Friday, November 28, 2014

From Texas High-Rise to Alaska Outhouse

The article below, by journalist Alyson Ward, was published in the Houston (TX) Chronicle on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2014, under the title, "Call of the Wild."  It summarizes our transition, from city folks to remote rural life.  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 elements summarized here.

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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."

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