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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Remote Alaska Living

August 2020

Outhouse vs. Toilets

When we moved to Alaska, we had no running water for four, or perhaps it was seven, years. We had a hand pump on the deck outside. Fifteen gallons of water usually did us for three days. We took showers and did our laundry at a friend’s place.  We had a #3 galvanized tub for baths in the kitchen. Oh that remote Alaska living!

When visiting someone’s home in rural Alaska, be sure to ask what the toilet rules are. Every house is different. I should have posted the following rules by the entrance door, but never got around to it.

Here are the Toilet Rules I never posted.

  1. There is no toilet.
  2. Pee in the woods. In summer do this well away from the cabin. When the snow is two feet deep, there will be a honey bucket in the pump house or by the shower the house. Ask. Women, pee paper goes in the woodstove in the living room.
  3. Shit only in the outhouse. Put paper in there. The outhouse is about 150 feet down the old bear trail. (Someone told me there is no such thing as an "old" bear trail, so keep your eyes open.) Access this trail from the front of the house between the two main sets of garden boxes. 

One autumn day, Gladys and her husband visited. Keep in mind that Gladys was born about 1940 and was Eskimo, but she always said she was “Eskeemo” with a bit of a hand flourish to brush away the proper term, Yupik. After a bit, perhaps a cup of tea or two, she asked where the toilet was.

“Gladys, we don’t have a toilet.”

Astonished, she stood up and said, “What?! Even Eskeemos have flush toilets!”

After living here for fourteen years, I was about to have knee surgery. The orthopedic surgeon said there would be no problem walking 150 feet to the outhouse. I wonder if he knew that I’d have to cross many a tree root. I didn’t have to. My husband decided that, after fourteen years here, it was time for the luxury of an indoor toilet.

Aurora ó 28-29 November 2000 Tuesday night-Wednesday morning.

I’ve seen a number of unusual and memorable auroras across my years in Maine and Alaska. I have seen two where the entire sky turns red. There is no motion, just an entire red sky. Supposedly, you’re lucky to see one of these in a lifetime.

This particular night did not have a red one, but the aurora lasted from at least 7:00 p.m. till dawn, gone by 7:00 a.m. as the light crept into the sky. It was one of the more unusual ones I've ever seen. Pale red to a deep rose, and pale to brilliant blue, and white. Most unusual were huge white arcs in the south and throughout the sky, some of them 180 degrees, others slightly less, shaped like rainbows but solid in color. The one in the south stayed for about an hour, rising away from the horizon but maintaining its form with no movement or change. Then another event occurred when circles of color appeared suddenly then vanished gradually—white, red, or blue, but each of just one color. Arcs and circles appeared and disappeared all over the sky.

When I arrived at the beach, I could see the islands one to seven miles to the south and all of Excursion Ridge five miles to the east, the Bear Track Mountains about 20 miles to the north. I stood there for over an hour, watching, listening, feeling. After a while I realized I could still hear the waves but could not see even the high tide line so thick was the fog as I stood about 50 to 100 feet from the water’s edge. I had a large circle of clear sky above me but had lost the horizon.

Since it was a night of full sky aurora, I left and drove to nearby Glacier Bay National Park, to the open muskeg area at its beginning to watch from there, again for an hour. The circles of aurora were there also—so strange, now blue or red but no white.  At one point a blue mass appeared over the mountains in the north, then rose vertically to a short auroral curtain as if it were a drawn line outlining the shape of a huge mountain range. The blue looked like a chart line of x100 acceleration across a month on the daily chart, then leveled to a x1, a flat line, for at least 20 weeks but with up and down dips that made it look like the outline of a mountain range. It also looked remarkably like my son’s fetal kick chart from 1970. The spread of the blue aurora at the top was about 100 horizontal degrees above the horizon. Since I only had on a fleece jacket and had been out for two hours, I decided I had to head home. I crawled in bed and the whole zenith was red, no shapes, just another red veil.  I fell asleep with my head at the foot of the bed in order to look out the window at the deep rose colored sky. Periodically, I awoke to glance out—yes, it's still active.  Amazing night. I've seen the aurora 50 to 100 times. Of course, each time is amazing, but that night was an unusual one—a steady rainbow arc in one color, perfect circles that appeared whole and disappeared, a blue aurora as scientific as a line on a chart or graph. All in one night. If I had not written the descriptions shortly after they came, I’d not have believed it myself. I saw only three vibrations in two hours; I may have missed a couple but it was not a night of fast movement. That itself is unusual. Such slow changes to the shapes and colors that I had to turn away and look back to see the change.

A Moment of Moose

On our usual 5-mile morning walk, the dogs and I went from our house into Glacier Bay National Park. On this cold, sunny winter, snow and ice surrounded. After a mile and a half, I saw a moose a few hundred feet away, inconspicuous against a copse of spruce. She was not a young one and had a very dark coat, almost black. I’d seen her around for several winters now, which is why I assumed her a female. I never saw a rack on her and she had not been shot, big and obvious as she was. She looked at us. We stopped and shared the mutual stare. She looked to the north, to the south, to us east of her. I could see her contemplate which way to run. I decided if it was towards us, I was releasing the dogs, probably dragging their leashes. The park could ticket me and I’d pay the fine, but I was not going to stand there with two dogs and let them drag me while the moose caught up and trampled the three of us. What relief I felt when she turned and ran to the north across the frozen muskeg towards the forest edge a mile away. At this northern edge, 16 other moose stood in a most unusual herd. They watched her come, then shared her alarm and began to run. A herd of 2,000-pound animals. Please, I thought, do not turn to the south. Please keep heading east.

The dogs and I froze almost as solid as the ice. We heard their feet land, crunch the ice, but worse, we felt this over 30,000 pounds, these 15 tons of wild moose stomp and rebound through the earth. We felt the vibrations first in our feet and then reverberate through our bodies. Seeing them running parallel to us, I lost my fear, yet all I could do was watch. Watch this miracle of nature run and resound in my ears, feet, and body.

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