The other day, I was visiting with a friend, and her 10 year-old daughter overhead me talking to her mother about how we live off-grid on a lake only accessible by boat. I saw this young girl become quite interested in our conversation. When I explained about how we have no Internet access and no electricity, the girl dropped her jaw and gasped, “What on earth do you do all day?” Although I laughed and shrugged it off, it is actually a question that we get quite alot. So, I thought explaining a day in our life on Chilkat Lake might be a good blog post. Obviously, every day is not exactly the same, but this will give you a good idea of how we spend our time.
During the summer months, I wake up around 7:30 am. Typically, Nate has already been up for an hour or longer. He has made coffee, let the dogs out, and is usually drinking his cup of “Jo” at the kitchen table, reading a book or magazine when I wake up. I make breakfast for the two of us, then heat up a pot of water to wash the breakfast dishes. For breakfast today, I am making cream of wheat for me and eggs, grits, and toast for Nate. After washing the breakfast dishes, I straighten up the cabin, make the bed, refill the water containers in the kitchen and bathroom, and fill up the Burkee water filters. I empty the bathroom wastewater bucket and my honey pot in the hole in the ground outside, clean both buckets and bring them back inside. I plan lunch and dinner at this time. If we have leftovers, I will take them out of the fridge and leave them on the counter until lunch time, so that I don’t have to use too much propane to heat them up. Today, I am making grilled sandwiches and soup for lunch, so I do all of the prep work for the soup, and put it on the stove on low heat. This is also the time I usually bake something. Every 2-3 days, I bake a fresh loaf of bread, and once a week, I make a batch of Nate’s favorite cookies, or if we are having guests, I might bake a pie, homemade cinnamon rolls, doughnuts or moonpies!
By ten o’clock, I am dressed in my work clothes, and I catch up with Nate outside. No doubt, he has already done a million things by now, like change the oil in the generators, light the trash burn pile, sharpen the chainsaw, service one of the boats, or start on any of the numerous building projects we have going on around our property. When I join him outside, he lets me know what we will work on that day. Typically, we are doing a building project together. This could involve any number of things…pouring concrete, hauling, measuring and cutting lumber, staining wood, nailing and screwing plywood and planks, performing math gymnastics to figure out how to do the pitch on a roof correctly or how to cut the side rails for a set of stairs, hauling, cutting, and nailing aluminum roofing, installing doors or windows, hanging insulation, stapling black tar paper, or many, many other such things!
In the winter, we might be downing a tree on the frozen lake, and hauling bucked pieces back to our property for splitting, or we might be cutting a hole in the ice to do some ice fishing, or shoveling snow and making our walkways safe enough to walk on.
We break for lunch between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon, and after lunch, we have a rest time. Typically, Nate tries to nap on the couch while I read or get some writing done. If the sun is out, I take in some rays on our sun deck. Sometimes, we both nap. We try and protect this time of rest and peace, even when we have guests visiting us. Often, our guests will go fishing or hiking without us, or have their own quiet time. In the winter, our days are too short to nap.
After our rest, Nate returns to our building project, while I get a head start on dinner preparations. I am making pizza today, so I prepare the fresh, home-made dough and then put it in the fridge. We make so many of our meals from scratch that alot of my time is dedicated to the preparation of our meals. Meals with meat also require advanced planning since most of our meats are frozen and thawing can take a full day or longer. We also wash all of our dishes by hand, so meal preparation and clean up afterwards can take a good deal of time as well.
