Wednesday, December 10, 2008

DIY winter camping in Alaska - what it takes to survive

Gerteeville, December 10. 2008

Technically I wouldn't call this winter camping; everyone else I know does. Yes, it does qualify since my walls and roof are cloth, but this hardly resembles my wall tent camp in 2006. Today I'm in an insulated 20 foot wide gertee with a wood floor, stuffed full of furniture and things. Plus now that I'm covered in snow and the covers are frozen solid I don't even feel the wind.

In my 1:12 scale model I put all the furniture against the walls and I tried that when I first moved in here. That worked for a while I guess, but I have a lot more space using the furniture and fabric to divide my gertee into 3 rooms: a main living room with the stove, chairs, couch and table, a kitchen and a bedroom. If it wasn't for the leaking along the walls I would have stayed with the furniture against the walls method (like the Mongolians do). So my sucky roof turned out to be kind of a blessing in disguise because I can USE the leaking water and now it looks and feels just like a cute 3 room cabin (on the inside anyway). I know I've said this before but I have lived in plenty of "real" houses in Alaska that were draftier and lots colder than this "tent."

It was 20 above inside when I woke up today, and that may seem cold to non-arctic people, but in the Alaskan interior on Dec 10, it's almost perfect winter weather. Still fairly easy to crawl out from my worn-out 30 degree sleeping bag and go start a fire. I use homemade wax filled egg carton fire starters so I can have radiating heat in about 15 minutes. I'm keeping the chainsaw inside so it starts no problem, even though I do have to work myself into the mood to get out there and saw it every day. Got fresh water from the well yesterday and caught enough in pots along the walls where the drips are to do another load of dishes.

It's hard to catch up when you fall behind, the key is to not let anything pile up or get neglected. There are some things that can be put off, but wood, fresh water and raw sewage are not on the "I'll do that tomorrow" list.

Comparing my situation now to the first winter I stayed out here in my Girl Scout tent, and to last winter in my little gertee with Nord and Fred. Now I'm here alone in this huge gertee and while I want to reflect on the ACL and all the things I've learned from my mistakes, I keep getting sidetracked by how much more STUFF I've accumulated in 2 short years.

Now a guy like Tim (and my girlfriend Rene) could go into the woods with nothing but a sharp knife and have a great time. Tim says he'd use the knife to cut twigs and make them into a shelter and snares, he'd trap for food and hides to keep him warm. Me, I need more than a knife, and I don't know how to trap or skin or tan or anything of the sort. So I've been trying out different materials I buy second-hand, determining what is really an essential piece of equipment compared to what sounds good but in reality doesn't really matter.

Here's what I use almost every day:

electric laptop computer
electric portable phone, mainly for the dialup modem
electric extension cords, power surge protectors
LED headlamp (sunset's at about 4:30pm)
Sleeping bag, felt insert
Lighter, matches
Pull dump cart
plastic pull sled
Snow shovel (cause it just keeps snowing)
Chainsaw (needs sharpening, gas, engine oil and chain oil)
3 axes (splitter, regular and small)
Woodstove, using about 3 12 foot long, 5 inch round logs a day, cut into 18 inches for the stove
egg carton wax fire starter (eliminates need for kindling)
pot holders (dirty for the stove, clean for food)
Chamber Pot
toilet paper
electric Coffee pot (sometimes electric bean grinder)
Water jugs
electric refridgerator
2 large metal pots of heating water
electric lamps (candles and oil lamps too)
Camerons Little Smoker (it's my oven)
Stoneware pots with lid (for rice and beans)
coffee cups
silverware
plates
bowls
electic skillet (a real help when you have no stove)
metal wash bins
dish soap
hand soap
toothpaste, brush
hairbrush, hairties
hand lotion
cotton towels

Here's what I wear:

thick wool socks
shorts (for when it's 70 above inside)
longjohns
t-shirt
sweat pants or loose jeans, carharts
various sweaters and fleece jackets

I have 5 essential pairs of winter boots, all 2 sizes larger than my normal shoe size:

Heavy Sorells with 4 extra felt liners
Medium Sorrels with same liners
Bearpaws sheepskin inside boots
Lands End ankle boots
Steger Mukluks

I have several pairs of gloves and mittens, ranging from ladies' felt to Army extreme weather. When one pair gets wet I hang them over the stove and use another. I found a pair of iinsulated rubber gloves that work really well in 20 above but they'll probably crack in 40 below.

