Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Living Off-Grid with Dark Alaska Nights

One of the pleasures of living far from the ambient light of a city's glow, with its sharp illumination of street lights and commercial signage, is seeing the sharp distinction of natural dark and light. Mountains and forests block the sky so their edges outline a gorgeous sprinkling of stars, and sometimes, satellites and auroras.

Here, in our remote corner of Alaska, we are encircled by mountains, hills, and forests which serve to lengthen the long winter nights.

Moon setting, 8 am, February
One of my most startling realizations upon moving here was the basic observation of when and where the sun rises and sets! (visit As a Southern city person, I took that predictable east-west arc for granted. Obviously, though, the closer one lives to the equator, the more constant is the trajectory of the sun, year round. Up here, at Latitude 61, the winter and summer suns are like two, totally different seasonal visitors. The winter sun traverses only about 1/3 of the sky, from south to west for 4-8 hours of daylight before dropping precipitously behind a 4500 foot mountain. In summer, the sun ambles around ¾ of the sky, from east to north west, over the course of a 20 hour day. Because of the earth's tilt, beautiful sunrises and sunsets last much longer than in lower latitudes. This time
Sunset, 4:45 pm, February
of year, as I sip a steamy mug of coffee, I peer through the windows to see the colorful striations from about 8 to 9:30 am. In the afternoons, we plan early dinners to take advantage of the lovely light between 4:30 and 6. Surely this is the pink light that Sydney Lawrence captures in his astonishing “portraits” of Denali.

Because of the long winter nights, we generate less solar power than in summer months. Rather than rely on the generator for additional power, we make our peace with the darkness. Other than sticking a hand in the knife drawer, it is fairly easy to function in absolute

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Remote Alaska Bush Life- FAQs

In honor of a readership milestone, below I answer a number of frequently asked questions. Thank you for reading!  Who knew that 110,000 people were intrigued by mis-steps, mis-adventures, and evolving contentment of a couple of ex-city folks living in an off-road, off-grid Alaska cabin?   Below are brief answers on which other articles on this site expand,  such as power, structures, transportation, weather, raising food, fears, enjoyments in an off-road, off-grid life.

Note: L and B below indicate different answers by Laura and Bryan.
Front porch of cabin, 180 degree panorama

Did you ever think you would live in a remote cabin in Alaska full time?
L: Absolutely never. When my husband started this, I thought it was one of his hare-brained schemes. I'm sure that our local service providers did, too. When I saw he was serious, I sat in the woods and cried. (But now I like it)
B: My life goals have changed. When I was younger, I lived and worked throughout Latin America for ten years. That was great. Then I went back to grad school and pursued a career in a city for a decade. That was great, too. Now, this is exactly where I want to be.

Vivid memories
a) Visitors who wanted to be Daniel Boone but acted like Larry, Curly and Moe: slipping on the dock, dropping cell phone and camera into the lake, bleeding from the forehead after a one handed .44 magnum shot recoiled... and that was just one guy!
b) Seeing dog mushers in the morning followed by two black hawk helicopters practicing a mid-air refueling... from our front porch
c) Bryan landing our red and white plane (perfectly) on skis in a black and white winter and on floats in a blue and green summer
d) The summer of too many, too close bear encounters.
e) The annual visit of the moose cow who gives birth on our property.
f) The contrast between a "modern life" of telephone and internet consulting services to international clients and a "centuries old life"  involving a chamber pot all year, no indoor running water in winter, collecting eggs, making remedies from herbs, and cooking bear meat!

Why do you like it? 
I am not an early adopter type of person, so, to be frank, it took me several years to adjust to this in every way - business, conversation, hygiene, social life.  
But my very clear answer now would be that this life is clean. I mean that in almost every way possible. Health, air, and food sourcing are obvious.  
In terms of business, let's face it, most conversations are boring, superficial, and, often ... lies.  I don't miss a single wasted hours at city networking groups. Since our cost basis is now 75% less, we can pick and choose clients we WANT TO WORK WITH, reduce the time we spend earning money and increase the time we spend on learning or pleasure. How many urban and suburban business professionals "suck it up and lose their soul," fantasizing about what they'll do when they retire?      
The power tower and ham radio systems my husband built provide important communications technology, including internet and telephony.  Thus, I can keep up with those who matter most, take on-line classes, read news and entertainment, and feel safer/connected.  This life might be too isolated for me otherwise. 

Money/Services: Rural vs. Urban
Upfront costs were high because we started from scratch, but ongoing expenses are low.  Because we receive NO municipal services (no roads, telephony, water/sewage, mail, electricity, heat), our taxes are really low - less than $300/yr. No house insurance either. On the other hand, we had to create those services for ourselves: Digging a well cost $11,000, building a power tower and installing wind turbine, solar panels, satellite internet receiver, telephone system and buying a generator as back up cost between $15-20,000... and has not been foolproof. Other “services” are strictly “third world.” We have an outhouse.  I wash winter clothes in a bucket. We raise a lot of our own food, and any garbage goes to our gardens and animals (some of which we butcher for meat).  We chop and age wood for heat and some cooking.   

A lot of city expenses involve spontaneous purchases, meals out, travel/commuting expenses, and monthly fees.  We lack those.  

