No Plumbing? No Problem – Dry Cabin Living In Alaska
I think Alaska must have more baby wipe sales per capita than any other state. It’s not because we have more babies. It’s because many Alaskans live in “dry cabins”, without running water or indoor plumbing. According to the Alaska Dispatch, about 9,000 buildings in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are dry. Some of these are only used as weekend ski retreats or storage buildings, but many of them are full-time residences.
Dry Cabin Living
This winter, we’re living the dry cabin lifestyle. The first piece of advice I heard, from a friend who rents a dry cabin in Fairbanks, was “get baby wipes”. When I looked puzzled, she gestured to the large “refill” bag of Huggies on her kitchen counter and said, “Get them. Lots of them. Because otherwise…” and she wrinkled her nose. This sentiment was repeated to us several times throughout the fall, and by November we had duly purchased a large bag of “Comforts for Baby” from Costco. We prefer to call them “moist towelettes”, despite the pictures of babies laughing at us on the package. I can’t help but wonder what Alaskans used before these wipes became available to them.
Why Go Dry?
Why would anyone trade hot showers for baby-wipe-baths? In a cold climate, it makes sense. Indoor plumbing doesn’t work too well in the depths of winter, when our region can see temperatures dropping to negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s too easy for the pipes to freeze, even when they’re placed underground. It ends up being a lot less hassel to just haul the water you need from an artesian well. Several of our neighbors are lucky enough to have their own well on property. We fill up our water jugs at Sheep Mountain Lodge, 1.5 miles down the road.
Gallons A Day
Another reason to live dry is that it makes you conscious of your water consumption. Have you ever tried to calculate how much water you use? It can be shocking, especially when you take into consideration the kind of climate where you live. When I was on my bike tour last fall in the dry deserts of eastern Oregon, and had to haul my daily water supply by bicycle, it made flush toilets seem completely out of place.
Water is used for nearly every aspect of living, and the baby wipes and outhouse only let us cheat a little. Dry cabin living is not just about keeping yourself clean: It’s about keeping dishes, clothes, bedding, and kitchen countertops clean, not to mention cooking and drinking. You’ll never realize just how much water you use until each portion is measured from a six gallon jug. The average American uses up to 176 gallons of water per day. This winter, we’re living way below average. I’d say our daily consumption is more like the average water use in Africa: 5 gallons per day.
It only makes sense that we have an outhouse. Toilets can use anywhere from 1 to 6 gallons of water per flush, which is a shocking thing to ponder while hefting a 6 gallon jug of water. No flushing toilets or hot water sinks for us! Our bathroom is outside, about 30 feet away from our front door. When it’s negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it seems a bit farther away. Thankfully our outhouse seat has a thick cushion of insulating foam, and it’s possible to sit there and contemplate the winter wonderland in front of you without freezing your fanny. Unfortunately, when it’s windy there is a bit of an icy updraft from the pit below. Only in strong winds is our outhouse uncomfortable: otherwise it’s a peaceful communion with nature. And, it saves us from hauling gallons and gallons of water down the road. In one week, the two of us only use about 30 gallons of water (roughly the equivalent of 6 toilet flushes).
We’re fortunate to have a deal going with Sheep Mountain Lodge. Once every week we trek up the road for a mile and a half to refill our blue water jugs from the spigot in the lodge parking lot. At the lodge, we have deliciously hot showers and, once every two weeks, do our laundry. It’s cause for celebration. In return, we spend a weekend or two care-taking the lodge this winter. It’s a pretty sweet deal.