Our chronicles as we create our off-grid homestead in Interior Alaska -- from escaping the rat race and big city, to extreme cold weather subsistence/self-sufficient living just outside the Arctic Circle.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
OMG the tent is finally complete
Building a wall tent sucks, this morning I feel like I've been in a Cannibal Corpse mosh pit, but with a great deal more sense of achievement. Oh and a bad case of sunburn, I look totally redneck (apologies to those who take exception to this description)
We had a few moments of friction with each other while doing this, but it was a good test, and thank god for power tools (which will be becoming more scarce in the next few months onwards). Overall we have a few bumps and bruises too (note to self tell the other person you're moving something so you don't smack them in the mouth accidentally).
Anyway 50 days from today the grand adventure kicks off, I'm surprisingly excited, up to this point I've been a little concerned.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Getting Ready - The Wall Tent
We opted for an internal frame because we will be living in it long-term. We purchased a welded angle kit with the tent, and then purchased and cut down 1" aluminum electrical conduit to make the frame. Of course, cutting down the conduit is easier said that done.
Firstly, the tent dimensions are for cut size, not sewn size and we didn't have any place quite big enough stretch the tent out flat enough to get completely accurate measurements... so we measured, did some math and then we guessed.
Secondly, we forgot to take into account the additional lengths added by the angles themselves. We got the entire frame together, battled the canvas into place, only to find out that we needed to trim down the rafters, eaves and ridge because they were too long to actually pull the canvas across properly without putting too much stress on the seams. *SIGH* So much for geometry! We took everything apart again (incurring several minor injuries), trimmed 3" off the rafters and 1" off the eaves and ridge.
We put the newly trimmed frame together again and wrestled the canvas back with only a mild concussion and one dislocated finger. After a few minutes of tugging and tweaking, everything settled nicely into place and there was much rejoicing. We rigged up the tension ropes and wet the whole thing down to pre-shrink the canvas. We'll have to wet it down and let it dry at least three times to make sure it has shrunk all it's going to shrink, since most treated canvas shrinks 1-3% (untreated canvas can shrink up to 15%). Let's just hope we don't need to cut the mother-loving frame down again or there will be much hatred.
Once it's all put together, the tent is actually pretty cavernous. It could easily sleep 10 people in cots with plenty of walking room. Or, in our case, two adults, two cats, a queen-sized bed, a couple of dressers and everything we own stacked up in boxes. Well, at least until we get our "cache" built, and can move some the stuff into that while we're building the main cabin. There is a rain fly that we'll be adding to the tent, which extends 5 feet on either end to form a "porch" of sorts. That covered area will come in handy for storing firewood and our privy bucket. We'll be erecting the tent on a raised platform on the property, so it will be even more stable, and we'll have a small deck to sit and enjoy the evenings.
Despite being exhausted and wounded, we're really happy with our tent. We might even go out and sleep in it tonight since our neighbors already think we're nuts. This whole endeavor was actually a good dry run for us to see whether we could work together well on a heavy project that didn't have the most detailed instructions. I, personally, think we succeeded with flying colors... sure, we snapped at each other a couple of times, but we kept working and the end result is all good. So far, we don't seem to be holding any grudges :)
Friday, May 29, 2009
Getting Ready - Clothes
The key to cold climate clothing is layers, lots and lots of interchangeable layers! You have to remember that cotton kills - once it gets wet (from sweat or crossing a stream) it loses all it's insulation value and can actually make you colder. Gloves are great if it's just a little below freezing, or you need the dexterity for short period, but you need mittens to save your hands when it's -40F. You need different boots for different activities and conditions, and different socks to go with them... and a pair or two of gaiters wouldn't hurt either. You can't forget your head, neck and face... and after your eyelids freeze shut a few times, you realize goggles are a good idea, too. These are things I learned in "balmy" Anchorage, so I figure they apply doubly-so in the Interior.
