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Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska

40 Below (Alone)

40 Below (Alone)

A week in Alaska, alone, at 40 below zero.

 

I awoke to the morning of January 3rd in this new decade to a very distinct quiet: I was alone. The Chief and our Third Amigo had ventured off to Anchorage for a supply run and so alone I lay, hearing only the breaths that were my own. It’s a strange feeling, that sensation, that moment of realizing the space someone warms and fills by their simply just being. That tinge of loneliness was enough to motivate me to get out of bed. As I rose, a new level of morning cold nipped at me. The temperature must have dropped.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Skijoring in Alaska

The two days before: warm sunshine and skijoring! Happy New Year!

 

Dropped it had to a brisk 25 below zero. Our Winter thus far had been a mild one at best, filled with more icy than snowy roads and a Christmas warm enough to don merely a dress with leggings and a jacket. We’d had quick cold snaps where the temps had dropped to 13 below but that was it. Winter light. Yet snap it did that morning into truly cold territory and with it came flooding back all that “cold” means.

First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am not suddenly immune to normal cold. The temps we’d had before were not warm by human standards, they were simply warm by Winter’s standards. Secondly, our cold out here is a dry cold with the rare windy day (though yes, there certainly is wind) which makes the cold a bit more bearable (and personally, I love the cold, which makes it a lot more bearable, for me).

Living in California for most of my life, the temperature never varied in a way that affected me all that much. Sure, we’d prep for storms and power outages but all in all, it was a mild fluctuation of predictable seasonal shifts. Certainly, some days I’d find myself ill-prepared on an unseasonably cold Spring day and have to rummage around in my car (read: my second closet) for another layer but all in all, there was always a newspaper to cover my head in a random rainstorm or flip flops to greet a sunny day. With relative ease and a modicum of preparation, I was typically able to meet the challenges of the elements.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, California Dillon Beach

A Dillon Beach storm a-brewin’!

 

Enter: Alaska. A whole new set of elements where flip flops and newspapers were unlikely problem solvers. For me, it’s been a beast to learn. Yet learn I have and learning I still am. However, just as I’ve learned, I’ve also forgotten as the tricks for one season don’t always blend into the next. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen temperatures of -25. I’d forgotten how it felt, what it meant. As I sat in front of our fireplace that morning, warming myself and our 40-degree house, the little things about life at 25 below started coming back to me. Like the quiet. It wasn’t just the absence of my husband that made the morning quiet, it was the cold. 25 below seems to be the threshold at which things start to get very calm, very quiet. A seriousness settles in.

It was Go Time.

Day One:

For the first time ever since we’ve lived here, I was alone, in Winter, in Go Time temperatures. The cold temp quirks started coming back to me as I reached for my toothpaste, only to find it near frozen, the icy water with which I rinsed stunning my teeth, flushing the drain with boiling water so it wouldn’t freeze. Leto’s water bowl threatened to ice over as the floor sent up glacial tentacles that grasped me through my slippered feet. I made my first step outside onto The Ramp of Doom which let out a piercing pop as the frozen wood responded to my pressure, the crack all that much louder in the blanket of silence around me. Surprised, I drew in a quick breath, and my throat caught slightly as the freezing air hit it. The snow further announced my outside arrival, squeaking loudly with each step. All familiar signs of 25 below. In just one night’s sleep, everything had changed, the game was on.

The game? Stay warm, stay safe, keep your ship running smoothly.

Easy, right?

I was the sole player and it wasn’t just The Chief who was absent. I was also officially more alone in the woods than I had ever been, in any season. All of our neighbors were gone and the closest help was miles away.¬† Still, it was “only” 25 below. I’d done 25 below with The Chief, I could do 25 below solo. So, I spent the day running through mental checklists and chores to prepare for what I assumed would be a few days at 25, maybe 30 below. I chopped as much wood as my arms would allow (since we had zero chopped at the moment), pumped fuel, checked our systems and looked gratefully at the remaining three full buckets of water The Chief and I had filled before his departure.

As I checked chores off the list, I thought forward. The next day was a friend’s birthday and if I could get the house warm and my snowmachine going I figured I’d head out for an hour or two to toast her trip around the sun.

Mother Nature had other plans.

To keep my one mode of transportation in good working order, I’d been starting my snowmachine every day since The Chief had left.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Snowmachining in Alaska

Sunset ride with the puppers.

