Sunday, September 10, 2017

Costa Rica bike tour

Despite our conviction that we all need to be flying less, not more, Brie and I made a holiday trip to Costa Rica. Neither of us had been to Central America, and we had an invitation to stay from a coworker of Brie's who's built a life there for the time he's not in Alaska.
Early in our planning, we considered riding bikes (we had about ten days before visiting Brie's friend), but a quick search scared us off -- blogs and guides warned of crazy drivers and pothole-filled roads. When we came back to the idea months later, it seemed opinions were split. One couple described past trips by bike but added that they don't ride there anymore and wouldn't recommend it to anyone. A Dutch hotel-owner who rents mountain bikes proclaimed bike touring was an excellent choice for everyone. Pura Vida! We decided to give it a shot.
In the end, most of what we read, the cautionary as well as the optimistic, proved true. And in the end we came to think cycling can be great -- if you do it a certain way. Here, then, is our contribution to the small Googleable canon of writing on bike touring in Costa Rica.
Beginning with some basics: After our third day on the bikes, we joked that each day had offered a hard lesson in a specific area, first route-finding, then topography, and then the sun.
We had heard that Costa Rica did not have street names or addresses, but this seemed implausible to me, and our fairly detailed map labeled both urban streets and rural routes. What we learned that first day is that Costa Rica lacks signage. Dramatically. On top of concerns over biking out of a city of a million people, we suddenly found we could not rely on street names for any guidance. Stuck for dozens of blocks on the Pan-American Highway where it slowed to pass through San Jose, we did not pass a single street sign. We turned off, on a hunch, on a street that looked the right size. Later we learned to navigate with Google Maps, noting the angles at which roads intersected and visible landmarks like cemeteries. (In a game-changing moment, we learned that Google Maps will locate you without using cellular data.) From then on, we were never lost. At times we used Google Earth, too, the satellite photos of which showed even the smallest dirt tracks.
On our second day, we biked up Volcan Irazu, a climb of about 6,000 vertical feet. I knew this was a huge climb, and we chose to do it. What I did not know is that much of Costa Rica is up and down, and that the roads are built with incredible grades. Even on paved roads, we were often in our tiniest granny gears, at times struggling to keep the front wheel on the ground. The near-constant hilliness made our route unrealistic for the time we had.
On the third day, down from the cooler weather of the volcano, we learned the intensity of the mid-latitude sun. Before I had time to notice, the back of my right calf was burned red. Brie's forearms turned the same color. We took our breaks in the shade and, when we reached Orosi in the early afternoon, hurried from the sun as one might from sun-baked sand on a hot beach.
None of these, of course, is a reason not to bike as much as a consideration to factor into plans. Same with the roads -- choose wisely. We'd been advised not to ride on the Pan-American (and warned when we got to Costa Rica that it was illegal), and this seems like good advice. Riding the main road along the Pacific coast seemed relatively safe, but was not much fun. Two things we had not considered were air pollution and dust. Riding from Orosi toward the coast, we had to pass through the southern part of Cartago on busy roads, and the filthy exhaust from trucks and cars alike literally made it hard to breathe for hours of riding. Despite the country's commitment to environmental health, there seems to be little regulation of vehicle-based pollution. Later, on the flatter plain near the coast, we were left struggling to breathe again -- and covered in thick dust -- after riding on a dry, heavily traveled dirt road.
For a truly enjoyable trip, I would try to avoid all of these, and string together instead as many small, rural routes as possible. Buses can help with this. The public buses run often, go everywhere, and, as I understand it, will take bikes if there's room. And they're super cheap. Even a shuttle or a cab would likely be affordable.
One of the questions we had, especially going over the busiest time of the year, was what kind of towns would have affordable places to stay and whether we would need to book in advance. We wanted flexibility in choosing our route and pace, but also didn't want to end up without a place to sleep when the sun went down. We decided to bring a tent (and small stove, sleeping pads, and sleeping bag), which proved useful, even if our guidebook's suggestion that most accommodations would allow camping proved untrue. The two nights we camped, we did so on the generosity of people we met. The nights we wanted to stay in towns, we never had trouble finding room with little notice. We stayed one night at an Airbnb, which was great; Couchsurfing seems like a viable option, too. Riding some random steep hill, I sometimes imagined how light our bags would be without tent and sleeping gear. I'm glad we brought them, for the freedom they allowed, but I'm sure one could plan a cool route that allowed carrying very little gear.
We rode good, old mountain bikes we bought off MercadoLibre (thanks for the tip Jos). The man we bought them from had only listed one, but offered his own commuter bike, too, when he realized we were coming from the US and hoping to tour. When we met him outside our hotel, he said he knew what it was like to travel abroad and have to figure everything out new. He told us of some beautiful spots to ride and of bike shops where we could get geared up cheap. His kindness was one of the best parts of our trip. Thank you, Oscar.
Buying a helmet and back rack, water bottles and spare tubes, I was struck at the range in prices. The crowded shop Oscar had recommended sold bikes for $100, but also had a $5,000 fat bike on display. We could buy water bottle cages for $2 each, or $20. Kids came in with busted brakes, and then a woman who'd raced the Ironman and worked for Deloitte and Touche.
Our two-week visit offered only a superficial look, of course, but I continued to be struck by the range of lives Costa Ricans lived. Some had new cars and vacations at the beach. Others earned tiny wages, spent long hours in the sun, and got around on horseback. In parts of Costa Rica -- around Monteverde, for instance -- the lingua franca was English and the prices listed in dollars. In other parts, it was only Spanish and colones.
Biking was our window onto this, a slow path through the countryside and an excuse for meeting people. There is no other way we would have felt the complete satisfaction -- after pedaling through the still-sleeping city, after gallo pinto and coffee made in front of us with a cloth filter, after the waves and whistles and horns of passing cars, after countless switchbacks and eight hours on the bike -- of reaching the crater of Irazu a half-hour before closing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

