price points.  If you are considering alternate remote properties, one consideration might be the sources of fresh water, the depths of wells in the vicinity, and the cost of digging a wells (part of which is per foot down). 

Obviously clean, potable water is the first necessity for survival, but even non-potable water is important for fire suppression, hygiene, and gardening. For somebody like me, used to simply turning a tap for hot water or cold, without thinking about how the liquid GOT there and where it disappeared to afterward, “making” water was more complicated and expensive than I expected. I tried the most frugal solutions first, but inevitably ramped up to the expensive solution my husband had recommended all along. 

(I welcome your questions, and personal experiences developing a water supply).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

High Conflict People and the Toxic Damage They Cause

Do the following statements sound like anyone who makes you cringe, at work, in your neighborhood, in your extended family?  If so, you are by no means alone.  Fortunately, there are resources available to address the damage such people do to those around them.  
  • "This is all your fault. None of it was my fault.”
  • "I disown you (again). You have been a terrible spouse/son/daughter/etc. How dare you contradict me.”
  • "Don't talk to those neighbors; they'll screw you like they screwed me."
  • "You never loaned me that money. It was a gift. Prove it.”
  • "Of course, my way is right.  You can't possibly succeed doing that. How stupid.” (No, I never thought of it ).

A recognized category of extremely difficult personalities, identified as "High Conflict People," is easily recognized by a combination of unattractive traits that include:
  • “My way or the highway” thinking
  • Emotional over-reactions (that can include yelling, throwing things, hitting, or over-the-top messages on emails, letters, answering machines, back stabbing, starting rumors)
  • Blaming others, particularly for their own problems, either defensively (“he's out to get me”) or offensively (“it is your fault now and always”)

If your business or home life has been ripped asunder by unpleasant people with such personality traits, you will be glad to learn that a number of books and articles outline how to deal with them, and in various contexts, such as business negotiations, employees/supervisors, divorce, and parenting. There is even a HighConflict Institute! The founder of that organization, Bill Eddy, was previously a therapist at a psychiatric hospital, and later a lawyer and mediator. What a great background for the topic! He has written books with such provocative titles as Its All Your Fault!12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything  and High Conflict People in Legal Disputes.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Want to Buy a Remote Property? Think Again or Think Ahead

        (note:  this has been a very popular article.  For more detail on the topics below, scroll           through the articles at, particularly the FAQ article of March,             2015 and others about power, water, heat, storage, etc.  I welcome your comments               and questions - Laura) 

We routinely hear from friends or colleagues who say that “one of these days... I too will move out to the boonies.” Are you sure that is what you want to do? Developing a remote property is challenging and perhaps that is good, because living there is, too and it is not for everyone. In fact, it may appeal to one family member immensely and to another not at all. Below are seven suggestions based on our experience buying and clearing woodsy land for a cabin and various outbuildings in the middle of Alaska, 42 miles from the nearest road.  However, several of the points are also valid even for people who decide to move across the country to a condo in Boca Raton.

In general, the suggestions are to take stock of what you do and don't know about yourself (and your spouse), the land, and the people in the targeted area before you commit to move long distance to an isolated property.

16x24x2 + porches

      a) Do not buy the property before your spouse sees it. He/She will never let you forget it.
      b) If you make the mistake of #1, make sure that the property looks REALLY GOOD when you take your spouse to see it. Do not, as in our case, take your Texan wife up to Alaska in her little Land's End jacket when it is 30 below zero and windy and act all enthused about walking around the property in snow shoes. (When my father-in-law showed his wife his proud, rural purchase, the appealing log cabin was obscured by several rusted cars up on blocks and empty barrels of diesel). I promise you, your spouse will never let you forget that first impression, either.

2.  LEARN ABOUT THE LAND AND WEATHER before you build, garden or buy virtually anything.

    a) If circumstances allow, visit the property in different seasons before committing AND TALK TO LOCALS. Ideally, rent a property in the vicinity first. This information absolutely will save you money, time, and regrets. Before even considering the obvious importance of seasonal variations for future buildings, gardens, landscaping, clothes, and activities  is the relevance of allergies!  If you have never lived in the region you are now contemplating, you need to find out first if you are allergic to anything there or if you will be miserable at certain times of year!  In Alaska, for example, the trees bud out so quickly (in Fairbanks, literally overnight) that the pollen count is astronomical during that period, but it is brief.  My sister's dogs are on allergy medications in Phoenix, AZ (!!!) 

    Relative to more mundane building placement possibilities, are assessments of where does the sun rise and set at various times of year?   From which directions are the prevailing winds (and rain and snow)? (See websites such as   Such data will impact your desired activities,  your placement and sizes of porches and windows, the angle of your roofs, positions of gardens, trees to keep, and many other decisions. Our location is protected by the ridge behind us, but the hunting cabin at the end of this lake had to have the roof tied down with pulleys to the ground because hurricane force winds tunneled up between the ridge and the mountains!  

    Some places that are particularly beautiful have tortuous rainy seasons.  If that was the time of year you most wanted to be there, think again or ask early about adding on huge porches that can function as outdoor rooms.  Add grow lights for plants, etc. Long rainy or dark seasons can be depressing for people.  Research precipitation by month. Plan ahead.    

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to Afford Three Months of Travel Per Year

(note: this includes updates)

I agreed to move to the middle of the woods in Alaska, outhouse and everything, as long as we could travel for several months in the winter. It doesn't have to be ALL winter – mind you, winter is l-o-n-g in Alaska – but I wanted time enough to escape some of the darkest and coldest months from what I fear could become a claustrophobic cabin.

And who would determine the travel itinerary? Naturally, me. After Bryan's history of travel decisions, which had landed me 42 miles from the nearest road at 61 degree latitude, and after several years of him-to-her gift giving such as a 9 mm pistol, a scope, and a propane powered flame thrower; after years of smiling numbly upon receipt of matching Husqvarna 455 chainsaws, I usurped travel arrangements. Bryan complied.

