Friday, April 18, 2014


I've had two stories run recently in the Outdoors section of the News-Miner. The first was about the snowmachine trip Mark and I did from Fairbanks to Nome. The second is about hunting caribou on Adak Island. Turns out I kind of like writing adventure stories.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

chicken coop

Several months ago, I did a write-up of our chicken coop for the Housing section of a popular poultry magazine. It appears now it's not going to run, so here in full is my submission.
Ian Herriott and Stefan Milkowski built this timber-framed, passive solar chicken coop in Fairbanks, Alaska. Rocks retain heat from the sun to warm the coop at night. (Photo by Trystan Herriott)
Ian shaves a floor joist to fit. It was a long winter, with snow into May.
Stefan and a friend lock the final piece into the frame. We used local white spruce timbers. (Photo by Ian Herriott)
For siding, we used rough-cut 1x8 boards with a shiplap to ensure coverage after shrinking.

To help keep the coop warm in the shoulder seasons, we sealed 750 pounds of rocks behind greenhouse panels. The rocks are heated by the sun during the day and release heat into the coop at night.
The chicken door and people door have the same R7.5 foam insulation as the walls.
The red heat lamp turned the coop into a spaceship at night.
We moved the chickens in at the beginning of October, just as it started to get cold.
Beethoven, our Polish crested, was the first chicken down the ramp.
The chickens found plenty to pick at in their new home.

An energy-efficient coop built for Alaska
By Stefan Milkowski
Chickens in the arctic?
Sure! Winter temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska regularly drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can snow from September to May. But every spring, the local feed store is alive with the chirping of chicks, and quite a few people successfully raise meat birds and layers, ducks, geese, and turkeys.
After wanting chickens for years, my friend and neighbor Ian and I decided to go for it this spring. We got a motley mix of Black Langshams, red sex links, a Buff Orpington, a White Brahma, an Australorp, a Silkie, a Polish crested, a bantam, and two ducks. We raised the chicks inside and then moved them to an uninsulated shed for the summer. We knew the big challenge would be to keep the chickens warm in the winter – and productive – without spending too much money on heat and light. Fairbanks is only 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and Ian and I live on the north side of a hill that doesn’t get any direct sunlight for a few months each winter.
We both built our own cabins and I was doing weatherization work for a local non-profit, so we had lots of ideas for building an energy-efficient coop. I wanted to try something I’d seen on a farm near Portland, Maine – a passive solar collector using greenhouse panels and a big pile of rocks. The hope was that the rocks would collect heat from the sun during the day and release it into the coop at night, reducing the need for a heat lamp during the shoulder seasons.
We knew people who had pieced together coops with salvaged materials. But I was excited to try out new building techniques and Ian wanted something with curb appeal in front of his cabin, so we went all out.
We framed the floor and walls with local white spruce timbers, cutting mortise and tenon joints and pinning them together with (non-local) oak pegs. We assembled the floor – six by eight feet for the coop, two by eight for the rock pile – in April, when snow still covered the ground. Over the next several months, we cut and assembled the rest of the frame, sheathed the frame with plywood, installed rigid foam insulation (R7.5 on the walls, R10 on the ceiling and floor), and built insulated doors with thick weatherstripping. For siding, we ordered rough-cut 1x8s from the local sawmill and then cut deep shiplaps on the table saw so the boards would still overlap after shrinking. We painted the coop with a traditional barn red paint made from boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and red iron oxide.
We separated the rock pile from the main coop with an insulated wall and cut four vents to allow air circulation. We gathered rocks from a pile of mine tailings in the valley below us, their tops stained red, coincidentally, by iron oxide. The farmer in Maine used 10 cubic yards of rocks to heat his shop. We added rocks until the pile looked about right – 750 pounds in all – and then sealed the rocks behind greenhouse panels. The panels face due south.
As with any Alaskan building project, we ended up racing the weather. We screwed down the metal roofing on an evening when cold air rolled down the hill with the setting sun. It snowed in mid-September, just four months after the last snow in May.
I’d learned from my weatherization work to “build tight and ventilate right,” and we’d sealed the coop tight from floor to ceiling with silicone and spray foam. For ventilation, we cut vents on opposite sides of the coop and installed an in-line duct fan to blow air out. We put a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb on a timer to keep the birds laying as the days got shorter and connected a 250-watt heat lamp to a thermostat. When we tested the red heat lamp one evening, the greenhouse panels glowed like a spaceship. I knew we’d done something right when on a 60-degree fall day, the temperature in the rock pile hit 86 degrees.
We moved the birds in at the start of October. We’d picked up three more layers from friends, bringing our total flock to 14 – a dozen hens and a pair of roosters named Betsy and Celeste. A few days later, a hawk landed in a tree across the street and eyed the flock, reminding us to put a top over our pen. A nighttime raid a few weeks later on our outdoor duck pen forced us to harvest one of the ducks early.
The chickens adjusted quickly to their new home, and within a few weeks, production was as good as one could expect from the breeds. Despite several frosty nights, the heat lamp has yet to come on.
Postscript: Winter came, and we used the heat lamp a lot. The main challenge proved to be keeping the humidity down at relatively low indoor temperatures with all the chicken respiration. We ran the fan quite a bit. Now, with long sunny days in the 30s and below-freezing nights, the coop again seems to be working. We hardly need the lamp at all.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

