Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bear Neighbors

Piquing a bear's curiosity
Living on the far side of three, bridgeless rivers,  we are less concerned about human intruders than ursine ones.  In fact, we don't even have locks on our cabin. This reflects one aspect of “bush protocol” which is that if an honest person  needs to get into your cabin while you are gone it might be for a really serious reason.  In fact, a friend with a remote cabin taped to the inside of her  door a note with her name and home phone number, saying that a lost or endangered wanderer is welcome to use supplies in the building but when home, safe and sound, please let her know what has been used up.  

An alert  visitor to our home might notice that our entrances are constructed differently than city ones.  In town, home and hotel door hinges are attached INSIDE the door, away from the prying tools of bad guys. By contrast, our hinges hang on the EXTERIOR because we aren't worried about visitors with opposable thumbs.  Rather, we are trying to deter 300-700 lb hairy bruins inclined to shove in a weak door. With four inch thick doors that open outward, and a sturdy  doorstop inside the doorjam, we hope to retard the forward momentum of a foraging bear.
A bear's goal of attack; the food shed

Windows are obviously more fragile than doors. Next to each of our entrances is a double sheeted plate glass window.  I don't kid myself - the big 4x5 picture window in front is vulnerable.  I just hope that its position,  up eight steps and 8 feet above ground level evades detection.  Besides, neither porch window opens, and therefore neither emits any beckoning scents.  One time, a bear did indeed lumber up onto my back porch, bump against the door, stand up and look in the high window above my stove, eye level with me (inside).  However, it was my banging on the window that attracted her curiosity, rather than encouraging her departure, as intended.  My bad. 

Another friend described a sight I would have loved to see (from a distance.)  He was inside his cabin when a bear ambled up to a low window and peeked in.  The light was such that instead of seeing the interior, the animal viewed the reflection of a very close bear looking right back!  Outta there!  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Weather Trumps Everything in Rural Living (Alaska): Enjoy it!

One of the things I like best about living in a climate with rapid seasonal variations is the constant “use it or lose it” lessons in appreciation.  Everything changes so fast here that I can only “see these beauties” or “do those activities” at specific times of year, some as brief as a week.  Miss it?  Wait a year!  So, we have no “mañana, mañana” attitude.    This fact contributes a celebratory immediacy to waking up every single day.   Below are seasonal notes for our home, at Latitude 61, in Southcentral Alaska.

View across the lake in winter

Temperatures:  Normal:  -20 F - +20 F, November - March

Transportation:  Ski plane and snowmachines, snowshoes, cross country skis, bunny boots

Beauty: A silent, black and white world

Favorite images:  heavy snow coating tree branches and buildings; lacy ice halos on birch canopies; the aurora borealis, our log cabin puffing birch smoke from the chimney.

Animals:  Audible/ visible owls, eagles, and ravens, and coyotes.  We see tracks of quieter animals in the woods, like martins, hares, foxes.  Once a lynx (I think).

Favorite activities:
Outdoors: Snowshod and booted walks, cross country skiing, snowmachine treks through the pretty woods and across frozen lakes and bogs,  tracking animals, seeing dog mushers and moose, ice fishing picnics, grooming trails, beautiful regional flights.
Indoors:  no urgency to leave during three day snowstorms or deep cold and dark; starting seeds on every window ledge as I plan the gardens, on-line classes and book immersion.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Unpredictability of Raising Food

Raising one's own food - whether it is a pot of herbs on a window sill or a farm - is a satisfying endeavor.  But the results can be unpredictable.  Usually the variances are due to my own errors, but Mother Nature throws curve balls each year, too. For people who live in a town, a failure of a crop just means a trip to the supermarket.  But for people living remotely, as we do, learning to grow, harvest, and store food is a high priority.  We made many naive mistakes, and sometimes took several years to draw logical conclusions and make appropriate changes.  Now, though, we raise and forage for about 65 foods, including meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and sweets.

For readers who think, "One of these days, I'll throw some seeds in the ground," may the following highs and lows of our experience help you start off better and advance faster than we did.  Notes are organized for perennial and annual plants, eggs, meat, honey bees, and harvesting/storing food.

