Sunday, June 6, 2021

May in Southcentral Alaska - snow, bears, birds, and flowers

 May is the month of greatest transitions here.  Just as the weasel's fur  changes from white to brown, so does the landscape shed its snowy raiment for muddy expanses that quickly green up and then flower.  Temperatures rose from a low of +6F to +78 (which is too hot for me).  Surely heat records for May.  


On Mother's Day (May 8) we were able to drop the kayak into a slim slip of open water and bob about close to shore.  By May 11, we crashed through rotting ice floes,to huge expanses of  water which  a diverse community  of ducks and geese discovered immediately.  Yea!  Welcome back, feathered friends!  No otters this year though. Right on schedule, the lake was fully liquid on May 15, so we scheduled an air HHHH. HLPH PHHH to pick up Bryan on the 17th so he could retrieve his float plane in Willow.  


The land starts out a muddy mess, traversed with the sinuous swales that voles carved below the snow.  We gather up branchy debris that fell during winter storms and use it to “courderoy” low wet spots that spell “mosquito nursery” to anyone in the region. Initially, these branches provide a bit of a surface to walk over the water and mud.  Eventually, they will break down and perhaps raise the surface a bit at a time.  Two big, rotting birch trees snapped during a wind storm and slopped over the sap line.  We will cut them into firewood this summer.   Meanwhile, I collected 20 gallons of sap from 6 trees elsewhere over a few days.  A tasty and vitamin rich spring tonic.

I LOVE wandering about the newly opened brownscape to “visit” wild plants that bounce up out of the snow.  To me, they are like snowbird neighbors who have returned after a winter away.  Because of several  years culling thick swathes of devil's club, sweet grass, and wild raspberries, I enjoy  a sunny meadow with a prickly rose “garden” orchards of high bush cranberry bushes, and an expanding  ground cover of white starflowers and dwarf dogwood.   Wild currants tumble gracefully over spruce stumps and under birch trees.  These plants are the first to flower, with small, modest mauve and white flowers that perfume the surrounding air. Opportunistic dandelions are pretty, too, and nutritious.  Bumblebees dote on the butter yellow flowers of the domestic haskap (honeyberry) bushes which line the south side of our cabin.



Each autumn, I mulch the raised bed gardens with a soft bed of birch leaves. In May,  intrepid perennial plants like rhubarb, chives, feverfew, strawberry, and sorrel are the first to pop through, followed, sigh, by the weed chickweed.  

To try to retard that weed in my gardens and greenhouse, I SERIOUSLY FURTHER mulched three gardens, totalling 156 square feet, with the mucky chicken bedding I described in the April blog.   I also lay garden fabric on the ground, next to the raised bed in my green house and topped it with spruce rounds as stepping stones to retard the rampant growth of weeds in there.  I can already see the advantage because of the ferns growing green and lush beneath the fabric – but unable to grow upward or spread spores... except where they find the edges and openings. 


I feel sorry for my hens cooped up all winter.  They don't like the snow and cold.  So it was such a pleasure to see them venture bravely across the snow toward the cabin, under which there is so much dry, dusty, welcoming dirt.    Interestingly to me, it was the “lowest three gals” on the pecking order that ventured out first.  I wonder if this is analagous to humans.  Were the  lower orders of societies  the brave sailors, pilgrims, and “miner '49ers”  who took off first for points unknown?  Out and about on brown and green land, the hens function as  shallow rototillers, scratching up the dead grass looking for seeds and grubs.  We have added two ducks and five more hens to our menagerie, much to our amusement.

We always see moose cows and calves in late May/early June, but never a bear that early in the year... until now.  One night about 10 pm I saw a HUGE cow and her dainty calf walking past the cabin.  They headed toward a woodsy spot near the lake and then BOLTED out of the trees back toward us.  Clearly, they were running away something frightening.  Sure enough,  two brown bears chased them up hill.  They evaded their predators, because we saw them a week later (this evening).    

I also surprised a cow and twins around 11 am when I popped outside to stir the hot tub water.  The mom stopped, assessed the danger and then trotted up hill, 50 feet past me.   

