Logistics of Life on the Kuskokwim
Thinking you’d like to visit our community, or even live here? It can be an overwhelming affair until you get settled. Life at Round River can be vastly different from what most folk are accustomed to, so here is some information on how we live.
There are no roads here. During the warm season, the only reasonable means of travel is via river boat. Each year, usually late April or early May, the ice on the river breaks up and it becomes safe for travel. McGrath, our nearest village, is ~60 miles downriver. Traveling there by boat in 2016 cost us $90-130 per trip in fuel. Cost varies based on gas prices ($6.14/gallon as of october 2016), the size and efficiency of your boat motor, and how much weight each boat carries. About mid October, the river begins to freeze. By then we have pulled our boats out of the river and up onto the bank for the winter, and travel becomes impossible until we have good snow cover and safely frozen waterways. At that point (sometimes in December, other times as late as January) we travel by snowmachine, and follow a short trail that we maintain until it meets up with the Iditarod trail. McGrath is only 37 miles away by this route.
It’s also possible to land a plane on the lake - either a float plane in summer or a plane on skis in winter. This is a good option for bringing in a large amount of goods/supplies - some planes can carry 5,500 lbs at a time. Cost to charter a plane varies widely depending on weight.
We live in a trackless forest. There are no roads here, and the only trail is one folks have created over many years of use. It’s wide enough for a four wheeler or snowmachine, and it’s Bumpy. This forest is thick and ancient, and there are large roots and stumps both young and old beneath the soil everywhere here. Many people stumble on their first visit. It’s helpful to have experience enough on rough terrain to be comfortable walking on very uneven ground, on ice, waterlogged silt, and on snow. It’s also important to be able to do these things while watching the forest - keeping an eye out for any new deadfalls or overhanging limbs that may need to be cut, and watching for sign of other animals, especially moose and bear, as they can be dangerous if they feel threatened. Aside from the main path, which stretches from the river in the west to Andrew’s cabin at the lakeshore in the east, all other ‘trails’ are made by the moose. If you hope to build here, you should expect to be breaking trail and doing a significant amount of clearing first. Of course, every tree felled can become either building material or firewood in time.
We are a community, and we support each other as neighbors, but as we are only four people (with two households still building infrastructure), we can’t yet offer the easy welcome we’d prefer. We hope to one day have several 3-season cabins available for folks to stay in short term, enough food to feed people through their first season, and enough free time to help each new family build their home. For now, only one of us has a cabin large enough to accommodate visitors, we sometimes have extra food, and are able to offer each other help when it’s needed, but not necessarily every day or even most days of the week. With that in mind, you should expect to camp when you arrive.
Have you ever slept in a forest that you knew was home to grizzly bears? Here we have grizzlies, black bears, wolves, and moose - which can be more aggressive than the bears in certain situations. Camping here requires that you store your food in a separate cache safely away from the reach of nearby critters. It’s also incredibly important to be aware of your surroundings and to be comfortable in the use of firearms or bear spray. You may be lucky enough Not to be visited by a bear during your first few weeks here, but there are no guarantees. The longer you’re around, making noise, peeing in the area, and otherwise establishing a presence, the more likely you are to be left alone by animals - unless they want your food (hence the cache).
Rain - Summer is our rainy season here (with July and August being the wettest), and winters get extremely cold (-60F), so shelter is very important. You should expect to bring camping gear that can handle a lot of rain, and good warm sleeping gear (nights in June and September can get down to freezing). Camping here is reasonably comfortable from June through September, and is possible for a month or two on either end of that time if you have sufficient gear and experience with -0 camping.
Fire - The land we inhabit is forested mainly with spruce - some black, some white, along with white and yellow birch, willow, alder, and cottonwood. The forest floor is often mossy, and the soil porous and dry. This very flammable duff can hold heat and burst back into flame long after the original fire dies out. Wildfires rage throughout Alaska every year, and we do our best not to start any here. This means fires cannot be built on the ground just anywhere. The riverside is typically silty, and is a fine place for fires if carefully monitored. Anywhere else on the property, fire pits must be dug down to silt, or mineral soil (or permafrost, in some places) to prevent the duff from catching fire.