Once I have dinner preparations underway, I join Nate outside again. We may continue an earlier project, start a new one, or we may go hunting or fishing. Yesterday, we took the canoe down to the end of the lake to scout for bears. Nate has a permit to harvest a black bear and a brown bear, and he is scouting the mountains for bear activity. For the past 2 weeks, he has been watching a sow (mother bear) and her two cubs where the lake “narrows” and creates a beach on one side that is nicknamed, “Bear Beach”. I tell Nate that his BIG grizzly bear is down at the end of the little lake, down a small creek that is nicknamed, “Bear Alley”. He takes me up on this challenge, and we take the canoe and paddle down this creek. It is a spooky place. The creek is only about 12 ft. across. The shoreline here is thick with tall grasses that grow up about 3 feet high. So, you’re paddling down this narrow waterway, and you can’t see over the top of the tall grass. The side edges of the canoe is almost touching the shoreline, and every few yards, there’s a spot in the grass that has been pushed down into the muddy bank, where a bear or a moose has been lying down. There are moose and bear tracks everywhere. All of my senses are on high alert. I am scared, but excited at the same time. I feel like I am on a ride at Disneyland, only the ride is a cross between the haunted house and the log ride. I am riding a log, waiting for something scary to pop out from behind the tall grass. Only, out here, what pops out could kill you.
On days when we catch fish, we filet and freeze the fish as soon as we return home. If we harvest a big game animal, we skin it, gut it, process the meat, begin soaking the hide, and/or, if needed, prepare the animal for transportation to town for counting and “sealing” at the Fish & Game office. On summer days, when we are not hunting or fishing, or paddling up scary creeks, we may spend the afternoon in the garden, preparing the soil, hauling dirt, digging trenches, planting, watering, or harvesting. Late in the afternoon, I usually start the hot tub fire. It usually takes 3-4 hours of stoking the fire to heat up the water sufficiently. I squeeze in an hour-long workout in between stoking the hot tub fire, and refilling 8 five-gallon water containers and hauling them into the house.
On this particular day, we decide to take a boat ride to the landing where we park our truck. We accidentally left our cell phone in the truck last time we went into town, so we want to go and retrieve it. We’re planning a quick trip out and back, and that shouldn’t take us longer than about 2 hours. We’re always cognizant of the time because we never want to be boating home in the dark. As we head out, the weather is calm and clear. It’s about 50 degrees outside, but much colder over the water. Our boat travels about 35 miles per hour, so the 30-40 minute boat ride is chilly. I’m dressed in layers, with thermal layers underneath a rain-proof coverall, a winter jacket, knit hat, and rain boots. (Feeling pretty…not!)
The scenery of the mountains along the lake is amazing. The mountains are completely green (all of the snow has finally melted), and the trees and brush are thick. Sitka spruce trees fill the mountains with their dark green hues. The tops are beginning to turn brown and dark red. The birch trees and cottonwoods that line the shore are starting to turn yellow and bright orange. It’s an array bursting with beautiful colors. Puffy, white clouds dot here and there just above the mountaintops and the sky is perfectly blue. The lake is smooth, except for our boat which glides along making a white capped pathway behind us and sending waves reverberating across the water. We come upon a flock of twenty trumpeter swans, and the noise of our oncoming boat sends them all running across the water on their gangly legs, flapping their wings loudly. Their fleeing flock sounds like a wild ruckus of excitement moving across the water. Their honking noises echo up and down the empty hollow of the cove. As we motor along, small water fowl challenge our boat to a race. They dart out to speed alongside the bow of our boat, flitting back and forth in front of us, teasing that they won the race. (They always win.) They follow the boat for hundreds of yards before losing interest.
The boat slows down as we near the entrance to Clear Creek. The creek is very shallow at this time of year, so it’s wise to maneuver carefully through the boggy water. This creek reminds me of a Louisiana swamp. I have to remind myself that there are no alligators or snakes in this part of the world. The sticks and logs poking out of the water in this marsh will make you think that somehow, someway, maybe there’s one here. I guess that’s the result of spending so much time in the south. We drive slowly for the quarter-of-a-mile trip through this winding creek where we typically see dozens of bald eagles perched in bare trees, moose cows with their baby calves sludging through the tall grass, and bears perched up on fallen trees, just above the water’s edge.
