Home Projects Abound: Tapping Trees and Cleaning Poop – Part II

•May 26, 2011 • 1 Comment

Chickens!!! (or home project #2)

It amazes me at the outdoor animals people keep in Fairbanks; horses, goats, cows, ducks, geese and chickens.  Guess animals as well as humans can get used to anything, even -40F.  Supposedly..or so we will find out!  We decided to join the ranks of those crazy people and get some chickens.

Not surprisingly, same as with the birch tapping experience, we didn’t think this one through before diving head first into it – and that is how we ended up on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a box full of chickens and no where for them to go and at least on my part no knowledge about chickens at all other than; I think that’s where eggs come from! (don’t you love our gung-ho style of attacking home projects?)

The chicken co-op with our first egg from our layers; Betsy and Athena (not sure which one gave us our first egg)

And this is the story of how 6 chickens ended up living in an Alaskan outhouse for a week… you’d think this would be a brilliant idea, because outhouses are as big or bigger than traditional chicken coops and there is already human poop inside so why not add some chicken poop to the mix.  Well what we didn’t realize is that chickens somehow manage to spray their poop high up on the walls, peck at everything in sight, spill water a hundred times over leaving giant lakes behind and peck at human legs when humans try to use the outhouse.  Note to self: don’t put chickens in an outhouse.

Patience one of our "medium" chickens, i.e. she's a few months old.

Meanwhile, Nathan was busily building our ladies a coop, sourcing 99.9% of the material for it from the transfer station (aka the dump).  Fairbanks has an interesting “transfer station” culture – where your garbage becomes another man’s treasure.  The other members of the chicken co-op (we are 3 co-owners, with a 4th backup owner) – meaning Michaela and I – also wanted to contribute to building stuff for chickens and decided to tackle the chicken run.  Now Alaska is very well known for it’s chicken predators; hawks, ravens, foxes, bears not to mention our 3 cats and random hunting dogs that roam the neighborhood. Taking this into consideration we decided to build the safest chicken run ever – with fencing surrounding the whole thing, even on top, and screws and nails holding the it tightly together with no cracks for anything to get in.  After we built it, we proudly surveyed our work and thought of how much the chickens will like it when we realized – we built it to be so secure nothing can get in, not even the chickens!!!!  (Needless to say it’ll need some reworking this weekend…a door might be nice. Ha!)

Chicken coop in progress.

An example of my little to no knowledge about chickens was when one night I was hanging out in the coop and noticed that our smallest chicken had a giant lump on her throat. Alarmed I surveyed the other chickens to see if they had it too and sure enough 4 out of 6 had a lump varying in size under their necks! All a flutter I ran into the house thinking all our chickens got cancer over night and are growing crazy tumors and started looking up ‘chicken cancer’ online when I found out…. that that is completely normal for chickens! They have a crop under their neck area where they store their food and then digest it later.  So the more they eat in a day the bigger their crop will be.  Whew…so glad to have avoided chicken cancer. Wonder what other chicken mysteries we will discover in the next few months.

The peepers; Chanticlear and Potentially Olive (we haven't decided yet if her name is Olive, so for now we call her Potentially Olive)

By the way, if any of you reading this have any chicken advice for us (i.e. how to make them lay an egg, general chicken health, tips and tricks) please let us know in the comment section below, we would really appreciate it!!

She-Ra our other medium chicken...not drunk as you might assume but taking a sandbath (another thing I learned about chickens..)


Home Projects Abound: Tapping Trees and Cleaning Poop – Part I

•May 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

With the jump in daylight hours (for about 2 weeks now we have lost all darkness and have transitioned to the realm of neverending daylight), the melting of snow, break-up of river and lake ice, and wonderful 70-80F degree temperatures it is finally time for outdoor home projects again!!

Alaska’s version of maple trees (aka maple syrup) are birch trees (aka birch syrup). End of April/beginning of May is when birch sap flows for about 10 days.  A friend of mine is an avid birch tapper; she gave us instructions, a demo, birch syrup toffee and a tap and off we went in search of the perfect birch tree to tap. As it turns out we live in a spruce forest, and not very confident of how spruce sap would taste, we wandered over to a friend’s house and sure enough found a birch tree to tap there.

Now, tapping a tree is not easy, it’s a bit of a science.  In our first attempt we had the tap, a drill, hammer and bucket.  All well and good. Except when I went to check it the next day (birch sap only stays good for 24 hours, so either you have to drink it, boil it or freeze it within that timeframe) it had rained over night and the tipped-over-bucket contents I excitedly brought home that day tasted a lot like rainwater and forest debris.  Wiser now, the next day we brought foil to cover the bucket and stabilized it with rocks and wood to keep from tipping over.

