It’s negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and I pull my truck up to a dilapidated building with “Water Wagon” written on the side. I shove a few quarters into a slot on a dispensing pump, and pull out the nozzle. This is just a snippet of what it's like to live in Alaska.
I point it into a blue plastic five-gallon container (known as an “aquatainer”) in the bed of my truck, and pull the trigger. But instead of dispensing gas, the pump dispenses fresh, potable water. I’ll need to drive back to my one-room cabin fast, otherwise it’ll soon turn into a 40-pound block of ice. I need this water to do my dishes tonight, and it’s no good to me frozen.
Looking back now, this seems like a really odd thing to do. But for thousands of people living in central and northern Alaska, it’s the norm. It’s estimated that over 3,300 rural Alaskans live in dry cabins without running water.
I lived this way myself for several years, and I can truly say that it was an unmatched experience.
Life in a dry cabin
Living without running water poses a lot of challenges, but there are a lot of ways around it.
The main challenge was finding a bathroom. All dry cabins come with an outhouse, but this poses its own set of challenges: fighting rogue wasp nests and the dealing with the frigid negative-60-degree temperatures are the biggest problems (you do not want wasp stings or frostbite on your nether bits). In the winter, you have several choices: cut out a styrofoam seat and bring it with you on each trip to the outhouse; plan strategic trips to buildings with indoor restrooms for your morning constitutional; or develop an amazing set of quad muscles from hovering over the seat.
Showering and doing laundry were another set of challenges. Luckily, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (a school that many students living in dry cabins attended) had a great system of free showers and cheap laundromats on campus. For the dry cabin residents who aren’t students, local laundromats also offered showers.
Finally, there was the need for potable water for cooking, drinking, and doing dishes.
This is where the aquatainers come in: I would usually go through five or 10 gallons of water a week.
I even found a battery-operated water pump designed for camping – it was like having real, running water!
Dry cabins also come equipped with sinks that drain straight into five-gallon buckets underneath. But pay attention to the water level, lest you flood your cabin with grey water.
Why live this way?
The obvious question that any sane person would ask is, “Why would anyone want to live this way?”
For me – and many other Alaskans – it’s an adventure. It’s a way of life that few people will ever get to see.
One day, if I ever have grandkids, I’ll be sure to tell them about hauling water around in negative-60-degree temperatures – right in between the stories of using rotary telephones, winding up cassettes with a pencil, and walking to and from a school sitting on a steep hill.
Aside from the adventure part, it was also cheap: the rent for my 384-square-foot, one-room dry cabin (not counting the sleeping loft) in the middle of the woods was $450 a month. Compared to that, a 1,200-square-foot home would rent for three times that price. I can’t remember what heating and electricity cost me, but it would have been comparatively cheap due to its tiny size alone.
Lifelong lessons from my life in Alaska
Aside from saving a ton of money by embracing the dry-cabin life, I also learned to never waste resources. Hauling that five-gallon container around in the middle of winter will teach you very quickly to become a water-conservation expert.
Even today, I'm always slightly amazed and eternally grateful when I can turn a tap on and water comes out on its own, or I can take a shower and not have to run back to the truck before my hair freezes in place, making me look like a victim of Frozen’s Princess Elsa. The freezing air did create some pretty epic hairstyles with wet hair on some days. Unfortunately, I don't have photos to show you, but I suggest you go there someday and try some cold couture.