Summer is rapidly coming to an end. Long summer nights are waning, and I notice that I need to turn on lights in the morning now. Berries are ripe for the picking, and there is a slight chill in the air. The Alaska State Fair is coming. It is time to take stock, examining our progress in making ourselves more self-sufficient.
Since Alaska is sucking pretty hard on the fossil fuel teat, it is the last place one would expect permaculture to take hold. But there are glimmers of a new day on the horizon. Permaculture courses are beginning to pop up, and Anchorageites now have our own active permaculture teacher, with more to follow. Alaskans have our own transition and permaculture groups. Farmers’ markets are springing up all over town, with farmers even making use of underused malls during the winter to sell stored root vegetables. Alaska finally has its own energy czar (there is no department of energy in state government). The Renewable Energy Alaska Project is moving forward with their fingers in many different pots. Biking is becoming a big summer and winter sport and for commuting. The population is active in outdoor and human-powered sports, and less focused on shopping. We’re closer to nature up here, and there is a lot more of nature than there are people. Anchorage’s tourism slogan is “big, wild life.”
While Alaskans have an attitude of self-sufficiency and think that we’re very independent, but in truth, we are very dependent on fossil fuels and imports. The recent history of Alaska has been as a territory dependent on imports from “Outside.” Our state is the second biggest users of fossil fuels, in part because of the waning net energy of our oil–it takes more and more energy to produce our oil each year. Our three biggest vulnerabilities could be lumped into three categories: heating, transportation, and food. As we take stock of successes, failures, and ongoing vulnerabilities in becoming more resilient in Anchorage, here are some opportunities for learning.
Anchorage electric power plants run on Cook Inlet natural gas fields, which are increasingly tight supply, especially in the winter, since our demand pulses greatly in winter. We have developed new gas reservoirs and closed a fertilizer plant on the Kenai Peninsula (at least in winter) to smooth out the pulses. New exploration and discovery are requiring more energy inputs, with more fracking and other techniques to get poorly accessible gas.
Anchorage houses and buildings are heated directly with natural gas. Alaskans are vulnerable to interruptions due to extreme demand from winter cold or from large-scale catastrophes such as earthquakes. I shudder to think what a major earthquake and sustained power outage would do to the plumbing of our housing stock in the middle of winter. Backup power sources are important, and many houses have either a fireplace, a wood stove, or if the house is more recent, a gas fireplace, which wouldn’t be much help in a natural gas interruption. Pellet stoves are for sale, too, but people buying them for backups do not realize that pellet stoves need both electricity and a complex, distant supply chain to run. Electric power is so invisible to us that we assume it will always be available, even in a crisis.
Much of the housing stock was built during the heyday of the pipeline, and it is grossly inefficient and wasteful of heat. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) is doing a wonderful job of educating citizens and providing rebate programs to weatherize our inefficient homes.
At the house, we have a backup generator, a wood stove, and a wood fired furnace to cover any exigencies. The generator and wood stove are back-up systems. We use our wood fired furnace routinely every winter to heat the house, downstairs apartment, all domestic hot water, and the garage (via waste heat from the furnace). Seven cords of wood provides about 100 heating days during the heart of the winter. We season our cut split wood for at least a year to give hot, efficient, low pollution burns. We scavenge all our wood from nearby land and road clearing projects as well as from neighbors who occasionally need to get rid of a sickly tree. We stumbled into several unexpected wood-cutting opportunities this year, so we now have wood on hand for the next 3 winters.
But if everyone in Alaska heated with wood, we wouldn’t be able to heat the housing stock for very long without decimating our forests. Wood makes a nice backup for emergencies, but In Alaska, a future with less fossil fuels will mean less population, more efficient, smaller housing, less heat, or all the above. Heating with wood has given us a greater appreciation of the amazing amount of energy stored in fossil fuels like natural gas. If we planned to heat exclusively with wood, we would also live in a smaller and super-insulated house.
Alaskans have recognized our vulnerabilities concerning food security. While villages off the road system rely in part on subsistence hunting and gathering, all Alaskans are reliant on imports, and those of us in Anchorage particularly so. There are a number of food security initiatives springing up in Alaska.
Salmon is a mainstay of our ecosystem up here. Many Alaskans and visitors love to sport fish, but for stocking salmon in the freezer, dip netting is the way to go. Each summer state residents can net salmon from several Alaska rivers during the salmon runs. When the fishing is good, you can catch enough fish to stock a freezer in a matter of hours. We process our salmon by vacuum packing steaks and freezing them–they’re good for about a year if done properly. We smoke extra salmon. The chickens love the fileted bones and skin, microwaved into a tasty treat. The birds attack the offering like tiny raptors–one can see how birds evolved from dinosaurs.