The idea of traveling for several months each winter initially seemed extravagant, but eventually seemed cost effective after several knock-on-the–head realizations that helped us reconfigure both our living expenses and our ways of conducting business.  

Below, I describe our logic, several useful websites, and some price points and hints).  Perhaps this will help armchair travel readers take a leap elsewhere themselves.    

Monday, October 21, 2013

Angel Investments over the Past Decade

An excellent source of information about angel investments in the U.S. can be found at the website for University of New Hampshire's Peter T. Paul Center for Venture Research.
Scholars there have been tracking venture funding since the early 1980s, and the most recent ten years of annual and semi-annual reports are available for free, at the school's website. Below is a summary of highs and lows over the past decade. What questions do these statistics raise for your business funding plans?

In 2012, 21% of entrepreneurial ventures presented to individuals and angel groups (beyond a “friends and family” round) found investors willing and able to invest in their businesses. This percentage, referred to as a “yield,” is nearly as high as the peak 23% attained in 2001 and 2007, and far higher than the historic average of 10 – 15%. Interpretations for this influx of investment dollars vary greatly and sometimes combine such reasons as investor optimism, fleeing the public equity markets, and a bubble in the making.

In addition to the increased percentage of ventures funded, both the number of entrepreneurial ventures AND the number of angel investors have peaked for the past decade, at 67,030 ventures funded by 268,160 angels in 2012, and 66,230 ventures funded by a whopping 318,480 angels in 2011. These numbers far outstrip the paltry 36,000 ventures funded by 200,000 angels during the “boom years,” such as (these numbers in) 2001.

However, these investment dollars have shifted away from seed stage companies to those with more of a track record. In 2012, only 35% of angel dollars funded seed stage companies, and 33% early stage, far lower than 2005's 55% of investment for seed stage companies and 2010's 67% to early stage companies. A corollary to this shift is the nearly steady, year by year decline over the decade in the percentage of angel investment as the first investor, from a high of 70% in 2005 to 52% in 2012. In other words, although more angels invested in more companies in 2011 and 2012 than earlier, they have become more conservative, by targeting more developed companies, and preferring to follow other investors rather than lead the charge.

What about exits?
The worst year for bankruptcies was 2009, when 40% of angel funded deals went belly up. More commonly, the percentage is in the 20-27% range, highlighting the risk that angels take when they invest in young companies – a point that entrepreneurs should bear in mind when asking for other people's money. In other words, just about the same percentage of companies being funded by angels (about 1 in 5) will, once funded, fail. So entrepreneurs should expect attentive due diligence by potential investors, which may well take longer than they wish.

The most frequent positive exit by angels was in the form of mergers and acquisitions. The highest percentage was 70 in 2008. Other years, mergers and acquisitions accounted for 50 to 65% of the exits. For this reason, entrepreneurs are wise to surround themselves with industry knowledgeable management and directors, whose connections may be crucial to ensuring a profitable merger or acquisition.

IPOs don't happen for small companies anymore, and none have been recorded for the past few years.

The industry sectors most popular with angel investors remain remarkably consistent. The most frequent two sectors for the past ten years have been software and healthcare. The following industries shift back and forth for the next few places in the list: industrial, energy, retail, bio/life science, IT, and media. Financial services and telecom have both fallen out of favor in the past five years. This does not mean that entrepreneurial ventures outside these industries don't get funded, but it may suggest that other management teams need to explain their value proposition carefully to an audience that doesn't encounter as many deals in that sector.

Like any set of statistics, these data leave plenty of room for interpretation, but a few points jump out to me.

  1. Entrepreneurs have a lot of competition for angel ears, as well as angel dollars. So be prepared to stand out of the crowd by being thoroughly prepared for investor scrutiny.

  2. The percentage of entrepreneurial ventures successfully securing funding is close to beating the decade's high. This could mean that it is easier to get funding now than before, or it could mean that a bubble is forming and the gravy train will derail shortly. Entrepreneurs should develop contingency plans if the funding climate shifts during a protracted period of due diligence and should never, ever spend money anticipated but not yet in hand.

  3. Seed funding is harder to come by. So entrepreneurs need to be able to self fund for a longer period than in the past or need to develop some revenue stream early, in order to (a) stay afloat and (b) attract investors who want to see a functioning business, not just a business plan. Besides, being able to generate some payments increases the range of potential funding sources, such as revenue based lenders (like factoring firms).

  1. Because the majority of investor exits are through M&As, entrepreneurs need to know their competitors, suppliers, and customer base very well. Any of these could be your partners, buyers, or bosses in the future.

    To be routed to the website of the University of New Hampshire, click here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Spot Liars and Frauds Before You Hire (or Date) Them

For ten years, my favorite job as Compliance Officer of an Investment Bank was spotting liars. This meant figuring out which finance professionals NOT to hire because they embellished their qualifications, which potential clients NOT to accept because they had obfuscated weaknesses in their companies, and which alleged investors NOT to believe because they would never pony up a dime. On the theory of “garbage in, garbage out,” I figured that anyone who lied to me up front about something I easily discovered was likely to lie later on about something important I might not detect. With 7 billion people on the planet, I endeavored to avoid those mendacious people and work with honest ones.

What appalls me is the frequency with which I have encountered grown-ups who lie, easily, smoothly, and frequently to get something they want, based on merits they lack. Obviously, their blarney must work on some of the people some of the time. I'm also dismayed by the number of companies and individuals who don't do background checks before they hire or recommend people, or who part with their money or let someone into their homes or lives without asking a few logical questions first. So shame on both parties!

The following article shares easy, cheap or free research that anyone can do in less than an hour and examples of falsehoods I have uncovered in the areas of education, business experience, lawsuits, and crimes.  Protect yourself with a healthy dose of skepticism, a few minutes on the Internet, and some judicious questions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tiny Kitchen? Sumptuous Brunches in 30 Minutes

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then what is brunch but a celebration of that importance? You don't gobble up brunch – you savor it. The entrees tend to be special treat versions of comfort foods. But many people don't cook such brunches for themselves. Why not?