the Circle-Fairbanks historic trail

Brie and I hoped this trip would warrant a write-up in the News-Miner. The Circle-Fairbanks Trail isn’t particularly remote, but it’s almost 60 miles long and no one we knew had done it. Just finishing it would be worth a story. Alas, not finishing it probably isn’t, so here’s a blog post.
I had explored the trail from both ends before. Several years ago, I hiked a few miles in from the 12-mile Summit end looking for caribou. I didn’t know how to field dress a caribou then, but I wanted to hunt and none of my friends could come, so I went anyway. I thought if I shot one, I would figure it out. A few years later, I rode my motorcycle in from the Cleary Summit end, splashing through mud puddles and dropping my bike so many times I wore down the battery.
I’ve wanted to do the whole thing for years, imagining it being fun on a mountain bike in a dry year. Or on foot. A few weekends ago, Brie and I hiked part of it when we walked from Cleary Summit to Chatanika Lodge and back. The trail was wide and gradual, and someone on a 4-wheeler had made a track in the few inches of snow. The walking was easy.
We decided to hike the whole route over three days Thanksgiving weekend. When I mentioned it to people, a few had fond memories of parts of the trail, but none had done the whole thing. To me it seemed like an obvious trip – a short drive from Fairbanks, with miles and miles of ridges above treeline. It didn’t have cabins like the White Mountains, but otherwise seemed ideal for an adventure on skis or fat bike. We arranged to have a friend drop us off at 12-mile Summit. We would walk back to a car left in Fairbanks.
Without leaving a car at the beginning, we would have little option but to complete the trip once we started. I found the trail on a topo map and studied Google Earth until I had cross referenced the trail with the landscape.
I knew we were strong enough to do it. We’d done some long hikes and runs over the summer. And we’d camped in similar temperatures north of the Brooks Range last fall. But neither of us had exactly gone backpacking in Alaska in November, and it wasn’t clear how we would stay warm, or how fast we could move. As Thanksgiving neared, we studied the forecast and debated what gear to bring.
In the end, we didn’t have all the answers, but I was confident we could figure things out as we went. It had been a while since I’d attempted something with this much doubt, a result, I suppose, of choosing doable routes and always being prepared. Equipment can be a crutch for lack of skills, and I’ve tried on summer trips to learn what I can do without. But the skill of not getting into trouble is different from the skill of getting out of it, and I had rarely exercised this second skill, if indeed I had it. We both dream of doing much bigger trips. At some point we'll need to test ourselves. And if something truly went wrong on the trail, we could always hike out to the road.
We started from 12-mile Summit a little before noon. The car’s thermometer said minus 11, and the wind blew strong over the ridge. A few bands of caribou grazed on a distant hillside. A dozen more crossed the trail in front of us. We walked fast with our faces covered. The trail was easy to follow and tracked by snowmachine and 4-wheeler. We dipped into a slight draw. The wind let up and soon we were shedding layers.
A little while later, with daylight fading, we stopped for water and a snack. I struggled to get my mitten off. Once I did, I couldn’t open a Ziploc bag of chips. I swung my arms and ran down the trail, suddenly aware of how delicate a balance was needed to stay warm. Wearing too many layers made you sweat, which made it harder to stay warm once you stopped. Wearing too few layers made your core temperature drop and made it harder to keep fingers and toes warm. Moving would generate heat, but only if you kept eating. Somehow I had let myself get cold enough that now I could not bend my thumb. I was glad my life did not depend on my ability to build a fire, as I could not have struck a match. 
I managed to open a packet of hand warmers and slip one into my mitten. Brie zipped my jacket for me and we kept moving.
I’ve often carried hand warmers on winter trips, but can count on one hand the times I’ve used them. I think I see them as unnatural, and I don’t like the idea of relying on them. But now I was glad to have them.
Somewhere along the trail, we agreed to make a list of things to do differently next time. I already questioned our choice of running shoes. They had kept my feet warm during a 100-mile walk in the White Mountains a few winters before, but now it seemed like one more obstacle to staying safe in this environment. To keep our feet warm, we would have to move constantly.
Brie asked how far we should go. I proposed that 15 miles today would leave a little over 20 miles for the next two days. The whole trail, according to the pamphlet we had from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, was 58 miles. It ran mostly along ridges and was the summer route, a hundred years ago, for miners traveling between Circle and Fairbanks. (The winter trail followed the Chatanika River.) I’d heard there were roadhouses, but I thought of those guys now, braving the cold and wind in whatever gear they had.
We came to a fork in the trail. We had not bothered to follow our path on the map, but either place we might have been, left would work. The trail was wider to the left, and the 4-wheeler tracks turned left, so we did too. Soon we came out of the forest and onto a ridge. We could feel the rocks under the snow. The 4-wheeler tracks faded out, and then the trail they had followed. The wind blew hard. We shuffled to a clump of willows and hid in the lee to study the maps. I added a puff jacket and Gore-Tex shell and pulled the hood over my head.
We could see a trail climbing a hill off to the right, and another glimpse of a path along the ridge that followed from the hill. We didn’t know of any other trails out here, so we sidehilled over to the trail. I felt the wind blowing through the open mesh of my shoes. We wore our warmest clothes and moved fast.
Climbing, we warmed again, and I stripped off jackets. Willows grew up through the track, clearly less defined than a mile before. At the top, we put on headlamps and followed the trail between mounds of granite. At times, a few feet of straight line was all that differentiated the trail from the tundra. The trail split. We followed one fork until it faded out, and then backtracked and followed the other until it did the same.
Sometimes I think of running whitewater as a metaphor for situations in life. There are times in a canoe when you cannot stop and think. You are heading downstream regardless, and you just have to make the best choices you can.
I made a mental check and concluded we were still okay. We could camp, make hot food, find the trail again with map and GPS. But we didn’t have much time.
The ridge was windy, and although it was only 4:30, it was almost night. A few miles off, we could see lights on the highway. We knew it would be less windy if we got off the ridge, but we still had to choose whether to head north toward the road or south toward where we assumed the trail must be. We chose south, but only because it seemed more sheltered. We moved fast, pushing our way though willows and grass toward the trees silhouetted by our headlamps. When we found a spot relatively sheltered and relatively flat, we stopped. Setting up the tent, the excitement I had felt at finding a used winter tent for cheap was gone. I simply wanted it to work.
Inside, we huddled in sleeping bags, Brie trying to warm her feet and me hoping desperately that they were not damaged.

