CAP Couple Makes Living Off Grid Look Easy
Oh, those traffic jams, pollution and people. We sigh and think about getting away to peaceful, pristine places. For most of us, a tranquil vacation is enough to satisfy our souls.
But for Civil Air Patrol Maj. Bryan Emerson and his wife, Laura, a 2002 honeymoon vacation in beautiful Alaska whetted an appetite for even more. After another visit in 2006 and years of preparation, the couple left Houston to make their own paradise about 45 miles from civilization in Alaska, whose 570,640 square miles would cover about one-third of the continental U.S.
CAP’s Alaska Wing has about 725 members, most of whom live in villages or cities, said Col. Carl Brown, the wing’s commander. Emerson might be the only one who lives so far out, Brown said.
Off the grid for the Emersons means living on solar and wind power, hunting and growing most of what they eat and building a well, a communications tower and more. Above all, it means constantly learning new things.
“I fell in love with it,” Emerson said of Alaska’s wilderness. “Then, after I came up here with my father to fish in 2006, I started my research and had a five-year vision to investigate more.”
“A lot of people do change their mindset when they see Alaska for the first time,” Brown said. “Coming here is really not much different than when people went west for the first time. It’s attention to detail that makes a difference.”
Emerson, 57, was born in Houston, then lived in a suburb of Chicago through his high school years. His parents bought a tree farm in Wisconsin, where they would make fires, hunt and fish.
“It was a very formative time,” he said. After college in New York, he attended grad school at Rice University in Houston, where he lived for nearly 25 years.
“Alaska brings me back to my childhood of hunting and fishing and making trails through the woods,” said Emerson, who jokingly adds that his wife calls it his midlife crisis.
The real reality
A word from the wise, said the Emersons: Living off the grid in Alaska might not be what you think it is. That’s especially true if your information is based on reality TV shows.
The couple bought land in 2007 and contracted with their only neighbor to build a cabin, a several-year project that included hand-cutting 106 spruce trees. Emerson came up in the summers to buy supplies and assist. In 2012, the couple moved into their 740-square-foot house with outbuildings, including an outhouse, fuel shed and power shed.
It wasn’t perfect, and Laura Emerson admits to fears about what they’d gotten themselves into. But the avid learners would figure much out as they lived it.
“In the first couple years here I realized there were things lacking in our preparation,” he said. Sucking water out of a lake through filters wasn’t the best idea, so they contracted to have a well drilled that connects to a shower house. “Showers are good things for marital bliss,” he laughed.
And in summer 2017, after a year of patiently planning every detail, the Emersons installed an outside hot tub, which has become a relaxing refuge in zero-degree winters. Laura details the hot-tub installation in her blog about off-the-grid life. Nothing comes easy here.
Their home sits between Anchorage and Denali National Park on a hillside with a lake, about a 20-minute flight from the nearest major road. The lake serves as the landing strip for their Piper PA-20, which is outfitted with floats in the summer and skis in the winter.
Alaska has six times as many pilots per capita as the rest of the U.S., according to ak99s.org.
The Alaska Wing’s missions tend to be half search and rescue and half chasing down activated emergency locator transmitters, neither of which is a small task in this vast terrain.
“In the Lower 48, when transmitters set off accidentally, you can drive to them,” said Brown, who has lived in Alaska for 40 years. “Up here, it’s just the opposite.” Just 25 percent of the wing’s ELT searches are reachable by roads.
“Alaska has many different microclimates with mountains, open expanse and glaciers,” Emerson said. Through his own flying and CAP training, he’s learned to navigate all of them.
Brown said pilots, himself included, almost have to relearn flying once they get to Alaska, as the distance, geography and terrain are like none other.
Back in 1999 in Houston, Emerson took his first orientation flight. “I was hooked, and had no idea where it would take me,” he said. He joined CAP in 2010 to do volunteer work and learn more about aviation, knowing how much he would need the skills in Alaska.
The Emersons’ typical day in the Alaskan wilderness changes with the season and the weather.
In winter, they get just five hours of daylight — from about 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Emerson is up early to rev up the Honda generator. He works online for an investment banking firm starting around 5:30 a.m. local time to 9:30 a.m. EST. Once the sun’s up, chores might include adding wood to heat the hot tub and cutting dead black spruce in the woods because it’s a fire hazard.