 

Yet as the temps dropped, my battery, already on its last leg, couldn’t produce power enough to start the machine with the electric start (read: what dreams are made of). Plan B was the pull start but with such a large engine it was no easy feat. I pulled slowly to start, like stretching before a run (and to avoid ripping my arm out of its socket), then eventually full fast pulls. I pulled until I was nearly sweating (at 25 below!) but the engine wouldn’t budge. Knowing that a warm battery had a better chance than a cold one, I set out to pull it inside and charge it.

If only it were that easy.

Try as I might, I couldn’t pry it, bang it or will it free. It was frozen into place. My fingers cursed the cold as I cursed myself for having sent The Chief to Town with the only pair of heavy-duty gloves I had (in fairness, they were originally his and mine were nowhere to be found). Frozen from sweating and then standing at 25 below for an hour, I needed a break. I brought my aching hands inside to warm up and realized my next problem: warmth.

It was already midday and all-day-long I had kept the insatiable woodstove full to the brim but as I entered from outside, the temperature inside didn’t wrap warmth around me as it should have. I checked the temperature. The house was still at a stubborn 59 degrees. I looked at the wood I’d brought inside and realized my problem: wet wood. I did my best to remedy the situation by removing the frozen bark from all the warmed pieces but the water went deeper. In normal temperatures, I’d barely noticed the lack of heat this wood produced but as the temperature neared 30 below a feeling of doom settled in. Still, the house was cold but it wasn’t like it was freezing, right? I could manage. The dogs (we were dogsitting our beloved Kvichak), having made full use (read: a full mess) of the discarded bark told me it was time for a walk to take our minds off the cold (seems contradictory, right?) so off we went. We came back an hour later and before I knew it, the day had passed. I bundled up for bed, knowing the inside temp would further drop as I slept. In I crept to a hardened mattress (another thing I forgot happens in these temps: frozen mattresses!) in head to toe wool long johns, a sweatshirt, a hat and wool socks (exactly the opposite of how I normally sleep). I’d stoked the fire as much as safety allowed, hoping to buy myself a couple hours of sleep.

Day Two:

Come the ringing of my 4 A.M. fire tending alarm, not an ember remained in the woodstove and the house was down to 35 degrees. I was shocked. This wasn’t right. Our stove isn’t the largest but I felt like we’d been able to maintain a warm house and at least a 4-hour fire in the past without losing this much heat. I built another fire and sat brushing Leto (who had decided that right then, along with his best pal Kvichak, was a good time to start his bi-annual shedding) as I waited for enough coals to build up that I could again stuff the stove and get a little more sleep.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Malamutes Shedding

About a minute in. The ever-expanding fluff pile.

 

Sleep I finally did around 5 A.M., waking at 9 A.M., yet awake to a warm house I did not. Despite building a raging fire at the crack of dawn, I still woke to the bitter cold of our near-frozen home and again, not one ember in the fireplace. Something was different, a shift had occurred. I looked to every Alaskan’s Oracle: the thermometer.

It was 37 degrees below zero outside and 37 degrees in our house.

I needed to get on my feet and moving fast or this house would freeze, soon.

I think we call all agree that the difference between 25 below and 37 below is 12 degrees but the physical difference with each added degree below zero is exponential. Past 30 below, your breath doesn’t simply catch, it nearly chokes you with each inhale. Your woodstove isn’t just a resource, it is a lifeline and…things and systems start to breakdown, fast. Even the smallest hiccup can put the wheels of mayhem in motion. My first Winter, I grabbed a tote that had been left out in the Fall and it shattered in my hands and it’s contents spilled out, ruining half of them. The temperature had been a “mere” 28 below. We were way past that territory now.

Reality started to set in: this was no joke. I had found a rhythm in drying my woodpile but I had yet to find warmth. Try as I might, the temperature inside had not topped 60 degrees and had hovered for most of the day in the high 40s to low 50s. I texted the birthday girl to report that I most definitely would not be able to visit. Snowmachine aside, my 60-degree plight made leaving a no go. Even those who actually had a warmed house couldn’t make the birthday for fear of their house freezing while they were gone. Our house was already halfway to freezing. My girlfriend told me not to promise to reach out if I started losing the battle and things started going upside down on me.

I knew I was in a bit of a bind but having someone else say it shocked me further into action. This was serious.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Malamute Puppy

Mom…you got this?

 

I cherry-picked my way through my inside woodpile and the driest logs I could. The fire kicked up for the first time in two days. Things were looking up! Yet there was no time to celebrate. It was chore time.

