Friday, November 28, 2014

I Moved from a Texas High-Rise to an Alaska Outhouse

Journalist Alyson Ward, of the Houston (TX) Chronicle interviewed us about our transition from city folks in TX to rural, off-road, off-grid Alaska for the following article published on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2014, under the title, "Call of the Wild."   The link includes about 13 pictures, but below I have just cut and pasted the text.  See other articles on this blog, by me, expanding on issues of construction, solar and wind power, raising our own food, and commuting by plane and snowmachine (snow mobile).

Alaskan reality TV in the past few years - The Discovery Channel's "Alaska: The Last Frontier," National Geographic's "Life Below Zero" and HGTV's "Living Alaska," to name a few. But surviving in harsh, frozen territory is reality, not TV, for former Houstonians Laura and Bryan Emerson since they traded their big-city lives for an off-the-grid log cabin north of Anchorage.
When the Emersons came through Houston recently to visit friends and clients, they shared photos and stories about their new lives. "Instead of his-and-hers cars, we have his-and-hers snow machines," Laura said.

For a decade, the couple - she's 57, he's 53 - lived in high-rise apartments in the Galleria area, far removed from nature.

"We didn't even mow a lawn," Laura said. "I didn't plant a petunia."

But the allure of Alaska had been irresistible to Bryan since 2002, when, not long after they married, the couple took an Alaskan cruise.

"He just fell in love with that place," Laura said. "I do think there are places that speak to people - some people are desert people or beach people - and this just sang to him."

A few years later, when Bryan and his father went to Alaska to hunt and fish, they found a tempting piece of property on a lake between Anchorage and Denali National Park. Bryan called the owner and asked if he'd ever consider selling. The property, it turned out, had been listed that day.
When he got back to Houston, Bryan casually asked his wife whether he could buy some land in Alaska.

"I think she rolled her eyes and said, 'Whatever,' " Bryan said. "That was good enough for me."

"He didn't get a 'no,' " Laura said, because she didn't think they'd really be living in Alaska. Not full time, anyway.

"The initial thought was that we would go up there for a couple of months in the summer," Bryan said. But as Laura's two sons left for college and the recession slowed Bryan's finance-consulting business, the Emersons started extending their stretches of Alaskan living. "Each year, we added a month or two," Bryan said.

Now they spend about 10 months a year (they escape to warmer climates in the worst of winter) in a cabin accessible only by dogsled, snow machine or float/ski plane.

Moving to the Alaskan wilderness isn't like moving to Austin. Before they left Texas, the Emersons spent months learning how to survive and be self-sufficient.

"I went up there (to visit) and felt totally out of my element - just like an idiot," said Laura, who's been a teacher, a chemical markets analyst, a professional writer and an investment-bank compliance officer. "Up there, it's dangerous to be an idiot."

So she came up with a curriculum. The couple took shooting classes, wilderness courses, first-aid training. They became Master Gardeners and learned how to make their own wine and beer; how to raise chickens, ducks, rabbits and bees; how to ice fish; and operate a snow machine. They became ham-radio operators, learned welding, plumbing and how to use a chain saw.

Bryan set up a "power tower" with solar panels and a small wind turbine for power, a phone antenna and a satellite receiver for Internet access. He does his work from home, starting his mornings at 5:30 to accommodate the time-zone differences with clients in Texas or New York.

Their two-story cabin - built by a neighbor from 106 local spruce trees - measures 16-by-24 feet inside and has roughly 750 square feet. When the weather's warm enough, they can relax and eat their meals on two story front porches.

The Emersons have no municipal services. They use wood to heat their home. They have an outhouse. The food shed has a propane-powered refrigerator, which they use in the summer. They keep chickens for eggs, rabbits for meat and bees for honey. They fish for pike and salmon, and Bryan hunts for bear in the spring and moose in the fall. He uses birch sap to make beer. In a greenhouse, Laura grows cucumbers, basil, peppers, and tomatoes.

