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. 


  1. Wow, just wow. That is certainly not NM up there. I had fun visions of Corrie with the chainsaw. And I couldn't stop laughing over the fact that you had to cut down a tree to get better internet. I'm fortunate in that I don't have to think about trees. Regarding your thoughts on working - I think I can I relate. What you describe as your thoughts on "are you working" is often the mindset I have being a stay-at-home mom. I work all day. In fact I feel like a servant and taxi cab most days, but I don't have a career with a regular pay check. So do I work? Yes, I work. No I don't have a job outside of the home. And, let's be honest, I no longer have a career. But I don't regret staying home. And it sounds like you have no regrets taking up residency in Galena. I'm looking forward to your future blog posts.

  2. Thanks for the comment Carmelita. I do think you and other stay-at-home moms are creating real wealth for your families. You and Steve must also have made some strategic lifestyle choices to create the financial freedom for you to stay home. I'm glad it's been working out well for you too.

  3. Is that cord of wood hard wood? Soft? That would likely change the energy in it.
    If the oil stove is more efficient could you design a more efficient wood stove?

  4. The wood is about half Birch and half Spruce. Birch is considered a hard wood and spruce a soft wood. Blaze King makes some of the more efficient wood stoves on the market today and incorporates a catalytic burner into stove to burn hydrocarbons in the smoke for additional heat. It should be possible to increase the combustion efficiency even further with a forced air combustion design. However, the stove would then require electricity killing the dependability of the wood stove when the power is out which I consider a key feature. The other reason oil burns more efficiently is that it can be turned on and off at will. The oil stove only heats the house to the desired temperature, but once I start a fire in the wood stove it keeps heating the house until it burns out. It's been a mild winter so far and I spend a lot of time wearing shorts in the house because I'm still learning to get the stove just warm enough to engage the catalyst without making it too warm. Drier wood would help. The wood is a little green and that requires burning a bit hotter to avoid creosote. Additional thermal mass would also help and I have several ideas on ways to improve that if I build my own house.