Sunday, November 18, 2018

Frugal Organic Savings to Do at Home

When people jokingly refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck” to indicate the price points, I wonder if they conclude that all organic products and foods HAVE to be expensive.

I have learned that it is indeed more expensive to raise meat on a small homestead than to buy a rotisserie chicken at Costco.  But so many pricey organic foods and products are quickly and cheaply made at home.  A frugally organic minded person can save thousands of dollars per year.  Below are some examples and sample price points.

a)           FACIALS and HAIR TREATMENTS: Pay $100 vs.  < $1. 
Honey and Beeswax
I love feeling really clean, and have paid $90 - 110 for facials in the US (and $15 in India). But you know the ingredients and labor are highly marked up.  Now, I give myself two facial/hair treatments a week, right before bathing:  one with 2 tbs of bentonite clay (bought on-line) for a detoxifying face and hair mask, and another with 2 tbs of honey, diluted, as a moisturizer for face and hair.  A pound of the clay has lasted me about 2 years (about $12) How is that for a substantial savings?

b)          SHAMPOO and HAIR RINSE: $20 vs < $1.
 I make ours with a few drops of castile soap (vegan liquid soap.  A $15 bottle has lasted me 3 years so far) (bought on-line), 1/2 and 1/2 vinegar/ water, and a sprinkling of herbs of choice, like rosemary or sage for brunettes, or essential oils for scent.  My hair feels squeaky clean and my scalp feels tingly.  Very pleasant.  Just don't get it in your eyes.

c)                  CLEANING SUPPLIES:  $60 vs <1
I use vinegar, baking soda, and salt for all cleaning (house and clothes), sometimes boosted with borax.  No more space hogging, smelly cleaning supplies.

WINE:  6 gallons/30 bottles for $450 vs $79 - 129 and
BEER:  6 gallons/66 bottles for $330 vs $39 - 69
We harvest both wild and domesticated raspberries
We make our own wines and beers.  Most of the ingredients are sold at home brew supply stores, including very regionally specific grape selections, such as New Zealand sauvignon blanc.  We also ferment mead and wine from our bees' honey, berries, and birch sap.  Neither libation takes much time to make or age. Beer takes longer to make because the wort (sort of a tea) is heated and the heat maintained for 2 hours, but less time to age (about 3 weeks).  Wine is not heated so it takes about 30 minutes to combine ingredients and then takes 6 weeks to a year to age.  Some special equipment is required, which can often be found, used, on Craig's List, for less than $100 altogether.  Cost savings? We ferment ours in 6 gallon carboys (glass jugs), which compute to 30 bottles of wine or 66 bottles of beer.  A beer drinker can save 70-90% and a wine drinker can save 50 - 75%, presuming a $15 bottle of wine and a $5 bottle of micro-brewed beer. ($15/wine bottle x 30 = $450+. 
$5+/micro-brewed beer bottle x 66 = $330).  
We pay $79 - 129 for kits of varietal grapes (nebbiolo, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc) and $39- $69 for the ingredients to make a Belgian style tripel, which I've seen priced at $13/one large bottle.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Bought Site Unseen - Two Remote Alaska Cautionary Tales

People believe scams of all sorts - Nigerian princes wiring money, Russian women that really want  you, resumes describing extraordinary accomplishments.  So I guess I should not be surprised by the naivete of people who buy remote land, site unseen, in Alaska and then plan to move there. Even if the long distance purchase is a legitimate plot, not set in a mucky bog or on an eroding river bank, the challenges of this sort of life deserves more research... and introspection ... than some people give it.

Below are two, recent cautionary tales of people - one from New York and the other from California - whose dreams of living in the Alaska bush came to a rapid, rude awakening.

  1. We live in a forest - fuel and construction
    The first story made its way into Alaska newspapers. A film student in New York City (a Russian national) bought a plot in the Interior of Alaska, north of Fairbanks. Somehow, he met or made contact with a man who had a little cabin in the vicinity. The two agreed to meet on site and help build each other's structures, which was a relief to the New Yorker. He flew to Alaska and bought supplies that he figured he might need (never having been there), including a satellite phone, a rubber raft (?), his first gun, a tarp, and some food. He did not bring a tent.
    When the air taxi dropped him off, he did not schedule a return flight or a fly-by check, because he figured he could call for it. Alas, his satellite phone never worked and the neighbor never showed up. The alleged cabin was just four walls of a shed with no roof yet. The increasingly disillusioned traveler quickly realized that the location lacked any sizable timber for construction (or fuel), and his only protection from the millions of mosquitoes was a meager tarp for a roof over the other shack.

