Friday, March 15, 2013

Winter Morning Chores Around an Off-Grid Alaska Cabin

Among winter chores, the most important involves keeping warm.

We sleep under the world's fluffiest, warmest down comforter, which is actually too hot most of the year, but a warm bed, in a cool room is very cozy. Waking up in a cold house (mid-40s to mid 50s), however, is not so fun. The first thing we do is start the coffee that I have set up on the stove the night before, and then open the wood stove hoping that some red embers remain. If they do, we can start a fire without a match. To do so, I open the flu, and scrape the embers together. Then I form a sort of chimney shape of dry, friable birch bark and thin slips of kindling to funnel the embers' heat up along these surfaces, which catch and burn. If the embers have gone cold, we generally shovel them into a metal bucket we store in the snow outside and start afresh. (When the ashes are thoroughly chilled, we dump some down the outhouse hole and save the rest for summer gardening).  This slow and steady approach is difficult to do first thing in a cold and dark morning! Many a time my chilly fingers have overloaded the firebox too early and ended up with a smoky fire. Then I either have to wait until that clears or smoke up the cabin while rectifying the situation sooner.

After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, or pancakes and sausage or bowls of oatmeal, my husband and I have different sets of outdoor chores for which we bundle up in bunny boots, padded Carharrt's overalls, and parkas. 

Routine chores include emptying the night's chamber pot in the outhouse, burning trash in the burn barrel (currently located in a snow hole about 3 feet below the level of snow we walk on), hauling birch logs from our enormous wood corral (we estimate 24,000 lbs of wood, about 8 cords), and collecting additional buckets of snow to melt on the wood stove for washing.

The first thing one of us does is to visit the rabbits with extra water and vegetable ends accumulated the prior day, and perhaps a cardboard toilet paper roll as a chew toy.  They particularly love carrots and bean sprouts. The rabbits are currently housed in the chicken run.  Since that ground is frozen solid, they can't dig their way out. The snow surrounds the chicken wire to the height of the roof. This forms a sort of igloo around the rabbits which they like – it is cold, to which they are well suited - but neither wet nor windy.  To keep the water from freezing,  we have a low wattage water heater for them. They neatly keep their food, sleeping, and pooping areas segregated, so it is easy to feed and clean up after them. Over the course of 3 weeks, these two adolescent Flemish giants have eaten about 10 lbs of pellet food and additional vegetable snacks and alfalfa hay and have excreted about 15 lbs of manure, which we haul to the compost pile. By spring, before the ground thaws and before we bring in a small flock of laying hens, we'll move the rabbits to segregated hutches: one for the male alone and one for the female with what we hope will be a litter of future dinners for us.  (Update:  in subsequent years, we switched to medium sized satins and installed them in hutches, see article on raising rabbits.)

The next task, if there is no wind or sun, is to start the small Honda generator we use to top off the batteries that are otherwise powered by wind and solar inputs. I walk up the hill behind our cabin to the highest spot on our property, where the power shed is hidden behind the lip of the hill. In late January/early February, we get solar power from about 9:30 - 4:30.  Some years the wind is very reliable but other times there is virtually none for a week at a time. On still, snowy, or overcast days, we don't generate enough power even for our modest use, so we run the generator during the dark morning until the sun rises.  I'm glad I don't live in a cabin (or next to one) that relies on a puttering generator all day long!
(People who buy a generator to “power their home” during times of electrical shortages need to measure inputs and outputs of the unit they plan to buy and then triage their priorities accordingly! They don't power a whole house!) 

We run the generator for a few hours until the batteries register 100%. This winter, we either had bad or old gas or water that had gotten into the drum or generator. Whatever the issue, the unit would conk out after a few minutes. After troubleshooting with a variety of approaches, we ended up having to pour out the gasoline (a precious resource) and add fresh fuel, with stabilizers. Now it is more dependable.

For many of my tasks, I wander around the yard dragging a bright orange, plastic sled, looking for all the world like an oversized kid searching for a winter playmate.  But this handy piece of equipment is my winter version of a wheel barrow.  With it, I carry straw and heavy bags of pellets to the chicken coop (and soon to the newly built rabbit hutches), garden supplies to the greenhouse, any shopping supplies from the ski plane up to the cabin or food shed.  Perhaps the most fun use is for logs.  The wood corral is slightly up hill from the cabin, and hidden behind the outhouse.  Shaded by spruce trees, the path I've trod back and forth is as smooth and pitted as a limestone creekbed in Texas.  Once the sled is full of wood, I feel like a luge captain, deftly twitching the string so the sled comes careening down the sluice, curving around treacherous curves, dropping down the snow steps to stop, perfectly, right in front of the back deck shelves where we store firewood.

Less frequent projects are all weather dependent. For example, we don't have sidewalks and don't dig the snow down to the ground. Rather, after any appreciable snow fall, and as long as the temperature is above freezing, we groom trails around the property to create nice hard “sidewalks” on the snow for us to walk on. Off-trail, the snow is so soft that one punches through. knee or thigh deep, which is exhausting, or we don snow shoes. The groomer, attaches to the back of our big snow machine, and looks like a very loose 4 x 6 foot length of homemade fence, with the three or four bars tipped at an angle to gather and redistribute snow and clip off hard, icy pinnacles. My husband likes to do this task because noisy power is involved. If he has the time, he'll also take the groomer down the trail toward town a few miles, to smooth some of that surface, particularly if weekend, recreational snow machiners have recently jumped and dived and crossed and otherwise damaged the smooth track, which interferes with carting a heavy load of building supplies or fuel barrels much less delicate items like eggs and bananas.

I favor the ice spade. With this sharp edged tool, I can chop or “peel” off layers of ice that have accumulated on the decks of our various buildings, and clear the way for doors impeded by a hard layer of ice or snow. I can also scar sections of snow when they get icy, for example, in front of the outhouse or power shed, and chop steps into icy patches we need to cross to step down to the level of the chicken coops and sheds and back porch.   

Another chore is the snow rake. It does not look like a leaf rake, rather, it is a bent 15 food long pole with a wide, shallow plowing blade bolted to one end. With it, we can shovel off some of the snow on lower out-building roofs, as far as we can reach. Doing so, if only on the bottom several feet of a south facing roof, helps the underlying snow drip out so that the rest of the snow slides forward and then off, shedding snow weight.

This may sound like a lot of work. It is! Especially for somebody like me, who lived in a southern high-rise, where such tasks as heat and trash and roof and road maintenance just “happened” without my time and attention. On the other hand, it is almost always satisfying to be outside doing these projects, in the way that a gardener enjoys “piddling” around the yard, while enjoying the setting and getting a bit of exercise in the process. I think we have it better than city folks in cold climates. After all, we aren't shoveling dirty snow off a driveway next to a neighbor's smelly car as it warms up. We don't have to drive on slick roads with thousands of more or less distracted commuters. Rather, we can do a little bit now, and a little bit later, in a pristine environment, watching the morning light etch lines of ridges on the mountains across the frozen lake.

No comments:

Post a Comment