It would never have crossed my mind to do a post about laundry, so I owe this one to a remarkable, witty, (note the Oxford comma) and generous friend who lives in Chicago. Thanks for suggesting it, Terry, and for guilting me into finally doing it after promising and not following through. This one’s for you.
My first experience with laundry in the bush was with my grandma’s “mangle.” This was a tubby device that looked a bit like R2D2 with an instrument of torture on his head and a side handle. On her side porch, in the small fishing village we first live in when we moved to Alaska, she had a line of fifty-five gallon barrels full of rainwater, since at that time there was no community waterline. It was on this side porch where she also had the mangle and she “let” us kids have the joy of cranking that handle as she fed the washed clothes through the press. What joy to watch that water squirt and run out!
It was a lesson well-learned and in later years, when they no longer made mangles (go figure), I rigged up a broom handle in my shower to wrap hand-washed clothes around and then twist. Again with the joy! Water squirting and running out of clothes. If you haven’t experienced this, you really need to give it a try. Plus, it’s great for toning up arms, wrists, and hands. It can even be a full body sport if you go at it the way I do.
When we moved to the burned down and abandoned cannery and built our home on the shores of a large, stone-strewn creek, the five of us kids acted like a really, really slow moving waterline (like something out of the Flinstones). We carried five gallon buckets of water from the creek to the house and poured them in the washing machine. The pay-off was that in order to run the washing machine the generator had to be started, which meant we got to watch movies. My parents often put in, for us, the Loony Tunes cartoons my dad had recorded when he was working at the logging camp across the strait. Now, whenever I do laundry, I always hear Bugs Bunny saying, “What’s up, Doc?”
Sometimes, if we were low on fuel for the generator, we washed clothes down at the creek against the rocks, just like you see in National Geographic documentaries.the difference being in those documentaries they all seem to be in very warm climates. Our hands would go numb in the snow-fed creek waters and they’d barely be able to function. The bears were always hanging around, since it was a major salmon spawning creek, but they were too focused on fishing to wonder what on earth we were up to or to give us a bad time about it. Doesn’t everyone have to deal with bears when they’re doing their laundry?
It wasn’t until the 21st Century kicked in that we graduated to a propane dryer (my sister and I bought it as a much-appreciated anniversary present for our parents). Up until that point we hung laundry on lines strung inside and outside. It was necessary to have lines inside because of our rainy climate. Even a sunny day could go to rain in a second so we had to have a place to hang the clothes after running outside and tearing them down off the line.
Yes, clothes hung on the line are justly famous for having that delicious fresh scent. Unfortunately, they’re not as soft as they could be. My second youngest brother made us late for school every single day of our lives (on those days when the weather let us make it to school) because he had to go through an intricate process of rubbing, snapping, wringing and mauling his stiff, line-dried socks until they acquired the preferred softness.
When we moved here, my dad rigged up a wire clothesline with a pulley that went from the side of their floathouse to a spruce tree on shore. We put the clothes on the line and pulled to carry the clothes all the way to the tree.
A major problem with this system was that as the tide came in the floathouse rose and the line sagged toward the saltwater. On some tides it wasn’t an issue–but you really had to pay attention. If you forgot about the line and the tide rose too high, odds were good you’d have to put your saltwater-dipped clothes through a rinse cycle and then put them back on the line. And hopefully not forget about the tide again.
I’ve had some fun moments with lines collapsing and dropping an entire load of just-washed clothes in the drink. And let’s not forget that not only is labor wasted when that happens, but so is the fuel to run the generator, since you have to re-wash. And fuel has to be hauled from across the strait in the skiff. So, yes, quite often, just thinking about laundry would make my blood pressure rise.
I’ve learned my lesson and now when I dry things outside I hang them on a 1×2 board that’s nailed to the side of my house. That thing ain’t going nowhere. I’ve had clothes on it in hurricane force winds and they stayed put (I thumbtack them to the board). I should have thought of it a long time ago.
So, the next time you do laundry, I hope you will think of me and please forgive me for the envy vibes I’ve been sending your way for decades.
3/26/2016 12:37:17 pm
Wow, that’s almost exactly how I do MY laundry here in the Lower 48. Except for the bears. An excellent, excellent post.
