Patricia Ford shares her and her family's experiences buying a new home and of the harsh winter environment endured in their Alaska homestead.
The author shares her homesteading tales from Alaska in this edition of Report from Them That's Doin'.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JORGE MORO
In the summer of 1973 — when we found the 8-1/2 acres of Alaskan bush that would be our home — there was nothing here but wilderness, stately spruce, aspens, a beautiful blue-green river running past, and a spectacular view of the Wrangell Mountains. One year later, we made our move back to the land to an Alaska homestead.
My husband and I had talked and dreamed of the step for years . . . but like so many others of our generation, we were caught up in the middle-class suburban way of life that is spelled T*R*A*P. We bought the usual "musts" — the washer and dryer, dishwasher, color TV, all the modern push-button gadgets — and then spent more money on sports equipment and spa memberships to get some exercise. Worse still, our children were growing up in a world that didn't prepare them for what we felt lay ahead. The oldest was ready to enter junior high school, and the time had come for us to act . . . or forget the whole thing and stop talking about it. So we acted: just jumped in with both feet ("up to our ears" is more like it).
Fortunately, we did have enough sense to realize that we couldn't make it with a millstone of bills around our necks. We've known others who tried to swim with such a load and ended up back in the 9-to-5 grind. So we spent two years working, saving, scrimping, and buying only those things that would fit the new lifestyle we were to embark on. When the washer broke down, we bought two No. 3 laundry tubs, a hand wringer, and a "stobby stick". . . and I learned to wash on a rubboard.
Even before we began easing ourselves out of the "system", we knew we loved Alaska and that we wanted to live here. But where? Not near Anchorage: too many people, and real estate prices that long ago soared beyond our budget. Then, in May of 1973, we heard about a state land auction to be held in early June. The available acreage was in the Copper River Valley. We'd never been there, but geological survey charts and maps of the area provided by the state convinced us that it would be worth the 400-mile-plus round trip to take a look.
After five days of tramping through miles of underbrush and nearly being carried off by mosquitoes, we felt ready to give up and search elsewhere. Every piece of property we looked at was either 1,000 feet above the river, or right on the highway, or totally inaccessible. (If we couldn't get in with our 31-year-old four-wheel-drive Jeep, we didn't want the place.)
Then, the day of the auction — tired, discouraged, grimy, hot, and besmeared with mosquito goop — we stumbled onto our small piece of the Good Earth. We knew immediately that it was what we were looking for: a hillside suitable for building (with only a minimum of trees to cut down), six acres of meadowland to farm, and best of all, a breeze blowing down river to keep the mosquitoes grounded. Needless to say, we bought the property.
In August we came back again, this time for three weeks, to fell and limb some of our trees and stack them on skids to season over the winter. We were greener than commercially picked bananas when we started and more bruised than overripe ones when we finished . . . but we did it, nevertheless, with all hands pitching in to help. Even our nine-year-old hacked off branches with a small bow saw, and among us we managed to clear a house site and a 30 foot by 70 foot section for the garden.
The only really stupid thing we did was leave the bark on the trees we felled. (The sooner a trunk is peeled after it's cut, as we now know, the easier the job is to handle.) To be honest about it, after the sap stops flowing — about the end of July here — logs don't "peel" anyway . . . but at least they do "shave" more readily. We had read that the logs would check (crack) less if they were felled in the fall and stripped the following spring. That may be so, but they're a durn sight harder to work on when they've lain that long. The bark seems to glue itself to the tree. If we had been here in April and early May to get started on them, our book learning might have applied . . . but since we didn't begin until mid-June, we really had a difficult time of it.
Anyway, after our initial three-week stint as lumberjacks that first fall, it was back to Anchorage . . . no longer "home" but a place to wait out the winter. We passed the time learning more about what we planned to do and collecting a years supply of the food staples and equipment (tools, etc.) we'd require for the new life we were stepping into. Our resources were limited, and we wanted all our building materials paid for and enough of everything we'd need to last until we were established. Many lists were made and remade, until our "priority" items were pared down enough to fit our budget.
