Keeping Warm in Alaska

Someone might mention the old woman in town who burned romance paperbacks when she ran out of firewood. Or the eccentric young woman who only came out at night and could be heard, long after dark, sawing her wood by hand. Or the neighbor whose house burned down on a forty-below night. She and her children were quickly invited to stay at a nearby empty house. It was a comfortable place, with running water and an oil stove. Raised at her father’s trapping cabin deep in the woods, the woman was used to being outside hunting, trapping and picking berries. “What’s the use having one of those things,” she’d said, gesturing with disdain at the oil stove, “I’d rather be out getting my own wood. It gives me something to do.” The neighbors around the stove would undoubtedly nod in agreement. They understood the value of having something to do in a place where ready-made entertainments are few.

One old-timer still cut his own wood even after he had a stroke that left him with only one good arm. Once known as Two Dollar Dave for his willingness to do any chore around town for two dollars, he continued to have a can-do spirit even into old age. He went out every day to find small dead aspen, which he cut up with a Swede saw to heat his 8-by-10-foot cabin. He enjoyed the solid satisfaction of meeting his own needs, preserving both his pride and his independence.

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?”

A friend who got her wood from an area burned in a fire several years ago told me, “You know how some women are shown in movies with a dab of flour on their cheeks, to make everyone see how hard they work in the kitchen? I enjoy seeing my face in a mirror after a wood-cutting day; it’s black—proof I’ve been working in the woods.”

Working in the woods is the essence of rural Alaska life. It is fundamentally different than the attitude among city residents, who see the woods as a beautiful backdrop for winter sports such as cross-country skiing. To rural residents, such outdoor activities are beside the point, although it is not unknown for them to take their snowmobiles up a frozen creek just for the heck of it. Such a trip can also be a chance to scout out desirable dead trees to harvest for firewood.

The quest for firewood has its rewards in all seasons. Being active helps beats the winter blues, and getting wood is a good excuse to be outside. In the early spring, everyone appreciates the ample light and temperatures in the 20s. In summer, bluebells bloom amongst the blackened trees in burned-over areas on the summit; further along in the summer, the tundra is covered with fireweed as far as the eye can see. In the fall, there is the added pleasure of gathering lowbush cranberries after the first frost has made them extra sweet.

No matter where it is found—on the mountain, as driftwood on the riverbank, or in one’s own backyard—firewood can never be considered just wood. It is, here in Alaska, life itself.

Louise Freeman is a freelance writer living in Anchorage.

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