A meandering blog with no clear topic. You will find me talking about knitting, building, kids, social and economic issues, Alaska, and lots of other stuff.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


(Photo courtesy of Trisha Sadler and the Alaska Volcano Observatory). Mt. Redoubt erupted four or five times yesterday, sending ash all over the place. Since I am in Fairbanks until Tuesday, I am sort of waiting to see if it continues. If there is ashfall in the area I need to drive through, I will have to delay coming home. I heard from my family that there was some ashfall at our place yesterday, but I wasn't there to see it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


I grew up in Maryland, the southernmost Northern state. In climate, it's pretty much a southern state. We did get snow occassionally, but it never lasted long. Big snow falls were the stuff of legends. I still remember the huge snowfall the winter of 1976, when the Chesapeake Bay froze. But when I learned to drive, I never really had to drive in the snow, except maybe once or twice a year. And when I did, it was just a matter of crossing my fingers.
Then I moved to Colorado, and later Utah. It snowed a little more often, but generally melted off the road within a day or two, usually helped by vast quantities of salt. The other consideration is that even in winter, the sun shone for many hours a day, and was still relatively direct and strong. I hated driving in snow, and did the slow, white knuckle, creepy-crawl every time I had to drive in it. The idea of going down even a small hill would make me nervous.
But in 2004, I moved to Alaska. I specifically decided to move Labor Day weekend because I thought we would be less likely to encounter snow in the Yukon early in September. We did get snowed on, but nothing major, and none while we were in the mountains, for which I was grateful, as I was pulling a heavy trailer with my truck.
So, we got to Alaska just in time for winter. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the snow didn't melt. It started snowing in October, and that first winter, the roads never cleared until March. Because the sunlight is not direct enough, strong enough, or long enough to melt anything, and it stayed cold, the snow on the roads simply compacted down into ice. Everything was covered in ice, several inches thick. And to compound the issue, I got a job in January requiring lots of driving all over town. To make a long story short, I learned to drive on ice and snow. By the end of the winter, I wasn't as frightened of driving on it. By the end of my second winter, I had slid off the road twice, and I learned from it. Fast forward to now, and I find myself today driving 300 miles to Fairbanks on roads like you see above in about five and a half hours, including a couple of potty breaks. Note that the trip from where I live to Fairbanks involves a fair amount of hilly terrain. No major mountain passes, but lots of hills and winding around the bases of mountains. Before living in Alaska, I would have said, NO WAY. But today, it was a nice drive, with no white knuckle moments. I will head home on Tuesday, assuming that Mt. Redoubt doesn't spew ash all over the place, making driving truly hazardous (It's very slippery, and it ruins your engine).
I guess my point is, people acclimate. When they have to, or choose to, people can adapt relatively well to changing circumstances. And circumstances are changing. Resource depletion, global warming, etc. will all affect us, and change our lives. There are plenty of predictions of chaos and collapse. But, if we are careful, we can adapt as things change. Hopefully, we will.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This is Monster. He is joining our family tonight. He is a 3 or 4 year old Alaskan Malamute, who is retiring from mushing. This dog is HUGE. I pet him without bending over at all and his paws are as big as saucers. This is an interesting addition for us. Monster is an outside dog; his current owner says he has never lived inside. He has lived in the dog house you sort of see next to him, on a 4 foot lead when not pulling a sled, with about 30 other dogs in close proximity, as is quite typical with sled dogs. Doesn't seem like ideal conditions, but he is a happy, cheerful, exuberant dog.
We will be keeping him in somewhat different conditions, but we will have to keep him chained when not leashed, at least at first, until we are certain he will not run away. Gypsy, our current dog, is never chained or leashed, unless we are somewhere in a crowd where she has to stay with us, such as a playground. She runs around the neighborhood, but never goes far, so we don't have to worry about keeping her chained up. We only have one neighbor close enough for her to bother, and they seem to like her visiting. She is good with other dogs, and Monster is certainly used to other dogs, so we are hoping they will get along ok. We will continue to keep him an outside dog... sled dogs don't do well indoors, as they are conditioned to the cold.
We have thought about putting him to work... we have a huge pile of cut firewood that needs to be hauled to the wood shed for next winter, that is a ways away. We can hook a sled to his harness and fill it with wood, then have him pull it to the house. In addition, he will need lots of exercise, and at least until he can be let loose on his own, that means that one of us will have to get lots of exercise too, LOL. Guess I won't need to do the elliptical machine at the gym anymore. He is a big strong dog, and I hope I can keep him from pulling me all over creation. At least that would give James entertainment :).
I hope he likes it at our house.

Friday, March 20, 2009

a step in the right direction

First lady, Michelle Obama, is planting a victory garden on the White House lawn.


This is great news! Before this, sales of vegetable seeds for home growing had already drastically increased, as people started taking more food production into their own hands, which is a great thing. I am hoping that seeing the fashionable First Lady working with children to grow food on the White House lawn will encourage more people to start growing vegetables. I will post later about the importance of bringing back the victory garden, but for now, I just wanted to highlight this event.

Thank you, Michelle Obama.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Holy cow!

