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

Dinking around

You would think that with the warmest late fall ever that I have been getting a lot done outside. Hahahaha! Not true sadly…I have been puttering about trying to keep on top of exciting chores like laundry and dishes. We had company on Saturday and enjoyed an amazing meal of roast chicken, roasted vegetables (brussels sprouts, white turnip, golden beet, carrot, and red potato) as well as a fresh salad of carrot, red, and green cabbage with lemon garlic mustard honey dressing. It was a harvest celebration with all the food (minus a few oils and spices) coming from the garden and a night of catching up with friends. After they left, I told Tim my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. There were many stories told with accompanying laughter. Our life has become so stressful, pulled in so many directions and with so many irons in the fire that it often feels like we are reacting to life instead of planning it out. To spend an evening with friends with nothing more than the goal to share delicious food and enjoy each others company was beyond delightful. I just wished I had remembered to take photos!

I started breaking down dried herbs for storage now that they have finished dehydrating. It is a tedious chore…

Thyme

Sunday morning the kids and I learned how to play Mancala. Friends who bring us games to play are also high in our regard. Some friends dropped off a box of barely used games over the weekend and we are so excited to have these new ones to play. Mancala was easy to get the hang of in the beginning. I won the first five or so until my son picked up on the strategy. He is a LOT better at math than I am. So when he started winning I had him teach his sister how to play.

The rest of the week was time spent at the school. Tuesday I attended the 1st quarter Awards Assembly where my kids received their high honors certificates and my daughter was named Student of the Quarter. I am proud of the work these two put into their studies.

I also hauled home 3 round bales of rye straw for animal bedding. It was unexpected to find herbicide free local straw so I jumped on the chance to stock up. We often use subpar hay for bedding purposes but straw has a hollow stem that makes it a better insulator as well as a better material for compost (the straw holds oxygen in the pile).

Wednesday we decorated and set up for the Kenny Lake School Halloween Carnival and served a Baked Potato Bar to raise money for our nutrition program. It was a long day but the kids had a great time at the Carnival.

Today is All Hallows Eve and our kitty’s first birthday.

Happy 1st birthday Eve!

I feel like I have spent the week dinking around. I have been busy BUT nothing has been crossed off the list. There is much to do and I have not been getting it done. I don’t know if it is this grey weather or how everything seems to be broken at the moment or the bizarre fact that whenever I start to do a project something else comes up. Transition of the seasons. That is my story and I am sticking to it!

Freeze up (and then rain)

Somehow two weeks has gone by…and no blog post. I neglected to write anything last Thursday even though I did fire up the laptop and stare at it occasionally. While it does not matter in the whole scheme of things, it is the second time I have not followed through with my promise to myself to write once a week for 40 weeks (Spring equinox to Winter solstice) and I feel disappointed to have not followed through. It has just been one of those weeks (or two weeks…). This time of year is an upheaval. It is a transition between the summer and the winter season and a transition in family life and roles as my husband returns home after two and 1/2 months away at hunting camp. I was scrambling to get my garden put away for the winter before the ground froze. Everything was harvested, the garlic planted, and I had just started on weeding the small trees out of the beds when it began freezing over and not thawing during the day. I tried to get some seed starting soil made but other priority projects kept inserting themselves so I finally gave up when I was forced to chip my frozen materials out of the wheel barrow. October 17th and 18th had morning lows of 3°F. The lake was almost completely covered with ice the morning of the 18th. Only a small area directly around our dock and in a trail to the beaver lodge a few hundred feet down the shore to the west remained ice free where the muskrats and beavers are keeping the water open with their constant movement.

The view of the winter garden from Duff mountain. No snow yet but any dirt work is done for the year. Conner and I have been reinforcing the existing fence against snowshoe hares with 2 inch chicken wire.