Most important warnings to people who think "they'll do this one day." 
a) If you are a skillful, self-sufficient person willing to live like a “Miner '49er” you can do so cheaply.  However, if you want any first world resources/skills/services you cannot provide yourself, including food, construction, power, and communications technology, they will cost far more, and perhaps for lower quality than in densely populated areas with more competition.
b) Most of us will “age out” of remote, physically active lifestyles, leaving properties to kids who do not want them and to a real estate market that will not pay what they cost to develop. Remote areas across the country are littered with abandoned farms, lodges, cabins, and fish camps, fully furnished with aging, rusting equipment. One lodge near us was for sale for 15 years, until the remote owner dropped the price 80%.  
c) We had a high learning curve.  On-line and in-person classes, mentors and books/websites taught us practical skills such as master gardening, permaculture, wilderness emergency care, herbalism, native plants, welding, furniture construction, piloting, beekeeping, construction, various levels of communication technology (like ham radio), fishing, hunting, butchering, canning, shooting, home and machine maintenance. My husband knew a lot of this but I was a total newbie.  
Flying home from town over no human structures

I could never do what you are doing (nor do I want to).”
Understood. I think that this lifestyle is probably not suitable for people with certain health conditions/medical needs, low risk threshold (actually that has been a challenge for me), a high desire for a predictable, controlled environment; extremely gregarious, social personalities, or those with a retail job, local clientele, or family commitments. I believe I have become more of an introvert living this way.   Because we have a plane, we are less constrained than others might be.   

What do your relatives think of this move?
L: One son loves it and the other thinks we are crazy and will never visit. My parents are astonished but rather proud of how I have adapted. All figure I must really love my husband to do this.
B: My mother thought I had thrown my career away. My dad helped with construction.

Have you been contacted by Alaska Reality Shows?
Yes, by 8 producers. Two in LA, three in NY, and three in Europe. We declined them all, nicely, I hope. I learned that of the words, “Alaska Reality Show,” only two are true. Consequently, many Alaskans make fun of the shows.  Alaskan used to offer in-state film tax credits and rebates, but it was clear to me that very little money "sticks" here. Maybe Anchorage hotels and air taxis benefit, but not a single show intended to use local film-making help.  

What do you do for fun? It sounds like so much work.
L: Weather determines everything here, so we have clear favorites for indoor and outdoor activities.  Outdoors, my favorite summer activity is kayaking. We have a “mandatory” 5 pm kayaking happy hour with our respective home made wine and beer and sometimes I just bob about in the lake with a book.  In winter, I like ice fishing (which is really an excuse for a picnic) and walks through the woods, with my “Scat and Track” book to identify animal neighbors.  I am not a hunter, but I do enjoy target shooting, so we have various seasonal set ups for that on our property. I also enjoy the chickens and ducks more than I ever expected, and will often take a book and a drink and sit in the snow or clover and watch them do their thing.   In fact, both of us are avid readers and learners.  Indoor pleasures include games, on-line classes,  reading news and blogs, and our business and writing interests.  One of my "deals" for living here was an extended trip each year.  For the past five years, we have visited South America and India as well as relatives and clients in the U.S. 

B: Instead of going to the gym, my exercise occurs in a beautiful setting for practical ends – chopping wood, construction, hiking for hunting or fishing.  I also volunteer with Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Search and Rescue (SAR) and Amateur Radio Communications (ham).  I enjoy flying my Piper. And tossing a line off the dock before breakfast is nice, too.   

How much purchased power do you use? How much do you produce?
a) Purchased:  Probably because we produce our own power, our usage is lower than in the city where we didn't think about it. Now that we are in property maintenance rather than building and clearing mode, we have dropped our use of gasoline to 90 gallons per year (for the two snow machines, back up generators, chainsaws, and weedwhackers).  We flew 77 hours in our plane last year for errands and fun. ( Aviation fuel is about $1/gallon more expensive that automobile gasoline up here. The straight line of an airplane route means that a flight is usually cheaper between two points! We use about 500 lbs of propane per year (for the gas stove (1 tank lasts 3 months), summer use of refrigerator, two on-demand water heaters, a smoker, BBQ, and plane pre-heater).

b) Produced by solar panels and wind turbine: For electricity production, our solar panels have been low maintenance and consistently effective. We are really surprised that we encounter so little of it in Alaska, with its long summer days (or elsewhere). The wind turbine has been more temperamental. Most of the year (summer and winter) we do not need to run the generator (for electricity) AT ALL.  I love the silence!  However, during protracted days of still/ gray/snowy/rainy/foggy/dark weather, particularly in December/January and late August, we often need to run the generator for 2-4 hours to meet our day's needs. (The batteries store less power at temperatures below freezing.). We have no TV, dishwasher, microwave, clothes or hair dryer.  On the other hand, we have motion detector lights on most of our outbuildings to deter bears and to illuminate winter paths from the cabin to the outhouse, food shed, wood corral in winter, and even electricity wired an electric fence around the honeybee yard and to the chicken coop for heat lamps and water heaters in winter.    

If independence is one of your goals, how independent are you, really?
a) This is an excellent question.  Every year I read some story about some guy who "plans" to move out to the boonies and live off the land.  In a story this summer, he lasted two weeks!  
Not independent:  We are NOT independent on lots things: foods that we cannot produce like salt, sugar, flour, vinegar, coffee, dairy products, construction supplies from Home Depot. (I call it “His Orange Mistress” because he loves to “visit her” every time he is in town.) We buy many supplies on line, like spices, which are delivered to our P.O. Box in town. We rely on Internet and telephony (installed by Bryan) to earn a living and keep in touch with news and friends.  We rely on snowmachines and a plane for transportation. with fuel we buy in town.

b)Independent:  Recently, I added up all the foods we grow, produce, or forage and do not buy. The number has grown to 75  We are independent on eggs, many meats (rabbit, duck, chicken, bear, fish), honey, birch sap and syrup, about 13 vegetables, 6 garden herbs, 12 wild herbs, 8 berries/fruits, condiments,  wine and beer and bread (some supplies from town), many hygiene products, health remedies, and cleaning products.  We also are independent in wood for home heating, mulch, some animal food, animal manure and other organic plant food, many seeds for the gardens; water; outhouse; plane piloting, some furniture and small structure construction, some plumbing, some first aid, garbage, most trash.  I also cut my husband's hair. 

c) Revenue: We have designed jobs we can conduct part-time as telecommuters.  Our business associated costs (such as clothes, networking, entertaining, commuting, office expenses) plummeted after we left the city. 