Construction supplies, in particular, cost us a lot of serious thought. There are unique building problems here, where winter temperatures hover at minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit for many weeks and occasionally plummet to minus 70 degrees. We talked to contractors, to helpful lumberyard personnel, and especially to my father — carpenter with much experience in building for Alaska weather conditions — who was of great assistance in helping us decide what we absolutely had to have in the way of insulation for floors, roof, and windows.
We also received some good advice from the Cooperative Extension Service . . . including the following warning "Natural logs (trees with the limbs removed) will require of the builder the highest levels of craftsmanship, the most expenditure in effort, time, and tools of any of the possible choices [of building materials]." Nevertheless, because of the astronomically high price of wood, we decided to use as much natural timber as possible (more logs to cut!). The only finished lumber we would buy was "second grade" 1 foot by 3 foot fir flooring and 1foot by 6 foot cedar siding for the roof. All the rafters, purlins, floor joists, windowsills, doorsills, and jambs we would make from trees we'd cut, peel, and hew ourselves. Even our windows would be made from the leftover flooring, with the tongue and groove cut off to create the moulding that holds the double panes of glass in place.
The total cost of our cabin has run slightly under $3,000 . . . including fiberglass and styrofoam insulation, glass for windows, polyethylene (vapor barrier, an absolute essential in Arctic climates), roll roofing, wood preservative, nails, spikes, and the lumber we bought. Not a bad price for a house with more than 1,200 square feet of floor space!
As the target date for moving to our homestead approached, we were excited and awed at the same time. All around us were cases and boxes filled with food, tools, equipment to build a hydraulic ram, a Franklin fireplace, barrel stove, wood cookstove (which I had absolutely no notion how to manage), chain saw, log dogs, drawknives, chicken wire fencing. . . and 20 flats of delicate seedlings, painstakingly started in our living room, to be transplanted to the garden. With the help of friends and relatives we managed to get everything the 225 miles to our new home.
So, we had arrived: with three kids aged 9, 11, and 14, two very inexperienced lumberjacks, more than three tons of equipment (most of which we had only a vague idea how to use), two cats, one dog, and one very high-strung yappy poodle (didn't I tell you we were middle-class suburbanites?). And what did we have to come to? A pile of unpeeled logs in the wilderness, just lying there waiting for us to put them together into a house.
When everybody left that night, total chaos reigned. Neither of us knew where anything was (except for the tent, and then only because it's pretty hard to lose something that size). Fortunately, it stays light up here nearly all night by the end of May . . . because I'm sure we couldn't have found the lantern. The awesomeness of it all washed over me in a flood of nausea as the last car disappeared down the rutted road that was now our driveway. "My God," I muttered, "what have we done!"
That thought was to recur many times through the next four months. . . and every time it hit, our stomach muscles would tie themselves into knots. Sure we were afraid: afraid of the bears that roam this part of the country in abundance, but more afraid that we'd bitten off more than we could chew. Neither of us had ever built anything before. I'd never even planted a garden — only flowers, with a few vegetables tucked between the roses — and we were counting on the harvest fox winter food.
Well, scared or not, we got to work and spent the first three weeks rototilling, fencing, and planting the garden. And yes, we ran into some problems. For starters, the hydraulic ram didn't work (not enough drop in the river to pump the water the necessary 100 feet up the bluff). We tried sinking a well by hand, and tore up the sand point six feet down . . . so we had to spend a mint on a gasoline-driven pump that will hold us until we have time to work out a system that is wind-powered.
Then the weather! It rained for what seemed like days at a time. (What am I saying? It was days at a time.) And the wind, that delightful wind which drove away mosquitoes the summer before . . . now it blew and blew and BLEW. The polyethylene covering the caches of equipment flapped and tore, and things got wet and we dried them. And the house progressed so slowly! By the end of June we had only the foundation logs in place.