Almost 2 winters of wood - a bit more to go
With food dwindling and humiliation growing, he inflated his raft and started down river, hoping for rescue. Finally, he succeeded in flagging down a pilot who sent help, just in time, since his raft was deflating on a river rimmed with bear tracks. He left the state and put his property up for sale. I wonder what stories he told when he returned to the Big Apple.

  1. The second story was told to me by the air taxi staff that flew a California dad and his 18 year old son out to remote property they had bought about an hour's flight north of Anchorage. The family had loaded a U-Haul trailer with all the supplies they could think of and drove up the Alcan Highway. I can imagine their excitement, can't you? At Lake Hood, they chartered two beavers (airplanes) to transport both their cargo and themselves. Shortly into his return flight, one pilot realized that he still had some of their gear on the plane. When he returned to where he had dropped them off, he encountered the son in a total emotional melt down. Apparently some small sliver of reality had sunk in. Was it the remoteness? All the work? A plot of land far different than expected? Whatever the cause, the two men jumped on the plane for a back haul to Anchorage, leaving everything behind. They subsequently sold the land, complete with whatever supplies bears had not punctured or hauled away.
View from a plane - no neighbors

I have elsewhere described the profound ignorance I confronted as I struggled to live here. Even though my husband had visited our property summer and winter before buying, we STILL did not really understand what we had because the undeveloped property was covered with dense thickets of alders and devil's club, along with decades of fallen trees that obscured the natural lay of the land. Bit by bit, we cleared patches for gardens, orchards, and structures, but we clearly made some mistakes of placement that have required double work to rectify later.

Need more pike for dinner, ice fishing
My recommendation for people who think they want to live remotely is to visit several parts of Alaska first. Do you like the treeless tundra up North? The green rain forests and islands of Southeast Alaska? Or other ecosystems in this huge state? Next, return and rent a home in the region you prefer.  If your goal is a "do it yourself remote life,"rent a dry cabin (no running water) down a rutted dirt or gravel road some distance from municipal conveniences.  Get your bearings. Do you have to haul water? How much fuel do you need to cook and stay warm and dry? Some people can't take the silence. How long is your growing season?  Learn before you make a financial, physical, and emotional commitment to a very different lifestyle in a  land far, far away.


Monday, October 1, 2018

Moose Rutting Season in Alaska

It is axiomatic that hunters always see their target AFTER the conclusion of hunting season.  We have found that to be true of bull moose in our yard.

At twilight earlier this week, while my husband and I were thinking amorous thoughts, we heard a moose beyond the trees with the same idea.  He was repeating a gutteral “huh, huh, huh” sound which is apparently supposed to make nearby females of the species go wild with excitement.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, a large cow (moose) and her yearling calf emerged from the woods beyond our chicken coop, east of where we heard the bull.
Cow with calf this spring

The mother led the two of them on an ambulatory buffet, leaning down to the cranberries and reaching up toward birch and ash branches.    She seemed absolutely uninterested in the “come hither” sounds of the male in the woods.  The young calf, though, was curious or attracted.  She took a few tentative steps toward the sound, then looked back at her mom, and then a few more, reminding me of a teenager who is torn between a desire to date the bad boy in town and wanting her parents' approval.  She reached the edge of the trees and slipped among them before chickening out and trotting back to the cow.

Moose in game camera
Suddenly the bull appeared in the yard, like an actor making his appearance once the audience has anticipated it.  He was young, and smaller than the cow.  He halved the distance to the females and then displayed his manliness by swiping elderberry bushes with his paddles and pawing at the ground. The mother watched him out of the corner of her eye, while her calf peeked shyly from under her belly.  Then, with what struck me as absolute disdain, the two of them turned and slowly walked away from him up the hill into the darkness, leaving the bull alone, with no conquest for the night.   He trotted after them, in a half-hearted sort of way, maybe hopeful but without much confidence.  Any budding romance would transpire out of view.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Alaska Honey Harvest: Raise your own sweet

For the past few years, our four hives have produced a total of 11-17.5 gallons of delicious and useful honey each summer (depending on weather and hive population). And to my delight, each year's harvest tastes different:  2016 tasted deliciously like caramel and 2017 offered a wonderfully floral flavor.  This year's low production (because of all the rain?) is tasty but without the extra quality of the prior two years. What will next year bring?
Lots of bees making honey!

To someone who thinks of honey as a topper only for an occasional biscuit, our homestead production volumes may seem excessive.  Me, too, at first. The harvests inspired me to find many uses for that delectable golden syrup.  I learned that food is only one end product.  Below are various frequent uses as well as information about the bees we raise and how we extract the honey.

