Keeping Warm in Alaska

Choosing and stacking firewood is an annual ritual.

[by Louise Freeman]


Years ago, when my grandparents lived in the Alaska wilderness, my grandmother told me the story of a clueless winter caretaker at a nearby lodge. Newly arrived from California, he had cut down a sizable spruce and wrestled a section the size of a yule log into the cavernous fireplace. He’d attempted to light the log with a single match and some crumpled newspaper and wondered why he couldn’t get it to burn. When my grandfather explained the difference between wet green wood and dry seasoned wood, the caretaker said, “I’ll be darned. I thought wood was wood.”

Preparing for Winter

In Interior Alaska, wood is definitely not just wood. Wood is a matter of survival. That was one of the first lessons I learned living in the Bush. When the temperature drops so low that propane won’t flow and the chainsaw won’t stay running, you better have a yard full of firewood ready to go.

My first winter in Alaska, I lived in a drafty log cabin badly in need of new chinking. It was so cold inside that the cat’s water dish on the floor froze as hard as a hockey puck. Our wood pile contained only a scattering of birch, the gold standard for firewood in Alaska. Keeping warm in Alaska is a challenge when most of the wood available is low in BTUs—the measurement of the heat generated by different types of wood. With the exception of white birch, the boreal forest lacks good wood for burning. Even spruce pales in comparison to firewood available in other parts of the country, where they have the luxury of burning hardwoods like hickory and maple.

Having the right mix of birch and spruce split and neatly stacked in the yard is a visible sign you’re ready for winter. The most frequent question in spring is, “Got your garden in yet?” In the fall it’s, “Got enough wood in yet?” It’s a fine feeling to be able to say, “Yeah, we’ll make it ‘til spring all right.” People eye each other’s woodpile with a kind of mild rivalry, whether it’s marveling at the woman who expertly cuts each piece to the same perfect length or envying a neighbor’s ample supply, enough for two winters.

Something to Talk About

They say firewood warms twice: once when you cut it, and once when you burn it. In truth, it warms in many more ways than that. Besides such obvious calorieburning effort involved in splitting, stacking and carrying it inside, wood warms in more intangible ways. It provides the warmth of companionship as neighbors gather around the woodstove, drink cowboy coffee and swap stories. It even gives people something to talk about.

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