What is your property like?  What structures have you built?
Our property is hilling and woodsy, (we are in a first growth boreal forest of birch, spruce, and alder) that drains down to a bog to the north and a lake to the west.  Across the lake, we see two close mountains (2600 and 4500 feet).  We have built our structures in a barbell shaped area along a well draining spine of the property.  The personal buildings are nearer the lake:  cabin, outhouse, food shed, shower house, chicken coop and roofed wood corral and woodshop.  A slim, woodsy path leads up hill to the utility buildings:  the power shed, power tower, bee yard, and a multi-purpose building: fuel depot, greenhouse, rabbit hutches and a snowmachine garage. Raised bed gardens dot here and there. Wildflowers grow in the yard, along with seeded clovers to sweeten the acidic soil.  We are encouraging thickets of wild berries and have planted additional domesticated berry bushes and fruit trees, as well as about 60 tree seedlings (larch and pine) since several of the spruce seem to be dying from insects and age.     What do you miss/not miss about a city
L: I miss good quality ethnic food, a deep bubble bath, and museums. I don't miss the crowds, noise, pollution, consumerism, traffic, or icy parking lots.

B: I miss showers during winter, the variety of food in supermarkets and restaurants, the convenience/cost suppression of competing service providers. I don't miss shoveling my car out of snow, circling the block for a parking spot, consumerism, panhandlers, billboards, and homeowners' association rules. Flying a private plane is much easier than airport hassles and rush hour traffic.

What do you miss/not miss about your remote home when you are elsewhere. 
L: I miss the silence in winter and the water/animal sounds in summer, beauty, clean air, and the privacy. I don't miss spit baths and washing clothes in a bucket all winter. (The outhouse bugs me less than constraints to hot water.)  

B: I miss the satisfaction of "practical exercise" and doing home projects myself from beginning to end.

What do you do/not do that people don't think about?
L: A lot of city couples don't spend much time working or playing together.  In a small cabin and a remote property, we are together a great deal.  This constant proximity could be an issue for some couples.  We tend to alternate indoor/outdoor separate activities with "together activities and projects."  Bryan exercises his gregariousness through volunteer activities and trainings he flies to.  I indulge my increasing introversion on the overnights he is away.  
B: Most clients and potential clients don't know or care where I live – they are interested in deliverables. Every time a city cubicle person asks if I had a good weekend or vacation, I feel like I live a good vacation.  If you know what you really value, it is possible to live a high quality life at much lower cost than an unexamined life. 

a) Here in Alaska, we can walk into a phlebotomist's office without a doctor's authorization and request logical blood tests that outline high/low results. Medical professionals who specialize in pilots, guides, and remote and rural patients have been MUCH more practical and proactively helpful than city doctors.  They more or less said:  get an annual or biennial blood test. See us if you need to!

b) We have taken a number of wilderness/emergency response classes, but I do not feel competent in emergencies like a broken bone larger than a finger and toe that sort of healed themselves.  

C. I make topical salves from local plants for burns, scrapes, bee stings, bĺeeding, añti bìòtic oiñtment, muscle cramps and soreness, and teas and tinctures for sore throats, headaches, congestion, intestinal complaints. But we rarely get sick.    
A nuisance bear in the yard.

What does bear taste like?
Nobody eats brown bears, but black bears are tasty. The backstrap is slim like flank steak, but as tender as a filet. Other parts I tend to cook in the pressure cooker, like a pot roast.

What animals do you raise and what predators menace them?
For eggs and meat, we raise a variety of breeds of chickens Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rocks, Aricaunas, Golden Comets, currently), harlequin and Swedish blue ducks, and Flemish giant and satin rabbits. Also we raise honeybees. Predators: a black bear got one chicken, an owl killed one duck, and a weasel killed three chickens and wounded another. An unknown canid (fox or coyote?) carried off another duck. Ravens and eagles eye the poultry, too. My husband enclosed the bee/rabbit yard with an electric fence.  Twice, large animals mangled the fencing and posts. 

Biggest Mistakes
a) We underestimated the cost and difficulty of collecting, storing, melting, filtering, heating enough water, summer and winter, for ourselves, animals, and the gardens.

b) Spraying myself with bear spray!

c) Locals who say, “That can't be done here” may never have thought of it, may not want to do it for you, or may be taking advantage of you as a newcomer.  We have encountered all three. On the other hand, their advice may  be spot on for the region.  We have learned that, too. Ask around for confirmation. 

Best "save" after a problem
a) A water pipe froze and exploded one February because the overflow valve pointed up instead of down. This meant we would have to rely on snow melt for the next three months, for ourselves and our animals! Bryan painstakingly melted the surrouding ice with a propane powered flame thrower until he could dig down through the (frozen) mud to the broken pipe and reroute the water to a newly assembled hose and faucet. It worked!

b) Remote people need to fix problems with items on hand... or not... or wait. We have redundancies/alternatives/back up parts for everything that could break.  For the past several years, we have flown out a talented (and congenial) "Mr. Fixit" once or twice a year for $600/day to address everything and anything that we can think of. 