Near the end of the creek, where it meets the Tsircou River, Nate kills the engine. He clears the jet engine of weeds that were sucked up into the motor on the way here, then he listens for any sounds of boats coming from the other direction. The entrance into the river is a sharp turn with zero visibility on either side, which could spell disaster for any boater who doesn’t stop to listen for oncoming traffic. The coast sounds clear, and Nate starts the motor up again. He pushes the throttle wide open and we go barreling around the corner into the river. We are taken by surprise at how much the river has dropped in the past few days. The river is dangerously shallow. The waters are still moving swiftly, but gravel bars have appeared everywhere, with only sporadic spots for a heavy boat to pass through unscathed. Nate whips the boat around the curve and hugs the far shoreline where the deepest section of water runs. Low branches screech across the sides of the boat and threaten to slap us in the head if we don’t duck real fast. Nate spies a deep slew that leads to the landing, and he turns the boat and guides us perfectly to the edge. I stand up, ready to jump ashore and tie up the boat, but Nate motions for me to sit back down. He is not sure about parking the boat here. He is worried that the landing here is too wet, too muddy to hold the boat securely. He scans the shoreline up and down, and up and down again. He is quickly assessing where the best and safest place to tie up might be. I am quiet. He is an expert at this, and I have learned that he thinks better when it is quiet. Meanwhile, the throttle of the boat is wide open, pushing the front of the boat against the shoreline. The raging waters of the river are pushing against the sides of the boat, nudging it backwards. We rock back and forth gently in this suspended state, like the calm before the storm, then Nate makes his decision. He tells me he is going to kill the engine because we sucked up some rocks that are making it sluggish. Once he does this, the boat will be pushed back into the rushing waters. He wants to let the waters push the boat back about 100 yards and he will tie up there. I can see the slew of water that he sees along the edge of the creek. It looks plenty deep for our boat. Nate kills the motor and we begin to drift back, slowly at first. Nate picks up the motor and begins to pull out the debris. The waters push hard now and it spin our boat in a circle and we are now rushing down the river, the boat traveling sideways. Nate sees a low area in the water where we thought there was a slew and he instructs me to jump on the bow quickly with the paddle to try and keep the boat in the deeper water, but the boat moves faster than me. I jump up on the bow and lean over with the paddle just as the boat crashes hard against a gravel bar. The impact throws me overboard. I fly over the front of the boat, with the oar still in my hands. It is shallow, only about a foot deep, so I am in no danger of drowning or being swept away, but I land on all fours, slamming both my hands and knees into the rocky bottom. My face and full front of my body goes in the water. I stand up clumsily pushing back against the rushing water, and lunge back towards the boat, which is moving out of my reach quickly. Nate yells out for me to move away from the boat, and to go towards the shore instead. I slog through and in just three quick steps I am on the shore. Nate lowers the motor, re-positions the boat, then starts up the motor and speeds over to the shore and parks the boat.
I am soaking wet from head to toe. My hands and wrists are throbbing, and I can’t figure out if I have broken both of my wrists or if the stinging is just a combination of the shock of the impact and the freezing cold water temperature. I am walking now, but my knees are weak. My hands and wrists hurt so bad that I can barely hold the paddle I am still carrying. Nate has already secured the boat and walked over to our truck. He is driving it across the landing to where I am. He has to drive through water that is pooling deeply in slews all over the landing. I walk towards him. Lucky for me, I have a change of clothes in the truck. I sit in the truck, change, and try and get warm. It’s a busy day at the landing, and while I am sitting there, four more boats come in to the landing from the lake. I say “hello” to all of my lake neighbors and recount my “falling into the river” story. They all smile and nod their heads. They have all been there. There’s no one who lives on the lake that hasn’t fallen into the river on one or more occasions.
