Alaska Girls Kick Ass

Back in the early 2000s, I had the bumper sticker “Alaska Girls Kick Ass” on my little toyota truck, the second truck I had purchased in two years since moving up to Alaska. Later I also had a sweatshirt declaring the same thing. I wore that article of clothing until it fell apart. I never replaced them and during the time the clothing wore out and the truck was replaced with a vehicle that had a backseat, I became an older woman and a Mom, no longer a girl. But I have a girl, a third generation Alaskan, and boy does she kick ass!

Sylvia has had an interesting spring. She is ten this year and planned to spend a month in New England with her grandparents playing in the Atlantic and going to summer camp. That of course was all cancelled due to Covid-19. Sylvia diligently completed her distance learning in April and May. Her reward for all the hard academic work? A spring and summer at home with lots and lots of homestead chores. She is a pretty good sport about it though.

Mucking out the chicken coop at the end of March in between school lessons

We try to break up the projects and chores with some fun and a few weeks ago we rode the 5 horses that are home for the summer down to our property at Strelna Creek to eat the grass there. Sylvia rode Dixie, who happens to be our biggest horse. At first she was hesitant about the ride. Our horses are pack and trail horses, not reliable old nags. They are good horses but we often bring home the ones who are young, new to us, or need extra work before the guiding season and realistically all horses can be dangerous just from their sheer size. We had a marvelous ride though and Sylvia really enjoyed it.

That is, Sylvia was having a great time until Dixie stepped on her foot when we were picketing the horses before heading home. She yelped in pain and sank to the ground only to pop back up again because she was still under Dixie. Tim and Conner and I secured the horses on their picket ropes and by then she had taken off her boot to find a very bloody sock. Yikes! Back home we discovered that though no bones were broken, Dixie’s shoe had severed Sylvia’s toenail at the nail bed. She was heartbroken at the idea of not being able to walk, swim, or bike without pain. Her summer was “ruined”!

But as I mentioned above, Alaska girls do truly kick ass. Sylvia hobbled around (in soft slippers) with no complaints. In just a few days she was riding her bike (in slippers.) And jumping on the trampoline, barefoot. After she lost the nail completely, she was able to start wearing shoes again and is nearly back to normal activity levels. What a kid!

This week we took Sylvia to the Copper river to go dip netting. We had a rare day where subsistence dip netting was open but personal use fishing was closed so the river was pretty quiet. We took a couple of 4 wheelers down to Hayley Creek where I have not been since before the kids were born and where Sylvia has never been before. Funny how that can happen in your backyard!

Just like the McCarthy Road, the road to Hayley Creek is part of the old railroad bed that used to run from Cordova to Kennecott for the copper mines.

It was a beautiful day without the customary gale that usually sweeps up the Copper River. There was just enough wind to keep the mosquitos off of us.

And Sylvia dipped up her first two salmon.

Proud fisherwoman

Tim got 4, I got 4 and Sylvia got two. It was not a record haul but respectable for an afternoon out.

Not a monster red, but it will be tasty!

And now to process the fish. Some went into the freezer and some into the brine to smoke with alder chips later today.

Brined salmon glazing in the sun to develop a pellicle before smoking

The salmon roe is drying on the garden fence for some future trout fishing.

Who can tell what the summer holds for this young kick ass Alaskan? The sun is shining and it might even be warm out today (even if there is fresh snow on the mountains to the north).

First Copper River Red

I am lucky to have such a great daughter to work with on the homestead, craft with in the slow times, and fish with during the salmon season. Life is not perfect, but this week, it is pretty good.

The First Day of Summer

I was too exhausted physically and mentally to write my weekly blog post on Thursday this week. Ramifications of covid-19 on our guiding business and crop failure in the garden due to weather and previously unknown pest pressure (cold temperatures, flea beetles, moth caterpillars…oh my!) wore me down. While I truly have much to be grateful for (and I do know this), the cup filling up with “things going wrong” overflowed this week and I needed some extra time to regain perspective.

This view never gets old

Today is the first day of summer. It is overcast and drizzling. My husband and I took this weekend off from business related stress and worrying about our financial future. I personally took Saturday off from worrying about all the problems in the main garden. Instead I planted all my neglected annual flower starts into the perennial garden. It was the least priority project on the list so a perfect one to tackle on summer solstice, our 16th wedding anniversary, and a day off from necessary projects. Tim and I worked on different yard projects, visited with some friends around a campfire, and focused on being positive. The problems are all still there but we can work on them on Monday.

Usually I work in the perennial garden when the kids are swimming in the lake so I am nearby and can keep an eye out. With the cold and damp weather this year, there has been very little swimming going on and this garden has been terribly neglected.

Still a lot of work to do in here but at least there are not flowering starts looking sad and neglected in trays anymore.

Summer Solstice marks the beginning of the loss of our daily light. Already we are sliding towards the darkness of winter. In a season where we have barely experienced any warm weather at all, it is hard to even contemplate the upcoming winter. There is so much to do between now and then. But all I really can do is focus on one task at a time: seed succession plantings in soil blocks, plant the next plantings of lettuce, hunt for more caterpillars, weed the gardens, trim the raspberries, prep the cover crop beds…opps, I am doing it again, too many chores is overwhelming. Focus on one task at a time!

The native roses are in full bloom and I harvested a few handfuls of petals to dry for winter use while I was pumping water the other day.