white mountains 100

When I asked a friend yesterday about his race, he said 60 percent was enjoyable, 20 percent tolerable, and 20 percent suffering. That’s about how mine was. There was a time, around mile 80, after some hot ramen, a slab of bread and butter, and a bowl of coffee, that I thought I could say it was all great except miles 50 to 80. But then I didn’t drink enough, felt feverish in the cold, and nearly crawled up the big hill at mile 93. So maybe it was 60-40.
In short, I finished. I walked 100 miles in a little under 33 hours, missing my reach goal but hitting my main goal. I’d worried about my ankles in the snow, but all my joints held up fine. The blisters, chaffing, and swelling in my feet seem to be healing.
I’d chosen to walk – rather than bike or ski – for the pure athletic challenge. I don’t mean to say riding or skiing 100 miles is easy, just that, relatively speaking, the challenge probably would have shifted toward how fast I could do it rather than if I could do it. My longest training walk had been 35 miles; my longest single day on foot – in the Sluice Box last summer – was 52 miles. Now I’ve gone almost twice that in one push, if not quite in one day.
(It was humbling to be among real runners, for whom the challenge, even on foot, was speed. One racer, a pro from Colorado, ran the course in 17 hours – beating the course record by 12 hours. My friend Dan, doing his first hundred-miler, finished in under 24.)
Maybe the most interesting part, looking back, is figuring out what a body needs to go 100 miles. The simple things, like socks that don’t cause blisters, are probably easy to figure out. But even veteran racers seemed to have problems with food. One guy who finished well ahead of me threw up a bunch. Dan, toward the end, couldn’t digest any of the food he’d brought. In my case, I think I drank too little and ate too much. For many hours my stomach felt awful. After about 18 hours, I had no interest in energy bars. By mile 70, all I wanted was a piece of bread. The pepperoni at mile 82 looked great; cheese had little appeal. Later I craved fresh fruit.
Aside from my feet, I basically felt great the first 45 miles. I was on pace to finish in 25 hours. Then, with night coming as I neared the high point of the course, I stopped to put on a jacket and got dangerously chilled. I’d planned to cruise through the checkpoint at mile 62, but stopped instead and tried to sleep – till 2, then 2:30, then 3. When I finally left, and for miles down the trail, I wore more clothes than normal for the temperature. Fatigue? Dehydration? I didn’t know.
Before the race, my sister had told me to remember that how I felt would probably be like that joke about the weather in Colorado – Don’t like it? Wait 15 minutes. It wasn’t until I’d felt crappy, then good again, that I remembered her advice.
After the last checkpoint, the sun came out and I felt great. I even ran some downhills, imagining matching my friend Trystan’s time from a few years before. Then I ran out of water and felt terrible again, out of whack. Guys on snowmachines passed in big parkas. I wasn’t even wearing a shirt. I started eating snow. My imagined finish time slipped a half hour, then an hour, then more.
I got some water and felt better. On the last few miles, I wondered if I could go a mile further than 100. Maybe, but I sure didn’t want to. Then I heard there was another racer close behind me, gaining fast, so I started running.
Full results are here. Congrats to all the bikers, skiers, and runners! 


One of the things I listened to on my phone while walking through the White Mountains this weekend was a Fresh Air interview with the New Yorker cartoon editor. They talked about shifting tolerance at the magazine for racy cartoons, about where to draw the line on offensive jokes (don’t knowingly offend), and about what makes cartoons funny. In the old days, cartoons were more often jokes with the characters unwitting subjects; now characters usually deliver the punch line. Cartoons range from the literal, easy to understand, to the absurd, where there might not be much to understand. They usually poke fun at the class of people likely to read The New Yorker.
At least that’s what I remember. The editor didn’t talk much about making cartoons, except to say that his most famous – in which a suited exec says into a phone, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?” – came mostly from an exchange he’d had himself. Of creating from whole cloth or drawing from life, the latter seems the easier to me.
Many years ago, my sister, I think inspired by Roz Chast, tried to draw a few cartoons. I remember one in a deli, and one showing several different options for wrapping a California-style burrito. I thought they were pretty funny. In the interview, the editor mentioned a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, frustrated at a New Yorker cartoon she couldn’t understand, tries to write one herself – something about a pig at a complaints department complaining he feels fat. The editor explained it wasn’t technically a joke, although I didn’t understand why.
Anyway, here’s my attempt.

Monday, February 24, 2014

white mountains 100

I knew I should do a big walk yesterday -- leave at first light, walk all day, get home after dark -- but I wasn't feeling particularly motivated when I woke up. I half-complained on the phone with my mother that it takes a fair bit of umph to leave for a 10-hour walk. 
A few months ago, I signed up for the White Mountains 100, a 100-mile winter trail race in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. You can race it on bike, ski, or foot; lacking a fat bike, and wanting the bigger challenge, I chose foot. Now the race is a little more than a month away, and for various reasons, yesterday was the last weekend day I'll have for training. I spent most the day at home, enjoying the return of sun through my south window. A little before three, I laced up my shoes, grabbed my headlamp and some bars, and headed out.
There are different approaches to the WM100. The first two years it was held, my friend Trystan won the foot division by walking. Others ran, or tried to run, but Trystan ultimately moved faster and stopped less than anyone else. Now the race has gained some recognition -- the roster this year includes several racers from the Lower 48 and a guy from Australia -- and attention from experienced ultramarathoners. My friend Dan, who's been running ultras, is coming up, along with his training partner. And then there's this guy, who's been running 100-plus miles a week in training. Last year, the ultrarunner Laura McDonough won the foot division in 30 hours, 41 minutes -- 40 minutes faster than Trystan's best time.
I took dirt roads to McGrath and then followed the Old Steese toward town. Thoughts came and went. I listened, half-focused, to Johnny Cash reading the Bible. I like having a goal in mind when I walk. This time I decided to walk to Mark's. I took a wandering route, and it was 6 o'clock by the time I reached his house in town. We chatted for a bit about a snowmachine trip we're planning. Then I filled my bottle with warm tap water and took off.
Mark and I signed up for the White Mountains together, after volunteering for the race last year. He's a ways down the wait list and might not race, but imagining him there has been a good motivator. If not for Mark, I probably wouldn't have signed up at all. 
I've done most of my training with Ian, who's not even racing. He lives next door, and I think we have a similar training ethos. Or at least he doesn't protest too much. One day, when he planned to accompany me for a few miles, we walked 20. It was all we did that day -- walk -- but somehow the day filled with friends, chance encounters, good food. We watched the sun rise and set. We ate lox at Lulu's. For the second time in six months, we were among the first on scene of a major structure fire. On another, cold, 27-mile walk, our midway goal was Boston's, where we watched the Olympics and washed down greasy food with hoppy pints. With Mark, we walked 22 miles on the Chena River, watching the Yukon Quest teams pass on their way to Whitehorse (photo above).
I'm looking forward to the race as a test. Assuming I finish, I'll be thrilled to know I can walk 100 miles -- think of the trips one could plan! But training for it has also been a treat.
After Mark's, I walked to Carl's Jr. and got a turkey jalapeno burger, then went to visit another friend. I like connecting the places I usually drive. I've walked to the post office, the supermarket, the video store. It takes longer, but it's possible. It was dark now, and the goal of staying cool enough to not sweat had left me chilled despite above-zero temps. I was also getting bored. I had a cup of tea and tried to decide whether to go big or go home.
My friend gave me the kick in the butt I needed. I stopped at a gas station and bought some crackers and candy, then walked past the UAF farm and out Sheep Creek. I listened to New Yorker fiction podcasts. Under the last streetlight, I retied my shoe and put on my balaclava. I chugged a half-frozen Starbucks DoubleShot. It was cold in the valley, and I welcomed the uphills.
I made it to Ivory Jack's a little after ten. The bar was still open, but I kept walking. The checkpoints in the race are 20 miles apart. From here it was 10 or 12 miles to home.
Breathing into the balaclava had caused my glasses to fog and then ice up, so I'd taken them off. I could see the road in the light of my headlamp and the trees on the horizon and not much else. Then a blurry light appeared in the east. I scraped my glasses clean and watched the green aurora spread out across the sky. Later I saw a patch of red, the first I'd seen in years.
Cars slowed as they passed. I waved to show I was there by choice.
I was chilled and probably dehydrated. The balls of my feet, which I'd failed to duct tape, had the feel of blisters coming on. 
A Fresh Air podcast with the director of American Hustle got me to Fox. And then I was home.
When I checked this morning, I'd done 35 miles. I'll take better care of my feet in the race, and drink more. And if the challenge seems too great come race day, I might just ski instead.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