Biggest life lessons
L: Weather trumps everything. Plan ahead, but be adaptable. Some tasks can only be accomplished during one week or one month of a year.  Use it or lose it (hunting, berry picking, hauling in supplies)  Other times, you may be stranded for weeks at a time, so have plenty of supplies for food and repairs.  Raising a few animals (for food) costs more than at a supermarket. Food production less predictable than a bag of groceries:  predators, (animal) mothers letting their young die, food plants bolting in heat or rotting in rain.  Early or late freezes and thaws. We have climbed a steep learning curve over several years.   I am proud of what I have learned over the past seven years that I never expected to be able to do, and pleased by the degree of satisfaction I have gained.  I worry when I read that most American homes lack even 3 days of food and any McGyver like skills to rely on during a power outage by any cause. 

B: I don't mind making mistakes because I learn from them. Living this way, the buck stops here. That begets more self-confidence or a lecture from my wife (about a hare-brained scheme).

Most problematic purchases
a) Almost every plastic/rubber/fake fabric item cracked, leaked or degraded within three years, including waders, boots, liquid containers, rubber bands, gaskets, shower heads, garden watering equipment, and garden gloves.

b) The wind turbine has had several expensive and bothersome problems.

c) Bone meal is not a good fertilizer in bear country. (It is a dinner bell.)

Best cost/space saving solutions
Multi-purpose everything: Examples: The (unheated) greenhouse houses veggies in summer and rabbits in winter. Meat bones are boiled for stock, fed to the chickens, burned in the wood stove, and then poured into the garden (for calcium). Plastic sleds are winter “wheelbarrows” and summer rabbit poop/straw collectors/transporters. Vinegar cleans house, cleans hair, reduces dandelions, and flavors food. Unobtrusive storage potential exists under/behind/beside anything.  Choose versatile furniture, like benches, that can also serve as coffee tables and step stools.  Barter (exchange) services and products with others. Don't buy excess crap. 

Major mistakes
L:  a) Not paying attention: Examples: When I emitted bear spray inside the cabin and cut off the tip of my finger with a kitchen madeline.

     b) Not planning ahead with information: We should have asked better questions and paid experts early instead of assuming we could figure things out. For example: Buying a male goat before being prepared for his size, scent, noise, and enormous appetite. Buying/transporting items unsuited to circumstances. Gardening before soil testing.

B: Anyone who moves anywhere experiences a learning curve. Generational learning. If you are content with “generation 1” you have done an excellent job of research, advice, and shopping. Otherwise, you will learn by experience to improve in generations 2 and 3.

Are you retired? What do you do (for money) out there?
a) No. But because our costs are low, we can work less than full time and balance our lives with time for travel, hobbies, and learning. With Internet and cell phones (on the power tower my husband built), we can work here or anywhere.

b) Bryan runs an investment conference in NY several times a year and is a Financial/Technical consultant to small Broker-Dealers and adviser to entrepreneurs. I am a compliance consultant to small Broker-Dealers, write business documents for entrepreneurs, and write a column for a magazine, “Off the Grid” for Alaska Coast Magazine (

If you can live anywhere, why there?
Ask my husband. I think he wanted a well balanced, physical and mental life in a healthy, seasonally varied setting of mountains, woods, and water, antithetical to a 50 week city cubicle work life. As for me: I go where he goes. Now I like it and miss it when we take a winter vacation.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Autumn: Moose Hunting and Float Plane Seasons End; Permanent Fund Dividend Arrives

Other parts of the country refer to this time of year as Autumn or Fall. In Alaska, we refer to its functionality as “the end of moose hunting season” or “the end of the float plane season” or, soon, Freeze Up, when bogs and shallow lakes freeze, followed by slow moving sloughs, creeks, and finally, rivers. It is also time for the Permanent Fund Dividend, or “PFD” checks which are distributed to every resident Alaskan in October (along with the predictable retail sales campaigns hoping to capture some of that windfall).  

End of moose hunting season:

Cow and calf swimming; don't shoot.
August is the rainiest month in South Central Alaska, followed by September, so it always rains on moose hunters (the season for residents runs from mid-Aug to mid-Sept, and for non-residents, about 10 days in early Sept). This year it has rained almost every day for three weeks. I feel like Mrs. Noah. Last year it rained for ten days straight. I pity those out-of-state hunters, clutching their $400 big game licenses (but that cost is just a drop in the bucket. Guided, trophy moose hunts are advertised for $10,000 – 16,000 per person). There they sit, dressed in their Cabellas outfits, surrounded by a mountain of gun cases, coolers, and butcher bags, waiting, waiting, waiting in the lobby of one Anchorage air taxi or another as their vacation time ticks down to a disappointing end. Every once in a while, sitting in our remote cabin, listening to the rain beat on the metal roof, we'll be surprised to hear a small plane, followed by two or three more in quick succession. Walking down to the dock in our rain slickers, we see a thin line of blue sky in the direction of Anchorage, and figure that the pilots decided to make a quick exit from crowded air space toward some remote spot where their arrival circumstances might be questionable.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hagar's Prayer

Hagar's Prayer
Laura Emerson
Sermon delivered at several Unitarian Universalist churches in Texas

The story of Hagar and Ishmael  ( passages in Genesis 16 – 25) is one of the most poignant in the Bible. Who can remain unmoved by her plight?  Here we have a vulnerable young woman – a foreigner and a slave, with a child, who is cast out to her certain doom in the desert by the only people she knows!  She is certain that she will die, by the unforgiving climate, or the animals it harbors, or subject to the depredations of the people who traverse it.

