Ashley Selden

An Alaskan Migration

Water

A few days ago we went up to the general store for a shower. We put our shower bag together, Tyler scooped the baby up and I grabbed her carrier. We drove up to the store, paid for a shower and then realized we were missing something, the shower bag. We had three choices, drive home and give up the idea of having a shower for the night, drive home and get the shower bag or buy soap in the general store and shake off without a towel for drying. We opted for the latter. I went back in the store and bought a bar of soap and shampoo. Living in a dry cabin can be a real pain, especially in the springtime, especially when we are in “town” where the old saying, water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink rings true. Relatively speaking, we have it easy when we are out in the woods living next to the river.

In modern America it’s hard for people to imagine living without running water; no bathroom, no kitchen faucet, or washing machine. Tyler and I have lived without running water for about 12 years now. When we first moved to Fairbanks we were flat broke and it was the only kind of place we could afford. We moved from our two person orange tent into a 14×14 three sided log cabin. At the time, just having a roof over my head, a stove and a fridge seemed like a luxury. It didn’t bother me not to have running water, the experience was all a part of youthful adventure to me. Then, when we could have afforded to move into a place that had water we
chose to stay in our little cabin and save the money instead, just in case some interesting opportunity might cross our path. So we saved and then in the summer of 2008 our frugality paid off when we were so lucky to meet the person who introduced us with the opportunity to live on a trap line in one of our nations most beautiful wildlife areas. Soon we were so deep into our lifestyle of going out to live in the woods every year that running water just never worked out for us. We have always chosen our lifestyle over luxury and that is fine by me.

Many people have asked me what it’s like to have no pipes in the house. It varies throughout the year and depends on the season. Right now, spring time in Alaska, still a frozen, snow covered landscape, is the worst. Tyler keeps a big pot on the wood stove that he adds snow to throughout the day in order to have water for the dog team, dishes and watering our garden seedlings in the windowsill. For drinking and cooking we haul water from a spring or from town. We don’t like to drink snow melt water if we don’t have to. It tastes acidic and it’s hard to find really clean snow this late in the winter. Your bound to find a moose or rabbit turd in the snow melting pot and after a winters worth of windstorms there are always twigs, spruce needles, leaves, and birch seeds spicing up the water.

There are a few different ways to go about filling up on drinking water for the house. There is a fresh water spring just North of Fairbanks locals know as the Fox water hole, our favorite water source. It tastes great and isn’t treated which is something we value. Unfortunately Fox is out of the way and it’s hard to find the time to go that far for water unless we’re already passing through. The other common way of fetchin’ the water is driving to one of several shacks in town that house water run from the city pipes similar to the concept of a gas station. Outsiders would be surprised at how busy these watering stations are. This is how we get most of our drinking water in the spring since it’s convenient when we go to town running other errands. We are water connoisseurs, however, and we hate how the treated city water tastes, especially after drinking out of a crystal clear, uncontaminated river all winter.

Blue plastic 5 and 6 gallon water containers are very common in Fairbanks and not just for camping trips. Most stores here carry a plentiful stock of them year round. When we head to town to get water we load up our 8 blue squares in the back of the truck and listen to the empty jugs bump around in the back on the drive to town. The water stations are blue 10×16 foot shacks. On the sides of the shack are several silver, window sized, industrial styled freezer doors. When you open up the little door you will see a payment deck on the left and a nozzle slightly larger than a gas pump attached to a long retractable hose on your right. At 6 cents a gallon you can pay by coin, bill or credit card. We dump our quarters in, grab the nozzle and pull out the hose to reach the back of the truck where our jugs are lined up ready to fill. When we get the water home we have to sled it all down the path to the cabin. This process is a pain in the butt so we reserve this water for drinking only and melt snow for the chores.

8 years ago, Tyler and I were through with renting and decided to buy a place of our own to spend our summers in Fairbanks. The main motivation for buying a place was that for the 1st two years we went out trapping we would literally be homeless when we 1st flew back to town. We’d arrive in Fairbanks with our whole dog team, a case of full blown culture shock and start calling our friends from the airport in order to score a good couch surfing gig, dog team and all. Once we’d find a sympathetic friend to take us in we would start hunting for a rental that would let us have the whole dog team in the yard. Not many landowners want an entire dog team digging up their yard and pooping all summer. Understandable I suppose. It was hard to find a place to rent. Finding a place to rent with running water was almost entirely out of the question. When we started house hunting we wanted to get a place that we knew we could pay off in short order so we weren’t strapped by a lifetime of debt that would threaten to hold us down and force us to settle into a town living lifestyle. We chose a small cabin without running water in order to live within our means. Having a dry cabin makes life easy when we leave for the trap line in the fall. There is no worry of shutting down the water system, finding a house sitter or pipes freezing while we’re gone till spring.

Over time we have made life without plumbing a little easier. Like I said before, spring is the worst, but once it stops freezing hard at night things aren’t so bad around here. We have gutters on the house that drain into 2, 250 gallon water tanks. We use the rainwater for cleaning, bathing, feeding dogs, scrubbing vegetables and cleaning chickens when we butcher in late summer. We have two fenced in chicken coops. One is for layers and one is for meat birds. Both coops have gutters that drain into 55 gallon trash cans which makes it handy to water the birds. Our property has a good sized pond on it. We bought a gas powered water pump and fitted it with garden hose in order to water the garden all summer with the pond water.  Recently we bought another water tank and keep it at the end of the driveway and the water truck comes by and fills it up with Fox spring water for us to drink so we don’t have to drive anywhere for drinking water during the summer. Once a week I make a run to the laundry mat, though I hope to buy a specialty washing machine this summer and use rainwater to wash the clothes. We have a nice solar shower setup for when the weather permits but otherwise have to shower up at Soapy’s, the laundry and shower room next to our local general store.

