The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Hello from Alaska

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

Hello from Alaska

I've been reading this site off and on for quite awhile and finally decided to register on the forums now that we're a little closer to actually being able to bake bread again. After living in a wall tent for two years, a slice of fresh-baked bread will be a slice of heaven.


We're modern homesteaders building an off-grid cabin in the sub-arctic boreal forest, at the end of the road, in a remote area of the Alaskan Interior. Our ultimate vision is to be as self-sufficient as possible and have a sustainable homestead, growing/raising/hunting/foraging and preparing/preserving the majority of our food. We heat and cook using wood primarily, but do cheat a bit with a small propane stove, mostly in the summer for quick reheats and consistent temps while canning... we will not be having a conventional propane range and oven in the cabin (at least we're not planning on it). Since we've been cooking on our tiny wood heatstove in the tent, everything as been stovetop, and anyone who has ever tried to bake in a rigged stovetop oven knows this is quite painful and far from predictable. So far, I can manage biscuits and pizzas most of the time, but rolls and bread continue to elude me. Once the cabin is finished, we're planning to build a large wood-fired brick/mud oven in our outdoor kitchen for all our baking, and I dream of those wonderfully crusted rustic loaves. It's ambitious, but so are the rest of our dreams :)


The biggest obstacle is that I am not much of a baker. Really, I think I was born without a baking gene. Everything always tastes nice, if it doesn't explode in the oven or you can manage to chew it. Friends who bake tell me I have a heavy hand and punish my doughs too much. I think with more practice, I might be able to correct that, but I'm also really excited to try out long ferments, high hydration and no-kneads breads because I think the less I actually touch the dough, the better it's chances of survival! From my research, I also see that these methods help acheive/maintain a good crumb in breads made with 100% whole grains & multi-grains, as well as with home milled flours, which is what we'll be primarily using after I get comfortable practicing with commercial AP & bread flour. I have a mild wheat gluten intolerance, so I'm looking forward to using less wheat flours in my breads and experimenting with varying quantities of buckwheat, rye, oat, potato, and millet. Sourdoughs also seem to work better with my system, so it's a good thing that we both think there is no such thing as bread that is too sour! We both like bread that bites back :) I'm sure I'll be asking lots of questions and sharing many failures before I start posting any successes!


If worse comes to worse, I can hope that my husband inherited a baking gene and I can share his adventures while I dedicate myself to the more mundane kitchen art of simply cooking.

BakerBen's picture
BakerBen

Your life sounds very exciting - you have been living year round in a walled tent in Alaska.  I wish you would write a little more on that topic - I am sure there is a lot to tell especially how you ended up in Alaska.  I know this is off the bread topic so if you want to message me that would be good.


As for baking bread the key things I have found is (1) bake, (2) learn - from all sources available forums, books, other people and especially from your mistakes - really try to figure out what went wrong.  This site is great for being a help when trying to understand what went wrong - there are a lot of smart bakers here that will share their thoughts and knowledge with you.  The other words of advice I would offer are (1) start with a fairly simple formula - yeasted probably, (2) make it over and over until you master it and (3) don't give up.  What I have seen is people who want to bake can learn to bake - this goes for most other things in life too.


Good luck and keep baking ...


Ben

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

Thank you for your welcome, Ben.


You can read all about our Alaskan Adventure and why/how we decided to end up here on our blog Off-Grid in Alaska. I hope you enjoy sharing our joys and horrors :)


I'll definitely start out with a nice simple yeasted french with commercial flour and yeast cuz you can't get much simpler than that. I figure it will take me a while to get that working right and to learn our brick/earth oven. Once I'm comfortable with athat, then maybe I'll get adventurous and try adding in some commercial WW, or  sourdough, or Italian bread. One thing at a time... even if I do want to jump right in with Olive/Asagio/Tomato loaf.


You'll probably notice a few posts about craving food on our blog. You really start to miss any kind of fresh food after eating from cans, and "gourmet" stuff like artisan breads and deli items all the more. The cravings can get so powerful, that I ate almost half a loaf of bread standing right next to the baker's stall at the Farmer's Market last summer... no butter, no dipping oil, no cheese, no jam, just plain bread!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You could try baking on top of the stove with a heavy footed pot or make some aluminum feet for a pot to avoid direct contact to the stove.  You will need a cover and a towel to fold up on top to hold in the heat to brown the top of the bread baking within.  


Welcome to TFL!  


Do you have any problems with bears?  

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

We use the lift stand for our dutch oven to raise the pan off the stovetop, and then invert either our monster mixing bowl or our grannyware basin over it. That usually keeps the base from burning and the at least cooks the tops. Unfortunately, neither can quite keep temps high enough to brown the tops or bake bread properly.


We have a footed and lidded dutch oven that we can bake bread in using coals in the outdoor firepit, but it's too cold in the winter (-40!) to keep that hot enough :(


We don't have too many problems with bears. We don't leave food and trash around, and they stay out of our campsite. We see them quite often, but they don't bother us if we don't bother them. Of course, most people might not appreciate sharing their berry patch with the bears at less than 100 yards; but we've got plenty of berries growing wild. I'd rather they were happily munching on berries than investigating our tent!