The horses are in a neighbor’s unused field this week gobbling up delicious grass by the mouthful. During an early morning check on them last Friday, wood frogs hopped away from my boots tromping through the field and I startled a snipe in the tall grass. This time of year you are surrounded by birdsong every time you step out of doors. It is glorious!

Happy horses

The six ducklings are two weeks old today and have grown rapidly in both body size and mess making capability. A 1020 tray has helped contain the enthusiastic water play but they still need a change of bedding every day.

No holding still for a clear photo for these guys

The four tunnels are finally all planted though I am still working on securing them. I need to improve my knot skills!

And best of all, this years owlets (there are two) have finally joined me in the garden. They are not as friendly as last years batch so I can not get very close without distressing them. But I enjoy their curious company and screechy voices.

Hello little owl!

I know that we can overcome any of the challenges that we have facing us right now. It would be great if they could maybe line up and present themselves one at a time instead of clamoring for attention all at once. This year is something else. Phew!

Bumblebee and comfrey flowers

Ducklings

Another Friday blog post… this is getting to be a bad habit! It has been a busy week here at Wood Frog Farm. We have had a large amount of rain, cold nights and several brilliantly sunny days that end with storm cells racing across the mountains, whipping up winds and splattering rain before turning hot and sunny again between the squalls.

On Saturday our duck eggs in the incubator started pipping. I have never incubated eggs at home before. Now that we have six solar panels installed, which are keeping our battery bank topped off, we have an excess of power during the summer and running an incubator consistently is of no concern. When we were previously running a generator to charge our batteries, the system would frequently shut down which is not a good thing for hatching eggs. Our eggs from Corbin Creek Farm in Valdez were brought up to us by a mutual friend and we put the eggs in the incubator on Mother’s Day, May 10th. On May 18th, we candled the eggs for the first time and all seven showed signs of fertilization and growth though one was a bit off. We candled again on the 25th and six were developing on schedule (we pulled out the bad egg.)

On May 7th, four hatched throughout the day. Sunday chores were frequently interrupted when another egg started “zipping” and we gathered around to watch the duckling emerge. It is a laborious process.

One egg pipped in the small end of the shell which often means they do not have the room to turn and crack the egg shell in half (otherwise known as zipping though my daughter thought it should be “unzipping”) By Sunday night we knew that the two remaining ducklings were nearing exhaustion. After over 40 hours, there was no progress beyond the external pipping. Both their beaks stayed in the hole instead of inside the egg and they progressively grew weaker. It is very important to not assist hatching birds. There are two membranes inside the shell and the inner membrane is full of blood vessels. Part of the long hatching process is absorption of the blood in the vessels and the remaining yolk by the duckling. If you break that membrane, the duckling will bleed to death. We knew the ducklings would likely die overnight after struggling for two days to hatch and after more than 40 hours we hoped the membranes had done their thing. I found this article to be a fantastic guide to successfully assisting a difficult hatch. Tim assisted the duckling that had pipped in the narrow end of the shell by creating an artificial zip and the duckling hatched out and recovered quickly. I started to assist the 6th duckling and removed much of the hard shell. The outer membrane had completely dried but the inner membrane still contained blood vessels. The duckling was trapped in the rubbery membrane but was not able to hatch yet. We carefully cut slits in the outer membrane and put the duckling back in the incubator for the night hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Monday morning, the duckling was weak but had absorbed the remaining yoke and wiggled out of the membrane. A few hours later, you could not even tell there had been a difficult hatching.

A rough entry into this world but this tough little duckling made it.

And so, 6 bundles of cuteness are living in our house with us. They have already graduated from the standard tote to the 200 gallon stock tank. ‘Tis the season for ducklings. We saw our first wild ducklings with their Mama on the lake this week too.

The parents were Khaki Campbells and Anconas. I am guessing we have 4 Anconas (yellow and black), one mix (yellow with a bit of brown) and one Khaki Campbell.

In other homesteading news I processed our spring bear meat into burger and roasts this week.

Bear meat

Conner and I hauled two loads of peat from the roadside pit and mixed up enough peat, soil and compost to fill all our vegetable and flower pots.

I finished planting the greenhouse and all the pots on Sunday while waiting for the ducklings to hatch.

I also planted and put up two cat tunnels in the garden for the squash plants with Conner’s help.

We went on a family ride to move the horses to a new pasture.

Thank you for mowing the lawn, Copper. Now to mow the yard at Strelna Creek.

On our ride we were treated to a great view of Nelson Mountain (no relation).

Nelson Mountain is dead center.

I am still battling cutworms in the garden. Last year must have been a good one for the moths. I have been collecting them as I can and losing more plants every day. Such is the challenge of gardening…

My latest collection of moth caterpillars to feed to the chickens.

The highlight of the week is definitely the new babies. I am so grateful to have these ducklings join us. Eve likes them too…

Watching over the ducklings. Pesky cat. We had to zip tie the top on to keep her out.

And as they are voracious slug eaters, or will be when they grow up, they will be quite useful with our new garden pest that migrated into our perennial garden two seasons ago. I am not very happy about the slug invasion. Ducklings are the answer!

Cuteness!

