Wilder by Far

A look at life with the Wilder family. Updated most weekends and some vacation days. You can contact me at movingnorth@gmail.com..

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Location: United States

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Quest For Fire

Alaska is cold. I know that's a lot like saying water is wet, but, no real other place to start the post. Alaska is cold.

There are various choices that one can make when one desires that luxury, heat, but in the end, they all end up with a fire somewhere. You can have a fire elsewhere (electric heat) or you can have a fire at home (wood, oil). There has to be a fire.

So, oil (actually kerosene in this case) heat is easy. A nice man comes with nice kerosene, puts it into a tank, and the tank is connected to the fire making device in your house. It comes on automatically when the temperature at a specific spot reaches a predefined minimum. All you have to do is, well, pay the nice man. You don't even have to be there: your house can be warm without you. What could be easier?

Well, oil heat can be expensive. And, in my house we have a forced-air system, which really doesn't make the house warm. It makes it tolerable (in the sense that you are not in active physical danger of death by frostbite), but not deep down warm. We also have an Earth Stove, (motto: made by hippies, for hippies) in the house. Despite its name, the Earth Stove does not run on earth, but on actual wood. The Earth Stove has the benefit of creating real warmth in the house. There were times when it was -30F outside, and the Earth Stove made it so warm that we had to open the door to the garage to find a place to dump the heat the thing was putting off.

So, for our house at least, using some oil but a lot of wood makes sense.

We moved here in winter, so we didn't have that mythical time (summer) to get a bunch of wood cut and blocked. Purchasing wood in February in Alaska is a lot like trying to get tickets to the Super Bowl in the middle of the third quarter - it's all spoken for, and you're outside looking in anyway. Fortunately, the previous owner had a small amount of wood cut and ready to go. We started using that, and for the first time felt really warm (not constantly shivering) in the house.

But, the amount of wood was small, enough for two weeks or so.

Fortunately, there was more wood, but it was in the form of long (~10') poles, stacked in a triangular pile. That was good, so we could be warmer, longer. That meant I had a good reason to go and get a chainsaw. Chainsaws are neat. They're essentially a long, metal blade (in this case, 14") that have a chain that runs around them in a groove. The chain is whipped around the blade at about 1,569 feet per second. The chain has little knives on it, and the whole assembly, if first invented today, would be a lawyer's product liability dream. I have no idea if the chainsaw is ASTM approved.

So, wrapped up in my jacket, gloves, boots, and coveralls, I tromped out in -20 weather and began cutting the wood. Several things became immediately apparent:
  • Chainsaws are fun.
  • The pile of wood underfoot quickly becomes an unstable hazard, but a "Scooby Doo run" can save you from falling.
  • Chainsaws are not designed to operate reliably at -20F.
After about twenty minutes of sawing, the chain froze solid to the blade. I went in and got a cup of really hot water, and thawed the blade. Then, in reassembling the saw, I must have tripped the blade guard, so, in fixing that, the entire blade had sufficient time to freeze again. At this point, since I had been working on the whole thing outside and my fingers had decided that they weren't designed to operated reliably at -20F either, I decided to go inside and warm up.

I took the blade of the chainsaw and put it against the stove top to warm it up, and that appeared to work pretty well, as it made a satisfactory hissing noise as the ice turned to water and melted off. Couldn't do that with my fingers (well, I could have, but the Mrs. doesn't like the smell of charred flesh in the house), so I ran them under some warm water. Enough feeling (pain) returned that I felt that I could go on. Back outside, to cut some more.

Soon enough, the saw stopped cutting, mostly. I opened the chain oil tank (chainsaw chains must be continually lubricated, or they become as useful as a pink plastic picnic fork at cutting wood) and saw that the chain oil had attained the consistency of nearly dried glue. Enough wood cutting for the day, since my toes had by that time attained the consistency of cocktail wieners in the freezer. The saw and I were both done.

As I write this, I note that the temperature today is up to 0F, and is supposed to be up to 29F sometime next week. A heat wave!


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