They use a wood stove and a propane oven to cook their food. They've rigged a system that gives them running water in the summer, but in winter they lug buckets full of snow and melt it in a 6-gallon pot on the stove. Mail is delivered to a post-office box in Anchorage, and they fly down to pick it up every few weeks.

"We really have to be very intentional about what we do haul in because we have to dispose of it," Laura said. "I try to avoid glass. Plastic and paper, I can burn. But metal cans? You really have to think about all that stuff one takes for granted with a city garbage system."

In her blog, Laura details the daily efforts of surviving in wilderness Alaska - how they've learned to handle wastewater, food storage and some terrifying encounters with bears.

A few reality-TV and documentary-film producers have approached the Emersons about featuring them in a show. So far, they've declined. "They all seem so fake," Laura said.

"So many things I used to take for granted, like the flick of a light switch or the flush of a toilet," Laura said. "I never thought about where water comes from or where the sewage goes? How do you make electricity? It was just magic."  Now, we have to produce it and dispose of it.

Every day they can - generally between May and October, when the lake's not frozen - the Emersons have a mandatory happy hour, sipping their homemade beer and wine as they kayak on the lake, Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker visible in the distance. That's when they can really take in the beauty of the land they've worked so hard to make livable.

The Emersons' only neighbor within 10 miles lives about 15 acres away and, like many bush people, want to be left alone, so the couple is alone much of the time. Bryan makes frequent flights to Anchorage to attend meetings of the Civil Air Patrol (he's a member of the volunteer search-and-rescue team), but Laura sees other people less than once a month. Because of the power tower, she has weekly phone calls with relatives. Mostly, she keeps in touch through email, her blog, and her magazine column.

"I do like the silence and privacy and the fact that when I'm talking to people, it's because I've chosen to talk to them," she said. "I think I've become more introverted than I used to be."

Life is harder now, but Alaska has given the couple an "appreciate each moment, appreciate each day" mentality, Laura said. They listen to wind and birds instead of a noisy TV, which they don't have in their cabin. They savor every meal because it took such effort to secure it. And when they're back in civilization, Laura said, she'll marvel at the infrastructure that makes life so easy - "the electricity and water and power, but also a port or train system that brings in food from all over the world."

The Emersons know they can't live in wild Alaska forever because they won't always be able to handle the hard physical work an off-the-grid life requires. Even now, in the dead of winter, the Emersons trade the dark and cold for two months in South America - Peru one year, Argentina and Paraguay another.

"This year's going to be Ecuador," Laura said. "My thought is, maybe we'll find a place down there we want to retire to. If we can find a place that is my happy place the way Alaska is (Bryan's) happy place, that'll be a fair trade."

Monday, November 24, 2014

Cheap and Clean Home Cleaning Products: Vinegar, Baking Soda, Veg Oil, Salt, and Castile Soap

Frazzled cleaning?
When I lived in the city, I had a whole pantry full of smelly cleaning products. Now that I live remotely, I use only four, exceptionally versatile products. Imagine the cost and space savings as well as the lack of chemical smells! Whether your interest is in downsizing or escaping smelly fumes or questionable additives, consider the following prices, uses, and links to additional information and recipes.

Today, my cleaning supplies consist of:
(Prices at Walmart today):
Vinegar (1 gallon costs a bit over $2)
Baking soda (1 lb $0.56)
Generic vegetable oil (48 oz $2.50)
Castile soap (32 oz $8 – 22, depending on brand)
Salt (104 oz $5.20)

By contrast, I used to buy products like:
(prices at Walmart today)
Windex (26 oz $3.12)
Tide laundry detergent (138 oz $9)
Palmolive, (52 oz, $3)
Lysol multi-purpose cleaner (28 oz, $2.87)
Copper, brass cleaner (10 oz  $2..60)
silver cleaner, Shine Bright (8 oz, $6)
rug and carpet cleaner, Arm and Hammer (30 oz $?)
shampoo: Suave, (28 oz $2.88)
soap: Dial, (4 oz $3)
Suave hair conditioner (28 oz $2.88)
Rutland brick and stone cleaner  (16 oz $7.98)
Murphy's Wood Floor Cleaner (32 oz $3.48)
Lysol toilet bowl cleaner (24 oz $4.97)

Below is a partial list of household uses for these versatile products.  For more details, including recipes and proportions, see the embedded links.

