Friday, October 30, 2009

Harnessing the Wind

A month or so ago the people up the road from us got a windmill (that's an archaic term that I'm not sure is used anymore). Then we read that Bear Creek Winery down the road got one as well. When the winery offered an open house the other week to find out more about it, we jumped at the chance. Our electric bills regularly make me wince, and I have heard Homer electric rates are some of the highest in the country.

Alaskan Wind Industries is the only company installing wind turbines on the Kenai Peninsula. Both our neighbors and the winery have a Skystream (pictured here), a 2.4 Kw, 3 blade turbine that does not start producing till the wind hits 8 mph. It cuts off at 60 mph (according to the company rep; their literature says 50 mph), so while a real storm would be a great benefit for electricity production, it shuts off at high wind speeds to prevent damage to the turbine. Unlike solar power, where energy is stored in batteries, these are pretty much on-demand: if the turbine is going, you can use the energy. If it is not you'll be depending on Homer Electric Association like everyone else. If more energy is produced than you are using then it is automatically sold back to Homer Electric (HEA), so there could be a lower electric bill just because you're selling the leftovers.

The turbine we are considering is called the Gale. Its main disadvantage is that it can only be on a 30 foot pole, so if 30 feet doesn't get it above the trees, then this option won't work. It starts producing electricity at wind speeds of just 4 mph, and has no cut-off. It was designed to work on the tops of mountains that have extreme windspeeds. Just like the Skystream it is about $15-18 K. The company says they are willing to let you help install (about $4500 of the price is installation) and take off part of the installation price for doing so. There is a 5 year warranty on these. The Skystream up the road from us is unbalanced so it does not catch as much wind as it should, and the company was working on fixing it for the owners.

Alaskan Wind Industries has installed 15 wind turbines on the Kenai Peninsula so far. Some of the options are as expensive as $85,000 each for higher end wind turbines, and there are also creative options such as a wind/solar light pole, with the turbine attached to the top of the city light pole. Wind turbines are not allowed in Anchorage, so the company just opened an office outside Anchorage (in Palmer I think). Homer has had its share of debates about allowing wind power use within the city limits. The City Council decided to be consistent in making Homer less dependent on non-renewable resources and recently passed a resolution allowing wind power within the city limits, with some restrictions (lots of at least 1 acre, a certain distance from the edges of the property, etc.). Since we are out of town no such restrictions apply.

We're not convinced that this option is the way to go. Over the long term, yes, it could save money if all goes well. One of my concerns is how do you get rid of a wind turbine that is no longer working? I see TV antenna and dishes all over the place that are obsolete and no longer used, but still up on the top of homes or in yards. A wind turbine is a lot bigger than that, and I would guess a lot more costly to dismantle come the time when it no longer functions. If many people get on the bandwagon and utilize wind power, 50 to 100 years from now we could look over the landscape and see a sea of functioning or dysfunctional wind turbines. And would a wind turbine add or detract value from our home? We're still toying with the idea, but we need more information before we could jump in and say this is the way to go.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alaska is the Last Place on Earth I Wanted to Live

"Alaska is the Last Place on Earth I Wanted to Live."

This is the way I start the story when I tell people how we ended up in Alaska. Since it is a rainy fall day and I feel like telling a story, let me share it with you.

Three years ago at this time I had just finished a grueling 2 months working on my doctorate degree. And I had decided that sitting around researching and spending huge amounts of time on the computer was just not where my priorities lay at that time. We had been ready to hunker down for a few years and enjoy the dream home we'd just bought in Michigan while I worked on my degree: 10 rolling, fenced-in acres with a barn, sheep, chickens, a huge garden, fruit and Christmas trees, awesome views, a fixer-upper we could enjoy making our own. Deciding not to pursue the degree, I had an identity crisis we would laughingly call my mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, Doug had been passed over for promotion after promotion at his school and was working long hours handling the technology for his school for only a teacher's pay. He was stressed and tired of the constant grind with no appreciation for his dedication.

