April is my least favorite month. It is a time of transition that starts out cold and frozen and ends muddy and mushy. There is an enormous amount of sunlight but though it feels like spring you can not actually do any outdoor projects as the ground is still frozen at the end of the month under the very slippery few greasy thawed out inches of soil. The compacted ice in the yard breaks up, the lake starts to break up, the rivers break up. It is “Break Up” time. And if you are not a gardener I recommend using the month of April to visit family, go on holiday, leave Alaska. Not that anyone is going anywhere right now.
This year we had a few old school cold snaps in January where the temperatures stayed well below -30°F for days and weeks on end. These prolonged cold periods thicken the ice on the lakes and rivers as well as drive the frost way down into the ground. Spring will arrive later than last year when we did not have any prolonged extreme cold. Things are starting to melt a bit though. Our south facing slope to the lake has a strip of thawed land and bare spots are showing up here and there. Just two days ago the compost pile was completely encased in snow and today I noticed a dark spot.
We got the bison quarter, from the hunt my husband assisted with, butchered and into the freezer over the weekend. It does feel good to have some fresh meat. Bison burgers were a big hit and I am thankful we are eating so well right now.
This week flew by (is it really Thursday already?) and I did not really spend any of it doing gardening stuff. Our kids started long distance schooling on Monday and that kept us very involved. I have not thought about polygons in a very long time. And it took a few days to get the routine down. But I think the kids realize now that we are actually serious about school from home (took a little convincing) and are getting into the groove.
And we have had stellar weather the past few days that make going out after the studies are done for the day very rewarding.
Today I made the time to catch up on seed starting. I have been pulled in several different directions lately and got behind. But the tomatoes and ground cherries are started now as well as snapdragons, nasturtiums and strawflowers. The onions, peppers, and herbs are growing well. I take the cat covers off during the day and run small fans on them to help them grow strong.
I probably planted too many flowers but right now at the end of a long winter and spring still a month away, I am in need of hope and cheer. I am so, so, worried about our future. I have not been very good at taking the advice I dole out daily to the kids: concentrate only on today and tomorrow, work on treating our fellow housemates with kindness and respect, work hard and do a good job even if the task feels meaningless. But I am trying.
6:30 AM on Friday morning and the wind has been howling for hours. Unable to go back to sleep, I finally motivated myself up out of bed and downstairs where a cozy fire, hot coffee, and a dog and kitty snuggling nearby make me wonder why getting out of bed at 5 am seemed so hard. This week has been all about the little moments. At least once a day I stop and think “Remember this moment. Everything is ok. My family is healthy. We have food and shelter. Life is still good.”
There is enough daylight to over work yourself these days and our solar panels have been providing all the power we need and then some. I love this. Doing laundry, running a chop saw, utilizing a large shop vac to clean sanded boards in the greenhouse all without running a noisy gas generator is just awesome. It has been above freezing everyday. The sun’s light is warm and melts the snow off the roof. Everything drips in the middle of the day. Being outside, taking a deep breath of spring air, and remembering how the air hurt my face a mere two months ago is another moment to savor.
The kids had an extended three week spring break and start remote schooling on Monday. Both kids are advanced in their studies so I did not freak out about their missed education. Instead they have read books, completed chores, and played outside.
We have been watching an educational program each evening and having some lively discussions about cold water sharks, the Mariana trench, Chauvet cave, the Mars missions. Say what you will about television…there is something spectacular about seeing different and incredible parts of the world even when you live in a place that is pretty amazing too. One of my daughters daily chores is to check for eggs everyday. When we were down at the garden with the chicken water and dropping off some coffee grounds in the compost pile, we noticed some bizarre tracks, the first tracks in the garden all winter other than the occasional bird print.
They were not snowshoe hare, squirrel, fox, weasel…what could they be? I took some photos and we asked my husband, who is very good with tracks (I am not so much) and discovered that a little muskrat must have frozen out of his home and be looking for open water. The muskrat must have been pretty small to squeeze through the two inch chicken wire. We thought about following the tracks and seeing if we could find it but pressing chores won out. Many many years ago when we still overwintered our horses here, we had a car canopy filled with hay down by the lake. A muskrat that had been frozen out of the water midwinter moved in. He lived there for months and became so tame I could pet him. As soon as the edges of the lake thawed out in spring he disappeared. Muskrats are fun to watch swimming in the lake during the summer with a rat tail that whips furiously back in forth in the water as they paddle along. Their winter fur is very soft but easy to sew and makes beautiful baby booties. And they are good for eating too…though usually referred to as marsh rabbit instead of muskrat at the dinner table. I might have to add muskrat trapping to the to do list this spring for some hearty stew and some pelts to sew next winter.