Entrepreneurial Liars and Cheats

Many entrepreneurs are dismayed by the slow pace of due diligence checks by potential investors. How many interviews, how many financial documents and resumes and business plans must they submit before getting a thumbs up or down?

This process might be more understandable if entrepreneurs realize that THERE ARE SO MANY LIARS OUT THERE.
Liars will be outed
  1. Consider the process of home sales. Just as in real estate, investing in a company is proceeded by a period of judicious inquiry and inspection, recognized by both parties, ending in a legally binding closing, scheduled weeks in advance. (This is why I never believe an entrepreneur who blithely reports, “I'll be funded by then” without even having a letter of interest (LOI) in hand.
  2. The reason for protracted due diligence is because, sadly PEOPLE LIE. As Catholics understand, there are lies of omission and lies of commission. The former is when a home seller neglects to mention a material fact, like a rotted roof. A lie of commission is actually writing or verbalizing a falsehood, like checking the word “no” on a form that lists “do you know about this or that.” Just as a home seller may obfuscate termite or water damage, companies seeking investment may similarly “put lipstick on a pig.” Repeat investors know this, so they endeavor to separate the wheat from the chaff through careful scrutiny. As any on-line dater knows, anyone can sound good, but how do they appear up close?
A sincere and honest entrepreneur may be aided by the following short list of several entrepreneurs who have approached us recently, each with constructed stories which omitted or fabricated information. If you can appreciate how many such people approach investors (and service providers) you can understand the logic behind due diligence of your company.

Following the list are recommendations to help honest entrepreneurs make a strong, initial impression. For additional anecdotes about other bad guys (both entrepreneurs and service providers), see prior articles on this website.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Bear Family Moves Into the Yard - What to Do?

Cub in birch tree
photo from back porch
Two weeks ago, while playing backgammon after dinner, my husband noticed some dark movement through the window. “Bear!” he announced. He ran to the back window and I to the side. “Wow, it's a big one,” he observed. But through my window, I saw a cub. Oh-oh. One of the most dangerous combinations is a sow feeding and defending a cub, and in this case, she had three of them, each the size and bulk of a small sheepdog.

This black bear family was disconcerting for other reasons, too, namely the sow's seeming familiarity with cabins and her absolute fearlessness around us.

For example, we immediately started banging on the windows and shouting to discourage
Sow at kitchen window
"What - you want a piece of me?"
their presence. Undeterred, she climbed up onto our back porch, bumping our door in the process, stood up and looked in the window, eye level to me ( I am 5' 9"), with a look that I interpreted as, “What - you want a piece of me, punk?” Then, she deftly swiped a small plastic container off a shelf (in which I had the day's coffee grounds and egg shells intended for my garden) tossing it to the cubs who rummaged through the debris.

