My lantern oil just dimmed to nothing and left me in complete darkness but for the glow of my laptop and the internet box blinking green to my right. I see the hazy glow of Luke’s flashlight bouncing as he walks back in from the outhouse and another in the hall where Anthony pulls a book from the shelf, though it’s 12:14 a.m. He’ll read far into the early morning, unable to regulate his desire to read just one…more…page.
Beyond the gentle hum of the cooling fan inside my computer, I hear the jumbled cur plunk of rain hitting the tin roof for the sixth night straight. The occasional turning of some child’s page and the crackle of a warm fire give life to the blackness around me and I ponder this night, this day, this life I’ve decided to live, somewhere between the Last Frontier and Star Trek Enterprise, where life is simple, yet technologically advanced. The perfect world.
Outside the cabin a dog barks suddenly at nothing, at everything, and all these many weeks into life out here, I no longer wonder what is. It’s different now, with walls firmly in place, compared to the times when the children dwelled in tents while the dogs coward and growled into the dark unknown. It’s safe, now, though the front door only hangs, and doesn’t close, an extension cord strung through where the knob should be. No matter, nothing can get in, we have no steps.
It’s September 22, just three weeks away from the average first snow. We’ve still no well, but soon says the driller, soon. Today I plumbed the sink drain. Such a simple pleasure, to be able to brush my teeth without first having to slip on a pair of boots and a coat even if I still get my water from a jug to the side. Tomorrow I’ll set a toilet in place and we’ll all dance circles around the bowl, fighting over who gets to christen the throne. I’ll win.
I’ll head towards my loft now. I’ll fill the woodstove to heaping with logs the boys split and put the potato soup into the ice box using the flashlight app on my phone, just like Laura Ingals would have done it, no doubt, had she the chance. I’ll climb the not-quite-tall-enough ladder and defy death once again getting into my loft bedroom, flip on the flashlight that hangs from a nail on the ceiling, and crawl between my 400 thread count sheets.
It’s a strange world I live in, somewhere between what was…and what is. Finding a balance point…now that could be my demise.
This is not going to be well written, of that I am sure. It’s late at night, I’m tired, and I have computer access for just a short time. I apologize ahead of time…
The past few weeks have been very stressful. We left behind our 7 bedroom home, moved completely out, cleaned it spotless and put it up for sale.
We moved onto our land far before we should have and set up camp, literally, with six of the kids. Robin sleeps in a tent. Billy sleeps in a tent which he proudly calls his two-room-mansion. Mya and the three small boys sleep in an old run down travel trailer we picked up for pennies and cleaned the mold from. I am sleeping in the loft of our incomplete 20×36 cabin, which is actually quite comfortable if you discount the fact that we STILL have gable ends with no sheeting because I am afraid of heights and the wind and mosquitos think that’s an invitation. And until two days ago, we had no front door.
When Dan is home from work next week we will put the tin on the roof, wire the generator to the cabin and have flushing toilets, if no water with which to flush them.
Truth be told, our money is tight, we need $9000 for a well, a new generator and some groceries in storage before winter and it’s not looking promising. Not that we won’t have the well…it just might be drilled through frost or snow sometime in October. We’ll live.
Oh, I’m not complaining, mind you. Because as my older kids remind me daily, “You wanted this…”, therefore my gripe-rights are null and void. I simply have to bite my tongue, smile and nod, smile and nod, when people ask how things are coming along.
They are coming along… just a bit more slowly than we’d imagined, but coming along none the less.
Yesterday I found myself more frustrated than usual and when Dan called from whatever arctic oasis he has found himself in for his shift, I was less than pleasant. I normally try not to complain when he calls. After all, he works 12 plus hour days for weeks at a time and rarely lets off steam. But last night I needed to vent. And so I let him have it.
He listened, heard me out, and empathized with my plight. Are we making a huge mistake, I wondered? Did we plunge in based on fantasy and now reality closes in with the coming of winter? Should we just move back into the big house? What about going south? Perhaps some sun is the answer, maybe camp out through the winter in a nice condo on a beach…now that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I laid out my list of complaints like a rug at his weary feet, hoping he’d climb aboard my rampage. He listened, we said our goodnights and I began to plot my escape.
