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. 

Healthcare:
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 (www.coast-magazine.com).

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.  

6 comments:

  1. Hello , please keep blogging about your life there in Alaska .

    I watch Below Zero each year and I often see people building a small cabin in the Alaskan bush. My question is "can anyone do this in some places without owning the land?

    Ideally I would like to do exactly as your doing eg: cabin w/internet and maybe a sauna with a greenroom .

    Cheers!
    Dan

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  2. No. You need to buy land or be vulnerable to forfeiture. This is true in other countries in S America, too.

    Why put time, effort, and money into a home you do not own?

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  3. Thank you for writing about your guys life in Bush Alaska, it was very informative and I can picture you doing all those things on a daily basis...You have given me a well pictured life in Alaska... Rosa...

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  4. Can you tell me more about your internet service? Is it satellite or cellular? is it reliable enough for telecommuting? Do you run into speed or data limits?

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  5. We rely on satellite internet service, from Exede (visit their website for some answers to your questions). Previously we used Hughes Net, which was inferior. Yes, we encounter data limits, but I believe one can pay more to address that. Elsewhere on my blog, you may enjoy a full article about how we built our communications system. Yes, we are able to run several tele-commuting businesses. See another blog article with a title about telecommuting. Thanks for your interest. We are learning a lot, a bit at a time.

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