Bears are usually quiet, wary creatures.  A whole family in our yard, in daylight, is not a good sign. We wanted to encourage them to go elsewhere.  While they were distracted by the egg shells and coffee grounds next to the back porch, Bryan moved to the front door for a can of bear spray. We knew, from prior practice, that the spray reaches only about 20 feet – a closeness we did not intend to attempt, since bears can run 30 mph over short distances and moms can be especially prickly. Nonetheless, he sprayed, to saturate the air with the noxious fumes. The sound or scent caused the sow to turn and walk INTO the spray. When the pepper fumes irritated her eyes and nose, she
Two cubs climb spruce by outhouse
trotted away, giving an alert to the cubs who nimbly climbed the adjacent spruce trees for safety. In less than a minute, though, she turned around, walked THROUGH the spray, past Bryan, and toward our ducks, who were standing by the lake shore, squawking in alarm this whole time. They were able to glide off into the water to evade her, but alas, one of our hens had followed them, and was cowering behind some ferns. The bear spied her, dashed into the foliage and made off into the woods with her limp body clenched between sharp teeth. Two of the cubs followed into the alder thicket, but the third had found a duck's nest beneath a birch tree and was devouring the eggs. More willing to get close to a young one, I sprayed it with bear spray, so it ran off, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Grizzly in the Garden; Bear Spray in the Cabin

Yesterday afternoon, I had an Alaskan experience that was 1/3 scary, 1/3 ridiculous, and 1/3 painful!

After the noisy, hot, sweaty work of weed whacking back by our power tower for more than an hour, I took a break with a big glass of ice tea and a book on the front porch, to cool down in the breeze wafting over the lake and enjoy the silence.  

In the woods to my right, a loud “crack” in the trees attracted my attention, so I looked into the upper reaches, thinking that perhaps a porcupine, which we have seen there before, had crawled out onto a weak branch.  Seeing no movement, I returned to my book.  

A minute later, I glanced right, riveted by the sight of a big, adult brown bear (grizzly) sniffing in my garden, 20 feet from the porch!  We have seen small black bears in the yard before (200 lbs), but the larger and more aggressive brown bears tend to “own” the nearby creeks, filled with salmon, grayling, and trout.  They cede the more limited appeals of our property – until now. Whether the bear was a boar or a sow, I don't know, but at close proximity, I could see that each of “his” padded feet was the size of a dinner plate, and the round head was as wide as a basketball hoop. He looked hale, hearty and big, more than twice as large as any black bear I had seen up close before.  What astonished me, given the size, was his stealthy silence. Had I not heard him break a branch in transit, and sensed movement in my peripheral vision, I would not have noticed his nearby presence at all.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How Do I Wash with No Running Water?

Without labor saving devices, routine chores take longer to do, and engender a great respect for such elements as sun, water, and wind.

Water is particularly precious and requires careful husbandry and judicious usage.

In the winter, we keep a 6 gallon pot on the wood stove all day (and night), filling it with snow throughout the day to melt and warm up enough to wash dishes, and occasionally, clothes, the floor, and ourselves. Humidifying the dry winter air is just a welcome addition.

Since snow melts to water in about a 10:1 ratio, depending on how dense the snow is, we bring in a five gallon bucket of snow almost every time we come in from outside. When the five gallon “bullet” of snow melts down to ½ gallon and warms up some, we can add another bucketful, and another after that. It takes about six buckets and several hours to get enough warmed melt water to do more than two tasks. I have become attuned to how little I need if I am careful: the minimums seems to be: a ½ gallon for a spit bath, 1 gallon to do the breakfast dishes, 2 gallons to do a small load of laundry. These are probably statistics that our ancestors knew, too.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Remote Cabins: Trash, Garbage, and Waste - Reuse, Re-purposing, Disposal Issues

Living off-grid means not only that we receive no electricity, but also no municipal services at all, including those for disposal of garbage, trash, sewage, and gray water. So we have become very intentional about what we buy, make, and use, because we have to figure out how to dispose of what remains. I welcome any additional clever ideas that readers may care to share.

Below are some examples of what we have done with wood ash, packaging, vegetable and meat leftovers (including bones), animal and human waste, and construction debris.  Some ideas may be useful even to urban readers.

Wood ash:
Alder wood fire

As a fertilizer, wood ash reads 0-1-3 and softens acidic soil, which is exactly what our property needs. Hard woods are higher in the desired nutrients than soft woods, according to the U of Oregon extension office. Do not use wood ash on potatoes or the related families of blueberries/azaleas/rhododendrons, which like acidic soil.

