Friday, September 22, 2017

Podcast Interview by Off the Grid News

Michael Foust of Off The Grid News conducted a fast moving 30 minute interview with us last week, asking us about water, power, food production, bears, and sources of revenue at our remote property.

Here is the link to the podcast.  If you are interested in this, you may be interested in some of his other weekly interviews with off-grid families throughout the US and Canada.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Canning Home Raised Rabbit and Vegetables for Winter Food


September is when we are busy putting up lots of food for winter.  This is a satisfying feeling, rather like graduation. The efforts expended in earlier months to feed ourselves prove fruitful.  

Some end-of-season herbs, I dry, crumble, and store in jars. I particularly love lemon balm, mints, and red clover in teas. Anise hyssop is good, too. I also save and dry orange peel throughout the year (great in pea soup and teas).  This year, I decided to dry nasturtium and mustard leaves,  to enjoy their pungent flavors in winter onion dips and baked potatoes.  (Nasturtium tastes like horseradish).

Other foods I can in mason jars, starting with vegetables.  Last week, I canned about 15 quarts of kohlrabi, beets, cabbage, broccoli leaves, and mixed vegetable broth (from tough stalks). (Question: Does anyone really LIKE kohlrabi?  It looks like an alien softball and the flavor is turnip-like, but it grows easily here.)

This week has been devoted to processing the rabbits, a time consuming, week-long endeavor for my husband and me.  We raised 15 healthy Flemish giants this year. (An adult is bigger than a house cat). Six will go to a young mom in Willow who will return them (or six others, since 6 become 36 pretty quickly) to us in the spring. The other 9 will yield plenty of food this winter.

After what I hope has been a happy and healthy life for the rabbits,  Bryan shoots them quickly with a .22.  To skin them with a super sharp Cutco knife, he built a plastic, waist-high abattoir and pulls up a little bench.  Saving the hides requires meticulous work, requiring about an hour per rabbit, so he harvests three in a morning.  That is about all I can cook in a day, anyway, if I expect to accomplish anything else.  

Friday, August 18, 2017

Walking Tour of a Remote, Off-Grid Home in Alaska

I'm not sure what people envision when they hear that someone lives in a remote home in Alaska.  Certainly, the places I have visited vary quite a bit.  Even cabins for the tourist industry can be stunning resorts or, more often, modest fish camps.  Many homes we fly over and visit are in a constant state of transition - Tyvek on one side or a new plywood Arctic entry or the ever necessary additional storage buildings surrounded by a motley collection of trucks, RVs, ATVs, snowmachines, and boats.  We, too, have added space and vehicles since we bought the land in 2007, but being a bit of a neatner family, we maintain a pretty orderly looking place, inside and out. Below is a tour of this remote homestead.

Home sweet home
If you flew by float plane air taxi to visit in summer, after flying over miles of rivers, bogs, and woods, you would chug up to one of our two little wooden docks.  If our plane or kayak were in the way, the pilot would maneuver toward a part of the shore with few trees (in the bog or among the fool's huckleberry) and jump into the water (in waders) to tie the plane to some bushes.  You would step down onto the float and then leap to shore.  Our property is on the east side of the lake, looking west at two mountains (beautiful sunsets in winter).  No other homes are in view. (The other full time family lives on the same side of the lake as we do, and the only other two part-time cabins are tucked back among the trees to the north and northwest of us.  Uninhabited state land surrounds this "doughnut" of properties around the lake).   I love the view, which varies, hour by hour, and season by season, from Alpen glow to auroras to storm weather barreling through the gaps in the mountains.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Remote Living: Food, Don't Take Mother Nature For Granted

The biggest lesson I have learned from increasing our reliance on personal food production is:  “Don't expect last year's harvest to repeat.” Maybe Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  She certainly throws some curve balls.  Because each season's harvest varies, I am learning observation and humility, and rebounding with a range of preservation techniques and alternative crops and recipes for when X or Y disappoints.  Below is a summary of this year's results with birch sap, honey bees, chickens, berries, vegetables, and herbs.   High points:  raspberry mead, nasturtium pesto, and naturalized cilantro. Oh, and moose didn't linger to devastate the berry bushes and apple trees.  Low points: birch sap and a rainy July.
An 8 foot tall swarm of honey bees

