Sunday, August 24, 2014

Living Off Grid

Living off the grid isn't easy but, after nearly 8 weeks, we've pretty well got it figured out. Although we're pretty good at it at this point, we are also quite ready to be back on the grid and back in civilization!

Even on our days off, things have to be planned and plotted.  Laundry, for instance, can be completed in one of two locations.  83 miles away in Tok at the refuge HQ, or 35 miles away at the refuge owned bunkhouse in Northway. If we get water at the same time, either in the water buffalo or our five gallon drinking water jug, we can take the work truck that's assigned to us and save us gas and mileage on the Jeep. The perk at either location is that we also get to take a long, hot shower while the laundry is getting done and, if traveling to Tok, get to eat lunch and/or dinner out!

Our RV has a forty gallon freshwater tank and a 38 gallon gray water tank so showers, when taken, must be short and to the point.  When our fresh water runs out, we have to fill the tank from the water buffalo, which is about a twenty minute job requiring use of an electric water pump.

Of course, we need to empty both our gray and black water tanks, which is usually a relatively easy task when gravity exists; however, due to the poor design of the site at the center, the dump access is actually UPHILL from the site so gravity is NOT on our side! If the tanks are full. there's enough force to push the contents through the hose and into the dump; however, when the force lessens so does the movement, allowing the hose to remain full of gray water.  We then have to walk the hose down several times ensuring it gets completely emptied.  It's something that has to be done every 3-4 days and is an absolute pain in the ass!

From what we can tell, the center has the electrical system of Kazakhstan. The visitors center is equipped with two generators and a solar system, all of which charge a bank of batteries.  The primary charger is the solar system - when it's working - which it's not.  So, we run the big generator all day and, at night, use the electricity stored in the battery system.  The second generator is smaller and is only used as a backup to the larger one.

On a good day, the system is maybe 20 amp at our site, about 10 amps short of what we need. If you are reading with a light on, and something else comes on like the heater or the water pump, your light will dim.  More than once, we've been awakened by our beeping refrigerator letting us know that it no longer has electricity and needs to be switched to propane.

The system was designed so that if the batteries lose power the generator automatically kicks on - when it's working - which it's not.  So, every morning when we walk the dogs, we turn the generator on to ensure we have enough power to make coffee and breakfast.  One morning, we awoke to no electricity and discovered that the system actually drained OUR batteries and we had to run our own generator to charge them back up.

Also, the power box for the electricity is at the front of the site, while the sewer dump is at the back. Our RV, like most, have the electric, water and sewer connections in one location on the RV and in the back. In order to plug in and still be able to access the sewer dump, we had to purchase a 25 ft. power extension cord which we luckily found in Tok.  This allows us to get CLOSE to the sewer dump but not close enough to overcome the gravity issue.

Something as simple as cooking dinner in the RV can also be a hassle.  We have this wonderful dog who is a total carb addict.  Frances, the poodle, has helped herself to Hawaiian rolls, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, and pilot bread, an Alaskan and Yukon Territory hard tack cracker.  So, help her protect her girlish figure, we keep all bread products in our microwave and out of her reach.  This means we must empty it out each time we need to use it.

Despite these minor inconveniences, we have actually set up household here at the refuge and, although a bit burned out on living so far from society and its conveniences, we love being here.  Our screened tent covers the picnic table and allows us to store our bikes in it to get them out of the rain.  Our patio welcomes visitors with flowers, chairs and an old Alaska license plate. Joy has cooked an entire meal on the fire pit and Kathy routinely grills outside.  The dogs love playing ball by the water buffalo when the mosquito's aren't too bad. Unfortunately, there's no where to walk around here and no where to ride our bikes.  We do take regular excursions in the Jeep, however, which allows to take any road our hearts desire.

