By Amanda Idlewild
Homesteading in Alaska is a dream of so many people it seems. When I tell people about what the hubby and I are doing, I often hear an envious reply of, “Oh, you’re living my dream life!” We both love Alaska so much and will never take homesteading here for granted.
My Alaska Homesteading Experience
Growing up in south central Alaska, I was blessed with parents who enjoyed traveling. Between traveling and attending school Outside (as we locals call anywhere that isn’t Alaska), I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to many people from all over the world. Everyone seems to have the same questions about Alaska. “Isn’t it dark all the time?” “How do you deal with it always being cold?” “Do you have a dog sled team?” and even a few “What’s it like living in an igloo?” The answers just seem to be on automatic, although I sometimes have fun with it… “No, it’s only dark in the winter, but we still get a few hours of daylight. Only the very northern part of Alaska has 24 hour darkness.” “It’s not always cold. The summers are very pleasant.” “I don’t have a dog sled team, but I know lots of people who do.” “The igloos aren’t too bad, but we always have to repair them from the polar bears breaking in looking for a snack.”
Okay, so we don’t live in igloos and we don’t have polar bears in our area, but we do deal with black bears and grizzly bears.
Alaska Homesteading Head Start
The hubby and I had a bit of a head start on our Alaska homestead. Our cabin was originally built by my father, and then added on to by my grandfather after he and Grandma bought it. We’ve done a lot of renovations to the cabin, but those were just to make it our own. The homesteading work was all outside.
Growing season in south central Alaska typically is only from the very end of May until harvest begins in late August/ early September. No fall gardens for us. Summer temperatures occasionally reach into the 80’s and even 90’s, but that’s pretty rare. A typical hot day for us is in the mid-70’s, with an average summer day in the 60’s. An average of 14 inches of rain makes for more challenges for the garden. Our greenhouse is a must for growing tomatoes and peppers. What most people from the Lower 48 consider fall garden plants, broccoli, cabbage, kale, carrots, beets, cauliflower, zucchini, green beans, potatoes, and lettuce, flourish in our short seasons. Our harvest is canned or frozen in preparation for the long winter.
Challenges of Homestead Gardening in Alaska
At summer solstice, June 21st, we enjoy 21 hours of sunlight. (We have blackout shades in our bedroom.) This adds more challenges to our garden though. Cilantro and spinach bolt so fast, it is hard to get a harvest from them. Onions will grow, but you have to be sure to grow the correct long day varieties. The other challenge is knowing when to stop working in your garden and go to bed. Moose add more challenges. These 1,200 pound vegetarians think nothing of most fences and will either step right over or push through a fence if they think what is on the other side is worth it. Many prize cabbages have been lost to these huge garden pests.
We live in gardening zone 4, meaning our winters can and often reach -30 degrees F. Growing fruit is a science. We have to be very careful when selecting tree varieties to grow. Our young orchard consists of Honeycrisp and Goodland apple trees and Nanking and Evans Bali cherry trees. We also have raspberries, gooseberries, currants, Arctic kiwi (yes, kiwi!), and Haskap berries, a type of honeysuckle. The hubby started his own vineyard last summer, growing Frontenac grapes, a variety developed in Minnesota.
Salmon Fishing in Alaska Fills our Freezer
When we’re not working in the garden, we’re working to fill the freezer for winter. Open to Alaska residents only, subsistence dip netting is a way to catch a lot of Alaskan red salmon for the family. Every year, we head to one of the rivers that are open for dip-netting and catch 20 to 30 salmon, usually in a matter of hours. The dip nets are three to five feet nets on long poles. We stand on shore or wear chest waders and stand near shore and push the nets out into the water. The fish hit the net with a strong jolt and you pull the net back to shore. The hubby and I have a great system. He catches and I pull them out of the net and get them in the cooler. There’s nothing like fresh Alaskan salmon for dinner. We usually smoke and jar some of the salmon, which makes great, healthy snacks all year long. The rest is filleted and stored in the freezer.
Hunting season is relatively short. The month of September is dedicated to adding a moose and/ or caribou to the freezer. This usually involves quite a few days off the grid at our family’s hunting cabin, located further north towards interior Alaska. Both the hubby and I hunt. For us, part of homesteading in Alaska is eating organic and humanely raised food. Moose and caribou are about as organic and well-raised as you can get. While the steaks and roasts are added to the freezer and the stew meat is canned, the hubby has been perfecting his sausage making abilities for a couple years, and I am happy to act as taste tester.
We Enjoy Alaska Winter Activities
Winter time is when life slows down. The cabin does have a forced-air furnace, but heating oil costs are high in Alaska, so we supplement by using our two wood stoves as much as possible. Any “spare time” in the summer is spent gathering firewood for the long winter. Although we’ve had a few mild winters in the past couple of years, the great and powerful “They” are predicting a normal winter for us this year. This means several months with temperatures ranging from -10 to the mid-20’s and then several weeks of -20 to -30.
