Luke’s Journal: Clarification on plantings

As I read through my entry yesterday, I felt it wasn’t as clear as it should be.  Let me correct that.

The first part is about planting Okra up here in Alaska. It might sound strange to try to grow such a southern plant here in the great white, but it is grown as a winter crop down there and can handle colder temperatures than expected.

The other part is that I cheat.  I augment and amplify the natural heat of the sun to promote better growth of plants that are suited to this climate.

One way to do this is through cold frames.  Basically a mini greenhouse created by using a discarded window and building a box around it with timber.  I’ll throw a couple of these out before I start any planting to pre-heat the soil.  As this is going on, I’ll have a few seed germinating in an old egg container inside the house.  They do start out leggier than they normally would, but they seem to do ok.

The second part is to incorporate a heat wall.  Using the southern side of the house, I just painted the wall flat black and plant the Okra next to it.  The radiant heat from the sun not only helps heat the soil via the wall, it also heats the house better.

The last part is mulch.  Lots of it.  By having a good mulch pile you create a version of a heating blanket.  If you’ve ever stuck you hand in a large pile of leaves that has sat for a few days, you’ll feel the heat in the base of the pile.   The same theory works for the mulch at a greatly reduced capacity.  While keeping the soil and roots warmer, it doesn’t produce so much heat as to damage the root system.  A solid “peppering” of caribou manure also adds to the heat.  You must be careful though, too much manure will “cook” the young plants.

As for my unicorn, the peanut plants, it is my personal challenge that is akin to the fable of the lemon tree in the mountain.  I heard it once that a man over in Pakistan decided to try to grow a lemon tree in the mountains where he lived.  Knowing that the general area would kill the average lemon tree, he first looked for cultivars that could handle the coldest temperature for its species, he looked for a micro climate to support it.  He found a small spot that got full southern exposure, yet was protected by the wind.  The singular spot also directed the winds in a manner that blew away any snowfall or possible frost.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but its something to strive for.

Peanuts take 184 days to mature and the average growing season varies from 85 to 115 days tops.  That means I need to find a spot conducive to growing for an extra 100 days just to be safe.  That’s going to be hard to say the least.  But it makes for a great experiment.

One of our greatest gifts is to change the environment around us to make it more hospitable for things that are strangers to the land.  We mix, divert, move, and work until we can find that balance that is beneficial for all.

And that’s the real point of the challenge.  To work to make a place more welcome to outsiders.

Luke’s Journal: Planting Season

May is a wonderful time of year.  The ice has broken and the water is free.  But most of all, the soil is soft enough for planting.

I dug down into the earth and found four inches of good planting soil before hitting the permafrost.  That’s a good amount.  Not enough for carrots or beets or potatoes, but there’s a way to fix that.  All it takes is a double dip of dirt.

What I mean by that is I take the soil from one area and mound it up in another.  I also take the dust from the winter fires and mix it in.  There’s still some nitrogen in that dust and it helps to aerate the soil giving the root an easier chore of spreading out.

This year I have lettuce, carrots, beans, beets, cabbage, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and peppers.  One year I’m going to take a mighty risk and try some peanuts.  I wager that if I build up soil enough with river sand and firewood dust, I might have a decent shot at it.  Obviously, with the long growing season, I’m going to need a few cold frames, but I think it’ll be worth it if I get to make my own peanut butter.  That would be nice.

Luke’s Journal: Spring’s light, laundry, and supper

There is nothing so sweet as the first real days of spring.  The soft, warm rays of the sun appearing over the horizon telling you the long dark is finally over.

Those first few weeks of torture are now past.  The ice is broken, and the lakes are again free for fishing.

The air is perfumed with the buds of new growth and dull colors of browns and greys have been replaced with light greens, yellows, with speckles of blue and pink.

Now is the time of freedom.  Time to open the doors and windows and allow the fresh air to wash away winters musky stench.

It’s also time to take back my own personal section of the wilderness.  I clean off an area from leaves and twigs.  Then I build a fire.  Small at first.  My own little homage if you will.  Then I slowly build it up.  Relishing the mix of fresh, crisp air and the deep, rich smell of the hardwood as it burns.  Then I set up the tripod and hang the pot full of water to heat.  As the water warms, I take the old 550 cord and string it between two trees. I’ve used 550 cord, or paracord depending on how you call it, ever since my clothesline rotted away from a year’s use.  Once the water’s ready, I set myself to spring’s first chore.

My wash line is simple.  A pile of clothes to my left, the wash tub, the rinse tub, and then the line.  I take each item and wash them with care.  My washboard is glass so it will not rust and shred my clothing like a cheese-grater.  The soap is bio degradable and non-perfumed so as to not give away my position when I hunt.  When hanging the clothes on the line, I use a mix of surviving clothes pins and ones I have whittled myself over the winter from various spruce branches.

Once the laundry is done, I dump the water and set up for dinner.  Trout tonight!  A little salt, a little pepper, a little dried lemon zest from the rinds I saved last fall… Delicious.  And a cup of pine needle tea to wash it down.  I use the rest of the water to wash up.

