One week ago I was returning home from a walk with Lou when I noticed The Chief underneath the house.
As I approached him I could tell that this trip below the deck, in particular, was an ominous one at best. I slid down the little hill like a penguin on my bum to meet him and noticed our tea kettle sitting next to him on the frozen ground. Steam surrounded him. In his hand he was holding a pipe.
A very important pipe.
The pipe that insured that the water inside the house would go outside the house.
You see, until a week ago, we had indoor plumbing.
Well, sort of.
We lived in an only Slightly Dry cabin.
No, I’m not talking about a Slightly Dry Cabin like a meant-to-be-dry-but-there-are-ways-around-it dry county or a Dry Cabin with a slightly leaky roof or even a Dry Cabin with a damp draft dismally descending upon us.
Until last week.
Now, we are edging towards a Dry Cabin. Not as dry as some. Not as dry as the desert perhaps, but dryer than before, like we started. Back to basics. Back to buckets.
O.K. what in the world am I talking about? Dry, Slightly Dry? It sounds like a deodorant commercial or a martini order.
Let’s define our terms, shall we? Mind you, these definitions are my own (move over OED), and just like how every house out here is different, every person might have their own idea of what dry means. But for our house and as I see it, my definition of a Dry Cabin goes like so:
No indoor running water. No toilet, no shower, no faucet. No, no, no.
O.K. that’s direct but just too basic. Let’s dig in deeper.
Dry cabins come in all different variations and there is definitely a range of “Dry” but the overarching theme and the starting point is a lack of indoor plumbing. Because we choose to reside in the boonies, we don’t simply call up the city and turn on the waterworks. There is no city to call, no water to be tapped into. That goes for everyone out here.
Our cabin has no indoor to outdoor plumbing (now) to speak of which means that every drop of water that we use or consume we have to haul not only into the house but out of the house, in some fashion or another.
When I lived in California, the state was in a drought. We conserved water. We collected rainwater to flush the toilet and we turned the faucet off in between rinsing dishes. We were conscious but despite this consciousness towards using less I was completely unconscious of how much water I still used.
Now, I know. I can account for every bit of water I use as I can actually see the levels dropping on the water buckets we haul into our house. From brushing my teeth to putting a kettle on, never do I use water without first having to retrieve it, either from its source (our well) or from a reservoir in our house. It’s a strange thing to realize that my whole life, I’ve had water on demand and now, it demands that I come to collect it.
And so, we haul our water into our Slightly Dry cabin that has become a little dryer as of late.
So what is the range? A completely Dry Cabin has absolutely no running water. Water is hauled from a local spring or a well outside (which we are lucky enough to have on our property, saving us hours of hauling time) and stored in buckets inside (outside they would turn to popsicles, but not the delicious kind).
Completely dry cabins may not even have a sink but use wash basins instead in which dishes are done and hands are washed over. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to a friend’s house that has no running water and we’ve shared the duty of watering one another meaning: My hands are soapy. Would you mind pouring water from that pitcher over them so I can enjoy the luxury of rinsing both hands at once? When solo there’s also the balancing act of tipping your water jug over a basin while holding it in place with your shoulder in order to free your hands to wash both at once.
To build upon this ingenuity and make things a little easier, people come up with adaptations. The foot pump is one of my favorite. It’s a little ball on the ground (like a doctor’s squeeze ball used to inflate the arm band to take your pulse) which you step on to pump a spurt of water out of the faucet. It may sound time-consuming and it is, but it’s pure luxury when you’re used to nothing at all. The next option is a faucet and sink with a pump. The pump gets turned on when the faucet is turned on and sends water from a nearby reservoir (say, under the sink, ours is an 8 gallon Igloo cooler) up and out the faucet head. The water then goes right back down the drain into an attached pipe which drains into what is aptly named The Slop Bucket (paints a pretty picture, huh?) which is also nearby (ours is sidled up next to the cooler under the sink).
The Slop Bucket has to be emptied quite often in order to insure that all your lovely goodness that goes down the drain doesn’t overflow onto your floor. Mmmm toothpaste and dishwater and everything else you put down the drain surprise all over the floor? Yum. This can be tough to remember when you wake up first thing in the morning to brush your teeth. Still groggy and half asleep you slowly come to and hear the pitch of the draining water change (living out here is a lot of listening I’ve learned) and suddenly you come to and realize you’re about to have an overflow. Yippee! Oh, and even if you can congratulate yourself for not overflowing it (this morning) you still have to be careful not to overfill it because, well, you’re still going to have to carry it outside and without a lid, that can be quite the feat.
But not at our house. Nope. The days of The Slop Bucket were over because…(cue the celebratory music. “Eye of the Tiger”, anyone?)
We had a French Drain.
Adding “French” to anything really makes it sound fancy, doesn’t it? And it was.
French toast. (So much better than regular toast)
French fry. (How did I fried potato suddenly sound like its wearing a tuxedo?)
French drain. (How is it even still a drain? It sounds too fancy for the likes of that.)
So what is a French Drain? Well, our version consisted of a 55 gallon drum with the bottom cut off placed into a deep hole in the ground (no small feat. Digging in Alaska is a challenge at best), insulated, covered and connected to the house via piping that attached to the sink inside through a hole in the floor that was then sealed with lots of spray foam to keep the cold out. The water from the sink would then ideally drain into the drum and slowly seep into the ground.
The Fall before The Chief left to meet me in California he had one goal in mind: no more Slop Buckets and so the French Drain idea went into action.
