Wood Stove Installation Adventures…

What has become a regular occurrence – if two years can produce a ‘regular’ anything – my college friend Sarge flew into Anchorage the last day of September to spend 17 days. He was a regular partner on my many trips to ‘The Great Land’ from 1996 through 2005 and drove the 26’ U-Haul van from SE Michigan to Talkeetna when I relocated in August of 2013. As such he has seen most of what I’ve seen in this majestic state so his visits since I moved up here have centered upon project work. Each year I assemble a list of projects which either require another’s assistance or are beyond my skill set; as Sarge is extremely handy when it comes to so many things he can usually handle my requests. Being a self-employed design engineer he is well suited to taking my requests and developing a ‘fix’ as well as implementing said ‘fix’. Thus when I began making noise about wanting a wood stove in my humble abode he figured it wouldn’t be too major an undertaking.

In a perfect world such a project would most likely be a fairly straightforward proposal but as we all know this is anything but a perfect world and many aspects of this plan were under-rated simply out of ‘regional ignorance’. I had already picked out a compact wood burning stove at Moores’; the unit was ready such that the day after his arrival we drove to the store and picked up the stove. Initially things went well as we utilized the invaluable assistance of Shane at Moores’ along with Sarge’s skills to get the stove positioned and to get the hearth pieces cut and placed after which we did a more precise positioning of the stove. Then we went after the ancillary parts to pipe the exhaust from the stove through the exterior wall to the outside and run the piping to the second story roof. It was at this point things began to get ‘tense’.

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

I budgeted this effort at around $1400. Hah; I quickly learned I was virtually clueless regarding the requirements of installing a wood stove in Alaska. Because of the potential for cold temps the piping not just inside but all the way to the cap just above the second story roof line needed to be insulated double walled piping. Ouch, the price differential between just single wall piping and double wall insulated is huge! This blew my pricing guess-timates right out of the water as while six inch diameter single wall piping is maybe $30/3 feet the double wall insulated variety runs around $90/3 foot section. Then I discovered the costs of all the additional pieces like the thimble, exterior support and the ‘T’ were far more than I had anticipated. Within a matter of days I saw this project pushing $2,000 and then Murphy decided to lend his five cents.

We had hoped to buy a kit for all this ancillary stuff at Moores’; sadly they were out of stock and didn’t even have all the parts required in stock. We went on-line and found cheaper alternatives at Lowe’s but when we checked they showed out of stock at the Wasilla location and both Anchorage stores. We finally found a good deal through Amazon.com and placed the order on Sunday, October 4th. All week I monitored the order but there were no updates. In addition I sent two emails to the third party vendor inquiring as to shipping methods. As of Monday, October 12th Amazon.com sent me an email informing me they couldn’t verify anything about the order. I uttered a few choice words, emailed Amazon.com, canceled the order and sent in a blistering review regarding the customer service of the third party vendor.

Sarge and I then visited Moores’ and picked up most of the parts in the kit; the operand word here is ‘most’. They were short two critical pieces and wouldn’t have them until Friday at the earliest. This was far too late so we purchased the items they had, beat feet home and went on-line. Mr. Murphy must have been chortling because only the Lowe’s on the south side of Anchorage had what we needed! We loaded up and left around 11:30 in thick freezing fog which thankfully dispersed just north of Willow as the air temp climbed to 40°F. The long trip was uneventful and we found the Lowe’s and then discovered they had the complete kit at a substantial savings over purchasing the separate parts. We purchased the kit and the other part we needed, jumped in the Escape, stopped at Fred Meyer and Costco and eventually pulled into the driveway at 17:55. A long day but we were feeling good given we had all the parts.

Tuesday rolled around and so did the rain; initially just drizzle but strengthening to showers by daylight. Given most of the remaining work involved putting up the exhaust pipe from maybe five feet above the first floor all the way to just above the second story roof and a cut into said metal roof was required to allow the exhaust ‘stack’ to remain close to the exterior wall and thus supported we spent most of Tuesday awaiting a decrease in the rain. I took time off to fill in at KTNA for the noon newscast; when I returned Sarge had installed the exterior ‘T’, the stack support and one length of double wall insulated pipe as well. Only the increasing rain had stopped him from continuing on the exterior work. But the weather refused to cooperate and we had to be content working other projects indoors for the remainder of the day.