I bundled up in my warmest clothes, protecting every inch of skin minus the very top of my cheeks and my eyes and went outside to get water. I lugged the generator over to our well. I was all set and ready to go. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get the water hose to thread onto the well. The threads had frozen. I pulled out my lighter to melt the ice but it barely budged as the flame kept failing in the cold. I wrapped my hand around the threads but nearly ripped off the skin as it instantly froze. Next, I trudged into our makeshift workshop to find our propane lighter. Genius! 10 minutes later I finally gave in. It was too cold to flow enough to ignite. Finally, after 30 minutes of problem-solving and failing, I was starting to get cold and the running generator was about to run out of gas. I decided to go for it without the hose. Who needs a hose anyways?

I do.

I need a hose.

Without a hose, the water shot straight from the pipe about four feet in the air. I held the bucket above my shoulders trying to catch as much as I could (and prevent Leto from catching the stream he loves to chase), using one bucket to fill the other three. Within seconds I was encased in a frozen cocoon of ice from head to toe. After two rounds of running up and down the Ramp of Doom with 80 pounds of water at a time, the dogs constantly in my way, tripping me as I rallied myself upward, water was done.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska

Back to lash-sicle territory

 

Next, I needed to charge the house batteries. Easy. I’d just had the generator running. It was warm and ready to go…but, it was out of gas so I filled it up, started it up, plugged the house in and…our outside lights didn’t come on.

Strange.

Still, before I could check if it was charging inside, I needed more wood. Especially in cold temps I always try to apply the waitressing technique my friend taught me early on: Don’t move empty-handed. Make every trip in and out count. I chopped a quick armload of wood to bring inside but on the last swing of the ax, I felt something pop in my shoulder. Pain radiated up and down my arm. I felt panic well up inside me. If I couldn’t chop wood, I really was screwed. Still, there was no time to wallow. I loaded up my other arm with wood and headed inside.

Inside, the fire near dead after an hour of chores, I stoked it with new wood as I felt my cheeks start to melt from the comparative warmth of the house. The splatter from the well water had hardened where my eyelashes and my upper cheeks were exposed and immediately my skin started to burn. Still, there was no time to worry about that either as I looked to the batteries and saw that the house was not in fact charging. Just then, the generator started to angrily rev up and down.

After two days of failing to heat our house, struggling with water, countless near falls up and down the Ramp of Doom from dogs underfoot, an aching shoulder, a burning face and now a generator not producing power, I was starting to lose it. I checked everything I had learned about malfunctioning generators and found no culprit. It felt like my little world was starting to, to quote my girlfriend “go upside down on me”. Was I losing the battle? I called The Chief for a pep talk and just hearing his voice made my eyes well up with tears.

“You’re doing great. It’s hard, babe. Really hard.”

The tears threatened to spill over when at just the right moment he followed up with:

“Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.”

Deep breathe I did and I was back. I did have this. I could do this and with a little persuasion, I finally picked the easy route. There wasn’t time to troubleshoot the generator right now. I grabbed our backup and brought it inside to warm. Then, I headed to the woodshed and cherry-picked the best, most checked pieces of wood I could find (a check in a round of wood suggests it’s drier than one without it) and painfully chopped my way through it. Finally, hours after I had bundled up to start chores, they were finally winding down. The new wood fed the fire with gusto and an audible difference in the flames let me know this fire would warm us, which was good because, in the time I’d been outside, the inside temps had sunk again to the ’30s and the outside was near -40.

An hour later, the replacement generator hopefully warm enough, I suited up again for the outdoors, now in the early dark of dusk. In all the frustration earlier, I had forgotten I would need more fuel so off I went to fill another 5-gallon jug. In the cold, the fuel hose had frozen into a kinked position through which no fuel would flow. Again I de-gloved and warmed it as best I could with my bare hands. Finally, the fuel started to flow. I filled the generator and finally after about 20 pulls it started.

Success!

I went inside and saw it was producing power (the generator was the problem, not our inverter or batteries, as I had feared) and all was well.

Then, the lights went out.

The generator had died.

I quite nearly lost it (again) but (again) outside I trudged. Luckily, the generator had simply stopped because it was cold. I finally got it started again and this time it took. Cautiously, I went inside. Consistently it hummed.

A few hours later it was nearly 7 pm and the house was finally above 60! I was simultaneously exhausted and elated. At that moment, a next-door girlfriend newly returned from Town (I finally had neighbors again!) texted.

