We Alaskans

The unusual art of bathing in the Alaska Bush


LAKE CLARK — Living in Alaska provides ample opportunities for off-the-grid, unconventional ways to clean the body. Whether the need arises because of camping, remote work situations, travel or simply that your four days are up — there are times when finding a high-pressure, hot shower is about as likely as stumbling upon a Don Young retirement party.

Not being particularly fastidious, but having personal hygiene limits that have led me to suds up in atypical fashion a time or two, I've experienced a few of the myriad bathing techniques:

• Sizzling-hot banyas on Kodiak Island;

• Cold saltwater bucket showers on the deck of a Togiak-bound seiner;

• A makeshift steam bath near an unnamed river in the Teocalli Mountains.

I've shivered under holey Blazo cans hung from the eaves of log cabins, too, and flirted with leeches and hypothermia in ponds where "quick" was the operative part of a quick dip.

Here on the north shore of Lake Clark, the bar for practical bathing was set many years ago by local legend Brown Carlson, considered the first permanent Euro-American settler on the lake. Although decades have elapsed since his passing, stories live on. Brown, it is said, bathed once a year. He placed a tub in the middle of his cabin floor, heated water on the wood cook stove and proceeded with his annual ritual.

Whether he considered it a perfunctory chore or a pleasurable interlude, I can only guess. At the end of his scrubbing, he would stand up and say, "Brown Carlson gets a bath and so does the cabin!", tip the tub over and work the dirty, soapy water back and forth with a broom until the last of it disappeared through the cracks between the floorboards. I am relatively certain that both man and dwelling smelled better (even though the gray water soaked the dirt beneath the floor).

The first winter Anne and I spent at Lake Clark, we heated water on our cook stove and filled a shower bag with warm water. We hung the bag above a livestock feeding trough and let water run over our heads. We dipped the used water with a bailer and hauled it outside in a bucket.

One bummer: Due to the way we had it rigged up on the first floor, we had to kneel to take a shower. Although I've been shrinking in height as the years slip by, I didn't have the patience to wait on the slow downsizing of my physique to eventually allow me a stand-up shower. So we moved it to our loft, which has more headroom.

Keeping creative

Though the shower system for warm months (a real bath house with shower and sauna) and the one for months with freezing temperatures work well, several years ago we added another option just for hot days: a black shower bag laid out on the sun-baked beach. It's the same bag we use inside in the winter, but in summer nature does the heating.

Most campers know them as solar showers. It takes sun and patience, but no firewood or propane. We have a long pole lashed to a stump at the edge of the beach with a rope and pulley on top to lift the full bag. And the view from our shower is like a postcard cliché: rugged mountains, clear water, pristine forests that make up a national park and preserve. An eagle might fly by and cock its head at the curiosities on this stretch of beach. Or mergansers might paddle by. The only sound might be the plop, plop, plop of feeding grayling. No matter what tropical theme design your shower curtain has — palm trees, turtles or tropical fish — it can't compare to a dynamite view without any curtain.

Risky business

Last summer, our European helpers (who were getting in on a lot of grunt work) claimed it was the best shower of their lives. Of course it can be a little unnerving when you're looking at fresh bear tracks in the sand near your feet while lathering up. At times, impromptu gymnastics are necessary when yellow jackets, no-see-ums or mosquitoes check out the uncovered offerings. And sure, there are a few low-flying aircraft, and on rare occasions, a boat zipping around the corner of the bay that makes you wonder why you hung your towel so far away.

That shower is the carrot that leads Anne and me through many sweaty summer days. But too often, just when we are about to stop work and grab the shampoo and soap, the wind comes up. The sudden coolness gives us pause and we wonder if it's worth it. Most of the time Anne and I buck up, or as our Swiss friend Daniel likes to say: we take a cup of cement and harden up — and brave the elements.

But on one occasion last summer, the sudden appearance of the wind made us chicken out just after we'd stripped down. Then we glanced at our greenhouse and had a sudden inspiration. On sunny days it is one heck of a hot house. Maybe if we soaked up some heat for a while we'd be so simmering hot that the wind would be a blessing. There was a bit of pre-fig leaf, Garden of Eden feel to the scene as we soaked in heat while pinching suckers off the tomato plants au naturel. No snakes in this garden to fear—but we did have to be a mite cautious stepping over the electric fence on our mad dash back to the beach.

Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."