Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Homesteadin' Ain't Easy

Part 1 of 2 - Dave discusses Jason's hypothetical of Homesteading in Alaska, and what guns to take.

Before discussing the arsenal, I’ll give you some background that affects my thinking on this question. Or just jump to “Surviving the Venture” (Part 2) for my thoughts on Alaska weaponry:

Deciding to Go
It was once my dream, like Jason’s hypothetical scenario, to move to the wilderness – somewhere like Alaska. So I gave it quite a lot of thought. But as time passed my more practical senses kicked-in and I was content to live and work in the modern world we knew. Having a wife and children has a great influence on thoughts like moving to Alaska. Now, at my age and physical condition, a move like that would be akin to living out “Death Wish 13 – The Final Episode.”

But at one point in my life, in my mid-thirties, I left my job in Birmingham and moved to a rural community to work for a fledgling log home manufacturing company. My job was going sour for me and Birmingham had, at that time, evolved into a high-crime, gangs and drugs area that we felt was not a good place for our children to grow up. Besides, my wife had grown up in the country and I was a country boy at heart. I never liked cities, which I view as the human version of anthills.

Property Off-the-Grid

Dave's place, nestled in the middle of timberland.
This is where Jeremy learned how to not die in the woods.
Finding remote, homestead-size acreage to buy is difficult. Our best leads came from personal
networking with the locals, including realtors. Large paper and lumber companies own most of it – and they never sell small parcels. And family-owned timberland parcels bring in extra income with no effort. But sometimes folks just need extra money for something. So we eventually found 80-acres of land for sale that was located at the edge of a National Forest. It was totally surrounded by more timberland. To make it fit our budgets, we divided it, 40/40, with my wife’s cousin, Tommy, who also had just moved there to work. Having two compatible families involved offered something our wives especially wanted: To not be totally alone in a remote location.

Our land was a place remote enough that it might allow us all to “homestead,” if necessary. And it offered a chance to survive, long-term, after a nuclear attack and the chaos that would surly follow; a potential hanging over us since we were kids. And there were other advantages: It was inhabited with deer, turkey, and all sorts of game animals and birds, and had a small, year-round flowing creek along one side.

Tommy was first to learn of the property. Consequently, by prior agreement, he had first choice to select his half. Since it was so difficult to access and evaluate by walking, he got someone to fly him over it in a small airplane so he could look it over. I was out of town at the time. He chose the East-40, which I later learned from him was because, during the plane ride, he saw what he thought was a fair-sized lake. Unfortunately for him, as we were able to get into the property better, we discovered that his “lake” was part of a very large swamp which would rise and fall, depending upon the rainfall – sometimes a marsh, sometimes a grassy area with trees.

Our place had been a family farm back in the early 1900’s and continued into the 1950’s. An old chimney base of rock, now grown over with weeds and vines, marked the original home place. I later learned that it was damaged by a tornado during the mid-1930’ and finally destroyed by another tornado during the 1950’s. A hand-dug well was near the old home site. It was covered with gray boards that were rotten to the core. Nearby there were terrace rows among the trees and evidence of old fencing here and there, probably used for pasturing the family cow. The once often-used dirt road through the property and beyond had morphed into a dead-end logging road that was only doctored every 12-15 years, solely to accommodate logging trucks. A timber bridge across the small creek at our property line had fallen-in, making the road impassable from there.

Much of the property was so dense in undergrowth that it was virtually impossible to determine where the boundaries were before having it surveyed – which we did after purchasing it. A tornado, just 4-years earlier, had crossed the land, laying down many trees and allowing the undergrowth to flourish into a jungle in several places. We knew the county was sometimes called “tornado alley” but we didn’t want that to influence our dream, so we ignored it and moved forward with our plans.

Our chosen building spot was 1-1/2 miles away from pavement and power lines. The power company advised us that since it was not a public road, our cost to run power there was going to be nearly half the amount that we had paid for the land, but could be put on a payment plan. Plus, we would likely have to pay other property owners to sign for allowing a power right-of-way across their land. That payment amounted to the loss of income from timber not grown in that right-of-way for, say, the next 100 years. Oh, crap! And, by the way, there was a year’s wait for a 9-party line telephone, and cell phones didn’t exist back then.


There was no “city water” available in the area so that left us to either drill a well or try resurrecting the old well – the one that had not been used for decades. Another shallower, hand-dug well was found on Tommy’s property. The water was not good in either well but we felt ours could be cleaned up for our use by the time we built a place to actually move there. So we prepared to “live off the grid” with no connected utilities.

Building a Home
Getting a passable road, the building site prepared and material delivered for building were all great challenges. Rain and mud became our main enemies. The muddy road delayed our progress at least 6-months during the initial stages of work.

"Might have been too ambitious. Next time, only 4 stories."
Without the help of the local county establishment, and the new friends we made over the previous year at church, at work and elsewhere, we could never have pulled it off with our limited financial resources. I didn’t want to go into debt to become “independent” since that would be defeating the purpose. Our venture was financed almost totally with the profit made from the sale of our previously owned home in Birmingham. That was supplemented by my paycheck and, eventually, a small short-term bank loan to finish up.