Vegetable waste:
  • Kitchen and garden scraps can be fed to any of the animals (except citrus, potatoes, and onions) or trenched directly into gardens to enrich the soil. Some items work well in a compost tea or insect repellent. For example, sprays made from onion, red pepper, rhubarb, and tomato leaves repel many pests. Coffee and coffee grounds are best for acid loving plants. In fact, the Botanical Garden in Anchorage plants its potatoes in pots filled ONLY with coffee grounds scrounged from local coffee bars.  Banana and orange peels deter aphids, deliver potassium, phosphorous, and some nitrogen. Great around roses. Egg shells deliver calcium – particularly important to tomatoes and squash and the poultry themselves (pulverized) and they deter slugs (but are safe for red wigglers in vermiculture). In the winter, when we have fewer animals and frozen gardens, we keep red wigglers in the cabin in a worm farm and feed the excess vegetable matter to them. I have found that a compost pile doesn't work well for me here, so I just trench yard and kitchen scraps directly into gardens, particularly ones that are resting for a season. 
  • Meat leftovers: All bones are made into soup stock, then offered to the poultry. After they have picked them clean, the bones are tossed into the wood stove to burn to ash for the gardens (0-12-0 nutrients). I cut up meat fat and chicken skin and feed it occasionally to our ducks and chickens both of which make their happiest discovery noises when they get those snacks. .

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Raising Honey Bees in Alaska, Harvesting Honey

Every year, we add a few new projects, as we endeavor to increase our self-reliance. This year, in the arena of animal husbandry, we added ducks and honey bees. Since I have written in a prior article about the former, this article will focus on the latter.

Honey bees are absolutely the lowest maintenance creature we have raised, but obviously some special equipment and instruction are necessary first.

To get started, my husband enrolled, along with about 60 other people, in an informative, two part class in February, held in Eagle River, AK, and taught by Steve Victors (Alaska Wildflower Honey), a 20 year, local beekeeper and vendor of beekeeping supplies.

In addition to useful, Alaska-relevant considerations, Steve summarized the history of beekeeping (the Mayans and Egyptians both domesticated them), medical uses for wound management and mummification, and the fascinating culture of the hive, with its queen, workers, and drones. I wish I had attended, too!

After the class, Bryan was enthused and decided to go forward, so he bought a bee suit and
Astronaut or beekeeper? 
disassembled hive boxes. The suit looks like something an astronaut would wear, made of thick white cotton and nylon, with sturdy elastic around the ankles and wrists, and a double layered, framed net head dress. The boxes are made of white pine. Each hollow hive box is about 20” long x 16” wide. The depth of the boxes varies from 6 - 10”, depending on whether they are intended for housing bees (deeper) or storing honey (shallower). In the South, most bee hives I have seen are white, which is to keep them cool. But Alaskan beekeepers paint theirs dark colors, to keep them warm. Ours are forest green, to match our various outbuildings.
The green honey boxes are shallower
than the unpainted brood box below

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Raising Meat Rabbits in Alaska (Part 2)

We have all heard the description of some prolific procreators (of any species) as “breeding like rabbits.” So I thought that putting a male and female together would be easy. However, like most things in nature, we have encountered great variability in the rabbits we have raised. Some females are natural mothers; others don't know what to do. Some females successfully evade the efforts of males by speed or by aggressive biting, scratching and pushing; others are passive.  Some males are natural sperm donors and others just want the exercise of chasing a female around, followed by a meal and a nap. (Sound like any people you know?) A congenial mating pair can potentially produce about 4 kindlings (litters) per year, yielding 16 – 32 kits (babies).  A male with two females can possibly double that.  

We have experience with two breeds over two years: Flemish giants and satins (medium size).  We plan to buy additional medium sized breeds in the future, to see which ones work best in our setting and produce the most efficient feed:meat/care ratio.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Raising Ducks in Alaska

For several years, we have raised chickens and enjoyed their company, eggs, and insect eradication quite a bit.  Last winter, my husband suddenly thought, “Let's raise ducks, too. How different can it be?”