Honey is a humectant, so it attracts water molecules in the air, as a natural moisturizer. It can soothe sunburn or windburned skin as well as dry hair.  I give myself a honey facial and hair treatment 2 or 3 times a month.  Imagine how lovely that smells!  I simply dilute a few tablespoons of honey and slather it all over my head and face, letting it rest for about 20 minutes.  It rinses out (easily) in a bath or shower, leaving soft skin and fluffy hair with healthier looking ends.  I have made moisturizing bars with honey, beeswax, and lanolin for friends, but at home, it is easiest to spoon the honey straight out of a jar. If you have a pint in your pantry, give it a try.

Medicine:  Honey tempers the sting of a burn or bug bite, and its anti-microbial properties have  been known for thousands of years to protect cuts and scrapes from infection.  Many people add it to hot liquids to calm a cough or sore throat, and to render strong tasting medicines more palatable. For example, some people soak garlic cloves in honey and pop those to ward off pesky colds.
Regular hive check

Alcohol:  I have made several batches of mead.  For some reason, the straight honey/water/yeast mixture ferments less reliably for me than those mixed with wild plants and their natural yeasts. So I favor the latter.  Raspberry mead is my favorite.  The results have been dry with a gorgeous color, a fruit forward scent and a lingering nutty aftertaste. I have also flavored mead with elderflowers which impart a delicate flavor.  Maybe I will try a cranberry mead this fall.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Alaska Black Bear for Food and Warmth

We don't really mind bears that just pass through our remote and wooded property.  After all, we moved into their neighborhood. I've passively watched one play with a sheet pulled off the laundry line. Another watched me from behind a tree as I walked in and out of various sheds.  A third chased a moose through a meadow.  But curious bears that linger or repeatedly return have proved to be a menace. They have knocked over our beehives and burn barrels, tried to break into the chicken coop, chewed plastic hoses and rubber tires and even pulled plywood planks out from under our cabin. We are meticulous about reducing garbage and cook scents, but bears will be bears. They are curious and resourceful creatures.

So my husband maintains a current hunting license, and every year or two one of these destructive black bears ends up in my pressure cooker, providing dozens of flavorful and nutritious meals.

To my surprise, our hens and ducks are excellent indicators of not only A predator but the TYPE of predator in the vicinity.  (As low as they are on the food chain, I guess this makes sense).  They chitter at tiny but carnivorous weasels, make a throaty sort of chicken growl and raise one eye to the sky when circled by an eagle or owl, and go radio silent for bears.

Three times this summer, for several days each,  the hens' behavior alerted us that a bear was hovering nearby, just out of sight.  They remained on the roost long past schedule, started hiding eggs in the ferns far from their usual nesting boxes, and stayed close to us, wherever we were working or sitting.  Sure enough, each time we encountered evidence of a bear in the yard, such as piles of scat or a punctured wheelbarrow tire.  Early one morning last week, Bryan caught a glimpse of a big bruin that he thought could be the same bear returning on a nearly predictable three week circuit, which, Fish and Game wardens have learned from tagging live bears, some do. So, right on schedule, when the hens again warned us of a bear, Bryan checked his .338 rifle and set it by the door.

At 7:30 am the next morning, we heard the bells jingle on our burn barrel lid. A large black bear had nosed it ajar, but, finding nothing of interest, he ambled past the locked chicken coop, through some trees, and out to a meadow next to  our cabin. I watched long enough to ensure that he was alone (so a boar) and not trailed by cubs (not a sow), while Bryan retrieved his .338.  He shot the bear from the front porch at a distance of about 100 yards through the shoulders/chest while it was walking.

L-R: .338, .44 magnum,
 .44 magnum (spent/recovered)
The bear rolled over, moaned, and staggered into an adjacent alder thicket.  We waited for it to bleed out and then tracked the blood on the damp foliage to where he lay, about thirty yards away from the shot, in a patch of prickly devil's club (of course).  Bryan delivered a coup de grace shot with a .44 magnum revolver and then poked him with a 2x4 board to ensure that he was not napping.  The stiffened limbs suggested that the bear had died right after the shoulder shot.

Now what?  An adult male black bear can be 350 lbs, and 5 feet from nose to tail.  This fellow was at least that size, and it was drizzling, prickly, and buggy where he lay.

BEAR PROCESSING  (Trigger warning: two photos of dead bear below) 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Civil Air Patrol Couple in Alaska Makes Living Off Grid Look Easy

Please enjoy a recently-published article from the Civil Air Patrol about our homestead (link here).  It is a good overview, of what life is like here.
Most of my other blog articles focus on  "how to" topics, like food, power, and water. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cost/Benefit of Raising Food Animals in Alaska Winter

Animal husbandry in cold, dark winters is challenging and expensive.  From a cost/benefit assessment, it is unsurprising that autumn has historically been a time for butchering animals - they cost a lot more to feed and warm through winter than in the summer, and in the case of birds, they lay fewer eggs, too.