We planted strawberries gifted by friends in raised beds and raspberries near our fence. The strawberries are expanding rapidly, and the raspberries have “volunteered” to a different part of the yard. We planted them in a spot that was too shady, in competition with young trees. A bird or moose moved the raspberries through the act of consumption and either bird guano or moose poop to a better, sunnier spot. Our breakfasts during late summer include homemade yogurt, granola, and berries that taste like a shot of tart sweetness that explodes in my mouth.
We have learned that amending our poor soils is an ongoing process. Vegie production needs good soil structure, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium (N-P-K) and a number of micronutrients. Fish make an excellent fertilizer for the garden, but since we have bears coming through the yard on an almost daily basis, we are hesitant to bury fish heads and guts on the property. We gut our fish at the river, recycling them into the ecosystem via seagulls. In the garden we improve soil structure with compost, composted manure, and leaf mulch. We provide nutrients by adding locally produced fish bone meal and ashes from our wood furnace. We protect the garden from moose and the chickens from bears with electric fences, which work quite well. During a vacation last year we overwatered using automatic watering, and had slugs. This year we were more careful with the water, and used Sluggo preventively when they started to appear.
We have had barred rock chickens for 4 years. They are cold hardy, great layers of beautiful brown eggs, and they are amusing. Our first flock of four was winnowed to two last year after a hawk and a bear each made a meal of one. This year we re-homed the still-productive pair and started a new flock. Our only local chicken breeder closed two years ago, so we obtained day-old chicks from a hatchery near Cincinnati. They come by way of overnight Priority Mail. We got a lot of strange looks this spring when we walked through the post office lobby with a loudly cheeping box. Our new birds will start laying in late October. Five of the birds have already gone to friends. We plan to keep six, and will sell the rest before the snow flies.
We’ve improved the coop and run over time. We added nesting boxes that open to the outside so that you can harvest eggs without going in the coop. For our new larger flock, we added a second level in the coop to give more floor space during the long winter months. Since losing one bird to a hawk, we’ve fully netted the fenced run overhead with seine net remnants from a local net shop.
Our detached garage serves extra duty as a heat source for the chicken coop, root cellar, and freezer. We keep it heated to 40 degrees in the winter, just warm enough to melt accumulated snow and ice off of the cars. A wall-opening into the chicken coop helps moderate the coop temperature. The garage temperature provides good root cellar conditions for keeping potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables from the garden. We are learning to put up food through canning, and smoking.
Water is not a big problem in Alaska. Since we use a well and septic system, we have opted to add a hand pump to the top of our well for power outages, since our well requires electricity. There is a creek nearby, too.
We are still learning things with the greenhouse. We enjoyed great early season lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard. Tomato plants have grown like crazy, but actual production has been less than expected. Cucumbers too have been slow to produce. These latter two need pollinators to fruit, which are lacking indoors. Our manual pollination efforts are clearly not as efficient or effective as mother nature. The celery looks great, and we plan to replant a fall crop of lettuce in the next several weeks.
Transport is where Alaskans’ footprints fail miserably in sustainability. While ecofootprint may only be a partial measure of emergy sustainability, which is more inclusive, the tool quickly provides a superficial snapshot of energy use relative to others. I have my class take their ecofootprint measure, and each year, our footprints explode to 3 or 4 or 5 worlds when we add in our air travel. Busted! Alaskans like to travel, and they fly everywhere. Residents of bush communities must travel by air, especially in summer when ice makes travel by snow machine or dogsled easier.
There has been a flowering of winter bike commuting in Anchorage, with more and more people commuting via fat tire bikes or bikes with studded tires. But that increase is just a beginning to the transition we need. Anchorage spends a large amount of effort and energy to clear its expanding network of roads from snow. That effort was especially visible this year with our record snowfalls–we ran out of snow-dumps for storage of snow removed from road and parking lot surfaces. In a future of more extreme weather swings and lower energy support, a combination of dog sleds, bikes, skis, foot travel, and innovations such as packrafts would make all of Alaska accessible, albeit at a slower, fitter pace.
Will Anchorage ever be truly sustainable? No, probably not. Alaska has a population of almost 700,000, with almost 300,000 in Anchorage. Before fossil fuels, Alaska’s subarctic and arctic ecosystems supported small populations of seasonally migratory Alaska Native Peoples who were dependent on careful marshalling of resources through hunting and gathering. But as long as Alaska has fossil fuels to produce, Alaska will support a larger population. Alaska is a little slower and a bit behind the lower 48 when it comes to trends, fads, and the mainstream in general. Our summers are short, and we make the most of them. One last kayak trip, packraft, or bike overnight, harvesting, syllabi and course updates to make. . . gotta go, gotta go, gotta go.