It’s been almost a year since coming to live this remote life in the beautiful mountains of Alaska. As I reflect on all of the things I have learned over the past year, one of the most poignant things has been learning to do without things that I used to think were so essential. We brought a two year’s supply of provisions with us, and as we begin to run out of things (sooner than expected), we question whether that item needs to be replaced, or whether it is something that we can now learn to live without. It has been an interesting challenge to both Nate and I in different ways. I have been surprised how most things are quite easy to do without, with just a little push to challenge your way of thinking and living.
When the nearest store is not on your way home, or just around the corner, you begin to question whether or not it is something you really need. In the waiting time between running out of something and the possibility of acquiring another one, you have already learned to live without it. In many cases, I discovered that I never really needed it to begin with and will never buy it again. This is especially true of paper towels. I probably used 2-3 rolls of paper towels each week before we moved here. During our first year, we rationed our usage and initially were able to go a month or longer with one roll. When we ran out, we just got used to living without them, and now I am sure that I could have a nice fat retirement nest egg if I hadn’t bought paper towels my whole adult life. The only thing we determined requires a paper towel is dog throw up. So, whenever we eat lunch at a restaurant in town, we always bring home a few extra napkins for this purpose. We have also tried to limit our use of plastic bags. I now use storage containers for anything which I would have used plastic bags for in another life, and when I do use a plastic bag, I try to clean it out and re-use it as much as possible.
Before moving to Alaska, I was kind of a “clean eating” snob. I turned my nose up to anything fried or processed, or full of sugar. I ate lots of fresh veggies and fruits, and preferred fish, and non-meat substitutes, like tofu, beans, Quinoa, and the like. I tried to avoid anything containing animal proteins, except for Greek Yogurt. Eating this way has proven to be very challenging in remote Alaska. For one, it is difficult to make separate meals for just two people. We used to eat out a lot which can accommodate different tastes. While Nate has grown to like my veggie burgers and no-meat chili, he loves meat and potatoes. I have learned to compromise somewhat. I justify that some of the things I now eat are okay because they are homemade, and therefore, healthier for me. This may not be true, but it makes me feel better.
When we first came to our cabin in the woods, our days were very long. We worked long hours trying to get settled in and prepare for winter. We were so tired that meals became a welcomed treat and respite from our work. I made lots of comfort foods. We ate big breakfasts of homemade pancakes or waffles and eggs with homemade biscuits and gravy. Lunch was usually a grilled sandwich with homemade bread. Dinner was lots of meat and potatoes, and I think for the first few months, we ate cornbread with every dinner. While I still cook everything homemade, we are now making better choices, especially during the winter when our work day is reduced significantly, and we aren’t burning through the calories as fast.
One of our biggest challenges with food this winter has been the fact that we ate most of the vegetables we grew in the summer right away. We managed to freeze and can a lot of zucchini, cabbage, and berries, which we used up very quickly, and that left us with little or no fruits and veggies for the winter. We did have lots of store-bought canned versions in our provision supply, but canned vegetables lose their appeal rather quickly. We both started to miss fresh fruits and veggies. In the winter evenings, we regularly watch a movie, and we would oooh and ahhhh about any fresh food that we could see in any of the movie scenes. It was really funny. I never realized how nearly every movie has a scene with a fresh fruit bowl in it. Early into the winter, our stock of canned fruit started to diminish quickly. It seems that the fewer cans we had, the more Nate and I craved them. To make matters more interesting, the 2 twenty-year old relatives who stayed with us in December and January also were craving the canned fruits. So, we had to ration them in order to make them last. It is interesting to learn what becomes valuable out here in the middle of nowhere. When the young guests were with us, we regularly played dominoes or a marble game called Wahoo in the evenings, and we liked having a prize for the winner (It helped to cure the boredom of l-o-n-g winter evenings). Each player would offer something for the winners “pot”. Usually, the item was a chore or a favor, written on a piece of paper. Since Nate was the “keeper” of the canned foods, he would often offer a can of fruit. It was hilarious to see everyone get so competitive for the prize pot that included a can of peaches or pineapple.
With our quest to eat anything fresh, we tried our hand at ice fishing this winter.
As a result of doing without fresh food during the winter, we are excitedly dreaming about this year’s garden. We are planning a big one, with lots of opportunities for storing fresh stuff away for next winter. We pulled out our collection of seeds and organized them, planted our first seedlings indoors, and have now begun transplanting the young plants outdoors.
We are looking forward to a summer filled with fresh vegetables and lots of wild berries. We do, on occasion, buy apples and bananas from the grocer in town. When I have one, it’s a real treat. Before I moved here, I had an apple and a banana every day. That’s not possible now.
In addition to making changes in our diet, we have learned to appreciate what we have and use our resources sparingly. Even though we have an endless supply of water flowing naturally down our mountain, it’s a lot of work hauling it around, and so we use our indoor water very wisely. When we have guests, I sometimes cringe when they turn on the water at the sink. We have a 3 gallon container there, which takes some work to fill. It’s interesting when someone comes to visit, especially if they come from a house with running water. Guests will sometimes turn our sink container water on and let it run out completely, oblivious to the fact that all of the water is just running down the drain.
A big chore at our cabin is laundry. Running the washing machine requires using the gasoline-powered generator, as well as lugging up 20 gallons of water and loading it into the washing machine. So, we try to wear our clothes as many times as possible before washing. Nate will now hand me a pair of his dirty work pants, and proudly say, “I have worn these for 7 days!” Before coming to live here, I never would have worn something more than once without washing it, but in reality most of our clothes can be worn multiple times before they actually get dirty or start to smell funny.
We are continuing to perfect the art of balancing our use of energy. During the winter months, we rely on the generators for electricity because we only have 4-6 hours of daylight, and no direct sun. So, we run the generator in the evening for a few hours, and cram all of our energy usage into that short time period. In the winter, our cabin is buzzing in the early evening as we scurry about to do laundry, vacuum, watch a movie, and operate my hair dryer in the few hours we have the generators on. But, as our days are now getting longer and our solar panels are receiving many hours of direct sunlight, our energy usage times change. I am now doing laundry and charging anything electronic during the day at the times of greatest sunlight. This method eliminates our need for generators at all during the evening hours.
There are many things that we have learned during our first year in Alaska, and I am most proud of the ways we have learned to do without some things, and to be wiser about our energy usage. It feels good to be aware of how we use all of the resources at our disposal. We have also learned not to take anything for granted. In many ways, these lessons all add up to learning how to live a simpler life, which is the primary reason we came to live here in the first place.