Sealing the caps on the jugs, I adjusted my gloves, bent down and readied myself for the walk back. I had walked the 300 yards or so from my cabin to the river in order to get water for the coming week. Walking back to the cabin, I made a couple stops, unable to move continuously with the forty pounds of water in each hand. As I entered my cabin, placing the jugs next to the kitchen counter, I wondered if this was worth it. It was only October, but already I was battling ice pans and sub-zero temperatures to get my supply. What would mid-winter be like? If I was dissatisfied now, how would that change when battling solid ice and temperatures of forty below? It was then that I decided to take action.
Sourcing water in Alaska is one of the primary concerns among its rural residents. Historically, the native peoples were nomadic so obtaining water was never a real concern in the months when it was flowing, and they would melt snow in the months it was frozen. The same was largely true for the gold miners. Occasionally, there would be someone who cut a hole in the ice in the winter, sourcing water from a river, creek or lake.
Wiseman’s location along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River is advantageous to its residents for water access. Not for obtaining what flows on the surface, but what flows below. In most of Northern Alaska, residents are inhibited from drilling water wells by permafrost that exists as close as a few inches from the surface of the ground. But with Wiseman being so close to the river, its underlying surface remains unfrozen, due to the presence of flowing water. A hydrologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks that studied in the area found that 95% of the water flowing through the valley flowed beneath the surface.
Without the frozen ground, modern residents of Wiseman have taken to drilling wells beneath their cabins. Tired of hauling water, I decided to do the same. I removed the cribbing from the root cellar and began digging. Within a few hours, I encountered frozen ground. Without anyone living in the cabin full time in well over a decade, the ground beneath had turned into permafrost. So began, the process of thawing, chipping and hammering away at the gravel as my neighbor Leo and I dug further within. 10 days later, the hole stretched 9.5 feet beneath the cabin’s floor and the well casing extended another 8 feet beyond that. The pitcher pump was attached to the top and after much prodding and brute encouragement, produced murky water. Within a few weeks, the silt had settled and I had clear, cold water, available on demand beneath my floor.
Snow melted away and summer returned, with it the passage of water once more. Over the winter I had tired of using the pitcher pump. The PVC pipe I attached below didn’t make a proper seal, so pumping water took longer than it otherwise should have. I returned to fetching water from outside the cabin, not at the river but from the spring that ran at the edge of the yard. Getting water was no longer a chore, but a chance to head outside, enjoy sunshine and listen to the birds. With the arrival of winter, I sourced a design from Leo that will allow me to use my pitcher pump above the floor. Gone are the days of filling up jugs below, but now at my kitchen counter I truly have water on demand. For now this process seems to work well, but who knows what the future holds. As the Zen master says, before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.