Monday, October 20, 2014

River of Ice

I've been watching Yukon freezing up for a couple of weeks now and photographing the river as it changes. This would make a great time-lapse photography project with a more consistent schedule, but this fall almost all of the photos are from different vantage points.

I first saw ice in the river on the trip to Ruby that I wrote about previously.  
Charlie's depth gage was reporting water temperatures between 31.9 and 32.1 degrees F. 
After snow and a few nights in single digits the ice was getting thicker.
 It takes a while for a river that's a mile wide in places to freeze. 
The sun sets in the west over the river now instead of far to the north. 

The ice is starting to build up along the shore now. 

One of the cool things about the icebergs floating down the river is that it makes it a lot easier to see the current. The wind seems to have much less of a visual affect on the ice. I'm afraid my iPhone video does the actual visual poor justice.

First photo update: There hasn't been a lot of change since the original post but the sunsets over the river are nice.

I stood on the ice at the edge today and it seemed solid. Would anyone like to hazard a guess on when the Yukon will freeze solid enough for me to walk across?

Second update: It's November 3rd and, though choked with ice, the Yukon is still flowing slowly along. The locals say it will freeze any day now and be safe to walk across within a week of freezing.

Corrie and I took a walk down to see the river a couple days ago. 
Probably the first time Corrie was the one throwing things in the water while I took pictures. 
Looking up river earlier today.
Bike parking in Galena.

Third and final update: As of the 5th of November the ice is still. There are still a few patches of open water, but a few nights at -10 F sealed the river's fate until spring.

You can see the steam rising from one of the few remaining patches of open water in the video above. I remember asking my dad long ago how water could be making steam when it was so cold. I'm glad he took the time to explain it to that curious kid. I still think physics is awesome 30 years later...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The title "Ninjineer" was coined by either our landlord Charlie or his son Nolan. Charlie owns several boats and runs a charter business on the Yukon. He and Nolan leverage that into other projects up and down river from Galena. As far as I can tell the only thing that ties the projects together is that a boat is usually required to get to work. They call all theses jobs "ninja" work though I haven't figured out exactly why. I started helping them when Charlie saw the pile of wood I was hauling home and asked if I wanted to help clear a helipad on top of a mountain. Clearing brush will never be exciting work, but getting paid to boat down the Yukon and then hike up a mountain was pretty awesome...

We cleared a 40,000 square foot pad 1000 ft above the river. 
The second job came a week later when Nolan needed someone to run the cellulose insulation machine for a job thirty some miles down river. It was only a one day job, but it did turn out to be the most profitable single day of work I've ever had. Perhaps Nolan coined "Ninjineer" when he saw me modifying the setup to make running the insulation machine more efficient or maybe somewhere else. They've been calling me a Ninjineer ever since then though. 

This perfect mirror I'm sailing on is actually the muddy Yukon river. When the wind and current match velocities it goes completely flat like this. When the river is running against the wind it gets very rough. Getting to know the river a little has been quite interesting. 
A panoramic view with Nolan on the right. Nolan is about my age and has never left Alaska. He doesn't like Anchorage and won't drive there, but he seems to know every channel on the river. 
Heading home after a productive day. This has to be on of the best commutes in the world. 
I took this from Charlie's yard/boat ramp on the bank of the Yukon. The water level peaked above my head/camera level during the flood last year. 
The next project to come up was spraying urethane foam insulation in Galena. I really like the idea of spay foam insulation because it creates a very tightly sealed house. One of my earliest memories is actually spraying our house in Tok when I was a kid. I remember being fascinated with the foam growing after it hit the wall. I looked up some old pictures and the difference is striking. 
Apparently "safety" hadn't been invented yet in 1984.
I wish I had taken a photo of Nolan in a full body suit with face mask and an air hose from the trailer. I don't think Nolan is overly safety conscious, which makes me wonder how we ever survived the 80's at all.  
Towing a truck trailer (containing the foam spraying equipment) with a 4-wheeler. This is definitely a ninja project.  
Last week Charlie got a call for one last run up the river. There were supposedly tower parts (for assembly in clearing above) in Ruby that needed to be brought back to Galena. Why did they wait until it was well below freezing to make this request? I'll probably never know...