As we complete our last 3 days at the refuge, we are grateful for the experience and happy to know that even though RV living, especially off grid, is difficult at times, we are still having fun and wouldn't be living any other way.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Touched By An Owl

Joy had just arrived back to the Visitors Center when Kathy announced, "Guess where I'm going?" She was headed out to help rescue an injured owl.  Two visitors had reported seeing it on the side of the road between the US and Canadian border checkpoints.  They provided mile and kilometer post numbers and even showed Kathy and a picture of the poor little thing.  Technically, it was in Canada but the park ranger called and cleared it with the US Border patrol so that we could bring the bird back into Alaska for treatment.

We gathered up leather gloves, a box, several towels and a shirt.  We brought the shirt because it was lightweight but large enough to cover the bird's head, making him/her feel safer.  As we drove, we started wondering if maybe it the numbers were actually past the Canadian checkpoint.  We started worrying that we'd have to turn around at the checkpoint and that the owl would be left to fend for himself.

We drove on and stopped and asked a road construction crew if they'd seen the injured owl.  They reported they had not seen it in either direction so we continued to drive towards the Canadian checkpoint, eyes peeled on the left shoulder.   
Finally, Joy spotted something small and black.  We slowed down - it was a piece of tire.  The road was covered with fresh gravel and the shoulders were covered with fresh, deep gravel.  Finally, Kathy spotted the little guy, wings outstretched, yellow eyes gleaming sitting in the fresh loose gravel nearly in the lane of traffic.  Kathy turned the truck around and drove down the embankment and parked.  As Joy walked near him, he used his wings to scoot about five feet from where he'd been siting in a burrow he'd been creating in the gravel.  He scooted dangerously close to the edge of the shoulder, which dropped off about 5 feet to the tundra below.  Kathy put her gloves on as Joy warned her of the owl's talons.

We both approached the bird from opposite sides and, although owls can nearly turn their heads 360 degrees, he wasn't quite able to watch both of us at the same time.  He was surprisingly alert and, except for his inability to walk or fly, looked healthy.  As Kathy approached him, he turned to look at her, giving Joy the perfect opportunity to gently lay the shirt over his head.  He stayed still, didn't fight, and allowed Joy to carefully scoop him up and place him in the box.

He was much smaller than we'd thought - maybe a juvenile.  Safely in the box and in the middle of the front seat between us, the owl began the 90 + mile trip to Tok, where he would be turned over to one of the refuge's biologists and eventually delivered to a veterinarian for care. Kathy tried to ease the truck up the loose, deep gravel embankment.  The first try was cut short by on coming traffic so we waited.  Joy suggested she use four-wheel drive but Kathy just gunned it a little harder instead and, after digging some pretty good grooves into the freshly laid gravel, we were up the hill and back onto the road.  Kathy figures it was just a small payback to the cursed roads of Canada and Alaska.

After dropping Joy off at the Visitor's Center, Kathy and the owl, later named Blueberry, drove the remaining 85 miles to Tok.  Upon arriving, there wasn't a biologist to be found since it was Saturday night.  Finally, after about an hour, one of the biologist's (Kathy's favorite) arrived.  She gently removed Blueberry from the box, told Kathy he was a Hawk Owl, and looked him over for injuries.  It was obvious that his wing was damaged.  There was a small smudge of blood in the box but they couldn't find it's source.

The biologist watered Blueberry and eventually fed him chicken as they watched TV together in the refuge bunkhouse.  The next evening, a group of guests from Anchorage agreed to transport Blueberry to the bird rehab/sanctuary in Anchorage and off he went.

We wondered for a couple of weeks about Blueberry's status and asked the refuge volunteer coordinator to check on him for us.  She did just this morning and, sadly, Blueberry's injuries were too severe to be treated and he was euthanized.  The vet said that both Blueberry's leg and wing were severely fractured most likely due to being struck by a vehicle. The vet confirmed that he was a young bird, just as we thoughts.

With teary eyes we thanked her for the update.  Although it wasn't the news we had hoped for, we were grateful that Blueberry did not suffer on the side of the road, get hit by yet another vehicle, or eaten by a predator.  We are grateful to the refuge for supporting us in his rescue - he definitely touched us even during the little time we spent with him.

This is what Blueberry, when fully grown, would have looked like.