We’re all hoping for several feet of snow. Even with the cold temps, we have a blast outdoors in the winter. That’s time to break out the skis and snowboards, the snowshoes, and head for the hills on the snowmachines, or snow mobiles as they’re known in the lower 48 States. By winter solstice, December 21st, we will only have around 4 hours of daylight, but that doesn’t really slow us down.
Alaska is full of challenges. For many people who come here in search of a dream, it seems to be a place you either love or hate. I’ve heard of many people coming here to homestead and not lasting more than a year, the cold and dark just being too much. Then there are other stories, stories of homesteaders who have lived here since before Alaska was a state. The hubby and I love Alaska and everything it has to offer and we can’t imagine living anywhere else.
So, how about you – would you like to homestead in Alaska?
Homesteading in Alaska: Then and Now
A common phenomenon of the 1800’s, homesteading is virtually non-existent today. When a person claims to be “homesteading” now, he usually means he is trying to live more or less self-sufficiently on his own land. Although this feat was often a part of authentic homesteading, the original homesteaders were not trying to leave civilization behind but rather to create a new civilization of their own. Alaska, aptly known as “The Final Frontier,” was the last state to see these brave men and women carving homes out of the wilderness, and although homesteading as such is no longer legal, the state still offers a modern-day version to contemporary pioneers.
The History of Alaska Homesteading
Civilization spread to the western portions of the United States largely as a consequence of the Homestead Act of 1862. By this law, anyone who was at least 21 years old, who headed a household, or who was an immigrant seeking citizenship could stake a claim to 160 acres of land. If at the end of five years he had improved it by farming and building a house, he could take possession of it as his own private property. This Act did not include Alaska until 1898, and even when the territory was open to homesteading, there were no more than 200 claims by the start of World War I. However, World War II and the Vietnam War triggered a boom in Alaskan homesteading, but it lasted only a short time as this northwestern movement became subject to a legal termination. In 1976, Congress repealed the Homestead Act, allowing Alaska alone the privilege of an extension of ten years in which to grant land. Then, at the expiration of those ten years, the country saw the end of the homesteading period.
To obtain a homestead, only $18 were necessary, and the legal process was simple. After finding a portion of land, a prospective homesteader filed at a Land Office, paying a fee of only $10 and $2 for the land agent’s commission. He then held and worked the land for the requisite five years, and after that time, he claimed ownership. Two witnesses signed with him to prove that he had fulfilled his end of the homesteading contract, and $6 later, the government granted him a legal patent on the land.
A Current Alaska Homesteading Alternative
Homesteading as such no longer exists in Alaska. An alternative to this, however, is the State’s Remote Recreational Cabin Sites program. In brief, this program opens remote areas of state land to Alaskan residents for staking, leasing and then purchasing.
During specified periods of the year, potential purchasers file for a parcel of land, and after these periods, the State, by means of a lottery, grants the appropriate number of individuals permission to stake a site. These people have a limited time to make claims on specific parcels of land, and after doing so, each signs a lease with the State for a rent of $100 per year. This lease lasts for three years, and during this time the Department of Natural Resources surveys and appraises the land. At the expiration of the lease, the lessee can either purchase the land for the State-determined market value or extend the lease for another five years at the rate of $1000 per year. During this five-year period, purchase is still possible, but if the lease expires without the lessee taking advantage of his option to purchase, he forfeits the land entirely.
Sites are anywhere from 5 to 20 acres in size. They are available to anyone at least 18 years old who has been a resident of Alaska for a year at the time of application and who is in good financial standing with the State. These sites are remote and usually require some kind of special vehicle to access, such as a snow machine, a float plane or an all-terrain vehicle. During the leasing period, lessees may use land only recreationally, but once they purchase the property, they may reside permanently or use the land for commercial purposes. Unlike under the old homesteading laws, no requirement to build on the land exists.
Other Homesteading in Alaska Options
There are two other means by which Alaskans can acquire state land. The State offers parcels of land in what are known as Sealed-Bid Auctions, in which the State-determined market value price is the minimum bid. The other method is by Over-the-Counter sales, or the selling of land left unpurchased in an auction; this land sells at the minimum bid price with an additional handling fee to whomever first offers to buy it. Both means give the modern pioneer a piece of the frontier at a good value and the chance to begin homesteading in Alaska.
The original homesteaders shoveled and spaded the western United States into the civilized, cultivated land it is today. Their willingness to face the frontier and to turn wild land into homes and farms was heroic, and the task they set themselves is even yet not without a certain fascination. Although it is not possible to do exactly as they did, that is, to obtain land cheaply and earn the right of ownership by strenuous labor, a slight echo of the spirit of this still exists in Alaska. A person cannot be a homesteader in the historical sense, but he or she still can carve a piece out of the wilderness and shape it into a home.
Amanda Idlewild was born and raised in Alaska and can’t imagine living anywhere else. She and her husband, along with three dogs and an ever-fluctuating number of chickens and turkeys, are homesteading in south central Alaska. Follow their homestead journey at http://idlewildalaska.com