Well, four ducks later, I can tell you: VERY DIFFERENT.

Our chickens (Plymouth Rocks and Araucana) are analogous to quiet, diffident librarians, delicately “sipping tea and nibbling scones” in a warm, dry place, before going to bed early.

By contrast, the ducks (harlequins) are like big footed, gangly, noisy, messy teenagers, who strew their stuff all around, taking up space, spewing food and water everywhere, and wanting to stay up all night. When my husband first flew them to our property, in a tall pet carrier, I thought they were geese - they seemed so large.
Ducks leaving the lake, heading home

The woman in Palmer, AK, from whom we bought them, asked us to take a mating pair together, whom we named Mr. and Mrs. But because Mr. bonks the other two females with equal frequency (on land, in the snow or holding their heads under water – it doesn't matter), I can't say that I have observed any of the fidelity so famous in swans and loons. The other females we named Dora (because she was always the early explorer) and Daylate (which in retrospect is not well deserved, but at first, she always seemed “a day late and a dollar short”).

I found that raising ducks involved both “good news” and “bad news” - at least in our setting.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Remote Property Skills You Need to Acquire...before you move there

My earlier article,“Want to Buy a Remote Property? Think Again or Think Ahead,” has attracted more readers and follow-up questions than almost any other (besides those about raising chickens).

Some readers have contacted my husband and me to ask for additional advice. One man said he wanted to buy 300 acres in Montana and asked what he should do first. When we asked what experience he had with some of the relevant skills and information below, his answer was virtually none of them. It was our letters to him (and others) that have resulted in this posting.

I decided to pose this as a questionnaire/checklist that you can use to develop a priority list, time line, and budget to acquire some additional skills, tools, and information before committing to a remote location. I hope it will help you be more effective and efficient than we were!  (Note:  Please let me know any other suggestions that should be included here). 

The content is organized in labeled sections followed by numbered questions and then notes from our experience.

If the answer to any question below is “no”, make an appointment, take a class, or start pumping iron.
  1. Do you exercise? Build upper body strength.
  1. Have you had a full physical exam recently? Get copies of your dental and health records. Ascertain any allergies (to elements in your target location, by going there at various times of year).
  2. Have you assembled a good medical supply kit, as recommended by your doctor or other sources for a remote location? Keep supplies both at your remote home and in your vehicle, in case you get stranded.
  3. Have you taken any recent Red Cross, Scout, FEMA, CDC or State courses in emergency and wilderness preparedness? Do you have relevant reference books? Do you know about the medicinal properties of plants on your property. 
Notes: Living on a remote property is physically demanding. We find that we use our back, shoulder, arm and core muscles more for projects on site, and our legs for hunting and hiking. Chainsaws, .30-06 rifles, and axes are all heavy and pull on your dominant side. Let's face it: many people age-out of a remote lifestyle when health or strength problems interfere. The better shape you are in, the longer you can do it and the more things you can do for yourself.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ski Plane Flying in Alaska

In Alaska, the percentage of residents with planes is higher than anywhere else in the U.S.
An Alaskan Commute
This makes sense, since distances are vast, the terrain so varied, and the entire, huge state has only 3 highways – well – we call them highways (four or more lane roads). It is often faster AND cheaper in gas to fly between two points than to drive a circuitous route around a mountain or body of water. Since my husband and I live off-road, we too, have a plane, a 1954 red and white Piper PA-20, that lands on our lake, on floats, in summer, and on skis, in winter. I've written elsewhere about summer time “Float Plane Follies” so here, I will describe a typical trip with our ski plane, starting with the pre-flight checks, the flying, and then the landing.