With the warm weather thawing out the chicken coop, Sylvia and I tackled a big spring chore this week. All winter we add fresh straw to the frozen coop. Sprinkling new straw on top of the bedding keeps the chickens clean and off the frozen poo that collects in poocicles (or poo stalagmites?) under the roosts. But by the time spring rolls around there is an enormous amount of straw and poo piled up in the coop. We hooked a big sled up to my snowmachine and forked out 5 sled loads that we transported to the compost pile.
The chickens love this event. Every forkful exposes something new for them to scratch and peck. And they especially like the coop freshly emptied with a new scattering of rye straw.
I made another friend (or two, or 5…does anyone know how to tell Magpies apart from each other?) this month. Every morning I take water and leftover food scraps to the chickens and a bold magpie perches above the chicken run. I started leaving a treat on the round bale occasionally: a spaghetti noodle, a bit of cooked broccoli, a soggy bread chunk. Now the bird chatters loudly at me if I forget the treat. There are many magpies around but I think the one at the coop each morning is the same as I can not get close to the other ones I run into. But I truly can not tell them apart so who knows? But I do enjoy saying hello every morning to the bird that coos, scolds, and chatters at me with a cocked head and intelligent eye. This bird knows I am a soft touch and will leave treats with just a little attention. I appreciate the job they do too. They are scavengers and keep our woods clean of decaying animal bodies. Anytime there is a hare or squirrel carcass or bits leftover from a butchering project of our own, they eat it up quickly and efficiently.
The hens of course wonder why I am not giving them every last scrap.
While we have a fair amount of human food, we are a bit short on pet supplies. We often stock up on dog and cat food at Costco or in a pinch purchase some from our local Country store. I have even ordered cat and guinea pig food on Amazon in the past. It is something I have never considered much. We do not buy a years supply to stockpile because it takes up a lot of space. We have always been able to get some when needed and never before have we run out. Now, well, all the previous options have issues. Our local store sells out as soon as the weekly supply truck comes in. Reports of the stores in Anchorage continue to be of barren shelves. I am sure there are resupply schedules there too but is it worth a 250 mile drive to find out if our timing is any good? And Amazon is so backlogged that even if they have a product you want it is over a month from shipping up here. So. What do we do now?
Tater, the lucky dog, is on a diet anyway and has enough food for two months. Eve will be out of the food she prefers in a few days but we have canned salmon she can eat and she is a good hunter (and she really likes Tater’s food too). It would not bother me to see her have to eat some of her kills instead of stashing them as presents under our front steps and she could use a little slimming down as well. And the guinea pig, hmm…as I write this I realize that all our pets have come through the winter in good health with a bit of extra flesh. Carrots (the guinea pig) has plenty of hay but we are out of the fresh vegetables he needs to eat on a daily basis. It is another 6 weeks till there will be the first of the wild and garden plants that we feed him daily in the summer so we had to get creative.
We started sprouting a 1/4 cup of wheat berries for him with an 8 jar rotation. One is fed to him every day. The remaining 7 are rinsed and drained and we start a new jar. Who needs factory made guinea pig food anyway?!? Carrots eats all the green grass and we give the roots and remaining seeds to the chickens. So far so good. Now I just need to come up with a new plan for bedding and the litter box. We usually purchase wood pellets (the kind for pellet stoves) for the litter box and guinea pig cage. They smell nice, are biodegradable with no added chemicals, and work brilliantly. I do not really want to resort to running boards through the planer for bedding. But if needs must…
Hopefully we will be able to get more chicken feed locally. Feeding the flock could prove challenging. Though I would rather have eggs than chicken meat, we can always reduce the flock. We’ll make do.
Social distancing has not changed our life in huge ways. The kids have been disappointed to not go to March birthday parties and I have sold eggs and shared seeds by leaving items at the end of driveway for retrieval.