I asked the locals, and most recommended army surplus. I agree it's good gear, but I couldn't find (m)any that were made for women... and I am not going to try to work with ill-fitting clothing and y-front long johns wadding up in my crotch. So, I went in search of commercial brands that had the same thermal performance, moisture-wicking properties, and breathable water/wind resistance. I talked to several "arctic outfitters" and local hunting/hiking guides and they steered me in the right direction. I talked to some natives, and lucked into a wonderful craftswoman who will be making us authentic mukluks to keep our feet toasty during the dead of winter (dry conditions). I was re-introduced to XtraTufs - the quintessential "Break Up" and backwoods boot (wet conditions). The locals inform me that it is cold until it's warm... so not to waste money on mid-weight gear because there's only about a week that it's appropriate.
After all that research and shopping around, this is what we're starting out with (everything is either poly or wool):
- Moisture-wicking base layer (next to skin) tops and bottoms in lightweight and heavyweight
- Insulating layer (a.k.a. fleece layer) tops and bottoms in mid-heavy weight, and a few thick wool sweaters
- Soft shell - thin, breathable, water and wind proof top and bottom to go over the other layers when it's not really that cold but we still need weather protection
- Insulated shell - heavily insulated, water and wind resistant bib-trousers and parka to go over the base and insulating layer(s) when it's ultra-cold
- Head/Face - base layer (poly skull cap), insulating layer (fleece balaclava), a wool watch cap for when it's not that cold, and fur-lined hunter's cap with flaps for when it's ultra-cold... plus the hoods on the jacket and parka. And some snow goggles with exchangeable lenses - clear for night time, and amber-smoke for day (to combat snow-blindness).
- Hands - thin poly-wool wicking glove liners, insulated weatherproof gloves, super-insulated weatherproof arctic mittens
- Feet - thin poly wicking sock liners, lots of wool socks in varying thicknesses, gaiters, mukluks with removable wool liners, insulated water resistant snow hiking boots, XtraTufs with removable insulated liner
- Warmers -- and I picked up several "pocket/hand" warmers just in case we need some extra heat. I prefer the HotSnapz and Prism Proheat warmers (even though they aren't quite as toasty) because they are reusable and can easily be "reset" by boiling in water a few minutes.
So, we'll find out if all these layers work properly together to keep me from dying of hypothermia while still being flexible enough to allow me to keep working. I probably went overboard on some things, or find that they are completely useless or unnecessary. I just hope I don't find that I have forgotten something or what I got wasn't adequate. I figure by the end of this winter, I'll have become a pro at putting on and taking off layers to adjust to the conditions!
Who would have ever thought I'd be spending so much time worrying about clothes?! But, hey, this ain't about fashion, it's about survival, so I guess I won't lose my tom-boy street cred. :D
Thursday, May 21, 2009
We intend to build a low-impact cabin (similar to this one in principle) on our remote, forested property using as many locally-sourced and reused materials to acheive the lowest embodied energy possible. Once the cabin is habitable, we'll focus on a large garden using a combination of organic, raised-bed, biointensive, permaculture practices. Then we'll build a nice barn to match the cabin and get some small livestock (chickens, rabbits, goats, etc), which we intend to raise as "free range, pasture fed", using rotational grazing methods, as possible given the climate and predator population in AK.
Our over-arching goal is to produce/obtain the majority of our needs right on our property using the minimum amount of fossil fuels and (hopefully zero) synthetic chemicals. We are attempting to be as self-sustaining and self-reliant as humanly possible given the limits of our property. We hope to be able to grow and raise enough food for ourselves and to sell/trade for those things we can't produce on our own. We are also working towards being "tax neutral" -- only earning enough income to meet our needs while still staying at or below the taxable level.
We are designing our homestead and farm to be a full-circle biological cycle generating little, if any, waste. To this end, we will be using composting toilets, a graywater reclamation system, and employing biodiversity in our gardens and livestock. Our hope is to create a true cradle-to-cradle system that does not require many, if any, outside inputs to remain sustainable. Of course, there will always be need to import a few items that are not available onsite, such as salt for food preservation, certain minerals and nutrients that are lacking in our soil, and some glass and metal items. But we are trying to minimize outside inputs to only those that we cannot produce, procure, reuse, or find alternate available replacements.