Even in my tiny home (two rooms totaling 750 sq ft), with few pots and pans and little counter space for preparation and assembly, this grumpy, not-a-morning person routinely churns out the following breakfast egg entrees for family and occasional friends within 30 minutes (after my coffee) such as:

  • Fried eggs on tomato basil bruschetta,
  • Huevos rancheros (eggs over refried beans and cheese, on tortillas topped with salsa)
  • Scrambled eggs over crab, salmon or pike cakes, topped with a lemon aioli
  • A frittata of roasted potatoes with sausage, peppers, onions, cheese and eggs
  • Eggs on creamy spinach sprinkled with bacon and chives
  • Cheesy potato slices topped with smoked salmon and an egg

My go-to secret for quick, interesting breakfasts? Appetizers. You might not think of those two words in the same context, but I serve delicious and innovative morning meals throughout the week by utilizing prior hors d'oevres (and other foods cooked for prior meals). And with breakfasts as hearty as these, I tend to cook only two meals a day, which usually are – guess what – brunch (a late breakfast) and hearty appetizers (another sort of celebratory meal) for an early dinner. (I've never understood how people can sleep on a full stomach after a heavy, late meal)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meditation While Weeding with the Chickens

Many harried people I know seem to answer requests and invitations with a breathless, “I can't; I have too much to do.” But have you ever noticed that the most productive people you know are often both busier and calmer than the rest of us? I think this is because they are often visionary – they can picture a project completed – and, in an organized, deliberate manner, they get things done.

By contrast, the first group may get overwhelmed by the immensity of an endeavor. I often fit in this group. We don't know where to start so we don't, or we start and then give up, leaving behind the detritus of several abandoned hobbies and projects. The other population is more dogged. They aren't deterred by the immensity of an effort. So they start. They slog on through, like untwisting and unknotting a ball of twine that others might toss aside in frustration.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alaska Float Plane Follies

We finally bought a small, ancient float/ski plane to help us get to and from our off-road home. What a difference this has made to my sense of isolation and worry about emergency medical care. We aren't at the “honey, we're out of milk” stage, but we can much more easily and spontaneously fly half hour to a nearby town when we are out of basics or to a lovely lake for a picnic or to one of the fun festivals around Alaska.

Our excellent carpenter leaves our dock

Getting in and out of the plane itself, though, is not so easy. The Piper PA-20 has two doors, but the one on the port side is behind the front seats, for cargo access. The pilot and passenger enter through the door on the starboard side. Since my husband prefers to fly from the port seat (a plane has two pairs of steering wheels, rudder pedals, etc), he enters first. Once he is ready to go, I untie the float ropes from the dock cleats, step onto the float with one leg while pushing us away from the dock with the other. Then, I climb as quickly as I can up into my seat, since he doesn't start the propeller until I am inside and meanwhile, we are drifting with the wind.

At some locations, and virtually all summer at our lake because of wind direction, the access door is on the side AWAY from the dock. To get in, we have to walk across a tight wire stretched between the fronts of the two floats, grabbing onto the cowling and nose cone (but not the propeller) for balance. Once on the other side, we walk along the float, swing under the two angled wing struts and THEN climb up into the plane. I have to do this AFTER I have kicked the plane away from the dock, while it is floating toward wherever, and as my husband is invariably yelling, “Hurry up! The wind is pushing us the wrong direction!”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Recommended Books About Alaska

Whether you are planning to visit Alaska or are an armchair traveler, the following are books that I commend to your attention, in no particular order.  Selections below include poetry, fiction, cartoons, and non-fiction (natural world, true crime, autobiographies and history).  I will add to this blog over time.  


Poetry:                        Robert Service

Sample titles: books:  Songs of a Sourdough (1907) with “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.

Service is such a well known poet in Alaska that schools are named after him, but the fact is that he lived in Canada (Dawson City, Whitehorse, Vancouver), never Alaska.  Even so, Alaskan school children used to (maybe they still do, some places) have to memorize one of his ballads to deliver to the class or on, paper, to the teacher.  I highly recommend one of his slim books of verse to anyone interested in immersing himself or herself in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Gold Rush era.  His poems, with a driving rhythm that cries out to be read aloud (even to yourself) capture the loneliness and risks braved by men and women confronted by conniving men and women, as well as by weather, animals, topography, greed and hubris.  Each poem is a well told story with plot twists and emotional recoil – shifting between humor and pathos. Service was the most commercially successful poet of his age, derided by “high-brow” writers for writing doggerel and verse, rather than poetry.  That was fine by him.  And by me.


Touching fiction:         Eowyn Ivey:   

Sample title:    The Snow Child

Ivey’s first novel is one that has attracted attention and translations faster than you can say “October snowfall.”  I have recommended it to many of my friends because this is one of the few books about Alaska that that describe the arctic winter, not as a danger to be overcome (like Jack London’s tales), but as stunningly beautiful – a privilege to behold.  Her depiction of a yellow birch leaf flowing below the clear, icy surface of a creek is one such image early in the novel, followed by many others.  Her marvelous sense of place grounds a story that is also graced by a compelling plot populated by believable characters (married homesteaders in the 1920s and their nearest neighbors) who transition through experiences, over time.   This book describes some of the challenges and joys I have discovered in my little log cabin in the middle of nowhere in ways that I hope my friends can appreciate through this author’s skill. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Five Questions Any Money Seeking Entrepreneur MUST Be Able to Answer Briefly and Compellingly

Every day, we talk with entrepreneurs who wish to grow or start a business, with the help of other people's money (whether the source is investors, banks, factoring firms, or grants). If you are among them, you HAVE to be able to answer the following five questions, briefly, clearly, and compellingly or you will not get past a first phone call with a legitimate source of funds and each subsequent call to someone else will be a waste of everyone's time. Too often, the entrepreneurs who call us are absolutely stymied by these questions. Don't be like them!