The other rather important part of tapping a tree is to have a plan in place for what to do with the gallons of sap that will come spewing out of the tree. We didn’t have such a plan. At the end of the 10 day period what we did have was a severe lack of tupperware and a freezer bursting at the seams with frozen birch sap.  Luckily, we only tapped one tree this season…can’t imagine what would have happened if we had tapped 5 like originally planned, our house would have become a birch sap sanctuary.

When the time came to actually put human food in our tupperware and freezer again, we stuffed all the frozen birch sap into our slow cooker and cooked it for about 48 hours. Since the sugar content in birch sap is rather low, it is easy to just burn the whole thing off and not end up with syrup or just with burned residue, so it has to be watched pretty closely.  And the end of this fun home project we ended up as proud owners of a quarter cup of our very own birch syrup (with added forest debris flavorings, because while we did think of straining it there didn’t appear to be a right moment for it, can’t strain it in frozen format and then it already started becoming gooey-syrupy). Ta-da!!

(Part II to follow…)

Our first attempt at birch syrup (+ forest debris flavoring)

You know you live in Alaska when…

•April 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

… it’s 35F outside and you feel it is so warm you don’t even need a jacket! (to my defense, compared to -40F, 35F IS warm)

…at 40F it is a normal sight to see people in shorts and tank tops.

…it’s light out until 11pm in APRIL! Hoorah for long daylight hours!

…your cats think it’s time for breakfast at 6am because the sun already rose at 5am in APRIL.

…something called “breakup” occurs, which means all the snow and ice that has accumulated over 9 months of winter starts to melt and creates giant puddles and mini-lakes everywhere. Every store sells rows of ‘breakup boots’ – that is their official name and a necessity.

…Alaskans far and wide get excited for the Nenana Ice Classic. This seems to be the Alaskan version of state lottery, the entire state bets on what month, day, hour and minute exactly the ice on the Nenana River breaks-up. They measure it by sticking a tripod into the middle of the river, attached with strings to the shore. The minute the ice breaks, the tripod will move and will trigger a timer. You may be smirking right now, but this event is actually taken quite seriously. The jackpot last year was $200,000! http://www.nenanaakiceclassic.com/

…it is no problem at all to have a chicken coop in your backyard, even if you are just renting and don’t even own the property. Gotta love the absence of homeowner associations! Let the animal sanctuary/zoo accumulation begin!! I’m thinking chickens, ducks and geese to start with….let’s see what else Nathan will let me get away with, mwahahahah!

…it seems like your life revolves around weather. Ha! I feel like all my blogs are about weather and temperatures. A little personal update: the end of the semester and my first year as a PhD student nears.  This means two things, first I am completely overwhelmed and stressed out by everything that still needs to get done in the next 3 weeks (as you can tell I took a procrastination break by writing this blog) and I am one step closer to figuring out what exactly my thesis research should be about. My topic as it stands now is on community disaster resilience in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). I am hoping to do an internship in the Caribbean this summer (poor me – I know, but hey after surviving a winter in Fairbanks, I think I deserve 2 months in the Caribbean this summer).

Ok back to work..

Tropics in Alaska

•February 22, 2011 • 2 Comments

Ahhh I am sorry to report that it is indeed still winter up here. Sixteen inches of snow fell over the weekend and temperatures still range between -40F (or colder, but I wouldn’t know because our thermometer only goes to -40 below) to 10F above.  I literally don’t know anyone who lives here who has not had car trouble at some point this winter. Cars are just not meant to be driven in subarctic temperatures. It’s true.

Almost bottomed out..yikes!

But instead of harping on about the cold (afterall what did I expect moving to Fairbanks and all) I’ll let you all in on some more subarctic secrets (this stuff probably happens in the arctic as well and probably in the antarctic too come to think of it).

1. Square tires. Nope, it’s not a typo, square tires happen when it’s extremely cold (even for Alaska standards) and the air in the tire and the rubber freezes to the shape of the tire while it is parked. So the flat part that touches the ground freezes flat. When you start up the car and drive it feels like you have 4 flat tires – makes for a bumpy ride! Luckily with friction it slowly warms up, evens out and becomes round again.

2. Diamond Dust. Don’t know if this is the “official” term, sounds more like a code word for drugs if you ask me. But to be fair, people on drugs probably see this phenomenon too, without ever traveling up here! On cold, sunny days ice particles dance through the sky and glitter like diamonds. It’s truly amazing! The first time I saw it, I definitely thought something was wrong with my eyes!

