The Backwoods

Where we teeter between our love of modern convenience and the yearning for something long past; a world where neighbors knew your name and a “Friend Request” was eye contact and a smile.

Remembering The Backwoods

Posted · 16 Comments


Ever since we left Alaska to winter in California a couple weeks ago I’ve been getting message after message…

                “What about the cabin? Are you going back???

The cabin. My nemesis. My love.  It strikes me I’ve not written the details of how our place works and maybe I’m a tad homesick. So here we go.

Nothing quite beats the sweet swish of a flushing toilet at three a.m. after a Mexican feast and so easily forgotten is the groping trip to the outhouse in the dark woods of the cabin.

Vacation life has us spoiled, what with light switches that work and toilets with water in them.

I know, I know, lots of people manage quite nicely with less and ‘dry’ cabins are a norm in Alaska. But I don’t want a ‘dry’ cabin and never set out to have one. I need a hot shower and I have the bladder of an old man. Facilities are not a want, they are a need.  Maybe when I was younger…or maybe I was spoiled then too.

Sometime when I hear people say, “We built a new house,” I arrogantly think, “No, you picked up a phone and hired a contractor. Bravo. Must have been a sweaty two minutes. Hope you didn’t pull a muscle.”

The fact is I could have hired the work done also and most days, God knows, I wish I had. Perhaps if we had, our home would be finished.  And nice.  And…well…livable. Because what a contractor or even somebody with basic skills might accomplish in a day, takes us a week.  But we wanted to do it ourselves. We wanted to do it debt free. And we wanted it to be the learning experience of a lifetime for our kids.

The problem is we’re not actually qualified. We’re not electricians or plumbers, and we’re really not even handy, by nature. The husband works 900 miles away over half the year and my construction crew is me and the Seven Dwarfs. Every single thing we do is thought out, studied, re-thought, screwed up, and done twice more.

And because in Alaska we have 9 months of crappy weather and 3 months of semi-crappy weather, there’s no time for that.  We have limited dry days to accomplish the impossible and we take advantage of every one from the time the snow melts until it comes back again.

When we found a renter for our house, enough to cover the mortgage and get us well on our way to debt free, we jumped on it, ready or not. We’re experts at “good enough” and have rarely finished a project so why start now?

Our place is 40 acres off-grid. All this means is we are not hooked to a public utility of any kind. No biggie, we just make our own, we thought. In a perfect world, it would actually work.

We run off of a battery system. Our generator makes power which feeds four big six volt batteries. The batteries store power. They are attached to an inverter which takes that power and sends it into the cabin in the correct form. The wrong type of generator will fry the inverter. We have the wrong type. Long story short, we need about $10,000 in generators.  So because we are not made of money, we make do.

Our old, hand-me-down inverter is a mystery we have not yet solved. With a mind of its own, it decides when it will work and when it will stubbornly shut down.  I find that if I randomly push buttons, cuss a bit, stomp my feet and walk away, it makes no difference. It will work when it wants and not a moment sooner.

Pop down a piece of toast and the kitchen goes dim. We have no microwave. No dishwasher.  No hair dryer.  I know the wattage on every appliance and hair straightener. Our lives are ruled by our faulty power system.

Listen for the generator, the click of the pressure tank, the sound of silence indicating we’ve run out of fuel. On alert, always aware, the kids snap up when the cabin goes suddenly dark, grab the nearest flashlight and ‘buddy-system’ to the generator shed.

Everything we do is determined by the power or lack thereof. Want to watch a movie? How much fuel is in the cans. Do we have to run to town first for fuel? Whose turn is it to fill the tank? How much charge do the batteries have? Do we want to listen to the roar of the generator for the next two hours? Is this movie power-worthy?

Even going ‘Number Two’ is determined by power-worthiness. How bad do you have to go? Bad enough to venture out into the dark, start the diesel generator, wait for the pressure tank to fill to forty pounds? You finally get to the breaking point and have no choice.  You grab a flashlight and do the deed.  Relieved, you are sitting there reading a good book and you hear the kitchen sink flip on. Someone is stealing your water, taking advantage of your effort. You drop the book and concentrate on the task.  You have to hurry.  You flush, you listen, you pray you don’t hear the click of the tank gage hitting zero…sending you out into the frozen dark once again.

Personally, I wait patiently for someone else to have to go, someone else to become desperate enough to start the generator just so I can have a sip of water. I’d rather the worst case of like-the-Sahara-dry- mouth than go out into the dark alone. It’s just not worth it.  

Lastly, our heating system is comprised of a pile of spruce and a woodstove that is far too small. We love wood heat. But about a third the capacity necessary, we can fit only two small pieces of wood in the firebox at a time. So about every hour on the hour, we add wood. This means at night the interior of the cabin plunges to approximately the temperature of Antarctica.  The one whose toes turn blue first gets out of bed, stumbles down the ladder, and rebuilds the fire.  I have an incredible threshold for cold and a low tolerance for waking up, so I just burrow in deeper. Those last days we were home before our trip the water froze inside the cabin.

Being down here in the ‘civilized world’ this winter is a glimpse for us into the life we left behind when we moved onto our land. Reminding us why, how, what we need to do when we return in the spring. Torn between our love of modern convenience and desire to be self-sustaining, we need to find a balance. A power system that works, water that turns on when you need it, perhaps bedrooms for the kids larger than a small breadbox.  Interior walls.  Heat. We’re not greedy…we don’t need much…and we’re certainly not looking to simply replicate the wasteful life we were leading up until now. 