I am mostly dry when we park the truck again and climb back into the boat for the ride home. I brace myself for a bumpy sludge through the river, but Nate opens up the throttle, the boat climbs in step, and we sail through the river in a flash, arriving at the entrance to Clear Creek in a matter of seconds. It’s smooth sailing from here to home and I settle in for the ride. The short ride through Clear Creek is peaceful as Nate meanders the boat through the shallow areas. Lots of salmon glide past us, their green-gray and red bodies visible through the clear water. We wave to our friends working at the Fishing Weir in the creek, and then drive past the American Flag that Nate put at the entrance to Chilkat Lake. The lake is widest at this opening, and the view that hits you immediately is stunning. Mountains on all sides, and a teal blue-green clear lake tucked in this glorious valley.
Our boat moves along in the center of this heaven. The image always takes my breath away. I feel lucky to be living here, and I feel as close to God as you can get. The boat speeds along, and I stare out the side of the boat. My mind wanders, and I think about my family in the lower 48. I say a prayer for my sister’s health, and I pray for the well-being of my three grown children. Then, right in front of me, I see a tiny rainbow. It is suspended on top of the boat’s wake on the side of the boat, so close that I can almost touch it. I am reminded that a rainbow is a sign of God’s promise, and I smile, knowing that God will take care of my family members far away, and I need not worry.
I feel the boat turn away from the shoreline we were following, and I see we are headed straight for “Bear Beach”. I look at Nate, but his gaze is locked on something he sees in the distance. He presses his binoculars to his face, and then passes them to me, and says, “There’s a bear”. I peer through the lenses and I see a lanky brown bear slowly walking along the shoreline. Nate slows down as we get closer, then he stops the boat about 20 yards from the shore. We watch the bear wade in and swat at salmon in the water. Nate and I argue over whether the bear is a male or a female. We talk about how old she might be. We watch her walk out onto a tree branch that extends into the water. She jumps from the tree into the water and fishes some more. She is oblivious to our presence. I pull out our cell phone and record her movements for about 5 minutes. Eventually, she becomes aware of us. She makes a huffing sound at us, then very, very slowly she edges back into the bushes and fades from our sights.
We wait a few minutes, then start up the motor, and head for the narrow part of the lake. The weeds are bad there, so Nate drives swiftly in a zig zag method to avoid sucking up the pesky overgrowth into the motor. Once through the narrows, Nate stops the motor to pull weeds out of its shaft. In the quiet minute we sit there, our boat rises and falls gently, and I can see the edge of our dock a short distance from where we are. Nate lowers the motor, then starts the engine and heads towards our dock. He slows down as we pass our neighbor’s property. We can see their large tent nestled high in the trees hugging the mountainside. The back window of their dwelling faces the lake, and we see the silhouette of someone standing at the mesh window. We wave and we see the silhouette wave back at us. Our boat coasts along and eventually Nate slips the boat alongside our dock and we tie it up. Our quick trip to the landing to retrieve our cell phone turned into out to be quite an adventure.
So you see, when someone asks me what we do all day, it’s difficult to describe in a single answer. Any simple task can lead us into an adventure, some welcome, some not.
Around 7:00 pm., we head inside for dinner. I heat up a pot of water to wash the lunch and dinner dishes. Afterwards, we go outside for a soak in the hot tub. Then, Nate starts up the generators and I haul in 4 five gallon water jugs to do a load of laundry. Nate builds a fire in the wood stove, and when the laundry is done, I hang it up to dry over the fire.
It’s 8:30 pm., and we put on a movie. Tonight we’re watching “A River Runs Through It”, and we both struggle to stay awake until the end! Bed time happens around Midnight most nights, but in the winter, we’re typically in bed asleep by 7 or 8 pm. I put some cat food outside for a cat that we never see. (He was given to us by a friend and hides under the house, only to come out at night when we are asleep). I turn off the solar inverter and the house goes dark. The night outside is black as black and there is no light anywhere. I feel my way to the back of the house where our bedroom is. I hear Nate snoring. I climb into bed exhausted. As sleep creeps over me, I wonder to myself, “what on earth did I do all day?”