Content, I sit back and watch the laundry billow in the wind like multicolored sails on a sailboat.  It’s wonderful knowing that tonight my house will not be crowded with the hanging of wet laundry as it slowly dries from the heat of the stove.  Yes the added humidity is good during the dark, but having to carefully duck and weave my way around gets old fast.  Freedom is movement.

I light a celebratory pipe while thinking about those words.  “Freedom is movement.”  Spring opens up the earth and gives us that freedom.

Luke’s Journal: Winter’s death

The wind blows strong tonight.  It rattles at the window panes and howls through the cracks and corners of the cabin.  Streams of dusty snow mimic the flow of the borealis.  Even though I am sitting near the wood stove, I feel winters icy fingers as it grasps desperately for my flesh.

With an involuntary shiver, I can’t help but think of my sentence in purgatory.  Winter’s end brings both sadness and joy.  It will be good to see spring and the life that its warmth brings it; but the transitional month is the most dangerous time of all.

The frozen creeks and streams which were winter’s highways are now untrustworthy for passage.  The snow lies heavy in the trees, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The prey has long learned how to better hide themselves from the predators.  In turn, the predators have grown lean and desperate with hunger.  Anything moving now is a target.

The worst of all is the darkness.  Like a cruel warden, it taunts you on your last leg of your sentence and never lets you forget where you are and who’s in charge.  All your distractions are gone and all your mind can focus on is the moment when the daylight comes and you can be free again.

Some can’t make it.  The pressure gets too much for them to bear and they foolishly run out without respect or care for the changes going on around them.  They either fall through the melting ice or they injure themselves in a deadly cascade of tree fallen snow or avalanche.  Others can’t handle it at all and end everything in ways I’d rather not talk about.  It’s a hard time when all that’s done is done.  When all thoughts are thought.  When everything had been seen, read, or heard; and there is nothing left.  In this darkness, when you are waiting alone for the light, is when you find yourself.

You can succumb to the long dark or you can step out past your front door and look up to see the bright stars piercing through the heavy dark.  That there is still light in the world.  That the ribbon of color called Aurora still happily dances in the night sky.  That all these gifts are still there for those who choose to see and enjoy them.  For their time is limited.  Soon the sun will come and their light will be hidden by the warm glow of summer.

Remember to take this moment and enjoy them.

Luke’s Journal: The Darkness

People often wonder what the biggest difference is between living in society and living alone.    After last night I can honestly say that the biggest difference is what happens when you are sick.

Being sick in town is not the most fun thing to be, but it’s sure a lot easier.  They’re  chock full of medicine if you ever run out.

Your doctor has your medical history at hand so that she doesn’t have to guess what works and what doesn’t for you.  Or, more importantly, what you are allergic to.

If you can’t reach your doctor, you can ultimately go to the Hospital.

All these multiple layers of coverage are reassuring for the average person, but the largest benefit is communication.  The ability to dial 911 and get help in a reasonable amount of time is one of the cornerstones of society.  It’s an invisible blessing that people take for granted until they need it.  It is also the biggest difference between living in society and living in the bush.

I was sternly reminded of this over the last few days when I became sick.  I don’t know if it was a flu.  (After all, I hadn’t seen anyone for a month and colds are mainly transferred by people.)  But it sure felt like one.  Fever, chills, weakness, and lethargy.  All the hallmarks of a full blown flu.

This is where the differences show up.  I didn’t immediately dive into my stores of medicine.  I only have so much.  I went around the house and got things ready for the siege.  There is so much to do when living in the bush compared to living in society.

The main thing was to bring in two weeks worth of wood for the stove.  When you’re weak, shivering, and tired; the last thing you want to do is step out into that frigid air and haul in heavy chunks of wood.

The next is to make sure you have enough water.  Yeah, I have plumbing to my well, but the pipes are apt to freeze.  Filling up a lined trash-can with potable water is just common sense.   That water will be used for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.  When you’re sick in the bush, you don’t get the luxury of having a shower or bath.  A good rag bath is about all you can expect to wash away the clammy sick stink from your body.

That water is also needed to clean out your handkerchiefs.  Those big boxes of aloe impregnated soft tissue might be the miracle of the modern age, but they are still bulky and take up way too much needed storage that could be used for better purposes.  Old school handkerchiefs are what works best in the bush and you had better be able to clean them if you want to keep your nose clean.

Finally, you gotta eat.  Whether you want to or not.  My favorite type of cold food is the usual.  Chicken soup and tea.  What I should call it, though is chicken broth and tea.  For the most part I use those pouches of instant soup.  The ones with the freeze dried everything in them.  They take up less room than the cans do once you get the out of the box, and at that point I’m more for the broth than anything else anyway.  It’s smooth on the throat.  Same for the tea.  I used to drink mainly black tea, but after living here for a while I’ve grown accustomed to pine needle tea instead.  And why not?  Pine needles are plentiful around here and all I have to do I grab a bunch when I’m thirsty.  I will say this to you “civilized folk”;  Pine needle tea and chicken broth is an acquired taste when combined.