And then my dear husband, who for over twenty years has calmed my storms, who should have been fast asleep by then, resting for the next day of work, sent me the following text:
“Homestead Survival page just asked, ‘What would you do with 30 acres?’ Looking at the replies, most readers see that as Heavenly and completely out of reach. They can’t even dream of such a thing. We have 40. It’s ours. We need to remember how blessed we are, and that we know hard work pays off in the end. We are both mentally and physically fatigued…but we are living our dream.”
And he’s right, of course. He always is. I rarely talk about him on this site, because he really prefers me not to. I don’t blame him…I know a lot of secrets. But once in a while, I just need to say thanks. He is the backbone of this family, the unsung hero, and my dream-sharer for life.
I don’t remember being covered in bruises, blood and broken skin on a daily basis as a child…perhaps that is the key difference between little girls and little boys. Then again, the way I used to roll my 3-wheeler down every dirt hill within miles, it’s rather surprising I made it through my eleventh year at all.
My three youngest boys go, go, go nonstop all day long and well into the night. How we avoid the ER, I have no idea. ( I probably shouldn’t tempt fate by saying that…)
Here’s a video I took last night on my cell of their home made ‘skate park’. Take note of the two pieces of upturned firewood holding the ramp in place. Classy. Anthony, the master engineer, designed and constructed the masterpiece. Then again, he also designed and built the bike jump that left Steven’s face looking as it does above….so….
When I was a kid in Kasilof, Alaska, there was a honey store about a mile down the road. We’d pedal down there, present our quarter, and get a sample of honey such that I’ve not tasted since. This year, as we move onto our off-grid property and make an attempt at becoming more self sufficient, we decided to add bee keeping…just to upkeep the ‘crazy’ status we’ve gained around town. It sounded fun, provided a basic necessity for our family, and we knew absolutely nothing about it….so it was pretty much fit the bill of how we do things around here.
I perused the internet, found a site called Alaska Honey and talked to a woman named Sarah, who owns the company. Turns out, Sarah (located in Kenai) is not only the ‘bees knees’ when it comes to hiving knowledge, but she also loves to share that knowledge with newby’s like me! Sarah invited me over to see her woodshop where she builds hives, sold me a starter kit (and with how much time she puts into them, she can’t be making any money), and gave me a freebie lesson on starter beekeeping, including her cell number in case I had trouble. That was her first mistake…
I ordered a five pound box of bees shipped in from Washington, picked them up on Friday night, and brought home my new pets. (Destini was not impressed with the buzzing box of stingers that spent the night on the bathroom counter.)
Saturday morning, coffee in hand, Billy and I loaded up the bees, gathered supplies along with Sarah’s instructions, and headed up to our cabin property where the bees would make their home.
Here’s something I learned about bees. Probably everyone else in the world already knew this… But, bees cannot be moved once they are hived. Apparently, they map their location in such exact detail for up to a four mile radius, that if you moved the hive ten feet away they would die in a heap where they last saw their hive. So, unless you plan to move them more than six miles away, they should be placed initially in their permanent residence. Good to know.
Billy and I picked a spot on your property that was quite a ways from our cabin, yet easily accessible. I slipped the bee hat over my head, duct taped every possible opening in my clothing and prayed my three pair of pants and puffy shirts would keep me pain free. Billy did the same, minus the bee hat, and loudly and repeatedly reminded me he is allergic to bees and swells up like the Stay-puff Marshmallow Man when stung. Wimp.
We set up the box on a flat area in the woods. The hive consists of several important layers, none of which I know the name or purpose of, and so I called Sarah to make sure they were in the right order. It didn’t made sense to me that the bottom is nothing more than a screen. Honey is liquid. It seems as if in the Fall I’ll lift my box to find all the honey has dripped down into the earth. But she assured me it was correct and so we proceeded.
First, I pulled the feeding can from the travel box to get to the queen. This is when panic began, because as soon as I polled that feeding can out of the hole, the bees came at me like canon fire. I then had to release the queen bee from her tiny hotel box within the bee box. She has a bit of wax covering a hole to keep her in and the bees will release her over the next couple of days. I put her onto the frames (hanging file style boards the bees build their honeycombs on) along with two Ziplocks of sugar water to get them started.
