Cordova, Alaska is a tiny fishing town in the middle of nowhere. There are just 2,500 people in the winter. There are no fast food joints, no box stores. Kids can walk to school by themselves just like the old days. The small town feeling of it is doubled by our remoteness– there is no highway connecting us to somewhere else, you cannot drive in or out, you have to fly or take the ferry. The economy is based almost entirely on the commercial salmon fishery.
Our tiny town is a dot of modern humanity in a vast stretch of untouched and abundant wilderness. The coastal mountains rise 3,000-5,000 ft, straight up from the rocky ocean cliffs. This is a temperate rainforest– the northern tip of the Cascadia Bioregion. Although there are many colder places in Alaska, we win for wet, with an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year. That’s 13 feet of water! We also get some epic storms, with winds frequently reaching “hurricane force” (more than 74 mph). This doesn’t leave much time or space for what anyone, anywhere would consider good gardening weather.
Although we typically have at least 130 frost-free days and often considerably more because of our coastal influence, average peak summer temperatures are about 55 degrees– and even that ‘warm weather’ rarely lasts for more than two months. Many years see weeks on end of 40-50 degrees during those supposed “peak summer months.” On top of that, the late ‘summer’ garden harvest months are a deluge. August receives an average of 13 inches of rain, September an average of 22 inches of rain (and temperatures of 49 degrees) and October sees 21 inches. For a little perspective, Seattle, the self-named ‘Rainy City’ gets 38 inches per year.
Obviously, harvesting food from the wild is essential to a sustainable life here in this remote place. But hunting, fishing and gathering don’t make a complete diet for modern humans, and I am on a lifelong quest to find a way to farm in our adverse climate.
Permaculture has given me a fresh perspective, challenging me to really step back and reassess. I used to put all my work into annual veggies, which are very hard to grow in this extraordinarily wet and cold climate. But the permaculture concepts of “the problem is the solution” and “work with, not against, nature” have encouraged me to look for ways to use the copious rain to my advantage, to farm it’s wild energy. I haven’t entirely figured out what that means yet (other than keeping ducks and growing mushrooms) but it is a compelling and satisfying puzzle.