After the basement walls and its concrete floor were in, the house was DIY except for the shingling, some carpeting, and the outside septic system. Before moving in, I worked on the house after work and weekends for nearly a year, usually assisted by the wife and kids, and sometimes with the help of my brother, other relatives, and some very good friends. We moved into it with a lot of work left to do. If I could go back in time to do it again, I would build a smaller house so I could spend more time and money on improving the property for self-sufficient living.

Living, Homestead-Style
I bought an old Ford 8N tractor of mid-fifties vintage, with implements, and used it and my chainsaw and other tools to clear an area of about 1-1/2 acres for a garden spot. It was populated with smaller trees and was likely a staging area used for logging in years past. It was separated from our house by about 100-yards of woods, near the old home site from the 30’s. Clearing land is hard work. It’s difficult to imagine how much harder it must have been for the pioneers, without modern tools or equipment. But there was a lot of satisfaction in it; when the prep work was done and the garden was finally planted. Each day as I drove to work past the garden I could see it coming to life and growing.

"Thanks for the veggies! They were yummy!"
Then rabbits ate every pea and bean sprout. I replanted them, twice, finally adding a low chicken-wire fence to rabbit-proof the peas. It turned out that deer like peas, too, and a low fence doesn’t slow them down. The deer also robbed us of a few ears of immature corn on occasion. So I hung pie pans and clumps of human hair around the area; something said to keep deer away. Finally, it was producing vegetables as planned. Then, a few nights before our planned harvest, raccoons raided the garden. They demolished practically everything left by the deer and rabbits. The corn looked like a war zone. I replanted the following year but had basically the same results. And the deer loved those winter crops of greens, too. That whole gardening experience reminded me of portions of the old movie “The Yearling.”

You may now get the idea that “homesteading” is a lot of work; something probably not done as smoothly as one may imagine in the romanticized mind's eye. There will be obstacles to overcome – big obstacles that often require the assistance and/or cooperation of others, and maybe machinery. And it may take much more money than you thought, plus years to be in any sort of position to be able to say you’re self-sufficient. My experience was an attempt at it, done in the mild climate of West Alabama over an 8-year span while holding a full-time job. It was not life threatening because of winter’s approaching sub-zero temperatures, nor were we ever truly isolated.

When I later found myself unemployed with no income, I decided that I was not ready to live simply on squirrel, deer, muskrats and sparrows, seasoned with dandelions and tiny wild berries, etc. I had family expenses and bills to pay. So I found a job elsewhere, rented our little “homestead” to someone I knew, and followed the money to a new job. We stopped renting it after a few years and moved back. But my work required a long commute and the dream of our homestead-style independence faded as we got older. And except for Jeremy, our kids weren’t really into rural living anyway. We finally sold our little homestead 24-years after starting it.

During all that time, I seldom got to hunt (or fish) because there were always other things urgently needing my attention; just ask my wife. As for weaponry, I began with a .22 semi-auto rifle, a .22 Mag lever gun, a 12-ga semi-auto shotgun, and my first gun: a single-shot, break-action .410 which my wife used to kill a 49” timber rattler at our deck’s edge. While living there, I added a .444 lever gun, a 6mmRem bolt-action rifle, a .22 revolver, a 9mm pistol, a .44 Mag revolver, and a .45 muzzle-loader.

Old timers from the immediate area told of cougars and bobcat being in abundance there when they were kids, but those were seldom seen anymore. While we were there, coyotes moved into the area and nearby farms began losing livestock. But the major life-threatening critters in that area were timber rattlers; something we never really considered before moving there. Over the years we killed many large timber rattlers and some water moccasins with our vehicles on the little 1-1/2 mile dirt road to our house.

--Editor’s aside: As the school bus would only come part way out the road (when it wasn't so wet and muddy that the driver would come out our road at all), I had to walk the last 1/3 mile home, right through the area of road most travelled by the rattlers. In high-school I eventually made an afternoon hobby of riding my dirt bike to the house (having hidden it in the trees near the bus stop that morning), getting a rifle, and coming back to kill snakes in the ditches. I dispatched dozens with head shots. – Jeremy

Homesteading in Alaska – Choosing the Place
"Hey! Nice to meet the new neighbors!
I'll bring over a salmon casserole tomorrow."
I would choose a place that is not highly prone to the presence of bears. That is, any kind of bears, though the whole state has both brown and black bears, plus polar bears in some areas. Bears seem to be the single most dangerous animal for someone in the remote areas of North America where they live. They all make predatory attacks on humans from time to time, according to my research. And you can easily find online the areas on a map where they are most prevalent. Avoid those the way you might avoid a house offered at a great price in the high-crime areas of a big city. Think of Detroit, with a reputation for being overall rough but with some areas so dangerous that it’s likely the cops even shun them. I suspect that the availability of property might be better and cheaper in areas that are less friendly to human habitation, like they would be in some areas of Detroit. If you want to hunt bears, fine. Go to where they are plentiful for your hunt. But if you want to live there, in the wild, I’d avoid those bear-plentiful areas.

 --Continue reading the rest of Dave's thoughts in the next post, where he delves into his thoughts on Alaskan weaponry.--

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