I have 17 coats; I buy them for pennies on the dollar and give them away to women who just moved here from places where they don't need so many different kinds. Even the gals coming from New England are unprepared for how weather specific coats are. I've recently began a collection of old used furs off ebay. Won 3 so far under $35.00, the first to arrive is not any fur Tim recognises (maybe sheepskin?) and will be suitable for cutting and sewing. Still waiting on the sheared beaver and another unknown type to arrive snail mail, hoping one of them fits and is wearable. The 2 warmest winters I spent in Fairbanks were the ones when I had a full length fur. I like to put fur coats on top of my sleeping covers and crawl in it when I get up.

The Alaskan Natives make the warmest coats, hats, mittens and boots, but they are way out of my price range with beaver and sealskin mittens starting around $300.00.

I have 2 pairs of snowpants, one cheap thin pair and one expensive down pair of coveralls that's a men's x-large; I planned to tailor it to my medium women's size. I'm looking for better pants and a snowsuit that has the jacket attached (for when I get a snowmachine ~ heh!)


My hat collection is a joke, and I treat them like I do coats. My head is so small that most hats ride up my pinhead and I look ridiculous wearing them. Not that I care so much anymore what I look like, but other people do. I've begun buying childrens' hats and they at least fit. I'm simply going to have to start making my own hats or look like a dork for the rest of my life.

My scarves are another odd assortment of secondhand store neck warmers; my favorites are the thin one I took from Nordica and the thin one she crocheted for me last winter in hopes that I'd give hers back.

As for food, I won't bother listing all of it, but it IS such an issue that I'll describe it later on in a post all its own. Not only are all animals going to be required to be registered, most of the seed supply is genetically modified and the global government has specific plans regarding our access to store bought food supplies. The U.S. government and most states have passed emergency regulations allowing them to confiscate ALL stored goods from private homes in an emergency. I've been told Alaska does not allow us to have more than six months worth of food stored at any one time, and I've been meaning to check up on that (before I tell you what I got). The most obvious way to get people to go along with emergency procedures is to make sure they have to go to the refugee camp for food and supplies. Once there you will be required to sign up for ALL the new communitarian benefits. You can have all the gear and water you need to live, but if you don't have food and a way to replenish your food supplies, you will die. Remember, even the 18th century European settlers did not have the skills or knowledge to make it in America alone.

Tim and Wyatt, going trapping in 2007

Tim fell through the ice on the beaver pond up to his waist the other day. His 12 year old grandson was with him and they're so much alike neither of them said anything until they got back to the house and Tim was wringing out his socks. Sometimes I wish he were more of a writer so he could keep a blog about his daily expeditions and the way he handles the challenges he faces. Like most old timers, he spins a good yarn and unlike most people, he doesn't need to exagerate at all. He makes my adventure in my cute winter gertee look like a city girl playing Barbie dolls. The brutal truth of what it takes to really survive up here is still so surreal to me.

What a beaver coat looks like before it's a coat

Tim has generously offered to let me pillage his frozen fish and moose (they got to keep some roadkill somebody hit on the Edgerton last month!). So I don't need to go far to "find" meat. I can put my free time into useful things like I finally reorganized and made room for my miniatures.


Set up the model gertee in about 2 minutes; once it's built it's amazing how easy it is. I'm giving away my mini hutch scenes for Christmas presents this year so if you want one be sure to send me your address! Unpacked a few boxes of ornaments and glass pretties we stored, and with my pictures back on the dressers it doesn't feel like I'm camping at all.

I've been invited to participate in a new blog launched by the European Journal of International Law; I must have signed up on their mailing list or something. Maybe they'd be interested in my hands-on global poverty and safe and affordable housing research. http://www.ejiltalk.org/

4 comments:

Stop Common Purpose said...

Hi Niki

I give you ten out of ten for resilience and resourcefulness.

the tent lady said...

Could you write my mom and tell her that for me? :) thanks!

Anonymous said...

When I look up the word "tough" in the dictionary, I keep thinking I'll see your picture! Jimmy

The Scavenger said...

What a great read ! I have always dreamt of living in such a way, I guess for now I will just live through you eyes and your blog. Gonna link you so I can keep up with the goings on up there. Stay save and warm.

BTW, a big thanks to Tracy at possum living for sending me your way.

Chris