And then, contrary to every instinct in my body, I dumped the bees out into the hive.
Now, somewhere around this point I’m pretty sure I blacked out. Billy says he could tell I was freaking out because…well…because I was calm. I’m rarely quiet, so he knew something was wrong. He later told me my hands were moving like lightening and all advice that had been given me about relaxing, not showing fear, and taking it slow…went right out the window when those bees swarmed my face. I don’t even remember half of this.
I dumped, dumped, dumped bees, shaking the box around and trying not to damage the merchandise. When I thought I had most of them out, I put the box down, layered the covers in the appropriate order, and strapped it tight to keep the bears from breaking into my stash, all while reminding myself there was a purpose to the insanity.
We brushed the bees from my body with a little swishy broom, I did a wiggly dance to make sure they were all gone, and we loaded up into the car. I called Sarah to tell her things had gone well and she instructed us to turn around and go back, because we’d left the shipping box, with quite a few bees, laying on the ground by the hive. Apparently the bees who did not make it in the initial dumping may not make it into the hive because they still smell their queen in the shipping box. We whipped around, crawled back into our duct tape safety, and traipsed back into the woods.
I lifted the lid to dump the rest of the bees, but in the few minutes since we’d left them, the bees had already attached themselves to the lid. As I’d squashed many of them the first time I dropped the lid into place, we chose not to dump any more inside the hive…didn’t want to damage the merchandise.
This time, I held the camera while Billy, feeling brave and manly, shook the remainder of the bees out on the hives ‘front porch’. And then he ran like a scared little girl when one bee landed on his shoulder. Wimp. Minutes later, the bees were already making their way into the entrance in an awesome display of loyalty to their queen. Wish my minions were that loyal.
I texted Sarah to let her know…as if she cared…that all had gone as planned and nobody had been stung or died a horrible death, other than a few unlucky bees I swatted in terror.
And so now we wait for the next step…though I’m not even sure what that is. I’ll have to call Sarah to find out.
As I sit in the Alaska dark, waiting for Spring, I can feel the grit beneath my nails, the sweat across the back of my neck and the ache of my arms after a day in the woods. The course skin of hands, dry and stiff from the leather of my gloves, the grain of the bark against bare forearms, scraping the skin as I tug and pull a log onto the mill.
Six miles up the road from my house is the land I call home, buried beneath the depths of ice and snow, months away from weather that will allow us in. I can feel it pulling. I’ve not spent one night on its soil, nor cooked a meal under a roof within its boundaries. I’ve not grown a vegetable there, or dug a foundation, or spent a winter within the narrow walls of the cabin we’ve begun to create.
But it is my home. Just as sure as I am sitting here, I know that. For I do not own the land…the land has ownership of me.
And it is on that land I will find that which I have sought, all these years of searching, finally come to an end. It is there, amidst straight spruce and thick birch, in the depth of the fields and the dark of the alders, where I will discover a small hint of what did lie in the hearts of those homesteaders, so many years ago.
They had the passion…those frontier men and women…which is now lacking in so many. They strived forward, not seeking the future of modern civilization, but lunged forward into their past, looking for the base of what was and what was to be. They didn’t intend to be legendary…they fell into it be chance, out of a hope for something better, something solid, something pure.
And when I get there, on my land, I’ll raise up my family as I should have years ago, when I was so busy getting ahead, gathering things, and plunging headlong into the American Dream…my path mapped out before me by my peers…mortgage, toys, the esteem of thy neighbor…bigger, better, faster. Isn’t that the way it was supposed to be? In retrospect, I had a choice…I just didn’t choose to listen.
I sit here tonight in the Alaska dark, daydreaming about what will be. Months from now, when the snow dissipates and daylight reigns, I’ll trek my family home, onto the land which will raise us. And in the thick of the trees I’ll plant my children; I’ll sit upon on my porch and watch them grow.
Emmerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
In August, shortly after we purchased our 40 acres, we acquired a portable band saw mill with the intent of creating our own lumber with which to build our own home. But first…knowing we couldn’t afford to complete a home this year nor did we have time to begin with winter nearing…we decided to build a cabin.
