2017 was an amazing year for us here on the homestead. We accomplished so much, but we also learned several lessons along the way. I’m going to break it down into our most major accomplishments for 2017 and some of the lessons we gained.
Build a Root Cellar
This was something we didn’t know we needed until we really needed it. You see, living off-grid means you have no refrigerator or freezer. We worked around this at the beginning of the year because well, it’s Alaska and we just put our food outside to keep them cold or frozen. But then spring came, and the snow started to thaw and melt. That’s when we realized we needed a plan for keeping food in the non-winter months.
It may sound odd to many that we hadn’t thought of this previously. But to be honest, this entire adventure has been a figure it out as we go kind of thing. With the realization of this need, I started to research food storage from ‘back in the day’ before electricity. I learned a lot, for example, many of the items most people put in the fridge don’t actually need to be in there at all! So I researched what specifically needed to be kept cool to keep it from going bad, and this is where I learned to home can.
Now, all of our meats are canned at home using the pressure cooker. That was a huge help, but what about the rest, cheese (it’s not a side in our home, it’s a staple!), bacon (because bacon is life!), store-bought eggs, open mayonnaise jars, etc. Well, we went without those for nearly 6 months.
The biggest thing I learned in my research was about root cellars. I learned many different ways to build them and decided it would be best for us if that’s what we went with. With our homestead being in Alaska, we know the ground stays a consistent temperature year round to be able to keep foods cold. Once we moved our cabin, but before we built the addition onto it, we had access to a track hoe and used it to dig out a root cellar.
This cellar is small by most standards, but I still get excited about having it when I talk to others about it. The hole is about 4 feet deep, 6 feet long, and 4 feet wide. With the hole dug, we went to work on building a box to set into it. Kirk built a box and sealed the part of it that comes into contact with the dirt. Then we all worked together to get the box into the hole, and it was a task! It’s heavy, awkward to maneuver and big! But between the three of us, we muscled it into place.
The next step was to build the addition over the top of it. We built up the walls to butt up with the bottom of the addition. With the height of the cabin, this made the finished cellar nearly 6 feet deep. Now we are able to keep anything cold, any time of the year!
Barter Labor and Talent
Once we decided we were going to barter for the cabin we were in and had a place to move it to, Kirk had to do the work to pay it all off! Our trade arrangement included the materials needed to build the addition as well, excluding just a few things.
We still needed cash to buy the insulation, house wrap, vapor barrier and a few minor things here and there. So my incredible husband not only worked off the trade, he also built an addition for someone else for cash so we could get ours done!
Build an Addition
Build a 10×16 addition to the existing cabin. Because let’s face it, a 16×20 cabin is very tight for 3 people, 2 cats, and 1 dog.
This was really a lot of fun for the most part. We love any opportunity we get to work together as a team. But I have to brag on Kirk here a bit, he amazes me not only with his talents but his patience as well. He lovingly took the time to answer my questions at nearly every turn, he enjoyed teaching Vance how to do each step, and he got it all done in record time. But not until he was done building the addition for our neighbor first! (He was a very busy man this summer!)
With the addition completed, we now have nearly twice the living space as we originally did, and Kirk and I now have a bedroom! No more sleeping on the homemade pull-out couch anymore! Sure, there were a few moments here and there of frustration, but I don’t know any building project that doesn’t have those. We were successful and really love the semi-finished product. Semi-finished because we still need to complete the siding on the second story, and we need to figure out what we’re going to do for the walls inside. Currently, we have all the insulation in place and wrapped. But no finishing on the inside walls just yet. We don’t want drywall because we want to keep the cabin feel, but don’t have a sawmill of our own just yet so can’t mill our own slabs right now.
I have a complete kitchen, an office, and a beautiful wood burning stove that I affectionately refer to as ‘my precious’. There’s even a small dining table, though it doesn’t get used for eating!