There is never a dull day in May.  Much to do.  Much to see. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

April, Record Breaking Temperatures

Weatherwise, April was a whipsaw month of dramatic changes. Temperature records were set all over the state for LOWS around April 7 and for HIGHS just two weeks later.  Anchorage smashed a record set way back in 1917.  Here, we bottomed out at 6 degrees F, BEFORE wind chill, which was substantial, and topped out at 64.  By mid-month, we relied only on a modest morning fire to warm the house above 59 degrees. No fire = spring cleaning, so we washed every curtain and rug free of 6 months of soot and ash accumulation.


As you may imagine, the snow started melting FAST.  We shed 5.5 feet in about 10 days.  Even with the dissipation of that volume, our yard is still 90% white.  Brown doughnuts of open ground have appeared around trees and dark buildings, expand├Čng and blending.  Hardscape is starting to appear, such as the rocks around our firepit and log benches.  We discover that the snow weight shredded a 4x4 post tethered to several electric and barbed wires encircling the beeyard.  (We should have loosened the wires).  On the other hand, one of the 2 x 4 cross beams of the raspberry trellis broke, too, and we DID loosen those wires.  Frost heave and snow.  What ya gonna do? 


My delightful hens have endured another winter.  They don't like cold, wind, or snow, but they do like sun (so I wish we had positioned their coop better).  In mid-April, they started venturing rather tentatively out across the snow to our cabin.  I don't like it when they poop on my back porch, but I LOVE seeing and hearing them, and I am sure they love the snowless expanse under and around the edges of our cabin.  In a happy trade, the 8 ladies gave us 7 eggs one day.  I hope that these fluffy carnivores are eradicating fly larvae, because those creatures are annoying the barbeques we have started to enjoy again in the sun of the front porch. 

This was the first winter that we kept so many birds through the winter (we actually started with 10, but a marten killed two of them.  As a result, we underestimated the amount of hay we would need.  In the initial warm months of winter, I turned the dirty bedding every day.  But the muck freezes in deep cold, so later I use a deep litter method, which is to simply add a flake of new material every few days.  Well, by the beginning of April, we had depleted the bale, the coop smelled of ammonia which is unhealthy for the birds, and it was too cold for them to go outside.  So Bryan mucked out the stinky mess and I hauled 14 small sled loads uphill to dump into our big snowmachine sled.   It was interesting to see the methane rich material steaming from its internal heat in below freezing temperatures.  When the coop was cleared out, we transported the noisome pile to the vicinity of the biggest raised bed gardens in the back of the property.   Then, I layered thick cardboard over the chickens' floor and tossed in woody debris from our wood corral and cold ash.  This was not ideal, but it sufficed for the short interim until they could spend most of their days outdoors. 


I love what I consider to be scavenger hunts throughout the year.  In April, I cross the snow to the open ground and seek the earliest leaves and buds, some of which appear directly through the snow, too.  By the end of the month, I am wearing a short sleeved T shirt, but with tall boots and gloves as I cross through rotting snow, sometimes postholing up to my knees.  

Wild currant and elderberrry buds are full and fleshy.  The initially magenta leaves of dwarf dogwood appear along the lake shore.  Among domesticated plants, I favor perennials, and have planted lots of tulips in groups of 5-7 in front of a memorial bench with stone cairns for loved ones and dear friends.  Not only are the tulip leaves rising directly through the thinning snow, but, to my surprise, several of the cairns remain intact, rather than tumbled, despite all the winter snow.    

During this transitional time of year, we scurry about, trading out winter supplies for summer ones.   The marine cooler that stored food on the porch all winter is cleaned out.  The freezers in the food shed and the on-demand water heater are turned back on.  Boots and skis and parkas and snowmachines go into the bunny hutch/garage building, trading places with summer wear, mosquito netting, and sunscreen.  

As of the end of April, we see no open water on the lake yet, but it is no longer safe to walk on the thinning surface.  As the snow melts there, the lake takes on a variety of hues – some black/brown from suspension of dead leaves and branches, some lovely shades of ice blue, sea green, and sand.  We have pulled the blue tandem kayak out from beneath the cabin and dusted it off, ready for the first day we can paddle among the ice floes, perhaps with a visiting river otter.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Alaska Civil Air Patrol: Search and Rescue Training


The Civil Air Patrol is the civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force. Its missions, since formation in 1940, are emergency services, aerospace education, and cadet development.  Throughout the country, its squadrons are often the first people in the air to photograph damage from floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, and to assist in locating lost hikers, boats, and planes.  Among the states, the Alaska Wing of CAP ( performs many search and rescue (S&R) operations.  These emergencies require both practice and coordination among pilots, ground crew members, and communicators.  Lectures and simulations are useful, but nothing is better than real experience.