global weirding

I spent a few hours Thursday afternoon shoveling. I shoveled the path to the outhouse, and then the gravel pad around my cabin. If you don’t keep on it, you just delay spring. This year, my driveway was covered in snow till mid-May.
The night before, a storm blew in from the Bering Sea, bringing 70 mile-an-hour gusts and near-record warm temperatures. Before the storm, or maybe with the storm, it drizzled freezing rain, snowed, and then rained, so when the wind came Wednesday night, it shook clumps of heavy, wet snow from the trees. Several times the sound made me think someone had come to my door. When huge sheets of snow slid from my roof and hit the ground, the whole cabin shook.
In my loft, I cracked the window open – it was 40 degrees, which felt tropical – and listened to the wind in the trees and the occasional crack of trunk or limb. The light flicked off and on. I did not sleep well.
In the morning, the power was out. I lit a few candles and a kerosene lantern and made coffee on the wood stove, opening another window so I wouldn’t overheat. My phone’s battery was half-full. I checked on my chickens (at my friend Ian’s house down the street) to make sure their water wouldn’t freeze, but it was 30 degrees outside and warmer in the coop.
Aside from electronics, my only concern was a thawing freezer. When I got my first caribou, six years ago, it was mid-October and I just kept the meat in a plastic tub outside. But that wouldn’t have worked this year. After an early snow in September, we had record highs in October, and now, in mid-November, it was 40 degrees. The normal high this time of year is 11.
My friends Trystan and Mareca arrived (Trystan lives across the street) and started shoveling his drive. Mareca said she felt bad for the voles, who tunnel through the snow in the winter. She wondered if they’d be able to get around now that the snow was saturated with rain. I hadn’t thought of them, but had heard of caribou struggling to get at lichen after freezing rain.
The power came on just after they left, a little after 10. My meat and fish would be fine.
Trystan had mentioned that some Bering Sea villages got hit hard. My cell service (and hence Internet) worked fine, so I got online and read the news. The News-Miner quoted Ed Plumb, of the National Weather Service, talking about the ice grains and freezing drizzle in Fairbanks on Wednesday morning. None of the meteorologists had seen anything like it; the air temperature was 10 degrees and freezing drizzle was falling. What made it really weird, Plumb said, was that there were no above-freezing temperatures anywhere in the atmosphere.
Wednesday evening, the temperature had jumped 20 degrees in an hour and a half.
There were unofficial reports of lightening.
Flights were cancelled.
Schools were closed Wednesday and again Thursday. The Fairbanks district hadn’t had a snow day for decades until the Icepocalypse, in 2010, when more than half an inch of rain fell the week of Thanksgiving and school was canceled for three days. Now we had two more days.
The news from the Bering Sea was even worse. “The town was actually a part of the ocean,” Thomas Sinka, the mayor of Kotlik, told the Alaska Dispatch. Water and ice flooded the village and knocked out connections between houses and the above-ground water and sewer system. Freezers were flooded, contaminated with diesel and sewage. Food was ruined at the store. 
Health providers were flying in bottled water, disinfectants, and vaccines. If they can't fix the water and sewer systems, people will be hauling water and pooping in buckets all winter.
One story quoted Michael Kutz of the National Weather Service saying warm water in the Bering Sea had kept sea ice from forming – and protecting the coast – as it normally does this time of year. Sinka said even some of the elders hadn’t seen a storm this bad. The first surge came on Saturday; the second hit on Wednesday.
I thought about guys I met in Barrow years ago talking about ice cellars (used to store whale and other meat) filling with water as the permafrost thawed. 
I read an op-ed by an Australian woman about increased wildfires there, and a new flood of jellyfish in the water around Sydney. 
On Facebook, I learned I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t slept well.
I went outside. It looked like it was snowing lightly, but it felt like rain. It was 29 degrees.
There was about 10 inches of snow on the roof of my woodshed, probably saturated with rain. I figured the rough-cut rafters could handle it, but it made me wonder. I know there are tables somewhere that calculate snow load and framing needs based on roof pitch and location. In Valdez, you need to plan for big dumps of wet snow; in Fairbanks, the snow is usually light. I know there are numbers for floods and winds, too.
I shoveled in a t-shirt, heaving shovelfuls off the edge of my gravel pad. The snow was thick and hard where it had slid from my roof, and I wondered if my shovel – the perfect shovel, I thought, for Fairbanks – was up to the task. I could buy a new shovel, but that’s not the point. The point is that lately it seems like we’re not living in the world we used to live in.
On a philosophical level, it seems like a damn waste. I think there’s something beautiful about an object ideally suited to its job. A canoe perfectly suited to a river. A house built just right for the seasons. They reflect the knowledge and care of the maker. Houses are built the way they are because that’s what works; ideally, the process reflects hundreds of years of trial and error. People learn to travel, hunt, and fish by deeply understanding the world around them. Plants and animals “learn” to survive in a given environment. Change that environment too much and all that knowledge becomes useless.
On a practical level, it’s dangerous. Houses flood and fail when they’re not built for new conditions. People die when river ice doesn’t behave like it used to.
When I went after caribou this fall, just north of the Brooks Range, it was windy and warm. We didn’t find any animals. Driving back down the Dalton, I nearly slid off the road near Coldfoot. At Finger Mountain, we waited through the night where a truck blocked the road. Normally the road would be frozen hard by mid-October, but the warm weather had made it slick. The trucker got halfway up the hill. When he stopped to put on chains, the parked truck slid off the road. It was a tanker full of diesel, and fully half its wheels were hanging in midair off the shoulder. Some of the other truckers and hunters were surprised it hadn’t split in half.
Snow coming off my roof had nearly buried my snowmachine, which was already covered in ice. I shoveled it out and fired it up, chipping ice off the cowling as it warmed. I did the same with my truck, using my ice scraper on the roof. I shoveled around my parking spot and hoped my neighbor with a plow would help with the drive.
This whole year has been weird weatherwise. Winter was long, with snow into May. The Tanana River ice didn’t go out till May 20, the latest date in 97 years of record-keeping. Then the summer was hot and dry, with a record number of 80-degree days in Fairbanks. 
It was Thomas Friedman who coined (or at least popularized) the term “global weirding.” He was trying to convey that global warming wouldn’t just make the planet a degree or two warmer; it would make the weather weirder. Thinking about Kotlik, weirding – or warming, or change, for that matter – seemed quaint and outdated. Maybe we need a new word.
Daylight faded away. I put on my headlamp and kept shoveling. The temperature dropped. I put on a sweatshirt. I checked the birds again, reset the timer on their light, and walked back with my cold hands wrapped around warm eggs. My neighbor came and plowed my drive, turning down an offer of beer.
I finished shoveling and went inside. Someone on the radio announced that schools would be closed again on Friday; a truck was partially blocking the Dalton Highway.
And that was just a mic break. Alaska News Nightly was surreal.
The first story was about the Bering Sea villages. Two-thirds of Kotlik’s water and sewer system was shut down and a good part of the village was staying at the high school. Flooding in Stebbins had left several houses uninhabitable. Water had breached a seawall in Teller and washed away hundreds of yards of beach. Shishmaref was preparing for another surge that night.
Then Fairbanks. Thirteen thousand households had lost power – from falling trees, blown fuses, and broken crossarms – and many still didn’t have it back. It hit 44 degrees Wednesday (one degree shy of the record); a quarter inch of rain fell, along with five inches of snow.
After that, a hay shortage. Late planting and a hot summer had resulted in low yields. Straw is selling at double last year’s prices. Farmers are slaughtering or giving away livestock; mushers are straining at the cost of straw bedding for their dogs.
The next story was about a study correlating high latitudes with high suicide rates.
I turned off the radio and rode my snowmachine down the hill to get some beer. Small trees were littered across the side of the road. I nearly bogged down in the heavy snow, then bounced over piles that had already set up.
On Friday morning, it was five degrees. According to the News-Miner, 3,000 households still didn’t have power, putting them at risk of frozen pipes. Every store in town had sold out of generators, and the electric utility had hired every lineman available. Fred Meyer was throwing out perishable food. 
My phone says it will be minus 20 by the middle of next week.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