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

Hello and welcome.  Where in the Interior do you live?  We used to live about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks (a few miles northeast of Fox actually) ...but now live in the country west of Wasilla (halfway to Settler's Bay)... your blog is very good.  In your economics of white bread, did you include the cost of energy?  Or did you bake with wood rather than propane?  How do you keep your propane tank warm in winter if you have no electricity (the usual method being a battery heaters glued to the tank, etc)?  Anyway, we sort of half-homesteaded.  Still on the grid, but most of our meat and veggies came from hunting/fishing and growing our own, and we heated with wood ...but had the oil furnace as a back-up.  Now that we've moved south, we're still in the process of converting the property into what we need to do the same thing again ...I've got 40 or 50 trees that need to be removed so we can put in an in-ground veggie plot, need to build a half dozen (or more) raised gardens again, need to yank the natural gas 'fake' fireplace (uggh... hate those things) and put in a wood stove instead, and need to put in a water collection/warming system like before (collect rain water into a system of black barrels that heat from the sun and provide warm water for the gardens).  I've got about 10 cords of birch cut and stacked and will have a lot more after we remove those additional trees.  Built a shop last summer and plan on heating that with wood as well.


 


Brian


 


 


 

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

Brian, I'm familiar with both Fox and Wasilla. We're out on the Elliott between Minto and Manley, almost at Eureka (which doesn't exist anymore LOL).


I didn't include the cost of energy in the Bread Economics post because I figure that's pretty close to a wash no matter what you're using... electricity costs, LPG/NG costs, and cutting firewood costs (just a matter of how much and what currency).


We heat and cook almost exclusively with wood, and just use a little portable LPG stove for quick heat ups and a huge LPG burner for canning. Once the cabin is finished, we'll have a propane heater for backup in case we need to leave the cabin for longer than we can bank the fire in the woodstove. We looked into coal, oil and LPG for backups, and decided on LPG since they all cost about the same per BTU when you factor in transportation, and LPG burns so much cleaner and can be used more easily for more things (stoves, furnaces, on demand hot water, generator, Mosquito Magnet!!).


We keep our little tanks (5-40#) from freezing up in the winter by keeping the one we're using inside... I know, supposedly that's bad, but we check seals and have a regulator. Since there is no propane delivery here and no real discount for buying in bulk without delivery, it's pointless to have a big permanent tank, so we just lug around the smaller bottles.


We have a fairly decent battery bank, which lasts us about 4-5 days a charge since we don't really use that much electricity... just a couple lights and the satellite dish, wireless network and laptops. We're planning on solar and wind hybrid to keep that charged up, but currently using our tiny little portable generator to charge it and run power tools and the log splitter occasionally. I really don't think we'll expand our kWh much more than they currently are since we don't even use all we have now... but we'll have to see how much the electric livestock fences take!


We're in the same boat as you with building up the homestead from scratch. We super-insulated our cabin, so we shouldn't be needing 10 cords a year anymore! Heck, living in the tent, we went through 10 cords just in the winter... and still ran out last month! Still have to clear a bunch more trees back from the cabin site before wildfire season, and that should give us more room to build some of the other structures we need and maybe get in a garden bed or two this year. Self-sufficency and sustainable living takes a while to get set up.

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

Sounds cool across the board and I know right where you are located.  Nice country up there.  Should be good ruffie country up there too if you can find a stand of birch or birch/spruce mix to hunt (w/alder and cranberries in the area).


If I were going to go off grid, and I may some day, I would go with a Strath Steam steam engine and combo boiler/wood heat arrangement.  There's a guy down on an island near Ketchikan that did it.  He's got a 2-floor cabin, uses wood for heat, and uses the Strath for charging batteries and/or temporary higher electricity capacity now and then.  See http://www.strathsteam.com ...I think they have a picture of the Ketchikan-area setup.  Good thing you are on the road system.  That helps a LOT when it comes to keeping the costs down.  Are you using Ace-Tekk for your wireless internet?  We had only 2 options for Internet ...buy a Starband box for $2k and use satellite or use Ace-Tekk (I think I spelled that right).  They installed a small dish that pointed at a tower on Birch Hill ...about 16 or 17 miles from our place ...but it worked fine.  We had to cut down a few wimpy birch trees to give it a clear shot, but it worked well.


For your grow-yer-own efforts, have you checked out the botanical garden (and the people) at the UAF?  They've got LOTS of good info for how to grow things in the arctic climate and helped us a lot.  Mostly, it's all about heat (water with warm water), using red (for tomatos) or black plastic to reflect heat back up into the plants, and choosing the right varieties to grow.  We also enhanced the soil with compost (takes up to 3 summers to completely compost) and a mix of mycorrhizae fungi (google 'mycorrhizae symbiotic' for more info) that really boosted output for us ...50-60 red tomatoes per plant rather than 10 green ones that didn't quite make it ...that sort of thing.  Of course we also grew a wide variety of other things as well (blueberries, raspberries, turnips, rutabegas, broccoli, colliflower, spinach, lettuce, etc etc).  Yup, as much grow-yer-own as we could manage, moose/caribou/black bear hunting, dipping for reds at Chitina, and fishing the creeks/rivers north of Willow were what we did, and I fished for burbot in the Tanana all winter ...hence my "tananaBrian" moniker around here.