Once we warmed up, we figured out where we were. In the morning, we’d called the number on a sign posted by a trapper and learned that he did have traps out, and that they would pose a risk to free-running dogs. We considered bailing, finding a different hike, and then decided after some time to keep our plan and leave the dogs home. At the end of the call, I’d thanked the trapper as he started to say something else, and a few times I wondered what he might have said. That no one travels the full length of the trail?
We fired up the stove and melted enough snow to fill hot water bottles and foil bags of dehydrated food, which we tucked against our bodies. We slept with jackets on and both woke around midnight, overheating. Despite the long night, we slept until it got light. My little thermometer read five above.
Because the easiest way to the road was to keep following the trail, and because we still held some hope we might complete the route, we backtracked to where we’d climbed the ridge and regained the trail. Willows grew up in the track, trees lay across the trail, and rusted traps hung from angled spruce poles. We knew from our map that this was the trail, but the mileposts promised in the pamphlet – and which we’d seen the day before – were nowhere to be seen. We walked hard and fast along the ridge, buoyed by the sun, then dropped into the trees, down to the creek where we would choose to continue or not. Halfway down the hill, amid burned black spruce, we found a milepost telling us we had 45 miles to go.
At the bottom of the hill, we found milepost 43. The trail continued up a hill to the south. The highway lay to the north. We got out the map and frozen grilled cheese. The temperature had dropped as we descended, and the low-angle sun hid behind a ridge.
Our record of meeting our outdoor goals is pretty good. We didn’t reach the top of a mountain in Sitka for lack of time, and we came nowhere near the Sawtooths, where the research we should have done became clear only once we were there. But mostly we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Neither of us likes to quit.
In camp, Brie had commented that if we did keep going, we could walk all night rather than camp again. I thought of that now. If we chose to push on, we would need that kind of energy. We would need to be excited by the challenge and confident we could meet it. Between us we had three pairs of toe warmers. Each pair lasts six hours. I thought I could do without, but I wasn’t sure. I ate some Fritos and ran circles to warm up. If last night was whitewater, this was an eddy, from which we could take out and portage.
The trail followed a long ridge for a dozen miles, then curved around a drainage and climbed a hill. The trapper had told us he’d been out 25 miles, which left up to 18 miles untracked. The sun would set in a few hours. If we could hike all night, if we could find the trail in the dark, if we could stay warm… There were too many ifs, so we hiked out to the road and caught a ride back to Fairbanks.
Brie has concluded I give too much credence to Google Earth, but the problem might be that I haven’t trusted it enough. Scanning the route before we left, I’d noticed that the trail, visible on both ends, disappeared in the middle. I rationalized this as the result of different quality images, or images taken in different seasons.
I also had not registered the bold warning in the DNR pamphlet explaining that although the trail had been marked and cleared, “there is not a well defined tread the entire length.” Or the fact that the pamphlet was made in 1986.
Back in Fairbanks, we told a few people about our adventure and got the same response. Heard of it. Never heard of anyone doing it. Which has left us even more determined than ever.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