Acquire a snow machine for each of us to ride our own. One of the things about living where we live is that we have to park our pickup a mile or so down the road and ride our snow machines to the cabin in the winter. There is just too much snow to drive back here, and with no way to plow it, we ride.
Now, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a plow up here, there is at one of the neighbor’s place. However, it won’t make it up our hill, so it can’t be used up here. Kirk runs the plow for the elderly neighbor and they allow us to park our pickup on their property. This keeps it safe from wandering people, weekend warriors, and potential vandals. It also cuts the snow machine ride in half!
So then, we had one at the start of the year that was given to us because it was dead. The person who gifted it to us didn’t know how to fix it and didn’t think it would ever be running again. However, being married to one of the best mechanics in Alaska has its perks! It’s as good as new now and is Vance’s machine. He absolutely loves it too! In May, we found one for sale for a decent price and went to look at it. Kirk was talking to the seller and somehow got him to sell it to us for just $150! It runs great and did when we bought it as well! Then in August, we found another one that needed some work but still ran and drove. We picked it up for just $100!
Now we all have a machine we can ride on our own. We also have one sled for hauling goods home, but we’re working on obtaining another.
Winter is Always Around the Corner
We needed to be ready for winter! The meant plugging all the holes and drafty places in the existing cabin, falling trees, chopping and stacking wood, stocking up on necessities so we don’t have to travel to town as often in the winter.
There really is a lot to do to prepare for winter. In Alaska, most of us spend the spring, summer, and fall doing just that. But when you live off the road system and off the grid it’s even more of an adventure to accomplish. There are certain things that can only be brought up at very specific times of the summer. We have to wait for break up to be over, and the ground to stiffen up. But we can’t do it in the rainy season either. Too much mud makes for not much fun when trying to transport things of significant weight.
This year it was unusually wet! The break-up was normal, but then the rain came in straight away which didn’t give the ground much chance to get hard. Then it rained, and rained, and rained some more! We were able to get what we needed here, but it was always a last-minute kind of thing. You know, living this lifestyle means you have to be flexible, because one morning we would wake up and it would be dry for the third day in a row and we would look at each other and say, “Today’s the day!”
Between Kirk working off our trade, building for the neighbor and working on assorted projects for many of the other weekend neighbors up here, on top of harvesting trees for wood, there wasn’t much time for play.
With homeschooling Vance, me working online from home, and assisting Kirk as needed, there wasn’t a spare moment this summer on my end either. In 2017, I started a home-based business working online building websites, e-learning presentations, transcriptions and more. The business has been steadily growing, and for this we’re thankful!
What We Learned
How Much Wood?
We learned that it takes a LOT of wood when that’s your only source of heat. We went through approximately 6 cord of wood last winter, so we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us to make sure we had enough before the snow flies.
While there are lots of trees up here to harvest for firewood, it’s the seasoning that gets you. You can’t burn wet wood for a multitude of reasons, but our summer was so wet it felt like it was nearly impossible to get it to dry.
We quartered everything we cut and stacked it right away so it could dry as much as possible. We covered the wood when it would rain and uncovered it every chance we got to help it get dry and stay dry. We know we don’t have enough wood to get through the winter this year, so we’ll be cutting again in the winter, but we now know what to cut in winter, look for dead standing! With all the major work to be done this summer, there just wasn’t enough time.
Live Like There’s No Tomorrow
In November, we learned the most valuable lesson of all, life is precious and too short! On November 16th, Walter Lewis Kennedy, Kirk’s father passed away unexpectedly.
While we knew he was having some health issues, we had just finished making plans for him to come visit us here next summer. We thought he had it controlled with the help of his doctors. But, God had a different plan.
This meant we had to leave our homestead unexpectedly and travel to California. We didn’t know how long we would be gone, and we had animals we needed to have cared for in our absence. Plus, we didn’t have the money saved to make this trip. For 2018, we plan to save as much as we can, so we’ll never be in a position like that again.
