Living Off the Grid

What does it take to live off-grid in Alaska? Number one you need to know what you’re doing. If you’re unprepared you won’t survive year round here.  Like my sweetheart, Jeff, says, “Mother Nature has no forgiveness for stupidity”.  Alaska’s climate is cold and snowy most of the year.  Alaskans will tell you there are only two seasons here.  Winter and almost winter!  That’s a little bit of an exaggeration but not really much of one.  Winter snow lasts from the middle of October until the middle of May around here where we are.  From the middle of May when the snow is finally gone until the middle of October when it snows again – the Spring, Summer and Fall go by pretty quickly.  In late April to early May the frozen rivers start breaking up and the hooligan start running.  All of the sudden in May the buds are out on the trees and the grass turns green, perennial plants, like fiddle ferns and fireweed, start popping through the ground, you start seeing birds like the robins, the ducks and the swans again, the eagles and ravens are nesting, moose and bears have their babies… Alaska comes to life.  Then in weeks it seems its’ summer.  June and July are warm getting into the 60’s and 70’s and that’s the best the temps get pretty much. Once in a blue moon you’ll see 80 degrees. Gardens are growing and with all the light from the long hours of daylight our crops grow big!  Where wintertime sun lasts about 6 hours a day – in the summertime it never seems to get dark.  On the longest days of Summer, it’s dusk about 2am and light again at 4am.  That’s why Alaska is called the Land of the Midnight Sun.  By the middle of August and through September it’s harvest and hunting seasons where people and animals are busy storing up for the long winter ahead.  Then before you know it – it’s winter again.  If you don’t like cold weather and wintertime, Alaska is really not the place for you to live. 

My sweetheart, Jeff, has a cabin on the Susitna River, about 20 miles off the road system by boat or snowmachine. It has a woodstove for heat, as well as a propane stove and refrigerator and a gas generator for lights and power.  We have to haul in gas and propane by boat or snowmachine.  There is no indoor plumbing.  We haul in water in buckets from a natural spring on the other side of the river and collect rainwater during times we cannot cross the river.  We use a gravity fed system for doing dishes and showers.  Basically, that means we haul in the water, heat it on the woodstove, then transfer it up to the second floor of the cabin into a barrel that is connected to tubing which drains into a sink and shower that can be turned on or off.  That barrel can hold up to about 15 gallons of water.  It does make it nice to be able to wash dishes and take a shower but it’s a lot more work to do it this way than the way you’re used to doing it in the city where you have water at your disposal by just turning a faucet on and off when you want it.  We spend a lot of time and energy getting, hauling, heating and transferring water for use at the cabin. 

We can’t get cell service at the cabin but we do have a place up on a hill overlooking the property where we can get a bar or two to make a call if necessary but we have to take a snowmachine or 4 wheeler or walk to get there.  It’s not like picking up a phone at home in the city.  A few years ago we had a satellite dish installed on the cabin and now we can get satellite internet.  It’s pretty expensive and we only have 5 gigs a month to use but it does keep us connected to the world so we do have it much better than people had it in the old days when there was no such thing as cell phones and internet.  In those days people would listen on the radio for messages from home. 

It’s very peaceful here most of the time.  During the day when the generator is off it’s quiet except for an occasional snowmachine in the winter or boat in the summer passing by and then airplanes pass overhead occasionally.  In the evening the sound of the generator is something you have to get used to.  We like to turn it on at night for lights and power to the internet. We also have an inverter hooked up to a battery so that when the generator is off we can turn it on and get internet. We also have a battery operated TV that gets about 5 channels.  So we do enjoy a few modern conveniences that give us a connection to the outside world.    

Jeff had this property many years before I met him.  He built 2 cabins and a garage on this property over the years.  The first cabin burned down in the late1990’s.  The fire started in the chimney of the wood stove.  That’s one of the dangers of living out in the bush.  You’re on your own and when it comes to something like a fire you are pretty defenseless.  Jeff and his family escaped but he lost everything and had to rebuild. 

It’s quite an ordeal to build out in the bush.  Every piece of lumber and all the materials and tools to build with have to be hauled out load by load on a trailer behind a snowmachine in the winter or on a boat in the summertime.  Most of lumber for building the cabins and garage were hauled out in wintertime as it is easier to pull lumber and large items on a trailer behind a snowmachine than it is to haul it in a boat.  This is a pretty big cabin and garage too so you can imagine how many loads it took to get all the lumber and supplies out here.  It took many years just to haul the supplies in.  Jeff is a builder and built the cabins and garage by hand with the help of a few friends.  Although it took years it was quite a benefit for Jeff to be able to do the building himself.  It certainly saved on cost. 