Garden thoughts

I have spent a lot of time this week listening and thinking while in the garden. Garden chores are good for that. You can be in the garden and listen to the bumblebees, songbirds, and insects while you do chores. Or you can listen to podcasts and keep up with world events while weeding, which is what I do to distract myself from being impatient with (and disgusted by) the very weedy bits of the garden. The thing is though, what I am listening to this week is really hard to hear: the COVID 19 pandemic, racial injustice, and a divided country. I have so many thoughts swirling in my head about our country’s politics, healthcare, and food security. I am a white woman who has lived a life of privilege with a college education. I have freely made the choices that brought me to my life in rural Alaska on a small farm living a modern, hybrid, semi-subsistence lifestyle. And while I have experienced discrimination as a woman, it was never significant enough to alter my chosen path. My life here can be difficult. It is physically and mentally exhausting to raise a family in a land of extremes when Mother Nature or wildlife can take your life if you make a mistake. That challenge is part of what excites me about where I live. But I have no idea what it is like to live a life where it is other humans who threaten my ability to do what I want. I think the phrase on social media that caught my eye and strongly impacted my thoughts was “It is not enough to be non-racist. We must taken action and be anti-racist.” I am not sure how to make that happen yet in my context. I can connect with any human on a one on one but how do I become and how do I teach my children to be anti-racist? What action can we take? Right now I am listening to what life is like for the black and brown birdwatchers, nature lovers, and farmers in the United States because though we share the same country, we do not share the same experiences or the same freedoms that I often take for granted. I have a lot to think about.

On the farm it has been a week of weeding and planting and long days of repetitive labor. Sylvia and I planted over 900 onions…

…and a lot of frisee and lettuces.

Some of our horses came home for the next month and a half before heading north to work.

I love my boy, Copper (right). I can not wait to go for a ride!

We had a hail storm in the middle of planting brassica starts.

And cutworms seem to be abundant this year. The little buggers…I hope they do not kill too many of my plants!

It is scary to put my nurtured starts out into the garden at the mercy of the weather, voles, and insects. There is so much potential and so much that could go wrong. That is part of what makes farming challenging.

The garlic is looking gorgeous, however.

Happy garlic.

And the May day tree is flowering.

This week I have also been thinking a lot about small farms and their role in the food supply chain. Too many times I hear about or experience customers who want more choice, or perfect produce, or cheaper prices. Farming is hard. Producing food in our Alaskan climate is hard. It takes long days and constant thought about how to work with the natural systems. Dirty fingernails, dirty clothes, aching knees, and sore backs are often the only reward at the end of the day. There is a disconnect between food customers and farmers in our country. I hope that the current Covid-19 gardening trend of “victory gardens” accomplishes a couple of things: One, that more people are bit by the gardening bug and continue to produce a small amount of their own food every year. Two, that people experience and appreciate what it is like to attempt to grow food and how difficult it can be. I hope their experience transforms into an appreciation for what farmers do produce, especially your local, small, diverse farms. Community supported agriculture is one local food security model where customers purchase a subscription for food in the spring, paying upfront. It supports the farmer at a time when they are lean on cashflow. The customer also takes on some of the risk of the natural systems along with the farmer: potential crop failure due to storm, drought, pest. In return the customer receives a portion of the weekly harvest. CSAs have been waning in popularity over the past decade as the customer base wants more freedom of choice in their weekly groceries. Then came Covid-19 and CSAs have soared in popularity across the nation. All of a sudden folks are interested in local food and with grocery store shortages, the customer base is happy to get whatever is fresh. I hope that as we move through and past this global pandemic that this appreciation is not forgotten. I hope that customers continue to chose to spend their dollars at farmers markets, local markets, and with CSA subscriptions. I hope that folks realize that producing food is a labor of love.

In the farming world there is an expression: “the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footsteps.” It means that the best way to be a successful steward of the land is to keep your eyes and ears open constantly walking the fields and observing both good and bad areas and figuring out how to make it better. Perhaps listening and observing is the best way right now to be a steward of human needs too. I need to listen to the other human voices and their experiences. Listening is a start.

Planting Madness

Bed prep: weed, broad fork, spread compost, rake. And then plant. This is my life this week (and next week, and probably the week after that). Bed prep and plant all day. Sleep. Repeat the next day and the next until the garden is finished. You can plant seeds any time of day, but if it is hot and sunny you should transplant starts at night so they get a rest before being exposed to another sunny day. 13 days after planting that first bed the peas are poking up about 1/2 an inch. My goal starting May 16 was a bed a day… but even after working in the garden every day only 6 are completely done. It is a good thing this garden is primarily for our family as the stress of running it as a business would drown me in, well, stress. The two potato beds are in, as well as both potato boxes.

The two carrot beds are planted, the third apiaceae row is prepped and parsnip seeds have been planted in the last 26 feet. Celery and parsley starts are ready to go in as soon as I find the time. The second half of the garlic bed has been planted with leek starts in dibbled holes and the onion bed is prepped and ready for planting. Which brings me up to a grand total of 6 finished, 3 partials, 10 more veg beds to prep and plant, and 6 cover crop beds to prep and plant. I will be busy for a while.

It has been chilly, two mornings ago we woke up to find ice in the puddles. I am still lighting a fire in the greenhouse at night. And I have been shuttling trays of starts in and out of the greenhouse daily to harden them off to direct sun, wind, and cold. The hardiest of the starts, all the non flowers, moved down to the main garden yesterday and successfully spent their first night of the season outside under row cover.

I started a tray of summer crisp lettuces for mid summer harvest, 500 bush beans to plant in a low tunnel in two weeks, and more herbs.