Showering at Soapy’s is not my favorite but I’m glad it’s there. We’ve taken hundreds of showers there over the last 10 years. Often we will only buy enough tokens for one shower and split it to save time and money. I’ll go first, get my business done in the small square stall and then switch out with Tyler. He’ll shower while I dry and dress. While I start dressing he’s getting adjusted to my scorching water and almost always asks “Is this our bar of soap in here?”. Valid question in a public shower. A few years ago I took to buying local goat milk soap from the farmers market. Tyler thought it was too slippery. I was toweling off one evening and he started slipping around in the little stall. “What the hell is this soap?” He asks. Pretty soon he is flailing around looking like a fawn on glare ice. He just couldn’t gain control over his feet. Desperate for stability he grabbed a hold of the shower curtain. It was so funny I couldn’t help him. I was trying not to pee myself I was laughing so hard. Understandably he was anxious about falling onto the floor of the public shower stall. He whipped back the curtain and yelled for help and then I started laughing even harder because he was wearing his fogged up eyeglasses in the shower and they had been flung sideways in the struggle to gain traction. There is nothing more funny than a bearded grown man slipping around in the shower like a cartoon. Eventually I stopped laughing so hard and held my arm out to him. Another time at the shower Tyler decided to mess with me when we heard a couple of people come in to do their laundry through the thin walls of the shower room. “Don’t pee in the shower this time. I hate it when you pee in the shower before my turn.” he said in a loud voice. After I toweled off I had an embarrassing encounter with the folks doing their laundry. I just smiled at them sheepishly.

We have a sink in our house like most people do. When we go to do the dishes we heat a pot of water on the stove and dump it in out porcelain enameled cast iron sink. Hot on the left side, cold for rinsing on the right. When we get done doing the dishes we dump the water down the drain like everyone else…only our water goes down a short pipe into a 5 gallon bucket that has to be dumped outside in its designated spot when it’s full. Some people in dry cabins pipe the drain right out the wall and outside. We’ve never done this, though I get more tempted to drill a hole in the wall every year. I guess I’m starting to get a little soft.

Having no running water, the thing that bothers me the least is using an outhouse. Tyler and I are so used to using an outhouse that we’ve begun to think that pooping inside your house is possibly more disgusting. The outhouse gets you outside right away in the morning. Many important observations are made during the morning outhouse visit; the temperature, the weather, a grouse in the willows. In the winter an outhouse doesn’t even smell. We carve out a piece of blue rigid construction foam into a toilet seat and it heats to your body temperature on contact no matter what the temperature is outside. You can wipe it clean and when you need a new one you just carve one up. I wouldn’t want to share an outhouse with a lot of people. I like to keep bathrooms to myself no matter what kind. The thing I dread about doing errands when we’re in Fairbanks the most is having to use public restrooms. Those really give me the heebie jeebies. I like to squat among the willows when I take a leek. Anything but put my tush where hundreds of other tushes have been throughout the day. I hover in public restrooms, it’s a good quad workout. Sydney is so used to the absense of toilet flushing that when I flush one it startles her and she laughs or says “Wow”. A deeply dug outhouse hole can last a long time. We only use either of ours for half the year so that tends to extend their life quite a bit. We keep a big tin can in the outhouse for burning the toilet paper which also extends the life of an outhouse. In the 8 years that we’ve had the hole dug outside our cabin in Fairbanks we haven’t come even close to halfway up yet.

Dealing with no running water can be time consuming on the trap line. Water has to be hauled from the river in 5 gallon buckets either by hand or pulled in a sled. All of the cleaning at the trap line cabin is done by hand; all of the laundry, all of the diapers. Taking a bath is a real process; We haul water from the river, light a fire under the grate outside, dump water into out 25 gallon pot, wait for it to heat up, haul it into the cabin, dump it into our galvanized tub, add snow to adjust the temperature if its too hot, bathe, dump the water outside, haul in more water for the second person, adjust the temperature again, bathe, dump it again and then put the bath supplies away where they belong. Life seems to revolve around water when you don’t have plumbing in the house. Water is a necessity of life many tend to take for granted but if you haul it around by hand and see how you use every drop of it you develop an intimate connection with water. It’s a wholesome feeling to respect an element that gives life to the world.

Yesterday the sun was shining and the temperature rose to 50 degrees in the sun. The snow is starting to melt. The gutters are starting to drip. Things are looking bright around here. Melting snow on the wood stove is coming to a close for another season. We got 30 gallons of water off of the gutters today. We celebrated the occasion by giving Sydney a bath. Life is good in our cabin tonight.

2 Comments

  1. I love your blog! And Sydney looks just like the both of you. I think I’m a closet wannabe Alaskan. I love your respect for water. It’s taken advantage by so many people who don’t know anything else. Oh and peeing in the bushes is golden! Thank you again for sharing your life with us.

  2. Really enjoying reading your blogs…this one was especially interesting as you shared how you naturally fitted into the subsistence lifestyle and work through the challenges of water. Your love for your family is very evident in the words you use.
    Keep writing as time allows.

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