Sailing up the Yukon. The generator on the left is running an electric heater in the cab. It turns out river boats are not intended or equipped for operation in below freezing weather... 
Those are chunks of ice floating down the river towards us.
Just before we arrived in Ruby (middle left) we ran into heavier ice. I thought we might have to turn around, but Charlie managed to find a clear route through it Ruby was clear. 
The frozen beach in Ruby. Unfortunately most the stuff we were supposed to haul back wasn't actually there. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Of Wood & Wealth

The past few weeks of Fall have been remarkably sunny and beautiful in Galena as reports of snow up river continue to filter in on the radio. The impending snow and childhood memories of Alaskan winters compelled me to make the most of those shortening days. Now my projects are finished, the temperature is plunging, and it's finally time to return to the blog I hoped to get back to a couple weeks ago when I got the internet connected (Yay! We have access to the internet again!)

I mounted the satellite dish on the north peak of the roof, pointed it at the southern horizon, and still had to cut down a tree to get a signal, but it works pretty well now. Corrie pointed out afterward that lumberjack skills are not required to get internet most places. It probably happens regularly here though. The neighbors were very understanding when I asked about removing their tree and only requested that I cut it into stove lengths for them.
Our house in Galena. Alaskan satellite dishes point southeast rather than up.
We also get messages like this: "It is that time of year again. The GCI satellite will be lined up with the sun from 10/8 through 10/16, this will cause daily network outages between 11:10 and 11:40."

When we moved to Galena in August we were told we could expect to burn about 500 gallons of fuel oil or 5 cords of wood this winter. (For those readers interested in energy and math, there is actually more chemical energy in a cord of firewood than in 100 gallons of fuel oil/diesel. A modern oil stove in the house is just more efficient at using the available energy to warm a house.) With fuel oil running about $8 a gallon here, I did a little scouting to ensure there was wood here that I could legally cut and promptly ordered a chainsaw on Amazon. Then I went Anchorage for my niece's birthday and spent a week in Tok helping my dad cut his firewood.

The gas my dad burned getting firewood this fall will save about 700 gallons of fuel oil this year. Maybe a 1975 V8 can be a green vehicle. (Alder branch optional)

I returned to Galena on the first of September to find my chainsaw still hadn't arrived. Apparently Amazon Prime takes a little longer when you live hundreds of miles off the highway system (bring on the delivery drones). Fortunately the state just built a new road to the dump because the river is eroding the old one. They cut most the trees to "manageable" lengths and left them in the ditch. I had three loads in the yard before my chainsaw arrived that afternoon.

Who needs a gym? Grab a log of random size, carry it ten feet up the bank, load it on the truck, and repeat...
I might have overloaded the truck a little bit... I drove home very slowly.
Three loads of wood in the yard. I even found a few short pieces.  
I have a chainsaw!
I was a little worried when my new saw burned more gas than my dad's old one. Then I realized that cutting wood to 16" lengths instead of 24" lengths means 1/3 more cutting per cord... 
Knowing that snow could easily fall and stay in September I prioritized getting wood into the yard before cutting it to length and splitting it even though it's a bit more work to do it that way. Over the next two weeks (minus a few days moose hunting and doing other random work) I hauled six cords home and a couple more over to a new friend's house. Then I cut it all to stove lengths, split, and stacked it. 

Jon has a 4-wheeler and trailer but it couldn't make it out of the ditch on its own with a load of logs. Using my truck to tow him out saved a lot of trips up the bank while allowing us to harvest larger logs.
Six cords split and stacked.

With a safety factor of 1.2 on the wood pile, other projects took priority for a couple of weeks. Then, last weekend our neighbor told me the Yukon River was low enough to harvest drift wood, which he insisted was drier than the wood from the dump road. I'm not convinced the wood was really higher quality, but the north bank of the Yukon does provide a beautiful view for cutting wood.  While we were on the river, I taught Corrie to use the chainsaw. We replaced everything we'd burned to date and added another cord to the pile, increasing the safety factor to 1.4!

It's almost like driving on the beach. 
The drift wood was also pretty easy cutting.
Corrie learning to use the chainsaw.
Distracted by liquefaction and erosion. 