TEDx talk

Here's the TEDx talk I gave, Living Smaller in a Warmer World. I implied that old snowmachines were okay, in certain circumstances. I take it back. They're filthy polluters.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

my new used car

I gave a TEDx talk a few weeks ago, about the joys and merits of living smaller. As with many projects, it was down to the last minute, with so much practicing in the last few days that I started to lose my voice. Ideas that I’d been considering for years I finally had to nail down. Combined with reading two influential books – one a philosophical and ethical exploration of climate change that I happened to see on a library shelf, the other a book Ian gave me estimating the carbon footprint of everything – the process of thinking and writing led me to conclusions I hadn’t had before. Most of them validated choices I’d made already, but some challenged them, at least to the point that those choices will require work to justify.
Not surprisingly, my thinking continued after the deadline passed, and there are things I would say differently now. For one, I implied that snowmachines were somehow okay, if we didn’t ride them too much and if using one kept us from flying to Hawaii for vacation. Now I think snowmachines are terrible polluters (of greenhouse gases and other noxious things) that are hard to justify for any reason. And after a phase of being critical of every new thing, convinced that we should all shop only at second-hand stores, I don’t see it as quite evil to buy a new softshell jacket.
More generally, in emphasizing the under-recognized problem of consumption itself, I suggested we should make do with what we have, even if it’s an old truck. Part of my thinking came from one of those books, How Bad are Bananas?, in which the author is fairly critical of rooftop solar, not because it doesn’t reduce emissions over its life, but because there are much cheaper ways to reduce emissions. (In a sense, changing our behavior is the cheapest way to reduce emissions, and probably the most effective.) I think the idea resonated for me because it challenged the notion that we can buy our way out, that we can continue to live as we do, just with new technology. And it’s true that a lot of energy and resources go into making new things, including energy-efficient things.
But now I think we need both. We need to change how we live. But if we want to live anything like how we live now, we need to be using the most efficient things, too.
As I was preparing my talk, I found out the head gasket was leaking on my 20-year-old Tacoma. A year ago, I might have been excited to look for a new truck, but now I considered getting a new engine to keep the old one running. I looked for another old truck, even an old F-150, because honestly the Tacoma is not much better on gas. Then I saw a Prius for sale on Craigslist and knew I wanted it.
In a way it’s an experiment. I like living in a way that seems to warrant a truck – hauling firewood, filling the back with coolers for Chitina. This will be a test to see what I can and can’t do with a 2-wheel drive hatchback. For now it seems like I have a ton of space compared to the truck.
I’ve heard the Priuses don’t do great at 30 below, that the small battery tends to die. But there’s a way around the battery problem. With good tires, traction has been fine. I was warned the small engine (1.5 liters) isn’t great at heating the cab, but that seems like a small inconvenience when the goal is getting around without destroying the planet.
My 10-year-old Prius could not be more different from an old F-150. It has automatic windows and locks, a button instead of a key, a touchscreen and backup camera – and a backup beeper, because it is often silent. It still has a gas engine, but the dashboard doesn’t show engine temp and doesn’t have a tachometer, as if Toyota has said, We’ve got this. Indeed, the mechanic where I took my Tacoma said he’s never seen an engine fail on a Prius.
But in a sense the Prius makes you more aware of burning gas, and of the fact that it takes energy to go somewhere. The display shows you when you are moving in a way the battery can handle and when you need the power of the engine. And it tracks average fuel economy over time, in five-minute chunks and continually. As with riding a bike or running, it’s easy to see that it takes more energy to go fast or to go uphill. I can even imagine driving a less hilly route to save energy.
I’d heard of hypermilers, and now I understand the appeal. There’s a big downhill on my drive into town. Now I watch the display to see when my average MPG will click up a tenth of a mile. I think, when the five-minute average is 75 miles per gallon, Man, that was a good five minutes. I got an app the previous owner had recommended to track my fuel economy in different seasons.
After 277 miles, it looked like I needed gas. I’d been watching the average mileage all week, but somehow still couldn’t believe it when the pump clicked off at 7.5 gallons. And the mileage should get considerably better in the summer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