What I have struggled with most is expressing my choice to be overly cautious and follow social distancing with family members and members of the community who do not see the need to. It is hard to not extend hospitality or allow kids to play. I sometimes feel like I am over exaggerating the risk in rural Alaska. I do not like looking at every person or everything that comes into this house as a possible carrier of illness. I have traditionally looked at common germs as a way to exercise the immune system. Sure, we have always followed basic hygiene practices and encouraged our kids to wash their hands. But this is the first time in my life I have been suspicious of our doorknobs. On the other hand, I am heartbroken over the situation in Italy and watching with fear as the epidemic in New York spreads north towards my family in New England. It is hard to not be scarily realistic when thinking about getting care in Alaska. If our hospitals are overwhelmed in the cities, we will have no options other than to care for our community ourselves. If we won’t drive in for nonexistent supplies, would we drive in for an overflowing ER?
I asked the kids this week to not climb trees…this is not the time to need a medivac.
So I listen to the news and updates briefly in the morning and then focus on the tasks for the day. I encourage the kids to focus on today and tomorrow and no further. I am trying to not dwell on the opportunities missed. It is challenging to balance grief for experiences lost while acknowledging gratitude for the security our lifestyle has afforded us. All my problems are first world problems. We are so lucky to be where we are. We have no control over the world and while I have times when I am frozen with fear, most of the time we are doing what we would do without a pandemic: cutting and splitting firewood, working on Sylvia’s new room, hauling water, preparing for spring, and on top of that doing our part to make sure we do not get sick and do not spread illness.
The six trays of starts in the window are growing steadily. It is time to start more. I had the best germination on pepper seeds ever this year after following a tip from the Grow Guide podcast. I soaked 1/16th cup of dried kelp in one quart water overnight. The next morning, March 11th, I strained the kelp tea into labelled shot glasses and added pepper seeds into each one. I meant to let them soak for 4 to 6 hours but they ended up staying in the glasses until the next day when I planted them into soil blocks. I have traditionally had a very hard time germinating peppers and plant a lot of extra to ensure I have enough for my greenhouse. I neglected to log when the peppers started coming up but they had fantastic germination this year. I highly recommend using this technique!
I hope you are all well and staying Covid-19 free. Spend as much time in your garden as you can whether it be indoors or out. I am here as a resource if you have any gardening questions especially for Zones 2 and 3.
It is a partly cloudy, 40°F day, that I mostly spent inside a garage putting the last coat of finish on the first batch of pine boards for my daughter’s bedroom ceiling. It is the first day of spring! The vernal equinox occurred at 7:49 PM tonight in Alaska. The sun rose at 7:44 AM and set at 7:56 PM for a total of 12 hours and 12 minutes of sun above the horizon and the long dawn and dusk periods too. It might still be freezing every night but thaw is on the way and with all this sunlight it is not hard to feel antsy about spring.
I know where I was one year ago today…writing my first blog post! I meant to start writing again in February but did not manage to make the time till now. But I have been planning, ordering seeds, starting the first of the seeds and taking mad notes from all the gardening podcasts I listen to during the cold times.
The alliums are the first seeds I start and they are growing in their trays. Already we are using plastic folding tables to eat on as the plant trays utilize the window space.
I think I might have over seeded some blocks…I have some thinning to do in my future with these celery starts!
These seasonal chores stir to life the excitement of spring. The weather is so mild outside that it is already difficult to remember the bitter cold of January and February. But while so many things are the same as usual here, others are not. The State of Alaska has taken covid-19 very seriously. During spring break we learned that students were not to return to school until March 30. All restaurants and bars in the state have shut down and we have heard reports of long lines in stores while folks stock up on supplies in case they are quarantined. Stocking up is a way of life for us and we have many supplies on hand. But we make periodic town runs for necessary items and it has been interesting to consider our option of driving 250 miles just to find empty shelves in the stores.
Alaska’s lack of food security is a discussion I have had many times over the years. Due to the fact that most of the food consumed in state comes from Outside, it is estimated that at any point in time the state only has 3 days worth of food if shipping were to be interrupted. Anyone who has gone shopping in Alaska in the last two weeks has come face to face with our inability to easily restock when a large portion of the population unexpectedly buys a large amount of supplies.
