Adjusting to life with commercial power
October 1, 2021 | View PDF
Late one evening in early October 2005, I stood at the top of the stairs in my home in Slana, unsure of what to do. Having just finished working on one of my quilts, I had switched off the lamp intending to go downstairs, but found myself in total blackness. Should I blindly feel my way down, holding onto the railing, or should I turn the lamp back on, run downstairs, turn a lamp on, run back upstairs, turn that lamp off, and then be able to descend the stairs in safety?
"Commercial power is great," I thought, "but what I need right now is one of my old trusty flashlights." I chose to descend in darkness, but only that once.
Although our beautiful 25-year-old log home was not wired for electricity, every room was plumbed for propane lights. When we moved there in 1999, we found only four light switches, and those existed on interior upstairs walls, two in very inconvenient locations.
Although my husband, Gary, had done much to improve the electrical wiring in that house, there were still no switches to flip when entering either the front or back doors. It hadn't seemed necessary to remedy this because once the generator was turned on out in the generator shed, and the lever pulled to energize the house, Gary then walked back to a home already lit up. We always allowed a single bulb to burn continuously in each of the main downstairs rooms to give the generator the minimum load it needed.
At night with the generator off, strategically located flashlights were a daily part of our lives. Heaven help the person who didn't return a flashlight to its designated home. None of this even mattered during the long daylight hours of the summer months. Early on, we fell into a routine where Gary turned the generator on when he got up in the morning and I turned it off before I went to bed at night.
Switching to commercial power when it became available in May 2005 brought many changes to our household. Gary was exuberant about not having to deal with generator maintenance any more, and we both immediately appreciated the sound of silence.
Within days, we removed the car battery and battery charger from behind the couch. It was no longer needed to power our phone answering machine. Soon after that, I got out the box of banished electrical equipment and hooked up our old portable phone unit and our clock radio. We still couldn't get decent radio reception, but the clock now kept accurate time. We saw no more flashing times on the TVs and the VCRs, and the microwave no longer told us how many hours it had been since we turned on the generator.
After we first moved to Slana, I boxed up my electric skillet, not knowing if the problem was the skillet or the generator power. Newly resurrected, I found the skillet worked just fine. As I cleaned up after bed and breakfast guests, I no longer had to juggle whether to use the vacuum, washer, dryer or dishwasher. I could use all four appliances at once, if I so chose. One day I realized
I was running the vacuum upstairs while Gary vacuumed downstairs. Our generator power would never have allowed that.
Not all adjustments were easy. When we first returned to Slana that spring of 2005 from being "snowbirds", we noticed the newly installed power poles along the Nabesna Road. I was shocked by how ugly they looked. But I grew to accept that as one of the prices of convenience.
Also, after living almost six years in a home that was always semi-lit whenever the generator was on, I found it hard to relearn the basic rule: turn the light out when leaving a room. But I was exasperated when, in his efforts to conserve, Gary would sometimes turn the light off while I was still in a room. At that time, with Slana's 21 cents per kilowatt hour (KWH) compared to Glennallen's 15 cent KWH and Chugach Electric's 11 cents per KWH, it was hard to blame him. Even so, he figured our electric bill cost less than fuel for the generator.
We still weren't, however, connected to a "grid". Alaska Power and Telephone, out of Tok, had installed a large community generator system on the Slana School property and during "phase I" had only energized the core area of Slana. Our home was located between the school and the grocery store, so that included us. After more than five years of no electric bills, we started receiving a monthly bill from AP&T.
Having commercial power made another major change for us. The previous two winters when we traveled to Homer to visit my dad for a few months, we took our freezer with us. Our motto became "Have Freezer, Will Travel." It was either that or rely on a neighbor to come over when the temperature got too warm and crank up the generator to keep the food frozen. With commercial power, neither option was necessary.
Following my experience of being stranded at the top of the staircase, I remembered there were such things as nightlights. I dug out the box of nightlights from storage and placed them all over the house. No more blind groping in the dark.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.