500 plus bush bean blocks

A beautiful bumble bee, the first of the season that I have seen, was resting on my tomato starts in the greenhouse and I transplanted it down to the honey berry bushes at the vegetable garden. I saw another one (with orange on its abdomen) this morning buzzing around the currant flowers but I was sadly without a camera. I am attempting to learn how to identify bumblebees this year and I am also participating in a citizen science project called Bumblebee Watch. It is actually pretty hard to get a clear photo and then to identify. I need an insect field guide!

While out on the road last night we saw two porcupines and a lynx cat. We stopped and watched the young lynx for a while. They are very curious and will watch you back. Can you see it?

In addition to the wildlife show, we were also treated to some beautiful late night Alaskan views. This time of year 10:00 PM feels more like 6PM and it is hard to go to bed.

Time to get off the computer and back to work! We were gifted a quarter of spring black bear so I need to process the leg this morning and then get back out to the garden for some afternoon/evening planting.

Fresh meat! Spring bear is delicious.

And flower season is beginning…

Working hard or hardly working?

Sometimes you work hard but no matter how you try, forward progress is elusive.

I spent Thursday morning in front of the computer completing some correspondence and writing my weekly blog post. Of which I neglected to save a draft of the working document. It was a chaotic morning in the household and somehow I did something to my mousepad that swiped away my browser and when I brought word press back up, the blog post draft was gone. Lesson learned: hit save draft all the time. I made a few stilted attempts to recreate what I had written but it was gone, from the draft and from my head. Oh well, some days are like that… But I had to get outside and get some physical work done after that. Spending one more minute on the computer was just too frustrating!

Late last Friday we were headed home from the Kenny Lake School graduation parade (we could not attend the graduation in person but watched it online while in the school parking lot and then did a drive by congratulations). We were treated to a magical wildlife moment on the McCarthy Road. We live near the Copper River herd of plains bison. Wood bison are native to Alaska but these guys were introduced here 70 years ago. They mostly live on park and native lands and can be seen along the Copper River and Kotsina bluffs or down on the river bed at spring calving time. For years now, bison have wandered across the Kotsina River using the McCarthy Road to travel to the 5 mile bluffs for the food they like to eat there bringing them into close proximity of humans. I like them better across the river. They are beautiful but very, very dangerous and while they have never come onto our own land, several years ago one spent months wandering through our neighborhood. I do not wish to bump into a bison on the way to the garden. We see them occasionally while driving to and from town. There have been a few almost incidences on the road over the years. I have been charged by one when it was in the middle of the road and I startled it as I drove around the corner and had to slam on my brakes. And then hit the gas to pass it as it charged. And one attempted to head butt our Subaru with the school bus carpool as the car drove by. But this particular bison was calm and content to graze the fresh grass while we watched from the truck.

I have rediscovered my gardening muscles this week. Every morning I feel each one with a new awareness. During the sub arctic winter I do not spend a lot of time repeatedly bending over or lifting heavy shovelfuls of soil, pushing wheelbarrows or carrying heavy trays around. Once I get going, I can work all day but each morning starts out with some extra time warming up. Garden yoga is kicking my butt.

I prepped and planted the pea bed last Saturday. Two 50 foot rows of oregon giant flat peas and two 50 foot rows of sugar snaps. They are not up yet but it was good to finally get something in the ground!

Pea bed with easy step in post trellis.

I also had a tray of brassica greens and other miscellany that was supposed to be planted for spring eating. Before break up, I had planned on moving the greenhouse north by 6 or 7 feet, away from the continually subsiding low spot of melting permafrost in the perennial garden. But the shed project happened first and though the progress of moving the shed across the yard, skirting it, and organizing it (I can actually find my stuff!) has been fantastic, the wood shed addition has not yet been built onto the storage shed. Rounds of unsplit firewood is in a pile behind the greenhouse effectively shelving the “moving the greenhouse” project for the spring. The greenhouse was frozen to the ground anyway. I had planned on modifying the south greenhouse bed, once outside of the moved greenhouse, into a cold frame for early and late greens. The greenhouse is packed full of starts so my overgrown tray of early greens could not go in there and instead of feeding them to the chickens I decided to plant them out in the main garden and see what happens. So far they have survived. I planted some arugula, radish, and turnip seed at the same time.

I was prepping carrot beds when I touched base with the post office to let them know I had live plants coming in the mail only to discover the plants had already arrived the day before. Off I went to town to collect the plants and Conner and I spent the afternoon digging holes, adding compost, and watering in the new white and red currants, honey berries, and a jostaberry. Four of the five perennial beds are now complete with plants. The fifth bed is a blank canvas. I really do not know what I want to plant there.

The currants and honey berries already in residence are flowering. They are not showy blooms but beautiful none the less.

On my way back from the post office I spied this tenacious dandelion. Dandelions might be non native but I love them anyway. First one of the year and it grew on a desolate bluff.

And the cotton woods are developing their catkin seed pods. Soon there will be cotton fluff seeds floating around everywhere.

The last several years I have missed the coltsfoot flowers. I have not been able to figure out if the native plants did not put up flower stalks or if I was just so immersed in my own things that I did not notice them. But this year I keep seeing them everywhere. Coltsfoot is a valuable herbal remedy for lung conditions. I am happy to see them this year.

