(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE with a Chimney Issue
My husband and I also heat our remote, off-grid home with a woodstove. One cold February night we had to evacuate our cabin at 3 am because the chimney pipe had gotten so clogged with creosote that the smoke in the firebox was leaching out into our home rather than drawing upward to the outside.
We evacuated with camping chairs to our shower house, which has an on-demand, propane heater. Every two hours, we ventured back in to the cabin, wearing N95 masks, to ascertain when the fire subsided and the firebox cooled down enough to dismantle the chimney pipe and clean it out. Meanwhile, we heated up some coffee on the propane stove and snacked on peanut butter, jelly, and bread from the food shed.
At 8 am, we disassembled the chimney pipe. It was clogged with sticky, shiny creosote flakes, especially where we had an ill-conceived 90 degree “elbow” to exit through the wall rather than ascend straight up through the second floor, (because of the location of our bed).
My husband used a shop vacuum to clean the interior pipe and woodstove, and a long, hinged chimney sweep to clear the exterior chimney. Meanwhile, I spent 3 days cleaning the smoke scent and ash from every surface and every fabric in the 750-square-foot cabin.
This experience sobered us, as you might imagine. My husband has been vigilant about poking the chimney sweep up the full length of the exterior pipe on the first of every winter month. But until this experience, about 8 years after we moved here, we had disassembled the interior vertical and horizontal pipe sections only at the end of the winter for “spring cleaning.” After discussions with some other cabin owners, Bryan climbed a tall ladder with tin snips to detach the mesh “bird cage” and cap at the top of the chimney. It is designed to keep birds out, but the narrow weave of metal was clogged with the creosote of our local birch and spruce firewood. We now have an open chimney top that encourages smoke to rise with greater velocity. I hope this solves the problem.
One reason that many cabins in the past had a separate kitchen building was for fire safety. In the prior story, it sounds like the man lost everything of value because it was all stored in the solo building that burned. If our cabin suffered a catastrophic fire, we would not worry about losing food, most of which is stored in a separate food shed. As for clothing, we store emergency supplies, including an extra set of clothes, on each of our snow machines, and out-of-season clothes elsewhere, too. But after this experience, I stowed a bag of seasonally appropriate clothing for each of us in the shower house until I agreed to undertake the cost and effort of constructing a second, dry cabin 500 feet away. With cooking supplies, a stove, sink, and propane heater, beds, chairs and clothing, we could actually live there, if anything happened to our main cabin. In the meantime, it serves as my husband’s “ham shack” and hobby room.
CAUTIONARY ADVICE involving WATER
(The following cautionary comments are brief notes, rather than narratives).
•Lakes – invasive species, fish: When we bought our undeveloped property on a lake in Alaska, we thought, “Free food!” My husband, who arises much earlier than I, often cast a line off our dock and caught a fish for breakfast. Alas, this did not last. Northern pike moved into the river drainage where we live and ate all the trout. So we ate pike – pulling out monsters 39 – 42 inches long. Yes, they are bony, but tasty. Then, that did not last. The pike cannibalized each other.
Now, the fish are much smaller in size and fewer in number. When we cut open their stomachs, we find insects and the occasional vole rather than young pike. Waters in other parts of the country are similarly impacted by their own invasive species that out-compete local fish. We asked the state Fish and Game Department if we could buy some fry to stock our lake. They said that as long as any pike exist in the lake, we would just be feeding them, not us. We asked if we could create a fenced pond within the lake for other fish. They said no to that, too.
• Invasive species, plants: A number of lakes in our part of Alaska have become infested with elodia, a water plant that can grow so fast and so densely that it can drown a dog or a duck, and can certainly entangle the rudders of float planes, endangering take off and landing. Regional lodge businesses have failed as a result of their lakes becoming, essentially, marshes within a few years. Property values plummeted. If you are looking at lake properties, contact local wildlife associations and fish and game offices to ask about the condition of water bodies that interest you (as well as those nearby), even if they appear pristine.
• Rivers: Because rivers flow, water levels rise and fall and banks do, too. Here, the Matanuska River is infamous for “eating” so many dozen feet of river bank per year that houses – once built far back from the edge- have been falling in over the past dozen or so years. If you are considering river properties, consult state departments regarding river hydrology and the surrounding geology. Check with local insurance agents. Maybe they will not even write a policy for your favorite location. If you move from a warm location to a cold one, be alert to the issues at Freezeup and Breakup, when part of a river is ice and another part is flowing water. This causes flooding every year when an ice dam breaks in low-lying areas.
Check your proposed property elevation from the nearest rivers and review flooding and water level history. Ascertain the makeup of the soil layers along your side of the river.
