Sunday, May 29, 2011

Water Day

I got drenched twice today.   Usually water-haul day is fairly uneventful, other then the extra work it entails, but today....

For a bit of background to start out with...we have a very nice indoor water system with modern plumbing and running water to kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room.  With two connected water tanks and capacity at about 800 gallons, we can go quite awhile on one filling of tanks. 

In winter when it is below freezing, the chore of filling the tanks must be done by hand by carrying 5-gallon buckets of water into the house one or two at a time...very labor intensive, to say the least. Pictures below show our son Jay helping out with "water-haul" on one of his visits home:

From the lake

Down the hall

Into the tank
Fresh water comes from our large lake near the house.  The lake is frozen over, and a water hole is maintained.  Usually water is dipped from the hole into big containers sitting on a sled behind a snowmachine and pulled up to the front door, then dipped out of the big container and carried into the house to the primary tank.

In the summer, the chore is considerably easier, since we can use a water pump and hoses to transport the water into the tank.  It takes a few minutes to set up the pump and roll out the hoses, but only a  fraction of that time to fill the tank, as the water pours out of the 2 inch hose at powerful pressure.  It usually took a 3-person team to pump water, one running the pump out at the lake, one holding the hose at the tank, and one being the control person at the outside door.  The person by the lake would start the pump and water flowing through the hose, the person at the tank would hold the hose and monitor the tank and yell out to the person in the doorway when the tank was nearly full, “CUT!”  The person in the doorway would repeat the “CUT” with a “slice across the throat” motion to the person at the lake’s edge who was carefully watching for the signal to shut the pump off. This method only failed once when the pump person was distracted watching some birds at the critical moment.  I wish I had a video of my mom (the inbetween person) running out toward the lake screaming, “CUT, CUT, CUT”, and waving her arms frantically to get the attention of the pump person.  Meanwhile, I was frantically trying to figure out what to do with the “fire-hose” torrent of water shooting all over the bathroom and the tank overflowing.  It took a few seconds for me to realize the best place for the hose was over the shower drain.

Now our indoor holding tanks need cleaning several times a year.  Obviously, this is done just prior to a filling.  I have been the designated maintenance person for this job for quite a few years, since I’ve been the smallest (capable of the job) person around for some time.  Today was one of these days.   I climbed down into the tank with scrub brush, small bucket, dipper, and sponge.  The tank sides needed wiped down and bottom scrubbed, then the small amount of water that sits below the drain hole needed dipped into the bucket and handed up to Jim for him to go dump out.  The top of the tank is about a foot above my head.  Here’s where I got my first drenching of the day.  As I handed the small plastic bucket off to Jim, I bumped its bottom edge and proceeded to cover my head and shoulders with dirty water.  Once out of the tank (which is a gymnastic feat all its own), I had to go change into dry clothes.

Now came the “filling the tank” part.  While Jim got the outdoor pump and hoses ready, I put the indoor hose in place.  I also had to rig up our super-duper signal string that takes the place of the missing third person in the outer doorway.  (Jim and I have been alone on the Homestead for over 10 years now.)  This little contraption is a small weight with bright orange flagging attached that hangs from an eye hook at the top of the door frame on a heavy string that runs through several more eye hooks all the way to where I stand on a stool by the indoor tank.  When the tank is full, I yank the string hard and it makes the weight and flag fly up to the top of the door frame, signaling Jim to turn off the pump.  This system has never failed us...UNTIL today

I was standing at the tank, and as usual, waited to pull the string until the very last second.  The water kept coming.  Panic...scream... “STOP!”,  knowing he couldn’t hear me and wondering what had happened to Jim?  Remembering the last time this happened, I was quicker at swinging the flailing hose over to the shower drain, but even so, I was soaked again, as was a lot of the bathroom.  At least the tank didn’t overflow this time.  The bottom shower pan was filling faster then water could escape out the drain, but at least I was freed to run to the door and see why the pump wasn’t off.  Jim saw me waving and immediately shut the pump off.