Coltsfoot flower

In the main garden I am weeding and sifting compost and prepping beds for planting. It is the daily garden grind right now and I am behind on planting as the soil and weather conditions have not exactly lined up to make bed prep easy.

In the yard in front of the house there is a section where nothing grows as the area is devoid of soil. I had the idea to build some potato boxes with the kids. I had some non certified potatoes I don’t want to put in the garden, some old poplar boards and 2 by 2s that have been used and reused in the garden and are nearly at the end of their life (but not quite), and some soil that once the potatoes beds are done for the year can be raked out to improve the front lawn. The kids decided they were not interested in potato boxes at all but Tim and I spent an evening modifying the plan to efficiently use the materials we had available and ended up with two 2 by 4 boxes. The idea behind a potato box is that all season long you attach additional boards to the box as the plants grow up and keep adding soil and mulch. At the end of the season you unscrew the boards and pull out an entire box worth of potatoes. We’ll see if it works. If nothing else, it will improve the front lawn and be something to talk about all summer.

It is time to get back outside and back to bed prep and hopefully planting…have a good week!

Open Water

Just a short few weeks into wet and chilly spring weather Alaska decided “enough of this nonsense” and with a week of 70°, summer weather has arrived. The soil is drying out, the swallows are fighting over nesting spots, and the yard is ice free for the first time since October.

Our lake, the smallest of the cluster of 4 lakes in this community, often loses its lake ice first. My son and I took the kayaks out on Saturday when the open water was a mere few feet wide channel along the shore. We made it around the cove and to the point before running into too much ice to continue. We were in the middle of chores and it was a great way to play hooky for a brief time. Back on shore and back to work, I mentioned that the ice appeared to be about 4 inches thick. A few hours later, the seemingly still intact ice sheet rapidly cracked out in the middle and shifted up against the shore. Good thing that didn’t happen while we were in the boats! The ice began disintegrating rapidly after that. By the next day, over half the lake was open water with mostly submerged ice sheets and the whole family was able to take a Mother’s Day cruise on the lake with the canoe and two kayaks in the still evening. Two pairs of swans were resting on the lake before continuing on with their migrations. A beaver was guarding its territory by the point and another was perched on the edge of a remaining ice sheet munching away on something. Ducks flew overhead and more paddled away from our noisy paddling. By Monday, the ice was gone. Open water at last.

May 12, 2020 From the dock

Every year a few things happen as soon as the lake goes out. The loons arrive.

Welcome home! Summer would not be summer without their beautiful songs.

The kids go swimming in frigid water.

Brave girls. Too cold for me!

And the time to get the irrigation system up and running arrives. This year the process went so smoothly I am a little frightened! I hooked up the pump on Tuesday and had running water in the perennial garden all afternoon.

And the old pump works another year!
Hot weather and sprinklers. It feels like summer around here.

Yesterday I hooked everything up all the way to the vegetable garden and there were no leaks or sections needing to be replaced. I did however leave the mainline tubing ends open through the winter and though I have spent a fair amount of time searching I have yet to find the end caps. Once I do, the drip tape can be installed. I watered the garlic by hand and counted over 200 plants. I know I am a broken record here but I am so excited they made it through the winter!

Hooray for garlic. All that background green? Those are weeds. Yikes!

I also did a mini side project with the unused triangular shaped section of soil outside the garden fence. I needed to get the tiller running for someone else to use and tested it out by shallow tilling this section. This area was where the new garden first began in 2014 and I have been trying to figure out a good use for it. Until I figure out a more permanent plan, I decided to plant it in a diverse cover crop mix to build the soil. I raked the area smooth and broadcast the seeds, then raked them in again and lightly covered with straw. The sparrows and the chickens delightedly scratched around for the seeds (the chickens were escapees and not supposed to be out) but hopefully most of the seeds made it and will grow a healthy soil cover. It is temporarily fenced in now so the chickens can no longer get in but there is nothing I can do about the sparrows.

In the garden, the black currants are leafing out.

And though the white and red currants sustained some pretty serious winter kill, there are prolific flower buds on the healthy sections.

White currant

Just about everything is starting to leaf out this week. Soon we will be awash in green.

Quaking aspen leafing out at the garden May 13

In addition to completing the finish work for the ceiling of the new room this week, I buttoned up some other projects this week that would have been better done over the winter. When I butchered the chickens last year, I broke down over half of the carcasses into legs, thighs and breasts to freeze the same cuts together. I stored all the backs, necks, and feet in a box in the freezer to turn into stock. I “rediscovered” this box when we moved the freezer to the back side of the shed in the new location. No time like the present to take care of a job that would have been far more pleasant on a cold and snowy day mid winter. I cleaned the big stainless steel turkey fryer pot and added all the bones, a generous splash of vinegar, a gallon bag of frozen leeks, the last of the frozen carrots, half of the remaining frozen celery, dried thyme, and simmered it for 24 hours.

After straining and cooling, then sticking in the freezer to solidify the fat that was then removed, I pressure canned the stock in quart jars so we can have shelf stable jarred stock for the summer. The pot yielded just over 12 quart jars of delicious, fragrant broth. Check that project off the winter list!

The other chore I was running late on was pruning the raspberry hedge. It is supposed to be done as soon as the snow is gone before the plants start growing. The snow took a while to leave the bottom of the garden this spring and then it was so muddy I did not want to muck up all the garden paths. The canes were already budding out when I finally got around to it this week. I spent Saturday afternoon with knees in the mud and trying to avoid getting too many thorns in my face and fingers.