The Questions:

  1. How do you (or how will you) make money?
  2. How much do you wish to raise (or borrow)?
  3. What will you do with the investment (or loan amount)?
  4. How will you pay it back (by date) (or how and when will the investor earn a return on investment)?
  5. What experience do you and your management team have in this industry and with prior investors' money (or loans)?

Why These Questions are Important:

Each question helps your potential lender or investor assess risk and potential reward. If you hem and haw on any of them, you are doomed, because it means that you don't appreciate the risk you are asking that person to take with money he/she has that you lack. A non-answer to any one of these is akin to asking someone to dive into a dark pool without being able to answer the obvious first question, “how deep is it?”

Components of Compelling Answers

  1. The answer to question 1 (How do you make money?) is stronger with any of the following components:
    (a) Multiple revenue streams are better than “one trick ponies” because the variety allows the company to stay afloat even if some products or services fail or take longer to succeed or cost more to develop/deliver than anticipated;
    (b) The revenue projections are not dependent on unlikely scenarios (like huge market share grabs right away or fuel prices lower than they are today or a a shorter sales cycle than is normal for your industry);
    (c) Products and services that are correlated to a variety of economic assumptions are likely to weather the highs and lows of economic cycles better than those that depend only on a high or low. For example, a company might have some offerings attractive in periods of inflation AND recession or when client companies or target populations are growing AND maintaining, aging, and retracting.
    (d) Demonstrate profitability, even if in a small market or by another company.

  1. Questions 2, 3, and 4 are related, even if they are asked separately, so construct your answers with each one in mind. This is because the amount you wish to raise should be directly related to how you plan to use it and that use should enable you to pay back your lender or investor on time and at a profit. For example, if your reason for raising money is “to rent larger office space and pay me a salary,” or “to research the market potential” such answers do not translate into repayment of the loan or investment and therefore do not encourage much confidence. These are faith based answers, like “just trust me.” Why? A compelling answer is one that directly leads to a believable profit. Good answers might sound like this: “We wish to raise $xx in order to increase our manufacturing speed to meet current demand that exceeds our capacity” or “We wish to raise $xx to buy a competitor we believe to be undervalued and that offers a complementary fit with our firm in terms of customer base, geography, and product lines.” Or “this business model has been profitably test marketed (where) and we are now ready to launch it on a larger scale, with $xx for experienced industry sales personnel in the most lucrative markets.”

  2. Your answer to Question 5 indicates your ability to understand and respond to the the risks in the business you propose to run with someone else's money. Managers with a track record of relevant experience are obviously more attractive than those without. Managers who have borrowed money or taken investors' money and returned it, on time, at a profit to the lender or investor are equally appealing. If you have not done the exact thing before to great financial gain (because otherwise you wouldn't need to borrow money, would you?) you can still construct a compelling answer. For example, have a board of advisers experienced in this industry, an excellent credit rating, or prior lines of credit that were paid back on time after being used well. Have a list of pertinent referrals from professionals in your current and prior industries. If you are an expert in the pertinent field, who knows it? Have you published papers, delivered speeches? If not, write some and put them on your website or send out press releases. Neither costs much. Become an expert in your field. Research other public and private companies in this sector, join relevant professional associations, subscribe to pertinent journals.

    There is nothing more embarrassing than talking to an entrepreneur who knows less about his/her industry than we do, especially when we don't consider ourselves expert, but just educated business people. Compelling answers could include variants of: “I have x years of experience in this aspect of the industry, and have assembled a management team and advisory board that excels in the other areas we need to anticipate and respond to the market potential.” Or “I am a serial entrepreneur who has run xxx number of companies in other industries and sold them at a profit (or returned investors' money) in most cases and learned hard and lasting lessons when I didn't. I have succeeded by a set of priorities that has guided me in each of the prior companies and will do so in this one, too. Those priorities are xyz.” Or “I have several patented game changing innovations that will enable our targeted client companies to deliver results faster, cheaper and better than their competitors.”


If you can't answer these questions well, don't pick up the phone to ask for money. Put your time, instead, into learning more about your industry or surrounding yourself with others who know it better than you do. They can help you not only answer these questions, but build a profitable company. Who knows. You may never need to borrow a dime to make a dollar.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Of Mosquitoes and Moose: Part 2: Mosquitoes

Alaska is famous for animals big and small, and perhaps the most noteworthy large and tiny are moose and mosquitoes. June is the time we see a lot of both here at the cabin. We kill swarms of the latter but enjoy watching the former. Here follow some anecdotes about them this year. This article is about mosquitoes; the prior one is about our neighboring moose.

Mosquitoes in Alaska are something of a marvel to me. How can something with no exoskeleton survive winters at 30 below zero? REI offers nothing that competes with the winter resilience of these survivors.

This spring, our lake didn't even thaw until May 30. (We kayaked through ice floes that day, feeling like Ernest Shackleton). Still, the newest generation of mosquitoes emerged, en masse, like something out of the Book of Revelations, only two weeks later, and were the worst I had experienced in the past five summers. They were fast and aggressive, biting me through my gardening gloves and pants and hair, flying freely into and within the cabin, and even penetrating the mosquito netting under which we sleep. My husband slept wearing a head net, a cap, long sleeved T shirt and pants – under the full bed mosquito net. I awoke with welts on my scalp under my hair.
Bed under mosquito netting;
lights powered by solar/wind

We had Florida guests for a weekend during this period and the husband, by his own admission, emerged from the guest cabin looking like the “Elephant Man” - he was so swollen from insect bites (although he admitted that he didn't appreciate why we had a mosquito net over the bed (“in Alaska?”)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Of Moose and Mosquitoes, Part 1: Moose

Alaska is famous for animals big and small, and perhaps the most noteworthy large and tiny are moose and mosquitoes. June is the time we see a lot of both here at the cabin. We kill swarms of the latter but enjoy watching the former. Here follow some anecdotes about them this year. This article is about moose; the following one is about mosquitoes.

