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Monday, December 5, 2011

Homesteading in Alaska; A modern 21st Century Perspective


“So you wanna’ live out in the backwoods of Alaska, away from civilization and the trappings of a modern society?”

Even though there isn’t any more State-sponsored Homesteading going-on in Alaska; it doesn’t mean that homesteading up here is forgotten. There are still many people that are choosing to live out in the furthest reaches of Alaska, than what one would suspect.

Here are some startling facts to digest:

50% of all lands contained within the borders of Alaska are owned by the Federal and State Governments. Another 40% are owned by the various Native Tribal Corporations. That leaves a scant 10% of land that is actually owned by other Alaskans. It’s still a large junk of real-estate, but the keyword to remember is: Remote.


To people living outside of Alaska, the word “remote” has a different meaning. Here in Alaska, when you come across that word in a Real Estate advertisement—you better believe it…

In Alaska Remote Means:

  • You can’t get there by car, even a 4x4 jeep.
  • In the summer months, unless the property is on a river and you have a boat, or you have the ability to call for an Air-Taxi; there’s little hope of getting into town for supplies until it snows.
  • The nearest roadway, store, or modern convenience might be more than 100-miles away—across the harsh Alaska wilderness.
  • Cell-phone service is non-existent out there, as are many of the other modern conveniences that city-dwellers are used to.
  • You are totally alone, depending on yourself, and probably will not have any neighbors to help you out during an emergency.
  • In the summer months; ATV’s don’t work out in the bush. Firstly, your on somebody’s property, and finally the going is very rough on man and his machine. The Alaska bush in thick, and unforgiving.



[ Photo: Franke Schein’s property out in the bush. Early spring in Alaska ]

This is one of the reasons that Alaska is called “The Last Frontier” state. It really is a frontier out there. Make no mistake about that. There are places where human-beings have probably never walked before. It’s that kind of place.

Yet; it seems that everyone has to urge to come up here and give it a whirl. It doesn't take but a few months of living in temperatures that fall into the -65 Below Zero ranges to make them understand how serious it becomes when it’s that cold outside everyday.

  • Canned food freezes in a matter of hours.
  • Generators and other gasoline engines get frozen and hard to start.
  • Propane freezes at –20 below zero. One has to heat the propane tank—an explosive idea.
  • Wet-Cell batteries quickly loose their charge, and if not kept indoors, will freeze-up and start bulging.
  • Solar Panels get covered with snow and loose half of their collecting power.
  • Skin freezes in a matter of minutes, and it’s easy to die out there if not prepared for the weather.
  • The cabin’s wood-stove has to be kept going around the clock throughout the winter months.
  • Ice has to be chipped from the lakes and rivers; then melted and purified for drinking and cooking water.
  • You’d better know how to fix things, do small engine repairs, and get used to relying on just yourself.
  • Get used to trudging through the cold dark night to make a path to the outhouse.
  • Taking a bath requires fore-thought and plenty of lake water, and wood to boil the water.
  • Nails freeze and become frosted at –50 Below Zero. That means they contract, and loose contract with the wood.
  • Solar Wind Generators get covered in ice, and have to be thawed before it will spin to produce energy.
  • Satellite dishes also get covered in snow and have to be “defrosted” to work properly.
  • Gun lubricants will freeze-up a weapon’s action real fast.
  • Ice Fog crystals will get into your lungs and cause a bad case of pneumonia.
  • “Frost Heave” moves foundation walls around almost every season. Brick walls or chimney just crumble and fall down.

Living out in the Alaska bush requires some serious planning, and some serious money. The days of just building a cabin and living off the land have been over for years. There are still hunting laws, albeit Alaska’s “subsistence” regulation currently on the law books. Many ill-informed people have learned the hard way about just “squatting” on gov’ment land. In time, the aerial surveys locate the illegal camp or cabin, and they are burned to the ground. All the hard work that went into the cabin simply goes up in flames.

The Way To Alaska:

If you are truly serious about living out in Alaska’s boonies; then follow these hard-learned lessons of advice and proceed at your own risk:

  • First; Get on the internet and find a reputable real-estate broker. Do a search for the property that you want. Then contact the broker and request maps, plat descriptions, and photos of the property.


  • Next, take a vacation and go look at the property, While you are here, have a list of other properties that appeal to you. Travel to each one and walk the ground—if that is possible. But remember that some properties are so far out in the boonies, that it will require a “Bush Plane” to reach.


  • Once having found the perfect property—buy it and close the deal before the prices skyrocket again.


  • Over the course of the next few summers you would be advised to proceed in the following manner:


  • Rent a storage unit in the nearest town. Buy the tools clothing, furniture, and gear that you will need out there in the boonies. Great deals can be had second-hand, and bought on-line. Fill the storage unit with everything that you will need. This also includes snow-machines, atv’s generators, and a host of other things. Make a list and check each one off as you acquire it.


  • Spend the summer months on your property felling trees, and allow them to “cure”. Cover them for the winter and protect the logs from the rainy season. This is also a very good time to start cutting firewood. You will need several cords of cut wood for the first winter season that you are out there alone. It’s best to get an early start as soon as possible.


  • The next season should be spent actually getting the cabin built. This may be harder than it sounds if you are using just hand-tools and are doing it by yourself without the benefit of help.


