It's like an old joke repeated so often it has become a cliche: If you want to see your Alaska neighbor in the winter, go to Hawaii or Mexico or Arizona or Florida -- someplace warm and sunny.
Increasingly, 49ers' time away from the north is not only for vacations. My list of hardcore, longtime Alaska friends who live part of the cold months in kinder latitudes grows each year. Somewhere in the course of noticing my gait stiffening and my hairline receding, the notion of departing the state in the heart of winter went from being despicably traitor-like to somewhat shameful to worth considering. I was warming to the idea.
Anne and I made a road trip to the Lower 48 a couple of years ago, and we rather halfheartedly looked at some Southwest locales, wondering if we should consider a second home there. Spending the core winter months in a place where I could rest my back and knee to prepare them for another year of abuse at Lake Clark sounded like, well, sound thinking. But we decided we weren't quite ready for snakes and cacti. Besides, it was too darn hot for me -- even in February. And Alaska has run thick in our blood for too many years to bail on the place quite yet.
Move to the easy life?
In addition to resting our bodies, Anne and I also wanted to devote serious time to writing projects — minus the constant need to feed hungry wood stoves or succumbing to our Luddite-like vigilance concerning the use of power from our small battery bank. We surmised that all this free time and 24-hour power would mean more hours sitting in a recliner with laptop keys a buzzing. We also thought living an easy 10-minute drive to town would present opportunities to socialize and enjoy live music -- things absent during Lake Clark winters.
So we bought a house near Homer with a small creek running through the yard and a view of Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains.
The house is small, because that was what we could afford. It doesn't have a septic system, because that was what we could afford. It's not on city water, because that's what we could afford. And, to no surprise, there were even more things to fix than we imagined.
When we walked in the door for the first time we saw that the oil heater had stopped working. Fortunately, the previous owner left a few armloads of split spruce for the wood stove and a pile of uncut lengths. Within days we had our chain saw running. At least we could heat the place while we figured out the oil stove's issues. It turned out that it wasn't the stove malfunctioning, but the fact that the filter was full of water and the tank was installed too low. Gravity feed doesn't work when the fuel lines run uphill.
While we debated (whether to install a lift pump, try to raise a full 300-gallon fuel tank or put in a new tank at the proper height) we fed the wood stove. Then Anne noticed that a neighbor who was clearing land was preparing to torch several huge piles of alders. She almost couldn't bear the thought of that entire heat source going up in smoke. Could we cut some for firewood, she finally asked? He seemed to find the request a bit humorous (why would we want lowly alder when we could get quality spruce?), but he gave us the go-ahead. So we flipped open the back door of our car, revved up the chain saw, and hauled load after load of firewood to our new place.
Like many folks on the Homer bench we have to buy water, a notion that takes a little getting used to. When we checked out the creek running through our property, we decided we could use the water for washing. It's not as pristine as the mountain stream running past our cabin at Lake Clark, but it does the job. We put a pipe in the creek and began hauling water in buckets.
Sometimes I wonder about our sanity. Now, instead of being at Lake Clark for the winter months where we have to use an outhouse, cut and split wood, pump water from a creek and try to ignore a long list of building projects, where are we? In Homer -- using an outhouse, burning wood, hauling water and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to ignore our lengthy to-do list.
A work in progress
It's not a completely lateral move. To check the mail we walk half a mile to the mailbox instead of boating or flying 25 miles round-trip every 10 days. The oil stove is purring away, at least as a backup to our preferred wood stove. The grocery store is about 150 miles closer, and we have electricity and Internet around the clock. We've checked out every thrift store in town, been to a concert and the library, and connected with a few friends. We've even carved out a little time for writing.
Lake Clark is still home, and who knows, we may winter there again someday. But for now, we've found another place to hang for the dark months. In late winter or early spring, we plan to return, hopefully well rested and raring to go.
In the meantime, I'll try to figure out if moving what amounts to 37 miles farther south and gaining seconds of daylight on the solstice qualifies us as snowbirds. I'm not sure if there is a minimum distance requirement for entry into the official club.
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."