Of ungulates, Southeast Alaska has deer (3 feet at shoulder), northern Alaska has caribou and reindeer (which are domesticated caribou) (4 feet at the shoulder) and our area has moose (6 feet at the shoulder). Elk have been introduced, too. Moose are HUGE. They are not only much taller, but also much bulkier than these other animals. Adults weigh between 1200 and 2000 pounds (compared to a light boned Wisconsin deer of 300 pounds). In fact, I understand that they are the largest species on the American continents, unless you count bison, which are shorter but even heavier.

June calf near blue kayak for size comparison 
Moose calves are born in May/early June, and they walk nearly immediately, to be less vulnerable to predators (bear and wolf), which kill one out of three during their first year. We see them once our “yard” greens up. The mother must be ravenous at that point after a long winter, particularly when she is pregnant. Can you imagine being a 1200 pound pregnant herbivore rummaging around through 8 foot snow looking for willow branches to keep up your weight and strength!!!!? 

Right outside the window, munching on fireweed
Our current “Mom” looks enormous – her legs are probably five feet long. Her coloring exactly matches the spruce bark, and it amazes me how something so large can virtually disappear mere yards from my position. The other day, I watched her scarf up fireweed, elderberry, and cranberry bushes as she ambled past our cabin on her way toward young birch trees along the lake. Even though I saw where she had gone and could see the movement of the birch branches being stripped of leaves, I could no longer see the moose herself. This experience reminded me of that movie, "Predator," in which you can't see the alien bad guy himself, just his movement. All ungulates can be quiet, but these huge beasts are far more stealthy than one would expect of such an unwieldy looking animal traversing ground covered with dead leaves and broken branches. One dawn, my husband was startled when he opens curtains to see a moose two feet beyond the glass. “Good morning, neighbor!” Another time we startled a buck that was lying down in the blueberry thicket. It is probably the calves that we hear first, as they trot along behind their mother, trying to keep up with her long strides. In June, I don't see the little ones eating much greenery. Rather, they reach up to nurse whenever Mom stops to eat a shrub or branch or to investigate a sound or smell with her large ears and nose.

Friday, July 12, 2013

How to Make Birch Sap Beer

My husband has made his own beer for several years, and this spring, we decided to make our first batch of birch sap beer, inspired by a couple whose B&B we visited near Talkeetna.  It was very tasty. Below is our experience of collecting, making, and tasting the result. 

(At the bottom of this blog entry, I list several useful resources for readers who may be interested in exploring their own beer making). 

Bryan bought four taps at Alaska Mill and Feed (, which look like slim, metal spouts, each one about ½ inch in diameter and 3 inches long. Our mentors indicated that the sap starts running around April 20, but the winter of 2012-13 lasted f-o-r-e-v-e-r, including three snow storms in May, so it wasn't until about May 15 that Bryan tapped four birch trees. To do so, he used a ½ inch drill bit to cut an upward angled hole through the bark to the sap layer and inserted the tightly fitting tap. Under this spout, we hung a cleaned vinegar bottle, because the mouth is narrow enough to limit entry of debris and also because we could string a bungy cord through the handle and around the tree to hold it in place.

Each afternoon, we tramped through the increasingly soft and slushy snow surrounding the trees to collect that day's accumulation.  We strained the results through paper coffee filters before pouring the sap into wide mouthed jars that we froze. This was a fun endeavor, especially at that “hold-your-breath” time of year waiting for the winter to finally end and spring to burst forth, as it does here. The running of the sap represented the first discernible sign of spring!  Since we enjoyed this process (and the result) and live in a spruce and birch forest, we plan to involve more trees next year (so we are saving additional vinegar bottles and malt jars!) 

I was surprised how variable the output was. One tree was the champion producer, two others dribbled out negligible results, and a fourth was in between. When the big producer slowed just before the trees started to green up, about ten days later, we removed the taps and caulked the holes. Altogether, we collected about 2.5 gallons.  Over the course of the summer, we will check those holes to make sure that the trees are not "weeping" there.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Alaska Bush life : Winter Spit Baths; No Shower

On May 30, I took my first shower in 3 ½ months. (That's how long it had been since a trip to Anchorage, waiting for the ice to thaw enough along the lake shore to insert a lake pump).

Do you know how difficult it is to wash long hair standing up in front of the kitchen sink, pouring small pots of snow melt water warmed on the wood stove over one's hair? My hair never felt clean; just dirty or soapy, so I never looked in a mirror all winter to check out the results. (I probably looked like the Bride of Frankenstein). Furthermore, can you imagine how LOW the motivation is to undertake this l-o-n-g and c-o-l-d process in a dark and cold cabin?  From our effortful experience, I totally understand why old timers bathed only on Saturday nights and I absolutely pity those poor mining camp hookers.

I figure that my husband can have a wife who has clean hair, shaves her legs, and wears high heels, OR he can have an unkempt wife willing to live in the boonies with no running water all winter, but he can't have both at the same time. So neither of us shaved for 3 ½ months. My joke was that the leg hair was so long I could have told wind direction IF I had pulled my pants legs up, but who would do that in an Alaskan winter when I routinely wore two layers of socks INSIDE the cabin. When I finally did shave in that blessed shower, the drain pan looked like some poor poodle had drowned and was circling the drain. Did I care? Oh no! I lingered under that fantastic invention called a shower head, appreciating that other noble device called an on-demand heater, just daring our 55 gallon drum of shower water to dribble to an end before I was finished.