I wrote this October 20th when I thought I might get a post out just a few days late: This past week has been a blur. I hardly took any photos and I did not do any writing. With the busy season slowing down, my physical self let me know that I have been consuming far too much caffeine and it was time for a break. I agreed with my body but still…I have not enjoyed the headache that comes from letting go of coffee. When Thursday morning rolled around there was a lot of pressure from the to do list to get ready for our town trip. And on top of that the kids had a 5 day weekend and I just didn’t get any quiet time all day. Instead I am writing with my thumbs on the smart phone in a spare moment from supply shopping. It has been progressively getting colder this last week: 3 degrees F on Thursday morning. The garden soil has a frozen crust and the only dirt work being done anymore this fall is with equipment that will break through that crust. We hauled the 4 horses we had at home after camp into town on Friday. We dropped off Cassidy with his new owner and the other three we brought to the Brost farm at Point Mackensie. I had never been to that farm area of Alaska before. It was great to see all the fields and see where Alaska’s dairies used to be. After dropping off the horses we have been supply shopping for the past 24 hours. The truck is full of winter necessities from Costco, Lowes, Fred Meyers, Home Depot and the many other stores where we spent time (and $$$).

The Copper River freezing up. 10/18/19

With the big trip to town past us, we have been attempting to manage a slew of first world problems. Our on demand hot water heater started leaking (small at first and then a river) in late September and we ordered a new, better model but collecting all the fittings we need to install it has proven to be a challenge. My GMC Yukon went into the shop for a tune up and came back with an estimate of $4000 of work needing done (we have since paired it down to about half that but still…) Being without my truck in good running order leaves me a bit panic struck. Everything is so spread out here and driving the old work/water truck for the school carpool with all of us stuck together like sardines in a can leaves a lot to be desired! We only sold one of the 3 horses we needed to sell and therefore have to feed those two through the winter before we try to sell them in the spring. The washing machine/dryer unit is acting up. The freezer we ordered has not come in yet and I am unable to finish processing turkeys and more veg under the house because we do not have the space (yet). And boy do I miss the long sunny days of summer when our solar panels provided us with more power that we could use (running the Honda 2000 is noisy).

But that is life, is it not? There will always be something unexpected or irritating to deal with. After a few grumpy days, I am reminding myself often to look at all the good things we have: an abundance of garden produce, a warm and dry home, education opportunities for our kids, books, enough projects to engage our brains for a lifetime, and lots of outdoor exercise. Life is good.

Conner and Tim went caribou hunting October 21 and 22 when the season reopened after the rut. The kids really look forward to hunting with their Dad for caribou as he is off guiding during moose and sheep season. The hunt prospects were pretty bad. The Nelchina herd of 50,000 animals had all (or almost all) passed through the federal lands where we can harvest animals. They hunted for two days and finally connected with a old bull. Caribou is not the tastiest meat especially when it is an old bull taken in the late season when the bulls have stopped eating and are spending all their time chasing after cows. But it is good lean protein and makes great burger. We will age the meat in our guest cabin for a while and then process it up. After all the fowl I have processed this summer, I am looking forward to meat quarters which are so much easier!

Winter protein!
My son hauling a sled load of caribou meat.

Speaking of processing fowl, I also butchered the 7 remaining birds in the laying flock yesterday. They will make good soup birds. Now I can move the new flock into the insulated coop where they will be warmer and better protected from all the birds of prey we have around. I still have the 2 turkeys to do, but they must wait until we get our new freezer.

I had finally adjusted to the season change to winter when the south wind started blowing Tuesday night. All day yesterday it was in the 40s with strong winds and the occasional splatter of rain. Then last night it started pouring. Every time I woke up the rain was pounding on the roof. Today is gray and windy but no rain. It is 38°F and the ice on the lake is starting to retreat from our shore. With a few more days of this warm up in the forecast, I might get some seed starting soil done after all.

Yesterday’s sun on the ice while also raining.

The sun is trying to peek out of a thick layer of clouds and the wind is still blasting out house from the south west. It looks like it might be snowing in the mountains to the south. I think processing leeks while listening to an audio book is a good plan for the next few hours!

Till next week!