3/26/2016 12:44:07 pm
I’m glad somebody gets it, Daneel. The thanks all go to Terry for having me write it. He’s a terrific person, you’d like him if you ever met him.
3/26/2016 01:27:02 pm
I forgot to mention in the post that I wash all whites (and, of course, delicates) by hand in rainwater. Our main water comes from a muskeg creek that is full of dark tannins that will stain clothes.
Also, notice, in the fourth photo from the top, the pole that we learned to prop up under the clothesline so that when the tide came in it managed to hold the clothes out of the water to some extent. On a really high tide, though, they’d wind up in the saltwater.
Another note: In order to fill the washing machine faster, to conserve on generator time (fuel), my dad hooked up a hose to our waterline to fill the washing machine faster. You have to manually turn it on and off for the wash and rinse cycles. Occasionally we’ll walk away while it’s filling to do something and then forget to turn it off. When we do remember, the floor is completely flooded. It doesn’t pay to be distracted when you’re doing laundry out here.
3/26/2016 02:31:05 pm
You’ve given me a watershed perspective on laundry. For me, it’s been nothing more than a chore that might be prevented when heavy rains fill our septic tanks and field lines and leave us without anywhere for water to drain. Line-drying has been a choice to avoid fading or shrinking, or, sometimes ironing. I never understood how good I had it.
3/26/2016 04:15:28 pm
Thanks, Sis! I forgot to mention how the clothes would freeze dry on the line in the wintertime and we’d have to bring them in and thaw them out. They actually dried faster when they froze. 🙂
For anyone out there who loves cozy mysteries and reading terrifically well-written reviews, I can recommend Sis’ website at www.middlesisterreviews.com.
3/26/2016 05:55:18 pm
Oh ADOW, I feel for you! Laundry by hand is one of those never ending cycles, and boy does it change the judgement of which clothes are “dirty”. I’ve done laundry for a family of four by hand, and I’ve also braved laundromats in seven different Southeast Alaska towns (the one with the dirt floor was an experience).
I never could get with the plunger and bucket laundry method, even if it was a new and dedicated plunger. We have liveaboard friends that say it works great, though.
When we moved aboard our current boat a real washer and dryer were on the must-have list. My Sweetie took the washer all apart to get it through the door, then reassembled it to install it. The little 110 volt dryer takes two cycles per one load of wash, but it is SO worth it to have laundry capability at home on the boat!
Thanks for the great post and pictures, and especially for the perspective!
4/1/2016 05:48:06 pm
Alaska Beachcomber (of the wonderful blog www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com), I definitely feel for you, too! I’ve done handwashing laundry on a boat and in the laundromats. I particularly remember living on a boat in Sitka and visiting a friend to wash a sleeping bag and then lugging the wet sleeping bag back to the boat to dry, on foot. Ah, SE Alaska, there’s nothing like it! I’m so glad you’ve got the washer and dryer set on the boat. It makes all the difference!
3/27/2016 06:10:24 am
awwwwww….such sweet memories…NOT!! I do SOoooooo appreciate my modern amenities, but I still get to experience the “joy” of bush laundry when I’m up your way in the summers 🙂 One of the few conveniences we don’t have out at the cabin, a dryer, but now you have me thinking…hmmmmm….gonna have to hit the hubby up for a propane dryer, hahaha!! And I had completely forgot about Robin and his stiff sock fetish, hahahaha!!
3/27/2016 08:11:56 am
How could you forget the socks? And the fun of trying to explain to the teacher why we were always late???
You definitely need to experience the bush with a propane dryer. Your life will never be the same : you’ll finally know the true meaning of wilderness fulfillment. Unfortunately, it’s the peak of bush existence–it’s all downhill from there.
6/10/2023 03:09:01 am
This post about laundry in the bush brings back nostalgic memories and showcases the ingenuity and resourcefulness required in such settings. From using a mangle to hand-washing clothes and even dealing with bears while doing laundry, it’s an incredible journey. The challenges faced, such as carrying water from a creek and the need for a generator to run the washing machine, make us appreciate the convenience we have today. Hanging clothes on lines and experiencing that fresh scent is delightful, despite the occasional mishaps. This post truly highlights the importance of adaptability and finding creative solutions in unique environments.