In such a setting, it feels downright decadent to take a shower every single day. Dirty? Shower. Hot? Shower. Bored? Long shower. Because the mosquitoes are at their hungriest and most aggressive in June, we keep a smoky fire burning in the front fire pit, stunning the pesky creatures into welcome lethargy. As a result, we smell like firemen and scratch like a pair of primates. Guess what. Shower. I'll drain the entire lake. It is better than penicillin for fixing what ails me... until the lake freezes again in October.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Raising Meat Rabbits in Alaska

We raise rabbits both for meat and manure for the gardens (and they eat vegetable scraps). Although I embraced the practicality of this, the practice of being so practical has been hard! After all, both my sisters have raised rabbits as pets and we all shared one as kids (named Thumper, of course).

In fact, I wonder if the reason that Americans and the English seem more squeamish about raising/serving rabbits for dinner than the French and Italians is because we all grew up with Beatrix Potter's bunnies and Disney's intrepid Thumper in “Bambi.”

Below is information about my experience with them,as pets and as fodder, labeled by category for easy skimming.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Raising Chickens in Alaska for Food, Yard Work, and Companionship

We raise chickens for breakfast (eggs) and rabbits for, well, dinner.  The latter is harder because rabbits are so darn cute and it is poor protocol to use such adjectives about future stew.  You never see “cute” on a restaurant menu, do you?

I recommend both animals for pets, and although my husband would prefer that I regard the animals merely as food producers, I must confess that I treat the chickens somewhat as pets and I am endeavoring not to do the same with the rabbits.  This article is about raising chickens.  A following article is about raising rabbits.
Our coop and run, with bear wire fence post

Our chickens live in an insulated green and white, 4x6 coop attached to a 4x10 roofed run, located in the lower meadow visible from our cabin.  (Both are padded by straw that we harvest in the summer.)  Together, the structures remind me of a little old fashioned train car and caboose, awaiting an engine to cart them away. To keep the water from freezing and to power a small heat lamp inside during the winter, my husband ran electric line (powered by our solar panels and wind turbines) to the buildings.  We also have a solar powered electric fence around the coop to deter hungry bears (in summer) and wayward moose, although, to our knowledge, that has not been tested yet, even though we have seen bears and moose in the yard.  The coop is elevated about 6 inches, which provides the chickens with a shady nook.

Sometimes they take naps under there and the other day, I swear, I heard one of them snoring.  The space also provides an accessible hiding place from flying predators, like eagles and owls.  ( In Alaska, we don’t have to worry about snakes or rats). Unfortunately, though,they are vulnerable to other animals.  A wily weasel dug under the run last year and killed half our flock.  Subsequently, Bryan dug down about a foot on all sides of the run and inserted a below ground “fence” of roofing metal.  We hope that will foil future attempts.   

Monday, May 6, 2013

Easy, Inexpensive Window Sill Gardening

With a minimal investment of time (1 -2 month), space (4 inches wide), and money ($25), beginning gardeners can enjoy rapid results by planting seeds in an indoor window sill garden.    

On my 4 inch wide window sills of two, four foot (double paned) windows that face south, I fit six plastic six- pack planters each (twelve packs total, 72 plant holes). Starting March 10 (still winter here - it snowed until May 3), I planted the seeds of a variety of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. My expectations were low because the setting wasn’t the greatest – the window doesn’t offer full sun all day (because of spruce and birch trees) and the temperature inside our log cabin varies from a low of 53 at night to a high of 69 during the day, and the temperatures just beyond the window were below freezing every night. 

May 3, 2013 snow fall in front of the shower house
Of the 21 plants I started indoors, below are my notes on the fastest, easiest and most robust ones that grew on my window sill from March 10 through May 5 (today), during one of the coldest Aprils in Alaskan history. Since they did so well for me, I hope the results inspire readers to try seedlings on window sills of their homes, classrooms, or perhaps, offices or hospital rooms.    


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Appreciate Where You Are: Rural Alaska or the Big City

(the following article was recently published at ) 

One night, while preparing a labor-intensive risotto for dinner in our Houston high-rise, my husband ambled into the kitchen and asked, with studied casualness, “Honey, if I could buy a piece of undeveloped land in Alaska, under market value, would that be OK with you?” Who knew that five years later, we would be living full time in a two room log cabin with an outhouse, forty-two miles from the nearest road, having sold our high-rise and given away most of our belongings. 

March view from front porch

Obviously there are a number of “why?” and “how?” and “why?” again, questions raised by that paragraph.  Here, I'd like to focus on three things I appreciate more because of these changes but also things I appreciate about the city I left. But first, the setting:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How to Shed Stuff (Part 2)

(See Part 1 for benefits of de-accessioning)

Part 2:  Action Plan for de-accessioning:

This article is for people who find it difficult to organize or get rid of accumulated items.  It includes helpful hints for how to get started.  

Note:  As you get started, you CAN postpone decisions on any items.  But as you take action, you:
a) will free up space for other things/activities you value more
b) may make money from items other people will pay for
c) may make people happy to whom you give or sell items you don't use or value
d) may shed old prescriptions and foods that are no longer healthy
e) will give you a reality check about actual market value for items you have assumed had value.
f) may save money by discovering you have 18 of this or 10 of that item you forgot about.

(If you want to start with shedding large furniture, scroll to the bottom of this article)

 Pick a limited time frame and space

Make it easy on yourself by designating a short time and focus, like one hour. Do NOT start with emotion-rich objects or rooms. Pick something unemotional like your bathroom cabinets. Throw out old prescriptions and cosmetics you don’t wear.  Mark the expiration dates for current medicines in big, dark writing ( a Sharpie or Magic Marker) so you won’t over-purchase in the future. Consolidate multiple bottles of the same mouthwash or cleaning supplies. Cut up and store those frayed towels for excellent rags.   Suddenly you realize that you need only 5 shelves instead of  8 and that you had a lot more of “X” than you thought, buried in the back.  You will save money and free up space for what you need and want. 

For small items, (which is where many people start, like clothes, CDs, book cases, or desk drawers), have three, sturdy, good size boxes, a marker, tape, a garbage bag or box, and a dust rag or two.

Label each box as follows:  Box 1:  Keep.  Box 2:  Donate (or sell or recycle).   Box 3:  Postpone decision making.   