Some combination of renewable energy systems will be employed to provide us with the small amount of electricity we require (for pumps, electronics and telecommunications), while reverting to non-electric mechanical methods for things where electrical versions are really only a convenience. Until that system is installed, we will need to rely on a fuel-driven combustion generator for the power tools necessary to get our cabin built during the short summer. This is a concession that was difficult for us to make, but since time was of the essence (or we'd freeze in the winter) we realized that we did need the gas chainsaw and other electric power tools in the beginning. Going forward, we hope to only use the generator as a backup and to convert it and the chainsaw to a renewable fuel (most likely ethanol) that we can produce onsite.
In essence, our homestead is an experimental proof-of-concept, taking the principles of several established (although "alternative") methods to combine and modify them to work in an extreme cold climate. The "extreme cold climate" part is the most important because most of the reference materials out there focus on temperate climates, desert climates, or "normal" cold climates... not -40F (or lower!) winters with almost constant darkness and only a 100-day growing season with almost constant daylight. I'm sure we'll run into a few things that will have to be done a different or more conventional way, but we are hoping to illustrate that alternative methods can be viable if tweaked a little. We don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution, so we hope exposing the processes behind our experimentation can help others devise systems and methods that fit their individual needs.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Getting Ready - Energy Diet
We were already a bit more conservative in our energy usage than the reported average household, 7 kwh a day vs. 30 kwh a day. But, we wanted to see exactly how far we could trim this down. Could we get it under 3 kwh a day which is easily within the production capacity of an affordable-priced system? And we weren't just going to look at kwh of electricity, we decided to also take into account our natural gas and water usage... both of which were also already below national average.
First, let me tell you... when you live in a house on the grid, especially in a city, there are more things that you can't do to conserve energy than you'd think. For instance, our house has central forced air heating with gas furnaces, high-efficiency gas fireplaces, gas water heaters, and a gas cooking range. These appliances are all much more efficient than their electrical counterparts because making heat with electricity is a very "lossy" application. You burn something, use the heat to make electricity, transport it through wiring from the plant to the consumer (losing power due to resistance), then put it through more resistance to make heat... see very inefficient! BUT - natural gas is a fossil fuel and the prices skyrocketed this year. However, much as we would have liked to used wood for all our heat-generating applications, that was not an option in our city house... regulations, lack of forests, smog-control "no burn days". We also couldn't make the most of solar (PV or thermal) because of the location and siting of our home. And forget about a wind turbine, that would never make it past the building permits!
Anyway... we already had all the usual efficiency measures like low-flow faucets, Energy-Star appliances, programmable thermostats, and low-watt lighting and that had already gotten us below the national average on all counts. We also stopped using as many appliances that had phantom loads as possible, and lowered the thermostat on the furnace even farther then curtained off the living room so we could use the fireplace to keep the main area more comfortable with less wasted heat and energy. We hooked up all our rechargeable "gadgets" to a power strip with a timer so that we were only using electricity to recharge the battery (about an hour for most things) rather than continually running (and losing!) electricity in all the transformers.... the timer does generate a small phantom load, so we're looking for one with a manual timer rather than a digital one. We also started making judicial use of blinds and curtains to control light and heat. We were lucky to already have large skylights in the front of the house, but we did consider putting in a solar tube in the back hallway for even more daylighting. We put a timer in the bathroom to control how much time we spend in the shower (they also make shower head timers!).
Well, we have managed to get our electricity down to just under 5 kwh a day, and lower our gas and water consumption another 20%. When we switch to wood heat and are able/allowed to dry our clothes on a line, we should easily be able to get under 3 kwh a day and not rely on natural gas (or only small amounts of propane at least). Yippee! Surprisingly, we really aren't sacrificing any of the modern amenities and conveniences either... just using them a little differently and paying attention more. But we are very happy to know that even a small, relatively "inefficient" renewable energy system will adequately meet our power needs at the bush cabin.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Getting Ready - Downsizing
The cabin we're going to build is about 1200 sq ft and we will eventually be generating all our own power (solar pv, wind and backup generator). We don't plan to be complete Luddites, so some tech gear will be coming with us and hopefully we'll get a satellite dish for Internet access once the cabin is built. While we're clearing the land and building the cabin, we'll be living in a 16x20 wall tent which is just about the size of our living room/dining room. That's pretty convenient, because we can move into the LR and see if our stuff fits comfortably.