Once she runs out of food, and runs out of water, and runs out of hope, she lays her son under the meager shade of some desert shrub.  She doesn't pray to be saved.  She doesn't even pray for her son to be rescued – because she has absolutely no expectation of that.  Rather, she prays to die, and asks to not have to watch her only child die first.

Some of you, I know, have had to endure this tragedy of outliving your child – every parent's worst fear.  Surely you could give us a sermon or two on the despair of profound grief, followed by the slow, incremental path of resilience.

Even for those of us who have not suffered this sorrow, Hagar's circumstances speak to us, too.  Who among us has not felt alone, afraid, and vulnerable, either as a foreigner or feeling like one in some aspect of our lives?  Who has not reeled from that horrible kick in the gut when you were rejected – ejected – by someone you relied on?  Perhaps a family member or friend, a boss, or trusted teacher or religious leader?  Hagar's story can resonates there,  too.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Permaculture: Dying Spruce = New Deck

Several years ago, my husband and I tried to build a birdhouse. No bird wanted to live in it. Then we built a stool. No person wanted to sit on it. And then we concluded that we never wanted to work together on another construction project!

I have full confidence that marriage counselors would be out of work if engaged couples attempted to build something together (or share a canoe or put up striped wallpaper). Let's just say that such endeavors clarify the yin and the yang in a couple and those who stick it out will last. In our case, because he can't cook and I can't fly, we need each other, so we stick together. However, we mutually agreed to never attempt future constructions together – never ever.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How Much Food Can a Part Time Gardener Raise in Alaska?

    During WWII, Americans were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” of fresh food in their yards as a patriotic effort, and millions did, in back yards and on rooftops. After the war, the number declined, but in recent years, home-grown foods are enjoying a resurgence of interest among people who have never previously grown anything but mold in the refrigerator. (Including me!)  For those whose source of food tends to be a delivery van or a drive up window, the idea of growing food in the back yard (or window sill) may seem daunting. It doesn't have to be. In the future I will offer step by step articles for super easy seed starts to encourage the beginning gardener, since my successes and failures are still fresh in my mind. But with this article, I hope to inspire readers with the successes of an erstwhile terrible gardener.

    Wild raspberries galore all summer!
    I definitely did not grow up gardening and I gave up every summer in Texas.  Here, though, over the past three years, I have increased my production to 65 animal and herbal foods this summer. And guess what: most survive my care! Except for planting and harvesting at the beginning and end of the growing season, the time expenditure for all that is less than 1.5 hours per day. So a modest effort by someone else might require only 20 minutes, every other day.

    Since a packet of (hundreds of) seeds costs about $2, a strawberry plant costs $1, a raspberry cane about $5, and a fruit tree sapling $10 – 50, depending on age/size/type (all these fruits are perennial – they last many years), the cost and quality of home grown fruit and vegetables is much more attractive than at a store. The cost of producing eggs and meat is higher than at a big box store, but we can justify that for a number of reasons I won't belabor here. My hope is that if I, a relative newbie, can grow so much food, perhaps this article will inspire you to start or expand your food raising efforts. (For more information about raising chickens, ducks, rabbits, and honeybees, see other articles on this blog).

    Each section below lists the foods we raise/make, some notes about successes and failures, and comment about what foods in this category we still need to buy because we cannot raise/make them ourselves. I hope you will feel encouraged to grow something you can put in your next pizza or scrambled eggs.

Sweets: We tap birch trees for sap in April/May (used in cooking and making beer) and harvest honey in August/September (four hives).
Notes: Birch sap is less than 2% sugar, so it is a subtle replacement for water in oatmeal, coffee, and beer. It is also chock full of vitamins, including calcium. We collected 15 gallons last year from four trees in three days. Maple syrup is MUCH more efficient than birch syrup. But since maples don't grow this far north, we are preparing to collect 100 gallons from 14 trees over ten days in order to process a single gallon of delectable birch syrup! We will also collect additional gallons of sap for cooking and drinking. The sap needs to be chilled, but the honey is shelf stable, forever.
Honey about to be extracted from the comb

Our bees in Alaska do not overwinter so we have to buy new queens and “starter colonies” each spring. The first year, the bees spent more time building comb than making honey, so we netted only two gallons from a hive. The second year (with the existing comb), our honey harvest doubled. We do buy sugar for baking, but with next year's sweet harvests, I will endeavor to tweak recipes to use the sap and honey instead. I have learned that I can use honey instead of pharmaceutical products to cover a cut.  
Shopping: We buy flavorings that do not grow in a cold climate, like chocolate, vanilla, and coffee.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fire Prevention at Remote Properties (or any others)

Rural property owners generally pay lower taxes than city people for the logical reason that they derive fewer municipal services. That's a fair trade, isn't it? Among services NOT available to many on-road, (and certainly not for off-road) properties is subsidized fire protection. This has implications not only for structural preservation but also for insurance. Be sure to inquire about both before you buy or rent that attractive remote property! Then, plan to take charge of your own fire safety.

To help, most counties, boroughs, and parishes in the country have a Division of Emergency Services with useful information pertinent to hazards in that particular region. Some of the following suggestions are derived from the “Wildfire Mitigation Program” of my borough in Alaska. In addition, local fire departments are terrific resources. A local volunteer fireman actually helped construct some of our early buildings and alerted us to many of the elements described below. A few years later, in exchange for a hot meal, my husband flew a local fire chief out to assess the success of our fire mitigation efforts and any neglected hazards. He even helped us chop down a huge dry and dying tree!  A great resource is Firewise.