homage to the pigs

When it came time this weekend for a toast – after I’d shot the pigs, after we’d scrubbed them, hung them, and skinned them, and after Alex, who had jumped into the pen to sever the jugular veins, poured us all generous shots of whiskey – all I could manage was, We had a lot of good times together.
How do you capture a whole life in a few words? We held our glasses.
And we’ll have many more good times together, Matt said. And he was right. The whole point of raising pigs was to have the meat. Or at least it had always been my plan to turn them into meat. So what if I’d loved pigs since childhood? So what if I’d come to love these pigs in particular? We drank.
They loved milk, Kate said. A few weeks before, I’d proposed that if Lily and Porkchop had a headstone, that would be their epitaph. But it didn’t seem funny now.
My sister, who knew my love of pigs, had warned me that it might be hard to kill them, even that my desire to have them, my pleasure in caring for them, might be a misplaced desire for children. But killing them wasn’t particularly hard. I’d spent time with them alone the night before, and again the morning of. By the time friends arrived to help, there was a job to do, and I probably didn’t afford myself the opportunity to be sad.
For a few weeks, when people asked I’d said I wanted to eat Porkchop, a castrated male, and sell Lily to someone who would breed her. (It seemed he would provide plenty of meat.) But when I decided, somewhat suddenly last week, to visit my mother across the country, I had no leads on a buyer.
Kate asked at Silver Gulch, where a waitress she knew raised pigs. The woman wasn’t there, but we sat at the bar and showed pictures of Lily to the bartender and a man at the bar who had raised pigs. (It had been our experience that about half the people we mentioned pigs to either had pigs or had raised them as children: the cook at Meals on Wheels, the foreman on Kate’s job, the sales clerk at AIH, my supervisor.) With the bartender, we joked about Lily living out her life as the restaurant’s mascot, eating spent brewing grains and scraps from the kitchen.
A day later, Kate got a nibble, but then the man never called back.
Two days before we planned to slaughter Porkchop, I posted an ad on Craigslist for a “well behaved, well cared for Russian/Duroc/Yorkshire gilt.” Comes with 150 pounds of pig food. I was excited for Lily to have another life, and I liked imagining the possibility of someday raising her piglets. But when I thought of her in a muddy lot, bullied by bigger pigs, I realized I didn’t wish for her what I might for myself – an interesting life. I wanted her life to be all fresh straw, apple slices, and milk. No one responded to the ad, and maybe it’s just as well. She and Porkchop had never been apart, and I wasn’t sure how she’d do without him.
I had not weighed the pigs in months, but was able to estimate their weight using a formula I’d found online (girth squared, times length, divided by 400). I figured Porkchop weighed a little over 200 pounds and Lily about 160. Porkchop had reached standard market weight in four and a half months, ahead of the six months I’d expected from my pig book.
Both of them grew quickly, tripling their weight in the first month we had them. When Kate and I brought them back in May from a farm across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, they lived first, quite comfortably, in a third of my small woodshed. I remember how little they looked when I transferred them – carrying both at once – to the pig patio.
But Porkchop especially seemed to grow at an unbelievable rate. Every few days I would look again and think, Really? You’re that big? When they were a few months old, I started giving them ground barley – the locally grown and cheapest feed – which I would sometimes mix into a slop with milk, water, and a high-protein concentrate. Even if they’d been eating all day (I free fed them the whole time), they could eat ten pounds of mush in a few minutes. They could drink a half-gallon of milk in maybe 30 seconds. For the last few weeks, it seemed I was opening a new 50-pound bag of feed every few days.
As Porkchop got bigger, he took longer to stand up, and sometimes he ate sitting down, which suggested a certain laziness. But they were also solid and strong. I remember at the farm how a piglet of 20 pounds had pushed me up from a squatting position. I could push Lily and Porkchop and they wouldn’t move, slap them and they wouldn’t flinch. I scratched their backs as forcefully as I could. Porkchop looked like he could play football. Lily, for a while, looked like a ballerina, her full weight balanced on four tiny hooves.
Recently they’d started to seem grown up. They no longer chased each other around the pen, sliding across the floorboards or jumping the water bowl.
Do pigs ever get sick? my German Couchsurfer asked one evening last week. I said they hadn’t, and wondered at it myself. I’ve never been able to keep a plant alive, and here were these guys, walking around in their own waste, in full health. When Kate and I brought them home – in a borrowed dog crate under a borrowed topper – I’d stopped often to check on them. We gave them goat milk from baby bottles and adjusted the windows for what we guessed was the right temperature for month-old pigs. Since then, I’d merely kept them fed and watered and mucked the pen as much as I could stand.
But the night Judith asked, I noticed Porkchop was limping. He wasn’t using his front right hoof at all. An infection? A splinter? By then I knew I’d have to slaughter him soon, so there was no question of hiring a vet. The next day, I washed his foot while Kate passed stalks of kale through the fence. The swelling and lack of tenderness made me think he’d just sprained his ankle, climbing onto the feeder for an apple or slipping on the wet floor. He could still get around, but he couldn’t shove Lily away from the feeder, and he generally seemed humbled. Lily had started out as the bully, making up for her smaller size with aggressiveness and smarts. But as Porkchop got bigger, he pushed and blocked his way to the lion’s share of food. We thought he was kind of a jerk. Now, with his handicap, we felt a tenderness toward him. 