Fifteen years before when we first graduated from college and got married we had considered moving overseas to teach. Now we decided that it was time to pursue that option again. For two months we began an intensive search for places around the globe we would like to work and live and explore. We hooked up with the International School Review that shares information about hundreds of American and foreign schools overseas. We researched countries, cities and schools for their safety, housing, standard of living, pay, perks, liveability, kid-friendliness and more. After an intense 2 months we'd narrowed our search down to 25 schools we would apply at, spanning every major continent. Portfolios were developed, resumes updated, letters of references collected. It was an intense and exciting time as we explored the possibilities and dreamed about the future.

February 2007 was the International Job Fair in DuBuque, Iowa. That was where we hoped to meet with and wow potential employers. It was also where our dreams were dashed. We'd read that it is difficult for couples to get jobs overseas if only one of them is certified. I teach college, but don't have certification. I was willing to teach, but that willingness didn't count for much. To top that off, we had 2 young kids (a boy and girl no less), and with provided housing scarce, schools didn't want to house a family of 4 with only 1 person working. A handful of schools were interested in Doug, especially for his technology skills, but when we told them our situation they were crestfallen; it just wouldn't work. We were sick about it, and Aurora was so sad. She'd been psyched up for the thrill of going overseas. Denver, on the other hand, was relieved; he'd been scared about it.

We had already committed to moving, so Doug shifted gears and began applying for principalships around the United States, from Maine to Oregon (literally!), finally making use of the educational leadership masters degree he'd gotten a few years before. When he began to apply for jobs in Alaska, I thought to myself, "He won't get a job there." It wasn't that he couldn't, it was just that I couldn't imagine living in Alaska. We'd visited my aunt and uncle a few years earlier for a whole month and had loved it, but with the cost of living so prohibitive we didn't think we could enjoy living and adventuring on a teacher's salary (almost the same pay as in Michigan despite substantially higher cost of living). Going as a principal, however, would offer the possibility of a better life than we had in Michigan: more than constantly scrimping and saving to make ends meet. Then there was my biggest yet unspoken concern: the darkness. How would we handle months and months of short days?

We said we would take the first job he was offered and not second guess ourselves and play the game of trying to find something better. In March the Kenai Peninsula School District called Doug up and set up a phone interview for a weekday at 8 p.m. (4 p.m. Alaska time). I bustled the kids off to the bedroom and read to them to keep them quiet while Doug talked with them for an hour. All the teachers in the school (Razdolna), the principal and community members were all present as the superintendent at the time, Donna Peterson, interviewed Doug. A few days later we got a call: they offered Doug a principal-teacher position at Razdolna, a Russian school near Homer, Alaska!

By this time I had gotten used to the idea of not going overseas, though a part of me still ached for the wanting it. I was ready for any adventure, whereever it might lead. Being the people of faith we are, we firmly believed that we were going where we were for a reason and that there was a purpose in our going to Alaska, of all places. The next few weeks confirmed that certainity.

Within a week after Doug had a job we'd found a place to live. My aunt 'happened' to go to a distant friend's son's birthday party, and then went to visit a friend next door after the party. Stephanie just happened to mention they were moving to California for 2 years of missionary training and needed to find a renter for their 3-bedroom house. My aunt said, "My neice's husband just got a job at the Russian school just down the road (we'd called her the day before!) and they are looking for a place to live." She connected us and we worked out the terms of our rental within days.

As soon as I knew where we were going to be living I found the nearest community college and contacted the college director about a teaching position. Within a week or two I was offered a class to teach for the fall semester. I had a job doing what I love most: teaching!

The next challenge was getting there: rent a U-Haul, sell eveything we owned and drive our cars, have things shipped? There were lots of options. Though 4,000 miles was a long drive and beyond our imagination, we opted for that. We still had to sell about half of our things, and then we had to find an alternative ride for one of us to Alaska since the U-Haul only seats 3. Coincidentally, one of my cousins was getting married right around the time we were moving up. My aunt and uncle from Minnesota, along with their son and my mom were all planning to drive an RV up to Alaska for the wedding, getting there just days before us. They were willing to squeeze Aurora in, so the end of May I drove Aurora over to Minneapolis to catch her ride to Alaska. It was a special time for Aurora as she bonded with my mom during that trip.