In the afternoon, he and Laura might go cross-country skiing in the tracks he’s made with the snow machine and groomer, which are also used to create the plane’s landing strip. He ice fishes for northern pike. With Laura’s scratch-made meals that include bear meat or fish and vegetables, he has homemade beer and she has homemade wine. Then they relax their cold muscles in the hot tub. Laura said they use it almost daily, even in the coldest of weather.
In summer, temperatures might reach 70-80 degrees and daylight lasts 20 hours, making sleep more difficult. They tend to their chickens, rabbits and beehives and scare off bears that frequent the yard that time of year. Cutting and hauling wood is a constant chore, and at 6 p.m. or so they might kayak out on the lake and watch eagles and moose.
“That’s our commute,” he laughed. With no TV, they read a lot and watch DVDs.
Once the Emersons decided to make the move to Alaska, they immersed themselves in learning.
“In Houston, we put together a list of things to learn,” Bryan Emerson said. They took a wilderness Red Cross weekend course, and he took welding and furniture-building classes. While not an expert, Emerson now has skills most might envy.
“Training was really important even before we got here,” Emerson said. “Civil Air Patrol has been very important in that.”
Laura Emerson, 60, dove into the life-changing project with an academic mindset and created a curriculum. She’s now certified in permaculture, master gardening, master naturalism and herbalism.
This spring she is taking a distance-learning course with the University of Alaska on the chemistry of medicinal plants. “I’m really excited to learn more about foraging wild foods that we add to stew or tea and really learn why this is good for food,” she said.
Her husband wants to learn how to tan animal skins, such as rabbit fur. “And I might want to learn to raise quail since it’s an economical form of meat,” he said. “Each year I want to try to learn a new skill.”
Both Emersons telecommute with far-away employers.
Bryan Emerson is chief financial officer and chief compliance officer for South Carolina-based Sequence Financial Specialists. He also provides consulting services in the financial and securities industries to clients in the U.S. and India.
With CAP he is public affairs officer, director of communications and finance officer for the Alaska Wing. The wing happens to be the first in the nation in saving lives, with eight in 2017, said Brown.
Emerson’s many jobs are possible in part because of the 125-foot steel wire communications tower near the couple’s cabin. In warm weather, Emerson uses a harness for the scary job of climbing up the tower to change the antenna. He uses the high-frequency radio antenna on the tower to check in to the daily national CAP HF radio network. He has heard stations clearly from as far away as Maine, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
“For me, it’s been a pleasant surprise to be able to stay as active as I am with CAP and in business. In this age of technology, we have so many tools to maintain high-quality communication,” he said.
Emerson runs errands every two weeks or so, with a 1½-hour flight and drive to Wasilla, Alaska, to get milk, cheese and other things they don’t produce. “There’s always a hardware store run and checking the mail for deliveries from the Amazon truck of happiness,” he said. He bunks for the night at the CAP bunkhouse, which is maintained for traveling wing members. Wing headquarters is in Anchorage, and four or five of its squadrons — including the Polaris Composite Squadron, of which Emerson is a member — are based close to the city.
The Alaska Wing is about to add two new squadrons, one in Anchorage and another north of the city. With those, Brown expects the number of cadets to grow from its current 250.
Laura Emerson, who has two master’s degrees in humanities, produces her blog and writes for an Alaska magazine. She’s also a consultant for the business in India.
“There are certain points in life that are pivot points, and now we have very few encumbrances,” she said. “Working here was a seamless transition.”
The couple leaves Alaska for about six weeks in the fall, during the “freeze-up” time, when ice on the lake is forming but isn’t yet thick enough to support their plane’s weight.
Leaving takes planning and preparation to winterize the house, which includes draining all water so it won’t freeze.
That’s when they visit family around the U.S., including Laura’s sons, 23 and 28, in Houston. That’s the time they enjoy theater, restaurants and museums. The rest of the year, they keep in touch through regular phone calls and have had a few family members visit. And last year, the Emersons spent several weeks touring India.
Timing has been just right for this life adventure. “It’s so hard to envision this in my earlier life when my kids were young,” Laura Emerson said. “And I wouldn’t have been mentally there in my 30s.”
Today, they enjoy the day, complete with a constant Christmas-card scene outside their windows.