eating local

I decided a month ago that I wouldn't go to Fred Meyer in October. I'm a sucker for silly challenges, and I was feeling like my life wasn't sustainable, with all its driving and consuming. I wanted to know what I could do without and where things came from. Not going to the supermarket might not sound like much, but I've more or less gone every few days for the last several years, and it's become a part of life.
I figured I would mostly eat "local" in the sense my sister coined -- from one's own supplies. (How fitting is this print someone just gave my friend Christina!) My sister has tried this herself at times, but I think her real inspiration comes from our mother, who always says she has no food in her house, to which my sister always replies, You could eat for months!
I wanted to test that theory. I wanted to drive less and shop less, and I thought it would be a fun experiment. What could I get locally? Would I eat better, or worse? To the extent that I did shop, I chose, somewhat arbitrarily, to buy locally produced food from locally owned stores.
One of the first things I learned is that the local beer is actually pretty good. I happen to live within walking distance of Silver Gulch (the northernmost brewery in the US), which is closer even than the spring where I get water. Years ago I decided I didn't care for their beers, but I tried again and quite liked the Pilsner. I mention beer because I remember Bill McKibben saying he'd switched to local beer. It cost twice as much, so he drank half as much, and it all worked out. Even better when you can walk there.
October started warm, so one day I went looking for lowbush cranberries. I didn't find any on the ski trails, so I rode my motorcycle 35 miles to a spot where I'd seen good ones while looking for moose in September. A gallon of gas to my gallon of berries seemed both outrageous and not that surprising. I could have biked there, I thought after. It would have been a hilly ride, and taken all day, but probably been a pretty good day.
About a week in, I realized I was crossing a threshhold. I started to finish off the easy, sweet, and fatty foods -- the bread and cheese (and all its variations); the yoghurt, fruit, and granola; the Nutella, mac and cheese, and hot chocolate. Ordinarily I would have just replaced these foods. Instead, I started eating oats, honey, pasta and rice. When the raisins disappeared, I stopped grabbing a few every time I walked past the counter. I had lots of frozen blueberries and cranberries, but turning them into something sweet took just enough effort to discourage snacking.
It became clear to me that eating local would take more time (coming from someone who fairly regularly ate instant camping food at home). Two weeks in, I went caribou hunting up north with some friends. It was the kind of trip that normally would have sent me to Fred's for ramen and mashed potatoes, candy bars, and some kind of meat. This time I cooked up some energy bars with molasses, oats, and peanut butter and dried moose jerky on top of the wood stove. (Then I mooched cheese from a friend and ate most of his tortilla chips. Sorry Mark!) It all tasted good, but it took time. I started to appreciate things like canned beans -- they're already cooked! But I also realized that some things I never make because I think they'll take too long, like muffins and cornbread, are actually super easy.
As things ran out, I got creative. I allowed myself milk from Delta Junction (you can get it at the feed store), but when I ran out one day and wanted something sweet, I mixed blueberries, maple syrup, and a chunk of frozen banana into coconut milk. It wasn’t bad. Another night, I made real popcorn (I've had those kernels for years) for dinner, with nutritional yeast.
I tried to think broadly about buying local. None of my friends need firewood this year, so instead of going into the woods alone with a chainsaw, I went to the local sawmill and paid 35 bucks for a pickup load of planer ends -- dry wood, cut locally, milled in town. It's the same place I got the wood for my cabin. Their commercial cuts outside town are unsightly at first, but turn into pretty good moose-hunting spots after a few years.
One night I bought a beautiful hand-made book of poems from a friend; another night I so wanted to read a particular novel that I didn't wait the few days to order it through the local bookstore and got it at Barnes and Noble instead. I used the ATM from a local bank, and probably could have figured out which gas stations sell gas refined in Alaska. It occurs to me that how far you take it, and how you choose to do it, depends on your goal. You'll take one path if you want to reduce your carbon footprint and probably a slightly different path if your main goal is to keep your dollars in the community.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise, but the pressure to shop was impressive. I bought some glue from Michaels (I needed it), and they gave me a coupon for 40 percent off my next purchase. The Sunday paper is heavy with similar coupons and ads. How can you afford not to shop?
I realize there are many people who do without by no choice of their own, and I don’t mean offense to them. But I think I'm a sucker for the quaint and totally unAmerican idea of not shopping, or at least buying things used. I wonder if Rev. Billy's Church of Stop Shopping, which became the Church of Stop Bombing in the early 2000s, ever switched back.
My friend Ian pointed out the other day that biologically speaking, Alaska is not particularly productive. But I have salmon, moose, and caribou in my freezer, along with rhubarb, blueberries, and those late-season lingonberries. One night I made a stew with some moose my friend's dad shot in their yard and carrots Ian grew next door.
Ian and I now have chickens that give us seven or eight eggs a day.
That said, there are many things one can't get locally. I haven't found local cheese, nor would I really want to, when the world is full of delicious cheeses. I can buy good coffee roasted in Anchorage (or Fairbanks, for that matter), but I already miss my Café Bustelo espresso, its yellow can reminding me of New York. I miss my Bonne Mamman jam and the memories it brings, even if I have some delicious jam from a friend. I will miss my Thai chili paste with basil leaves.
I've proved no good at rationing, which I actually see as a good thing. My father had a habit of saving special foods for special occasions, which resulted in decade-old condiments and freezer-burned wild game. I eat the best things first. Why not?