Whether your property has existing buildings or you will build from scratch, plan to assess fire hazards and find ways to reduce them through prudent use of: (a) firebreaks and landscaping, b) hardscape, (c) flammable debris removal or storage, (d) well marked and accessible roads and driveways (if on the road system), (e) well positioned fire suppression systems (f) primary and secondary methods to report the emergency, and, finally (g) exit plans and provisions.

Examples of each below:

a) Firebreaks and Landscape: The recommended width of a fire break is at least 30 feet around buildings.  (This is referred to as "defensible space zone 1") (However, since fire rises, buildings on a steep slope need to triple that distance below the structures).  I have first hand knowledge of the reason. This summer, the area of Willow, Alaska suffered a wildfire of several thousand acres. Scores of buildings and vehicles were damaged. About 2,000 people were evacuated. As we fly low over that area on a regular basis, and then drive among its roads, we see clear evidence where the fire had “jumped” narrow roads and driveways but had not crossed broad cul de sacs, parking lots, or grass air strips. The clearing around your buildings does not have to be paved or graveled – it can have landscaping - but those plantings should be intelligently selected and well maintained.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Telecommute from a Remote Property (Problems and Solutions)

For many years, my husband and I enjoyed working from home and traveling for business, so our far flung clients rarely knew where we were. They reached us by cell phone or email, and we met them occasionally during the year. So when we decided to move full time from our high-rise condo to our off-road, off-grid log cabin in the middle of the Alaskan forest, our professional life was, surprisingly, the least significant (of many!) adjustment we had to make.
Telecommuting at its finest

True, we had to build the infrastructure to power Internet and telephony by solar and wind power. And true, too, the communications service is less robust and, occasionally, less reliable. But Bryan still smiles and dials financial folks in investment banking and I still write business documents and provide compliance services for the securities industry. But the trade off is worth while: those early evening hours we used to waste commuting across town to networking meetings filled with service providers and job seekers are now allocated to a kayaking happy hour on a lovely lake surrounded by mountains. What a wonderful trade.

The message I'd like to convey in this article is: Why live where you need to work instead of working where you want to live? For many professions, telecommuting from home is an increasingly viable option, so telecommuting from where you want that home to be, is, too.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Build a Private Airstrip Or Land on One? Think Twice

Let's hypothesize that some Sourdough wants to build a grass airstrip on his property so that his Cheechako buddies can visit. Below are mistakes the former might make that the latter might encounter – to his peril. The list should give prudent pilots plenty of food for thought before they land on any private airstrip... or build one.

A visiting flyer could encounter problems if the airstrip is:
  • Adequate for the owner's one seater with a STOL kit and tundra tires who is familiar with the quirky bumps and holes, but problematic for other pilots and other planes. (for example, a short, narrow strip with animal holes at the end).
  • Built on soft or clay soil with no underlayment and no camber for drainage, soupy in rain, rutted after a prior friend landed or a moose walked through, uneven shifting due to permafrost and ice heave.
  • Studded with rocks that are loosened by each visitor, pitting propellers and low winged aircraft.
  • Too short for visiting airplanes, or long enough to land but too short for visitor take offs when temperatures or humidity rise (leaving Cheechako Charlie a stranded, and possibly unwelcome, visitor until the weather changes).
  • In many parts of the country, and CERTAINLY in Alaska,  the runway will be wet, slushy, and icy  many times of year.  As any car driver in similar situations can imagine, the rule of thumb for safe landings in these conditions is to multiply one's "normal" landing distance by 1.4 when wet, by 1.7 for snow, by 2.3 for standing water/slush and by a whopping 3.5-4.5 for ice.  PLUS a 15% margin of error.  So, for example, a Cessna 182 and 206 generally can land in 1400 feet.  However, ski planes have NO BRAKES unless one adds them (a $2000 extra).  A safe ski plane pilot  would avoid an icy strip of less than 5600 feet,  especially if there are trees, roads, or homes at the far end of the luge lane, or if the strip angles downward.  The past two warm winters here made strips perilously icy.  Pilots avoided our neighbor's strip in the woods all winter long.  They stuck to the much larger (if still icy) lake.        
  •  Wide enough for the owner's plane or experienced pilots but too narrow for occasional pilots or in cross winds.
  • Contains a tricky curve, laterally or vertically!
  • Built steeper than the recommended 2% grade lengthwise or greater than the 2.5 % camber widthwise, or it angles down instead of up for landings, or the lay of the land changes over time and is not regraded by the owner.  Oriented downward, a 1% grade can increase a pilot's needed landing distance by 10%.  3% grade = 30%!  And who can see that from the air? 
  • Obstructed on the ends, sides, or even middle of the strip – a downed tree, a piece of machinery, animals, trash, a windblown plastic chair.
  • Oriented toward the prevailing wind in some seasons but not others. Positioned where mountains throw up quirky weather.  Positioned where landings speed up because of common tailwinds. 
  • Infrequently maintained if the owner is not a frequent flyer. For example, the grass could be high enough to obscure obstructions, ruts or animals except right before the owner/pilot plans to fly.  Wet grass contributes to hydroplaning, while dry grass can "grab" on landing. (Where we live, the wild grasses grow one foot per week to eight feet and then flop over everything nearby).
  • A windsock at ground level surrounded by trees/buildings will not offer much useful information, and it may be contrary to conditions above trees ... where you need it.
  • Finally, most airplane insurance does not cover landings on private residential strips. Those visits are strictly “at your own risk,”  understandably!  The factors that most grossly exaggerate the length required for a safe landing are strips that are slippery (from ice, snow, water), where landings are graded downhill with a tailwind.   