Things just fell into place so smoothly with getting a job and moving to Alaska. While the overseas job search was a struggle, there was a sense of rightness about this move. Even more importantly, the kids were both excited about it. We'd visited Alaska a few years before and they'd had tons of fun and loved my aunt and uncle. As many people said, "It's about as far away as you can be and still be in the U.S.!" We certainly weren't moving there because we had family; it just happened that the first job Doug was offered was within an hour of family (Alaska is a huge place; to be within an hour is practically right next door!).

Two and a half years later I still shake my head at the incredible serendipity that landed us here. A few months after we moved here my mom died suddenly, then my brother died unexpectedly, and then my dad died. I cannot imagine living overseas and dealing with the grief and stress of losing so much family in so short a time. Nor can I imagine living here in Alaska if we didn't have some strong support. Instead, we are here, where my aunt and uncle have taken us under their loving wings and 'adopted us'. We are part of their family and it has been the sweetest blessing in the world. And we have developed friendships that ground us and give us the sense of belonging here.

I say over and over that our quality of life here is so much better than it was in Michigan. How do I describe that? Life can be as stressful and busy here as anywhere on this planet. Yet I have seen Doug change and grow and become a more whole person here, and both the kids have blossomed in the past few years. Sometimes it takes those radical moves to break bad habits, to shake you down to the foundation so you take a real look at just what you are standing on. When life is stripped down to nothing you can look at the world in a new way....and for us that has led to a new way of life.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Water Woes

When we were house shopping a few months ago, one of the things that struck us as odd is that most places we looked at had cisterns rather than wells for water. We were uncomfortable with having to have water delivered, but there wasn't much we could do about it besides buy a place that had a well. Apparently the water is so horrible along the 'bench' in Homer (below the ridge that runs for miles above the Homer area) that wells are simply not feasible. Some people have them just for watering their garden, though that's expensive option for outdoor only use. One person I spoke to that grew up in the area said that when the water came out of their faucets they could see an oily scum on the surface and that it stank horribly.

Shortly after we moved into our house, I discovered one day that the water from the roof was going into the gutter, down a pipe and directly into our cistern! Yipes! That means all the ash, corrosion from the asphalt shingles, debris, etc. was all going directly into our drinking water, and from the looks of it had been doing so for years. This was a common practice to supplement the drinking water, and while our house has both a whole-house water filter and a reverse osmosis filter for drinking, we were still a bit concerned. Add to that the deep orange color of our water (which was not the color of the water we purchased to put into our cistern!), and we began thinking that something needed to happen.

We immediately disconnected the pipe that was drawing water from the roof into the cistern, and then we began to explore options for cleaning out the cistern. One lady suggested letting the water run out, getting a shop vac, stick it down the intake pipe and suck out the crud. We tried that with the result that 1) the shop vac was not strong enough to pull crud up 10+ vertical feet (the cistern was buried 6 feet below the surface, and was probably another 6 feet tall), and 2) the extension that I had duct taped to the end fell off, into the cistern. OK. On to plan B.

The water company, plumbers and others we talked to were of mixed opinion as to whether the cistern had a hatch or not. Since it was a 29-year-old cistern, who knows what the original owners put in. Being the young, athletic people we are, we decided to dig up our cistern. Four hours of my digging, an hour or two of the kids digging and a couple by my husband got us down 6 feet where we.....did not find a hatch. And we discovered the cistern went clear underneath our walkway. We could keep digging and eventually dismantle our wooden deck/walkway in search of the hatch, or we could move on to plan C.

Exploring our options, we now checked into a company that cleans out cisterns as their job. They said we had two options. First we could dig up the cistern, find the hatch and they would get inside it and scrape out the crud and clean it out really well. This was more expensive, but was preferable. Or they could shoot water down into it with a high-powered hose and run our garden hose and flush out the stuff that was in there, using about 4000 gallons of water in the process. At this point we decided not to continue looking for the hatch and opted for the second quick-fix option.