I've been fairly flexible, allowing meals out, mooching, and the occasional vending machine candy bar. It's been a good lesson in doing without, an impetus to cook real food, and a way to clear shelves of stuff I never eat. I've been surprised at how much one can get locally. I certainly haven't lost any weight.
Others are taking the experiment much more seriously, and it's fun to think about an all-Alaskan diet. Fats would have to come from animals (rendered from waterfowl?), but could include lots of fish oil. Sweets would be berries, maybe apples, honey, and carrots. In a sense, this is the question of what would happen if shipping to Alaska were somehow interrupted and supermarket shelves went quickly empty.
With a few days to go, things are getting interesting. I have pounds of rye flour left, dried beans, udon noodles, whey protein powder, and a bottle of clam juice. But I'm out of butter and peanut butter, and I could use some fruit. Yesterday, craving fresh food, I ate a pint of salsa from Anchorage. (While the tomatoes probably came from California, I imagine that eating locally prepared foods and eating out are great ways to keep money in the community.)
If I invited someone to dinner now, I'd be tempted to say I don't have any food, but it wouldn't be true. There's plenty of moose in the freezer, a little oil to fry it in, and salt and pepper to season. My sister was right.

Friday, October 4, 2013

kanuk vs alaska

I watched the oral arguments before the Alaska Supreme Court yesterday for Kanuk v Alaska, streamed live from Barrow. Four of the five justices made it (one was sick). A lawyer for the plaintiffs made their case for overturning the lower court's rejection, and a lawyer for the state explained why he thought the plaintiffs lacked standing. 
The hearing was billed as educational -- the auditorium was half-filled with Barrow high school students -- and there was some feeling the court was hearing the case to encourage young people to get involved. But the case was also real, and serious, and if you believed the plaintiff's lawyer, in some ways similar to Massachusetts v EPA, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that Massachusetts and other plaintiffs did have standing, and which directed the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act (Alaska fought that one, too). If you were to speculate based on judges' questions, you'd think there might even be a possibility the Court would grant the sought-for declaration -- that the atmosphere is a public trust subject to state protection -- even if it denied the sought-for injunctions, namely emissions reductions of six percent per year through 2050 (apparently what Jim Hansen says is needed to get back to 350 parts per million). The state's lawyer, answering a question after, admitted that was his biggest concern.
According to APRN's coverage of the hearing, it was the first state Supreme Court hearing of such a case -- and a similar case won in a lower court in Texas.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Brad DeNoble, argued the age-old public trust doctrine, as well as the state's constitution, required the state to protect the atmosphere. He argued the best available science should be used as a standard of sorts to determine the state's response. A few minutes in, Justice Winfree asked how one could prioritize the duties of the constitution (to utilize, develop, and conserve). Could not someone argue the state had failed to develop? he asked. I worried the hearing would be a mess of contrariness. I don't even remember how DeNoble responded -- I think he said that question was not before the court. But thinking now, I wonder if Winfree was on to something. If you can't develop and conserve at the same time (and many would argue you can't), which is the greater duty?
It was Chief Justice Fabe who asked about severability, twice, actually, going back and forth with DeNoble on how the Court could offer a declaration if it found the relief (the emissions reductions) beyond their reasonable determination. DeNoble was vague, but said there were other kinds of relief they could offer. 
The state's lawyer, Seth Beausang, argued the case did not belong before the courts at all because the plaintiffs lacked standing, the state was not responsible for the global problem, and redress was impossible because Alaska could not significantly affect the global concentration of GHGs. 
Justice Maassen noted that Nelson Kanuk had lost his house from erosion from thawing permafrost. How is that not an injury deserving of standing? Justice Bolger noted that bark beetles had killed the spruce trees in Katherine's yard. Isn't that harm?
Beausang said the plaintiffs' own argument, that climate change could make the world uninhabitable (I doubt they asserted quite that), meant that their harm as individuals would be no different than the harm felt by all. 
So who would have standing? asked Maassen.
"I don't think anyone does, your honor."
Beausang argued the issue legally and practically should be one for the other two branches of government. DeNoble argued they were there because the Legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duties. ("Punted" is the word he used after the justices left.) Thankfully, the court did not attempt to debate the science of climate change, which all parties agreed was beyond their ability. 
You can watch the hearing here
Maybe he was just playing to the audience, but Beausang came across as almost sympathetic, as if constrained by a pro-development administration. He wasn't arguing nothing could be done about climate change, he told the audience after, just that it shouldn't happen in the courts. "You should get as involved as you possibly can to try to convince the political branch (branches?) to take action." 
There weren't many signs of passion from the crowd; two students asked what the plaintiffs planned to do with the money (they are not seeking money). But Katherine and Nelson were impressive. Nelson, who is a freshman at UAF, spoke calmly and well, telling an audience not much his junior that he was trying to help them and their children and grandchildren. (He's already gotten a fair bit of media, including this story from NPR.) Katherine Dolma, a senior at Homer High School, said she hoped the case would be "the change that starts a huge movement."
Julie Olson, who runs a group called Our Children's Trust, said they had connected the students in Alaska (there are six plaintiffs in all) with lawyers two years ago, and are helping with similar youth-led lawsuits in other states. She said the students here got involved because they wanted to do more than write letters and march.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

