Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Winter Logistics with No Electricity or Roads

Anyone living in a cold or variable climate spends a judicious amount of time planning supplies and logistics.  This is not only for seasonal changes, but for the all important Plan B when those changes are extraordinary and when things go awry!  In Alaska, it is not a facile statement to say that the seasonal changes are always extraordinary.

Planning is particularly important for those of us living far from roads and community services, where you can't say, “We're out of eggs, dear.” Bryan and I have whole files devoted to inventory, shopping, future construction projects, and fuel needs. We have back ups for everything we have been able to anticipate so far. What if the propane stove breaks down in winter? (Cook on top of the wood stove). What if the freezer or refrigerator breaks in summer? (Smoke all meats, stuff the cold hole with other foods) What if we run out of food? (We have 128 lbs of long term tofu substitutes, and supplemental freeze dried foods). What if the generator breaks? (I'd say that we'd be screwed, but actually, our wind and solar panels are our primary sources of power, and our heaviest usage is in the summer, when we have more leeway.

Because we like to leave for several months during the fall/winter, we have to figure out how to get back and forth, so we pay great attention to regional weather reports and observable changes.  
This sort of planning is important because of "go/no go" constraints.  Twice a year, in fall and spring, nothing but a helicopter can get in or out because the lake is safe for neither float planes (summer) or ski planes (winter).    This fall, Freeze Up was very fast, about three weeks. We left in a float plane on Oct 9 and ski planes could land on the lake (on glare ice, no snow cover) by Halloween. However, in autumns of numerous freeze/thaw nights, the lake has remained unsafely slushy or thinly iced until December.   One beloved town volunteer with a plane, has, for many years provided the kind charity of dropping frozen Thanksgiving turkeys to grateful families living in remote cabins of our part of Alaska. How thoughtful!

In the spring, Break Up's duration is a bit more predictable, routinely lasting between 5-7 weeks. The lakes start cracking and booming and thinning in mid-March. During the ensuing weeks, the snow gets slushy in the bright afternoons of lengthening sunlight, melting first on the sunny, southern exposures of trees and shoreline.   The average day that our lake is fully free of ice is May 15, but two years ago, my husband was stuck in Anchorage until May 19.  The hindrance to flying out was an ice “doughnut” in the lake that stubbornly refused to melt down enough for the wind and waves to break it up.  On shore, piles of snow remained in the woods while the cleared areas around our buildings melted.  Low spots and bogs provided perfect nurseries for hardy mosquitoes that would be at their hungriest in June.  

Cross country winter transportation is feasible during a narrow slip of winter. A still and shallow lake like ours freezes earlier and thaws later than the two large rivers (the Yentna and Susitna) and other creeks we have to traverse to reach the closest towns. So even if our lake is frozen in October, there may be no or too little snow cover for a month or more to pillow the tracks of the snow machine. This fall, for example, friends grumbled about exceptional cold in a brown, listless landscape until a good foot or more of snow fell in early December. Other years, lots of thick, wet snow accumulates in temperatures sustained just below freezing. This is good for snow machining across land, lakes, and bogs but not cold enough to freeze more active rivers. In such weather, we could enjoy scenic snow machine trips on our side of the first river, but we could go no further. In general, the most predictable window of opportunity for safe hauling trips across two rivers is February and March, but even that late in the winter, the rivers are marked by tall Xs of crossed sticks left by other snow machiners to warn of open holes in the ice above turbulent flows of chilly water.

When the time is right, the most important things to haul on the 14 foot sled behind our snow machine, those items that have accumulated at the top of our carefully triaged shopping list, are supplies we cannot fit in the little Piper airplane we bought. Most of these are big, bulky, and heavy, like a dozen 4x8 plywood panels (for sheds), 24 2x8x12s (for the docks), and 100 lb propane tanks (for heating lake water and for propane lights and a stove). This winter, we hope to find some used tires in town to buffer our new dock. Other very high priorities are anything flammable disallowed in larger rented planes, like 55 gallon drums of gasoline or diesel. Because of the narrow cross country transportation window, we try hard to plan ahead for construction projects, and the preceding cold, dark months are a great time to do so!

We have three upcoming construction projects. One is to build a dock for our float plane next to the little one for our kayaks and fishing. Bryan wants to build one with a slope at least 25 feet long, angling down below the waterline so the plane's floats can drive right up onto the dock. He believes this will offer some stable surface protection from rocking waves in high winds that occasionally buffet our little cove. The very winds we welcome for our power system could damage our little plane! A second endeavor is to build a pole barn or shed to house our snow machine (with room for a second) and the related piles of paraphernalia. The third is a greenhouse. To date, we have not built one because I had worried about snow weight crushing the roof during winter months we weren't there to shovel it off. However, I have decided on a design for an A frame building. While not offering as much interior space as a traditional building, it will harbor no snow weight on its plastic surfaces. What a treat it will be to to grow favorite warm weather plants, like basil and tomatoes in the hothouse, and to start seedlings for earlier summer harvests. How delightful to enter a room so much warmer than the outside air! Some people put bath tubs (for themselves) in their greenhouses. I think I can picture a future year's project.

How many of these buildings will be constructed in the upcoming year, I can't say, but we hope to haul in as many of the supplies as possible this winter.   Perhaps we can barter plane or other services in exchange for the skills of people who can help us build them. The man who built our chicken coop last year is an avid ice fisherman, so he might be delighted if Bryan offers to fly a buddy and him to one or two remote lakes, and the man who built our furniture is an exceptional hunter. Possibilities for trade? Somehow, between careful planning and seat-of-the pants adaptability, we'll accomplish some of these goals this year... or next.


  1. Wow, this is really freaking cool! I'm dying to find a lifestyle like this near Ottawa because living in the big city just isn't cutting it. What do you do for income? How'd your projects go btw??
    Thanks for all the info on back up plans!!!

  2. We are telecommuters. See my article on ensuring connectivity. Thanks for your comment.