The owner of the airstrip may encounter problems he didn't contemplate, either.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flies in My Outhouse - Chickens to the Rescue

Most women I meet have a spontaneous “ugh” reaction when they learn that we rely on an outhouse at our off-grid home. Then they are silent. Maybe they can't imagine it. Or maybe they picture a disgusting porta-potty at an overcrowded public venue. So, as a public service to polite, silent, curious people, here is a ”tell all” about what it is really like living with an outhouse.

The hole beneath is 4 x 5 x 6 ft: plenty large for the two of us for a decade or more! Every once in a while we toss some lime down there, but let's face it; an outhouse is a low maintenance space.  Above ground, I asked for a large space because I am scared of spiders, and so I wanted lots of elbow room. Thus, our outhouse is 4 x 8 inside, which, if you think about it, is about the size of powder rooms in many homes. For ventilation and light, it has two screened windows and screened soffits under the high, steep eaves. We also added one of those whirly-gig things you see on the roofs of many houses to release the rising heat in attics. In our case, this one punctures the hole beneath the structure and carries away any methane. Thus, there is no more disagreeable smell in our outhouse than when one is alone in a powder room.

There are other inconveniences, no doubt. It is outside and unheated, and in Alaska! So, in the corner of our bedroom, we have a “chamber pot” like your ancestors did. For us, it is a white 5 gallon bucket, on top of which sits a camper's plastic toilet seat with a round aperture for just such an application, topped by the bucket lid. The arrangement is about the same height as a regular indoor toilet, so it is easy enough for a sleepy person in the middle of the night, except for the privacy issue, which took me  some getting used to. Every morning, I dump the bucket in the outhouse and rinse it at an outdoor spigot. About once or twice a week I swish it out with vinegar.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Free Ranging Ducks and Chickens - Hide and Seek with Eggs

Geo-caching is a high-tech version of hide and seek, complete with GPS and computer resources.  Our decidedly low-tech version is finding where our free-range ducks hide their eggs every morning.
Waddling home, always single file

During the winter, Mrs and Daylate, our harlequin females, lay their eggs in the nesting boxes of the coop they share with our Rhode Island Red chickens. But as soon as the snow recedes around the roots of trees, they explore options for future nests – waddling under overturned root balls and digging their bills into rotted trees and surrounding earth to assess softness. When the top several inches of a desirable location has warmed up, we no longer find eggs in the coop and start our morning game.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Citizen Scientists Monitor Lakes in Alaska

Once a month from May to October, Laura and Bryan Emerson squeeze into their blue tandem kayak surrounded by $4600 worth of scientific equipment and paddle out to the deepest section of their remote lake to measure water quality. An hour or so later, they fly the samples and notes via their 1954 Piper PA-20 to a staff member of the Mat-Su Borough Volunteer Lake Monitoring program, who meets them at a roadside lake in order to whisk the time sensitive samples to a lab near Palmer.
Kayaking out to test the lake water
photo by Howard Feldman

To date, the Emersons are the only volunteers monitoring an off-road lake, and the program coordinator, Melanie Trost, would like to recruit additional flyers for the summer of 2015.  Even people who cannot do monthly water sampling can help with occasional observations,” says Melanie. “We welcome reports of dumping, pollution, and invasive plants in our lakes and rivers. One concern is old polystyrene docks, which beavers and muskrats chew and burrow into, and the sun deteriorates, releasing the little foam beads into the watershed where it looks like food to birds, fish, and mammals. Pilots can tell us what they see on a particular time and day at a lake they visit.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Float Plane Differences from Wheeled Planes

Are you a wheeled plane pilots who says, “One of these days, I'll get rated on floats?” Or perhaps you are a traveler who watches seaplanes take off and land?  Either way, below is a primer about some differences between planes on floats vs wheels.  (Our Piper has skis, floats, and wheels). 

Sleeping under the summer midnight moon
The most distinctive aspect of a seaplane (or float plane) is obviously the undercarriage. The floats (or pontoons) look like huge, bloated, Ronald McDonald shoes compared to puffy tundra tires and dainty tarmac tires. On our little Piper PA-20, the float assembly weighs 150 pounds more than wheels – the weight of an adult, cutting down on payload and fuel efficiency, and introducing additional drag. Other, less obvious differences are that floats are mounted directly to the fuselage with no suspension system, and that float planes have no brakes. They can rely on the friction of the water to slow down and stop.

Pre-flight checks of the floats underscore the fact that they are designed to function like boats, so many of the terms and design features are similar. In fact, we secure our float plane to an angled dock with a boat winch. In this position, most of each float is elevated above the water line, so we can inspect the keel (the bottom of the float) before sliding the plane down into the water and maneuvering it with a tow rope over to the adjacent boat dock, where we conduct the other pre-flight checks. Internally, the floats' bulkheads are divided into six watertight compartments, which must be “sumped out” with a portable bilge pump to remove any accumulated water (rain from above or seepage from below). Another chore is to check the retractable water rudder at the stern of each float. Some float planes also have a fin added under their tails for extra stability.
The ducks coming out to say "good morning"
to their floating friend

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Communications Devices Can Save Your Life

Each week, Alaskans (and others around the world) read news reports of someone trapped for hours or days by bad weather, an avalanche, or an accident. The following devices could save them time, money, and possibly, lives. Many are the size of a deck of cards and not much heavier. The following recommendations come from Bryan Emerson, a member of Alaska Airmen Association, Willow CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and Civil Air Patrol (search and rescue operations).  Below the article are resource links and purchase/use recommendations.  