Could this be the answer? We don't have cows, but with 5 people, we do produce some humanure. Check it out...


Actually, I am guessing that even with 5 people, we probably don't produce enough to be useful as a power source, but it's a thought..... LOL.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

utilities... the dilemma

OK, so the following dilemma we are trying to solve may sound weird to some people that read this blog. The answer, according to some of you will probably be, but of course you should. And the answer, according to some of you, will probably be, but of course you shouldn't. But I don't know.

You see, currently we live in a small (950 sq ft) cabin. We built this as a temporary home until we could get our house built. Since then, we have been vacillating back and forth over whether to actually build the real house, or just figure out a way to add on to the cabin, but we are right now leaning towards building the house. The cabin just was not built with the idea of making it last the rest of our lives, and it likely won't.

So now, the current debate is, if we build the house, should we plan on wiring and plumbing the house for modern utilities. We have already decided that we are going to continue to heat solely with wood, so that is not at issue currently. What is at issue is cooking, water, and electricity.

  • Electricity. Right now, we have no electricity, although the cabin was wired for it. We use LED lanterns and a propane lantern for lighting. This is not an issue in the summer, when we don't even need a light if we wake up in the middle of the night. But in the deep part of winter, it is a bit challenging, and we went through 2 or 3 12-packs of D batteries and 2 or 3 small tanks of propane this winter. This also means that we don't have a fridge. We have been keeping things that have to stay cold in the arctic entry, which actually has been working very well. But that doesn't work in the summer, and last summer, we had a cooler outside that we kept full of ice from the store. The electric company wants $25,000 to get electricity to our property line, and our house will sit at least 150 feet back from the road. It would be extremely expensive to get traditional electricity to our home. In addition, solar power would probably not be a terrific option, since there are only a few short hours of light in the winter, and the sun stays extremely low in the sky. It would be great in the summer, though. We don't have a steady enough wind in our spot to make a windmill feasible, and we have no little stream for microhydro power. So, what do we do? Do we spend a fortune on electricity, or do we find alternative ways of living so that it is not necessary? There are ways to do that. For example, we have a north facing hill at the back of our property. We could dig into that, and make an ice house, where we could make ice all winter long, and pack it in straw or sawdust, that would likely stay frozen all summer if we insulate the door well, and keep the door closed. We could then store anything that has to stay cold in that. For me, light is the biggie. I really don't want to resort to candles or oil lamps, and I hate using so many batteries. The biggest benefit of electricity to me is to be able to flip a switch and have safe, sufficient light. If we could get LED or compact flourescent lighting, and were diligent about only having one or two lights on at a time, I don't know if we could generate enough solar power to run them. Also, in the summer, with solar panels, we could certainly generate enough electricity to run a high efficiency washer, but what about in the winter? Would I be washing clothes by hand? We currently use a laundromat, but that is certainly not a permanent, sustainable solution.

  • Water. The only running water is into and out of our kitchen sink. We have no hot water except what we heat on the stove. We have been planning to dig a well for our water supply. Luckily, this area has plentiful water, but because we are on the top of a hill, our well will have to be about 110 feet deep. Without electricity, that is a lot of distance to pump water by hand. In addition, it gets very cold in the winter. It got down to -35 this winter. We would have to find a way to keep the wellhead/pump from freezing. I know they have frost proof hand pumps, but will it work at -35? I don't know. The other option is to collect rainwater in a cistern. It rains a lot in Alaska in the summer, but would we be able to collect enough water from runoff on our roof to supply us all year? I think we would have to be extremely water conscious, and a dry year could be disasterous. Of course, if we get electricity, we can have an electric, underground pump for our well, and this would all be moot. The other water issue is waste. Right now, we are doing an impromtu composting toilet (such as desribed in the Humanure Handbook)Even though Alaska has plentiful water, it bothers me that we use so much perfectly clean drinking water to get rid of poop. We either have to figure out a way to use greywater to flush with, or consider composting toilets, also a great source of fertilizer, if you are careful.

  • Cooking. Cooking is currently managed by propane. We have a gas range converted to propane and it works quite well, including the oven, without any electricity. In fact, I like it better than an electric range. However, I am concerned about the supply of propane. I have said before that I think we are coming to a crisis point in the oil supply. Right now, it doesn't seem like much of a threat, because this economic collapse has lessened the demand for oil to a point that there is currently a supply surplus. But, as production inevitably declines, and demand gradually increases again, prices will go up, and availability will go down. I don't expect to be able to acquire or afford propane to cook with indefinitely. SO... do I put an electric range in the new house? Or, do I put a wood cookstove in the new house? I guess that all goes back to whether we get electricity or not.

So, all in all, it seems like electricity is a good thing. But again, I worry about future availability. As the economy continues to collapse, and resources become increasing scarce, what will happen? I think remote areas will gradually lose services, as it becomes more cost prohibitive to provide services to them. Already this is happening in rural villages across Alaska that never got a sufficient fuel or food supply for the winter. And what has the government been able to do to help? Talk about it in the state legislature saying what a shame it is. That sure gets people warm and fed. I don't want that to happen to my family. That is why I advocate growing a garden and that is why I am considering other ways of meeting our needs besides relying on the grid longterm.