Perennial plants, both native and domesticated, are NO BRAINERS.  They can produce for decades, require very little care, and the wild ones offer excellent information about the types of plants well suited to your locale.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How I Harvest Wild Plants for Food and Remedies

Fireweed, clover, and yarrow on our
property in Southcentral Alaska
Many resources (books and online) that encourage readers to collect wild plants for food, medicine, and other purposes, neglect to describe WHEN and HOW to harvest, dry, and store them.  This deterred me for several years.  Then I met a delightful woman who has become my mentor - the go-to person anytime a cartoon-like “Huh?” forms above my head.   By trial and error, year by year, I am learning about the bounty in my midst.  My new enthusiasm combines elements of botany, gardening, wandering, observation, research, and cooking.  It is increasing my independence as well as my respect for Mother Nature.

Below, I answer FAQs that may help other novices who want to get started on simple preparations of plants they recognize as safe and not sprayed by pesticides.  The questions are sequenced from plant harvest to storage through preparation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bees and Wasps: Hives, Stings, and Remedies

Because we are beekeepers in a remote, wooded area of Alaska, I have become much more attentive to all the pollinators on my plants.  For each of the last eight years we have cleared patches and paths in our  thickly wooded property, I have gotten “up close and personal” with a number of other stinging insects, too.  In fact, my husband, who was wearing Kevlar chaps while chainsawing recently, was stung multiple times just above the top of the chaps - near his groin!  Ouch!  He came bolting out of the woods like Forrest Gump ("Run, Forrest, run").

This experience, plus a “bad year” for bees and wasps here, prompted further research. (Informative insect information can be found at, and

The two most interesting factoids I have learned are about the venom (bee and wasp venom have different pHs) and the hives.  Both may help me (as well as readers) respond better to future trans-species altercations.

Yellow Jacket
All stinging insects are far less dangerous, even benign, when they are out and about on their own, pollinating (bees) or predating (wasps). However, they can be scary and dangerous if you disturb their nests/hives.  Not only may one sting you, it will emit a pheromone that triggers a warrior response to attract others to sting you, too!  Withdrawal is the better part of valor, followed by washing the clothes that may be imprinted with the pheromones. My husband washes his bee suit after every hive check.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Weeds: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em!

Several years ago, I earned a Master Gardener certificate through an excellent, on-line class via a state university.  But deep down, I know that I am just a weed farmer.

Everything grows so fast in an Alaskan summer that my property is overwhelmed by prolific “native plants” (which is the politically correct way to refer to weeds). I live the expression, "watching the grass grow."   My vegetable and flower plots wage  losing battles against nettles and horsetail. Dandelions proliferate everywhere. Sweet grass grows to 6 or 7 feet and then smothers everything near by.  We can't even find the ducks' eggs anymore.

This state of affairs used to bother me more until I made a concerted effort to learn about these plants.  As a result, I will never look at my property the same way again.  I still weed and weedwhack like a maniac, but I now appreciate some of this opportunistic vegetation for food and hair/skin care.   If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em, or pour them all over yourself.

Am I  justifying my overgrown yard?  Absolutely!  But, truly,  I have also gained immense respect for  the abundant vitamins, minerals, and flavors that lie at my feet..  Nowadays my husband encounters a demon scientist in the kitchen, conjuring up various teas and treatments that I test on him.  If he is still walking and talking the next day, that concoction is a keeper.  
Left to right:  raspberry, horsetail, nettle, fireweed, dandelion
Horsetail for hair and insecticide (how is that for a combo) and the rest for tea

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Kitchen Skin and Hair Care

The only thing that Laura Mercier and I have in common is our first name (although the lovely CEO was my next-door neighbor when I lived in a high rise in Houston,TX). I have never been one to purchase expensive cosmetics and have been appalled by the prices paid by friends and relatives for teeny, tiny tubes of La Mer creams and lotions.  So, with these disclosures, I promise never to offer cosmetic advice!  However, I love to have really clean hair and skin.  I revel in  the way my face feels after a professional facial.  So I am delighted to recreate that clean, smooth result with common kitchen ingredients (1- 3, that require less than 2 minutes to assemble and cost less than $12).  Below are 14 recipes.

Readers:  why NOT compare a home made application on one  side of your face and your favorite purchased item on the other, or alternate two procedures, for a week each? See what you think. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Turning Alaskan Birch Sap into Syrup, Part 2

(This is Part 2, focusing on cooking the sap down to syrup.  To read about collecting the sap, please enjoy the prior article).

In our neck of the woods, the sap started running on April 2, 2016, more than 2 weeks earlier than in recent years and 6 weeks earlier than a particularly late spring several years ago.  Whenever Nature decides, we have to be ready.

Assembling the evaporator
Fortunately, we had strung the collection lines among two dozen trees in February and early March.  After that, Bryan started to assemble the "woodstove" he bought from Leader Evaporator (in Vermont), which consisted of a sheet metal exterior, about 600 pounds of heat resistant bricks (some of which he had to cut to fit), and a short, metal chimney.