Of course, life wasn't exactly simplified by our sudden decision to take on more animals than we'd originally expected to handle that first summer. We'd planned to raise dairy goats and chickens the following year . . . but somehow, in mid-June, it seemed like a good idea to buy the two beautiful Toggenburgs a friend was selling. Then — as long as we already had goats to care for — it didn't appear unfeasible to buy the 20 New Hampshire Red chicks from the feedstore. (Why is it that such things always seem reasonable only before you do them?)
So the chicks came home to live with us, to grow and eventually give us fresh eggs. And man, did they ever live with us! It didn't occur to me until after I'd agreed to get them that baby chickens needs lots of warmth. What warmth? We were still living in a tent, we don't have electricity out here, and it's for sure I couldn't tuck them inside my shirt . . . so we solved the problem by letting them roost on a hot water bottle in a cardboard box.
During the first week of the chicken invasion, I got up every morning at 2:00 a.m. to do hot water refills. A pot on the tent heater kept the fresh supply warm until needed, and the biddies' box was placed next to my sleeping bag for convenience and extra warmth. (For the record, the nighttime temperature in mid-June is about 35 degrees.) During the day we put the chicks outside in their pen to scratch and run . . . and in the evening we brought them back in. Then — oh bliss! — at the end of three weeks we acquired an old rabbit hutch to use as a temporary chicken house and bade adieu to our tentmates. Thanks to a miracle, all but two survived. I guess what we'd read about New Hampshire Reds being a sturdy breed must be true.
By the middle of July the potatoes were up and smiling at us and the peas were a foot and a half high . . . and while the corn wasn't "as high as an elephant's eye", it was growing and looked beautiful! The Early Tanana tomatoes (the only kind that can be raised successfully without a greenhouse in our 90-day growing season) were starting to blossom. That garden took a lot of my time during the warm months. It seemed that when I wasn't peeling logs, I was carrying water for the plants. But it was worth the work.
By mid-September — after an eventful summer — the cabin was habitable. Just 93 days passed between the laying of the foundation logs and our moving in.
The house is bigger than we'd imagined it would be, with a 24 foot by 32 foot ground floor and a 24 foot by 20 foot sleeping loft that leaves us an 18-foot-high cathedral ceiling in the living room/kitchen area. As I write (mid-winter) we're still putting in the last of the windows and have nearly all the interior work left to do, but we're snug and warm . . . even at the minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit we had last week.
We're very pleased with what we've accomplished. Many times we look around and find it difficult to believe that we're really here and that we really did this. Especially, when I glance up at that 40-foot ridge beam, I still occasionally wonder how we got it "way up there". "You really built a neat-o house," said my four-year-old nephew. Yeah. We think so too!
And we know we've learned a lot in the short time we've been here. Mainly that whether a family succeeds or fails in their return to the land depends more on their attitude than on any other factor. When people are reared in a materialistic society, it becomes an ingrained habit for them to think, "I'll buy this, or that, or whatever." But to make it on a self-sufficient basis you have to retrain yourself to ask, "Do I really need that? If so, how can I make it? Or can I devise an alternative?" Success in this kind of living comes from the belief, "If it can be done, I can learn how and do it!"
Sure, sometimes washing clothes on a rubboard gets to be a real drag, and I have to remind myself that by doing the laundry this way I'm able to give each article individual attention. Then I can feel satisfaction in a job well done. At times breadmaking becomes a bore . . . but I bear in mind that I'm personally providing my family with something they need. So I bake and enjoy the chore. Splitting wood at minus 35 Fahrenheit isn't much fun either, but it's usually done cheerfully even by our 10-year-old because we all realize how interdependent we are for our needs.
We each feel we're contributing to the common good, building something together for all of us. And what better way is there to teach a child self-awareness and self-worth?
My husband Dick (5'7", 130 pounds) and I (5'3", 120 pounds) are both small people . . . and — at 37 and 33 — we're no longer kids. Yet the two of us, with the help of three young sons, have carved a beautiful cabin and working homestead for ourselves out of the tough Alaskan wilderness. It's been a backbreaking job at times . . . but we think that the rewards far outweigh the hardships.
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