It’s nearly eight a.m. when I wake up. Outside everything is still pitch black. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can make out the outline of the firs and mountain ridges on the other side of the Yukon through the window, illuminated by the pale light of the moon. I clamber out of my sleeping back, slip into my fleece-lined trousers and shuffle downstairs to the ground floor with my headlamp.
Andy’s cabin has two rooms on the lower storey: the living room, which was added later, contains a worn two-seater sofa and a battered recliner in which Andy tends to enjoy his morning coffee and listen to the radio, assuming the reception is halfway decent. In one corner is a round desk, twelve containers with screw-on lids from the hardware store stacked beside it, which he has filled with Yukon water – after having knocked a hole in the ice. On the wall hangs a cabinet he built himself with an extensive collection of guns, all different calibres, for hunting or to drive off the hungry bears who encroach on his cabin in spring. Below it, on the right, are two bottles of self-brewed beer, which he most looks forward to after a long, hard day’s work in the summertime. The room is rounded off by an enormous cast-iron oven. When it gets really cold outside, Andy has to light it – otherwise the main oven in the kitchen next-door is usually enough.
I look at the thermometer in front of the window. It’s minus ten degrees Fahrenheit, which is only minus twenty-three degrees Celsius.
It’s actually quite warm for a region where temperatures in the winter regularly sink to minus forty degrees or below. Still, I pile a couple of logs on the fire. When I got on the plane in Germany the day before yesterday, my body had got used to temperatures in the double digits, so I need a while to adjust. First coffee, I think.
Normally Andy drips hot water through a filter directly into a thermos, but for me he has provided an electric coffee maker. I switch on the water pump, drawing enough for eight cups from the bucket underneath the sink, where there is a hose. It might take a little more effort, but even in the bush you don’t have to go without the comforts of civilisation. Even TV and internet are available thanks to satellite technology, although the connection reaches – at best – antiquated ISDN speeds and is obscenely expensive.
While the coffee percolates, I pull on my down jacket and trudge the twenty odd metres through the snow to one of Alaska’s legendary outhouses. Andy has insulated the seat with a thick layer of Styrofoam, which proves surprisingly warm. And if you’re taking a little longer, there’s plenty of reading matter to distract you. Or the view over the majestic Calico Bluff, which rises abruptly above the Yukon not far from Andy’s property. I have to get out of the habit of throwing the toilet paper into the pit, or it would quickly start to fill up. There’s a small bucket nearby for that purpose. When it fills up, its contents – along with all the other rubbish – is burned in a rusty metal drum.
The dogs are rattling their chains in the yard as I make my way back to the house. They know it’s time for me to take one of them into the house, where it’ll be allowed to warm up with Solo, the elderly husky. Their eyes glitter in the light of my headlamp as I approach.
All of them have woken up by now, and they’re trotting towards me, wagging their tails in excitement, until the chains stop them going any further and they try to attract my attention by whining, howling and barking. Today it’s Iceberg’s turn, a snow-white dog and Andy’s best lead dog, even since losing an eye during a tussle last winter.
I remove the carabiner from his collar, and Iceberg sprints onto the porch in friendly anticipation of the oven’s warmth and the affection with which he knows he’s about to be spoiled. Breakfast is granola for me and dog food with a ladleful of hot water for the animals. Then it’s poop-scooping time. I pick up my bucket and shovel, gathering up the frozen poop and depositing it onto an ever-growing heap a little way away from the property. If you want to mush – to explore the wintery expanses of Alaska with the huskies – you’ve got to put up with the less glamorous bits.
I definitely get the impression that as a musher you’re primarily a farmer, rather than an adventurer or sportsman.
Looking after the animals demands similar discipline to being a dairy farmer, where the cows generally take priority. Here it’s the dogs. And dealing with everything that living off grid entails.
My next task takes me to the ‚power shack‘, where Andy has hooked up his batteries. They generate power for the main house and the electric tools scattered on a work bench in the same shack. Andy uses them to craft river gravel and antlers into ornaments that he sells every now and then, but mostly gives to his guests. I check the batteries‘ charge, which has fallen significantly over the last two days. After a few attempts the small portable generator stutters into life. Over the next few hours it will turn unleaded gasoline into kilowatts. It connects to a mini fan heater that prevents the vegetable root cellar in Andy’s new house from freezing. In the pantry are large plastic bags full of potatoes and turnips.
The new house is about a hundred metres away from the old one, and it will be completed by next winter, with more space and – most importantly – an elaborate, European-style tiled stove which will use the firewood more efficiently than the cast-iron dinosaur in the old cabin. I relight the fire in the small stove in the shed: the batteries mustn’t be exposed to the cold for too long, otherwise they lose their capacity to charge and thus eventually stop working.
By now the sun has risen. Its rays tinge the snow-covered slopes on the other side of the Yukon with a deceptively warm-looking shade of orange.
Here on the south side, it won’t put in an appearance until March. I start up the snowmobile – the woodpile is dwindling rapidly, but in the forest and on the riverbank there’s plenty more.
It takes a while to get used to the chain saw, but by the end I feel like a hunter after every excursion, bringing his prey back home.
Except it’s not moose, caribou or snow grouse but fir, aspen and birch that I bring back, in foot-long pieces that I split and distribute between the piles in the house, shed and sauna. There, in the smallest log cabin on the property, I’m going to stoke a fire in the stove at the end of the day, heating up the air and water and having an invigorating wash from a bucket. But while it’s still light, the dogs take priority…
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