In winter, as anyone without a heated car garage can imagine, we need to pre-heat the plane. Part of the engine is constructed of steel, and part of aluminum (to save weight). Since these two metals expand and contract at different rates in extreme temperatures, we need to warm the engine so that the metals are closer to the temperature ranges they were designed for. My husband generally parks his snowmachine next to the plane on the (frozen) lake, carrying a 20 lb propane tank and a Red Dragon torch. The vehicle's battery provides power and the propane the fuel to heat the torch, which looks like a something in a household HVAC system, with a metal, corrugated tube (blower), about 2 feet long and 5 inches wide. He sticks the blower tube up into the engine, inserts the plane engine's exhaust manifold (pipe) into it, and thus heats both the engine compartment and the internal piping. This takes about an hour. Meanwhile, he goes through a 42 point safety checklist.

When we are ready to leave, we remove the cowl cover (from the nose cone), which looks
Cowl Cover. Photo taken April 1.  (Our shower house back left) 

like a giant, padded bra for one boob, and the (fabric) wing covers (red tags for the port side, and green tags for starboard because those are the colors of the respective navigation lights). These covers protect the plane from accumulating ice weight in two ways. Since they are black, they tend to heat up and melt any accumulated snow when sunny, and since they have padded baffles that stick up along the front edge, they shake and shiver in the wind, deterring ice formation. For short trips, we generally take the cowl cover with us (it will keep the engine warm for several hours) but we stow the bulky wing covers in a little plastic sled under the cabin, out of the wind.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Do You Know Your Water Source, Use, Cost?

How much do you know about your own water supply and usage? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How much does it cost? Which inventors, engineers, and companies can you thank for these resources?

Many people are surprised to realize how little they know about resources they rely on so completely. I certainly took water for granted when I lived in a city with a municipal water supply. How will you do on the following quiz? 

Of the people I asked before writing this, many knew the source of their water, but NONE knew offhand, water consumption, unit costs, personal usage or post-use processing.  And yet, we all know how important water is. 

Once you take your quiz, you may be interested in my comparative source and usage rates at our little log cabin, off grid in Alaska, where I have become hyper- aware of how much we produce, how much it costs, and how much we can use before having to go without!

a) What is the source of your water (for example, a lake, aquifer, river, glacier, rain, or well)?
b) Is that source stable or declining?
c) Where do the grey water (sink and tub) and sewage go?
d) How much power does it take to deliver your water to you (for example a truck delivery of bottled water, a pump for a well or the infrastructure of the municipal water system)? What is the source of that power?
e) If you use municipal water, how old is that complex? How does its water quality compare to other cities? (Call to see if they offer tours to individuals or groups. A city water plant is a fascinating and important place. Because of them, many cities conquered the water borne diseases that still bedevil many parts of the world. Find out how much your city's plant costs to build and maintain)
f) How much do you pay for your water supply?
g) How much water do you use?
h) For what? (some water monitors segregate statistics for outdoor and indoor use, or for potable or non-potable water. Some high-rises have water cooled air conditioning systems).
I) Do you know how much water is used in your average bath, shower, dishwasher, clothes wash cycle, toilet flush, lawn, swimming pool etc? (This is easy to look up on line) How much do you use for cooking and drinking, or for your pets?


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Remote Cabins: Cost of Communications Technologies

Some people move out to the boonies to avoid communications with humans! Others, like us, can live in a lovely, remote spot only because of such technologies for business, emergencies, information, and personal connections. Below is a list of equipment we have bought or built, with price points, organized from least to most sophisticated (and power dependent). Some worked beautifully from the start. Others required several iterations to get right.

If you are at the point of comparing and contrasting several different remote properties, two prudent considerations might be to assess which communications products and services will work in one location vs. another and how much power various options will draw.  For example, a position on this or that side of a mountain, or high or low in a valley, can influence reception.  Every telephone company we called said that we would be unable to receive phone service at our location. However, an antenna that my husband installed high on a 120 foot power tower (solar/wind) proved capable of receiving line of sight signals from a cell phone tower about 45 miles away.  