You Can’t Be a Shut-In
We learned that friends and neighbors are an important thing to have. We found people for all the animals who didn’t even hesitate, and Kirk was able to get an advance on a job he was planning for a neighbor.
If God hadn’t put the people in our lives who we know now and formed the connections we have with them, we would have been in a very tough spot. Many people think homesteading is about being completely on your own, but the truth is it takes a village sometimes.
There are going to be times when regardless of what you’ve done or haven’t done, you’re going to need help. It’s important to do more than get to know those around you, but be there for them and help them whenever possible, even if it’s not always convenient. You never know when you may be the one reaching out.
When the Cards Start to Fall, Expect an Avalanche!
As we were packing to leave, we experienced our first chimney fire, and let me tell you it was NO fun! It started innocently enough. I was sitting on the couch going over my list of things to pack to make sure I had everything we would need. I commented that my head was feeling awfully warm. Not thinking too much of it because of lack of sleep and stress over the situation, I heard a loud whooshing sound. I looked over to Kirk and asked him if he was expecting someone to come over thinking it was a snow machine coming onto the property.
He immediately sprung from his seat and began closing down the wood stove. He knew right away that it was a chimney fire and how to stop it! I went outside and saw flames shooting out of our chimney! Thankfully there was plenty of snow on the roof, but it’s a metal roof too, so that helped prevent further inferno. It was very cold, so the air was dry and the sparks that were flying didn’t go far. We had to move the couch and take apart the chimney pipe to take the elbow outside and dump the hot coals out, then put it back together and wait to make sure it was cooling down properly before leaving for the airport, a 4-hour drive from here to catch a red-eye flight.
We parked our pickup at a friends house while we were gone and he drove us to the airport. Once he dropped us off, we made our way to the security line only to realize I hadn’t grabbed Kirks wallet from the truck. We had to call our friend and ask him to bring it to us. This may not seem like a big deal, but he dropped us off at 3 am, so we already felt terrible for waking him so early to begin with!
The first flight was fairly uneventful. We had a connection in Seattle and only 20 minutes to make it. We got there by the skin of our teeth, but only because I asked the flight attendant to call ahead of us and let them know we were indeed on our way!
The connecting flight was a nightmare, but also couldn’t be helped. Screaming and crying children all around us. I had the joy of getting the aisle seat and the baby sitting in her mothers’ lap next to me threw up on me! It’s important to note that I have a weak stomach when it comes to these things. I nearly lost my cookies as well. Then I had to deal with the smell the entire flight. (I feel it only fair to say that I’m sure that mother had no clue this was going to happen, I do remember when my kiddos were little. So it’s no fault of anyone, in particular, it just made for a terrible flight.)
We landed at LAX and were immediately bombarded by the “city life” of horns honking at each other, exhaust and dirty air, and throngs of people. We got picked up by Kirk’s uncle, went to supper and went to bed. We were exhausted. Actually, that’s likely an understatement, as we had both been awake for over 48 hours at this point.
Family Comes in All Shapes and Sizes
The people who stepped up to help us take care of the animals and get where we needed to be are like family. Family isn’t always blood, it’s more often than not those who are there for you in your toughest times.
We were able to stay with an uncle while we were there and see many family members we haven’t seen in years! In many ways, we’re thankful for this unexpected trip because of the loved ones we were able to spend a little time with while we were there.
Have a Backup Plan
We were gone a little over 3 weeks. When we returned home it was literally frozen! Thankfully we don’t have any running water, so nothing was damaged, but many of the food items I had stored did freeze. I found several home canned items that had popped seals, and as we got the cabin warmed up more of them had the lid pop, meaning they were now unsealed. We lost some food because of this, but all in all, it wasn’t too much.
This taught us that we needed a backup heat system that could keep the cabin above freezing in the event of an emergency departure. This is something that is on our list for 2018.
In our next post, I’ll share our 2018 homestead goals and why we’ve chosen them specifically.