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Cabin living off the grid in frigid Alaska a labor of love

Laurel Andrews
Leighton Nunez's cabin in Ester, Alaska.
Courtesy Leighton Nunez
Hauling water at -40 degrees, at the Fox Spring, north of Fairbanks.
Laurel Andrews photo
Hauling water at -40 degrees, at the Fox Spring north of Fairbanks.
Laurel Andrews photo
An outhouse walkway, illuminated by Christmas lights.
Courtesy Hannah Hill
A typical kitchen setup for dry cabin living.
Courtesy Leah Hill
A dry cabin kitchen, complete with blue water jug.
Courtesy Hannah Hill
It's a quick walk to this outhouse, in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Courtesy Leah Hill
Dry cabin living means foregoing a bathroom for an outhouse.
Courtesy Leah Hill
Northern Lights dance above a dry cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Courtesy Trista Crass

Imagine you're sitting in a log cabin in the middle of Alaska. It's the middle of January, when temperatures routinely dip to 40 degrees below zero. It’s 5 p.m. and pitch black outside. You’re waiting for water to boil on your stove so that you can wash last night’s dishes. You pour boiling water on the dishes, and rinse carefully with water from a five-gallon jug balancing on the sink lip.

The rinse water washes down six inches of pipe into a bucket beneath your sink. Dishes done, you carefully pick up the bucket-full of rancid waste water and inch outside, mindful not to slop any on the floor. You fling the water from your deck and it evaporates instantly into the air.

With the dishes done, you prepare to brave the cold for the bathroom, an outhouse 20 feet away. Hopefully there are no moose on the trail, but you grab your headlamp just in case.

You're living the "dry cabin" lifestyle, just like several thousand others in Fairbanks, an Alaska town known for its extreme climate and endless winters. It's also the epicenter of an unusual cultural phenomenon: Dry-cabin living, a.k.a, living without running water.

That means no plumbing.

No toilet.

No shower.

No kitchen faucets. These modern amenities are replaced by outhouses, five-gallon water jugs and trips to the laundromat.

Why would anyone live this way in one of America's coldest cities?

Dry cabin communities in Fairbanks are partially a product of geology – yes, you read that right. Patches of ground remain frozen year-round in the Interior; that permafrost presents builders with a lot of problems. You can’t dig into frozen ground, so installing septic and water systems becomes difficult if not impossible.

People turn to dry cabins instead. Some are drawn to dry-cabin living for the mystique that the lifestyle offers. Others gravitate toward dry cabins for economic reasons. Either way, it’s a life that offers rewards and challenges found only in Alaska.

Dry cabin communities

Dry cabin communities dot Alaska. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is home to an estimated 9,000 waterless buildings, some of which are recreational, according Dave Dunivan, a borough assessor. But in Fairbanks -- far from populated Anchorage and Mat-Su -- dry cabins are more than homes. They're a culture, one with a certain mystique. Where else can one live without running water just a few miles from a bustling university, home to a renowned science museum?

While dry cabins are against zoning laws in the city, city limits end just short of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where you’ll find dry cabin communities just a stone’s throw from popular bars and restaurants.

There are a total of 1,475 taxable residential units without running water in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, says Karl McManus, deputy assessor at the Borough. In addition to these, there are 1,221 building classified as “cabins,” some residential, some recreational, such as public-use cabins. McManus says it’s possible that there are around 2,000 residential units where people live full-time without running water. And that number continues to grow; in the past 10 years, 963 cabins have been constructed, with 68 built in 2012 alone, according to the Community Research Quarterly’s Fall 2012 report.

Dry cabins are built both close to town and in rural areas, often in “clusters” maintained and often built by one landlord. And they make sense in an isolated Alaskan city: They're fairly low maintenance and there is no danger of freezing pipes, a constant worry for homeowners, which can be extraordinarily expensive to repair. Whether renting or selling, “the margins of profit on building a dry cabin are pretty high,” says Jack Hebert, president of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.

Some cabin clusters are known for being “fairly slummy,” says Robin Wilson, who has been renting dry cabins since 1982. He owns seven that are spread out across a large property on the outskirts of Fairbanks. He lived in a dry cabin for 10 years, and says that it is an "easy way to live." He could leave the house, go traveling, and not have to worry about his pipes freezing.

Now that Wilson lives in a house with running water, he almost never sees the aurora. When people fret about living in a dry cabin, he says, “You’re lucky, you get to go to the outhouse. All I do is worry about my plumbing.”

Wilson built his cabins with a unique architectural flair, the "cute factor," which he says distracts prospective tenants from the hard work that comes with dry-cabin living: Even though he warns people that they will be hauling water, shoveling snow, and heading outside to use the bathroom, his cabins aren’t a hard sell, he says.

Prospective tenants will come by and say “oh, isn’t that a beautiful little cabin,” he said. But sometimes only time will tell if they are up to the task – which is why he asks only for first and last month’s rent, without a long-term lease.