“Champagne? It was for the birthday but I think we should celebrate from afar.”

Yes, please.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska with Champagne

I love bubbles.

 

By the time she came over the house was still a bit chilly but my cheeks were on fire. The frozen water from the well had burnt the top layer of skin, like a sunburn only from cold: frostnip. Thankfully, good conversation and bubbles distract from welted cheeks. The healing powers of girlfriends, eh? I felt rejuvenated and accomplished. I had made it! As she left, I realized what I hadn’t made was dinner (or lunch). I settled on the dinner of champions (or maybe just this momentary bachelorette): pasta with butter (sorry, arteries).

Chalking the day up to a success, I finally fell into bed again after midnight. The house was near 70 degrees and with a stuffed woodstove and belly, I fell asleep.

Day Three:

The 4 A.M. wakeup call felt extra early the next morning. Groggy, I remembered that in our conversation the day before The Chief had asked if the bricks in the top of the stove had ash on them (meaning that perhaps that buildup, in addition to wet wood was adding to our heating issue). Since the fire had been going steadily since he’d asked I hadn’t been able to check. Yet, despite a full stove 4 hours earlier, there was no trace of heat. Now was my chance. I cleaned out the wood stove that was dense with ash and checked the bricks. Soot fell from atop them as I tugged them out, simultaneously realizing I had no idea how to get them back in. A few tense minutes later, everything thankfully was back in place and again. I started yet another fire and headed out into the -39 morning to dump the ashes.

By 4:30 I was doing dishes waiting for the fire to catch. The reservoir of water we use to fuel our faucet had frozen so I did my dishes in a basin, careful not to let any water trickle into our homemade plumbing and ice up. At those temperatures, water freezes almost instantly so even small amounts can take us out of commission fast and the last thing I wanted was to add slop buckets back into our life. Finally, the fire established its coals. I stuffed it full and opted for a few more hours of sleep.

I awoke to yet another morning of a near-frozen house, a woodstove without coals and completely dead batteries but it was ok. I may not have had it totally dialed but this situation wasn’t going upside down on me. Finally, caught up enough on chores and the house warm enough to be able to step away for an hour, the dogs told me how we would fill our time: a walk, at 39 below.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 25 Below Zero in Alaska Stircrazy Puppies

Driving each other stir cray cray.

 

Despite being constantly in my way, they had been very good sports through it all but the stir craziness was starting to hit. Even though they are both Northern breeds, even they can’t stay outside long in those temps if not running and so had opted to be inside, in the way. Thus, we all needed some outside time. I covered my frost nipped cheeks as they amazingly pranced unphased by the cold, minus a lifted paw here and there.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, Husky, Malamute, Alaska

Moonlit walk.

 

The Chief phoned to tell me that they were delayed and wouldn’t be home that night but would return the following day. Two days before I might have panicked at his extended absence but I didn’t. I had done it. I had made it through 40 below, alone.

Day Four:

The next morning, the cold snap lifted. The thermometer read a mere -12 outside and I finally got the house to near 80 degrees. I love when it’s cold and the house is warm at the difference reaches nearly 100 degrees between the inside and outside. At the coldest of 40 below and the house in the ’70s, the day before the difference had been over 110 degrees, something that still just makes me laugh in awe.

In true Alaskan fashion, things didn’t quite go as The Chief had planned for departure but he was determined to make it home. By 3 A.M., I finally heard our truck roaring up the driveway. After hugs and hellos and unloading the truck of perishables and making and tending a new fire, we were finally both back to bed, cozied up at 5 A.M. An hour or so later I felt The Chief rise from our bed and heard the familiar sound of him stoking the fire. An hour after that, groggily preparing for work, I went downstairs to find that despite the again dropping temperature, the woodstove was alive with glowing coals.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 35 Below Zero in Alaska

And the temperature finally above 40 in the morning!

 

My brain did a joyful backflip while my ego simultaneously sighed. A strange juxtaposition. I was overjoyed for The Chief to be home yet at the same time, it meant I was no longer the lone soldier protecting our castle. After 15 years of living alone in the woods, The Chief’s internal alarm clock awakes him immediately when temperatures drop. Having lived 4 years in the woods with The Chief, I think my internal clock would let me sleep through icicles forming in the house. The Chief has (almost) always beaten me to stoking the fire in the night. The sighing part of me was the part that wanted to continue to better hone my instincts. Yet other parts of me, like my shoulder, celebrated the help.