BIRCH SAP:  We were TOTALLY SKUNKED on birch sap collection, which absolutely blindsided us since the prior three years had been so easy and successful. In fact, we nearly doubled the number of tapped trees in anticipation (from 30 to nearly 55) and finished off the remaining sap and syrup from the prior year. The desultory drips and measly harvest result, I learned, from meager diurnal temperature differentiation.  Ah, yes, that.    Heard and noted.  So no syrup this year (need to reduce 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup).  We made twenty gallons of beer with the sap, which was fine, but this year's carboy of birch sap wine tastes watery.  Darn.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Destructive Bear(s) Visit

June of 2017 was a very active month for bear-human encounters in Alaska.  Some were tragic (two deaths by mauling). Others were humorous (the bear caught wandering  into a Juneau liquor store and standing  up to survey the array of candy bars before being chased out).  Anchorage police received so many 911 calls regarding bears sightings that they issued a press release imploring the public to call the NON-emergency number to report “normal bear behavior.”

Bear claws on repaired bee hive
This period was active for us, too.  Whereas last year we saw not a single bear on our remote property all summer, this month three bears visited in two weeks.  One (brown/grizzly)  we scared off with a marine horn.  Another (black) went into the freezer (See preceding blog article with a dozen recipes).  The third was disconcerting.  He visited several times and was destructive. (I say "he" because there were no cubs).

If you believe in the view that “things happen in threes,” this bear arrived on a day of multiple vulnerabilities: (1) the electric fence around the bee yard was off because a moose had gotten entangled and damaged the circuits, (2) my husband had flown to town for two days and (3) he took with him a first floor cabin window that need to be replaced.  

That afternoon, at 4:30 pm, I was sitting by an open kitchen window when a black bear slowly ambled past, about 8 feet away.  (They are disconcertingly silent)  I wasn't cooking anything aromatic, but I glanced nervously at the unglassed window ahead of him, and shut the window next to me, alerting him to human company.  This caused him to turn away, but not run, as the brown bear had done a week before.

Since I (discovered to my dismay that) had left my marine horn at the power shed, I grabbed a pot and top, opened the door and banged them together to encourage him to seek out quieter acreage away from my cabin, outhouse, and chicken coop.  He trotted off, but without much enthusiasm so I anticipated that he would return, especially since the chickens were squawking, “Come and get me!” under the cabin. Perhaps surprisingly, to readers, we have previously lost only one chicken to a bear, (other poultry to mink, weasel, owl, some unidentified canid, and disease/old age).  However, given this one's comfort in the company of human sounds and buildings, I thought it prudent to load the gun that I feel most comfortable firing.

Sure enough, as I loaded bullets in the magazine I saw him through the rear window, lingering in the hollow, about 150 yards back.  It may sound silly, but I turned on my computer's Pandora music channel and played it on the back porch, so he would hear a continuous human sound.  Apparently he didn't care for Indian sitar music and vocalizations, because he disappeared, but because I was now on the porch, the chickens all jumped up  to be with me.  After 20 minutes, I decided to lead them  back to their coop and lock them in.  I admit that I was nervous about the short walk in our woodsy and hilly property, but I figured if the hens attracted a bear's attention, I'd rather that they were not near me and that vulnerable cabin window. Fortunately, they followed me closely and the walk was uneventful.

When I returned to the cabin, I locked the other windows, installed the bear bars on the doors, and retreated upstairs to watch a 1940's movie, thinking that might calm me down.  The upper windows were open for me to hear  ... anything.  An hour later, what I heard was a crash on the back porch immediately beneath me. By the time I looked out, the bear had disappeared, but he had climbed up and dumped over a tall set of metal shelves and its load of  logs, boots, and gardening tools, and swiped a can of wood stain, which painted the grass a blood red color.   Thank goodness I had moved the hens away from that very location!