moose by the numbers

After another, final unsuccessful evening of looking for moose, Mark pointed out that he'd spent 1/18th of his year thinking about moose. We both figured it's actually more than that, if you consider the hours we spent in advance of the three-week moose season or the fact that we might keep looking with fall and winter hunts. All told, I spent part or all of 11 days hunting moose -- anywhere from one hour to 14 hours, not including drive time of 15 to 45 minutes to get to hunting areas. On the first day of the season, we saw or heard four moose; on the last day, I was glad to hear one. Several days we saw only tracks, and sometimes barely that. In all, my various hunting partners (Mark, Ian, and Toby) and I had one good shot at a moose -- a beautiful one at that -- and I missed it. It's an awful feeling I'm still trying to get over. I think about Eminem's one shot, and missing it. I think about how much I wanted the story to end differently, and how a losing gambler could keep betting. Then I think of my sister, who reminded me it's just a moose. And of the obvious response: be better prepared next time.
In one heavily hunted area near Fairbanks, 1/4 to 1/3 of hunters are successful each season. The News-Miner's outdoors reporter, who almost always gets a moose, wrote this week that he spent nearly 15 hours a day for 10 days watching a single meadow and waiting for a bull. He watched the ducks and muskrat, and he saw the leaves change color before his eyes. I know I don't have that kind of patience, or faith -- that after 120 hours, a moose might come on the 121st hour. We watched a few places for whole evenings or mornings, then decided our luck there had run out and left, only to wonder again if the willows really were greener somewhere else.
If the first weeks were mostly hopeful, and the start of the third mostly marked by regret, by the end of the third I'd learned to appreciate the hunt even when we weren't successful. I liked the feelings of perceptiveness -- noticing a single birch leaf fall 150 yards away, or smelling where a moose had been. I liked driving home with my face tingling from sun or cold. I liked feeling my heart race when we had our one shot, and again when I thought I'd called in a bull by imitating a lovesick cow.
By the end of the season, the cranberries were juicy and sweet from hard frosts and even spongy ground had turned solid. (We had our first snow 121 days after the last snow of the spring.) On the last daylight hour of the season, I remembered that I got my moose last year in the first daylight hour, but we had no parallel luck. We walked up the hill to the truck and I wondered if it's too late to hunt ducks.