I had the honor last year of being asked to participate in an interview about growing food for our family (and school fundraisers, and some sales) with Erin McKinstry for her podcast Out Here. Season 2 of her podcast is all about Alaskan agriculture specifically with a focus on food security and climate change. She could not have had better timing as so many more people than usual are thinking about that same thing now. Erin’s podcast is beautifully crafted and I recommend listening to season 1 and 2, as it comes out. It is a window into the unique lifestyle we live in this part of rural Alaska. Check it out at https://www.outherepodcast.com/
More now than ever, I am glad to live a life where trout swim in our lake, our garden provides vegetables, the wilds surrounding us provide meat, food and herb plants, and we know how to make do with very little. We have organized the kids into a schedule of chores, outside time, online academic stimulation, and journalling. We are listening to the news. We are trying hard to practice social distancing on a family homestead with 4 families. It is hard. We are talking about good hygiene every day. We are trying not to be afraid of what the future might bring but instead take each day at a time. And we need to do our spring work of harvesting firewood for next winter and finishing the winter projects, especially the one taking over the greenhouse…
I am looking forward to the return of the salmon, the growing season in the garden, and spending everyday outside. I hope you are too.
Start some plants. Even the sight and smell of the sprouting wheat grass we grow for the guinea pig is therapeutic when life is still dormant outside. I have seen many posts on instagram about victory gardens. What a great idea! I am happy to help anyone who wants to get started on the path to better local food security.
Ten below zero on the winter solstice in a cozy house with the wood stove cranking and a farm raised chicken roasting in the oven. The tree is up, the presents are wrapped, and I only have a few more tasks to complete before starting to cook for the extended family Christmas Eve dinner. At the moment, life is good!
Even with the low light, our pullets have been laying 3 to 5 eggs a day.
It has been a hectic week. On Saturday, my daughter and I attended the annual Kenny Lake Christmas bazaar to man a table with KLS and PTO fundraiser items and our own Wood Frog Farm table with dried herbs, carrots, and cat toys. We had a great day visiting and making a little extra money too.
My sister-in-law and I drove into Anchorage on frosty roads to spend two days shopping at box stores, malls, and small businesses to find the Christmas presents we wished to have for our loved ones. 6 hours of driving to immerse oneself in retail is NOT my favorite activity and this is the first year I have not had all my ducks in a row with presents before December rolled around. While a delicious sushi dinner and a wonderful home of a friend to stay in soothed the big town blues, we were happy to finish with our lists and make the long slog back home. However driving in the dark looking for caribou and moose is pretty stressful all on its own. We knew they were crossing the Glenn Highway as a road kill caribou had been donated to the Kenny Lake School Nutrition Program just the day before.
Yup! There is a list that families can get on to collect road kill in Alaska. When an animal is killed by a vehicle, the next person on the list is called to come butcher the animal and bring home the meat. It feeds hungry families. A very generous donor drove to it and then skinned and quartered the caribou and delivered it in great shape to the school. On Thursday, we butchered the caribou taking the meat off the bone and turning it into burger to be used for spaghetti, sloppy joes, tacos, etc… It took 3 hours and it was a fun day to spend at the school as the staff and students completed salt dough projects and also prepared for the Christmas Program that night.
Our unfinished root cellar under the house hit 32°F this past week as well so I spent my spare free time bringing all the bins, crates, and totes up the ladder and trying to figure out what to do with all the food. Potatoes and carrots and a cooler full of cabbages went to a neighbors heated, but cool, garage. The rest we are eating or preparing to put in the freezer. Nothing like a little extra processing while getting ready for the holidays!
My goal this year was to write weekly from the Vernal Equinox to the Winter Solstice. Because I publicly stated I was going to do it, I actually followed through (mostly). I wrote 38 entries instead of 40 due to somehow missing two weeks. I am going to take some time off and start again with the new gardening season at the end of February. I am going to be helping build a new room in our house so our son and daughter can each have their own space. Sharing a room has lately become a battleground. So sandpaper and knotty pine will be my focus for a couple of months in the dark and cold months instead of the garden.