I’ll always be 11 years shy of The Chief’s Alaskan experience but come the opportunity to have my own, I did and I survived. Looking back on the week alone, I realized how far I had come in 4 years. I’d probably never even have noticed the wood was wet my first year. I certainly wouldn’t have known how to troubleshoot the well or the generator or even how to dress for the elements. Sure, there were hiccups, there were things I could have done better (and will do better next time) but the most important is that looking back, I can see how much I’ve learned. I’ve learned how to care for myself in the middle of nowhere Alaska, in the middle of Winter, alone.

The Chief’s help doesn’t negate my learning. Divvying up labor doesn’t mean both people aren’t capable of either task or that one is more or less important. Resting my shoulder so it can heal doesn’t mean I’m giving in, it means The Chief is stepping in to help and just as The Chief helps me, I help him. His presence doesn’t mean the learning stops and just in case I forget what I’ve learned, I’m sure Alaska has many more trials and tribulations up her sleeve to remind me.

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 50 Below Zero in Alaska

Plus, when he’s home and the temperature drops to almost 50 below, I have a partner with which to capture this…playing with boiling water!

 

With love,

 

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, 40 Below (Alone), January 27th, 2020, 50 Below Zero in Alaska Frozen Water

Steam halos.

The Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff

In the woods, a working shower is king. It’s like having a four burner stove and an oven. People stop and congratulate you when they hear of your good fortune. No longer will your woodsy world contain the bucket shower or the river dash.

When I first arrived, I took my good fortune for granted. I figured everyone had a shower, running water, a laundry machine. My reality check came quickly in the form of a new friend whom upon my entering the bar (freshly showered, hair washed and all) remarked that “Someone near me has taken a shower and smells wonderful”. Sniffing about he came to me and buried his face in my hair and called others to do the same. “You smell like flowers”.

This town really knows how to roll out the welcome mat. I was in.

Still, it didn’t totally sink in just how exciting¬† and rare having a real shower was until I saw another new friend running off to take a cleansing dip in the glacial waters of the swimming hole. That must be brisk, to say the best. People trade for showers here: veggies from my garden for a shower and laundry one day. A shower for an hour of tree work. The barter system is alive and well and often water based because really, is there much better after a long dusty day than a shower? I’d be hard pressed to answer “yes”.

“You look radiant! Did you shower today?”

“A few days ago, yes. Thank you”.

This is such a common exchange that not until writing about it did I realize that it ever seemed foreign to me. Year round it is difficult to shower here, even if you have a shower on site. It’s not that people are disinterested, it’s that it’s difficult and time-consuming and so the compliments aren’t just to say “Wow, you smell delicious” but rather a sort of unsaid “Congratulations for making it through the whole process”. A congratulatory compliment for showering? My gosh, my old showering self (at least once daily, or twice if it was a big gym day, which seems so foreign now) would have been to the moon with congratulations.

In Winter, congratulations are even more enthusiastic because it is that much harder to get everything done. It simply is difficult. Correction: in the Summer, it can be difficult (time-consuming to fill up, get systems running, etc.), in the Winter it is basically entering into a long-term relationship with each shower.

A shower this Winter? Well sure, I’d love one! I don’t have anything planned for the next 24 hours so I should be able to get one in. Ideally I’ll be able to as long as all the systems are in place and functioning and all the chores it takes to have a shower don’t take longer than a day.

Let’s see…

 

1st: Start a fire to warm the house (if you haven’t enough wood then start first by gearing up and chopping wood for a while. If you haven’t the logs to chop well, then you are out for a day of logging dead trees. Your shower will have to wait and your planning ahead will have to get in the game).

2nd: Bring the generator inside to warm up.

3rd: Find other chores to fill the next few hours until the generator is cozy and ready to purr, such as pumping gas to later fill the generator with. Afterwards, change your clothes once you come back inside because you’ve inevitably spilled copious amounts of gasoline on them while pumping fuel in your overzealous fashion.

4th: Gear up, buttercup. Gloves and snow pants and parkas, oh my! All to walk 20 feet outside. Bring the generator and watch your step as you carefully navigate the Ramp of Doom. Do Not Fall.

5th: Pull and pull and pull until the pullcord starts the generator. Plug in the well and start filling buckets. Take the buckets (now two at a time since you’ve gotten stronger since you first started this game) 40 lbs. each, one per hand and navigate once again the epic Ramp of Doom no-handed. Ideally some of the gravel your girlfriend spread the other night for fear of face planting on the icy surface still remains and you can find a little grip. Or you can just hightail it and hope for the best. Note: swinging the buckets forward at the last gap between the steps greatly reduces one’s chances of falling.