Communications technology transmits information either one-way or two way. Both are useful.

Weather radio: (Advertised prices range from $20 – 100.) A weather radio is the size of a portable AM/FM radio, and, in fact, many portable and installed AM/FM radios include a local weather band that relays continuous loops of repeated and updated weather information for a target area. Dedicated weather radios offer multiple weather frequencies so that a traveler in remote locations can usually tune in to one or more. (In our part of the Alaska bush, we can hear two stations). Some devices allow for an external antenna that boosts reception. With this in mind, many prudent backpackers traveling through river valleys or the back side of mountains carry a lightweight coil of copper wire that they can plug into the radio and hand up on a tree.  Travelers can see the weather station frequencies for various locations on  Consider enrolling in a free online SKYWARN Spotter class. (free) This website program enables someone to track a traveler for free, on the website, (FI for Finland) as long as the traveler carries a GPS equipped amateur radio (like a Kenwood) and has registered the radio call sign on the website. To work, the person with the transmitter needs to be within line of sight of (radio) repeater towers. (There are two in Anchorage). We have found it easy to follow the progress of a traveler on foot, car, or airplane throughout large swaths of the Mat-Su Valley, too. However, it cannot capture travel in river bottoms or the far side a mountain undetected by a repeater tower.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Housing Winter Rabbits in Cold Climates

Here in Alaska, we raise rabbits, ducks, and chickens for food. By mid-February, we had more animals than housing, but, for various reasons (like age, body heat, and pregnant rabbits), we did not want to “dispatch” any. This prompted some new housing ideas for the rabbits that worked out exceptionally well, in, of all places, in the chicken coop and greenhouse.

Rabbits in the chicken coop:
Because we know a woman who houses her menagerie of goats, poultry and rabbits in the
Zen (the rabbit) is on watch while the ducks nap
(note their heads tucked in, feeling safe) 
same enclosure, we decided to install two of the female rabbits in the coop with our harlequin ducks and Rhode Island Red chickens. One ran away the next day when we opened the run for “duck recess.” Her distinctive foot prints traveled extensively throughout the snowy yard. She successfully evaded predators (including an owl that killed one of the ducks). Ultimately, she settled under the hutches of the other rabbits, where she created a snug, straw filled burrow under their raised building. I hear her banging around as I tend to the other rabbits. When I feed them, she waits below their wire floors, much as my dog used to sit below my children's highchairs, assured of bits and pieces, sure to fall below. She looks healthy and content and has never chosen to return to the coop.

The other rabbit remained with the poultry. She has such equanimity that I named her Zen. At first it was startling (and delightful) to open the lid of the nesting boxes and see not only laying hens but a rabbit – popping her head up to look around! Clearly, though, she is “one of the guys.” She eats and drinks out the same bowls as the birds, and enjoys many of the same snacks, like green peas and birdseed. The rabbit and chickens will gather round me to eat out of my hand. During cold weather, she enjoyed a quiet siesta inside the coop, in a soft depression that she skootched into the straw, while the noisy ducks are outside, hoovering up the snow and digging into rotted tree roots. On sunny afternoons, I raise the nesting box lid, and each box is occupied by a duck, a chicken, or a rabbit, enjoying the sun on their face and the wind-blocking boxes around them. They look like commuters on a train, or kids in a school bus.. As the snow starts to recede and lay bare tempting patches of brown around the trees, Zen follows the ducks' peregrinations, ultimately spending most of the day with them - they guarding her or she guarding them!  She is not the far flung explorer that her erstwhile rabbit companion turned out to be. Zen is more of a companionable homebody.  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Winter Return to a Cold, Off-Grid, Off-Road Alaska Cabin

Our little Piper PA 20 is sort of the “Honda Civic” of planes. It is great for flying the two of us around, but its meager pay load means that delivering seasonal quantities of food, mail, and accumulated Amazon purchases from our Post Office box in Anchorage necessitates three round trips.

Laura with a warm cup behind the cabin
After a winter vacation in warm and crowded southern venues, we are ready to head back to the solitude of our little cabin. Kindly, our mechanic in town usually hauls our plane into his hangar to warm it up the night before our departure, speeding by several hours the prep-work needed for the first of multiple flights on below-zero days. Given the paucity of winter daylight hours with a firm deadline of sunset (no landing lights on a remote lake!), his generosity is the gift of light that enables me to achieve some semblance of cozy habitation before darkness descends at 4:30 pm this time of year.

For all flights, we balance and triage our cargo. Perishable food wins prize of place on the
Kitchen, a few days after settling in
first flight home. So on my lap, I balance a box of eggs and right behind me I stow a gallon of water and a net bag of ingredients for the first three meals. That way, if Bryan's return flights are delayed overnight by an unexpected weather system, I have at least a day's worth of fresh food.

On this year's homecoming day, the sun rose at 9:30. We loaded the plane and then Bryan did three “touch and goes” to test the plane's systems before I climbed in. At about 11 am, we lifted off into the clear blue sky, heading toward the jaw dropping view dominated by Mts. McKinley, Hunter, and Foraker. The air was windless, but the throbbing of the engine caused the windows to slide ajar to minus 10 degree air. I tugged futily on the knob that promises “cabin heat” but can't deliver at these temperatures. Anticipating this, I had waddled into the plane swaddled in three pairs each of socks, pants, and tops, plus a hat and two layers of gloves.