Unfortunately, the masonry cannot be cemented together until the temperature rises above the mid-40s, which did not occur regularly until late March, and once that occurred, it started to rain!  Every day for a week!  So that set us back a bit.

The evaporator was finally finished and the first test fire ignited on April 1.
The very next day, we discerned drops of sap flowing down the plastic lines to the collection tank next to the wood  stove. Phew!  Perfect timing.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Collecting Birch Sap for Syrup, Part 1

In 2013, I wrote a blog article about collecting birch sap in the spring to make beer.  Since that topic has continued to attract hundreds of readers, particularly this time of year, I thought an update might be in order, especially now that we have “amped up” collection to hundreds of gallons and now enjoy the delicious syrup, too.

Whereas collecting a few gallons of sap from a few trees is very cheap and easy to do, and nutritionally/flavorfully worthwhile for residents of a boreal forest, collecting enough and cooking it down to syrup is a huge endeavor, perhaps better suited to a business or affinity group. Below is our experience over several years.

The previous collection method
In  2013, we picked four trees close together, tapped them, and let the sap drip into a vinegar bottle we bungee corded beneath each tap and thus collected an initial 2.5 gallons. Because we were so pleased with the flavor, nutritional value, and versatility of the sap, the next two years, we “uppped” our take to 15 gallons, collected by a length of food grade tubing connecting each tap to a five gallon bucket at the foot of each tree.  We collected our target amount in only 3 or 4 days. Easy in, easy out.

Five gallons were immediately deployed as the liquid (replacing water) in a batch of home brewed spring beer.  (Bryan reports that he could not discern a difference in flavor or texture from the 2013 batch of 1/2 water and 1/2 sap, but he enjoys the contrast to his chimay recipe made with 100% water.)  It  has an initial taste of wood and banana.  The banana flavor recedes, but a pleasingly light woodiness and sweetness remain.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Winter Ski Plane Challenges in Remote Alaska

Winter flying introduces a number of duties and challenges not encountered in warm weather, but there are some advantages, too. Below are a few anecdotes from our ski plane flights, as we fly to and from our remote home in the Alaska Bush.

Warm Up:  Like any car in cold climates, we have to warm up the plane, since we do not store it in a hangar.  The day before a flight, Bryan unravels a long blue electrical cord  stored behind a cedar loveseat on our front porch, and threads it from an electric plug on the outer wall, down through the snow to the frozen lake where we have tethered the plane to two boards frozen beneath four feet of lake ice.  With the cord, he charges the plane's battery, since its performance degrades in cold temperatures.

The next day, an hour before the flight, we pre-heat the plane. When we first bought the aged plane (a 1954 Piper PA-20), the owner gave us an ancient Red Dragon heater that he had not used often.  To utilize it, we drag it down to the plane in a little black plastic sled, along with a 20 lb propane tank, a board (as a flat, hard surface for the heater), a battery charger, and a five foot long heating tube (that you shove up into the engine compartment).  Unfortunately, the tube  was so perforated with tiny holes that it took us 45 minutes to pre-heat the engine.  Not a fun wait at freezing temperatures!  Once we figured out the problem, we bought a new one for $200 that cut the time down to 15 minutes.  Well worth it.   Until... one day, when the low temperatures and the low voltage battery charger conspired to cause a near emergency.  The charger was underpowered for the job on a particularly cold day.  It had enough power to generate a hot flame but not enough to push the heat through to the plane's engine.  The tube caught fire!  We lacked a handy fire extinguisher but Bryan yanked it out of the cowling and tossed it on the snow, where the fabric sheath disintegrated into fluffy, gray ash. We learned several lessons that day.  One is to keep a fire extingisher with the dragon heater.  Another is to make sure that the bungee cords of the cowl cover are totally detached from every single hook for a rapid whisk away from the nose cone.  A  third is to utilize my snowmachine instead of the modest battery charger for future power (and the added convenience of grooming the landing strip after he departs).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Start Ups: How is Your Financing Going (or Not)?

Every day, our company receives calls and emails from companies seeking investment.

The large ones we route to our investment banking practice and the small ones to our investment conferences in New York, where they can represent themselves to investors without an intermediary.  (Others call about our narrow angel investment criteria in telecom or board positions).

But the great majority of callers do none of the above.  Some want something for nothing.  Others are dreamers whose aspirational companies are unlikely to get off the ground, but remain the subject of loving and lengthy monologues.

