Seasons at the homestead contrast sharply from one another. This is not due solely to the weather swings of -55 to 90 degrees from winter to summer, but because of the nature of work and activity that each season brings. Most different are the times spent alone in the winter contrasted with the flurry of guests, volunteers, and friends that summer brings. In the summer, it is not unusual to have up to 5 people at a time visiting the homestead. Winter, it is common to spend a few weeks apart running errands, visiting family, and visiting friends in town.
I am alone in the cabin. One hundred and fifty miles beyond the nearest road. Well over 50 miles from the nearest settlement and just as many from the nearest human soul. The cabin is nestled in the foot of the Alaska Range whose peaks are accented by the shimmering glow of the Northern lights. The mercury on the thermometer sticks at -55F, five degrees away from the lowest reading. It is 9 o’clock.
Bundled up in insulated gloves, coat, scarf and fur hat, I slip outside to split wood for the evening and give the animals a once over before tucking in to bed. Breath freezes in beads of moisture on wild, untied hair. My nose burns. Fingertips ache. I feed out an extra snack of compressed hay, spread it on the snow creaking like Styrofoam beneath horse hooves and my feet. The barn fire is fed, and I crack the axe into the pile of wood I bucked up during brief daylight hours. Wood piled in my arms, I carry it into the cabin and drop it on the wooden floor. Next? Feed the fire, and climb into the loft. Snuggled into a nest of wool blankets and sheepskins, I read a book by headlamp and slip into sleep.
I have been at the homestead solo for the past two and a half weeks. This is not unusual, simply part of having a remote farm with a bevy of animals to care for. Morgan and I take intermittent turns to town when the chance arises, visiting family and friends, and gathering up necessities.
People often get questions about time alone. Do you hate it? Do you go crazy? What is it like? What do you do? What if something happens to you while you are out there alone? It seems that for most, an extended period of time with no human contact is an intangible thing. Something that they will likely never experience, and many have no desire to.
The first time spent alone at the homestead was a few weeks after we secured our winter camp. With a plane load of supplies delivered, and our tipi home pitched and secure, Morgan left for a few weeks for work. A plane landed on a frozen lake two miles from home, and took him away. There is nothing quite like being alone in the vast wilderness, listening to the sound of the single engine craft, your one connection to safety and the rest of humanity, disappearing behind mighty mountain peaks. And there you are. Alone.
That first stint alone I was quiet. Hesitant to speak for fear of cracking open that unbroken peace and silence of empty forest. Scared to let the wild woods know a foreign creature was there, putting footsteps in snow no human boot had ever traced. I spent my days quietly roaming frozen creeks followed by the cheerful black-capped chickadees. I cached wood for the winter, played guitar by the wood stove and drank pot after pot of blackened coffee. I wrote and watched pine marten and river otter, slowly beginning to feel a piece of this place that is now my home.
Now, we have established ourselves in a tiny outcropping of a seemingly endless tract of Northern country. Days are spent tracking paths in the snow or bundled inside the cabin to carve on the days that weather impedes outdoor activities.
To the questions people ask:
Do you hate it? No, time spent alone is a luxury.
Do you go Crazy? Around week two I start craving conversation. If I am frustrated with a task, say the chainsaw breaks and I am working on small engine repair, there is exponentially more cursing.
What is it like? It is freeing and empowering. Days go your way, you choose how you spend your time. Weather is the only limiting factor.
What do you do? When the chores are done- cutting and hauling wood, hauling water, feeding animals, cooking dog food, stoking fires, checking traps– I focus on my own work or projects that I have wanted the time and space to complete. I write music. This time, I extended my trap line and carved bowls for the gift shops in town. I take yoga classes by podcast every evening, write, tan hides that have been waiting for attention, draw, and paint.
What if something happens to you while you are alone? This question seems to be of the most common. Being alone in extreme conditions a two-hour flight from the nearest road can be dangerous. While alone, it is extra important to analyze every situation. Before checking traps that require travel along frozen creeks, make sure you know the ice thickness. Analyze the weather before you travel far from home. Wear your safety gear when running the chainsaw and before pressing the throttle, take an extra look at your escape routes. Whenever leaving the homestead for a day-long expedition, make sure to carry extra gear. Always carry a lighter, snacks, compass, map, a knife, and an extra layer. Always be prepared to be able to spend a day away from home. For extra safety, I carry a Garmin InReach or a PLB (personal locator beacon). These devices have SOS buttons that could call in search and rescue crews in case of a situation threatening life or limb. It is important to note that these devices are not a guarantee of safety, but a back up in case something goes truly wrong.
Morgan was supposed to return today, but the weather has other plans. Flying small planes in the mountains is fickle. A large storm is blowing in from the South, impeding passage through the Range. Out the cabin window are white-out snow conditions. My fire burns bright. Moose stew is bubbling in a pot, and I have taken out a rabbit skin to tan.
How would you spend a winter day snowed in out in the wilderness cabin?