With sincere apologies, Jim said he was watching the door-flag faithfully, but never saw it move.  Of course it did move, but Jim was blinded by the sun in his eyes and dark sunglasses.  He said later that he should have shut the pump off when he noticed Ruby (his faithful dog) perk up her ears and look toward the house - probably when I first screamed STOP.  Anyway, another change to dry clothes was in order.

So much for another day in the Arctic.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Break-up and the Music of Spring

Well, I haven't been very dedicated to posting new content to this blog, plus I also realized that I've spent more time telling about trips out of the Arctic then actual Arctic Living.  I suppose that is because life at home is so normal and routine that I'm more inclined to write about something that is new and exciting for me like a trip to a new place.  However, I'm reminded by friends who like to hear from me, that what may seem routine and "every day" to me is often interesting and extraordinary to others.

It has been a  cold spring with little snow melting until just a few days ago, when it starting reaching above freezing ambient temperatures.  Snow is melting fast now, although we still have snowdrifts over 10 feet deep around the house that have a long way to go before they are gone. The snow has become mushy, so it is hard walking around without every step sinking down several inches, and occasionally a plunge clear to the hip.  A short walk out to the edge of the river to dump my kitchen slop bucket means putting on knee boots and hoping I don't get snow over my boots.  There is still plenty of snow to drive our snowmachines, but it's easy to get stuck if not careful.  Jim dug our 17' aluminum boat out of the snow and pulled it over next to the river bank so it would be easy to launch when needed.

Break-up varies every year and depends a lot on weather conditions over a long period of time and area, from melting in the mountains to temperatures and snow cover along the face of the delta. This year we have had a cold April and May and thawing has been slow. But when it finally did warm up, things have suddenly broken loose.  Break-up actually started today, May 25th, or at least what we consider the beginnings of break-up.    Water started rising up through the snow that was still lying on the river ice about noon today.  We had heard that water was already flowing down the Colville a few miles upriver from us.   The water is really just flowing on top the river ice that is frozen down to the bottom of the river bed in the shallower parts of the river.  In the deep sections of the river (we call deep "channels") the rushing water from upriver just flows under the ice, even lifting the ice somewhat at times, depending on the pressure. It is usually a week to 10 days after water floods over the ice before all the ice actually breaks up and gets washed out to sea.  Much of the ice simply melts during this time, but the deep "channel ice", which may have been as much as 8 feet thick, must still break up and be washed out to sea, where it finishes melting.

Water bubbling up through hole in the river ice and flooding over the top of the ice on the Colville River Delta.

It is during ice break-up when we have the danger of the island flooding.  We have never had it flood bad enough to get water inside our house, but we have had it inside some of our "out" buildings, plus had to chase down floating drums of fuel, and other supplies and get them back before they washed out to sea.  It has been quite a few years now since we've had a bad flood, but we always have to be prepared, in case an ice jam backs up water unexpectedly.  That's where having the boat and canoes ready comes in.  We'll see how it goes.

One fun spring activity for us is watching for "accidental" birds that show up here for a few days...ones that don't normally belong here.  They seem to be drawn in to our place by all the dark buildings against the stark snow and then they discover our bird feeders and we become an "oasis" in their lost world.  This year we have had 3 white-crowned sparrows, a tree sparrow, a Rusty Blackbird, a Wilson's Snipe, a few different warblers, and a cliff swallow.   Some of these birds are regulars in lower parts of Alaska, but have over-shot their normal destination, or they are way off the beaten path and are totally lost.  We love giving these vagrants a chance to refresh and head back to where they belong. Of course, we also have the many, many typical summer birds around our house, such as Lapland Longspurs, Snowbuntings, Redpolls, Sabine's Gulls, Savannah Sparrows, various sandpipers, etc.  A short distance away from the window feeders are so many more birds which include hundreds of nesting geese (Whitefronts, Brant, Snowgeese, Canada geese), all three species of loons, many ducks (Pintails, Oldsquaws, etc.), Plovers, Jaegers, Owls, Gulls, many birds that the air is filled with a symphony of bird songs.  This is what makes the hardships of winter worth enduring.

Birds out kitchen window

  Lapland Longspurs in bush out kitchen window