It is pretty easy to separate the wheat from the chaff –
(a) those callers who understand the endurance race aspect to raising capital vs.
(b) those who think  they just have to talk someone's ear off to collect no-questions-asked checks.

The following paragraphs include snippets of  seven, initial conversations with members of the latter group (the naive idealists or what?) followed by my behind-the-scenes interpretation.  What is your first impression?  Do you think the caller will be taken seriously by a finance professional?  If not, do not be like them!

Entrepreneur 1: “I don't need to hire your investment bank or present at your conference.  I will be funded by then.”
Us:   “Then how can we help you (I'm wondering,  uh, why did you call us)?” and “Wonderful news!  Are you currently negotiating a letter of intent?  (No)  Do you have a closing date on the calender (No)."
Entrepreneur 1:  “But we have several initial meetings scheduled and they'll love us.”
Interpretation: This caller does not know that investment is often a needle – in-a-haystack search, followed by a lengthy period of due diligence, a letter of intent, negotiated terms, legal advisors, finally culminating in a well defined closing date.  In other words, it entails a protracted and wholly predictable schedule of milestones.  Therefore, this blithe comment reveals that s/he has never worked with investors before.  Some service providers may take advantage of that.  In any case, s/he has lost credibility with professionals who know what s/he does not.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Jr. Iditarod Race from Our Front Porch

Living out in the boonies as we do, we see more eagles than people. But once a year, we have front row seats for a dog mushing race that runs right past our cabin.  We look forward to this each February.
A racer passing by our porch
The Junior Iditarod is a two day, 150 mile race for teenaged competitors (14-17) that has been run in the vicinity of Willow, Alaska since 1977.  Each musher must raise, care for, train, and race his or her own team of dogs (usually 10), so the competition is the culmination of many months of commitment.  The entry fee is currently $150 – 250, depending on date of payment.  The prize money of about $10,000 is split among the fastest finishers, but that surely doesn't even cover the expense of feeding and training a whole kennel of dogs. Before the recession (before 2009), the peak number of participants I found was 22. Most years, though, the entry pool consists of only 9-12 intrepid racers.

It is fair to say that more volunteers than competitors participate, many of whom are long timers.   They have volunteered their time as pilots, snowmachiners, ham radio operators, check point timers, cooks and bottle washers.  Each gathering includes some reminiscence of the kids who graduated from this race to enter the “senior” Iditarod – the grueling 1000 mile race that starts  the following weekend (First weekend of March) and lasts for ten days.  Our only full time neighbor (within ten miles) has offered his small lodge as a check point for a decade or more, which is why the race route passes us.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Refrigeration Alternatives Off-Grid

I love icy cold fruit juice and white wine.  How can we accomplish this at our off-grid cabin?
How do we store cheese and other dairy products, as well as fruits and vegetables? 

We rely on a mix of powered and natural methods that vary somewhat according to the season.  Each is highlighted below.  Non-powered methods include a cold-hole, canning, and drying foods, as well as the simple expedient of utilizing freezing temperatures, snow, and shade. Powered methods include a propane powered refrigerator and solar/wind powered electric freezers.  Some of these approaches can work for anybody, anywhere.     

Year Round:
Many years ago, we dug outside our food shed a “cold hole” that functions as a refrigerator.  It is not as big as a basement or even a root cellar, but it functions the same way.  It is the depth and size of two vertically dropped, welded, food grade 55 gallon drums. Over this hangs a beam from which dangles a metal cable on a winch.  When we lift aside the double layered wood and polystyrene lid, we attach the cable to a sturdy eyelet on the top of a set of five, layered lucite shelves that fit within the double depth of the canisters.  Each shelf can support 8 - quart jars of food, or a net bag of vegetables, or several packages  of dairy products.  The temperature varies from top to bottom of the hole, at different times of year, but it is always above freezing and below 52 degrees, so functional for refrigeration.  I have been very pleased by its reliablility for storing potatoes and unopened cheese all winter, for example.  It is not convenient for everyday use, but excellent for long term storage and occasional retrievals.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What If??? --- Stocking Our Emergency "To Go" Bags

The FAA requires each private pilot to carry emergency supplies, not only for him/herself, but also for the number of passengers on board who could also be stranded in a remote location and have to fend for themselves either until help arrives or until they hike out to find some.