Before pruning

Hopefully I will get the irrigation down before this years growth begins in earnest. And with any luck, this will be the year I finally get the trellis up!

I found a wood frog hopping on the dry, dusty gravel pad on Saturday. I almost ran over the poor frog with the 4 wheeler… I scooped him up and Sylvia and I brought him down to “Sandpiper bog”, the marshy pond just before the lake. Though we are hearing the frogs through the night now, this was the first one we have seen hopping around.

It is still too early to be harvesting much. I have spent a lot of time over the past two winters researching efficient ways to market garden and working on adapting that to our short season. If you are a one person show with a half acre to manage intensively, you have to be efficient! Thanks to all that research, I am able to point out in great detail just how inefficient my set up really is. Ha! But sometimes you just have to accept that what you have is what you have to work with. If I had a poly tunnel, and a seed starting house, and a paper pot transplanter then things would look pretty different around here. But what I have is a few south facing windows in our cabin, a small greenhouse built by Tim and I with the materials we had on hand, a large outdoor garden, and a family who takes priority over all of it. I have plenty of time to develop this into a market garden. For now, I need to strike a balance between working in the garden, working on subsistence projects (like putting up salmon when the season opens or spring bear if we get one), and family time. And staying calm while doing it (this part needs the most work…) It is frustrating though when I know I could be planting out more starts right now, if only I had had the room to start them last month. There are a few things we are enjoying out of the garden this week though.

But the main highlight of the week is the sight and smell of the beautiful, blue-green water in front of our home. And the loons, ducks, and swans. And the frogs. And the leaves coming out. And the swallows fighting over the birdhouses. And the plants growing in the garden.

Hello summer! I am so glad you are finally here.

Sun, Flowers, and Ice

Spring showed up all at once this week with warm breezes, hot sunshine, and a multitude of sparrows, robins, dark eyed junkos, mallards and golden eyes that finally made it up the pacific flyway. The wood frogs started croaking in our slough on Tuesday, later than many other local ponds. We have had some cold nights that refroze the surface of sandpiper bog (the pre-lake pond where the slough meets the lake) and the small channel melting along the lake shore. But at 10 PM last night the evening was a cacophony of bird song and frog croaks as the full moon was rising.

The moon rising over the perennial garden last night.

Our seed potatoes arrived in the mail and are patiently waiting until it is warm enough to be planted out. Fingers crossed for a stellar potato year.

Last Friday, Sylvia and I forked the straw off of the garlic bed. I sure hope they made it through the winter! I was delighted to see that there was no vole damage under the straw.

Saturday, I split and stacked firewood to get ready to keep the starts in the greenhouse overnight instead of the twice daily plant tray stream in and out of the house.

You can spy through the greenhouse door that the boards are still inside the greenhouse.

We moved the plants for the last time Sunday morning and I fired up the greenhouse stove that night. While it is a relief to have our house back, the move comes with a price, getting up at 2 AM to stoke to fire. I tend towards insomnia when my middle of the night sleep is disturbed so it can be a rough transition for me.

Wood stove perking away

I am still finishing a winter project this week, one I had thought I would be doing in January and February. However the planer could not work in 40 below temperatures during the cold months so the tongue and groove pine board project for my daughters new room was delayed till warmer March temperatures. I had just gotten started on the project using space in our extended family’s newly built shop a mile away when the pandemic reached the United States and spring break was extended for one week, then two. And then morphed into distance schooling. We found ourselves in need of space for a school room and the new bedroom project was put on hold while we readjusted to our new schedule and having the kids home with us, doing school work, every day.

Nearly one side of the ceiling done before pausing the project to focus on schooling at home

During April we planed the remaining 30 boards and I sanded them in the greenhouse. We had a break in the weather when I was able to get all the boards outside and stained. Then it came time to finish them and I spent a week or two trying to do the finish work in the greenhouse with varying temperatures, humidity, a flooded floor, and bugs. Eventually I became fed up with the project and moving boards in and out of the greenhouse, in and out of the house, in the attempt to work with the weather. I was ready to give up on the project for the season but decided to ask for permission to use the shop again. It had already taken two weeks to finish a mere 1/3 of the boards and there was no way I could keep working on this project in the greenhouse so far into May. So, I am back in the shop this week with 8 boards done and 8 with two more coats to go. A climate controlled, bug free space is a beautiful thing.

I will be done with the ceiling boards on Friday. Phew!

Nearly done with the ceiling. Of course there is trim, the flooring, repainting, redoing the stovepipe in metalbestos, stairwell walls to build etc… but I am trying not to think of that till after spring planting is done.

Usually we are driving the kids into town to meet the school bus and have the opportunity to watch for the crocuses blooming on the 5 mile bluffs. It is an interesting microclimate of direct sun exposure, strong wind, and dry bluffs that drop down to the Chitina River. The crocuses love it there. We took a drive just to see them so I would not miss the first flowers of the year in person.

It was a perfect afternoon to spend time on the bluff with warm sunshine and only a slight breeze instead of the typical gale. After being immersed in so many projects it was wonderful to have a few hours away from the homestead and enjoy the out of doors with the family.