Water - We’re surrounded by water here, and in a dynamically changing environment, water harvesting is an adventure. Finished buildings can, of course, catch rain water - but only during the warm season. During winter, when ice is thick enough to walk on, holes can be drilled through ice in river, creek, or lake to harvest fresh water. During the shoulder seasons, when water left outside would freeze, it can get interesting. You may find yourself walking along the creek looking for a safe place to toss in a pot on a line to harvest your daily water needs, or you may be melting ice or snow. It’s crucial that you be able to find, safely gather, and filter water at any time of year.
Bugs - We live in Alaska - so we have Alaskan mosquitoes. Some folks say they’re as big as a 747, which is not true - they come in all sizes. But in some years they can be a nightmare. Other years we barely notice them. Please be prepared to deal with a bad mosquito year, and if you’re lucky you won’t have to for a while. Prepared means 100% deet (or very serious no-bug oil for anti-chemical folks), tight weave long sleeve clothing, a head net to protect your face while you’re working, and a great deal of patience. It’s also smart to consider an outdoor, screened gazebo or large tent in case the bugs get really terrible while you’re still building. Once you get used to the mosquitoes, you can join us in rejoicing at the lack of ticks, black flies, chiggers, and other biting insects. We do have a few horse flies (called moose flies here), and stinging wasps, but not many.
Food - Most of our food comes from the land. Each year members of our community harvest moose and bear, and we share in the netting and processing of hundreds of salmon from the river. We are also blessed with snowshoe hare, ruffed and spruce grouse, beaver, and many varieties of fish. Please note that you must be an official resident of Alaska for 12 full months before you can enjoy the perks of resident licensing for hunting, fishing, and trapping. See this site for licensing information.
We also gather various wild berries and mushrooms. Our main berry crops can vary from year to year - generally the most abundant are blueberry, highbush cranberry, lowbush cranberry, and rose hips. There are also raspberries, currants, and a few less interesting types like bunchberries and pumpkinberries. Our forest is an excellent place for mushrooms, so we enjoy boletes, lion’s mane, and many other culinary delicacies, both fresh and dried, throughout the year.
Some members stock root cellars by growing a large garden, as the summer days are long. Gardeners do face a challenge, though, in building soil. On most of the property there are only a few inches of topsoil, which may at times be flooded or frozen. Building raised beds is generally most ideal, with homemade soil from a mix of the existing topsoil, peat (gathered from the riverside), broken down grasses/leaves, moose poop (if you’re ambitious), moss, and compost (especially containing fish carcasses). During the peak of summer we get 20.5 hours of daylight, and things like cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots do very well here. More demanding crops like tomatoes are happy in sunny windows or in a greenhouse.
While we aspire to be a thriving community that can afford to feed visitors from a well stocked larder, we are not yet at that point. It’s wise to pack in food that keeps well and be prepared to do ‘camp cooking’. There are two stores in town that sell food, one of which is a variety shoppe only open one day a week. the other is the “AC” - the Alaska Commercial store. Prices at the AC are very high (sugar = $2/lb, butter = $8/lb, meat = $8+/lb), so consider carefully how much you can afford to feed yourself from store bought food. It’s ideal to order food online (via Amazon, Fred Meyer, Walmart) and have it shipped in, and only rely on the AC for things like produce, eggs, cheese, etc. There are, of course, wild foods to be harvested, but only at very specific times of year. It takes a full turn of the seasons to be able to stock a pantry here, and even longer to have a root cellar with storage veggies from a garden.
Building here is an incredible process, as most of the raw material comes from the land. We use Andrew’s swingmill and maintain it as a community. During late winter and spring we harvest standing dead trees in good condition and haul them via snowmachine to the mill yard for milling during summer. The mill handles logs up to 14’ in length, which means most of our dimensional lumber needs can be met right here. Other materials needed for building - roofing metal, hardware, windows, insulation - have to be purchased and shipped in, which is one of the main expenses of setting up here.