That’s where I fit in.  Although I am not a CAP member myself, my husband is.  Several times per month, I receive a call to “put out the beacon.”  This means that one of CAP’s seasoned check pilots has decided to train another flyer to detect and home in on an emergency locator device that we keep at our remote home This gives the other pilot more than half an hour's flight over largely uninhabited land to find us.  

Summer or winter, I flip the switch and position the yellow box and antenna on a nearby tree stump, where its signal will not be obscured by our metal roof.   Pilots flying north from Anchorage eventually detect the distinctively annoying tone.  To determine the direction from which the signal is emanating, the pilot engages in one or more wing nulls, which is a circling maneuver in which the wings block the transmission from the source location, enabling the plane to skew closer and closer to its destination.   Most of the time, after flying directly overhead, the pilots give us a wing wag of thanks and then fly back to base.


Other times, we mix it up.  In the summer, I sometimes take the beacon with me in the kayak and head out to some spot on the lake, simulating a submerged plane or a floating pilot or emergency bag.   This winter, the check pilot asked us to incorporate ground to air signalling.  What a great idea!  We considered laying out a blue tarp (known as a signal of emergency) but because of winds, I decided to try a signalling mirror and a ground indicator made of logs.  Because the afternoon was sunny and beautiful enough that a few recreational flyers were in the vicinity, I chose not to use a symbol of true emergency, like an F, which means “need food” or two parallel lines, which indicate injury.  Rather, I formed on the frozen surface of the lake in front of our cabin, two large L’s out of logs, each one about 12 feet by 7 feet.  The CAP pilot, flying at an altitude of 500 feet discerned both the signal of “Lima Lima” which means that “All is well,” and my random flickers of the signalling mirror, before returning home from successful S&R mission training.  For higher planes, a bigger shape would be important.


This signalling practice was as useful to me as it was to CAP.  I had to think about the relative positions of the plane, sun and mirror to make effective use of a simple hand mirror.  I also saw how much the logs sank into soft snow, obscuring a lateral view. I recommend that anyone who spends time in remote locations practice familiarity with these symbols.

In future, I look forward to additional signalling practice with the CAP pilots, pleased that I can enhance their ability to detect and interpret audible and visible emergency indicators... before they are called out for a serious situation.  



Saturday, March 13, 2021

February and March: Midnight Evacuation, Delivery, Seedlings

 The biggest excitement, if that is the word, in February required evacuation from our cabin at 3:30 am one chilly, dark night.  We experienced exceptionally high and gusty winds for two days, and in the middle of the night, the wind forced  chimney smoke back down into the woodstove and out into the cabin!  Because, as you may imagine, we keep a robust fire going this time of year, we couldn't just put it out.  After a half hour of open doors and windows in an increasingly smoky house, letting in temperatures below zero, we bundled up, grabbed two canvas chairs and headed over to the shower house, which has a propane heater (the heater in the guest cabin is broken).  

Hauling firewood

About 4:30, Bryan, bless his heart, ventured back into the smoky building wearing his N-95 mask to heat the coffee I prepped the night before. The warmth, comfort, and caffeine were welcome.  

When the fire in the woodstove died out, and light started bleeding out of the eastern sky, I ventured into the cabin myself to start the two day task of cleaning the ash, soot, and smoke that coated and scented every single surface in the building.  First I hauled outside every pillow, cushion and rug to air out, along with any outerwear that hung on hooks inside the doorways.  Then I grabbed a pile of rags, filled a bucket with soapy hot water, and started damp dusting from the ceiling on down.  About every five minutes I had to dump out black water and switch to a fresh rag.  I smelled like a fireman.  The second day, I did it all over again, as well as damp dusting the draperies.  Even today, a month later, I occasionally come across some item that I did not clean, like pillow cases when I changed the bed.  We called a friend who is a retired fire captain, to ask about anything else we should do in the future.  He recommended a product called Ozione, which one can spray in the air to “grab” soot particles and clear the air faster.  It is on the list for a spring purchase. 

