"What did you say?" My sister Megan looked at me like she couldn't believe what she was hearing. As if I'd morphed into a monster (or our older brother) right in front of her. It was just one hour into her visit up here to Alaska this summer and already she looked like she was regretting it. Actually, she looked like she was about to hyperventilate, meltdown, and possibly die. "What do you mean your French Press is broken?"
She stared from the package of ground Starbucks' French Roast in her hand and then to my apologetic face and shook her head. "Nooooooo. That's impossible!" She sounded just like Luke when Vader tells him the truth about his parentage.
"I've got another one coming in the mail," I said soothingly.
Fat lot of good that did. She knew perfectly well that we get mail once a week by floatplane, weather permitting--a whole week, possibly longer, without coffee? I could see she was about to faint, or her head explode, or both at once, so I thought fast.
There was only one thing to do: It was time to pull out my wilderness life-hack super powers!
"Now don't go dying on me," I said encouragingly, in my best Jim Carrey voice. "I've got it covered."
Daring to hope, since her big sister had never let her down and had even saved her from lynchings, stranglings, and other older-brother mayhem in our childhood, Megan watched trustfully as I compiled what I needed on the kitchen table.
I unearthed the cup filters that I used in the winter when I melted snow for drinking water to filter out pine needles: the Styrofoam cups I had on hand for when water got low and dish washing wasn't possible; and--most importantly--the otter coffee mug that an otter-obsessed reader of my blog had sent me.
With the knife I pierced holes in the bottom of a Styrofoam cup, stuck the filter in it, poured in some of the ground coffee and held the cup above the mug as I poured hot water over the coffee. Voila! Megan was saved!
Unfortunately, there were unforeseen consequences to my life-hacking super skills. As it turned out, the coffee in the mug was about 5 ka-trillion times stronger than any coffee Megan had consumed before.
The next thing I knew she was out on my floating walkway jump roping like mad, water splashing in all directions. Then she had a sledgehammer and was pounding on a foam-filled tire (usually used for dock bumpers). A manic gleam in her eye, she ran to me, panting, and said, "I need more otter coffee! Otter coffee! Otter coffee! I need more otter coffee!"
A litte worried about what was happening, I nevertheless gave her more otter coffee.
Off she went, running back and forth across the beaches, leaping rocks, climbing cliffs (in her rubber boots no less), and racing after whales. She is now known as Runs With Whales.
"Otter coffee! Where's my otter coffee?" she howled.
Frankly a little fearful now, I gave her more otter coffee.
She starting flinging flour and yeast around and made maple bars, using some very old maple flavoring that had, unbeknownst to me, turned into pure alcohol. The Booze Bars combined with the otter coffee and exploded inside her. She tore off into the teeth of a gale, laughing like a maniac as I followed, more than a little frightened. As she stood on the cliffs of insanity, taunting the waves, I wondered how to wean someone off otter coffee. Maybe, if I could get a good signal, I could Google it?
Before I could do so, she turned to me, with the waves pounding and bursting around her, blonde hair whipping in the wind, and yelled, "I need more otter coffee. By the way, where's the machete?"
I slowly backed away. "Otter coffee? And a machete?" This did not strike me as a good combination.
I was wrong. It was an inspired combination! For the last few years since I started my blog and column the only way to send them off with pictures attached is to go to the one beach where there's a good signal. I have to wade through a sea of entangling salal brush to get there. When it snows or rains I get soaked when I struggle through it.
Well, once Megan had juiced up on the otter coffee and snatched up the machete, she went at the salal brush like Alan Rickman goes after the bad aliens in Galaxy Quest. Before I knew it, as she hacked, tossed, and hacked, I had a hallway through the brush that I could stroll through easily.
This time, when she came up for air, eyes wild, I was the one who suggested, "How about some more otter coffee? Oh, and by the way? I could really do with some kindling stocking up. Feel like cutting some?"
"Otter coffee. Kindling. Otter coffee." She nodded, her hands jerking spasmodically.
It was the best wilderness life hack so far! By the time she left, I was set for the coming winter like I'd never been set before.
This blog is dedicated to my otter-obsessed friend. I couldn't have done it without you! It is thanks to you that we got so much accomplished and filmed this summer that we've managed to put it on Megans YouTube channel, you can view it HERE.
(Disclaimer: Do not do this at home. I'm an experienced wilderness life-hack expert.)
"There are plenty of reasons to sympathize with our pal [in] Alaska. Just the thought of her running through a blizzard with an armload of firewood while being chased by a pack of howling otters just waiting for her to stumble makes me tremble for her safety."
A friend wrote this on a message board I subscribe to but can rarely post on. I thought about expanding upon this on my blog because of its astounding accuracy, but unfortunately I don't have any photos to accompany it.
So, instead, I thought I'd catch everyone up on a very common wilderness concern in Southeast Alaska: firewood.