The next morning, I must confess that I stayed in the cabin for several hours while convincing myself that  I needed to survey the property.  When I finally ventured forth, it was clear that the bear had been so busy that  I am astonished that I heard nothing during my apparently deep night's sleep.  The first evidence was a big pile of scat in the side yard, left like a “Kilroy was here” message.  Second, he had clearly tried for a long time to get into the chicken coop (90 feet away).  A hole indicated that he had tried to dig under the run but was stymied by the underground “fence” of roofing metal.  Around the "run" (fenced and roofed outdoor area) I discovered many dislodged fence tines, but never enough together for a whole, strong paw.  The poor hens must have been terrified to silence inside the coop (building), because he pulled at the window pane separaters, too, but did not punch in the glass.  No wonder they lay not a single egg the next day.

More bear claw marks
Our bee yard is about 450 feet from the cabin, over the lip of the hill.  I approached with some trepidation.  It had been absolutely trashed and the bees WERE NOT PLEASED. The bear left tufts of hair where he crawled over the barbed wire so I could follow his movements.  He had tipped over not only all four hives, but also the two, heavy horizontal 4x6 posts to which they were all strapped, lifting those supporting beams up out of the metal frames in cement footers that elevated them above ground level.  His claw marks registered bright white in the green painted wooden frames and polystyrene insulating covers, but, fortunately for us, he was unable to loosen the ratchet straps.  How long did he try? Surely the bees  were frenzied and stung him many times.  Perhaps their defensive actions explain the lack of interest evidenced in front of the five rabbit hutches at the opposite end of the bee yard.

As soon as  my husband landed at our dock, we spent the day repairing damage.  With duct tape (of course), and super glue, we reassembled some hive lids, replacing others. Bryan attached fence patches inside the chicken run and rewired the electric fence, added an additional strand of barbed wire, and wrapped the ratchet straps around the cement footers, as well as the 4 x 6s.

Three AND six days later, THE BEAR (or a buddy) RETURNED. First, he rummaged around under a corner of the cabin, cracking and dragging a panel of plywood that covers the entry hole to our underground “gray water” tank .  I am always amazed to notice how silently they move, but why didn't we hear the wood scraping?  Perhaps he timed his visit when we were kayaking or doing noisy construction work in the back of the property.  If so, such daytime raids are remarkable.  So, we placed on the plywood two metal pie plates filled with little stones for a future noisy shakedown. He also left a new pile of scat ... by the front steps.   My husband went on high alert for several evenings, while I weedwhacked  to shin high the rapidly growing wild grasses and ferns that would otherwise obscure a long view to the woods.


On the second visit, the bear tested the electric fence.  We could see the bowed barbed wire line about 2 feet up where his bulky body had pushed, but when body parts encountered the active electric lines, he skedaddled.   Since then,  no bears have returned, or, perhaps I should say, since they are so silent, that we have seen no evidence of their perambulations.

We called Alaska's Fish and Game staff to describe our encounters and solicit their thoughts, as we have always found them informative and helpful.  The officer did not know why this has been such an active summer but acknowledged the plethora of reported human-bear interactions.  Our region, he said, is “crawling with bears” (so why have they revoked the predator control hunting permit here?) and our destructive visitor could have been “one of Charlie's bears” referring to a man who fed dog food to several generations of bears for more than a dozen years at his cabin on Rabbit Lake, not far from here, before being hauled into court to cease and desist a few years ago. Apparently, "Charlie's bears" have been implicated in some other cabin forays.

Naturally, Bryan and I have reviewed our safety procedures and vulnerabilities.  For example, we routinely carry walkie talkies, keep bear spray and noisemakers in various buildings, and are scrupulous about locking buildings and burning trash thoroughly.  Whether last year's paucity or this year's frequency of ursine visitors is the new normal, only future years will show.  In the meantime, I've asked for spare window parts, and I wish Charlie (and other people) hadn't fed all those bears, now looking to others for another hand out.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spring Black Bear - Good Eating

On-line descriptions of bear meat as greasy and gamey give this tasty fare a BAD RAP.  I have NEVER found that to be true for the black bears we harvest in May and June (here in Alaska).  In fact, they are so lean (after a long winter in hibernation) that there is too little fat to save for lard.  

