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,
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.


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.