Solstice 2019 is at 7:19 PM in Alaska, so an hour and 20 minutes from now (as I write). And then, we will be gaining daylight! Solstice has been a day I have looked forward too all my life. From my childhood of attending Revels in Sanders theater in Cambridge MA, to barn parties with storytellers, to giant Alaskan bonfires and beer, I have always loved celebrating the time of the year when we in the north start turning back toward the sun. Today my daughter and I made beeswax candles. We did not have the right wick for tapers or a great set up. But we made it work and they turned out great. I thought making candles for our upcoming holiday celebration was a good way to celebrate the shortest day.
From Revels, there is a poem I have heard on stage, at our Solstice gatherings and read nearly every year of my life. I love it more than nearly anything other poem.
THE SHORTEST DAY
So the shortest day came, and the year died, And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world Came people singing, dancing, To drive the dark away. They lighted candles in the winter trees; They hung their homes with evergreen, They burned beseeching fires all night long To keep the year alive. And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake They shouted, reveling. Through all the frosty ages you can hear them Echoing, behind us — listen! All the long echoes sing the same delight This shortest day As promise wakens in the sleeping land. They carol, feast, give thanks, And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace. And so do we, here, now, This year, and every year. Welcome Yule! By Susan Cooper Copyright Susan Cooper 1974
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from our home to yours!
Until next year I hope you stay snug and warm and dreaming of your 2020 garden!!!!
This time of year, the inordinate amount of darkness during the course of a regular day covers your soul like a heavy blanket, in a good way. You know that safe and content feeling you get when you wake in the dark and realize you still have hours before the alarm goes off and you sleepily snuggle under the heavy wool and down blankets and slide back to sleep? (Or is that just me who loves lots of heavy blankets?) Ordinary chores that are generally completed in the summer as an afterthought after 12 hours outside, take all day to accomplish. Sometimes two days. Knitting a sock feels like the most important thing in the world while snuggled up to the cosy wood stove radiating dry heat and waiting for the sun to rise.
The problem with socks is that when you have finally finished one, you still have to make another one. And identically!
Often times the days are gray so it is a murky light, a half light but this week I have been treated to clear and mild weather. Usually if it is clear it is very cold and when it warms up, it is cloudy. But it has been in the teens and single digits but not below zero, so pretty mild. Right now it is 2:45 in the afternoon, the sun is already done for the day, not set but well behind the Chugach mountains and the temperature is a mild 18° F. We have 5 hours and 29 minutes of the sun above the horizon today. Much of that time is behind mountains. This week we have multiple sunrises/sunsets as the sun goes behind mountain peaks and reappears.
The chickadees consumed their suet block so I made three more with some old rendered pork fat I meant to make into soap last winter but didn’t when it got lost in the depths of the freezer.
These are fun and easy to make (Add fat to sunflower seeds in old yogurt containers, poke twine in, let cool, then freeze and hang outside). I really enjoy watching the birds through my south facing windows and hearing their songs when I step outside. We put a line way up in two trees to keep Eve from being able to sneak up on the birds while they are eating. It works really well but I have to use a step ladder to refill the feeder.
I just got back from hauling water from the creek and I am pumping the water into the tank under the house, cubes of frozen dall sheep meat are thawing in the fry pan to be added to caribou bone broth for a vegetable meat soup tonight, and I am in between projects so a good time to write. With the husband in town working the past few days and the kids away all day at school, I have spent the past few days in the house, with Tater and Eve sleeping nearby, working on putting together some items to sell at the local craft bazaar coming up this Saturday. I want to make a run to town myself to pick up some Christmas items and materials for some fur sewing projects and need to make a little money to fund the trip. I have carrots in cold storage to sell and I still need to bag up dried herbs. Tomorrow will be a busy day!
