The Winter Solstice

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. 

Road kill?

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!

Root cellar food

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.

making tapers

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!!!!

Five and a half hours of sunlight

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.

Working on a sock heel while waiting for the sun to come up
One done, one to go

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 sun playing peekaboo behind the Chugach peaks. It just came out again.

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. 

Melting the frozen rendered fat

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.

Black cap chickadee on the suet feeder. I put too much fat in this one and it pushed the seed up.

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.

Keeping Eve out of the catnip proved to be a challenge
Kitty tested and approved!
10 fur cat toys for sale. Hopefully they sell this Saturday!

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.

It has been a beautiful week.

Sunset behind the Chugach Mountains December 10th

And finally, we have SNOW!

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!

Finally, some snow to insulate the garden beds!
My favorite spot for a summer glass of wine is looking a little frosty!

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.

Caribou with onions and mushrooms à la Julia Child

And as it is time for dinner and family time, I must be off. Till next week 🙂

Kuskulana Gorge today

Happy Thanksgiving! (from Maine?!)

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!

One of the gardens fully harvested and prepped for next year. The wooden garden rakes were neat looking.

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.

Wiltshire Horned Sheep

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.

Chilling in the super comfortable summer house in the Plimoth Plantation native village

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.

Paul Revere’s house

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.

Climbing on Maine granite
Vibrant moss in the seaside woods
Whaleback lighthouse at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor

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.

Decorating the table with gourds, mums, and flint corn.

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!

Another Rainy Week

If I didn’t know better, I would think I had relocated to the temperate rainforest of southeast AK. My spirits had lifted with the steady mild cold and a few inches of the white stuff on the ground but the weather warmed again this week. We had a huge weather advisory on the horizon and it was unclear with whether it would be a snow storm or a rain storm.

It rained.

It rained a steady, pounding downpour that melted all our snow and pooled in the low spot of the perennial garden. The wind lashed the windows and howled and when we woke up the next day the lake was covered in water. Again. The rain turned our highways to ice and school was cancelled. The lake had been on the verge of being safe enough to play and travel on and now…not.

Water on Ice. And cold misty air.

This is not ideal weather for the things I usually like to do this time of year such as cross country skiing, walking on the lake, getting out the snow machines (know to others as snowmobiles). In fact, due to the icy conditions, I have felt terribly housebound. After a summer season where I am outside 12 to 16 hours a day easily, being housebound is rough. I have been walking a couple of road miles each day for some mental clarity (with ice cleats).

A view on my walk: Iron mountain 37 minutes after sunset (which had been at 3:46 PM )

I have been working on some of the mind numbing chores that have been sitting on the back burner. Thank goodness for audiobooks.

Breaking down dried sage
Breaking down the copious amounts of rosemary I grew this summer. Rosemary anyone? I will have some for sale as soon as I find something nice to package it into.

In the summer when I have overexerted my physical self, I think with longing about idle winter days. But it is a case of too much of a good thing. Too much physical work in the summer and too much still indoor time right now. It is overstated that Alaska is a land of extremes but well, it is true. The drastic difference in sunlight and darkness, temperature, and weather between June and December create an interesting challenge to those of us who live here year round.

I am good at staying busy if not as physically active as I would like. I pickled beets, made rhubarb jam, lingonberry rhubarb jam, and highbush cranberry jelly from berries and vegetables stored or frozen this past fall. And that processing made more room in our tightly packed freezers.

I also processed our frozen dall sheep quarters and caribou back straps into dinner sized portions.

Additionally this week our new 15 cubic foot freezer finally arrived at Lowes and after a quick 400 mile roundtrip on super icy roads (glad I was not the one on the trip), we now have more than enough freezer space. Which is a very good thing because our unfinished root cellar will not keep everything above freezing all winter and some of that food will need to be transferred to the new freezer. So, if the lousy weather keeps up I will not lack for things to do.

Just needs to be unloaded and set up.

Yesterday I dragged the kids out of the house and made them stack firewood while I split it with the wood splitter. There was a fair amount of complaining but with engine going and ear protection on I really could not hear it. We got the 2 spruce trees split and stacked and the 2 poplars split and in a tarped pile. They are still green and will need to go into next years wood shed after they have dried for a year. Now we have room to get some more and with the snow gone, I have my eye on a few other trees in the horse pen that fell over this year.

Till next week!