If you have been interested in trying bear meat but disappointed by the paucity of available recipes (almost always a stew), perhaps the list below of some of my preparations will be appealing. Since I am the kind of chef who cooks with a “bit of this and a bit of that,” the following meals are descriptions, rather than detailed recipes.
--------------------------
The backstrap is slim, like a flank steak, but as tender as a beef fillet.  We grill it and flavor it like any beef steak.

The huge hams (shoulders and butt)  I smoke (over local alder wood)  between 170-200 degrees F for 10 hours.  The meat looks like roast beef but in taste and texture is more like smoked pork loin.  We cut them up to use in sandwiches, such as reubens and ham and cheese, and as a meat in entree salads, pea soups, and bean dishes. I don't flavor them when smoking, in order to vary the recipes later for all those pounds of meat... over many meals.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

34 Degrees - Spring is Here!

Anyone looking at these photos might understandably doubt my assertion that spring has arrived.  We still have 1-2 feet of snow throughout the yard.  Temperatures linger below freezing past breakfast.  In fact, the iced tea I store on the back porch overnight flows around a frozen chunk at 11 am.

But even my chickens know that spring has arrived; they have started to lay eggs daily.
The snow recedes

The sun, which barely rose above tree top level in February now soars overhead, granting us 15+ hours of sun per day, so we retired the floor lamps to an outbuilding until September. Outside, the snow surface is degrading.  Along south and west facing hills it is sloughing down in sinuous lines.  In flat meadows it is pitted and pockmarked as it settles.  A sole pool of water is widening in one shallow spot along the lakeshore - perhaps the first spot where pike will spawn.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forest Scavenger Hunt for Food, Remedies, Useful Products

Birch trees
Climbing the learning curve from “erstwhile city slicker” in Texas to remote rural life in Alaska, my acclimation has been immeasurably aided by several courses in botany, which have enhanced both gardening and foraging for food, home remedies, and construction materials.  Currently, I am enrolled in a fascinating on-line course in Applied Ethnobotany (offered by the University of  Alaska-Fairbanks).

As the name suggests, this field studies human use of plants - for food, fuel, textiles, shelter, medicine, and anything else.  I am learning how indigenous peoples and settlers utilized the resources all around them, that other people, like me, surely overlook. Interested readers will see below a list of resources they may be able to utilize for their own regions.

At the very beginning of this course, our professor instructed us to harvest some local plants for
Witch's Hair (lichen)
several projects.  Really?  In February?  In Alaska?  What could I find this time of year?  Well, duh, trees.  I live in a forest!  But besides use as firewood, construction, and spring birch sap, I did not know much. So one day, my husband and I pulled on our snowshoes and dragged a little plastic sled through the woods for a scavenger hunt. How fun!  In half an hour, we gathered two species of pendulous (hair) lichen with the evocative colloquial names of “witch's hair” and “bear hair,” chopped some chaga and “punk” conks off old birch trees, peeled off some loose birch bark,  gathered a handful of frozen spruce resin globules,
chaga
and cut a wrist thick swath of sweet grass sticking up through shallow snow beneath the shelter of a large spruce tree.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Remote Living: Once-a-Year Deliveries

People who live in cities and suburbs enjoy the gift of spontaneity:
a) frequent, short trips to the supermarket or a restaurant when “there is nothing to eat in the house.”
b) "just in time” delivery of purchases

Short days = cold hauling
By contrast, residents of small towns, villages, and island communities plan their errands around once-a-week or once-a-month visits to Big Box stores where they buy bulk supplies, including food, tools, and toilet paper, to be stored in ubiquitous sheds or walls layered with shelves.  Even more remote homes and villages await twice a year shipments, by boat or plane of a pallet-load of carefully selected supplies... and an eye - opening delivery charge ($0.30 - $0.60/lb).

