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Rural Alaska life lacks conveniences, but there's only one worth having anyway

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Posted: Sunday, September 2, 2012 12:33 am

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — Sometimes people ask me if I miss civilization by living in the Bush. Usually they seem to mean movies, but sometimes restaurants or concerts. To that, I can give an unequivocal no. Sure, I like a good beef burger instead of moose meat once in a while, but that’s about it.

Not many people consider the reasons that might be more obvious to someone who has spent a lifetime in the wilderness. Take bugs. I don’t care how many people in Fairbanks complain about bugs. Fairbanks does not have bugs to speak of. When you’re used to choking, biting, stinging swarms you couldn’t say Fairbanks has bugs.

Not that I mind the bugs that much. Oh, no. They’re just there.

Travel in the Bush is challenging, of course. We don’t simply step from the door into a car. In the summer, we get around by walking, canoeing, riding horseback and motor-boating. In the winter, we travel with skis or by dog team or snowmachine. Regardless, we invariably have to buck the elements, fully exposed to fierce wind, rain, snow and bitterly cold weather.

Not that I mind the weather. Oh, no. I love it. Love it!

What about conveniences? asks someone who knows we don’t simply flip a switch to get light, or twirl the tap for water, or touch the thermostat to warm the house.

Well, it’s true this life might be a bother if you don’t enjoy chores, but I do enjoy them. I love cutting firewood and bucking water. I treasure my little walks to the beach to turn the solar panels toward the sun. I don’t even mind hauling gas for the generator.

Although my slide down the back side of middle age has had some arthritic bumps in it, I intend to enjoy my chores as long as physically possible, because I sure don’t want to live in town where everything comes easily.

Most folks feed their dogs with a scoop from a dog-food bag. Out here we boat off to the fish net, pack the fish home, light a fire in the dog pot, stir the cooking mass of whitefish and rice, and scoop the finished soup into buckets to cool. THEN we feed the dogs.

Would I rather be in town, scooping dog food from a bag? I don’t think so!

Likewise, would I rather pack my bags of groceries from the car to my kitchen? Or pack them into boxes and into the post office, and then pick them up at the home post office, transferring them from a cart to a boat to a horse to my kitchen? Hey, some people would pay good money to have this kind of working adventure.

Don’t get me started on outhouses. I like my outhouse. Wouldn’t trade it for a real bathroom. No, sir. Not to mention that mine comes with a mountain view.

Let’s review. Some Bush hardships I don’t mind at all; others I enjoy passionately. I don’t miss the socializing, the service, the ease of transportation, the fingertip conveniences. I don’t wish for any of that stuff.

Well, maybe one thing. One little thing I do wish for.

Hot water.

Not hot-water-from-the-teapot-on-your-wood-stove. Not hot-water-in-a-bucket-for-your-bath-or-laundry. I mean hot tap water. That’s it. That’s all I want.

Imagine turning on your tap and letting hot water flow over your stiff, aching hands! Imagine hot water to wash off fish slime, or blood from butchering moose or poultry, or from skinning furbearers. Imagine that!

When I arrive in Fairbanks for the first time in weeks or months, I head for a public bathroom, turn on the hot water, and slide my hands in. Ahh! There’s nothing like it to clean fingernails packed with dirt from dogs, horses, gardens, berry-picking or wood-cutting.

I do wash dishes in hot water. In the winter a big teapot on the wood stove makes it easy, but in the summer I heat dishwater on our little propane stove. And of course you understand the complications of flying propane out here, not to mention hauling the 100-pound tank home in a dog sled.

Imagine the luxury of having instant hot water to flush a scraped arm or clean up an injured dog.Or to splash onto your grimy face after a bit of hard work. Or to wet a dish rag to wipe the table.

Hot tap water isn’t quite beyond our reach. In the 1980s, my father rigged a solar water system that worked beautifully on sunny summer days, but required extensive soldering of cracked pipes every spring. A modern hot-water-on-demand system might work if it ever becomes energy-efficient enough to perform in our super-low-energy household. Managing our current systems provides all the entertainment and complications we need right now. I wouldn’t add another layer to that, even for hot tap water.

Every few years my sister Miki and I make the four-day dog sled run to Nenana in March. We arrive in civilization in the most rustic condition possible, for the first time since October. We park the dogs behind the A-frame gas station, and head straight for the bathroom sink.

Hot running water. Cold hands. Ahh!

Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks.

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