Speaking of purchases, the end of February/beginning of March is when Roger delivers nearly two thousand pounds of supplies that we have stored on our trailer at Deshka Landing and/or asked an expediter to buy and deliver to him.  His arrival is the equivalent of Santa Claus.   Between hauler Roger and expediter Miranda,  their excellent organization and labor saved Bryan more than 50 tiring hours (7.5 hours x 4 round trips with his smaller sled + 2-4 hours of trail grooming before EACH trip + 10 - 14 hours of shopping, driving from Anchorage/Wasilla to Willow, shoveling off the trailer and loading the sleds.  Plus, they saved us fuel and wear and tear on the snowmachine and car and an occasional overnight visit when the weather changes. Their charges of about $800 / 50 hours = $16/hr.  Does Bryan values his opportunity cost more than that?  The answer is YES!  He was able to use that time for business, pleasure and exercise here.  We are very grateful for their services. Obviously we live a lifestyle of doing many things ourselves, but it is prudent to evaluate what can be outsourced. This is one that others can do better than we. 

In order to deliver everything in one 7.5 hour trip instead of two, Roger hauled two 11 foot long sleds filled with 10 big totes full of food supplies, plywood, gasoline, and propane tanks, and hired a man to haul a third sled similarly loaded.  He thought of several clever time/cost benefits, regarding the fuel. I love creative time management solutions like his!

Many of the supplies, like 150 lbs of flour, will last us for a long time.  Others were treats that we were out of, like yogurt and bacon.  Sadly, the expediter was not able to send out any fresh produce on that trip.  I miss crunchy veggies.  Those that I have canned and pickled for winter are pleasant, but...  To Roger and his wife I gave a box of books and videos that they might enjoy.  My home is small enough that I operate on the logic that “for anything new that comes in, something old must go out.” So maybe that delivery will be fun for them to open, too.   

Roger's arrival was well timed, because prior and subsequent weeks delivered white-out snow storms.  Heavy winds followed his visits and swept away evidence of trails other than our only neighbor's prescient trail stakes. 

Here the wind blew down at least one dead spruce tree (which ejected two 3-4 foot sections of top trunk dozens of feet away from where it fell).  Smaller branch debris litters the pristine snow.  For the first time in a decade, we found a layer of snow inside our outhouse (not from boots) and even blown between the screens and glass of our windows.  The food shed door is STILL buried by three feet of the white stuff.  Wind whistled between logs upstairs, creating a 13 degree temperature difference from bed to kitchen table.   As I write, I see snow blowing across the lake, etching and carving the surface until it looks like the craters and dunes on the moon.  

When skies are clear, it is a treat to notice the days getting longer.  Each afternoon we observe where the sun drops each day behind the mountains as it crawls north.  A date we mark with delight is when the sun is high enough in the sky that it crests above the mountains to the west of us, rather than dropping behind them.  Suddenly, we have longer days.  In mid-March, we have enough light at 7 am and 6 pm to see across the yard - quite a contrast to January, when daylight started at 9:30 am and ended at 3:30 pm.  

In February, I start seedlings under grow lights on shelves in our south facing windows, mostly slow growing herbs and cool weather greens.  By March I can start snipping small quantities of mustard leaves and cresses to top deviled eggs and sandwiches.  Because of our short growing season, I start hundreds of plants, with the goal of setting them out in the greenhouse and gardens after our last frost date, in mid-May.  The longer days, warming temperatures, and high winds all mean that our solar array and wind turbine provide all the electricity we need for our modest uses.  

A spider hole on the lake

One  intriguing weather phenomenon we have been observing up close is a large spider hole in front of our cabin.  If I understand correctly, the central hole is formed by a vertical tube of warmer water arising from a methane seep of decaying leaves in our shallow lake.  Snowmelt and overflow form long “arms” that drain into the central hole.  We see these on the lake every winter, in different locations each time, but this year one is so close that we have been able to watch it change.  We see the arms lengthen, and watch snow fill in the center hole after which the water warms and opens the hole again. Despite four foot thick ice all around it, the central hole is liquid as far down as I can reach with a seven foot avalanche probe.  This is obviously unsafe for people or machines, but it is an interesting reminder of of vigorous acts of life and decomposition beneath a frozen landscape.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Remote living in Alaska - How Long?