Not long after Jeff rebuilt his cabin his wife passed away of cancer and that’s when I met him.  I could relate to his loss as I myself was a widow, having lost my husband many years before.  Meeting Jeff brought new life back into my life.  I got to experience things I always wanted to experience. I was always interested in self-sufficiency and survival and getting back to nature but I had no actual experience with it.  I had read up on self-sufficiency and outdoor life but the experience living in a cabin in the woods was and is truly exciting and a dream come true.  I was intrigued with all that Jeff had accomplished out in the wilderness of Alaska.   Once he started showing me the lifestyle I fell in love with him and with the lifestyle. Jeff’s a good teacher too.  He grew up being self-sufficient, hunting and fishing, and exploring the woods.  He grew up on a lake, and got to know boats like the back of his hand.  He went into the army at 17 years old and received training as a combat engineer, developing his toughness and his skills as a carpenter and a heavy equipment operator.  He’s also naturally mechanical and can fix anything which is pretty much a necessity when you live off the grid.  He has chainsaws, power tools, lawnmowers, 4 wheelers, snowmachines, generators… the list goes on…and he maintains and repairs all of them himself.  If you can’t fix things yourself you’re in trouble out here.  It’s helpful to also be inventive and resourceful.  You can’t just run to the store when you need something.  Jeff is like a McGyver.  If he doesn’t have the part he can make one.  It seems like every day Jeff is fixing something. If he’s not fixing something he’s tuning it up or doing one of the many chores on his to do list.  Things like cleaning out the chimney pipe once a year so we don’t have a chimney fire, or repairing a roof or some other things that needs repairing,  If he doesn’t have chores tuning up or repairing things he busies himself with little things like making kindling.  And we haven’t even gotten to all the snow there is to deal with in the wintertime.  Lots of snow!  We both do a lot of sweeping and shoveling and he’s constantly running a groomer every time it snows to keep our trails packed.  I do things like cleaning out the ash out of the woodstove when it get full of ash and we wash clothes in a bucket and hang them to dry.  The yard and garden are a lot of work for both of us.  We have a dog and I’m always cleaning up dog poop and he mows the lawn every week all summer.  We both work hard on the garden.  It’s a lot of work putting it in, weeding, watering and harvesting it in the Fall.  All in all we keep busy out here.  It takes lots of energy to live in the wilds of Alaska.  We both stay busy but Jeff much more so than me.  He stays busy from dawn to dusk taking care of his cabin and property.  As Jeff says, it’s a labor of love, and the key word here is labor. 

Chopping wood is a big chore when your only heat is a wood stove.  You need many trees a year chopped down, cut up, and hauled in to be able to keep the wood stove burning all year.  Trees can warm you 3 different times.  They warm you cutting them down, splitting and stacking and hauling them, and then finally when they burn in the wood stove.  At 60 plus years old it gets harder every year.  But by living out here we don’t need a gym membership.  We get our workouts daily and there’s no monthly membership costs.  I personally don’t have the strength to run a chainsaw so I would be in trouble on my own.  Jeff does all the chainsaw work.  If you hurt yourself out in the bush you’re out of luck because you can’t just lie around and do nothing.  You are the only one taking care of yourself.  Even if you’re only sick a few days…you still have to keep wood on the fire or you’ll freeze to death.  We spend a lot of time and energy at the cabin keeping it warm.  Just helping Jeff haul the wood, from the woods to the trailer, from the trailer to the woodpile, from the woodpile to the woodstove, is a lot of work. 

While Jeff stays busy with the mechanical side of things it seems like I spend most of my time in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes.  It’s a never ending chore but lucky for me I love to do it.  I am enjoying learning to cook on a wood stove.  I make a lot of soups and stews and roasts on it.  You can’t survive on food alone but I do think it makes Jeff’s life easier having his own cook and dishwasher. I am also enjoying learning about the fish, wildlife and plants of the area.  Not only do the fish, wildlife and plants provide sustenance but it’s a lot of fun fishing, hunting and gathering in the great outdoors of Alaska.  I’ve learned about guns for hunting and protection and I’ve learned how to use off grid power.  Still, when it comes to surviving out here alone, even after all these years with him, I couldn’t do it.  Nor would I want to.  I only do it because I have Jeff at my side taking care of the many things I could not do on my own.  Jeff could easily survive on his own.  He might not eat as well without me but he knows what he’s doing, he’s brave, he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s energetic and he’s resourceful enough to do it.  Those are the qualities you need.  Unless you have these skills, I would not recommend trying to make it in the wilds of Alaska alone. There’s so much more to it than just loving the great outdoors.  Survival is serious business in Alaska. For me, because of Jeff, I am enjoying the experience not many people get the chance to have living a rustic, old-fashioned simple life out at a cabin in the wilds of Alaska.  If you’ve got the qualities it takes, then I highly recommend it!