Hand cranked radio ($20)
(for incoming communications during power outages)
We bought a used, hand cranked radio on E-Bay to use during Houston, TX hurricanes and have kept it for many years since. What a cheap, small, useful purchase! This is a no brainer to keep at home or in your vehicle.

Walkie talkies ($79)
(for two way communication in line-of-sight, limited ranges)
We love our walkie talkies (about $79 at Sportsman's Warehouse).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Remote Cabins: Cost of Heating by Wood

The third element of Maslow's hierarchy is warmth. Obviously, in Alaska, this is a prime concern, because our winters are long. Below is our experience heating with wood, and below that, a comparison of BTUs generated by various heating fuels.

Since we live in the middle of a forest, we decided to heat our cabin with logs that my husband cuts throughout the year. The wood is stored in a huge wood “corral" behind the
My lumberjack with mosquito net
outhouse. We estimate that we have about 9 cords of wood (a cord is 4x4x8 feet) or about 30,000 lbs on hand for indoor fires. The corral has an “entrance” for newly cut wood that needs to age and an “exit” for aged wood ready to burn.

Up to now, we have covered the huge pile with several thick tarps, tied down with bungie cords. However, the past few winters have featured the unwelcome visit of rain, believe it or not, in January and February, followed by cold snaps and heavy snow. This combination has sandwiched thick ice between layers of heavy snow, cementing the tarp to the wood, making retrieval difficult. Next summer, we plan to build a roof over the whole thing, preferably with an extension that can cover a work area during rainy or snowy days.

Our most accessible trees for fuel are spruce, birch, and alder (we don't count willow, which is a poor fuel source). Spruce smells great because it is a resinous wood but it can build up a gunky creosote layer that clogs chimneys the way cholesterol clogs arteries. Many people north of us, in ecosystems with fewer trees, do burn it inside, but we favor it for aromatic, outdoor fires in a rock lined fire pit near our lake shore. It generates 15.5 million BTUs per cord. The second choice, alder, grows everywhere, like an Alaska-size weed, but it burns really hot – so hot, I've read, that “in the olden days” it was used in forges (on the other hand, it generates 17.5 million BTUs per cord – less than some other woods). Whenever I burn it, I see a tornado-like vortex form as the heat rises. So, generally, I soak it for use in my meat smoker, and make some rustic furniture with it, but mostly I burn it outdoors as a trash tree or to help damp or rotted spruce burn better. Our third option, and the one we prefer for burning indoors, is birch. It generates the most BTUs: 23.6 million per cord. When nicely aged and dry, it is light and burns cleanly. The ash in the chimney is easy to clean out (not sticky). Every spring, I dump a winter's weight of ash in my gardens (free source of nitrogen).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Remote Cabins: Cost of a Food Supply

The second requirement on Maslow's hierarchy is food. Whether one lives in the city or out in the country, food acquisition requires a combination of time and money. The proportion of each is skewed by location and initiative. I have friends and relatives who eat at restaurants every single day. When nearby, as in walkable New York City, this approach saves time but costs money. Other friends and relatives drive to market(s) every day for fresh and packaged foods to prepare at home. This requires both time and money. For us, the most important element of food production and acquisition is time (and planning). Out in the boonies, one can't eat money, but with advanced planning and seasonal awareness, one can acquire a lot of food.

Our food sources fall into four categories. Each has advantages and disadvantages, which is why we incorporate a food strategy that includes them all.

A) wild foods (foraged, hunted or fished),
B) raised food (gardens and animals),
C) multi-year, long term stored foods (purchased), and 
D) supermarkets (we fly to town to shop about 3-4 times a year)

A) WILD FOODS have several advantages. They are free, fresh, and once you know where to look, you can likely find them again in the same and similar environments. The disadvantage is that they are available only at certain times of year. For me, this makes each food a special treat that I look forward to and appreciate as a short term gain.