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Wednesday dawned mostly clear but some definite rain had occurred around 05:30 and everything was wet. As we awaited daylight the skies began to cloud up and weather radar showed showers moving in. I checked the NWS forecast and determined we’d be seeing rain by 11:00 which would probably last into the mid-afternoon. But the same forecast called for clearing overnight with continued clearing into Thursday morning yielding mostly sunny conditions with a high around 50°F. Given this we agreed to continue the outdoor work while it remained dry and managed to get three 36” lengths of the exhaust pipe mated, stabilized and sealed. This left us just two more pieces along with the cap but also still needing to cut the hole in the roof. We decided to switch off and finish some remaining projects while we awaited the forecast better conditions on Thursday. I was more than a bit concerned about doing so as I know how wrong weather forecasts can be up here but I also felt the safety factor was paramount and no one wants to work at the end of a 20’ ladder in rain while sporting an electrically driven ‘Saws-All’.

Thursday dawned partly cloudy and continued to improve with the sunshine slowly warming the air but also encouraging a light breeze. Not to be put off we visited Moores’ around noon and rented a 24’ fiberglass ladder which we hauled back to my place and set up. It took Sarge two and a half hours to extend the exhaust pipe, cut a clean hole through the wood and metal roof, add the final piece of exhaust pipe, place the stabilizing ‘apron’ over the pipe and add the cap. Then it was time to return the ladder and finish up some final sealing and cosmetic work in the house. By this point we were tired and agreed to wait until Friday morning to install the fire bricks inside the stove and test the whole thing.

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Friday was damp and drizzling so we definitely guessed right regarding the day to do the exterior work! The jigsaw puzzle that was installing the fire brick required a bit of thought but we soon had it ready to go. I assembled a small fire and attempted to draft the unit. Because it has ‘heat-a-lator’ piping in place there is no single large opening to the exhaust piping; this made trying to draft the set up difficult. I thought I had it and lit the fire; within a minute the main floor was awash in smoke! Thankfully I found my heat gun, cranked it up to ‘high’ and started heating the top interior of the stove. Within four or five minutes I had an upward flowing draft and could re-light the fire which this time drafted properly. It was a fitting end to see smoke slowly curling out of the chimney above the second floor roof line!

The finished product ready for use!

The finished product ready for use!

So now I have something I’ve wanted since I first moved in; a full functional wood stove! This will cut down on fuel oil costs and also draw out the place in winter; in addition I will have reliable back up heating system should the power fail and the generator run out of gas. My next chore is to locate a local source of seasoned firewood and get it delivered…

Moose, Bears, Dogs & Fall

The continuing run of mostly clear days followed by clear nights has definitely played a major role in dropping the 24 hour average temperatures across the past couple of weeks. This was best illustrated with this morning’s low of 5.2 F under clear skies; this is actually a bit lower than Talkeetna’s average January low temp of 6.0 F. Yesterday’s mean temp was a cool 16.9 F which is a value I’d expect to see in December. Of course the continually shortening days are playing their part as well; today we’ll just eight hours and thirty five minutes of direct sunlight which is a decrease of five minutes and fifty seconds from yesterday. All this is combining to bring a real feel of winter to south central Alaska even though calendar winter doesn’t begin for fifty three days.

With the cooler weather I’ve finished up all my preparations for winter and now eagerly await the snow and real cold. On these cool October mornings I can really feel winter in the air and I’m not the only one. My Alaskan Malamute, Anana, once again has a real spring in her step and is beginning to wander further afield requiring more consistent vigilance on my part when we’re outdoors. I’ve seen her exhibit this trait more strongly with the advent of cold; she is without question true to her breed. I do remain a bit concerned about my German Shepherd Dog, Qanuk, who lives to run and be outdoors; so much so he will forgo coming inside when his paws are beginning to suffer from the cold and snow. Last season he bled from all four paws and I quickly learned I had to limit his outdoor activity based upon the air temp. Poor guy struggled across all of April to beat back the infection and heal the area between his pads. Then, in early July, the condition struck again requiring a vet visit and much more drastic steps to finally kill the infection and heal his paws. I have booties of the kind used by the local dog teams and when the snow begins I will try to get him to wear them. I plan to let him outside, tether him to a corner pole on the front porch, ‘suit him up’ and then take him out for a long run. I’m hoping he’ll build the association between putting on the booties – I already know he will hate wearing them – and getting a good run in the cold and snow. The things we do for our four legged companions..!