6th: Fill the reservoir for the shower. It’s around 15 gallons so that means repeating steps 5 & 6 a few times because after three buckets to fill the reservoir and 2 to fill the reservoir under the sink for our “running” water faucet and 1 more to fill the water on the stove and the tea kettle and the water pitcher and your water bottle you still need to fill up the 5 gallon buckets each once more in order to have reserve water for drinking inside.

7th: So, now, nose and eyelashes frozen,¬† you are all watered up. The house is like a fishbowl. You’re swimming in it. In fact, you look like you actually have been swimming in it because you are soaked. Time for another outfit change. Your fire has dwindled a bit so give her a little extra gusto and start getting the house cooking for your shower time. The water in the shower reservoir needs to warm up a bit too because pumping from the well is nearly frozen water which means, at best, a pretty cold shower even with the water heater working. It’s now around 4pm so you will prep dinner while you wait for the heat to nip at the chill.

8th: It’s 6pm and The Chief comes home. You’ve prepped dinner, chopped wood, done dishes, hauled water, pumped gas, taken a morning walk so as to get at least a little Vitamin D and you are pooped. By the time you’ve finished dinner (and dessert, duh) you’re finally ready to take that shower but boy does it take some serious inspiration. Sleep is calling. It’s been dark since 4pm and your internal clock is ready to snooze. But a few listenings to “Eye of the Tiger”-esque songs and you are ready! You can do this!

You go upstairs and don your robe, get your towel, grab anything and everything you will need for during and post shower and bring down the water catch 10 gallon bucket in which you stand in during your shower to collect water. You then find your stool made from old timber (yea, you’re short) and lift the stairs to their resting place above the middle of the kitchen. You aim not to fall as you secure them into place and weeble wobble on your stool. You then close the pantry door you and The Chief fashioned to protect the goods under the stairs during showers. You hook the shower curtain up around the appropriate nails on the back of the stairs and tuck it into your bucket. Just then you realize that you forgot your washcloth upstairs. It’s too late for that fallen soldier, you decide, because otherwise you’d have to tempt fate again on your wobbly stool, undo all of the hooks, move the shower catch, undo the stairs and then redo it all over again upon retrieving your washcloth. You’ll make do without it, eh?

 

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Water catch, propane and…showertime!

 

9th: It’s time. Alert the chorus, or at least iTunes. It’s shower time people. You hook up the shower to the battery in the living room, check that the hose in the reservoir is submerged, turn on the water heater, turn on the shower head and pray to hear a flow. You do, the heater kicks on, the water goes from freezing to scalding hot and finally evens itself out. This is it, your time to shine. You tag in like the finisher of a relay. Let’s do this.

 

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Not much elbow room but it’s cozy and it works.

 

10th: Just as you’ve suds-ed up your locks and are ready to turn the shower head back on (we do military style showers. Get wet. Turn off shower. Suds up. Turn on shower to rinse. Turn off shower. Repeat repeat with shampoo and conditioner. Water only flows when necessary. Now you know why I love a hotel shower. On demand water? Count me in). You turn it on, avoid both the freezing and the scalding shifts and settle in to de-suds when you hear it.

The entire time you are showering, inside, outside, at a friend’s house, wherever, you are listening. Listening to the pump, listening for correct suction. Listening and waiting for any sound to tell you that something is “off”. Showers are a sort of hyper vigilant auditory escapade. And now, you’ve heard it. A sound to tell you that something is wrong. The water isn’t pulling correctly. Suddenly, it stops. Oh joy. You aim to clear the shampoo in your eyes enough to get out of the shower into a thankfully warm (this time) house to inspect what is happening and unplug the pump before you blow it up (no need to do that more than once in a lifetime, right J?).

11th: You realize that the pesky hose that you so dotingly checked on not 5 minutes before has wound itself into a whirlwind and is now gallantly facing upwards like a gymnast flipping their head back after sticking a landing. You are no longer taking in water. Funny thing about a shower, it requires water. You do your best to submerge it again, even placing a rock from your collection on top of it and eyes burning, head back into your bucket, once again avoiding the cold and the hot in order to take in the joy of the just right.