We were out moose hunting the day that they came to clean out our cistern. We hadn't wanted to be gone, but that's when the hunt was, and we figured they didn't need our help anyways. Luckily we had cell phone access while we were out there hunting (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), and the company called us after the fact and said, "We cleaned out the cistern as best we could, but there was so much crud in there that it went up the pipe into the house and plugged it up so bad we couldn't clean it out." He said there were living things in the water, a huge amount of sludge in the bottom of the cistern, and obviously there was so much and it was so thick that it plugged up the pipe to the house. So now, even if we wanted water, we couldn't have water. On to plan D.

Plan D: Get a plumber in there and find out if he could clean out that pipe. Plumber came and said, "I won't do it. It would be an all-day job, cost you over a thousand dollars, and you've got a 29-year-old cistern here that will go out on you in the middle of the winter when the ground is frozen. You need a new cistern."

Plan E: New cistern. Here are our options:
  1. Dig up the front yard, get a plastic or stainless steel cistern (we couldn't find one source that agreed with another on exactly what type to get), and sink $4500 into a new 2000 gallon cistern. Well, the front yard is the flowerbed that is the crown jewel of this house, perennials that have taken years to nurture. We were both so absolutely busy beyond sane we didn't want to think of the mess this would be to dig up the flowers, move them, repair the lawn afterwards, etc. At this point we hadn't even paid our first mortgage payment.
  2. Build a shed, insulate it, run a line to the house and have an above-ground cistern that would have to be heated all winter. Yuck. This would be unsightly, would take time to build the building, and we would constantly be worrying about it freezing all winter when it was cold. No, we didn't want to consider that option. Cost? Probably at least $3000 depending on whether we did it ourselves or hired out.
  3. One of my friends had recently given me a tour of her house and had mentioned in the course of it that they had a bladder in their crawlspace that held their water. This seemed like a radical and daring thing--a bladder?? to contain the water for the household?? I didn't even think of that option till I was sitting in the crawlspace with another friend who came over to give us advice and it hit me that it might be a possibility.
We came to the conclusion that we didn't want to deal with either of the first 2 choices. By default, that left the bladder. It was the simplist and easiest choice with our tight budget (we just bought a new house!) and time (the craziest time of year for teachers is August, and homeschooling was just beginning too).

Douglas researched bladders online. This is a common option in Australia, but not something you hear much about in the U.S. We found a company in Anchorage that sold them, $1295 for a 1360 gallon bladder. They ordered it from the Lower 48, and when it came in, Douglas drove up to Anchorage to pick it up. Installation was a cinche. In less than 2 hours he had completely installed it and it was ready for fillup. The most time involved leveling out the dirt in the crawlspace.

Finally: W day had arrived. Water day. The water truck backed in, hooked up his pipe to the intake pipe we'd cut through the foundation to get water into the bladder. He started it up. Down in the crawlspace, the kids and I kept careful watch. Wow! It was so exciting to see it get bigger and bigger, knowing that soon our month of no water was about to end.

Well, there was a leak in it. Back to square 5. Call the company, send them pictures of the leak, they ordered another one, the supplier had to make one since no more were in stock, ship it from the Lower 48, ship it down to Homer, get the old one out, install the new one. A couple more weeks went by through this process. By now we were so sick of our water woes we didn't even want to think about it.

I just found out a neighbor up the road has been without water for a month too. Another friend lived for 10 years without water in her house up on the ridge--and this was not that long ago! Yet another family kept a plastic cistern in the back of their pickup for years and would fill up with water at public water sources and use that for their house water. What amazed me about this whole thing was the variety of opinions. No two plumbers or people we talked to agreed on the 'best' option; there didn't appear to be a 'best' option. Getting a new water source is expensive, and with tight budgets, a challenge.