Lake ice bubbles

Gray, Gray and more gray

The weather this week has been overcast and mildly cold, hovering in the 20s. The ground is hard frozen and the lake is frozen over (finally!), even where the beavers and muskrats tried to keep it open with frantic brush hauling activity. It is very unusual for there to be so little snow. On my facebook profile, many memories from when the kids were little popped up around Halloween and they all had a background of snow. Not this year. I got a lot done with the extra month of mild weather though it was work that should have been done during the summer season. But it still brings on a general uneasiness that our weather patterns have changed so much in the 17 years I have lived here. While our summer was hot and dry with an intense sun, this fall and early winter has been primarily overcast. With our daylight losing ground rapidly, to have those few hours cast in cloud shadow is mildly depressing. We take our vitamins d and b complex and try to be as motivated as during the manic summer hours. But with the deciduous leaves compacting on the ground, a cloudy sky and no snow to brighten our landscape, it has felt a little dreary around here.

My son and I took advantage of the snow free woods to cut up some downed trees for next years firewood. It was a little weird to drive the 4 wheeler around the woods this time of year but we spent a whole day at work and collected 4 trees.

My trusty little saw and I. We have come so far from 6 years ago when you had to basically threaten my life to get me to use a saw.
This guy is my number one helper. I do not know what I would do without him!

We gathered all the branches from the downed trees and burned a brush pile so that I could also burn the four large bags of diseased and pest riddled plant debris from fall clean up.

I do love burning a brush pile.

The temperature, while not getting seriously cold, has been steadily dropping and so has the temperature under the house which is currently at 37°. My unfinished “root cellar” is still full of food for a few reasons: 1. I grew way too much thinking this was the year we would finish it 2. the 15 cubic foot freezer we ordered from Lowes must be on the slowest barge ever as it is still not here (6 weeks and counting) 3. we obviously are not eating enough (though we are trying!).

Root cellar vegetables to roast

I have been trying to use lots and lots of vegetables in every meal.

Making chicken broth. More vegetables were added to the soup I made later!

On Monday I butchered the two turkeys. They had such fun personalities that it was hard to say goodbye. I will miss being greeted with such enthusiasm. We are now down to 15 pullets which feels so much more manageable after our high of 63 fowl this summer.

15 pullets roosting for the night.

And then all of a sudden it was finally in the forecast to snow. With the long fall we had done a pretty good job putting everything away in preparation but I still had stacks of pots waiting to be cleaned and sterilized. I often skip this step but with the slug egg issues this year I do not want my cherished 15 gallon pots to pass along any pests or disease. So I dirtied up our bathtub for a couple of days.

I very rarely use bleach for anything but when I have encountered a pest or unmanageable disease, I will make an exception.

Drying sterilized 15 gallon pots by the woodstove

And then we waited for the snowstorm…

I was so excited when the flakes started to come down!

But sadly after all the excitement of a winter weather advisory for the Copper River Basin, in our valley we just got a small dusting. It was pretty sad to wake up this morning to a mere inch of snow. But one upside was that I was able to see the success of the 2″ chicken wire my son and I strung around the vegetable garden this fall.

Snowshoe hare tracks

There are a gazillion tracks around the outside of the garden fence but none inside! Finally the raspberry and currant plants are safe from rodent teeth.

No hare tracks inside the fence

And even just this little bit of snow has brightened up the landscape a lot. And we are hoping for more snow!

Till next week 🙂

Ice and water bubbles in Strelna Creek (Photo taken midday today. It truly is a gray week!)

The Conex

I have never been a diamonds and lace kind of girl. I am more of carhartt and mud boot, horsehair on the coat and soil under the fingernails kind of girl. But I do love presents and this week I got one I have been wanting for over a decade. I am beyond ecstatic with the delivery of an 8 foot by 20 foot steel shipping container. As it is my early Christmas and birthday present this joy will have to extend for many months! Used by the shipping industry to move items around the world, the retired containers are bear proof and waterproof (though not condensation proof). It is instant storage in a lifestyle where storage is always lacking. And on Halloween this year, one was delivered to the driveway for my new (to me!) garden shed. 

It happened sort of by accident. My husband has been looking for a 40 foot conex to replace our decaying shop tent. Our tools are pretty unorganized and spread out through a few shabby outbuildings/car canopy. A 40 foot conex would allow for tool organization and a fireproof place for a welding area. You can also cut a stove pipe hole in the metal and install a wood stove which would allow for a heated space to work on projects during the cold season. The trouble is not so much in finding one to buy as figuring out how to get it home after you purchase it. A 40 foot steel box needs a semi truck. But while we were probing around for local hauling options, our friends told us about a 20 foot conex for sale in Kenny Lake.  Exactly what I wanted for the garden! At the same time, Tom Lambert was busy hauling a stockpile of gravel from the Copper River to our Strelna community to sell next year and he agreed to bring it down to us (for a great price) since he was coming out every day anyway. And a week later:

Getting ready to drop the conex in the driveway

It felt a little like a miracle because we had a few weeks where everything was breaking and we were spending an inordinate amount of time spinning our wheels. Sometimes during those phases in life when everything is going wrong, it is hard to remember that it will not last forever.