If you plan to buy a property with a well, then test the water first. Also, contact local or state resources (such as the Department of Natural Resources) to learn more about the water table and water quality in the area. For example, in this part of Alaska, arsenic is widely distributed in the water table. For extra testing fees, you can test for particular minerals or contaminants.
Also examine the well house, pipes, and fittings or hire someone to examine all components for you. Permafrost, ice heave, or long-term drought can shift the soil, and damage the pipes within the well or to the house. This is a particularly important assessment for a “fixer-upper” home that has not been occupied for several years.
How deep are the wells in your area? We have friends who live in a low, flat, rural area south of Houston, TX and north of Galveston. Most of the wells in the area are 300 feet deep and now suffer from acrid salinity, no longer useful for irrigation or consumption. Our friend`s father prudently dug his well much deeper.
Does your well have an electric pump? Unless you are fortunate enough to have an artesian well that pumps water under its own pressure, electric pumps will not work if the power goes out, and moving water requires a lot of power – electrical or manual. We bought a hand pump as a backup which we test each year. It set us back $2,500! Who knew? I also find it exhausting to use. To fill a 5-gallon jug by hand from our 61-foot deep well, I need to pump about 100 times – first to prime it and then to get water. The minimum amount of water that my husband, dog, and I can get by with for a week is 10 gallons. For a deeper well or for more people, hand pumping would be more arduous and time-consuming.
If your property does not have a well, plan on spending some money, as this is the most important expenditure you can make. Your state’s Department of Natural Resources, water division, will be able to give you general ideas about the depth of the water table, as well as the layers of gravel, silt, clay – which you should know for many reasons. In our case, we were on a waitlist for three years and paid $100/depth foot, plus a set cost for hauling the expensive, heavy equipment out to us, across frozen rivers and snowy land in January, and then flying out the workers.
We paid $12,000 for a 61-foot dep well. If you are comparing two different properties, the cost to dig a well to an appropriate depth could vary by many thousands of dollars.
Other homesteaders dig their own, shallow wells, called sand point wells. The water is fine for irrigation and fire suppression, but [depending on local soil conditions these can be] silty or sandy for human consumption, with a very slow flow. With such a well, it is a good idea to pump water into jugs and then let them sit undisturbed for many hours in the location where you will use them, so the silt or sand can settle. Then utilize the clearest top 4/5 of H20 for animals and humans. Otherwise, plan to stockpile a series of filters. Even with our deeper well, we change out the filters once or twice a year, so we have a decade’s worth on hand.
Earthquakes: Test water quality (and infrastructure) after strong earthquakes. After modest earthquakes here, we find that our water is silty for a day.
Rain: Rain may sound like a benign consideration, but not so. It contributes to landslides and avalanches (yes – it can rain in winter) in steep areas. Here, where August/September is our rainy season, the rain soaks the shallow, soaked root balls of enormous, leaning trees so they wrench out of the ground and fall. We actually cast bets on the most vulnerable of our old-growth trees. This is a reason, as well as fire, to clear trees a prudent distance from your valued buildings.
In other parts of the country, rains can be torrential. In desert areas, the land is so desiccated that it will not absorb water, and flash floods in “washes” can quickly overwhelm unwary drivers, hikers, or campers. In Hurricane Alley, bayous and creeks engorge and flood the surrounding area. I saw this many times over the decades that I lived in Houston, Texas: whole neighborhoods dotted with “For Sale As Is” signs, and piles of sodden carpet and furniture out front.
Rain gutters are a great idea for water catchment and storage. But plastic and thin metal ones cannot stand up to heavy snow loads and turn brittle in cold temperatures. Locations with deciduous trees will require annual cleaning to allow clean rainwater to drain into the water barrels. Some roof surfaces, such as asphalt, are not the ones you want if you plan to drink the runoff.
Roofs without gutters can pour a huge volume of water in a short time, killing plants or eroding the soil. Plan your plantings accordingly. We arrayed a line of stones under the roof line to spatter the rain toward and away from bushes planted under the eaves.
Certainly, there are many things to consider when buying any property – urban, suburban, rural, or remote. I remain incredulous about people who move to remote locations without visiting first, learning about the weather and the land, and practicing useful skills. But I have to admit that many of my efforts to learn in advance were upended by what Mother Nature intended to teach me. On the other hand, I realize that the gumption of migrants who have succeeded in new locales contributes to the American character. And those who fail, no doubt learned something significant from their endeavors.
About The Author
Mrs. Alaska blogs at www.alaskauu1.blogspot.com
Her book Log Cabin Reflections, about her life off-road, off-grid, in remote Alaska is available through Amazon.com