by Emma Kramer
Longtime Girdwood (Upper Crow Creek) resident, Emma, describes a bit of the life of her true homesteading family, her love for her community, and her fears and hopes for Girdwood’s future.
The town of Girdwood, Alaska was first settled by gold prospectors and railroad workers. For the last 50 years it’s been known as a ski town, and lately it’s become a summer vacation mecca.
Girdwood is at the gateway to the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. With such close proximity to glaciers, wildlife, hiking trails, and ocean and river trips, our town’s appeal has grown. There’s just enough geographical distance to make us feel like our valley is removed from Anchorage’s hectic pace.
When I moved here in 1999, besides being struck by the beauty, I was hooked on the community vibe. The radio station, Forest Fair and the local music scene stood out as uniquely Girdwood. Things looked a little bit different then – the post office, the library, the grocery store; and there were hippies walking dogs, not hipsters. Older residents had stuck around, new ones filtered in, and there was a good balance of people, lodging and jobs.
However, real estate prices have always been on the high end, and when it came time for my husband and me to find a home and start a family in 2001, we looked to the Upper Crow Creek neighborhood.
Girdwood is surrounded by the Chugach National Forest, and Crow Creek Road traverses the western side of the valley, along Ragged Top Mountain. The road leads north to the Crow Creek Gold Mine and ends at the Crow Pass trailhead. Between the mine and the trailhead stands about 30 cabins.
The 1000-foot elevation gain means losing all municipality perks in the way of electricity, water, sewer, snow plow and school bus service. Those of us who live up Crow Creek are tax payers in a different bracket, and we pay a lower mill rate for fewer services.
Resort towns are about as affordable as a Tesla, but for our young family, Crow Creek was financially feasible. We have raised our two kids off-the-grid here for their whole lives. They’ve grown up hauling wood and water, starting the generator, hiking to the outhouse, and dealing with snow machine access, only, in the winter.
About six years ago, during a dry summer like this past one, we finally got our own well. Septic was just not in the budget; our rocky land would have required a soil engineer’s miracle and about $60,000 just to have a proper toilet inside the house. To put it into perspective, that is more than the price of our 3/4-acre lot and the construction of our home, combined.
Having our own well made us feel secure, knowing we could use as much water as our family needed, not to mention having it pumped in instead of hauling it. We installed an indoor shower and an on-demand hot water heater, and now, after 12 years of living without such luxuries, a shower feels like a momentous event!
Over the last 18 years, life on our small mountain homestead has definitely gotten easier. We’ve come a long way from where we started.
With the help of our neighbors and my husband’s resourcefulness, our house’s original footprint was built with a little bit of everything, from everywhere.
The initial framing came from trees on our land and locally milled lumber. We used recycled insulation from the elementary school roof, windows from various remodels, and old decking from the coffee shop porch. Three summers ago, we replaced the salvaged, patchwork tin that had covered our heads for fifteen years, without a single leak.
That July, as we got into conversation with a local named Mary Jo in the Forest Fair beer garden, my husband said, “You know I just took that tin off my house that I’d kept from long ago when I replaced your roof.” She seemed so happy to hear that her old tin had become part of the first roof on our home and that we, and the roof, had lasted so long.
That’s the kind of town Girdwood is. It’s the kind of place where we give some thought to things. When we employ and interact with each other, it is a direct way of saying, “I care about you.” Visitors feel this vibe, and Alaskans from other towns can feel it, too. Girdwood is not the only place that has this community feel, but these days the experience can seem rare.
Our family has been blessed with the security of owning our land and home, but only because it was affordable for us in the beginning. Our small Girdwood cafe, the Java Haus, recently lost its lease after 14 years. Our job security was lost with it. The prices we faced 18 years ago have risen even higher, and with no other options for renting commercial space, we were forced to close the doors for good.
Living off the grid and in a simpler, more sustainable way, allows us to adapt to our new economic reality. There is no rent, electricity, water or heat bills, just sweat equity in maintaining our homestead. We commercial fish for salmon in the summer and have been growing our direct marketing business, selling our salmon to locals and restaurants.
Girdwood has an outstanding school, supportive residents, an amazing fire department, great local businesses, stunning views, abundant wildlife, and stellar outdoor adventure access. What we are missing is access to the American dream, the mantra for the masses: work hard, save money, and eventually own a piece of something to call your own. There seems to be a similar problem in the Lower 48. So many others across the country are desperate for a place to call home.
Although it’s worked for us, I honestly feel a sense of survivor’s guilt as I have watched friends have to move out of this valley. Job security and affordable housing options can really make or break a community.
We’re still the same broke hippies just living in the woods, but we’ve been able to invest in our own home with no banks involved. The property value of our home and land, according to the municipality, is barely six figures, but to us it is a million dollar home.
Maintaining an off-the-grid lifestyle is a full-time job I am grateful to have. It is about self reliance, but the freedom that it brings is also our challenge and our burden. I tell myself, when I’m out splitting kindling for a fire, in my slippers, before I’ve even had my coffee, “You chose this lifestyle, Emma.”
It has truly been a blessing and a privilege to live and raise a family here, and it’ll be a shame if only the privileged can afford it, in the future.