Growing up in Southwest Colorado, I was always aware that water was something precious. I regularly read of battles over water rights and catching rainwater from your gutters was a “no-no.” Even still, I could always flip the lever on the faucet and a beautiful stream of clean water would come pouring out. You could say that I took water for granted.
Upon moving to our new homestead, I can now say that I will NEVER take water for granted. The battle for winter water has been an eye-opening and enlightening experience. I say winter water, because summer water is actually relatively easy to acquire. We don’t live in a desert, and you can hit water just 15 feet below the surface of our land. To get the best water, we went a bit deeper to 40 feet, but still, water is accessible. Now, throw consistent freezing temperatures into the mix and that water is no longer quite as easy.
Many people in our community live without running water in dry cabins. It’s a completely normal way of life, and there are many laundromats with showers throughout Fairbanks for your water needs. And truthfully, without 45 sled dogs, I wouldn’t mind living in a dry cabin. You never feel more alive than when using an outhouse at -40F. But when you have 45 sled dogs to feed and keep watered, hauling water is no longer so simple. And so began our quest for off-grid winter water.
Almost exactly two years ago, we pounded our own well. First we had a neighbor dig a starter hole with their backhoe. Then we put one section of casing into the starter hole and proceeded to fill the hole back in with the help of more friends. It was a beautiful fall day for shoveling gravel.
Then we began the process of pounding the well deeper. (Middle October with snow on the ground is a perfect time for pounding a well…insert sarcasm). I included a short video from the archive that showed our well-pounding process. With the help of an old well-pounder contraption from our neighbor’s backyard, pipe casing from another neighbor’s yard, the assistance of a couple friends, and a rented welder and air compressor- we had a well!
Ok great, so we have a well producing delicious, fresh water onto the frozen earth of an October Alaska. The following year, we built the cabin, dug a trench, and ran a pipe up into our cabin. Everything worked wonderfully as long as the temperatures didn’t drop below freezing. With winter quickly approaching, we had a few different options:
1- Bury the pipe deep into the ground in the hopes it won’t freeze. This sounds great, except that odds are it will freeze. If it does freeze, we won’t be able to access it until the following spring since it’s buried.
2- Leave the trench open and drain the pipe after every use. Hope that the water pump and pipe don’t freeze, but if they do, we have access to them.
3- Bury the pipe with heat tape (which many private-well users have installed), so that the heat tape keeps the pipe warm and prevents freezing. Many private-well users have the heat tape on a timer. Unfortunately, heat tape requires electricity, which we didn’t have until recently.
Last year, we went with Option #2. We left the trench open and drained the pipe after each use. This worked swimmingly until one day we had a slight mix-up and the trench flooded, sending water and debri down the well casing, freezing the water pump, and preventing any work on the well until the spring when everything thawed out. (Ironically this happened the day after I made a social media post about how thankful I was to have water…) And so from February until April of 2019, we hauled water from the Chena River. We’d strap water buckets to a sigglin sled pulled by the snowmachine, then fill the buckets from a hole in the river. We’d heat two buckets at a time on our wood stove for hot water for the dogs. This method worked but was time consuming and definitely not how we wanted to acquire water every winter for the rest of our lives.
This year, since we now have reliable power from our battery bank, solar panels, and generator, we’re going with option #3! Our neighbor, Ed, dug a trench approximately nine feet deep for the pipe that runs between the well and the house. We’d hoped to go slightly deeper, but the ground is comprised of gravel, and the trench continually sloughed in on itself. Derek placed the pipe, attached heat tape, and welded it into the casing. With any luck, we’ll have reliable water all winter long!!