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.

QUIETUDE:  Because our home has no interior appliances (heaters, washers, refrigerators, etc), it lacks the buzzes, hums, and clicks of a fully electrified home that are so evident to me when I visit people.  The only noise is of falling logs or of metal pinging as the wood stove expands or contracts.  In the quietude, I can hear that my husband's home brewed beer (a Chimay style) has stopped bubbling, so it is ready to be siphoned into the carboy to settle for three weeks, before imbibing.  My only local wine so far has been made from birch sap.  The first year it was awful but last year's gallon was good, so I am emboldened to make a larger batch this May when the sap runs.

WEATHER:  The weak winter sunlight finally made its appearance at 9:30 am (due
south, not east). I admired a gorgeous pink and gold sunrise at 10:30. Sunrises and sets are long this far north but the days are short:  On this, the shortest day of the year, the sun sets at 3:30 behind a 4500 foot mountain, and it is fully dark at 4:30. Mountains, rivers, and lakes create many little micro-climates, so, despite the clear day here, we discovered that Bryan and his ski plane were grounded by low fog at the little airport only 20 air miles away.  We communicated often, and listened to aviation radio reports at our respective locations to determine the range of the fog layer.  Anticipating the imminent cold,  I hauled three loads of logs from the wood corral to stack on the back porch, shoveled ash out of the wood stove into a metal bucket (I pour it in the gardens in spring), and burned some trash (see below).  Minutes ticked past his intended noon departure. I baked two loaves of Italian bread and made a hearty soup for his return. He finally lifted off, with little time to spare, at 3 pm.  When he arrived, we quickly unloaded the groceries from the Piper PA-20 onto sleds that we hauled up hill to the cabin, and covered the wings with their fabric covers as the sunset faded to black.
FOOD:  After his cold trip, the stick-to-your-ribs meal of ham, cheese, and potato soup with fresh bread was  welcome.  Potatoes are one of my favorite vegetables to raise.  The flowers are so pretty and the plants are low maintenance and prolific.  I raise four different types and colors, white, yellow, red, and blue.  They also store better in our cold hole (under ground) than anything else, but that is not convenient for daily access.  Rather, I freeze soon-to-be used foods in a marine cooler on our porch, and “refrigerate” food in a cool corner of the cabin.  (I cool wine and beer in the snow).

The next morning is minus 2F and the day after that minus 22F.  Thank goodness,  my husband is home to tend the fire and start the generator. I loll in bed with coffee, feeling like a queen. I am also relieved that we don't have to worry about ducks and chickens.  Deep cold and power outages kept me awake each prior winter!  Last fall, we gave them away, deciding to restart flocks when we get more light and less cold, perhaps in March.  So for breakfast,  I serve store bought chicken eggs and chorizo over yesterday's toasted bread.  Our daily vitamins are a tablespoon of “fire cider” I made last year (with vinegar, onion, garlic, hot pepper, and ginger)  and a a tea combination of dandelion, red clover, mint, cleavers, and raspberry leaves harvested last summer.  This herbal compote is chock full of vitamins A,B,C,D,E, K, beta carotene and 14 minerals, plus protein. It tastes very mild, and is easy to sip throughout the day, hot or cold.
Fresh veggies are in short supply here this time of year, which I attempt to remedy this winter with three endeavors.  One project is to sprout beans in a jar on the windowsill..  Second, Bryan delivered two, two foot long grow lights that we hung in an underutilized corner upstairs over several trays of slow and fast greens I seeded: lettuce, mustard, cress (all of which sprouted in only four days), basil, chives, and cilantro. The third is that I will try for the third time (!!!) to sprout one of those  mushroom kits.  Twice before they have been duds - even my chickens wouldn't eat the “loaf.”.  We'll see if this time works or if this will remain a 'shroomless household.

GARBAGE:  Without garbage disposal or trash service, or even chickens, I dump non-meat kitchen garbage, like egg shells and coffee grounds, into a 5 gallon bucket on the back porch, which I mix into garden soils, in spring. Meat bones and corn cobs are burned in the wood stove.  How much useful (vegetable) garbage is wasted by people who buy fertilizer instead?  Other trash, such as packaging from purchases, I burn in a barrel strategically positioned so that I can watch the smoke from the cabin.  Above 0 degrees F, the smoke  drifts up and away.  But deep cold forms an inversion, like a pot lid, that pushes the smoke close to the ground.  (This is why Fairbanks is notorious for noxious winter pollution).   

SLIP and SLIDE:  We like our woodsy environment, so we have no sidewalks or roads out here.  Thus, our shoveling is limited to porches and doorways. So far, the snow has been so light and powdery, that I just sweep the surfaces clean.  To walk among our various outbuildings, though, and for safe take offs and landings of our plane, we hard pack snow paths throughout the winter, first in snowshoes, then with the snowmachine (snow mobile) and finally by dragging a passive groomer (behind the snowmachine).   Optimal conditions are after a snowfall and between about -10 and + 20 F.   Too warm, and the snow binds into big balls that will freeze into rock like impediments.  Too cold, and the top layer of snow doesn't flow.  Just right, the groomer cuts off ice pinnacles and fills in footfalls with soft snow.  If we stay off those surfaces over night, they will set, hard and smooth for easier walking.  When, as this week, Bryan departed in his plane right after a snowfall, I groomed the skinny runway we outlined with cones on the lake as well as the more important tie-down area, where piles of snow formed as he brushed off the wings.   This task became even more important to me when an experienced charter pilot warned other pilots that he had damaged a ski on a rock- hard snow drift at a remote client's cabin. Heard and noted.

WATER: The first few years, we relied on a lake pump in summer and snow melt for water in winter (because I never expected to live here full time!).  Now we have a well, with a 55 gallon cistern in the kitchen.  Alas, on Dec 23, the -22 temperatures coupled with low snow insulation of the ground froze every pipe and hose that delivered water from the well to anywhere else.  We couldn't even move the hand pump. So I have returned to life with a dry sink (water drains into a bucket that I empty by hand) and melting snow for wash water.  Without animals, (and when my husband is gone) this is not too tough.  But additional snow (insulation) or warmer temperatures will help.  My husband plans to use a flame thrower to melt the ground around the tubes and then re-insulate it.  Good luck with that.

Conclusion:  On weeks when everything works well, we have a lot more free time than this summary may suggest to a city person. For example,  I knead bread instead of driving to a supermarket.  I haul wood and shovel instead of going to a gym.  And my home is so small (two rooms) that it is a cinch to keep it neat and orderly.  And laundry? I don't mind wearing the same clothes for days at a time - hey - who would know?  (and we are part-time telecommuters). 

I realize this hands-on lifestyle is not for everyone, but I have found it more congenial (after several years of adaptation) than I ever expected... EXCEPT at 6 am when there is no heat, no light, and worst of all, no coffee!   


  1. Such an interesting read, you really do work so much harder than those of us sitting in 40 degrees C. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  2. Hello, I like living vicariously through you. Soon I hope to give homesteading a try. I was wondering if with your generators and other power sources if you could use a more proficient form of heat, such as propane?

  3. We use propane tanks (100 lb and 20 lb) to heat water, warm the shower house for short periods, power the smoker and BBQ, and power the dragon heater to pre-heat the plane. If you homestead on a road system, you could have a large propane tank filled by a truck once a year, etc. We have to haul ours by snow machine to have them filled at a lodge.

  4. You are really an inspiration for us! My husband, our daughter, and I intend on moving up to AK (the Willow area) this summer. I too am from TX. and we currently live here in N. TX.

    We found your blog about two months ago and have quite enjoyed reading about the 'how to' of moving to AK from TX!