Once you have all this done, then you are ready for deal with the flu.

Dealing with it takes a lot more effort here.  There’s far fewer distractions for you when you’re sick.  You can’t just pop on the local TV show and where I live, radio is sporadic at best.  I have my MP-3 player to help out, but even then you get tired of just hearing music for hours at a time.  Same with playing solitaire.  I’ve learned a long time ago that I’ll win one out of every three games when playing five card solitaire and one out of five when playing seven card style.

But no matter what.  Eventually the time comes when you’re so tired that you don’t want to sleep and all distractions become useless.  That’s the time when the darkness comes.

The world changes for you at that moment.  It seems stiller.  Like time itself has stopped.  That shadows seem darker.  Noises around you are both familiar and different.  Everything has an alien presence to you.  You start to question every choice you’ve made in life.

Was it wise to move here?

Should I have stayed in the corporate world?

What would my life have been if I had married Tammy?

Will I die here?

Is this the year they find my body in the spring?

Would they find my body, or will I just be left to rot away in this chair?”

And while this goes on, you can’t help but feel a strange presence in the room.  It’s nothing like in the horror movies, but you feel the dread just the same.  Is it death waiting in the shadows for you?  You don’t know but you don’t want to find out either.

Sometimes you try to ignore it.  Sometimes you talk.  And sometimes you yell at the presence.  No matter what you do, it doesn’t matter.  The presence never goes away.  He just sits or stands by patiently waiting for the time for him to collect you.

And then, just as suddenly, he is gone.  The shadows lighten, the sounds normalize, and time starts moving again.  The night has ended and you fever is broken.  Your home feels empty but yours again.  There is one difference though.  Down in the lower 48, the sun usually comes up to greet you at this moment.  Not here.  Up here the sun doesn’t come until spring.  Up here you have to make it light yourself.

Up here, you have to be the light.

Luke’s Journal: Entry 1

The snow shines brightly under the cloudless sky.  My eye’s squint and water just from looking out my window. It’s not too cold out either.  Maybe 20 degrees with a light breeze coming out of the Northwest.  It’ll be a great day for a gathering walk.  I already have my travel cup warming up for the outing.  I love these double insulated, plastic cups.  They keep my coffee long enough for a quick drink and don’t cling to your lips like the old metal ones do.  I don’t know why they sell those stupid metal ones here anyway.  Every time I see a tourist with one my mind keeps replaying the tongue on the pole scene from A Christmas Story.  Ugh!

Luckily for me, I don’t have to deal with that crap.  I wised up and live twenty miles from the nearest town.  Yeah that can be a pain sometimes, but oh the benefits of it all.

No noise.  No traffic.  No stupid rules and regulations strangling you from all corners.  Freedom.  Pure and simple.  My heart warms just thinking about it.   People in the “civilized world” might wax poetic about their Chinese takeout and Starbucks Latte, but I was never one for Chinese food and my home-brew is better than anything Starbucks can dream of.  Speaking of which.  It’s ready to go.

It took me a few minutes, but now I’m ready to go as well.  Got my parka on (Thank God for Thinsulate), pack’s all set, and I am out the door.

Everything’s different when you live in the bush.  You have to go prepared.  There’s no 911 out here.  No ambulances to pick you up when you’re hurt.  No hospital within an hour’s drive.  (Hell, where I’m at, there ain’t no road!)  It’s all on you to see that you make it home.  That’s why the pack.  It’s got enough stuff in it to keep me safe and warm if something should happen along the way.

But enough of that, It’s time for the walk.

I love a good “gathering walk” this time of year.  The bears are asleep and the other critters are out and about.  If you’re really quiet, you might get lucky.  Last year around this time I witnessed two foxes frolicking in the fresh powder.  They were romping and playing like kids in the school yard.  I was one of the rare times I wish I had a camera.  I also like to use this walk to gather information about the small game running around.   Where their paths are.  What trees and shrubs they prefer this go around.  Whether or not their numbers have increased.   But when it comes to small game tracking, my main goal is to scout out the wounded or lame ones.  Those are the ones first on my winter’s hunting list.  It might sound cruel, but I’d rather take them out quickly and as painlessly as possible then to have them live in pain or die slowly of starvation.

I also like to keep an eye out for newly felled trees.  They make for easy firewood come the spring.

But mostly I go to be with nature.  Time will come soon enough where I’ll be stuck inside for most of the time, so I might as well enjoy being outside as much as I can.  It’s a treasure that most just don’t understand.  There’s a feeling of connection to the earth that is lost in the “civilized” world.  People make a big to do about pushing forms and data all around, while spending only two weeks of their lives trying to undo the stress from the other fifty.  They call that living.  I call it insanity.  You want living.  Come up here and live this way for one year.  Only then will you get a taste of what true living is about.