3. Sun Dog. Rainbow parenthesis around the sun. No kidding. To the left and to the right or above and below.  This happens because light gets refracted in the ice particles that are whirring through the air. For a picture and better explanation of both diamond dust and sun dog click here.

4. Hoar Frost. Frost builds up upon frost which has the effect of producing sheaths of frost, which makes everything look like a scene out of Narnia. For an explanation of hoar frost click here.

5. Northern Lights also known as Aurora Borealis. I don’t need to explain these guys, except have I mentioned that we have a direct view of the aurora out of our bedroom window?? Yes, we are living the life. Here are some shots I took (btw I’m still learning how to photograph the aurora, it’s not as easy as it may seem, so forgive the blurriness).

Northern Lights


Northern Lights - view out of the bedroom window

6. Ice Fog. This one is a little annoying actually, but once again in extremely cold temps water vapor turns into ice which mixes with car exhaust, coal plant exhaust and wood stove smoke to form one soupy mix of particles that stick around in low lying areas until the temperatures rise again. Yum! Happens especially in and around downtown Fairbanks. Good thing we live above that mess.

7. Tropic Fever. What happens to Fairbanksans when they have been through five months of winter and know they still have 3-4 months more to go. It manifests itself in limbo competitions, flower leis and bbq’ing in -15F surrounded by snow and hoar frost (special thank you to Marilyn for the tropical additions!).

Doin' the limbo dance...

Frozen fireweed in the backyard

The day has come..

•January 31, 2011 • 3 Comments

..I am officially sick of the cold. What does it feel like to wear shorts I wonder?

I think I will spend my summer in the Caribbean!

PS: My Alaskan friend gave me kudos for lasting until the end of January before feeling this way…she spent her winter break in Florida!

PSS: To combat this winter-cold-blues, I am throwing a tropical birthday party next week – we will crank up the heater in the house, everyone will wear their bathing suits and we will limbo the night away!!

Below Zero

•December 26, 2010 • 2 Comments

Once the thermometer gauge dips below the zero mark it is like we enter a whole different world.  Strange and curious things start to happen, cars, houses and our bodies stop functioning like they usually do and rules from the “above zero” world don’t apply anymore.

Humans in Below Zero

Six months ago, before we moved to Alaska I would have considered -10F really really cold and would probably have avoided leaving the house altogether.  These days when it is -10F or even -15F outside I find it balmy and will drop everything I’m doing to go outside for a ski or a for a walk to take advantage of the “warm weather.”  What craziness..

Once the temperatures are -20F and colder however, being outdoors becomes a little uncomfortable and at -35F and colder it becomes pretty darn uncomfortable and it’s essential to bundle up to the point where the only thing visible are your eyes (and even then your eyeballs and eyelashes freeze) and doing normal chores like pumping gas and loading groceries in the back of your car becomes extremely un-fun.

My frozen eyelashes.

A 10 minute walk from my office/trailer to my classroom results in eyelashes that are frozen together and I can barely open my eyes to see where I am going, frozen nose hairs that feel like giant buggers but are not (or “snotcycles” as my friend Monica put it) and frozen, iced-over hair where ever it sticks out of my hat.  The thing with frozen hair is that it becomes susceptible to being broken off like icicles and hence can lead to an involuntary haircut!

Cars in Below Zero

The main difference for cars between above and below zero is that once the minus sign appears (-) you gotta plug your car in.  Huh? You want me to do what? Yes, you read right, plug the car in.  Garages are a very rare commodity in Fairbanks, the only time my Jeep is ever garaged is when it is at the mechanic.  The rest of the time it is outdoors in whatever temperatures are thrown at it.  After a certain level of cold (it varies by car, somewhere between 0F and -20F) the fluids in the car engine freeze which means your car won’t start or it will seek revenge on you later on if it is forced to start in such cold weather.  To avoid this, I have a block engine heater, an oil pan heater and a warming battery blanket installed, all of which run to an outlet that sticks out of the front grill next to the license plate.  The better parking lots around town have outlets for every parking spot where cars can be plugged in with an extension cord.  It is a pretty funny sight actually walking through a parking lot with cars plugged in, looks like the cars are on leashes and need to be tied to posts so they won’t run away.

It also turns out that windshields crack when it’s -20F outside and you blast the heater on the dashboard inside.  Hmm…who knew?  Without naming any names, some of us learned this the hard way.