They weren’t pets. They never approved of the harness that would have allowed walks. And if they knew their names, they didn’t respond to them. But they let me scratch them, and they usually came to us when we were there, either to say hello or because we often gave them food. When I cleaned the pen, Lily would tip over my bucket and shovel, stick her head between my legs. When I screwed boards around their sleeping area (to keep the straw in place), Porkchop took the end of the tape measure in his mouth. Lily tugged on my t-shirt.
They loved shoelaces, and spent hours chewing on a length of rope I tied in their pen. They liked chewing on the teeter-totter I made them. They loved the cheap swimming pool I got them – until I spooked Porkchop and he crushed it.
A few days ago, Mark and Annmarie brought their daughter to meet the pigs. I sliced an apple, a pluot, and a banana and tore off some chunks of baguette. Claire, who is one and a half, seemed scared at first, and didn’t want to feed them or even get close to the wire fence. Pig, she said. Mark and I fed them milk from baby bottles and stuck a few slices of apple through the fence. Eat, Claire said. She was smiling now.
I mixed the rest of the fruit and bread into a mushy bowl of barley and dropped the bowl into the pen. The pigs dug into the food, pushing each other out of the way with their snouts. Claire said, Pig eat, which was about all she could say and about all that needed to be said.
Like all of us, Claire had learned that pigs say oink. But I’m not sure I ever heard Lily and Porkchop oink. When we carried them by a hind leg from the pen at the farm, they squealed. And Porkchop squealed later, whenever I weighed him (I used a bathroom scale until they reached 60 pounds). They also whined, if they saw me through the fence pouring some milk, or if the fighting for food seemed unfair to one. But mostly they made a little grunt – what I suppose is the oink – that seemed to say, You there? Uh huh. When they were very little, the call and response was almost constant. You there? Uh huh. Later, it came and went. They were quite vocal the few times we let one pig out of the pen. When Lily was free, Porkchop whined for himself and grunted, we thought, out of concern for her. Where are you? Right here. Lily explored as far as the outhouse and the bottom of the driveway (digging holes in the packed rock), but when Porkchop called her back, she came at a sprint that reminded me of the pot-bellied pig races I’d seen as a kid at the fair. When Porkchop started frothing at the mouth, we put Lily back in the pen.
The one time I let Porkchop out, he seemed to have no concern for Lily and no sense that his good behavior might allow future forays. He stayed out as long as he could (tearing up chunks of wet moss), and might have slept under the pen all week if I hadn’t shooed him out. I trapped him in the dog crate, but when I tried to lift it, he jumped free. Kate came over to help. I built an enclosed ramp with pallets and plywood. A little after midnight, Porkchop ran right up the ramp and into the pen, skipping the trail of Cheerios.  
I had made them a raised pen because I knew that any amount of black spruce forest I gave them would turn into a mud pit. But they liked being outside so much that I fenced in a small area of forest next to the pen. When I let them out, they raced between the skinny trees and rooted in the ground. Lily started digging along the fence line, and then Porkchop, and by the time I caught them, they were probably five minutes from breaking out. I reinforced the fence. Maybe a week later, I came home to find a good-sized tree leaning against the roof of the patio, literally uprooted by their rooting. One by one, they brought down the rest of the trees. My sister joked that I should start a land clearing and stump removal business. When the outdoor pen became a squishy mess of mud and poop, I locked the door.
It felt lonely coming home the day after the slaughter. I’d had a habit, for months now, of getting out of the truck and asking, Are they any pigs here? Because the road side of the pen was plywood, I could often hear them before I could see them. They would grunt, Uh huh, and come greet me, Lily putting my fingers in her mouth as if to nurse, and Porkchop, always more wary, allowing a wet fist bump with his snout.
After we’d hauled the meat to the butcher, my hands still red with blood, I’d come home and torn apart the pen, I guess to remove the reminder. For months I’d enjoyed watching them settle into their sleeping corner, or catching them having a midnight snack if I stepped out to pee. I saw them yawn and sneeze, dream and pass gas. Sometimes Kate and I would stand on the ladder to the loft and watch them out the window. No matter how aggressively they’d fought over the milk or kale, they always slept side by side, often with heads or hooves intertwined. Lily was always a light sleeper. Now each time I stepped outside, I looked reflexively over to where they’d been. I thought how much they would have liked a soft banana or some sliced white bread or the last bit of milk. It might have been misplaced sadness over a dying parent.
On the pigs’ last night, it frosted hard, the first of the season. They didn’t seem to mind the cold, but were slower to get up than when the days were longer and warmer. I sliced a peach and brought it to them. Porkchop didn’t get up at first, so I fed him where he lay in the straw.
It had been a pleasure to watch them eat – to see how much they wanted the food and how much they enjoyed eating it. I gave them wild rhubarb from my lot and bruised fruit and cheap milk from the supermarket. Kate brought Swiss chard, kale, and kohlrabi greens from her garden. We gave them watermelon, cantaloupe, and jelly-filled cake. The noise of them chewing, mouths wide open, always made me smile.
Porkchop got up eventually, but by then I had run out of peach. Both pigs came to me and buried their snouts in my chest until they would have pushed me over. I scratched their backs and tugged on their ears, then went inside to make tapioca pudding. I hope their last thought was that this time I remembered to add the vanilla.