Looking down at the Chitina River

One thing I have not been finding time for this week is garden chores. The stress and anxiety over the mounting spring chores is starting to add up! I just keep telling myself that it will be what it will be and I can only do what one person can do. But I can not help but feel a little disappointed that my winter plans will not quite come to fruition this summer. I just do not have enough hours in the day or space in the greenhouse or necessary garden infrastructure to maximize the garden’s potential. Not yet anyway.

Once the boards are finished, I will have to buckle down and start spending long days in the garden to try and catch up with the spring season. Regardless, I am enjoying each day filled with bird song, listening to the frogs, watching ducks fly over, seeing the native vegetation starting to green up, and smelling the delicious smells of spring after a long scentless winter.

Last night on the dock at 10:11 PM The lake ice is thinning and melting out along the edges. Yesterday a beaver popped up next to the dock. Not long until open water.

Fall might be my favorite season of all but spring is a very close second! From my garden to yours, be well.

The End (of April…)

It has been snowing all day but it is in the 30s so the snow is not accumulating. It is chilly and wet and generally unappetizing outside especially compared to a cozy cabin with the wood stove emitting dry heat and the kettle whistling merrily. It is a day to take extra tea breaks. Too cool and wet out to work on ceiling boards in the greenhouse or move the garden starts outside, the cabin is over run with plants, unfinished projects, children and schoolwork, cat, dog, adults catching up on online work, and muddy boots.

Plants on top and ceiling boards stored underneath. It is a squeeze to move about the little house.

After a spectacularly beautiful week of strong sunshine, puffy white clouds, and stiff spring breezes, this brief return to winter is mildly irritating.

This morning at the vegetable garden. Why is there a mailbox in the garden? It is a super handy way to have small tools, garden plans, gloves etc… on hand in a weatherproof box.

I gently walked around the vegetable garden yesterday for the first time this year. The pathways are still wet but not so muddy that I could not maneuver about. It is important to not compress your soil at any point of the year in the garden but in the spring when the soil is very wet footsteps will squeeze air out of the soil making it an inhospitable place for healthy roots. And often deep squishy muddy footprints will set up rock hard turning pathways into rough and unpleasant surfaces later on especially in our high clay content soils. The soil in the raised beds is thawed out beyond the depth of my index finger and it is time to add pruning the raspberries and removing the mulch off the garlic to the to do list. In the perennial garden, the first rhubarb plant is peeking up.

Hello rhubarb!

The ponds snails are moving around now. I have been looking in the roadside ponds everyday waiting for them to emerge and wondering how they survive the winter. I have not really been able to find anything about them online or in the books we have.

Roadside pond snail with a black body and spiral shell

As the ice melts throughout the month of April many new things emerge on the road. I found two railroad spikes this week. The McCarthy Road is built over the original Copper River and North Western Railroad bed and spikes work their way up through the gravel and evidently, the high float chip seal too…

Railroad spike at 12.5 mile

I collected a small bag of garbage yesterday of roadside refuse. I had to use the truck to go back and pick up a blown out trailer tire and an old Kuskulana bridge board from the re-decking last summer. I will pick up trash today going the other way when making my last walk of the month for the 30 miles in 30 days fundraiser for our Strelna Volunteer Fire Department. My goal was to walk two miles everyday and as long as nothing happens to stop me from going today…I will have achieved it. It has been good to get out away from the home projects and stretch the legs everyday. I get too busy in the summer months to walk intentionally everyday (and too tired from all the garden work.)

I am more than ready for our world to change from grey and brown to green. There is a smudge around the trees caused by thousands of swelling buds on the birch, aspens, and cottonwoods. It looks like a slight haze on the mountain side. For this week though we have to be content with the beautiful emerald green moss in the woods.

And though I have not seen them yet in person, the pasque flowers are blooming on the 5 mile bluffs. Tim found the first bunch of the year when making a run to the Post Office on Tuesday. I can not wait to take a drive to see them this weekend.

Pasque flowers. The first ones of the year. Photo Credit Tim Nelson

I hope your gardens are beginning to grow too. Come on spring!

Transformation

One end of this week would not recognize the other. We started with snow and ended with mud.

It has been rainy this month, far more spring rain than I can remember in years. All those raindrops made quick work of the snow in the open areas of the yard. The drain in the perennial garden started slowly working last week though there was so much melt water it filled the basin in front of the greenhouse, into the greenhouse, and spilled over the hill into the lake.

The garden drain flowing at full capacity

Every morning I would get up and peer out the east window to see if the drain had caught  up with amount of water running in. At night the temperatures drop and the surfaces of the puddles freeze but the in ground drainpipe stays open and running.

The frozen garden pond last Saturday

Day after day the yard pond would be smaller in the morning but fill up again during the day. Last Saturday the pipe was running as fast as it could and the pond was at its fullest. It started shrinking bit by bit, each day, a little smaller. Then on Tuesday the small pond was there when I woke up and looked out the window. It was there when I worked on boards in the greenhouse all day until I finished up and was heading out and realized that the rest of the soil above the pipe had thawed out and the pond was gone. It took a whole week to go from flooded greenhouse/garden to a pond-less garden…Tuesday to Tuesday.

I had hopped the fence and raked the leaves off the perennial beds before the pond drained. I could not find straw last fall to mulch the plants so used poplar leaves I had planned to compost. The problem with mulch in Alaska is that while it protects the plant roots throughout the very cold winter, it delays the soil from thawing out in the spring. This means twice the work…putting it down in the fall and then taking it back off in the spring. With straw, it is pretty easy to lift and rake but wet matted leaves are no fun at all. After the pond drained, I forked all the leaf piles into the 4 wheeler cart and transferred them to the compost pile. When it dries out some more, the garden will need another raking but it looks pretty good.