12th: A few more On and Offs later and you are finally done. You dry off in front of the stove to keep the chill away (the shower rests in between the woodstove and the door and at 20 below, even our big door can’t keep out a draft that would kill a plant placed in front of it in hours. It’s cold.

13th: Post The Chief’s shower, both dry-ish and tired galore it’s time to disassemble the shower until the next one. You get your stool, unhook the curtain and go to start the slow move of the shower catch towards the sink only to realize that a small portion of the curtain was out of the bucket and the floor is sopping wet. Thank goodness it’s currently unfinished. Everything is wet but nothing is ruined and hey, character is added. You clean it up and then together, you lift the bucket over the sink and do a slow pour of human soup into the sink so as not to overwhelm the French Drain. You place the bucket near the fire (though not too close) to dry, unhook the shower from the batteries and are ready to put down the stairs and call it a night when you realize that the shower curtain is still wet and shouldn’t be put away as such and so you leave up the stairs and stare at the dishes that call to you (though not enticingly enough) while you wait for a slightly drier curtain to allow passage up to the sleepy upstairs where your bed rests.

14th: Everything is put away and passage upstairs is granted.

Shower Day complete.

You’re safe upstairs in bed with your wet hair until, of course, nature calls for the last time today and you hurriedly dress and find your boots and socks, run outside and scurry back in afterwards just as quickly. There’s nothing like a crisp night and chilled hair to knock you out of sleep but still the goings on of your day bring you back to slumber. You’re worn out. It was a Shower Day.

 

With Summer here (at least it is on most days, except on the ones where it is freezing at night and dumps rain all day) we were beyond excited to get to shower once again outside. The water drains, there’s no bucket to haul around, the shower is roomier and it is outside so the view is beautiful and the reservoir outside is 55 gallons. It might as well be a hotel shower.

I put up the stairs for the last shower related time until Winter and took out the screws for the door shielding our pantry from shower splatter.

 

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Putting it up originally in December after almost of month of bucket baths. We were stoked.

 

We took down the shower curtain and set it to dry in the sun to be put away later. The shower buckets were both scrubbed and then filled with Winter clothes to bid adieu to until it’s time again to bundle ourselves.

 

And then, we took the shower unit outside. The Chief screwed it into place, we connected the hoses, filled the 55 gallon drum, checked that it was working and then just as it was set-up, had to run off to something or another before we could try it.

No worries, there’s always tomorrow.

Wrong.

Tomorrow followed that night in which the temperatures dropped to below freezing. No big deal, right?

Wrong again.

You see, when we tested the shower that meant that water ran through all of the lines. Lines that when left full on a night below freezing will burst.

Who woulda thunk it? We hadn’t had a freezing night in well over a week.

I did not get the memo.

The next morning (totally unaware) I was pumped, I didn’t even need an “Eye of the Tiger”-esque song. I put on my magenta robe and hightailed it to the shower house. Today was the first of many Summertime Shower Days, the Annual Start. I was walking on air.

And then the winds changed and suddenly I was back to walking in the mud puddles beneath my feet because when I turned on the shower, water started bursting out of the water heater.

That doesn’t seem quite right.

The Chief came and verified that indeed, we were screwed.

I, having very much looked forward to Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff, was not giving up. The shower, on the other hand, was. Thankfully, our neighbors’ lines hadn’t burst and they graciously allowed me to come over. When you’re set for a shower, you’re getting a shower. I would have visited every house in the ‘hood until someone let me in, thankfully this robed lady didn’t have to go far. Thank goodness for great neighbors.

That day we ordered a replacement.

I went to Mail Days (Mondays and Thursdays, delivered by plane) stalking the package for the week, knowing full and well that it was unlikely to even arrive within the week.

 

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But it’s not a bad place to wait. Check out that runway.

 

It did! It came on a Thursday (a friend called to tell us we had a large package and see if we needed them to bring it home for us if we were on foot or if we had a car that day to carry it ourselves) and we raced from work to pick it up and then raced home to set it up. After days of painting I was so excited to get in. Just as we finished assembling the last bits we got a call that dinner was waiting on us at a friends’ house. We had been so lost in the set-up that we hadn’t realized that it was almost 10pm.

The shower would have to wait for another day.

Finally Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff came. Covered in a week’s worth of paint and dust (the roads here are dirt and thus dust is the coating on everything. My hair spends the Summer feeling like crunchy cereal, except for on…Shower Day!) we were both excited to kick off the Summer Shower Season.