Our saga appears to be at an end. We have clean, untainted water in our house. All we have to do is turn on the faucet or flush the toilet. A shower doesn't mean a trip to the Bay Club. Wow. Amazing how I appreciate little things like running water now. Aaaaaaah. We have this delightful sense of 'roughing it' in Alaska. But I am ready for the luxury of running water!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Deciding to Alaska

This is a blog entry that has been weighing on my mind for 6 months, remaining unwritten in my mind since we decided to homeschool our kids back in April. Finally life has settled down enough for me to reflect and write this.

An unfortunate set of circumstances
at school set us off on the road to considering homeschooling, and a month of research and talking to other parents of homeschoolers helped make the decision. I had many misgivings about homeschooling. Homeschooled kids I knew in Michigan were social misfits, and that was enough of a reason not to put my kids in that situation. Or else they were religious radicals trying to protect their children from the world, which certainly wasn't my goal in homeschooling the kids. In Alaska, however, so many people we know were homeschooled; I have friends who were homeschooled here their entire lives, went to college and are now working. It is much more mainstreamed, with many 'normal' (sorry, I just can't think of a better word than that) kids in homeschooling programs. Over half of Aurora's basketball team last year were homeschooled, and they were very nice, sweet girls, which is contrary to the catty, backstabbing cliques that are so often the norm among girls. And then I encountered, time and again, people that said, "So-and-so is a good teacher, and they homeschool their kids."

With all of these positive encounters
, I began to consider that there was something valid about homeschooling. The clincher hit when a friend lent me a copy of The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith. This had such a complete and honest account of homeschooling, how to get into it, when not to do it, how to actually do it, issues to think about, etc. One thing that stuck in my mind was that you really need to enjoy being around your kids if you homeschool. I love my free time and flexible schedule with teaching, so I considered this to be a main issue before I would say "yes". On the other hand, I also knew that my daughter would need to be committed to the decision as well as my husband, so I waited. I shared with Doug and the kids what I was learning from my research and talking with other parents, but I never pushed and I never said, "We're going to do this." I said, "This is a possibility. This is an option." The night I put my daughter to bed and she said, "Mom, I think I would like you to homeschool me," marked a turning point in our lives. I was ready to embrace it, though my husband was a little more hesitant. Obviously, I was the one who would be running the show and rearranging my life to make it happen, but he needed to be sold on it too. The more he attended training on implementing performance-based assessment, the more he saw the strengths of homeschooling and how it could benefit our kids. We were on our way.

Since the state of Alaska pays schools for homeschooled students
, the Kenai Peninsula Bourough School District takes advantage of that and has Connections, a homeschool program. Nearly 1000 students around the Kenai Peninsula are in the program (There are 10,000 students total in the district, so that makes homeschooled students a solid 10% of their headcount. That does not include numbers for the other homeschool programs on the peninsula, IDEA,
Raven Correspondence and independents.), and there are several hundred homeschooled kids in the Homer area. I met with the kids' supervising teacher and together we developed a curriculum for the year based on their learning styles, passions and interests. Elementary school students get a budget of $1600, middle school students $1900 and high school students $2500. Connections ordered the materials, and in mid-August the items were ready to be picked up.

What is our setup?
There is no official start date for homeschooling, but my kids were ready to go, so they started their favorite subjects as soon as we got the materials August 11. I require the kids to do the following every day: math, reading/writing/vocabulary, typing, Russian (their foreign language of choice), drawing, 45 minutes of personal reading, and 45 minutes of exercise. Social studies, science, service learning, and home economics are all project-based. For example, we have been studying ancient civilizations. I have my minimum requirements: study sheets, reading, and videos. The kids come up with and get to choose 3 projects to complete on top of the minimum requirements. Last unit on ancient Rome, Aurora created a model of a Roman home and then presented it to the family, while Denver made a model of a Roman army camp. Now they are studying ancient Egypt. Aurora is making a loom, Denver is taking pictures of it as she makes it, and then they are going to put together a PowerPoint presentation showing the process of making the loom.