Our mill is a band saw mill, as opposed to a circular blade, which is less expensive to buy, but doesn’t make the prettiest lumber. We figured our boards would be inside a wall where nobody would ever see them, so we went with cheap and picked up this little mill from a neighbor for a great deal. We hauled her out of their woods and set her up in ours.
Since we knew little or nothing about a saw mill or how they worked, there was quite the learning curve involved. Because Alaska logs are neither large nor straight. And when it takes you an hour to create four 2×6 boards…the last thing you want to deal with is curvy, lumpy, tapered logs. But alas, that is what we had in abundance. So we set to work.
And then we taught the kids how to use it because…well…we don’t believe in child labor laws and if they want a roof over their heads, they are going to get sweaty. Except Destini…her motto is, “I’m outta here in a year”…so she’s not exactly been the biggest helper. But she looks cute and is a princess, so we’ll let her slide.
We started out by making 2×6 boards because we knew we would need plenty of them. Any log larger than 8 inches is worth cutting because we can get 3 boards from it. Any smaller than that and it’s just a waste of time since the longest part is creating a square piece of wood to work with. We’ve gotten as many as 12 boards from one giant log but on average, we’re getting 3-5 from a log. We needed 125 2×6 boards…just to get the first floor walls up. 70 for the floor frame and so one…so do the math and you’ll see how busy we’ve been creating lumber…sometimes in the pouring rain.
We decided on a pier and post foundation for our cabin because it’s cheap, easy, and gets the cabin up off the cold ground. So Billy and I made 12 6×6 posts 8-10 feet long and we buried them four feet in the ground which left uneven legnths sticking up from the ground. We packed sand around them until they were sturdy and then cut them all off even using a level and long piece of wood until all our posts were level.
Next we made 2 sided 6×6 beams to lay across our piers on which to place the cabin frame. Billy built a wall with them and then karate kicked it over, because sometimes you just need to have fun. We then laid them across our piers and pounded spikes in to hold them in place.
We used our home built lumber to frame in the entire floor. 30 x 21 including a four foot porch off the front, leaving us with a 26 x 21 cabin. Words of advice…even though you think that extra foot is going to be really helpful inside the cabin…do NOT try to build something not devidable by two because it will screw you through the entire building process. Very single piece of plywood and lumber now has to be cut down and though we gained a foot overall, it added cost and labor to the project…which Dan will not let me forget since I added that foot while he was at work. 🙂
Once the floor was framed we had to decide whether to use our home built 1″ boards as slats for the floor or to purchase T and G plywood. We went with store bought because our sawmill, though very cool, does NOT always cut everything the exact same dimensions and we didn’t want to stub our toe every time we walked across the floor. We will, however, be covering the plywood eventually with our own planks as I intend to plain them smooth and dimensional this winter and sand them smooth. When complete, we will have a gorgeous 1″ plank floor, sanded and varnished. I can’t wait.
This week we hit a barrier. We kept snapping saw blades, because they were old and rusty, and had trouble finding a supplier. By the time we did, we were down two blades and the supplier informed us it would be two weeks before we could have them custom built. Two weeks in an Alaskan fall means winter will be upon us. Two weeks can be the differeence between 5o degrees and dry, and 30 degrees and frozen.
And so we had to make an other difficult decision. Though in our hearts we wanted to make all of our own lumber from our own land, we knew we had a time limit. Dan had to go back to work this Friday and snow hit the hills just beyond our place. So once again, we were forced to buy manufactured lumber for our walls. It made us sad at first…and then when we realized the weeks of labor it would save, we became excited. We knew we would be dried in before the freeze up.
Today we frame in the second wall, which will be a short stub wall, and begin the roof line. Since Dan is waiting in the truck…I’d better run!
We turn the handle, water flows from the faucet. We flip a switch and a light goes on or off. We flush a toilet, crank the thermostat, open the fridge…and voila, magic happens.
And then we all get three days off and we spend it sitting around a campfire, looking up at the stars, listening to nothing…and ahhhh…it’s perfect.
And we wonder why we ever have to go home.
And yet, when I tell people we plan to live off the power grid on a semi-remote piece of land, we’ve often been asked, “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
And I reply, “Why would I NOT?”
