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.

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.