I sewed 10 fur balls stuffed with catnip grown on the farm out of lynx, coyote, and wolf fur scraps. These scraps were leftover from garment projects. Have trouble accepting fur as a garment material? Hear me out before you start shouting at me about animal cruelty. Fur is not a fashion statement the way we use it. It is survival. There is no better material to keep you warm in subzero temperatures. It is a sustainable and renewable resource. The trappers I know have intimate knowledge of the life cycles of the animals they attempt to capture (it takes skill and time to be successful). If an animal cycle is in a low, they are not trapped. If you catch too many females, you stop trapping. It is the taking of life but in accord with the ancient rhythms of protecting yourself from the elements. Humans have clothed themselves with hides and furs for thousands of years. Living here in rural Alaska where we harvest our food from our gardens, from the wild lands, and from the rivers, it makes sense to harvest (some of) our clothing too. Environmentally, what is worse? Synthetic microfibers that pollute our water and land? Cotton monoculture doused in pesticides? Cheap clothing from child labor in Asia? Or harvesting the best, the warmest, the most sustainable product from our wild backyard with respect and reverence for the lives taken? I understand if you don’t get it. I could not imagine wearing fur before living in Alaska. Now I can not imagine living here without it. I don’t want to waste any of it, it is a precious resource after all, and as Eve loves the fur scraps and I had a large bag of dried catnip in the cupboard from the garden, I thought I would make cat toys to sell with the bits that are too small for anything else.
The sun is well gone now and the beautiful full moon should be rising soon. Last night it bathed the snow covered ground in the bright but cold, blueish, reflected, moonlight that makes Alaskan winters so spectacular. My son and I sat in the window in the moonlight last night soaking it in.
Sometimes everything just works out perfectly and last week it was our weather. We flew from Anchorage, Alaska to Boston, Massachusetts via Denver, Colorado and back again for Thanksgiving week. During this time there were winter storms in the Denver area over Thanksgiving, a big winter storm in New England on Sunday, and a big storm in Alaska on Sunday. We managed to skate through all our plane and driving travel without any delays arriving home just in time for the snow to start falling on us. Now we have 5 ½ inches on the ground and it is a bright winter wonderland. I promptly got the skis out of the shed and tried to ski on the lake but alas, there was terrible overflow on the lake. Overflow is when the ice has holes or pressure cracks and water squirts through the openings. When there is snow on the ice you often can not see the water until you step into it. It can be dangerous if you are in the backcountry and get your feet wet. It was a minor inconvenience for me as the skis gathered large clumps of water and snow. I skied on the unplowed road instead which was still fun.
The chickens have laid a few eggs this week even with our daylight currently at 5 hours and 40 minutes.
But with the cold temps you have to make sure you check often or the eggs freeze. It was -17°F last night and it is 11 below right now. Our temps have been so mild we have not acclimated properly and it feels really cold! It does make for some beautiful frost though.
And still no snow shoe hare tracks in the garden. Yay!
With the cold weather, I have been reading and knitting and cooking. It is what I love about this time of year! Today I made caribou bourguignon for dinner.
And as it is time for dinner and family time, I must be off. Till next week 🙂
Occasionally I get the chance to scoot out of Alaska and spend some time away from the daily chores of rural Alaska. In a whirlwind week of activity, my family and I are visiting the Maine seacoast where I grew up, touring the re-creation of Plimoth Plantation (site of the first Thanksgiving) in Plimoth, Massachusetts, walking the Freedom trail (a revolutionary war tour) in Boston Massachusetts, and sharing a Thanksgiving harvest meal with my folks. But of course my favorite part of visiting my first home is eating lobster!
Of course I was really interested in the gardens at Plimoth Plantation. They were raised beds made with granite rocks. Many of the beds still had root crops in the ground though winter would have set in earlier in the 1620s and vegetables would normally have already been stored in the house loft space. The houses all had herbs and onions hanging from the rafters. Not too different from us!
There were also heirloom livestock. They only have written record of two working dogs making the Mayflower journey. Other livestock came over on ships over the next few years.
The re-creation of the native village of the Pokanoket band was pretty spectacular as well. There were quail smoking/roasting on a spit, a mishoon (one tree dugout canoe) that was in the process of being burned out, a summer house and a winter house. The houses were amazing. I would like to have one myself! They are water tight, warm, and completely biodegradable when at the end of their life.
In Boston the kids learned about the birthplace of the American Revolution. We had studied ahead of time and it was great to share so many historic places with them in person as we walked the Freedom Trail with a fantastic guide.
Of course I try to get my fill of the Atlantic ocean while home by walking along the seashore even if gale winds are blowing.
And now to share a Thanksgiving dinner with family we love with hearts full of gratitude for our health, our life opportunities, and each other.
Fun fact: we can not grow gourds in Alaska because they not only are long season (110 days plus) but need night time pollinators. It is too cold for gourd flowers to open at night and we do not have the right pollinators.
From our family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!