Aviation and personal gear, winter
My husband and I think that this is such a prudent idea that we also apply it  to our car and snowmachines.  Each one has an emergency bag, too.  Even our home, in a way.  Because it is small, we store clothes, food, matches, and supplies in various outbuildings. Perhaps some of those structures will be unimpaired even if our cabin is damaged by fire or earthquake.  Each year, we re-evaluate our “to-go bags” with the goal of reducing weight/bulk while improving efficiency and effectiveness. Currently, the largest (blue) one (for the plane and snowmachine) weighs about 25 pounds.  The small (black) backpacks weigh about 10 pounds.    

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reality Check of Alaska Reality Shows – My Experience

I read recently that there are 36 Alaska Reality Shows at one time! What? Doesn't anyone want to see characters in Wisconsin or Maine? How about Puerto Rico?

My experience with these shows is limited to conversations with seven – count 'em: seven - producers who have contacted us over the past three years.

We have (politely, I hope) declined them all. Often we suggested other people we thought might be more interested in them or more interesting to viewers. Below, I'll share my observations from those discussions.

Since we don't own a TV, I have seen only a smattering of random episodes when I have visited relatives and friends in the Lower 48 who invariably ask, “So, do you know the guy/gal on this show?” However, I am as entertained as any Alaskan in local feedback on programs by people who are more “in the know.” Occasionally, writers for Alaska Dispatch News review a show, usually by humorously panning the obvious fakery of the situation.  Then, locals chime in at the bottom of the on-line article to add more details. For example, one show looks like it is remote but apparently the camera is planted in the parking lot of a pizza joint! It points across the road to an empty stretch of woods where that show's “hero” does whatever he does to look like a mountain man. In general, Alaskans accord a loss of credibility to participants. On the other hand, I viewed one episode of an ongoing series (Building Alaska) that depicted realistic experiences directly analogous to our real-life endeavors, and in our neck of the woods, too, so maybe there are some other realistic ones out there.

In our case, we have been contacted by two producers each in LA, NY, and Europe (UK and Netherlands) as well as the National Geographic (two producers, one in Singapore and one in Hong Kong). Four of the seven were independent producers rather than name brand shows. Each small firm seemed to toss out story ideas, film an episode or two and then endeavor to sell the idea of a series to a distributor. 

The topics broached by these producers with us included the following:

*Mistakes we made, as city slickers who moved out to a remote home in the Alaska woods.
* An “average week” with us in the winter/ in summer
Life skills we could teach their host to demonstrate
Life skills a rural child could teach a child host
* “Alaskan-type jobs” of people living remotely
* Pretend we were shopping for a remote property and then choose ours
* Compare/contrast our life in Alaska with a family living in someplace tropical, I think it was Costa Rica

Monday, January 11, 2016

Utility Usage: Off Grid Alaska vs. India and South America

Because we live in Bush Alaska with limited power and few modern conveniences, most Americans of our acquaintance think our lifestyle difficult or at least odd. But after reflecting on our past five winter visits to India and South America, we have concluded that our modest carbon/utility footprint is not that much different than homes we visited in India, Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru (some affluent and others very modest). Many readers have read that the average U.S. Household produces about 3 times the carbon of European homes and 10 times those of India. The examples below may indicate how they do that, and how readers can live well with lower utility bills and expectations.

We rely on an outhouse and interior chamber pot, which is certainly more primitive than all but one home we stayed in (on an island in Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia). In fact, that part of the world is “decorated” with identical colorful metal outhouses, gifts of the government. But even in Peruvian urban areas, with populations of 500,000 to 12 million, each bathroom with flush toilets instructs users not to put ANY paper down the toilet, but to deposit the noisome tissues in an adjacent trash can. In this way, presumably, old sewage systems can accommodate burgeoning populations.  (I did not encounter this in Ecuador or Chile.)  Each wash area usually has a much used cloth towel hanging on a nail for use by one and all.  

Throughout India, one needs to carry one's own toilet paper into most public facilities or pay a person kneeling outside. Inside, some offer western style toilets, usually with a bidet wand instead of toilet paper, but many offer instead a tiled floor, with an oblong hole surrounded by textured foot markings and a bucket of water nearby for rinsing the hole and floor (no flushing mechanism). Increasing numbers of U.S. homes and restaurants are starting to install low water toilets, particularly in water starved and high cost areas.  To encourage such proactivity, my parents' suburb in San Francisco publishes and distributes a “wall of shame” list naming “water hog” property owners. 

 As a side note, Indians who have visited the U.S. are startled by the lack of privacy in our public stalls. I can see their point! Our “peekaboo” panels are indeed much less private than the floor to ceiling walls and doors common throughout India, but found only in the better restaurants and clubs in the U.S.