Now that we are in our early 60's, friends and colleagues ask us more often “what will you do when you are older?”  

Cutting dead Spruce
This is a fair question for anybody, in any location.  In our case, we live a physically active life in which our health determines the amount of firewood and food we produce, as well as things like a medical license to fly to and from home or the stamina to drive a snowmachine 7.5 hours cross country to retrieve a sled load of supplies.

Fortunately, we are both in fine health: no medicines, no chronic or acute ailments, but I don't take this for granted.  Many people we know in their 50's and 60's take daily pills for pain, anxiety, depression, shots for arthritis, and have undertaken surgery for joints, ligaments, eyes, and spine.  The only person I know older than me taking NO medicines is my 78 year old aunt, who controlled incipient diabetes with diet, exercise, and clearly, lots of will power.  We realize that unexpected health problems derail many people's best laid plans.

So I demur when I hear from readers who say that they plan to move up to Alaska and live like us “when they retire” or when people start a physically challenging business at age 60, or even buy a bigger home than they had when they raised kids.  I hope that those decisions work out.    

Our approach to “aging in place” , such as it is, is to contemplate what can we do NOW to reduce effort when we are 70 or older.  What tools, equipment, construction, plantings and time commitments CAUSE or SAVE wear and tear on aging people, structures, and machines?  We want to SHED the former.  EMBRACE the latter.   

Some of this is as simple as doing a cost/benefit analysis, just as we do in business.  “Do we want to do this task by hand, by ourselves, or with tools or with the help of other people?  Or is xxx a bad idea altogether?”  

Hauling supplies

My husband has been a serial entrepreneur who has started some businesses that worked for decades and others that “seemed like a good idea at the time” only to turn out to be far more time consuming and far less lucrative than he anticipated.  He kissed that time and money goodbye and moved onto other things.  Life is like that, too. There are some things we have done already that will yield GREAT benefits in the future (like planting perennial food crops and building with steep, snow shedding roofs).  Other decisions or lack of attention caused problems or delayed solutions (like (a) not paying attention to a builder who constructed a plywood food shed flat on the ground, without treated lumber or elevated footings.  (b) not planting fruit trees sooner and protecting them better). 


 Below are some of the aspects of living remotely that are likely to get harder as we get older, and for which we either have or have not yet figured out alternatives to enjoy living out here longer.  

WINTER CHORES:  Shoveling, snowmachining, and flying

Roof raking
I can understand why many northerners flee south, part time or full time when they reach a certain age.  Winter chores are tougher than most summer ones.  

Shoveling:  We have 9 buildings.  The main ones all have 45 degree roofs that shed snow easily.  No problem.    The 33 degree roofs need more attention, especially after wet snow or sleet which can build up to a dangerously heavy load.  Reaching overhead to shovel off roofs is exhausting to me NOW!   I pity people with flat roofs (or more roof space) in cold climates.  For the future, I wonder if we might steepen the shallower roofs (what an expensive “do-over”) or if we can figure out easier ways to access the tops of the roofs.  So far, we have experimented with rope as a sort of windshield wiper of light roof snow.  Feasible.  We also plan to screw in  bolts and a chain to hold a ladder in place on the high side of shallow roofs, to push off snow with a snow rake.

Shoveling out the fire pit
Snowshoeing and snowmachining:  Because the snowmachines we bought (Bearcat 660) have narrow skis and low bellies, they tend to tip over or get stuck in deep, soft snow, especially on angled terrain but are fine on firm snow.  Therefore, we have to pat out the paths we want in snowshoes after every deep snowfall.  This may be good exercise now, but I don't want to have to do this to walk to the outhouse and chicken coop  all winter when I am 70.   I would like to buy a snowmachine better suited to the grooming we need – either riding high and light or plowing through soft snow.   

Supply Runs:   Even in cities, winter driving hazards can be challenging as people age.  We are alert to our transportation issues, too.  Winter maintenance of the plane involves snowmachine grooming (and regrooming after each snowfall) a landing strip on the lake ice, sweeping snow off the wings and fuselage all winter, preheating the plane before departure, and tying and covering the plane on return.  (in short winter daylight).  Shopping by snowmachine, across country and two rivers, the route is 42 miles and 3.25 hours one way, on short, cold days in January – to about the first week of March, when the rivers are safely frozen and the snow route across bogs and lakes is firm and not slushy or soft.  Winter temperatures and transportation wear down both machine parts and people.    

