staying safe (part 1)

Photo of an Iridium Satellite Phone

Today, Stewart is in Fairbanks doing all the cabin laundry and awaiting a flight home to the Bay Area. I’ve been back in Fairfax for more than a week already. We worked on this post about cabin safety while we were out on the land and I’ve had it ready to go for a while, but I couldn’t bring myself to post it until Stewart was back in town. Call me superstitious.

Indeed, there was a moment’s excitement during the solo part of his trip. For the first time, a bear came to check out the back porch while a human was at home. It was a small black bear, not a grizzly, but a bear all the same. In truth, every day at the cabin I wonder why a bear doesn’t come to the back porch; we make so many food smells. I’ve always figured our bad smells probably overpower the attractive ones—but who really knows the mind of a bear.

So when Stewart called on the sat phone last week and said: Guess what happened yesterday, my first thought was a bear came to the back porch of the cabin. And it was true. But as soon as Stewart flung wide the back door—blowing it open all at once to surprise the noisemaker—the bear fairly evaporated. It flew so quickly into the forest that Stewart wasn’t able to catch another glimpse. I’m going to imagine, in the mind of a bear, that finding no food and getting a big shock means there’s no good reason to come back and poke around. Stewart saw no further signs and there wasn’t any more excitement, either. Mostly it rained.

Getting back to our Cabin FAQ, we did want to work on a few more answers this year. Three common questions seem to make a good set: Is anyone else around? What would we do if something went wrong? Have there been emergencies in the past? We’ll answer two questions in this post and the third in part two.

Photo of the back porch of our Alaskan log cabin
The back porch this year. (All visitors, including bears, please knock.)

Is there anyone else nearby?

There’s not. A few old hunting cabins are falling apart in a river drainage about ten miles away. They’re unoccupied most of the time. The only people we’ve seen during our time at the cabin are people we’ve invited.

What if there’s an emergency?

We do everything we can to minimize the chances of accidents, serious illnesses, or the failures of any essential systems—solar panels, batteries, generator, propane, or water and its filtration. We keep a reliable inventory of what’s at the cabin and what we need to bring with us every year, including first-aid supplies, up-to-date prescriptions for common antibiotics, and supplies needed to keep the cabin itself in good health.

Photo of overwhelmed woman with pile of expired medications.
The medications in this pile range from 5-20 years expired. There’s no “drug take-back day” on the tundra; we’ll take them out to Fairbanks. You can tell this is one of my favorite jobs, no?

Also, because most accidents happen when someone isn’t paying attention, we start each visit by having a brief conversation about safety. We remind ourselves to go slowly and take care in all that we do. (I can’t help dropping in extra reminders during our stay, like when Stewart climbs onto the peaked roof to uncover the skylights or when I see him bringing a chainsaw out of the shop. Likewise, he reminds me to take my bear spray whenever I go out.) We depend on each other and we understand that it could take some time for help to reach us in an emergency. We hope we never need to learn how long.

Finally, we have plans in place to get help should we need it. This means keeping the satellite phone fully charged and a list of important phone numbers in a place where it’s easy to grab. Because the sat phone doesn’t work in the cabin, the list is laminated and ready for whatever kind of bad weather it may get into.

Our emergency contacts include the Denali Heliport, the Alaska State Troopers in Healy, the Denali Park Headquarters, the Interior Community Health Center, and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. We also wrote down the cabin’s coordinates because latitude and longitude are the only cross streets we have. The back of the sheet gives instructions for using the sat phone itself, in case a visitor needs them or we blank out under pressure.

We’ve tried to think through all the things that could go wrong: illness, injury, fire, earthquake, surprises with cabin systems or—bears. We do carry bear spray everywhere (even to the outhouse) and we do keep a loaded hunting rifle in the cabin. To prevent the rifle from causing its own emergency, we’re trained to use it—but that’s going to be  another post.

I hesitated to write out all these details; they’re kind of boring, but that’s a known problem with planning for emergencies—no one really likes to think about it, so too often it doesn’t get done. And it’s important to do it everywhere. Earlier this summer, Stewart and I forced ourselves to go through a similar process at home in California because of the extreme fire danger: Is our property as fire safe as it can be? What’s our evacuation plan? Do we have go-bags packed in case we have to bug out without notice? Now we do.

Sharing details is partly a way to promote conversation about emergency planning in general: Do you have lists? Do you have your own strategies and supplies? Do you see steps we’ve missed in our plans? Because that’s another thing about emergencies: Often it’s not until after something happens that we realize, oh, we should have this and we need that. (That’s why we have the laminated list of emergency numbers, for example. It was after we had some trouble—that will be part two—that we realized how important it could be.) Hindsight is 20/20, but we’re trying to see as clearly as we can.

More tomorrow . . .


8 thoughts on “staying safe (part 1)

  1. I love reading even the mundane details of what it takes to live in a solitary place and life. Grateful you share this. Also glad to know you’re home. Sending love and affection and admiration. Ellen

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  2. Excellent post. I need all the reminders I can get about advance preparation. While I don’t expect a bear to come to our door in San Anselmo any time soon, we actually have pepper spray at the ready. We’re not, however, prepared much at all for a quick evacuation. Sobering.

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    1. Well, wouldn’t that be a surprise. I wonder how long it has been since a bear has been seen in Ross Valley. I keep a person-proportioned pepper spray at home, also. It’s such a tiny canister compared to the size for a bear.

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