One of the first mornings when the temperatures fell to -25F the radio news announcer issued a caution for people not to go fast over bumps in the road because the frozen plastic bits on the cars could go flying off in all directions…great as if the 2 inch layer of ice isn’t hazardous enough, now I have to watch out for flying frozen plastic bits.  My jacket that has a plastic outershell that always freezes as well as soon as I set foot outside, which makes for a very stiff, crinkly experience.

Here is a picture that has nothing to do with cars or plastic, but is a Halloween pumpkin that has been outside since October! Since it's virtually a freezer outside it will stay preserved until spring when we will make a pie out of it..

Cabins in Below Zero

In general I think our cabin it pretty well insulted and our one and only toyo heater in the living room is holding up pretty well in keeping our house warm – for the most part.  A few days at -25F revealed an ice build-up on our windows INSIDE the cabin.  Along with a recent discovery of ice on our electricity outlets again INSIDE the house.  Our bathroom with the shower, unfortunately the room furthest removed from the heater, is probably the coldest room in the house and I know this because after we take a shower the entire bathtub freezes over, which means the next person to take a shower has to start it off standing on a layer of ice..brrr…

Frost build-up on the INSIDE of our window.

Nathan noted the other day when it was -30F that going from outside to inside our house was a whooping 90F difference in temperature!! We keep the indoor temperature at around 64F…  What can I say, we like to pose challenges of adaptation to our bodies on a regular basis. Keeps them on their toes…

Sun o’ Sun, Where Art Thou?

Now to the most important question when living in Fairbanks in winter….Sun where are you??? On winter solstice we had 2 hours 40 minutes of sun, from 11am to 2:40pm.  And since we are so far north the sun is never at a 90 degree angle in the sky, in summer it might be about 60 degrees but in winter it seems the sun just creeps along the horizon which actually makes for beautiful scenery because it seems that it is always either sunrise or sunset, there really is nothing in between.  The time sequenced photos below will show you what I mean.. it is a little bit small but if you click on it it should open in a separate window.

Sunrise to sunset a few days before winter solstice.

Thanksgiving Alaska-Style – after

•November 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment
We made it there – and back, hoorah!!

Fred Blixt Cabin

Despite my grinchiness it ended up being a really fun Thanksgiving, with a real feast, crazy ski adventure, and close run-ins with ice road truckers.

Cabin Thanksgiving Feast

The road out to the cabin (Elliot Highway) connects directly with the Dalton Highway which is the one that leads up to the Arctic ocean.  The road was built when the oil pipeline was constructed for the haul trucks and workers to be able to get around.  While the highway itself was only mildly iced-over (nothing my 4-wheel drive Jeep couldn’t handle) the scary part were the crazy truckers going 70mph around curves while passing! One skid by those guys and we would have been toast.  I supposed, since they are all pipeline workers they drive that highway a lot and feel comfortable to speed like crazy despite ice and snow. Shudder (by the way in case you are wondering there were rude hand gestures involved that didn’t come from us).

Once we got to the entryroad to the cabin we realized that about 2 feet of a layers of snow, ice, snow, ice and another layer of snow ontop had accumulated.  Not looking forward to the prospect of dragging all of our water and fire wood up the steep road sinking to our knees in snow, we decided to plow through with the cars.  When I moved to Alaska, I said I wanted to “practice” driving in ice and snow — this steep, unplowed, iced over slope sure provided me with the training of a lifetime. But once again, my trusty 4-wheel drive Jeep did not let us down.

Drive up to the cabin.

The cabin itself was tiny and 10 of us were nice and cozy crammed in there. It was ridiculously hard to regulate the temperature indoors with body heat and a blazing fire, so we ended up sweating more than we did freezing. One brave soul opted out of the tight squeeze of the cabin and slept in a tent outdoors. 

Winter camping.

The Thanksgiving meal was a real feast with some gourmet chefs along for the trip, all the food was precooked and merely warmed up on the wood stove.  In my efforts to preserve food I stuck all the leftovers outside overnight, which proved to not be a great idea because everything froze over and we had to eat frozen chicken and guacamole for lunch the next day. Hmm…didn’t quite taste the same as the night before. 

The next day we went for a crazy ski/hike up a steep hill through the woods that led us to the foothills of the White Mountains and an awesome view of the mountains themselves. I will say that “skiing” uphill through trees can not quite be classified as skiing, rather as crawl-on-knees-slip-n’-slide-on-skiis (ha, I just invented a new sport I think!).

Overall a great trip with one moose sighting! And the temperature stayed around 10F so no need for fires under cars, hoorah! We’ll save that for the next adventure..

View of the White Mountains..