Applying our cost/benefit calculations, we analyzed whether to buy a beefier snowmachine (about $12,000) or hire a professional snowmachine hauler to deliver supplies (that we have pre-ordered and pre-positioned for him) once or twice each winter.  The latter won.  Roger's machine is much more powerful than ours and can haul 2 sleds, carrying 3-4 times as much as Bryan can haul on one long day's trip.  So this saves time, gasoline, wear and tear on the machine and my husband, so he can spend his time on other endeavors (like shoveling!).  I am sure that our machine would have died an ignoble death somewhere along the route by now, rather than limping along on local projects.  Heck, we know of two people with strong and expensive machines that had to buy new transmissions two winters ago because of terrible (icy hard?) conditions.   

Flying:  Another cost/benefit analysis resulted in leaving our plane in town with our airplane mechanic during the winter.  If we need only one air taxi trip, this decision is cheaper than changing out the undercarriage from floats to skis and back again.  If we need two trips, it is about break even.  On the one hand we lose the spontaneity of flight on spectacularly clear winter days.  On the other, we shed all the work and worry that accompanies an unhangared plane and landing strip on an icy lake during and after storms of wind, snow, and sleet in Alaska. 


Gardening:  Gardening is emotionally and physically satisfying but the first several days of constant bending over to transplant hundreds of seedlings is getting uncomfortable now.  Five gallon buckets of water hauled here and there will start to feel heavier and heavier, as will stringing together five hoses from lake pump uphill to the back gardens once or twice a week.  At the end of the season, dragging heavy tarp loads of fallen birch leaves to mulch each garden and fruit tree/bush could become burdensome.  I can envision hiring seasonal help twice a year to help with beginning and end of season tasks for gardening as well as fuel production (below).  We have done a good job of planting many low maintenance edible perennials (like berries, apple trees and cherry bushes, mint, horseradish, rhubarb, sorrel, and asparagus).  Also, our raised bed gardens will keep getting higher as we add to the soil.  I plan to add a triangular seat/table on the corner of each raised bed for resting tools... or me.  We also placed 50 gallon water drums close to each garden.  I sewed a fabric bag that hangs over my neck to hold a plastic bin for berry collection, so I can use both hands and not have to bend down to a bowl on the ground.  Each year we figure out little improvements like these.  I find this sort of practical creativity fun to think about.    

Tree cutting:  Bryan labors throughout the year cutting down trees, limbing and bucking them, lifting them in and out of the deep ATV trailer (or I do that on the lower and open sided winter sled), splitting them, and filling the wood corral with about 11 cords of logs.  Chainsaws have a very uneven weight distribution. The work inordinately impacts one's non-dominant shoulder/back.  Bryan's left shoulder tends to stay sore for several months in the autumn, so that is unsustainable.   This year, he decided to stop after one tank of gas.  Next year, he is going to use my little, lighter 20 inch chain saw for limbing.  Both should save his shoulder.  In the future, it might be useful to hire short term help.  Unskilled labor could load and unload the ATV at the wood splitter. Skilled help could cull the trees.   Still there is a lot that has to happen before cutting, like paths to trees and culling the surrounding devil's club.  I am not sure what we will do about that in our dotage, but we are becoming more attentive to placing our winter snowmachine paths near trees we plan to cut. 

Tower Climb
Tower Climb
High work:  I feel nervous when Bryan climbs up to our roof tops on ladders that I am supporting as best I can on uneven terrain at the base.  He wears rapeling gear to climb the 120 foot power tower to adjust antennae and change out dated equipment, but surely there will be some point when such tasks are better handed off to someone more agile.  For this spring, I plan to (have Bryan) attach eye bolts on the logs below the roof wide enough to “enclose” the ladder with a length of chain for his spring cleaning of the chimney.  

As my father says (he may be quoting Bette Davis), “Aging is not for sissies.”  I hope that we can prepare ourselves with prudence and creativity for the challenges that will befall us.   I know that we will still be suprised.  But at least I hope that we will not chastise ourselves for ignoring something obvious that we could indeed plan for.