In our case, our little airplane affords a certain amount of spontaneity for excursions and small purchases... when the weather allows.  But big, bulky, heavy, or flammable items, like furniture and fuel, have to await a  once-a-year window for transportation to our remote home.  As you can imagine, we maintain and continually update a precious inventory and shopping list for these important occasions.  Some purchases are planned (or wait) for several years, since transportation needs have to be triaged by priority and some seasons are truncated.
Water catchment hauled in last winter

Thus, after seven years of waiting,  I look forward to a bathtub and my husband now has the rocking chair he has long wanted for the front porch.

Generally, January - March are our “hauling season” because the rivers are frozen thick enough to become speedy iceways for lodges and residences located alongside, as well as for the recreational snowmachiners and dog mushers who traverse them, too.  We, however, live an hour's snowmachine trip west of the rivers, so we need the right snow conditions to get there.  This winter began with so little snowfall, that we lost the entire month of January.  Devil's club spikes, alder, and even small spruce trees perforated the trail. Our only neighbor told us he went out into the woods to hack out some underbrush and even move around some snow!  But by the time we went out, his hard work was obscured by a 24 hour snowstorm that blanketed the landscape with a pillowy soft 13 inches.

So, before we could go anywhere, we had to construct a snow road hard enough to support the weight we anticipate - up to 1000 pounds - otherwise, the snowmachine, sled, and all purchases will be mired in the deep, soft powder, perhaps even far from any assistance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Snow Based Desserts (Ice Cream, Sorbet, or Granita)

Did you know that you can make desserts with snow?   It is a fun novelty, but also extremely fast and easy - another way to enjoy the season's bountiful precipitation even indoors.  What a great activity with children of all ages.

After a fresh snowfall, I scoop up several cups worth and leave the bowl outside on the porch while I rummage around my kitchen assembling metal bowls and spoons (which conduct the cold, and thus buy you time in what has to be a fast job) and  ingredients, which include a liquid, a sweetener, and some flavoring agent.

I've flavored various bowls of snow with chocolate, birch syrup, honey, last summer's raspberries, canned peaches, and the morning's fruit juice.

The density of the snow will determine how much liquid the snow can absorb, and that, along with the liquid used, will determine the texture.  I have found that cream and condensed milk confer a silky mouth feel, like ice cream, and can be eaten right away. Milk snow is flakier, like ice milk.   Bowls flavored with fruit juice or other water based liquids tend to be more granular, like a granita or a sorbet, and benefit from refreezing time, unless you purposely want a hard popsicle-like texture.

Sample recipe:
Over four cups of snow, drip a tablespoon of extract or liqueur, sprinkle 1/2 cup of white sugar, and slowly pour about a cup of milk, juice, or other liquid, while gently folding the snow to incorporate all ingredients.  Taste and adjust.  Most people will want more sugar.  Total labor time: 2 minutes.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Deep Cold - Grin and Bear It


It was -36 F (-38 C) this morning, and is -20F (-29 C) now.  The whole week has been like this. Brrrrr!
What are the practical and emotional aspects of life in such weather, both inside and out?   My main reaction is that it makes me feel vulnerable.

INSIDE:

We heat our two room cabin with a woodstove.  At such temperatures, we are burning about 50 pieces of aged, dried birch logs per day.  Last MONTH, which was warmer, we depleted our wood corral by more than 1/2 cord ( 4 x 4 x 4 ft.) This WEEK - probably the same amount!  In milder months, we let the fire go out during sunny afternoons to empty cold ash from the woodbox to a metal storage container we stow in the snow.  This week, we dare not let the fire die, so we shovel hot embers into the metal bucket and carefully carry it outside, hoping that the walls won't rust and perforate from the heat... for a few more weeks.