The garbage bag or garbage box is not only for trash but for anything broken (because if you haven’t fixed it by now, you won’t). 

Review each item. Toss it in a box.  Review next item; toss it in a box. Even "postpone decision" means that you touch and move something out of the drawer or closet. How hard is that? Even if you put everything back, you'll clean the bottom surface and reorganize the contents more usefully.  You may make room for stuff you value more than the dead pens, batteries, bugs, light bulbs mismatched socks, and outdated electrical devices.

This process will reveal multiples of items you bought to replace items you could not find, like umbrellas and sun screen. Does that potpourri have any scent left? If not, toss it.  Soap shards?  Out.  When you are close to the end of your time allocation, start to clean up.  Toss the garbage bag. Move the Donate Box to your car or next to the back door.  Clean the drawer or shelf or floor space with a rag.   Either restock that space or just tuck away the “Keep” and “Postpone” boxes for another time.  Good job!  Now you have more space for what you currently value and can more easily find the things you want to use.  

Make it fun: 
The delightful Mary Poppins movie had a song about “every job has an element of fun.”  If this connection eludes you, create one.  Associate a special treat with the task.  For example, I found that cleaning and organizing crowded walk-in closets was particularly boring.  So that was the only time that I carried my computer into the closet to play old Perry Mason episodes.  By association, if I wanted to watch another, I needed to DO ANOTHER CLOSET!  I found that an hour long show was a good period for me in a stultifying environment, but I would work 2 hours in a pleasant.  Figure out what works for you.  Another friend does her deep cleaning to a favorite radio show once a week.  Maybe you have a friend or relative who routinely calls to monologue.  Plan a task for that next call. Put him or her on speaker phone while you put those old phone books in a recycle box or gather together those dry, hard paint cans; or put all those piles of pennies and nickels and dimes into a jar.   By the time he/she winds up her call with the inevitable, “Next time we’ll have to catch up about you,” you will have accomplished something for yourself (as well as being the designated listener to your self-absorbed friend or relative). 

An alternative to the three box approach above is simply to reorganize (and perhaps label) items.  I do this every time I visit my parents.  For example, my mother had 66 pairs of shoes still in boxes.  I organized them by color, style, and preference.  I reorganize bookshelves so she can find the books she likes most.  I put all her loose recipes into a neat file. 

My husband had clothes (that his mother bought him) that I had never seen him wear. EVER.  Rather than force decision making, I simply segregated those small, dated, and dusty items on one side of the closet, away from the clothes he favored.  By doing so, his favorites were no longer hidden by clothes he did not like.  Within a week, he tossed a sizeable pile in a handy box labeled “donate,” which I then whisked off to the Salvation Army.  His  action freed up space for the clothes he valued.  With the extra room, they were no longer wrinkled!  

Invite a friend:
If you are going to ask a friend to help you do this, order a pizza or plan to take him/her out to lunch. Let's face it.  Organizing other people's stuff is so daunting (or boring) that there are professionals that do this - before or after the funeral, who are paid by the hour.  If you find a friend to help, you will see that your attachments to all that crapola are in your head and not intrinsic to many of the things cluttering up your home.  A friend (or paid professional) won’t be emotionally involved with this old purse or that dusty kitchen appliance. Maybe paying someone is a motivational.  At $xxx per hour, how much time do you want to spend reminiscing about those old sneakers?

Besides, additional make faster work (as long as you can avoid telling a story about each item!).  When I help friends, they are in charge of allocating items to respective “keep, donate, or postpone” boxes.  I hand down the items on a top shelf or open a neglected box and put it at eye level.  There’s nothing like waving an old attaché case in the air to force a decision.  I also make sure that we have pertinent boxes, bubble wrap or whatever at the beginning of the task so that the friend (who has engaged me because of difficulty making decisions in this regard, obviously) doesn’t wander off and get distracted from a task they have successfully avoided for years.    

Have a Swapping Bee Party: 
My sisters and I used to trade Christmas gifts.  Similarly, as an adult, I had a fun, regifting party.   I invited friends to come for a cocktail party and bring smallish items in good condition that they would be happy to give away to other friends attending.  We all laid out small things, like table games, jewelry, scarves, paperback books, coffee cups, unused cosmetics, travel umbrellas, etc.  Anyone was welcome to anything.  This “swapping bee” was much more fun than dropping things off at Goodwill.  It was nice to hear someone say, “my grand-daughter will love this!”  or “this is really nice, Laura; are you sure you won’t wear it again?” 

My general impression (isn't this yours) is that most people’s homes are over-crowded due, to accumulation and lack of selectivity.  By looking at your furniture with an eye to how you use your space, you may find ways to better use what you have and (get rid of the extras). 

When professionals "stage" a house for sale, they routinely remove 1/3 of everything from closets, and about 1/3 of the furniture in a room.  This not only makes the space seem more inviting/useful, but bigger, too.  
Be vigilant about purging the array of collectibles crowding every horizontal surface including kitchen and bathroom counters, tables and mantle pieces.   Let's say that you love your knick knacks and memorabilia.  Start by putting one third of them in a box for seasonal trade outs (just like you would with holiday decorations).  Can many of your framed or loose photos be consolidated in an album instead?  Now rearrange the best of the rest.  Might the four prettiest candlesticks be more eye catching than the dusty baker’s dozen? Can you store additional items neatly by rearranging your bookcases, closets, or shelves. Yes.  I guarantee that you can.

Think about how you can re-purpose pieces you currently own in different ways for the life you want to lead.  For example, if you plan to move to a smaller home or want to free up space in your current one, consider trades.  Maybe that big sideboard can be replaced by the narrow console table behind your couch.  A slim quilt rack can display the quilts currently stored in a huge storage chest.  If more than two people never sit together on your 9 foot couch, would love seats and chairs suit that space better?  Perhaps you keep your favorite reading chair but nix the enormous ottoman. If your dining room table takes up a lot of room, consider pushing it against a wall, with chairs along the other two or three sides.   
Maybe you need to position chairs of comparable height to encourage conversation.   