The first things to go are anything that takes a tremendous amount of electricity that doesn't directly work toward our survival. So the big televisions and huge stereo system gets sold, but all the power tools and LED monitor/TV come with us. The desktop computers go, but the laptops and MP3 players get to come. DH can't quite part with his video games, but we have whiddled it down to 2 consoles and one 3" binder of games... all the other consoles and games get to go to the garage sale. We've gone through all the music CDs and DVD/BluRay movies, and transferred the keepers into 3" binders. The VHS tapes and CD/DVD/Game jewel cases have been recycled.
The coffee maker, blender, food processor and other electric kitchen appliances go, and we have to replace with a percolator, food mill and other hand crank versions. All the aluminum and "non-stick" cookware goes because it doesn't hold up so well to campfire and woodstove heat (we tested, it melted), and we're replacing with cast iron skillets and dutch ovens. Even the ceramic dishes are going, to be replaced by enameled metal Graniteware that should hold up better to the rigors of campside living. We're keeping a few pieces of stainless steel, mostly the little pots we use for warming things up, so they wouldn't go directly into the fire or on the hot part of the stove... or at least not long enough to deform. Pyrex also failed our tests, so we'll be replacing all that gear with stainless as well. No need to replace any of the baking stuff... 1) we won't have an oven for a LONG time, 2) I don't bake much anyway, and 3) what little I do bake I know how to make in the dutch oven.
Pretty much all our furniture is in the sell pile. It's either not practical, won't fit in the new place, or would be much simpler to replace from a garage sale once we get there. The only things we're taking with us are the resin lawn chairs, our Ikea bed, our Ikea dressers, and our Ikea bookshelves because we need a place to sit, sleep and store stuff in the tent. See a pattern? All the Ikea stuff breaks down into flat-packs and will take up so much less space in the trailer. I love Ikea!
Even with the new replacements and survival gear, it looks like we'll be getting rid of 75% of our household stuff. Jeez, it's amazing all the things that you think is so critical, but is really just a gadget, doodad, or mind-number. Heck, even some of the stuff we're keeping isn't 100% survival functional, but it's way less than we've been anchored with (gotta have fun sometime, right?!). I really hope we have a good turn out at the garage sale, but whatever doesn't sell gets put on the charity truck!
Why I'm all in for this crazy plan
My reasons are quite simple (a lot like the things I enjoy). I'm tired of the rat race, tired of stress (the kind of stress where you want to punch the idiot spouting BS in the throat, but can't), and stays with you for days. I'm looking forward to a simpler way of life with real stresses, that could indeed be life threatening; but when they're over, they're over. Not the grinding soul destroying continual stress that exists making others rich while letting your life slip through your fingers.
Anyway, this is a quick post, I'm not as wordy :)
Monday, May 11, 2009
How It All Began
My husband and I met in 2003 while working at an international software development company based outside Seattle (you know the one). We married in December 2004 -- my third, his second. The following Spring, I started experiencing debilitating panic attacks, especially at work, and had to go on short-term disability leave. During this time I sought medical and psychological treatment for my extreme anxiety disorder; but, unfortunately, neither medication nor talk therapy seemed to abate my symptoms. After several attempts, we finally decided that I could not return to work even though my husband (a UK citizen) was still in the immigration process. I tried going back to school, but that only exacerbated my symptoms.
However, while I was at school, I had a lengthy discussion with one of the counselors who mentioned that I displayed quite a few traits of Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning condition on the autism spectrum. I had never heard of it, but I had been diagnosed by several different therapists, psychologists and doctors as having any number of different psychological issues -- none of which exactly fit my symptoms. I went home, did some research and found the information eerily familiar. I brought this up with my therapist, who dismissed it because it was a "developmental disorder" only found in children and she didn't think I displayed any austistic behaviors. I let it go for a while, but my mind kept returning to it and I talked with more people (teens and adults) who were diagnosed. At this point, I circumvented my therapist and went to get a professional evaluation with a psychologist who specializes in AS and autism.