For those of you wondering what we are up to…here’s the plan…without getting into the details of the work, which I’ll save for another post…or six.
This summer we found the piece of land we’ve been searching twenty years for. We sold our recreational cabin in the mountains to obtain the cash and signed on the line. Forty acres of wooded property, on the road system, with a view and useable trees…a dream come true.
We bought a band sawmill, fueled up the chain saw, bought work gloves for all the kids, and went to work. Again, no details here on what we’ve been doing…just a breakdown of the plan.
Our goal for the past five years or so has been to become debt free. Four years ago we paid off all credit cards and tore them up. Yes, tore them up. We didn’t “keep one for emergencies”. We tore them up and canceled the accounts. We didn’t “Keep one for credit building”. We don’t worry about building our credit rating because we never plan to use credit again…so who cares what our rating is? No credit for us. Ever. Period.
Our one remaining bank debt is our mortgage. And with a family of nine, you can bet we have a big house with a sizeable mortgage. And utility bills that nearly match the house payment. All in all, about $2,500 per month goes out just to live in our big comfy home. Just to stay dry and warm.
But I figure I can stay dry and warm for a whole lot less money if I’m willing to push up the shirt sleeves once in a while and the kids are willing to pitch a tent in the yard for the summer. Just kidding. Sorta.
So back to the plan.
We are building a cabin. Not a big cabin. A 20 x 24 with bunks along the wall, loft above for mom and dad, cabin. (Did I mention we have seven children?)We’re milling our own lumber from the logs from our own land. We cut, limb, drag (thanks to dad for the use of his dozer), cut to length, lift onto the sawmill, create useable pieces of wood, and stack them for building our new home.
We will have a generator for power connected to a large battery pack and eventually to solar and wind. We will have a well for water and septic for…well, for flushing…and our home will run much like everyone else’s, except we will create our own energy and be completely self-sufficient. Eventually. In the end we hope to use the generator only as back up and have no fuel bill, no electric bill, no utility bill of any kind and no house payment.
Let me repeat. No mortgage. No utility bills. No debt. Sound good? I think so too.
We have about six weeks until the snow falls and doesn’t stop until May. We hope to have our cabin dried in…that means framed and out of the weather but not finished inside…in time for the snow. We’ve milled about half our lumber at this point. And on Friday, Dan leaves for his two week shift at work. Can you say panic? When he comes home we’ll have just about three weeks before our world freezes until spring.
Our hope is that in the spring we’ll be ready to put our current home for sale and move into the small cabin for the summer while we start building the actual house. And by “actual house”, I mean one where we can’t hear each other snore from the next bunk over and have more than one bathroom. We have the spot picked out on the peak of the sloping hill where we’ll build an efficient, beautiful home…and someday hope to look down on our little cabin and say, “Remember that summer we lived in the cabin? Wasn’t that fun?”
But in reality, we’ll probably live in that tiny cabin with all these kids for so long that the kids will grow up and we no longer need a big house…and that’s okay too. Because we’ll be doing it on our own, as a family, and ours will be a debt free home build of pure determination and grit from the land on which it sits. It will be a legacy to hand to our children. An example of the fruits of hard work and a testament to what a family can accomplish with a little sacrifice and hands that aren’t afraid to get dirty.
We took possession of our 40 acres off-grid this week and as is our style…dug right in. With no time to waste before winter and Dan working half his life away from home, we have about four weeks of actual time on the land before we have to start to buckle down for winter.
Our goal for this year is to attempt to get a functioning cabin up before we’re working in the snow and ice…like last time we put on a roof. There’s nothing fun about roofing in freezing rain. So without hesitation, the work began.
We marked the road with pretty pink ribbons, plowed through with the dozer, and roughed in our driveway. We don’t even want to talk about what it’s going to cost to gravel it…that is, if we don’t find gravel on our land. So far, nothing.
Dan may be the only ‘treehugger’ oilfield worker in Alaska…he has a terrible time making himself take out perfectly good trees. I agree…but if I have to choose between that view of Illiamna and Redoubt volcanoes versus scraggly black spruce…the tree is going to be firewood every time. So we pushed. And cut. And pushed…until our view began to appear before us and our house spot started to take shape.