Personally, I didn’t mind the Slop Bucket all that much. Sure, it was a pain. Sure, the Ramp of Doom made it a bit tricky. But hey, I was in the woods now. I could handle it. Right?
In truth, I probably didn’t realize how often the Bucket went out because in my new love haze I was slow to see all the work that surrounded me. I thought I saw it but in reality, The Chief probably chivalrously swept a lot of it away before I noticed. And so, the first time I hauled water up the Ramp of Doom in the Winter I thanked my lucky stars (and The Chief) for making his Drain goal come true. A slop bucket in the middle of winter on the snowy, slippery slope of our Ramp would have been no fun at all and given my propensity for falling down it, wearing the slop would have made it less than no fun at all (anti-fun?). And so we spent the Winter doing dishes and brushing our teeth without having to constantly check The Bucket’s level. The Drain chugged away without incident and we sat in our slightly less dry cabin looking back fondly on (yet with no intent of returning to) the time so long ago when we had to haul The Slop.
That was last Winter. It was “warm”. The coldest temperature we saw was 22 below zero, which to me seemed pretty brrr-brrr cold but alas, I was mistaken.
Enter: this year.
Just a smidge colder.
In the first stint of 35 below this Winter we realized quickly that we would have to baby The Drain a bit more. We came about this realization after awakening to a list of chores that were quickly put on the back-burner when the drain stopped draining. We listened. No movement. This is bad.
We spent the first half of a day under the house, disconnecting the pipes, bringing them in to defrost, cutting away a portion outside that would not defrost, sending boiling water down the drain via our tea kettle, reconnecting the pipes (which thankfully The Chief had made long enough to still be able to trim in this situation without losing the pipe completely) and finally, getting back to our planned chores.
Phew! That was close.
From then on, we babied the Drain. Every morning, before anything else, we boiled hot water to pour down the drain to clear any buildup from the night (we later realized that the sink was leaking, ever so slightly throughout the night, causing potential blockages so we had to unhook the connections for the pump every night and put a bowl under the faucet in case it still leaked from built up pressure). We constantly had an ear to the drain, listening for the specific sound that meant water was flowing. We watched it like new parents but on it continued.
Until that day, one week ago when I came home.
Since we had once before remedied the situation I didn’t panic upon seeing The Chief under the house. That was, until I saw the pipe on the ground and the exasperated look on his face. The blockage wasn’t in the pipe.
It was below.
To this day we still don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe the drum wasn’t far enough below the frost line and everything inside the barrel froze during one of the extended cold spells. Maybe we hadn’t been as meticulous as we thought.
All I know is that we are back to basics and back to buckets.
I guess the Spring will tell us all we need to know about what happened now. Until then, I’ll be working on navigating the stairs with a swishing, sloshing bucket of Slop without falling.
And you know what? I’ve kind of enjoyed it. Well, now that I’ve gotten back in the game. It didn’t affect me at first since The Chief took over most of the hauling since my neck was still delicate. But since I’ve embarked upon the Slop duty, I’ve been kind of glad to get back to it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a bucket that actually had a lid so it didn’t threaten to paint me sloppy every time I transported it outside but we didn’t have one (the two five gallon buckets with lids are for hauling drinking water and we were not giving one of those up). And I’d love to not have to bring it outside twice a day or more on Dish Days. And I’d love it if the color of the Slop was a glittery gold instead of…ewww. And I don’t love it in the moment. But overall, I’m O.K. with it.
The French Drain was a fancy endeavor and one that made me feel very lucky. Yet going back to basics has put me back in touch again with what I’m using and where it’s going. And still, all around me, I see dryer cabins than our Slightly Dryer Now Slightly Dry Cabin. We have running water, an indoor shower (non-permanent and we bathe into a tote, no plumbing there) and an outhouse (two actually, here is the old outhouse, turned library. Seriously).
Our needs are met as long as we meet the demands of our needs. Sure, there are the days when we get home from a big adventure or a dinner at a friend’s house and realize: shoot, we didn’t pump water before we went and well, it kind of stinks because…
When that happens it’s usually the perfect storm. It’s usually 30 below and the well pump won’t start and we have to warm the generator for an hour to get it going when all we really want to do is sit down and eventually after the generator warms and the pump starts and after 5 trips inside each to fill all the reservoirs (shower, under the sink, the pot on the stove and finally the buckets) and a couple spills and a couple close calls on the Ramp…we are done.
And it could have been a lot harder.
Nowadays, when I go to Town, I have to remind myself to turn on the hot water at the sink because I’m so used to always having cold water come out. I have to remember to use the dishwasher because I’m so used to waiting for the water on the stove to heat up so I can do dishes. I have to stop and appreciate the beauty of a shower uninterrupted by scalding hot and freezing cold flashes of a sputtering water heater. And now, when I am home, I stop to appreciate what we had, what we will likely have again and what we still have.
Thank you Alaska for constantly keeping things in perspective, whether we like it or not.
Cheers to the good life, however that looks to you.
Great posting… I can completely relate to your words about dry cabins and slop buckets after 14 years in a cabin totally off grid in Northern Alaska near Livengood. Hauling water from town, (65 miles away), and the constant adventure of getting the slop bucket outside without spilling or splashing now only a memory. I have for health reasons move to civilization and like yourself still linger in the constant warmth of a running shower. But I would at the drop of a hat give it all up for the isolated life I once knew because I lived in the wilderness splendor touched only by the hand of God.
Thanks for reading, Pete! Yes, it’s certainly an adventure out here. Hauling from 65 miles away sounds like quite the journey. That’s impressive. Enjoy the pluses of civilization for me and I hope you get out to the woods to enjoy them too very soon. -J