November 1st we situated the conex in its forever home using the backhoe to turn it around and drag it into place.

Re chaining to pull it back
In place and needing to be leveled up

I spent the next several days dragging items from my garden pile and putting them into the conex. I have spent years stacking up my garden stuff on wooden pallets and tarping them for the winter in different places and trying to keep it organized. It is a losing battle. Even the years where I made myself a map of where items were, in the spring, it was always the same old story: digging off snow, cursing when I hit and broke something in the cold, and frustrated that the item I needed was frozen to the ground. Sixteen years of that and you can understand why covered storage is something to get excited about! 

The pile of garden stuff
All gone now!
Garden storage

Not only did I move all the items piled next to the driveway into the container but all the shovels and rakes leaning against the chicken coop, my tools in Tim’s shop tent, various totes and various storage cans at the greenhouse. Since snow could happen at any time (it being late this year) I just put everything in without organizing it perfectly. But I have been thinking a lot about the KonMarie organizing method of getting all the like things together and discarding items that are not useful and do not bring you joy. I had a lot of fun putting like items together and seeing how many I had! This part will be a work in progress. I need to make shelves and figure out how to use the high space. I need to make space to store grain next summer. But for now to have all my things under a covered space is pretty spectacular.

I got on a roll with this project. Items around the homestead were collected and brought to the conex and the yard was looking pretty tidy. It was clear and cold (in the 20s) and the ground was frozen. With no snow I was a little worried about my neglected perennials. The trailer full of leaves the kids and I collected in August had been moved out of the way of the conex project and into my way by the chicken coop. I aired up the flat tire and brought it down to the perennial garden and mulched in the beds and and then put the empty trailer away for winter.

Iris and strawberry plants mulched with poplar leaves

With the trailer out of the way, I was able to hook onto the broiler chicken house and slide it over the frozen ground to where I will use it next spring to raise some more meat chickens.

Dragging the Broiler house

It was not too cold to fire up the backhoe, so I scraped up all the chicken bedding and moved it to this years compost pile. Still all fired up with organizing, I decided to move last years compost pile next to the garden gate for easy wheelbarrowing into the beds next spring. There was also a pile of composted pig manure and bedding on the other side of the garden and I spent Monday consolidating those piles and then covering it for the winter.

The broiler house is in place and the compost pile has been moved to just above the garden gate

While moving the compost pile, I unearthed the unfrozen center of the pile and an idea started to grow. I filled several totes of compost and with the help of my son heaved them into the house along with the very frozen garden cart full of soil. This is one of the things I love about my house. If necessary, I can fill the back room with a garden cart and totes of soil and compost and no one blinks an eye. Once they warmed up overnight, I screened them into freshly washed totes (on the to do list and next to the greenhouse).

Our utility room in every sense of the word “utility”

Yesterday I pulled out all my already frozen ingredients at the conex: peat, lime, perlite, blood meal, greensand, and soft rock phosphate. I hooked the cement mixer (which is only used for mixing soil) up to a generator and started mixing these items with the compost and soil brought down from the house to make seed starting soil for soil blocks. I was not sure when I added the thawed and house temperature soil and compost if the mixture would freeze instantly and clump up or not but I wanted to try. Somehow after weeks of projects not working out, I felt like I had an opportunity to make up for the fact that this very important soil for starting all my spring plants had not been made over the summer. And it worked!

The peat and perlite was so dry that the lime and organic amendments mixed right in. And so did the soil and compost.

I mixed 8 batches of seed starting soil until I ran out of a couple of ingedients. I did the last batch by headlamp with freezing rain coming down. It truly was a last chance project! I have enough to get through to May when it will be warm enough to make more. What a relief to know that I do not have to purchase subpar commercial soil and haul it 250 miles home this spring.

8 totes of seed starting soil and a lot of other garden miscellany

After a frustrating few weeks, this past week was amazing. So much progress in such a short time. I can hardly believe it. My GMC is back from the shop and working well (just need to put the winter tires on) and the new on demand hot water heater is installed and working beautifully (125°F water at the tap even though our water is coming out of the tank at 33°). Life is really good!

Beautiful raspberry potatoes and onions from the garden to roast for dinner

Till next week!

This little vole was not super happy with my yard reorganization