So, yes, I am actually considering a wood cookstove, and yes, I am considering building an ice house, and yes, I heat solely with wood. And I have a supply of stored food, and I am trying a garden again this year.

Comments, ideas, critiques, PLEASE. And if I do opt to put in the electricity, what backups would be most workable? What do you think?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

snow dogs...

The Iditarod started last Saturday. It starts in Anchorage, and they run to Eagle River, about 15 miles. They then restart the next day in Willow. The reason they do this is that the Knik Arm doesn't freeze all the way across anymore, so they let the mushers bypass that crossing.
A friend of mine has a cabin on Long Lake, a mile or so from where the restart is, and we went out to her cabin last Sunday to watch. The dog teams run right down the lake. We stood outside and watched about half of the teams go by, then went inside by the fire to watch the rest, while my friend's husband took our kids snowmachining. This is Becky with him in the pic. The kids loved the snow machines. I tried it out too, but it felt a little unstable on the back. I think I would have liked it more if I had been the one driving, because I would have felt more in control.
It was really fun; we all had a great time. Thanks for inviting us, Christine!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


(No, this is not my cabin.) Somewhat of a crappy picture, but I forgot to take one while it was still light. Then, I only had my cell phone with me, instead of my camera, so that makes it even worse. But I think the picture is clear enough to get my point across.

Snow. Lots of snow. We got a foot and a half this past weekend. Then another couple inches today. The first winter I was here, it was trending warmer and starting to melt by the first weekend in March. Clearly not this year. There are big huge piles of snow surrounding every parking lot in the state, I think. And the other morning it was -10 when I left for work. Breakup is looking like it will be a bit late this year.

Good thing I like snow. And also a good thing we still have plenty of wood left for the wood stove. But hey, all this snow will be great for the Iditarod.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Coincidence, correlation or causation?

This is an interesting graph. There is an article about it here. I first heard about it on NPR the other day, and it was concerning. Essentially, total household debt is aproximately equal to our GDP. This has only happened one time before, in 1929. I agree with the author of the article that the problem is not all the banks. We cannot blame all of the myriad problems that make up this "financial" crisis on the banks. We are as much to blame for buying into the concept that continually increasing debt is a good thing, as long as we think we can make our easy monthly payments.

Our entire society is based on this crazy idea of perpetual growth, with no concept of actual physical limits to resources or sensibility in consumption. All we ever hear is buy more, and more, and more. And every day, we accumulate more and more stuff, and this is supposed to (a) save our country and (b) make us happy. But in reality, our country is becoming worse off, as more and more of us just become fat, lazy, depressed couch potatoes, in debt up to our double and triple chins for our big screen hi-def plasma tv's, who can do nothing more productive that open a party-sized bag of cheetos. Oh, whoops, I am starting to sound a little bit like James Howard Kunstler, there, sorry.

We really are facing so many tough issues, from water scarcity and drought, as I talked about last time I posted, a couple weeks ago, to dwindling natural resources that are become ever more difficult to obtain, at ever greater cost to this place we live, to populations increasing way beyond carrying capacity in many areas of the world.

We have problems with education that are many and varied. On the one hand, students with disabilities often cannot get their needs met by the school system charged with doing so. On the other hand, brighter students are ignored and bored as teachers burden under the "no child left behind" mandate of teaching to the lowest common denominator. While I agree that all students should have a chance at becoming functioning adults, I also strongly feel that the children who truly excel intellectually should have their special needs met as well, benefitting society as a whole as we develop new Albert Einsteins and Leonardo DaVinci's.

We have problems with our workforce. Unemployment, as everyone knows, is incredibly high. In the meantime, more and more things are being done overseas, from cheap plastic toys from China that will poison our children, to customer service reps in India that can read a script in English, but can't answer a question they don't understand. It isn't their fault, English isn't their first language, after all, but it is a difficult situation for all involved when it happens. It seems like nothing is made here in America these days. I have gotten into the habit of looking to see where things are made when I am buying something lately, and I am always surprised if I see "Made in the USA" on it.

We have problems with housing. We all know the problems with subprime loans and other loans that were risky and are now falling apart. We all know that houses aren't selling, and are languishing on the market for months and years. But how many people realize that houses have been getting bigger and bigger over the years? In 1970, the average home size was 1400 square feet. In 2004, it was 2330. And the number of people in them is shrinking, as household sizes decrease. And bigger homes are more expensive, not only because of the increase in square feet, but also because bigger homes are usually fancier homes, so their cost is higher per square foot. More expensive means less affordable, bigger mortgages, that homeowners are less likely to be able to pay when times get tough.

We have problems with agriculture. With global warming. With erratic oil prices. With.... the list goes on and on. And somewhere in there is problems in financial markets and financial institutions, that surprise, surprise, aren't run for the benefit of depositors. They are run for the benefit of their shareholders, or the board of directors. To make a profit. And to continue to make profits when real wealth is declining, they have to invent all these crazy schemes that now are coming apart.

Yes, the banks are a part of it, but not the only part. Wow, as I look at this post, I realized that I am really ranting on and on today, but I am done for now.