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.

Our lake is shallow, particularly near our cabin, so we don't worry about ice thickness on winter landings, but we were startled to see a number of spider holes from the air indicating cracked and vulnerable ice further out. Perhaps they were more visible than usual because we returned to the lowest snowfall we have encountered in 8 winters – only about two feet, according to markers we leave around the yard. Come to think of it, we had observed long, dark leads of open water along the steep banks of the rivers we passed. Unusual weather. (Note: in fact, the Iditarod race was moved to Fairbanks for only the second time in history, due to low snow on the treacherous route.) Bryan touched down lightly and taxied through the snow to the lake shore in front of the cabin, deftly turning the plane into the wind (north) for a straight departure before switching off the ignition.

Because temperatures were so low, the snow was powdery light and soft, but at this depth it was not hard to walk up hill with my precious allotment of food and water. Immediately, I headed inside to light the wood we had previously stuffed in the wood stove for the dual purpose of both heating and cooking.

On top of the stove I hoisted a large pot of frozen water which, as it melted, would humidify the dry air, and, once liquid, would serve for cleaning the cabin and washing ourselves. I could sip from the gallon jug until my motley assortment of small bottles and jugs of well water would thaw, over the next few days. Before he returned to the plane, Bryan unscrewed the front and back bear shutters, providing daylight by which to do my indoor chores, since, of course, we had no power. Looking through those windows, I took note of the yard. A large birch bough had broken off behind our house, surely a relief for that old tree. Dangling over the eave of our shower house was a three foot frozen snow wall, curved like an eyelash by the western sun.
Roof snow slowly sliding
toward the west

From past experience, I knew that it would take about two hours for the interior temperature to rise from the ambient temperature (minus 5 degrees) to a not-so-balmy 32 F. During that time, I would rely on exertion to warm up - outside. First I shoveled snow off the decks and steps, unscrewing the bear mat in front of each door, so I could drag our cedar furniture outside. Shoveling snow off the porch steps would make it easier to carry up future planeloads of supplies. Next, I dug a path to the outhouse and installed the polystyrene ring for a temperature neutral, winter toilet seat. Finally, I turned on the 100 lb. propane tank on the back porch in order to light the kitchen lamp indoors. By this time, the crackling fire had buoyed the interior temperature to +15 F and the metal was starting to creak as it warmed. I loaded more birch logs in the stove and started to cook on top of it a humble soup of dried peas, sausage, onion, and carrots. What a welcome scent is a homemade soup on a cold day!

When I heard Bryan's plane returning, I headed down hill to meet him, dragging two black plastic sleds behind me. In two or three loads, we carted food, mail and clothes to the bottom of the cabin stairs, creating a sinuous path between spruce trees and a huckleberry thicket. Bryan flew off for the final return flight of the day, while I worked up a sweat carrying and dragging boxes, bags, duffles, and suitcases upstairs into the cabin.

After one more flight and another load of cargo, we were not yet able to relax but could
Plane parked and covered on frozen
 lake in front of our cabin. Outhouse
 back right
say, “we are home.” Once we had wrapped the plane's cowl, wings, and tail in fabric covers, we headed inside, where we huddled over some aromatic soup and garlic bread in a 50 degree cabin before crawling, exhausted, into a very soft bed in a very dark cabin at 7 pm.

Several more days were required to address other tasks of homecoming. Slowly the potable water thawed and the pots of snow melted. An on-demand heat trace line warmed the drain pipe in the sink so I wouldn't need to empty slop buckets every time I washed dishes - which saved heavy slogging on a rather gross job.  Alas, the long, effortful, expensive heat trace line that Bryan had wrapped around the water pipe (and reburied) in the yard to deliver well water directly to the kitchen sink did not work (this winter either), so, for the rest of the long winter, he - and it soon became we - would lug 4 - 40 lb (6 gallon) jugs across the yard twice a week, possibly more once we reinstalled chickens and ducks on a subsequent local flight. 

Most unfortunately, we discovered that the batteries on both our snow machines (snowmobiles) had died. Since we rely on them both for transportation and for portable power to heat the plane, we would have to trouble shoot those in order to travel... anywhere... by any means other than foot power.  Thank goodness for this load of food, and back loads of pantry staples.  

-----------------To date, I have 48,000 viewers, but relatively few comments.  If you have one to share or a difficulty sharing to describe, I'd appreciate either one, since I am not very tech savvy. See comment section below and email access elsewhere.  Thanks,  Laura 


  1. Congrats on getting settled in back home!! Your stories are inspirational for us slackers that complain when the hot water doesn't come on fast enough as we stand in our heated showers. (>:

  2. Very nice blog , I enjoy reading it. With your plane I see you are still connected minimally but are more remote than many. Have you ever had to snow machine out?

  3. I'd love to see more pictures of your homestead and maybe you bringing your supplies home in the plane. I'm so intrigued by the bush life!!