 


Brian


 


 

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

Being near a road is definitely a big plus. We have a hard enough time getting stuff a mile down the trail to our property from the "highway"... I couldn't imagine the headaches of needing everything barged, flown or skidded in.


We're still looking into steam power. The only thing that concerns us with an OWB is that is a lot colder here than down there in Ketchikan (or even Wasilla), and we have to deal with permafrost on our site. Not sure if we'd be able to keep it from freezing, or waste more energy burning more wood, or spend more insulating everything to keep it from melting the permafrost. Ah... the logistics of extreme cold climate construction ;)


We're using HughesNet for our internet, so much better than StarBand IMO. We're pointed almost straight out from the deck of our tent platform, although we'll get a little better reception once it's mounted on the cabin wall... still pointed almost straight out horizontal. The elevation and azimuth here at 65N is really crazy since their geo-synch satellite is positioned over the equator LOL


I love the gardens at UAF, and I've asked so many questions from the master gardeners and the co-op extension guys that I think they're afraid of me now. We're going to be building permanent coldframes for many of our raised beds, just so we can clear the snow of the glass in Feb/March to get the soil warming up for a little earlier start on the frost hardy veggies. Eventually we'll have a greenhouse, and hope to be able to keep some perennials alive in there by reclaiming the heat from our bathwater... we'll see how that goes. I really want to try some of the fruit trees that are grafted onto hardy root stock, even if we only get a bushel of apples it would be nice to have fresh fruit other than berries sometimes (and boy do we have tons of free wild berries on the property: blueberries, high & low cranberries, rashberries and even tiny strawberries).


We have excellent hunting right here on our property, too... bear, moose, grouse, ptarmigan, and various other varmints. If it's not on the property on a given day, it isn't too far away. The only thing that isn't nearby is caribou, still have to go up to Chena for those. Pretty decent fishing for everything here between the Baker & Hutlinana, and of course the Tanana. Now we just need to finish building so we have more time to hunt and fish this year to supplement the dozens of spruce hens we get every year. Plus we'll have some smaller livestock in time -- chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and a couple weaner pigs. What else am I gonna do with 80 acres of trees, right?


Now, if I can just get that brick/earth oven and my outdoor kitchen and smoker built, I can start baking my own bread and smoking my own salmon ;)


Happy homesteading.

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

I think the wood burning/boiler/steam engine should be inside the cabin, and that a 2-floor (a little late for you?) design with living quarters on the 2nd floor and the boiler etc. on the first floor is an ideal situation.  No need for the burning and boiling to be outside or in a separate structure.  That said, I have friends outside of Fairbanks (some in North Pole, others halfway to Chena Hot Springs ...maybe a few miles short of 2 Rivers) that heat with an outdoor burner and do it with no problems.  It may even be slightly warmer on the average where you are depending on elevation, so I'm sure it would work ...I just don't see the need.


You should also look into the Cold Climate Research Center at the UAF and get their free (very large) notebook of information on building in an arctic climate.  They outline how to build and live on top of permafrost, although they suggest avoiding it if you can.  I know that permafrost land is the cheapest, but there are alternatives ...at least get on the south side of a rounded hill if you can.  That's how our place was and while we had a couple of ice lenses to deal with, none were under the building ...not so for people on the other side of the hill.


You eat spruce hens?  Tastes like liver ...yuck!  My son loves "the red meat" grouse while my wife and daughter tolerate them, but I'll stick to ruffies ...


I'll give you a shout if I head up that way ...your exclusive guided hunting trip sounds great (heh heh).  I'll show you my secret grouse spot on the road to Minto...


Brian


 

PlicketyCat's picture
PlicketyCat

We don't have permafrost directly under the cabin, but there patches of it on our property and a couple of nice ice lenses (unfortunately, the tent is on top of one). But permafrost moves, so I build everything with the expectation that it might be on top of permafrost at some point. Even when you're not on permafrost, it's still a pain to dig where the ground is frozen 2' down except for two weeks in August ROFL.


I have the CCRC notebook, as well the Alaska Building Manual from AHFC. Lots of good info in both. Talked to the guys at CCRC about our foundation and insulation, and they were lots of help.


We're on flat land in the drainage basin heading to the Tanana, so the cold pools up on us some. But we do have unobstructed southern exposure (after some tree murder) so passive solar design works fairly well for the cabin & our eventual garden.


We eat whatever we kill... it's all fresh meat ;) I do prefer ruffie & ptarmigan to spruce hens, but they're plentiful and slow. Don't even need a gun, chucking a stick or a rock at them works just fine. If only everything were that easy.


We haven't hunted any larger game on our property yet, just keep encountering them... probably because we aren't shooting at them. We'll see if they hang around when the rifles comes out ;)

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

Sounds like you folks went down the same road we did, except we didn't get off the grid ...it would've meant 30 more miles to work each day and the wife didn't want to do that.  Oh well!  Post some pix of your place!