Note: Two different people did loan me hydraulic wood splitters. I enjoy splitting firewood, especially these shorter pieces. There is something very rewarding about watching it split in half when I hit it just right, but seven cords is a lot of splitting. 
One day while I was still in the early stages of cutting firewood I saw a forklift go by headed toward the dump with a pallet of new-looking OSB on it... After we'd unloaded our firewood Jon and I decided to go see if they were really throwing it away. We retrieved 48 full sheets of damp, but otherwise good material, and I discovered what locals call "the mall". Shipping things to and from Galena is very expensive and many things are reused. People often place good items to the side so others can reclaim them if desired. An ice dam on the Yukon almost leveled the town about a 18 months ago and the government has been pouring money into Galena to aid in recovery. With contractors and volunteers installing millions of dollars worth of new materials around town, a lot of pretty good material ends up getting thrown away. I took advantage of the free material and continuing good weather to build a few things.
I made a toolshed entirely of salvaged materials (except a few new screws I had).
I kept five sheets of the OSB and gave the rest to Jon.
This was the only scrap. It was a very efficiently designed shed for being all done in my head... 
Assembling bed frames in the living room
Designed around my camping pad, my bed can be moved to the living room and double as a second couch whenever one is required. 
My sister Melinda using the compound miter saw I borrowed from our landlord. 
Our driveway gravel is mostly silt and sand so I build a dock for my truck. 
I'm hoping this shelf will hold at least a full day's wood and give it a chance to dry a bit more. It also provides a useful counter extension. 
It's probably over-engineered, but with free 1-1/8" A/C plywood I built this shoe shelf sturdy enough to double as a bench seat. I also optimized shelf heights by shoe type...

Wood cutting and carpentry are both good physical workouts. I've maintained my summer biking and hiking weight though the Fall and even built a little muscle. They also provided time to think and reflect on what I am doing here and why. What is the value of a wood pile anyway?

Estimated pile size: 7 cords
Estimated total hours of work: 70
Estimated gasoline burned: Less than 10 gallons
Value of the oil for equivalent heating (Galena price): $5,600
Value of wood pile at current Galena prices ($400/cord if you can find any): $2,800
Wearing a t-shirt next to a warm stove while a howling wind drives snow past the window: Priceless!
Happiness is a warm wood stove with a pot of beans simmering on top.  
Many people in Galena (and also in Tok where I grew up) cut their wood as they need it though the winter. Some lack the time to cut it all in the fall and others do so for traditional reasons. Often this means firing up the chainsaw in temperatures below -50F or in the middle of a blizzard. A good friend of mine grew up cutting wood that way. As an adult "never cutting firewood again" made his list of reasons to live in California. I'm happy he's comfortable there, but I'm also thankful I grew up cutting wood in the fall and enjoy it. I'm also thankful I could afford the time to cut wood while the weather was nice. And that's where thinking about wood turns to thinking about the meaning of wealth... Much time is spent online and in media discussing (and envying) the things and lifestyles that money can buy, while little attention is given to freedom created though living below one's means and investing in the future. Just as the wood pile allows me to choose not to cut wood in the snow today, past work and saving allowed me to choose to cut wood, build things, and go moose hunting all fall.

I was chatting with a friend the other day when he asked an interesting question, "Are you working?" Most of the time that question can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no," but it gave me pause thinking about the last few weeks. Cutting firewood is certainly a lot of work in the physical sense that Work = Force x Displacement. I've actually created more wealth than I could have working many regular jobs. I've even been too busy to update my blog. However, like biking across Alaska in June or walking hundreds of miles in the Himalayas, it hasn't felt like I'm working. I'm sure the IRP (internet retirement police) would go nuts over that and declare that I've been secretly working the last two months, but it just doesn't feel like it. Galena is a very small town and my busy retirement was noticed which resulted first in a couple of short, interesting, and well paying "ninjineering" jobs (future post) and now a temporary full-time job improving the energy efficiency of houses around town. Although it likely won't last past Thanksgiving, this new job is probably enough like working to call it the end of this retirement round. It was a good four month run though.