Friday, September 13, 2013


I went to a grazing workshop last weekend. I am not a farmer and don't imagine I'll ever have the patience to run a real farm. But I do love animals and was quite sure I'd learn something, as I knew basically nothing about grazing. The workshop was taught by Ben Bartlett, a farmer and retired Michigan State University extension agent, and organized by the university here. It was held at the Large Animal Research Station. We were asked not to wear our normal farm clothes to reduce the risk of farm-to-farm contamination. 
When we went around the room for introductions on Friday, I was one of only a few without a herd of some sort. Others had sheep, musk ox or swine. One had a "small cow-calf operation." I was glad to be able to say I just had chickens, as if that were some minimal qualification. Ben was gracious, noting that chickens eat grass, too.
He gave us a handout titled Successful Grazing with Holistic Management that said the goal of the workshop was to make us successful graziers. He said the idea of holistic management came from Allan Savory, in Africa. It's a tool that, used correctly, can help people "achieve an enjoyable, profitable, and sustainable future," as the handout put it. I did some Googling: According to the website of the Savory Institute, Savory was a Zimbabwean biologist, game rancher, politician, farmer and rancher who wanted to “save the beautiful savannah and its wildlife.” The website includes a video, made with help from Deepak Chopra, that claims “grass needs animals to thrive” and argues we can reverse desertification by managing livestock in a way that mimics wild herds. Ben is a board member and educator for Holistic Management International, an independent non-profit based in Albuquerque dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers around the world.
Ben introduced holistic management more from a personal than a planetary perspective, as a way to run a farm that makes money and meets social and environmental goals, kind of like the "triple bottom line" approach of looking out for profits, people, and the planet. He said for a while MSU was giving grants to farmers for various marketing projects, but when they checked back a few years later, many of the farmers had abandoned the projects. Sure, they made money selling at the farmers’ market, but they had to get up at 4am every Saturday.
Ben did not push his vision of social goals. He introduced some principles of decision making, like figuring out who needs to be involved in decisions, how much money you have to invest, and what resources are available to you (your truck, or someone who can do chores when you’re away, or a source for a new ram). Then he asked us to consider what’s important to us: “What do you want out of life?” He gave us a few minutes. 
Ben’s wife Denise sat in the back of the room. 
He did not push, I say, except that his and Denise’s vision was hard to argue with. We will have a life that is active, productive and always learning... It talked about honesty and integrity, financial security, and a "mutually rewarding marriage." It took them two years to write. Even the way Ben talked about money -- that most obvious of goals -- belied it as a means rather than an end.
He encouraged us to think in terms of goals and whether the things we do help us reach them. He and Denise realized recently they could get by without farming; they considered if they wanted to keep doing it and decided yes. You should run the farm, Denise said. Don’t let the farm run you. A man with cracked and dirty hands said he’d heard there’s a period of misery at the start of every farm project. “I mean, how long do you let that go?” he asked. Ben said it’s important to monitor whether you’re meeting your social goals as well as your financial goals. 
What you leave behind is really important, he said. You don’t want to be the guy who dies with lots of money and is remembered as a cheapskate. He said he wants to help people graze better, and then he gave us a few minutes to imagine our own legacy.
“When you write something down, be careful, because I can flat guarantee it’ll happen,” he said.
If some of this makes Ben sound like an out-of-touch idealist, it shouldn’t. He jokes that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a man who dutifully separated his plastics for recycling, and he is far from a hobby farmer. He and Denise have 400 to 500 ewes and raise 100 to 200 head of stock cattle each year, with only occasional day help. They grow over a million pounds of grass each season.
In Ben’s view, livestock farmers are primarily growers of grass: “It’s all about collecting sunshine to grow the plants to feed the animals to make you money.” The number of animals you have is limited by the amount of feed available (and the opposite, in a sense, but more on that later). He said he would raise camels if they could convert grass to cash better, to which Denise replied that they would not raise camels.
Ben shifted toward the nuts and bolts, presenting us with a blank table in the handout for us to tally our fields, acreage, and estimated productivity in pounds of grass per acre available for grazing each year. I asked how much variability he assumed in grass production and he said fifty percent is not out of the ordinary. Plans are inevitably wrong when you’re dealing with biological systems, he said. We can land the Mars Rover within yards, years after takeoff, but we don’t know if it’s going to rain this afternoon. He seemed okay with that.
We went outside and walked through a gate onto a very green hillside.
“This is some real nice grazing here,” Ben said. There were small patches of brown, and some places with very little grass, but mostly the grass was thick. Little cones of musk ox poop were nearly hidden in the grass. We gathered around Ben, who wore leather boots and Wranglers. “Listen when I shovel,” he said, aiming for a clump of thick grass. He struggled. “You brought me a dull shovel,” he teased the animals’ caretaker, a young woman named Emma. He ran his hands through the wedge he’d cut and explained that it was all grass, several inches down. There was no dirt, and therefore no way for the organic matter to be broken down by bugs and other means. 
He talked about watering troughs and how they were “manure magnets” because animals will have a drink, walk twenty steps, and poop. The animals end up transferring nutrients from where they graze to where they poop. Moving the water source can help. 
He explained that an uneaten, lush spot was likely a urine spot, and he told the story of a dairy farmer intent on getting his cows to finish a last green strip in a paddock. You got enough room in your milk tank? Ben had asked him. Yup. You got more pasture? Yup. Then move them.
The fact that some spots were grazed low while others were still green suggested the animals were being choosey, he said. If you have eight donuts for nine people, people will grab for them, but if you have dozens for a few people, they’ll get picky. Animals with lots of freedom will form trails; those more confined will spread out evenly.
A graduate student had a special tool that measured kilograms of biomass per hectare, which Ben said is almost the same as pounds per acre. She got about 2,000 kilograms where we were -- an acre’s worth of grass weighed about a ton. Ben said they will graze 400 family units (ewes plus lambs) on eight acres for two days. Assuming a ewe and her lamb or lambs together eat 8 pounds per day, the animals will eat 6,400 pounds over the two days, or 800 pounds per acre. They could keep grazing there, but it’s important to leave some green leaf so the grass can grow back quickly. 
Ben explained how they put lambs and ewes on adjoining paddocks after weaning so they can talk through the fence. He made fun of old ranchers who separated calves, branded them, and put them on a new pasture – where maybe on a clear night they could hear their mothers bellowing a half-mile away – and then wondered why they got sick. "I mean, can you stress them any more?" he said.
There was only one time when Ben sounded a little out of his element, like Fairbanks was a long way from the Upper Peninsula. When someone explained that people here think compost just kills the grass, Ben suggested spreading it in fall, after the growing season. A man from the cooperative extensive service said that's not recommended because spring run off will wash it away. Late summer? Ben said.
Emma told me she wanted it to rain because she’d just spread fertilizer.
When we went inside, Ben stressed “pasture walks” as a way to learn from others. Even a veteran farmer will be a beginner if he doesn't try new things or take advantage of others’ experience, he said. “You’re not going to get 100 grazing seasons, and you can’t learn it from a book.” Try new things, visit other farms. Ben said farmers knew about rotating crops for many many years, but forgot most of it in the Midwest. “You talk to guys in Iowa and they think corn and soybeans is a rotation,” he said, and everyone laughed. It encouraged me to think the passive solar chicken coop we're building might be an experiment we and others can learn from.
Ben explained that grass basically goes through three phases. First it draws on root reserves to get going. Then, once it has some green leaf to absorb energy from the sun, it grows quickly. And finally, when it’s done growing, it reproduces and goes into senescence. (Minus the photosynthesis, it didn’t sound too unlike humans.) He said we should start grazing when the grass has three leaves -- most grasses can support exactly three healthy leaves, although broan grass can have a dozen or more -- and stop grazing when there’s still some green leaf left. The pasture we visited was suffering from grazing deficiency, or too few animals, allowing the animals to be choosy. In some places, they’d eaten the tender new growth in spots they’d already grazed, depleting the plants' reserves.
Ben asked a man with 18 ewes how many bales of hay he could get from an acre of grass, and the man struggled to answer. For a few years his grass was four feet high, but for the last three years it’s only grown to six inches. A man from Delta Junction said farmers were grateful this year if they had a third their normal production; some didn’t even harvest their hay. He said one dairy farmer is already buying round bales from Alberta -- for $300 to $500 a bail.
Ben said it’s important to find your average production and recognize that half the time you’ll be below average. He didn’t mean to be insensitive to Alaskan farmers suffering from a summer without rain. He just meant you have to put up hay in the good years.
At one point, he said, “Nothing is as good as grazing,” and I think he was comparing grazing to buying feed, but it seemed like he could have meant it without any context. There’s nothing as good as grazing.
As we left for the day, it started to rain.