We robed up, toweled up, got our shower supplies and headed out. It was beautiful outside with the Summer light still bright at 10pm by the time we got in. Finally, the first shower of the season. Outside, no buckets, no spilling in the house, no freezing temperatures to crisp up our hair as we went back in. It was perfect.

 

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So, when I went for my second shower of the season some days later I figured it would come about without a hiccup.

Wrong again (third time’s the charm, right?).

It was cold that night but I was a dusty mess and needed to recharge in a warm shower before hitting the sack. I went outside, gassed up the generator, started it, hooked up the batteries for the shower to the generator, hooked up the shower to the batteries, turned on the propane, turned on the shower and the water heater and boom! A beautiful shower…

for about 30 seconds.

Then, the sounds we all listen for and fear started up. Chugging and glugging and…then, nothing. No water.

It turns out that the hose wasn’t topsy-turvy, nor was the pump malfunctioning much. Nope, the problem really was no water. I had forgotten to refill the barrel. So, I got my boots on and shivered in my robe to go off and run the other generator to run the hose to the 55 gallon drum to fill it with water. About ten minutes later the drum was full and everything was working.

 

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I had solicited The Chief’s help on this one and he warned that the water would likely be pretty cold since it had just come out of the barely above freezing well. Oh, a cold shower in the cold outside. This was just what I had ordered.

Well, lucky for me, the order got changed in the kitchen and the water came out hot enough to barely notice the cold temperatures outside.

Until it stopped again.

I knocked on the house to summon The Chief (again).

“What was the sound it was making?” See, I told you we all listen for sounds around here. I told him that the pump was making a fizzing almost bubbling sucking noise.

Time to unhook everything. I’m still learning to troubleshoot this puppy.

“You probably should get back in your robe, babe. This could take a while” he said, looking at me shivering.

There is nothing more dissatisfying after a semi-cold shower than putting on a semi-wet robe. Actually, standing in the cold, shivering and naked with wet hair is worse. Wet robe it is.

After finding a plugged up part of the line and having two false starts the shower was again up and running in ten minutes.

About an hour after robe-ing up and heading outside (and after maybe 15 minutes of actual showering time, which is luxurious, don’t get me wrong) I was done. The Chief took his run at it and came out successful with little to no interruptions (I guess I had worked out all of the kinks, the benefits of being a second showerer in the Summer versus standing in someone else’s water in the Winter if you don’t dump it first).

A year ago, I was taking showers and baths where the hardest thing that might happen was that the water heater would go out and have to be re-lit, which at the time felt like a serious setback. Now, taking a shower here feels like back in California. I essentially just get in and turn it on. Sure, there may be malfunctions but we have a well, we have a 55 gallon drum. Many people haul their water from up to 30 minutes away, some even walk the 30 minutes with 40 lb. buckets in backpacks. That seems near impossible to me. Then again, my showering situation would have seemed near impossible to me a year ago. I guess it’s all in the perspective. And in the necessity.

A year ago, this all would have seemed so foreign. A year ago it did seem so foreign. I basked in my showers not realizing how lucky I was. Now I see it. My perspective has shifted and I hope I never forget how amazing it is to have what we have.

Upon entering someone’s home here, it’s really common to check out their “systems”. How does their water situation work? Is it a dry cabin? Where do they haul water from? A well? How far down did they have to drill? What is their battery or solar situation like? Do they have a slop bucket or a drain? Everywhere we go everyone looks for tips and tricks of the trade. The other night we dropped off friends and admired their new shower system and French Drain in the kitchen. When we got home The Chief said “I hope I never forget how amazing it is to have our own running water in our house”. Luckily for him, he won’t have to. I’ll never forget how scary taking a slop bucket down the Ramp of Doom was in Summer and how happy I was that he installed a French Drain last Fall so that I didn’t have to tempt my fate on the Ramp of Doom with a slop bucket in Winter.

Our simple life may change. We may move on from a two burner so high up on the counter that I had to stand on my tippy toes to be able to cook to a full four burner with an oven.

 

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Our old two burner, recently sent off to a new home at a friend’s house.

 

We may move from bucket showers to pump showers, heck someday we might even have a root cellar but I don’t plan on forgetting where we started: with coolers and specific placement of items at varying distances from a Winter entrance to keep them the right amount of cool. I won’t forget that we are lucky. Lucky to live the simple life that isn’t so simple at first and at second, is more than I could have hoped for.

And, I’m sure if we do forget this simple fact, Alaska will have a swift kick in the rear for us both as a reminder.