Qanuk and Anana getting tough in the back yard; although they can really mix it up they are the best of friends

Qanuk and Anana getting tough in the back yard; although they can really mix it up they are the best of friends

A welcome change across the past couple of weeks has been a sudden resurgence in the local moose; I believe I counted just three sightings across May through September which was extremely low. Last year I saw at least ten moose from just August through October and a pair were in my yard. In addition although we saw moose in the boreal forest at least once a week during our 2013 walks this year I’ve seen a moose just once and that was the one Anana irritated and consequently had to run for dear life. Across the last three weeks in October I’ve sighted five moose including this guy awaiting his chance to cross ‘the Spur’ a few miles south of my street. When he realized I had stopped and was taking pictures he ambled across the road and into the forest.

Young bull moose patiently waiting his turn to cross the Spur around 10 miles south of talkeetna

Young bull moose patiently waiting his turn to cross the Spur around 10 miles south of Talkeetna

Bear sightings have been off as well this year; to this point in 2014 I’ve seen just two grizzlies and a black bear. To this point I’ve read only one ‘bear alert’ for Talkeetna on my Friday evening KTNA newscast and that was in the spring. Even the bear sign has been more dispersed and fewer in number. I suspect weather plays a role and given the locals tell me this year’s crop of tourists was by far the most they’ve ever seen I suspect this might be influencing the wildlife living and foraging patterns as well. I certainly hope this is not the beginning of a trend as while I have great respect for all the local wildlife I also take immense joy from just observing it from a safe distance and seeing signs that it’s around the immediate area. For me Alaska just wouldn’t be Alaska without the large ungulates and bruins.

Reflections On A Year Past…

As we are just starting the second day of a new year I find it’s no surprise I’m reflecting back upon the past year and without question the focus of my reflections have been my successful relocation to south central Alaska and subsequent efforts at settling in.  I have already experienced my first Winter Solstice in ‘The Great Land’ as well as my first Christmas and New Years; I’ve tasted -24 F air temps on numerous occasions and expect to experience temps below -30 F before the winter is over.  I continue to accumulate important lessons day in and day out as I learn to not just survive but to thrive in my new home.  Talkeetna is perfect for me; the locals are a quirky mix of lifestyles, beliefs and economic statures but eminently tolerant of other viewpoints and share a deep belief in the importance of humor.  I mean where else can you find a town of 700+ year round residents that has a cat for a mayor..?  Mr Stubbs has held this position for at 16 years and does actually attend town meetings.  These people are as genuine as the day (or night depending upon the season…) is long and always ready to be of assistance if needed.  I’ve written much regarding the environmental conditions; I do love the cold and snow and look forward to a lot more of both before ‘the break up’ which is Alaskan for ‘spring’.

But I thought it might be some fun to look at some key learnings I’ve developed over the past four plus months; things that really reflect living in rural south central Alaska.  So it’s from this perspective I look back on my first five months of living at Mile 7.1 of the Spur:

  • As we’re now into winter I think some lessons learned regarding Talkeetna winters are in order.  Although I did have respect for the cold up here I also had bad habits from the lower 48 which are quickly being erased sometimes rather painfully.  In SE Michigan it was no big deal to run out to the store in a snowfall event wearing minimal outdoor gear and sometimes wearing only tennis shoes.  Hah, such times are now history for me as to run to the store nowadays means wearing full winter gear including insulated boots and insuring I have my ‘survival kit’ in the cargo portion of the Escape as well.  While sliding off the road in Michigan could be an inconvenience up here it could be a death sentence based upon your location and your level of preparedness.  Even when just venturing out to start the car so it can defrost and be ready to go I wear stout outdoor clothing and especially gloves.  I learned the hard way that just a minute of two of scraping windows with the ice scraper and bare hands when its -17 F leads to very painful hands!!
  • When it does snow if I’m not planning to go anywhere for a few days I’ll leave the car covered with snow.  This prevents the cold overnight temps from building up a thick layer of ice on the glass surfaces due to radiational cooling.  Of course this means when I do plan to use the car I need a bit more time to broom off the snow but it’s much easier than fighting to clear ice when it -15 F or colder.
  • Once it gets below -15 F outside and stays that way for at least a day or more any metal protruding into the house which is tied to metal on the exterior of the house will begin to form layers of frost.  I keep my place in the 58 F to 61 F temperature range but this has no effect it stopping the slow but relentless build up of frost layers on exterior door hinges, door latches and window cranks.  The robustness of the frost build up is proportional to the temperature but more importantly to the duration of time the temperature has been below -15 F.
  • How cold it feels outdoors is of course related to the temperature but it also seems influenced by the amount of time its been cold outdoors.  I’m not sure why this is but I have experienced it numerous times now; -20 F will feel quite cool when I let the dogs out first thing in the morning after we’ve seen temps around 0 F.  But the third morning its -20 F and I do the same it feels much colder just as based on the aforementioned there’s much more frost on interior metal objects linked to exterior surfaces.  Just spending ten minutes outside after its never risen above -12 F for 48 or more hours feels much colder than the first morning it’s dropped to -18 F.
  • I can easily handle -22 F air temps when properly dressed as long as there’s no wind.  However, add just a 2 to 4 mph breeze to an air temp of -17 F and I’d better have all exposed flesh covered or I’m going to have a problem within just a few minutes.
  • Layering is THE way to deal with Alaskan cold!  I’ve been fine at any of the low temps I’ve experienced thus far wearing only a wind proof/rain resistant synthetic rain parka as my exterior layer; underneath this I’m wearing heavy sweat pants, thick Carhartt wool/synthetic mix socks, a long sleeve tee-shirt and a fleece vest along with poly pro glove liners, gloves and insulated boots.  I can always add thermal underwear when it gets  really cold and if I do start to get too warm from exercise its always possible to modify clothing openings or even shed a layer.
  • The one windshield ‘star’ on the passenger side – courtesy of a maintenance truck in Saskatchewan – finally grew a low-level but almost windshield length crack.  It was -18 F and I was rushing to get into KTNA for a substitute newscast so I had the defroster set at 80 F and the fan to max.  The Spur was not in great shape with many rough icy patches and as I navigated one I saw a crack grow from the center of the star and slowly grow across the lower quarter of the windshield towards the driver’s side.  Apparently a combination of the extreme temp differences inside to outside and the uneven motion of the vehicle was too much for the already damaged glass.  After speaking with Holly I learned its best to just deal with the crack until fall and then have it replaced; most windshield chips and ‘stars’ occur during the summer months with the increased traffic and construction work.  Therefore it does make sense to hold off on replacing the windshield until after construction season; Holly suggested late September.
  • Moving ahead with more ‘generic’ learnings – Forget about addresses to indicate where you live; this place may be 15158 East Barge Drive, Talkeetna, AK but to the locals its transitioning from ‘Dan & Erica Valentine’s place’ to ‘that place owned by the big bald guy with the two big dogs’.  Hey, it works for me!  No one gives you a number address once you’re out of the town itself; you tell folks you live ‘just past the curve on Joan Street’ or ‘at the top of the hill on East Barge Drive’ and that’s good enough.  I know from experience it does make it hell for the delivery people unless they have a long duration experience of finding residential locations in this area.
  • I learned last fall I will not be able to wear shorts and short-sleeved tee shirts when the spring finally arrives; at least not once the biting insects make their appearance.  I remember wondering during my first few trips up here why the locals always wore long sleeves and long pants; now I know!  Wearing these coupled with your insect repellent of choice – I have four ‘natural’ formulations I’ll be trying come insect season but to this point rubbing a dryer sheet on my clothing worked best last year – at least gives you a chance to forgo losing a pint of blood every time you spend more than ten minutes outdoors.
  • There’s a rhythm to rural life that one slowly discovers with the passage of time and is indelibly linked to one’s one lifestyle.  At this point mine is anchored around my newscasts at KTNA and the need to replenish my grocery situation once every three to four weeks.  The latter grows out of the fact Talkeetna lacks any amount or variety of goods and services; one of its biggest improvements came a few years back when Cubby’s Market opened at the ‘Y’ (Talkeetna talk for the junction of the Spur and Parks Highway) .  While it’s barely larger than most convenience stores in the lower 48 it does provide important grocery items rather than just junk food.  In fact, I’m told people drive all the way from Anchorage to buy their meat as it is truly delicious and handled with care.  This is important because the next true grocery stores (Fred Meyer, Carrs) are 60+ miles to the south in Wasilla.  As such one wouldn’t want to be making this 120+ mile round trip more than once a month if possible and that’s really true come winter when the Parks Highway can be a real mess of ice and snow.
  • My newscasts anchor the times I visit the Talkeetna PO which is just up the Spur from the station’s building on Second Street; although my drive in is just a bit over seven miles its much more convenient to leave for the station a bit earlier so I can stop by the PO, check for mail and packages and then proceed on into the station.
  • My two canine pals are pushing me to get into better shape through regular walking; they hunger for that daily opportunity to head out regardless of the weather and explore the area around their new home.  The longer we take on these walks the more they expect; when I first started walking with them I could barely handle 30 minutes because I was a ‘flat-lander’ and nothing is flat up here.  Before the real cold came on I was up to 70 to 80 minutes of continual walking and even making at least three trips up and down Bonanza Hill (aka ‘Exercise Hill’ to the locals) during any given week.  I need this and more; I’ve been forced to shorten the duration of our walks when the temps are in single digits or cooler because Qanuk’s pads do not handle the real cold well at all.  I’ve ordered an insulated set of dog booties for him; I see the dog teams that mush this area use them and that’s a good enough recco for me.
  • Without question the extended darkness has had no observable effect upon my perspectives or outlooks; in fact I can see no issues whatsoever with the longer nights.  I also suspect this will not be the case with the June through August period when it’s almost continually light; thank goodness for light blocking drapes!
  • Although we are just 12 days since the Winter Solstice I can already see the beginnings of the dawn occurring a few minutes sooner than back around the solstice.  Yes, one has to be looking for the shift as well as be a ‘sky watcher’ but it is indeed already evident.