Here is an example of how furniture shiftin can enhance one's life:  Two extroverted friends/relatives (one a man and one a woman)  had been unable, despite their stated desires, to sustain any romances.  As soon as I visited both homes, I understood why. Their homes were dusty museums to collections/hobbies. Both dining room tables were so covered with stuff that no one could eat there.  In fact, there wasn't a single horizontal surface inviting two (or more) people to sit, talk, put down a drink, or reach for a canape.  When I moved items in order to put a coaster for a cup of coffee, one person became anxious. Both homes spelled out, "I am more interested in my things than I am in people, even when I have invited you here."  And yet, those prized items were languishing in dust. Those two will never have an intimate relationship - at least at their homes.  

To donate large furniture, appliances and multiple boxes:
Some donation shops are open on Sundays.  Others will pick up furniture and working appliances from your home by appointment or schedule.  (Fewer take mattresses, but I found one that did).  Check websites and then call to find out their schedule.  For example, one service provider trolled my neighborhood two days of the week, but was committed for the next two weeks.  With that deadline in mind, I stripped the extra bed and piled it with increasing numbers of donation boxes.   Note:  the workmen lacked the logical tools for dismantling the bed frame.  Have your tool box handy.  Foster care, women’s centers, and immigrant service charities often welcome household items.     

Family/sentimental attachments: 
The hardest items for me to address in my own downsizing were family heirlooms, photos, and memorabilia.  I carted them with me for several moves until I finally parted with them.  Many parents hold on to their children’s school stuff with the intention of passing them along to Junior one day.  Why not now?   If you haven’t framed that artwork for daily viewing, if the items are languishing in a saggy, cobwebbed cardboard box in the garage or basement, repack them and send them off to the intended recipients.  I divided pictures, cards, trophies, and school items of my sons into two boxes, and shipped them off.  In many families, one person is the keeper of genealogy documents.   That was my husband.  Before we moved, I had my son scan scores of photos, contracts, resumes, graduation cards onto the computer.  Then we sent the boxes of originals to particular relatives and the CDs of images to others.  Done.

If you plan to give to relatives a sentimentally valuable collection of yellowed doilies or that nicked oak table from the family farm, have you asked whether they even want them?  For example, neither of my sons wanted any of my china.  So I sold one set and donated another.  If they do want items that you aren’t using, why wait?  Send them on.  Every relative HATES going through a dead relative’s home to ready it for sale.  By controlling the process yourself, you may benefit, but you will also be doing your heirs a favor.  Otherwise, your indecisiveness about your own accumulation stuff makes work, not pleasure, for relatives after you go to the great beyond… without your doilies, which will likely end up at a Goodwill store not in a relative's living room.  

When we downsized to our cabin in Alaska,  I did not feel it was my place to sell family and inherited art, china, and silver.  So I picked family members whose lifestyle and space seemed best suited to those items.  First I sent digital photos so they could assess interest. Then I shipped them off.  Depending on the size and insurance, this can be expensive, so plan ahead.  In some cases, the recipients value them as much as I did.  In other cases, the items were no longer visible last time I visited.  Out of my hands.  

Make money?  Maybe: 
To get an idea of market pricing, look up items on  and ,  or visit consignment stores or auction company websites.  The fact that you paid $xx for it 40 years ago may not be indicative of current trends and styles. That Japanese WWII gun is selling for $129.  That bulbous 1960’s lamp is offered for $60.  That expensive armoire and charming Hoosier cabinet are not “in” anymore.  By assessing the interest of both relatives and the market, you can then decide to keep, sell, or donate the items.  I constantly hear collectors and hoarders say, “it will be valuable one day.”  A real collector finds out.  A hoarder does not. Surely anything you don’t use at all– like the furniture relegated to the basement, the third dresser crammed in the guest room, or any neglected, bulky kitchen appliances like pasta makers, bread makers, juice squeezers, can be moved along for sale or donation without much emotional turmoil.   Use them or shed them.  Do you have some art work piled on the floor or leaning against a wall in a closet?  Hang it up.  Or kiss it goodbye.   Enjoy what you have accumulated, but why pay for a larger home or a storeroom to warehouse items you don’t even look at, much less use?  Gain space or maybe even money to put toward something you DO value.  I have a friend who "can't afford to travel." Does paying for a storage unit for 20 years have any bearing on that?   

Useful websites: 
Craig’s List ( is most suitable for low priced, quick, local sales (the listings are only posted for seven days at a time).  The site makes it very easy to post offers, and it is free.  I recommend this website for items you would otherwise donate to charities, but where you would consider yourself “ahead” if you could reap even a low price in exchange for a buyer who picks it up and carts it off.  I sold big bulky dining and living room furniture on Craig’s List to young couples.  They were excited and so was I!  My father-in-law sold a toboggan that had been left in the attic by prior owners 20 years before.  That’s found money!  On E-Bay ( ), we sold most of a set of collectible seasonal china and some other decoratives, but few practical items.  Note:  for remote E-Bay sales, you will have to pay to pack and ship, which, in our experience, cost more than the E-bay suggested price, so you might “test the water” with a few items first in order to set an appropriate price. 

Websites have also popped up for donating items.  One is  – items are free for people who pick them up, like firewood, pets, or washing machines.  Another is , on which you can create circles of acquaintances who can trade things for free.   This is appealing if you don’t want to deal with strangers.

Much of our accumulated stuff really represents indecisiveness and benign neglect.  By assessing what you have, you can selectively choose what you like best, what means the most to you, and can shed items that are “no longer you.”  I hope these helpful hints make the process easier for you to address on your own time table.  Maybe you’ll make a bit of money.  Maybe you’ll make somebody else happy.  Maybe you’ll just clear out some space for whatever you plan to do next.  You will feel effective.  Good luck!