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.