LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — Getting water last winter posed bigger problems than usual since my sister Miki and I were both feeling rather beat up. Between my bad back and my really bad hip, packing buckets of water into the basement from barrels in the snowmachine sled wasn’t an option for me. Miki could do it, but it wasn’t pretty.
As Christmas approached, my concerns over water grew. We had pumped from the river below the house in November and still had some left, but now the river had frozen to the bottom. If we put off hauling water with the snowmachine until January, a cold spell might shut that down, putting us in a bind. Even without the occasional laundry or bath, it would be awfully hard to melt enough snow for all our dogs and horses.
I mushed home from the trapline two days before Christmas.
“Did you see the overflow on the river?” Miki asked.
“No!” I looked out the window. Just upstream from the trapline trail, a thin line of glistening gray water snaked through the snow, flowing slowly downriver from far away. The river hadn’t overflowed like that for years. Hmmm ...
Miki ran dogs to the post office the next day and had to return on the beach trail. A surge of water had flooded the downriver trail, rising quickly throughout the day. It wasn’t deep enough for the water pump, but after it began to freeze we might be able to scoop water into barrels right below the house instead of running the snowmachine out to the water hole on the lake a mile away.
By Christmas morning the flood had deepened to a foot, rising enough to pump if the surface froze enough to walk on. But the forecast didn’t sound good — too cold. I had pumped water down to about 10 below zero, but the one-inch PVC pipe that ran 200 feet from the river to the basement would freeze until ice blocked the flow of water.
Winter pumping was a huge headache even above zero. We could bring the pipes inside to thaw, but a single chunk of remaining ice or a blob of slush could clog it up and shut down the project. The little gas pump didn’t like cold weather either. Setting everything up took a long time with no guarantee of success, making the whole ordeal stressful.
On Christmas Day I didn’t want to think about pumping water, especially with plummeting temperatures forecast.
That evening we took a hard look at the weather. The cold was drifting in, but not as fast as predicted. The ice had just started to set up on the overflow. I didn’t want to pump, but despite the work, it was still a whole lot easier than hauling water with the snowmachine. Lit by the spark of my tiny headlamp, I packed my little water pump inside to thaw overnight. Miki and I hauled the 200 feet of pipe, broken into several sections, into the basement. We coiled it around the big room, past the battery bank, the pantry shelves, potato room, laundry area and all the water drums and tanks.
The day after Christmas, I peeked at the thermometer. Twelve below. I didn’t have much hope of topping off the tanks before the pipe froze, but grimly decided to try. I chopped a hole through the surface ice and baled away the underlying slush so the waterlogged snow wouldn’t clog the pipe. Miki and I dragged out the pipe. I gassed up the pump and set it up while she poured hot water down each section of hose.
I was alarmed to notice only a thin trickle of Miki’s water running out the lower end of the pipe before I attached it to the pump. Was something blocking the flow? I worked my way uphill fitting the warmed sections together, without spotting the problem. Then I returned to the pump, only to find that I had knocked it over with the vigorous shaking needed to force the pipe onto various connectors. Gas was flooding from the carburetor. Was it even going to start? I poured icy water into the little water tank:
“You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe!” I sang from the old Kingston Trio tune, my water-pumping song.
I yanked the starter rope, and yanked and yanked and yanked. It started! I adjusted the throttle, then scampered up the hill. “Is it coming in?” I shrieked to Miki. “Yes!” she shouted back gaily.
The steady flow of water in the basement was magical music to my ears. For the next 40 minutes the little pump sang outside as I filled tanks, barrels, buckets, pots. The washing machine sucked up more after I started a load of laundry. Miki hauled off six gallons to cook the dogs’ supper.
Down on the river, the leaky old pump slowly coated itself with frozen spray. It labored harder and harder as ice layered the inside of the long hose, the one-inch diameter dwindling to half that. By the time the last drum was two-thirds full, only a thin trickle of water flowed from the pipe and the pump was about to have a heart attack. I ran to the beach and shut it off, then took a deep breath and gave a long, grateful pause.
I had pumped 500 gallons of water. This would last the average American household two or three days. But when you work as hard as we do for water, you can make it last more than a month, even with a dog team and three horses.
January gave us cold weather even for January, but thanks to a Christmas flood and a small miracle, we had all the water we needed.
Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.