Monday, August 18, 2014

ballot measure 1

I spent most of yesterday trying to write a foolproof essay explaining why I planned to vote Yes on Ballot Measure 1 and why everyone who cares about Alaska should, too. I thought it was pretty clear that Parnell had traded tax revenues for jobs, and that claims of increasing production enough to make up for the lower tax rate were unrealistic. I thought the direct interest of the oil companies and support industries – the truckers and pipefitters and pilots – had created a lopsided debate between a vocal minority who depend directly on a lively North Slope and a quieter majority of Alaskans who depend on the state’s financial health, but less directly. I thought if you found the necessary facts and considered the relevant arguments, there would be a right answer.
Then, as I wrote and read, I realized how much I still didn’t know. I was in Juneau covering politics when Parnell offered his first two tax proposals, but I wasn’t there for SB 21. I didn’t know the revenue projections, or the increase in production needed for the state to break even. I didn’t know the relative importance of oilfield jobs compared to all the teachers, firemen, and biologists the state employs. I read ads claiming oil production is no longer dropping, and that revenues are as high as they would have been under ACES. I learned that sharp people whose commitment to Alaska I never questioned were voting no.
I had thought the right question to ask was Which tax policy will bring the greatest revenue to the state in the long run? with some consideration given to the economic value of a busy oilfield and to legitimate political differences favoring private industry or government spending. But now I wasn’t sure I knew the answer, or even if the question could be answered. And if it couldn’t be, then on what basis should one cast a vote? It’s our oil?
I think a thorough approach to figuring out which tax is best for Alaska would include a solid understanding of ACES, SB 21, and the interplay of taxes and credits in each; Department of Revenue modeling combined with unbiased expert analysis; an understanding of tax systems, government take, and geologic and political risk in other oil-producing regions; expert projections for oil prices and production costs; and an understanding of Alaska’s oilfields (composition, decline rates) and where they fit in the portfolios of the big three oil companies and of the smaller companies new to Alaska. I doubt if many Alaskans will cast truly informed votes tomorrow, and I’m not sure many lawmakers did when they voted on SB 21. For Alaska’s future?
I know Palin and Parnell's tax plans both include various tax credits, and that Palin's credits did more to force companies to reinvest in Alaska. I know Parnell's tax generates relatively more revenue at low oil prices and Palin's at high prices. I know production costs are an important wildcard, and that high costs reduce the difference between the two taxes. But there's much more I don't know. 
Today I thought maybe people would vote based on whom they trust – a business group or union, a political party – and that maybe that’s not a bad thing. That maybe this vote is largely symbolic, not about tax rates and credits but about the state’s relationship to the oil industry. Palin stood up to the oil companies, on the gasline and on taxes. She argued – correctly, in my opinion – that the interests of the oil companies were not the same as those of the state, and she instituted policies that aimed to be enticing to companies but which put Alaska’s interests first. It’s remarkable to me that Parnell and many others seem to think what’s good for Exxon, BP and Conoco is good for Alaska, and, beyond that, trust the companies to tell us what they need. Palin had smart, honest people in her Revenue Department, and she brought in experts who were professional and inspired confidence. Parnell, at least in his first two tries, offered sound bites. I remember being shocked at how little homework he seemed to have done in setting tax policy worth billions. It was as if the companies had told him taxes were too high and he had taken their word for it.
Whether the numbers work out this way or not, tomorrow’s vote seems to be between those who believe private industry does and should drive the state and those who want to get the most from a limited resource. Between those who won’t lose sleep if oilfield jobs come at the expense of state budgets and those already suffering from budget cuts. 
In a sense, a No vote would say Alaskans trust the industry enough to negotiate a tax plan together – in my opinion, to let the industry tell us what’s right for them and for Alaska. A Yes vote will send the message that Alaskans take the industry seriously, and value it, but won’t be bullied by it.
And I think that matters. This might sound conspiratorial, but I imagine oil companies don't base their investment decisions strictly on net present value – or rather, that they're fully aware of a tax policy’s potential to change. I wouldn’t be surprised if companies here delayed projects when Parnell took office, or when he declared the taxes too high – if lease requirements are as lax as they seem, why wouldn’t they wait? I wouldn’t be surprised if they fast-tracked projects when lawmakers passed a tax policy they liked. And I won’t be surprised if they punish Alaska for passing Ballot Measure 1. Alaska might lose money. Who really knows? But in the long run, I think it’s important to show that Alaska can and will look out for itself. 
Before the Legislature passed SB 21, even supporters of ACES thought it needed some changes, and from what I’ve read, it probably does. I’m voting Yes for Palin’s tax, but also for the way she put Alaska first and took tax policy as seriously as it deserves.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