Typically, everyone who lives in the bush and especially those who live here year around (a very small minority) owns a well-stocked woodshed. People spend a good part of their summer stocking up the woodshed in preparation for winter and then all winter long they try to, if possible, keep it topped up. Everyone fears an accident that will leave them dependent on the woodshed without the possibility of replacing what they've burned.
As a kid, a big thing our whole extended family did was have a day where we filled up the space below my grandparents' house and their side porch with firewood. It was a lot of hard work, but fun, too, with the guys trying to outdo each other with how much they sawed and split while us kids hauled and stacked, and our mother, aunts, and grandma made a huge, delicious meal inside.
Before the Forest Service claimed the land our floathouses are attached to, we had a woodshed on land that held several cords of firewood and we did our best to keep it stocked up. We had to dismantle it and since then we've been limited as to how much firewood we can have on hand, since the weight is a problem for floathouses. My dad, for the last few winters, has split wood every other day, enough for two houses. For a guy in his seventies who has only limited use of one leg, I've always thought this an impressive accomplishment.
Three weeks ago he accidentally leaned on an unlatched door and suffered a severe fall that effectively sidelined him in the firewood gathering department. Fortunately for us, our winter had been fairly mild up to then (with huckleberries still on the bushes in December), and we did have a small woodbox and the front of their floathouse stocked with firewood. In addition, last summer he and a young friend had split a pile of wood that they'd had to leave on the beach under a tarp to avoid having it on Forest Service land.
That had worked fine in the summer and fall months when the tides are fairly low, but we had big winter tides coming, including a nineteen footer that would wash the wood away. I paddled the skiff over to the beach with the split wood (my dad didn't think I'd be able to start the outboard since it had been acting up) and tossed in as much of it as I could. I had to go back every day to get more as the tide rose higher, until on the nineteen foot tide I was in a flat out race trying to get the last of the wood into the skiff before the surging tide carried it away.
I was also gathering driftwood poles that could be sawed into rounds, often as dark fell since there were only short hours of daylight and the tide came and went as it liked without reference to my needs. I knew I didn't have the upper body strength to split enough firewood for two houses the way my dad did, so my plan was to find small enough poles that I could pull them onto our dock so they could be sawed up with the small chainsaw.
This worked well for my smaller house, but when my parents ran out of wood and the temperature dropped to below freezing with a nasty northerly dropping the temperature even further with its icy windchill, I had to start towing in larger logs, up to 7-8 inches in diameter. These bigger logs I needed rope and tackle in order to pull them onto the dock. My dad, who was healing faster than any of us expected, sawed round after round as I pulled a log forward. My mom, who has limited mobility herself and asthma, came out into the chill wind and hauled as many of the rounds as she could.
In this manner we've managed to keep on top of the firewood situation, though we try to be careful about how much we burn. My house is often kept in the 50-60F degree range. My Maine Coon Katya isn't a fan of winter weather, so her answer to the problem is to crawl into her little house. I put a heated, flat stone under the pad inside and in addition I add a hot water bottle and a fleece blanket. She hates to come out, even to eat.
A cozy, purring cat almost makes up for the ongoing cold and constant scavenging for firewood poles.
I've been trying to get a blog to my sister to post from Florida as per usual, but technical problems and an extremely poor signal have made that difficult, so I thought I'd try to send off a short one just to let everyone know what's going on, and to apologize for my delays in responding to emails.
We're working on our floathouses, hoping to get them in the best shape possible before we get any snow fall that sticks. Yes, I wrote about doing the same thing last winter, but we have to do this every year because that's the nature of floathouses. They're always losing flotation for one reason or another. My oldest brother Jamie, who also lives in a floathouse, was visiting the other day and describing all of his plans to get his place into snowfall shape, too.
A few weeks before that, I was sitting at my laptop, writing on my memoir, when my whole house shook so hard that things fell off the walls. This was right around the time of the big earthquake up in Anchorage, which wouldn't normally affect us at this distance, but earthquakes were on my mind. But when I checked outside to see what kind of damage was done, I found that a vital piece of my flotation had broken, dropping the back of my float about six inches underwater.
I couldn't leave it like that, but with our early nights I didn't have much time to do anything too permanent. Still, I rounded up extra foam, a heavy board, a drill, a spike, and a sledgehammer while my dad quickly put together q partial cradle to keep the foam in place. I managed to get the new piece of flotation in place just before darkness fell, but I need to work on something more permanent.
So that's what we're busy with right now. Usually it's pouring down rain and blowing a gale so I can't take pictures, which is why I'm posting a couple of dawn photos of the little tidal bight we live in on a gloriously unrainy, unwindy day--something we haven't seen in weeks. Hopefully the technical and signal issues get fixed soon and I can post a regular blog. Thanks for everyone's patience!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)