Our wish list for this next summer is:

  • ·         A power system that actually provides power.
  • ·         Water that comes from the faucet with less effort than it takes to acquire world peace.
  • ·         Bedrooms for the kids that are not comprised of painted 2x4s and plywood.  If they have to be small, they at least need to be adorable.
  • ·         A woodstove sufficient to heat our home.
  • ·         A barn for the animals so we can provide our own food.
  • ·         A greenhouse and the knowledge of what the heck to do with it.
  • ·         At least the groundwork done for the ‘real house’.  It will give us a sense of hope even if it is false.
  • ·         Time to have some fun between all the days of work. Alaska summers are too good to miss

We have got to get it all done before snow flies again next fall. It’s been three years now…it’s getting old. It may be the hardest summer of our lives. Our kids will either end up hating us or loving us, there no in between.  Just thinking about it stresses me out. I’m going to grab a magazine and settle into a nice, worry free, flush guaranteed, thinking moment.

16 Responses to "Remembering The Backwoods"
  1. Sarah Wolcoff says:

    Well, you’ve got some Palmer friends who’d be happy to come put in a weekend’s worth of elbow grease for you! 🙂

  2. Karl Knopf says:

    Depending on your inverter model we may be able to repair it. Give Eddie a ring at ABS Alaskan.

  3. Adrienne says:

    Alaska has extensions through the University system. Just recently, the MatSu extension was offering a week of free one-day classes in a wide variety of topics for home, livestock and garden. Look up the one closest to your area. At the very least, you may find someone willing to answer questions and shorten your “try twice, then figure it out”, you might even find someone willing to pick up part or whole of your homestead as a temporary project, or give you volunteers with experience.
    Don’t give up!

  4. Gene says:

    is a rocket stove an option for you?

  5. Artur says:

    Maybe get your kids to help you out? Kids these days develop systems to clean up oceans from plastic, they develop refrigirators that run on evaporating water, they develop pee-to-gasoline chemical systems. All when given a chance, green light and pat on the back to help out. Your kids could help you research and contribute to setup wind powered organic all-year farm under 2foil (air insulation) hoophouses with led s instead of sunlight. Such systems do exist. Youtube and internet is full of them. May angels secure your journey, since what you do helping them and lovign them is simply beautiful 🙂 *hug*

  6. Artur says:

    With enough wind, which is cheaper than gas in the scale of year, you can even power greenhouse LED to grow all year long, without the need of killing animals 🙂 Some people do that in alaska on the more bigger scale using geothermal… 🙂 Anyhoo. i think if you would look diligently you might find some city-ish apartment and a 30minute drive away vacant land to grow own stuff on and slowly build it up.. 🙂 Or you can just setup few used trailers for quality and luxury, wrap them in styrofoam to be winterproof, add wind power and call it a day? God→Family→All else 🙂

  7. Artur says:

    Umm.. go wind power? Why fuel generators except for heavy duty powertools/welders?

  8. RMD68 says:

    What about submitting your story to HGTV, Mike Holmes or one of the other TV contractors. Not sure how it works, but you’ve already been contacted by TV once so you might have a shot.

    • Chelsie says:

      Or this!! Or perhaps AND! I’m a big fan of and 🙂 Kickstarter AND TV
      Just had a funny thought of seeing you guys on Extreme Makeover Home Edition-Alaska off the grid style!!

  9. Liz says:

    Keri…DO NOT give up on this. What you are doing is RIGHT. In the light of the world we live in…you must plow forward and be bull-like on it. The kids are going to love you, no doubt! How could they not? Everything you are doing is for them and your family’s safety and security. Sometimes I have to remember how many years people survived without so many of the conveniences we have. You don’t have to “buy into” what the world tells you that you should have…I TOTALLY respect your family and truly think that you are doing great! It will come…it will come. Have a good one sister!

  10. Diana says:

    I think you should do a kickstarter or indiegogo to fund your new generator or perhaps a generator plus electrician. Seriously, people care about you and your family and your lives, you’ve made us care by writing the way you do and loving each other the way you do.

    • Chelsie says:

      I think this is a great idea as well!! I’m not sure how many people follow your blog & facebook combined, but I’m sure it’s enough to raise the money you need to make a functional home out of the cabin. You, your family & your intent to live a debt free/sustainable life are a worthy cause, indeed.

  11. Lynn Falconer says:

    Keri your plans are good, they will work. Go for the plan that allows the kids to rotate through the heavy stuff or the light stuff at a regular pace and don’t, I say don’t allow yourself to be the all or nothing I must carry on till this particular job is finished burnt out Mom who can’t hand the responsibility to the next in line.
    Consider importing some labour, there are people lining up to lend you a hand for the privilege of camping on your place in exchange for work. Be selective but consider it. Love from NZ.

  12. michelle says:

    Love it,
    I well understand the feeling of having to trudge out to an outhouse at 40 below or colder. No power in our house till I was 14 and no plumbing till we moved to town at 16. And for all of that, I got bored and fat in town and hated it. ( minus the indoor plumbing) loved that! I love that you are trying to be self sufficient. My hubby and I just moved into a 23 foot 1970 travel trailer. And for some reason he is surprised when my brother and his whole family come for a visit, I still find room for them 🙂

    • michelle says:

      I do not live in Alaska anymore sadly. We are in southern Idaho so yes we can stay the winter in our new home on wheels. If you decide to come this direction and want a diversion I would love to meet you for coffee/cocoa. Safe travels!

  13. julie g says:

    I love how honest you are in your writings. You kids are going to love you no matter what. Wish I had your courage.

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