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 structures and vehicles bit by bit since we bought the undeveloped 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 (there are no roads over the mountains, bogs, or forests here), you would chug up to one of our two little wooden docks.  If our little 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 five acre 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 I do not know of any other full time residents within many miles.  30?  Uninhabited state land surrounds 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.

Our property is gently hilly (so it drains well) and wooded (we are in a Boreal Forest - spruce, birch, alder, devil's club, high bush cranberry).
Son, Kenyon, in the hot tub
Walking up from the lake you pass a rock lined, below-ground level fire pit (because the roots and peaty soil can burn) in front of the two story, two room log cabin (16x24 + porches).  That building is lined with haskap (honeyberry) bushes on one side and currant bushes on the other, with two little flower gardens in front, which my chickens persistently sneak into when I am kayaking.  The plots appear terribly overgrown at the moment, with a riot of nasturtium, bee balm, anise hyssop, fading chives, and borage. The yard looks pretty blowsy most of the year, with wild flowers (iris, fireweed, yarrow, asters, dwarf dogwood), plenty of weeds, and some planted ground cover of strawberries and clover.  The only areas planted with grass are walkways to and around the buildings, so I bet a city visitor would itch to get hold of a weedwacker and tame it all into a neat lawn.  For me, though, the wild plants are classroom and laboratory, pharmacy and pantry. Closer to the woods, ferns, sweet grass, raspberies and elderberry fill in the areas where we previously felled dense thickets of alder.

Behind the back porch of the cabin is a big barrel (4x5) with a chimney.  It looks like
something that should be in a brewery, but in fact, it is a deep soaking tub that we heat with a submersed wood fired “oven.”  (called a Snorkel Tub with a Snorkel Stove).  This is our newest addition.  Depending on ambient temperature, it takes several hours to fill with cold well water and then heat up.  This summer, I have enjoyed a warm soak, while viewing the lake, mountains, and woods, as early as mid-morning, but surely this winter it will be a soothing treat before or after dinner.   Next summer we will build a deck around it.

Below the high point of the hill, which is about the mid point of our five acres, four
Chicken coop
other buildings are visible among the trees and bushes, all painted the same - spruce green with trim that matches the stain on the log cabin.  To the northeast is a cute chicken coop (4x6) and run (4x10) with a steep roof that inclines in only one direction, so that all snow slides to the north, forming a thick insulating wind break in winter.  That orientation also forestalls an icy drip line in front of the doorway.  We currently have six hens that roost there at night, and free-range during the day.  They take their dust baths under the sunny south side of the cabin, and keep me company as I go about my chores.  The woods beyond the coop are densely forested with spruce, birch, and alder - a source of firewood and mulch for us: birch for our interior woodstove, spruce and alder for exterior fires.  Last fall, winter, and spring, we refined a path for accessing some of the deadfall.

Shower house
To the south of the cabin are two small (8x12) structures, each surrounded by gardens for annual plants or domesticated berry bushes (Saskatoons/Serviceberries):  One is a wash house, adjacent to the 61 foot deep well, elevated so the water can drain down to our perforated gray water drum).  A high laundry line (Lehman's product, of course) runs from the building to a birch tree, obscured from our view by a dense line of alders but open to the breeze.  I LOVE the fresh scent of line dried laundry.  Below the showerhouse, facing the lake, is a 12x12 deck.  We enjoy the shade on hot afternoons, in July, but its most important function occurs in May, when we tap the birch trees for sap and deliver it by long tubes to the collection tank and evaporator (a purpose built wood stove) on that deck.  In the summer, I rinse the herbs I forage at an outdoor sink there, before drying them.

The second is an 8x12 shed behind a new garden currently populated with climbing vines of sweet peas and scarlet runner beans.  It is divided in two.  The front third is the outhouse and the back 2/3 is my uninsulated food shed or pantry, lined with shelves filled with mason jars of foraged herbs, home pressure-canned meat and vegetables and fruit, and infused vinegars,oils, and alcohols.  The room is also crowded with two chest freezers and a small refrigerator.  All run only in summer (because winter IS a freezer- so I just keep a marine cooler on the porch so the ravens don't get into the food).  The freezers are electrical (solar/wind power 4 hours per day) and the latter propane (a poor purchase). Behind the food shed is a less convenient but useful cold hole for reliable, passive refrigeration, summer and winter.

Further back is a one story roofed structure bigger than our cabin's footprint ringed with more currant bushes, chives, and sunflowers.  This is the wood corral for the all important dry birch we cut and stack all year to heat the cabin and soaking tub.  The back has a small, open work room.  In front, I dangle five foot long, net racks to dry gardened and wild leaves and flowers for teas and home remedies.  The clear sunny area by the wood corral will become an orchard, I hope, if the apple and cherry trees we have planted produce as well as the first apple tree we planted several years ago.