And there are chives and comfrey poking up already.

With the warmer weather the squirrels are twitterpated and chasing each other all around the yard. My son decided to go hunting with his bb gun and quickly bagged 4 which he and his Dad skinned. Red squirrels are pretty small but they carved off the 4 quarters and soaked them overnight in salt water. We baked them slowly in cream of mushroom soup and they made a delicious meal. The connection between taking a life and using it to sustain ours is a life lesson that I consider imperative for our children to learn as they grow. If they kill it, they eat it. Even if it was not exactly I had in mind for dinner.

I oscillate between reminding myself to be grateful for all the benefits our lifestyle give us especially during these days of social isolation and feeling frustrated at being pulled in so many different directions with so many spring projects. The days go by too quickly. And I have had more than one moment when I wished I was stuck in an apartment (alone) with nothing to do but read a book or watch tv.

One project that has been on the back burner for over a year was moving the shed across the yard. We had been talking about it on and off for the past week but on Wednesday it still it seemed to come out of nowhere when the plan “we are moving the shed today” was announced. Tim aired up the backhoe tires and charged the batteries while I removed the boxes of glass canning jars and anything else that might break. The shed is built on two beams that acted as skids. Other than the tight squeeze between the septic pipes in the beginning (that was stressful!), the building slid smoothly up the hill and across the gravel pad to its new home. It will take a fair bit of work to get it reorganized (just kidding…it was not organized in the first place so it will take a ton of work to actually organize it) and build our new woodshed onto the south side. But when it is done it will be a much better set up. It was on a steep hill, the freezer porch was breaking and we did not want to have a walking path across the septic tank or leach field in the winter. Untouched snow acts as an insulator to the ground keeping our plumbing working through 40 below stretches. Our storage shed, with built on woodshed, was in place when we put the septic in between it and the house and it has not been the ideal set up with us tromping across the area all winter to access our stored items, freezers, and split wood. Being on flat ground and closer to the house will be much better in the long run especially for processing firewood (no more hauling split wood uphill!)

There are other signs of spring emerging. The kids discovered their bikes this week when they thawed out of the ice and now I have companions on my walks who mock my slowness. The dry road is more fun for the kids and we do not have to kick them outside to play anymore.

The Copper River is open. No more ice dams.

Today at the Copper River Bridge

And while the migratory birds seem to be taking their time this year (or maybe I just keep missing them…), there are some around. We saw a swan fly over the lake on the 14th. And today there were ducks in the roadside ponds. I am ready for more!

Mallards in an 11 mile roadside pond

It rained again last night but now that the garden has drained and the yard is primarily free of ice and snow, I am not so worried about the extra moisture. After the extremely dry year last year, a wet spring is pretty darn nice. I am starting my brassica seeds today, just over a week late from my normal schedule.

So many seeds to plant today…

With a later colder spring, a later planting should not matter in the long run. Young, healthy starts often catch up and surpass older starts. My other slower growing starts are doing well too. The cool spring means not getting out to the greenhouse every day. But it is warming up more every week.

Starts in the greenhouse

The gardening and self sufficient lifestyle has been gaining in popularity in leaps and bounds over the last decade but no more so than right now in the midst of a pandemic. And the majority of the time this is super exciting to me. I love to mentor folks with their gardens. But this surge in interest can also lead to shortages. It means that it is harder or impossible to find the things we need on an annual basis. We wanted spring pigs but last month we did not travel to town because of stay at home orders even though technically we could have travelled for agriculture/food. And now there are no spring pigs to be had. I really, really wanted pigs this year and we are still looking for some but an already scarce market is now an empty market. I am worried that I will need more seeds and not be able to get them because of the overwhelming seed ordering that has occurred. My two most relied upon seed companies have both shut down to non commercial growers this month to catch up on orders and I have been unable to get some of the items I would like (most importantly a new wonder waterer wand for greenhouse watering and can not source elsewhere to Alaska).

I am tired this week. Physically tired from the spring outside work but also mentally tired of the pandemic, tired of the same chores everyday, tired of needing to be a positive cheerleader for school and kid chores, tired of not being able to get away for a bit and visit with a girlfriend. And I feel incredibly guilty feeling this way because we have everything we need plus access to the outside every single day. I have struggled this week to remember to be grateful for what we have. I have not been the best Mom. (Tim did almost ALL the schooling this week.) And I would definitely be fired if the housekeeper position was a paid job (the dishes and floor need to be cleaned and I just don’t want to). I thought getting out of the house and a small road trip would help me by participating in the weekly Friday outing to hand in school work, collect more school work, and pick up supplies. But the stress of grocery shopping, sanitizing, and talking to folks with an uncomfortable mask on just made things worse and I wish I had stayed at home. I am on the same page with the dwarf Grumpy today evidently. Sigh.

So I need to change my perspective and continue to work on being more positive. Salad greens are up in the greenhouse.

The frogs will start singing any night. The crocuses will be up soon (we looked today on the 5 mile bluffs but not a purple flower in sight). The lake will open up more and more. The weather will continue to warm. The mud will turn back into soil (as long as no one walks on it).

And there is basil growing.

So many good things and so many things to be grateful for. A sunny day would not hurt though…