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.