Wood corral
To reach the utility buildings in the back of the property, one walks uphill along either of two paths.  The sunny one is edged by a 60 foot “hedge” of wild raspberries which we harvest in July.  The other, in dappled shade along the woods,  travels through loose thickets of highbush cranberry bushes where we collect buckets of those delicious berries in Aug/Sept.  It is an almost maternal treat to walk among these plants that I have nurtured and encouraged, noticing their health, flowers, and berries, removing weeds or grass, pruning the canes (of the raspberries).  I am so grateful for their tasty contributions of Vitamin C.  Today, for example, I made raspberry/rhubarb tarts for dessert and collected two gallons of cranberries for morning juice.

Fuel shed, green house and bee hives
The back of the property opens up to a meadow with several raised-bed gardens full of cold-weather vegetables, like potatoes, cabbage, rhubarb, beets and snowpeas.  We also have four lines of domesticated raspberry bushes (to extend that fruit's season for us).

The very first structure built on the property is a small power shed (8x12) which contains the battery bank and inverter to store and convert to electricity the power from the solar panels and a 1 kw wind turbine high on the 120 foot tower that my husband built above it, along with antennae for telephone, internet, and ham radio.  (We needed to ascertain communications competency before we could move here full time.)

I remain surprised at how few solar arrays I spot flying over other Alaska properties, especially resorts. Ours has been low maintenance and effective from mid-February to early October (and most resorts run May - Sept). It dramatically reduces the gasoline that other remote homes have to haul in by snowmachine to provide electricity by generator.  (Over the past three years, we have used 90 - 110 gallons of gasoline for all our home/property needs: tools, back up generator, ATV etc.  At current prices, we spend $300/YEAR for electricity and gas powered tools.  In addition, solar power provides the gift of BEAUTIFUL SILENCE vs. the chugga-chugga-chugga of old, loud, fuel hogging generators throughout the Alaska bush.

The final two structures in back are multi-purpose buildings.  One houses a greenhouse (with hydroponic and soil gardens), fuel depot, rabbit hutches, and a “garage” for our snowmachines (snowmobiles).  This year, we raised 15 Flemish giant rabbits, most of which I can in the fall.  The greenhouse houses hothouse plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.  The vertical hydroponic system is a wonderful nursery for herbs and other plants - fabulous root development - before transplantation.  This building anchors the electric fence that surrounds the four hives in our honey bee yard from which we have yielded 10 - 17.5 gallons of honey, depending on summer weather.  The other building functions as a modest guest cabin/office/ ham (radio)shack/ honey extraction room depending on need. Next year, we plan to add a large deck overlooking a bowl shaped glen, where we can set up a shooting gallery with measured distances to various sized targets.  Fun!

Rural areas of the US (including Alaska) are littered with homesteads and even hunting cabins abandoned or for sale by descendents who don't want to live like Grandpa did or who lack the enthusiasm or time or money to renovate to a different standard. A newbie to a rural lifestyle, as we once were, might benefit from buying a property with existing structures, tools, and supplies as a starting point. (Most of these properties are sold “as is” and “with everything” for less than the cost of starting anew).  We didn't have that advantage, but I am pleased with the evolution of my home, bit by bit.  To me, it is attractive, restful, functional, and low maintenance - just what home-sweet-home should be.

Note:  some people ask why we have all those little outbuildings instead of incorporating them into the main cabin structure. There are several reasons.
a) Temperature management is a big expense for any home.  Here, we burn about a cord of wood per month during our long winters to heat our small two room house. All of the other spaces, in which we spend little time, are unheated and less expensive to construct or revise.
b) If you lack a sewage system, you want an outhouse hole and a shower's drain to be a bit removed from your home.  Alternatively, someone could insert a composting toilet in a cabin.  We just didn't think of that at the time.
c) Although my husband may always have intended to move here full time, that wasn't clear to the builders (or me).  So, although Bryan specified an insulated wash house, the man who plumbed it and attached the lines to the well designed it in a way suited only to temperatures above freezing, which we learned to our dismay.   Maybe he didn't really believe that two Texans would last one winter, much less, many.  It has taken us several years and several approaches to ensure, (I hope) next winter, reliable showers and drainage at below zero F temperatures.  A work in progress.


  1. Pretty cool.....

  2. I too am always brainstorming a way to get our open draining shower to work in winter. Fyi, one of those little propane wall lights heats our bathroom quite well and efficiently in winter.