Once the trees were over and the heavily covered ground was even more scraggly with logs and branches, the real work began. The kids chipped in, the dozer kept on pushing, and the chainsaw worked overtime. Me? I took pictures…
Today the rain gave us a break and we were really able to get some work done. We cleared most of the firewood from the house site where we’d been cutting it for days. The kids piled it into the fourwheeler trailer and stacked it for winter. We pulled logs with the dozer, piled branches for a winter bon fire, and lined the straightest logs next to our new saw mill for turning into lumber later.
We prepared for the cold by building a fire pit from rocks we ‘acquired’ down the road…
And then we played a bit…
And then…the kids…and dad…took a little siesta. Because hard work deserves a little rest once in a while…and kids who know how to put in a full days work have earned some time off!
Not everybody’s idea of a dream come true involves the potential for being eaten by bears…but tonight when I found my third pile of fresh bear poo in as many trips to my new land, I knew my dreams were coming true right before my feet.
Not that I want to be chewed on by a grizzly…not even a little bit…but my whole life I’ve wanted to live somewhere so wild…so remote…that anything can happen. And I’m finally getting my way.
This week my family has purchased forty acres of land with nothing on it but hundreds of tall spruce and birch trees and a view to live for. Surrounding this land is hundreds and hundreds of acres of Native Association or State of Alaska owned land that should never….hopefully…be inhabited. The nearest privately owned home is a mile away. We’re just seven miles from my kids school and a mile from the nearest power pole. We’ll be providing our own power via solar and wind and creating a world for our children where they will learn the value of a subsistence lifestyle in as much as we can do that…and still eat a Dairy Queen blizzard once in a while.
No shortage of firewood…and millable lumber…
Yesterday we walked the land for the first time. Now…let me explain. This is land that has not been touched in many, many years, if ever. Other than a handful of old stumps where someone must have at one time harvested some of the larger trees for a home, the land is essentially untouched. Old windfalls litter the ground like pick-up-sticks, hidden under tall grass that has since weaved its hold. Walking is treacherous and slow. And yet the thrill of making our way across its depth for the first time is difficult to explain. It was…to say the least…a fantasy being realized.
Our home will be here…
Our place…I like the way that rolls off my tongue…sits on the edge of a gentle slope, overlooking Ninilchik in the distance, the Cook Inlet beyond that and a snowy mountain range across the water where we should be able to see no less than three volcanoes from our front deck. About 600 feet into the land, along that western edge, sits a natural clearing that runs down the hillside providing a partial view. We will have to clear some trees to encompass the vast sites. Just up from that clearing we’ve found the perfect home site. We hesitated at first…thirteen hundred feet of depth and we’re only going in just under six hundred? But the view…oh, the view from that spot…it’s the only logical place for me to live. Not just on that land, but in the whole world. Standing there, it just makes sense.
The path for the driveway…
Marking the driveway
Today we weaved our way back in, stepping over another wet pile of bear sign and singing loudly about Jesus as we went…so as to have an edge over the bear who surely must be an atheist…and stood again on the place where we will a build our home. We came equipped this time with bright pink ribbon. Not with which to mark our way out, but to mark our road home. We started at the view and worked our way out, choosing the least obtrusive path on which to push through our road. By the time we emerged from the thick woods, we had somehow managed to plan out a gently curving road that would not take out a single tree…as if it were meant to be.
From the road, you can better see the view we’ll have when we remove some trees…though it will span wider…
This week we plan to get our dozer up there and start pushing the road through. Gently, at first, because we don’t know if there is gravel on our land or not. If not, we only want to barely break the surface…and leave the tightly woven mossy topsoil in place so we can bring in gravel to cover. If we have gravel on our own land, we shall be singing praises about all the money we will save.
I’m not sure of the timeline of this project. I’ve never been one to wait on anything. Poor Dan may go to work his shift and come back two weeks later to find I’ve sold the house and moved all 7 kids into a their own individual tree forts with connecting rope bridges. It’s been known to happen…
But please…travel along with us on this journey as we attempt to move our family off-grid…build a house out of empty pockets…and find in those thick, bear-infested woods, a dream we’ve waited for our entire lives.