Insulated bee hives in winter
Below are some of the seasonal problems we have encountered raising honeybees, chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and the costs/benefits we estimate.  Perhaps this will help others considering raising food animals (and insects) during long cold seasons.

Problems, costs, and benefits:
HONEY BEES   Winter: Almost all of our honeybee colonies die in winter, despite insulated hives, so we have to buy nucs (nuclear colonies with one queen and a few hundred Buckfast or Italian bees) every spring, for about $250@.

Costs: So  (after buying the initial boxes and equipment), our annual cost to produce 17 gallons of honey from four hives is about $58/gallon, or $0.91/oz, which is in between the prices of store bought regular and organic honeys.  This volume may seem ridiculous to anyone who only uses honey on an occasional biscuit, but we use the honey in place of sugar in many recipes (can't grow sugar up here), including beer and mead, and for hair conditioner and facials.  We also use the beeswax in furniture and leather polish, lip balm, and skin moisturizing bars.  I don't know the weight/volume we accumulate,  because we store it in bits and pieces, but I read that a pound of beeswax sells on-line for $10 – 15/lb.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Alaska Homesteading Winter Anecdotes

Outsiders may envision Alaska's long winters as all very similar, but that is not so.  Each year's differences offer variety and alternating advantages and disadvantages at our remote home.  This year, our firewood stores have benefited from low snow and high winds, our beeyard has suffered from a moose, and our entertainment has increased by visits of a curious marten to our hot tub.

Martens are described, in one source, as “nature's most adorable assassin.”  Isn't that an evocative description!  Related to weasels/ermines/minks, martens are the size of slim dachsunds.   They have short legs, a long body wearing a glossy brown coat, a fluffy, fox-like tail, small, rounded ears, a short nose, and bright eyes in a restless, alert face. They are really cute.  It is entertaining to watch them dash lightly across the surface of the snow, jump up, and then dive deep to a subnivean nest of voles. They grab one for dinner, and then dash off to some quiet picnic spot.  One day, my husband was sitting in the soaking tub where his splash aroused the curiosity of a marten.  The little critter bravely bounded not only to the tub, but also up two stairs!  Cute they may be, but their sharp teeth and claws are not condusive to close acquaintance.  Bryan splashed at the creature, who decided to retreat in favor of smaller meat or perhaps less water.

For some reason, we have had more frequent moose visitors this winter.  We watched one with a damaged rear leg struggle through overflow on the lake, have viewed others nibbling birch branches in our yard, and sighed over the depredations to our apple trees.  The animals' heavy footfalls punch deep holes through the soft snow and even along our hardpacked snow paths.  Saturday night,  a moose banged through the 4.5 foot high wire fence that encircles the bee yard, totally ripping out some of the lines and then, stepped over the rest with his 5 foot long legs.  I don't know why; tracks indicate that he was walking, not running.  Maybe the appeal of a straight line?  

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Six Remedies to a Stressful Life, wherever you are

For many years, I have been unable to articulate  WHY we live as we do, (telecommuting consultants from an off-road, off-grid cabin in Alaskan woods) other than joking about my husband''s mid-life crisis.  Just last week, however, I figured it out when we listed all the people we know who seem to lead very stressful lives.  I realized that our very intentional living choices had the added benefit of reducing our stress levels.  No more back pain.  Better quality sleep.  A deeper savings account.

By “intentional life,” I mean pro-actively thinking about one's priorities, values, and goals in an actionable way, such as how you want to spend time, with whom, doing what.  Then enact those goals by, in part, shedding activities, people, and expenses that detract from those goals in order to free up resources to pursue what matters to you.

Our stress reducers seem to have been the following.  Maybe your list would be similar or different:
   *reduce expectations,
   *reduce expenses,
   *reduce maintenance,
   *increase exposure to nature,
   *reduce personal ignorance, and
   *reduce sense of urgency.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Building A Hot Tub in the Woods

For years, I yearned for a hot bath out here at our cabin in the woods.  Ah, the relaxation of sinking into deep warm water, maybe with a book and a glass of wine after exercise or at the end of an eventful day.

But moving, heating, and draining water are all challenges in this setting that I never appreciated when bathing in a city.  In a remote, off-grid home with six months of winter, a cold water well, and no septic system, a bathtub seems like a decadent pleasure in a former, urban life.

After several years of trouble shooting water delivery problems at Latitude 61, we finally felt confident about securing running water ... most of the time - after we re-insulated our well and water lines for improved reliability.  So I started to think again about a tub that could work within our constraints:

a) It would have to be outside, because there is no room in the outhouse, cabin, or shower house.
b) We would have to be able to fill it by hose and then heat the water by wood or propane, during long, cold winters without fear of hoses, couplings, and water freezing.
c) And it needed to be close enough to the cabin that I would even CONSIDER a cold and dry ingress and wet and slippery egress.