  • Finally, when the cabin is ready, and there’s firewood waiting; it’s time to make the transition to Alaska. Sells your junk down in the States, and get yourself to your “Piece of the Alaska Pie” that is in your name. But—now you have to arrange for transporting all the gear and supplies that you’ve stockpiled, to the place that you will call home.


  • Before you leave on this grand adventure, remember this: Food! Take plenty of food with you.

If you are off-the road system, and not near a travelled-river; then it’s a very wise idea to take enough food and supplies to last you until about the middle of November. That’s when the rivers and ground should be frozen enough for snow-machine travel. In the summer months it’s almost impossible to maneuver even the best All-Terrain-Vehicle through the endless mile of rough Alaska Bush Country. (Look at the B&W picture posted above again—if you have any doubts…)


Life In The Bush:

If living Off-Grid out here is something that has been chewing at you for most of your life; then I say Go For It! Don’t live the rest of your life “wanting to” but never doing it. That’s a sad kind of “regret” to carry around. You only have one chance at life, so do what makes you happy while you have the opportunity and health to get it accomplished.


But, There Has To Be Some Perspective!


Perspective: It’s easy to chop firewood with an axe and buck saw; then drag the logs to the wood pile and split em’ with a splitting maul. Of course; then the wood has to be kept out of the weather. Lets examine this a little closer:

Using a Chainsaw I can cut and split wood three times faster. But that nifty little gadget demands much from the average Homesteader:

  1. Gasoline supply to keep the chainsaw operating.
  2. Bar Oil to keep the chain lubricated.
  3. Extra Spark Plugs when the old one wears out.
  4. Extra Chains because the old one WILL wear out.
  5. Extra Starter rope for the moment the old one breaks.
  6. Extra carburetor rebuild kit.
  7. Gasoline cans for all of the extra fuel that you will need out there.
  8. A means to haul the fuel and extra parts into the cabin.
  9. Chain Sharpening tool to keep the blades chewing through the wood.
  10. Basic automotive tool-set for casual maintenance and repair functions.
  11. A “Back Up” chainsaw in case the old one finally gives up the ghost!

You see; you have to start thinking in these terms. Anything less will spell disaster for you in the deep woods of Alaska. When the nearest gas station is 100 miles away, you’d better have all of the “I’s” dotted and “T’s” crossed…

Perspective: Travelling across the miles is an endurance match for even the most athletic outdoorsman. The Alaska bush-country is covered in millions of years of old growth trees, soggy peat-moss (called muskeg) and endless pits that have a tendency to break feet and ankles. There are no snakes, but wolves, angry moose, and hungry grizzly bears make up for the lack of serpents. Eyes have to be constantly searching for signs of a predatory ambush. Then you have only scant seconds to react to the event.


Walking from the cabin to the nearest road can be challenging at best. Considering that a normal human can walk about 3-MPH on level terrain, your speed through the woods will be half of that—and take you twice as long. If you think that walking ten miles a day is a chore down in the states, try it in Alaska’s back country. The twisting streams, steep debris-covered hills, and slippery rocks will make you wish for a nice level trail to walk on.

Try that while humping a freighter-frame loaded down with 80 Lbs worth of food and supplies. You’d be lucky to make 5- miles a day under those conditions.

Perspective: Humans need copious amounts of water to survive. Alaska has more fresh water than Minnesota and Wisconsin combined. But in the winter months they are frozen solid. Getting water in the summer is easy, but when the long dark winter months arrive, keeping water at-hand can be a chore.

It requires that you haul a sled out onto the nearest lake or stream, dig and chip your way down to the water level, or if that isn’t possible, start chopping off chunks of ice to carry back to the cabin. Either way, it’s a sweaty and cold affair.

Don’t try melting snow. The fuel expended doesn’t equate to the amount of water received. 20 Ounces of snow might supply you with 4 ounces of water. That’s a lot of energy expend for near-nothing.

If you are able to chip away the ice until you reach water; then you will need to keep it from freezing over again. A wood float in the hole will keep the water from freezing, and then then hole must be covered to keep from ice forming across it, by covering the hole with branches or other suitable material.

Of course; then it’s time to boil the water to get the ever-present contaminants out of it. Even though the water quality in Alaska is far better than down in the Lower-48 states, those pesky little bugs will have you running-screaming to the outhouse in the middle of the night. ( Trust Me I Know This! )


Perspective: The winter months are usually very cold, and very dark. There are some parts of Alaska where it remains dark for months at a time. In other parts, the daylight arrives around 10:30 am, and it starts getting dark again around 3:00 PM. Having only 3-5 hours to get things done makes for a busy day. Add Ice Fog to that mix and it becomes dangerous.

Other factors that affect life in the boonies are as follows:

  • Sudden winter blizzards that remain for days, or a solid week.
  • Wind storms that howl through the area knocking down trees like bowling pins.
  • Forest fires that affect thousands of acres due to a single lightning strike.
  • Massive flooding at “Break Up” when the ice starts to melt. Entire villages are wiped off the map.
  • The Alaska Mosquito is the most nefarious of the breed. DEET is almost ineffective. A head net is required instead,



Even though the lifestyle is fraught with many opportunities to fail; if one has the skills and patience to approach this idea from a different perspective; it’s both possible and rewarding to live “Off-Grid” out in the Alaska Bush Country. Determination and making a plan are the two keys when considering this move to nature.


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