On Saturday morning, we started in the classroom again. Ben said he was up at 4 am thinking about grass. He showed us photos on a PowerPoint of his farm – ewes and lambs in mid-May, sheep and steers separated by five-wire fence, a border collie doing what it was bred to do. The sun was out and the grass was filled with clover and buttercup and dandelion. Visions ran through my head. “This is when you’re really excited about being a sheep farmer,” Ben said. 
Sometimes they’ll move the sheep as much as a mile -- a thousand animals trotting through the woods, led by a husband and wife and dog. Even five abreast, the animals could stretch a quarter mile.
There was a long discussion on using a self-feeder for loose minerals. (Rain can leach the salt from a salt lick.) I took away that Ben and Denise look for the best product at a fair price and accept that they’ll have to modify and fix it. “If you can’t build something so it won’t break, built it so it will break where you want,” he said.
Now might be a good time to mention Ben’s affinity for aphorisms. I’m actually kind of a sucker for these bits of wisdom -- even when they’re painfully obvious, it would help us all if we actually followed them. Here are a few, from the two days:
You gotta do something different to get different results.
Plans are Nothing; Planning is Everything (attributed to Dwight Eisenhower).
Plans are only Good Intentions unless they immediately degenerate into Hard Work (attributed to Peter Drucker).
Big things never happen. (Keep the big picture in mind, but focus on small steps.)
Slow is fast (when animal handling).
We can only achieve what we can dream.
The one time I questioned this type of thing was when Ben said, “You spend your life doing the means, but the means are not what it’s all about.” I think he meant that raising livestock is satisfying because it makes their life “active, productive and always learning.” But for all his talk about social goals, it seemed odd to downplay the day-in, day-out. If you didn’t like the acts of farming -- or anything else, for that matter -- it’s hard to imagine lasting long enough to reach your goals.
During a break, I stood outside with a guy who works at LARS and talked about chickens. We concluded they’re not a moneymaker but worth it anyway. A hundred yards away, a few musk ox shuffled back and forth in the late-morning mist, moving surprisingly fast, and smooth, with their thick hair covering up most signs of motion. “I’ve never outrun one,” said a man with a musk ox farm in Palmer. The two of them talked about breeding techniques.
Ben took us through some paddock math. If you graze your animals (graze can be transitive or intransitive and can refer to the farmer’s action or his animals’) for three days in one paddock -- the longest you’d want without risking animals eating new growth -- and it takes about three weeks for a grazed paddock to recover, you need 21 divided by 3 paddocks, plus the one the animals are in.
He gave us time to imagine our own farms. I thought about the land where I grew up in upstate New York. If you could produce 2,500 pounds of grass per acre on a 20-acre farm, you could only have 50 ewe families, and that would only feed them during the growing season. It made me think you’d need a lot of land to have livestock.
We ate lunch in the classroom. A man told me about the breed of pigs he’s raising and how the sows did fine down to 50 below in an unheated shelter. The boar got frostbite on his testicles.
Ben came back with some broan grass he’d yanked up from a wet spot, to show us all the leaves. He talked about electric fences (shock the lambs once good in the spring and it won’t matter if the fence is broken in August) and ways to get water to paddocks (they use a special plastic pipe from Israel).
The last part of the workshop was devoted to low stress livestock handling. It was one of the reasons I’d signed up, imagining wrapping my arms gently around a caribou, or running my fingers through the amazing long hair of a musk ox. In fact, animal handling just means moving animals, which rarely if ever involves actual contact.
Low stress animal handling emphasizes non-verbal communication and relies on asking animals to move rather than forcing them. Its pioneers are Temple Grandin, the expert of animal science whose design ideas have dramatically changed livestock handling facilities; Bud Williams, the expert handler who once corralled a whole herd of Canadian reindeer alone and on foot; and Burt Smith, whose research has helped explain animal behavior. Ben talked about animals’ anatomy (they can see and hear a lot, but not well), instinct, and how they learn from experience.
The man with the musk ox, who is large, said he scares off his young bulls, even runs after them to put them in place. A man with sheep, who is thin, said his rams keep testing him -- he has to tie them up or they’ll charge him from behind. Denise advised him to find some new rams. Ben said he doesn't spar with their animals; he just assumes they will respect him.
Someone asked about their rams, and Ben had to think. “Where are the rams right now?” he asked his wife. The hill lot, she said. They only have 11, and the animals just graze here and there, cleaning up weeds.
Ben showed a video of him moving a herd of 1,500-pound cattle toward a gate. He was alone and on foot, walking straight lines (curved lines are threatening), back and forth, at the edge of the animals’ flight zone. Don’t force them to move, just get them to want to move. The herd will follow the leaders; stragglers will follow the herd. It took two or three minutes. Slow is fast.
The skies cleared up and we went outside. We followed Emma down a passageway and filed into a small enclosure. She and Ben stayed in a larger enclosure, then opened a gate and led three musk ox in. Ben carried a plywood shield; Emma had only steel-toed ExtraTufs. The animals’ hair nearly brushed the ground around their hooved feet. Ben walked the two-year-old back and forth along a fence, and then the 16-year-old, who was less testy. The 18-year-old (I forget their names) stood by the gate with Emma. Ben said the animals were confused because Emma hadn't fed them yet. 
The musk ox bull and his harem (in another field) wandered down the hill and gathered on the other side of a gate. The bull roared like a lion. The 16-year-old walked over to him and started butting her horns repeatedly against the metal gate. Ben came over to talk to us while Emma tried to get the three females back into their field. She walked around calmly, putting her hand on the rear of the old ones when she had to, because the old beasts knew her and let her.
The reindeer proved harder to move. (LARS has musk ox, reindeer, and caribou, about 60 animals in all.) There were four females, two older and two younger. Their ankles clacked like castanets as they walked. Ben tried to herd them into a corner, but they kept returning to a different corner. We leaned our arms against the metal gate like old ranchers. A flock of sandhill cranes flew overhead. 
The longer we watched, the more I saw. The antlers of the two-year-olds had a single long spike, while the older reindeer’s antlers had several points. One of the reindeer twisted her head nearly upside down, stood on three legs, and with delicate balance scratched the velvet of an antler with her hoof. Ben said the girl with the velvet had a lot of attitude. When they decided they wanted to, they moved to the far corner. But then they started to get nervous, so Ben stopped. “There’s not a lot of flight zone, but there’s a lot of attitude,” he said, adding that it is possible to breed for temperament.
One of the older cows walked almost straight toward us and snorted. Then class was over. We said our thank yous, and Emma went off to feed the musk ox.