These are just a few of the myriad of learnings I’ve embraced in my first five months of living in rural south central Alaska; I know I have many, many more coming my way.  For whatever reason I actually enjoy the prospect of continued learning as I’m finding the whole rural lifestyle is something that at this point in my life is indeed very near and dear to my heart.  I’m finally beginning to feel like an Alaskan in general and a Talkeetna ‘local’ in particular.  I look back on the decades spent living in the urban lower 48 and wonder how I managed to do so as now so very much of that lifestyle seems slightly insane.  Why would I live someplace with terrible noise pollution which daily intrudes into even a closed up house, why would I live someplace where traffic and congestion can make a five-mile drive require twenty minutes, why would I live someplace with dirty air and light pollution so severe one can see just a handful of stars even on a clear night, why would I live someplace where ‘wildlife’ means squirrels, sparrows and raccoons and why would I life someplace where the people are introverted and treat strangers with initial distrust???  No, I think I’ll take rural south central Alaska, thank you very much..!

Qanuk & His ‘Ice Beard’

Qanuk & His 'Ice Beard'

My German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) was a bit peeved that I forced him to sit still for even just the 20 seconds it required for me to get an image of his ‘ice beard’. We’d been walking for maybe 15 minutes and heading back home to hold the total walk to less than 40 minutes as it was -12.7 F. Because Qanuk is extremely active even in these temps he has to pant heavily from his exertions and due to the relative cold, dry nature of the atmosphere his exhalations quickly freeze around his muzzle