Even with a vigorous fire, the cabin is cool.  The kitchen area measured 46 degrees while I made breakfast yesterday.  Cooking oils had congealed.  The juice and tea that I store by the front door (away from the fire) floated ice flakes.  The snow we track into the door mats takes an hour to melt. And this chilly interior occurs despite my husband's dogged night time efforts to pile on additional logs every few hours while I snuggle under a down comforter.

Even though the windows are double paned,  we close the lined draperies as a third line of defense.  Every window interior is rimmed with ice until the sun hits half of them, mid - afternoon. The metal of screws and hardware INSIDE the doors is coated in hoarfrost.

Sunshine makes an enormous difference, psychologically and physically.  Our view is lovely and bright with reflection off the snow covered lake and yard.  It looks deceptively warm.  I don't mind puttering around the house for several deep cold days, working in sunny nooks on one project or another.  But my husband, more energetic than I, gets cabin fever.  He longs to go outside and do something... until he does, and then returns faster than he intended, for some hot tea and warm cake I have ready and waiting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Winter Solstice Day at an Alaska Cabin

Everyone's life undulates with daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms, determined often by routine tasks.  At our remote home, winter chores are determined by weather and prioritized by heat, water, and food.

Below is a sample winter day, at this off-grid, off-road home in the boonies of Alaska (with notes about the subsequent -2 and -22F days that followed).

Dec 21 (+17 degrees)

HEAT and POWER:  When my husband is home, he gets up several times a night to stoke the fire.  But yesterday he flew out to attend a meeting in Anchorage.  Since I am a sound sleeper, I awoke to a chilly interior temperature of +47F. The power had gone out during the night, too, darn it. Naturally, at latitude 61 at 6 am, it was pitch black - and would stay that way for another three hours.  I donned my winter-usual attire: two shirts, two socks and a pair of lined sweat pants, as well as a headlight that I keep by the bed, to venture down the circular stairs to the main room, where I started  a fire in the squat little wood stove from the tinder, kindling, and log boxes lined up by the back door.  While it caught, I moved the all important coffee pot onto the propane stove, and bundled up to walk back through the woods, to the power shed, about 450 feet above and behind the cabin.  It was snowing lightly under a hazy, quarter moon.  On the way, I emptied the chamber pot into the outhouse.

I am not a morning person, so I hate having to face the cold and yank the generator pre-dawn, before coffee.  But December delivers miserly amounts of solar and wind power, so we supplement with two hours of generator to provide interior phone, lights, and Internet.   At the shed, I checked the voltage meter's record when the power conked out.  Hmmm, it is higher than I would wish at these temperatures. I hope the batteries aren't dying.  I tugged futily on the generator rope five times before it roared to life. Pleeeeeease connect!  My glasses fogged up from the exertion.

Motion detector lights illuminated the snowy path as I return past the woodshed,
food shed and outhouse to the cabin.  The buildings look pretty - the steep angled roofs and the log or green painted walls.  I spied animal tracks,  sharply outlined by shadow, mostly hares and voles diving below the insulation of snow covered bushes.  I reflect on the hungry black mink I saw yesterday, bounding through snow to close the distance to a gray hare twice its size. On the back porch, I grab an armload of logs, and step inside, smiling at the orange fire and the welcome scent of coffee, which I sweeten with dried milk and honey from our bees, and scoot under an alpaca blanket to read the Internet news and emails.   I always check weather first, which determines tasks I can or should do that day. Today is supposed to be clear and in the teens, followed by a deepening cold snap that I don't look forward to:-2F and then -22F.  Those will be days for indoor projects.  

Obviously the number of logs we burn depends on the external (and internal)
temperature.  In the teens, we use about 15 logs per day to warm the two room cabin.  At 0 F, the number doubles and at -15F triples. This number of logs heats a two room cabin to the 50s and low 60s.  As you can imagine, my most important winter task is to haul plastic sled loads of aged, dry birch wood that my husband has felled, chopped, cut, aged and stacked during the prior two years, from the roofed wood corral to the back porch, and then, on a daily basis, fill the interior bins with bigger and smaller wood.  Let's just say that I never postpone this chore.