I got some pigs a few weeks ago. I got the idea when Ian said he wanted a dairy goat, but really I've loved pigs for as long as I can remember, and this just seemed like a reasonable time to have some. I'd heard of people raising pigs over the summer -- feeder pigs -- and butchering them in the fall. Delta barley is pretty cheap, and if you've got a connection to a restaurant or food bank, you can supplement with people food. I got a book on raising pigs, in which I learned that pigs put on weight faster than any other livestock except poultry, and that they have a high meat-body weight ratio (60-70 percent can be used in some way). I learned the correct terms for pigs: a pig is a very young swine, a shoat is from weaning to 125 pounds, and a hog is anything bigger than that. And I learned that pigs can be raised in a dry pen. I'd pretty much made up my mind to get some pigs, but had worried they'd turn any bit of black spruce forest I gave them into a mudpit. A dry pen for two pigs could easily fit on my gravel pad, as long as I could put up with any potential smell. 
I asked at feed stores, checked bulletin boards, and looked on Craigslist. It turned out there was a shortage of pigs, apparently because of a disease that had made its way through herds in the Lower 48. I got on a waiting list for some Gloucester Old Spot pigs, a heritage breed that still had strong rooting instinct. I called about some other pigs, Yorkshires being shipped up from the Lower 48. They looked healthy in the photos on Craigslist, but they were a boring breed -- the classic pink pig, raised to be docile in confinement. When all my options seemed exhausted, I found an ad for some mixed bread piglets (a layman's term) down in Point MacKenzie, outside Wasilla. The boar was a Russian/Duroc mix, and one of the sows was Duroc/Yorkshire. Duroc and Russian, I'd read, were both hearty breeds that did well outside. And the piglets were cute, cinnamon-colored with black spots. They were selling them at a younger age (and smaller weight) than other breeders, but I didn't have many options, and if I could keep them healthy, it seemed a plus to get them when they were still small, and maybe even trainable. I'd read The Good Good Pig, which probably gave me a distorted sense of pig intelligence -- even pig wisdom! -- and of pig-human interactions. I'd heard about how smart pigs are, although this was usually in the context of escaping their pens.
I built them a pen without doors, and went to pick them up a few weeks ago. Inside a makeshift shelter, piglets from three litters slept in a giant pig pile in the sun. I chose a gilt (a young female) and a barrow (a castrated male) from the spotted sow. A brother and sister. I got to see their dam and sire, and struggled to imagine them ever growing to that size. After some initial squealing, they seemed happy in a borrowed dog crate on the drive home, and they seem happy now in their new pen. They really shove each other at the food and water bowls, and climb over each other for milk, but they don't seem to fight, and they always sleep side by side. They chase each other around, nap, and eat like pigs. Although it's difficult to weigh them, they seem to be gaining about a pound a day.

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.