We have one incredible blessing
with our setup: our new home has a cabin on the property that a previous owner used as a sewing classroom, so it had shelves and desks already built in, as well as electric outlets all around. Everyone we've talked to about homeschooling says that is great: a separate area is so important. It doubles as an office for me and my teaching, so the kids and I work together all day.

So how is it going?
Each morning my kids get themselves up, get their breakfast, get out to the cabin by 9 am, do their work, and when their done with the daily requirements they work on projects, play or read. What I'm seeing in my kids is that they are incredibly self-directed, relaxed, more interested in what they are learning (it's not just for a grade), they are enjoying a faster pace and they are not exhausted at the end of the "schoolday". They fully enjoy the flexibility of our schedule, they enjoy being self-directed, the love to be able to take off for a day trip during the week (they take their books with and work in the car on the way). I seldom have to nag them about "getting their work done". When they need help, I'm right here. If I don't know an answer, I Google it.

Are there negatives?
A few. The kids get crabby if one or the other hangs over their shoulder and watches them work. Sometimes Denver gets restless and needs some physical activity; I send him outside when he gets restless. When the weather is yucky it can be harder to get their 45 minutes of exercise in, but it always happens somehow. Denver has had a few meltdowns when I tried to teach him long division and long multipication, but he got over it and learned it quickly. Socially my kids are still the same people they were before. My son still loves to talk to people, and Aurora is not so wiped out at the end of the day so she has more playdates with friends now than she has ever had before.

For me, I just love having my kids around. I respect them more now than before--I'm in awe that they're my kids and that they love to learn so much! I know and understand them better now than in the past. They now understand my work better: they see me on the computer all day every day and realize, "This is work, a job, not play," whereas in the past they thought I sat around and did nothing all day just because I was at home. My relationship with my kids has improved so much because of this. Right now, I feel like homeschooling my kids is a precious gift I have given them. Will I homeschool them through high school? I don't know. Situations change, life changes, people change. I am not going to be inflexible about it; if the kids need something they're not able to get homeschooling, we'll figure it out when that time comes. Until then, we are thoroughly enjoying the process, and appreciative that most people in our lives are supportive of our decision.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Homer Documentary Film Festival

This is one of those quirky things that seems so "Homer". For the sixth year now the Homer Theatre has had a Documentary Film Festival, bringing in some off-beat, somewhat radical films. Five days running there are shows at 2, 4, 6, & 8 p.m., an impressive achievement for a small town like this. I'd heard of it before, but had never really paid attention to it since we are not big movie viewers. When I got an email from the college about the shows, though, I opened it up and checked out what was playing and discovered that I was interested in seeing four of the eight films being shown--an absolutely impressive percentage for me--and the rest of my family had some "must-sees" on their lists as well.

Part of the reason I don't watch many movies is that they take time that I don't feel like I have to give up, but Denver was adamant he wanted to see Food, Inc., and I was curious about it myself. It was one of those movies that would be better not to be eating while watching, but the content--an insiders view of our food industry--was shocking, disturbing and well worth the time. Halfway through Denver handed me the popcorn, and as I put him to bed that night he had tears streaming down his face as he recounted a child who died because of food industry bloopers, and the company wouldn't even apologize to the parents.

It Might Get Loud featured three generations of electric guitar superstars, and I knew Aurora would want to see it when I noticed The Edge of U2 was one of the guitarists profiled. For a few years now U2 has been Aurora's one and only band, and she can't get enough of them. It was a perfect fit for Doug to go with her to see It Might Get Loud as he is a music afonciando himself. It was a special 10 p.m. Saturday night showing, so I didn't get a chance to talk to them about it until the next morning. When we finally caught up, Doug regaled me with highlights from the movie for 45 minutes.

This is one of those neat things that makes Homer so 'Homer'. People were walking in and out with their bowls for the popcorn special, a tent was set up outside, clusters of people were hanging out chatting before and after shows. It had a festive feel to it. I am bummed that we only got to see a few of the movies we wanted to: time did its crunch. Yet now I have one more festival to look forward to each year in Homer!