After a full evaluation and review of my history, I was officially diagnosed with AS at the ripe age of 36 (I guess children grow up!). This came as a shock to me in a way, but mostly because I was amazed that no one in all the years of my depression and therapies ever noticed some of the very obvious symptoms. Granted, I am a bit of a complicated case because I'm not a typical Aspie, and I also have Complex PTSD and some distinctly Schizoid traits as well. It took us a while to sort out this information and determine how it affected me and our relationship. Luckily, DH is also introverted and partially Schizoid, so we could adapt to the quirks now that we finally knew what was causing them. One thing was certain though, I wasn't going to be able to return to work... probably not ever. So, with the help of my new psychologist, I filed for SSDI Benefits.
Once we knew I couldn't return to work, and that we didn't know how long it would take for Social Security to approve my claim (if ever); we really started thinking about the life we were living, whether it was fulfilling, and whether it was conducive to my condition. The short answer was "NO". But then we needed to determine what type of life and living situation we wanted and whether that would work for both of us. Neither of us are particularly socially-oriented; but, due to my hypersensitivity, social interaction and environmental stimulus cause me to have panic attacks... so we evidentally needed to live with less money and a lot farther away from other people. After much soul-searching, we decided that we wanted to adopt a more self-sufficient lifestyle and embrace Voluntary Simplicity in a modern homestead situation.
Once we'd figured that out, we just had to figure out where to do this. Neither of us are attached to the Puget Sound area, or any other part of Washington or the Pacific Northwest for that matter. I grew up military, so I really wasn't attached to any particular place. He's English, so he wasn't particularly attached to any particular place, as long as it wasn't back in the UK. I had spent quite a bit of time east of the Mississippi River and really liked the East Coast. We both love cold weather and hate hot and humid, which pretty much put us north of the Potomac River. Wanting to avoid large metroplolitan areas put us in northern New England, so we started looking at property in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine... and quickly learned that it is EXPENSIVE to live there! Land is spendy and property taxes are high. If we were going to live simply, we couldn't take on a permanent financial hit like that. Also, some of the politics in the states were getting a little, um, weird for our tastes. We knew we had to look somewhere else.
I'd lived in Alaska before and I loved it. In Spring of 2008, during the Discovery Channel's "Alaska Week" specials, my husband mentioned that he'd always wanted to take an extended trip up there. Things got really silent as we looked at each other with big, bright light bulbs going off in our heads. I knew that property taxes were rare and only high in a very select few areas... places that had too many people anyway. We knew there were plenty of places to live in the vast state where social interaction and other people's noise and commotion were miles and miles away. The state politics were acceptable, and the parts that weren't wouldn't really affect us if we were out far enough. So that just meant that we had to find enough land to start a homestead, where the climate wouldn't completely negate farming, and it all had to be affordable short-term and long-term.
I hopped online and researched everything I could find about farming in Alaska, available properties, climates in the various regions and just about everything else I could dig up on living in the Far North. I was lucky enough to stumble across a gent on City-Data forums who had just bought a good chunk of land from the State's DNR Over-the-Counter Land Sales. We checked a few of the subdivisions, did some more online research, and then decided to visit the property we wanted to purchase. We went up that summer, walked the lot lines, found all the property markers and made friends in the village down the road. We entered a sales contract on the land immediately. We just had to figure out when we were going to make the big move.
We were totally psyched and wanted to go up that Fall; but that really wouldn't work for us financially, and I needed surgery. I got an inheritance from my grandmother which allowed us to pay off the land in total, and we thought maybe this Spring... nope, health issues again. So we decided it was going to be this Fall, probably September before Winter came in. But with all the crazy stuff going on with the economy and pandemics and layoffs, and DH starting to develop anxiety disorder, we decided to bail this Summer instead. With any luck, we'll be there for my birthday. Until then, we're just getting ready... but that's another an entry for another day :)