Not all cabin landlords take the care Wilson does. Quality and maintenance vary by landlord; "cabin slumlord" is part of the local vernacular. 

'That’s freedom'

The cabins attract adventurers like Leighton Nunez, who moved to Fairbanks in 1993 with his daughter. While helping her move into a dry cabin a mile or so from the university, Nunez was struck with an inspiriation: “Damn, that’s freedom.”

Nunez grew up in the 1960s in Louisiana without running water, before zoning codes. His family had toyed with the idea of moving to Alaska and homesteading, but that dream never materialized.

In Fairbanks, he realized that he still had that opportunity. So he went for it.

Nunez bought 6 acres in Ester, a community a few miles west of Fairbanks, along with the log shell of a 440-square-foot cabin. The next 13 years were spent without running water.

His self-sufficient lifestyle is “part of the draw to live in a dry cabin.” Nunez says. He is a “builder by heart,” who lives for working with his hands. He built a woodshed on his property, and over the years has added a few additions to his house. Tucked away in a forest of aspen, the privacy that his cabin provides gives him a sense of peace and well-being that he covets. 

While he loved the lifestyle it became more challenging as he got older. He finally decided he “should get with the program,” and in the past few months has added a bathroom. He is just now on his fourth tank of water.

Ned Rozell, a writer and developer at the Geophysical Institute at UAF, also lived in a dry cabin for 13 years. He initially moved into a dry cabin because he “wanted to live simply.” Rent for his 12 X 25 feet cabin was only $160, until the landlord upped the price $20 in later years.

He enjoyed the freedom of packing up and leaving for a week or two, and not have to worry about anything. Although he now lives in a home with running water, he does “occasionally miss that simplicity.”

Rozell’s dry cabin was equipped with only a wood stove, as some cabins still are today. “There’s something satisfying about having to wait” for the wood stove to heat up, he says. Even when that meant using a sleeping bag after returning home from traveling, while the cabin slowly thawed out over a matter of days.

Price is right

Many people are drawn to dry cabins because affordable housing is hard to come by in Fairbanks; the cost of renting a cabin is significantly lower than an apartment. As of September, a cabin on average cost $661 per month, compared to a one-bedroom apartment, which costs around $908 a month. Two-bedroom apartments cost almost twice as much as a dry cabin, on average $1,185 a month.

Modern amenities like electricity and running water are part of the cost differential, since utilities are sometimes included in apartment costs, upping the price. Fairbanks is facing an energy crisis and costs are “going up all the time,” Hebert said. By living in a cabin, not only do you live in a residence that costs significantly less, you also gain some control of electricity expenses, which have soared in recent years, and heating costs.

There are other perks, too. 

Emily Sousa, a graduate student at UAF, writes: “I have 820 square feet to myself, in a cabin on over 20 acres. I pay $750 a month ... The same place with running water would easily be $1,200-1,600 a month.”

“Fairbanks doesn’t have a lot of affordable options ... For me, my quality of life is better if I have privacy, a space for my dog to play, trails nearby and the ability to save money,” says Leah Hill, also a UAF student.

Leah’s sister, Hannah Hill, also lives in a dry cabin for similar reasons. She writes: “The few luxuries that are foregone in a cabin are the price I’m willing to pay for complete silence, a view without my neighbors, my dogs running free and safe and a view of the aurora unobstructed by city lights. It’s all the reasons I live in Alaska. Admittedly, if I were of a wealth that I could live in a house with all the amenities and my coveted privacy … I’m sure I’d take that lovely American dream. I’m no monk on a mountain!”

The challenges of living simply

But living in a dry cabin also comes with challenges that not everyone is keen to take on.

Keeping the house clean can become a major chore. Dirty dishes consume hours. “It’s hard to get used to boiling water for properly cleaning your kitchen," Leah Hill said. "I find I make less meals that include raw meat just so I don’t have to wash the dishes immediately.”

Emily Sousa adds that the outhouse can be unpleasant “when you get sick, and you have to make frequent and extended trips to the outhouse at -40.”

Hannah Hill writes: “I have trouble finding the time to do all those water-chores that most houses come equipped with: hauling fresh water in, grey water out, showering, laundry and the like ... once you get behind on water chores it’s like a crazy slide into total desperation.”

For long-time cabin goers Nunez and Rozell, lack of showers was the most difficult aspect of the lifestyle. Rozell says cabin-dwellers are independent-minded people, who then have to head to the laundromat to wait “for some guy to vacate the shower.” It doesn’t mesh well with the mindset.

Nunez says that since he put in the shower at his house a few months ago, he wonders, “how in the hell did I do it?” without one. Now he showers every day, "sometimes twice."

Dry-cabin living isn’t for everyone. But for folks drawn to the adventure and low costs, it is a good fit. Take the plunge, Nunez says.

"Go for it while you still have the freedom and space."

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com