Alternative Energy—Up North Style

I am obsessed with the concept of sustainable energy. It is so Northern. Inherent in harnessing the wind and storing the sun’s energy is a self-reliant, DIY attitude that agrees with the way we live up here. Of course, we wood-burning Northerners have long loved the feeling of controlling our own energy destiny—if only long enough to toast marshmallows around a bonfire.

Which brings me to my wood-burning hot tub. It was invented by students at the University Alaska—not Northern Michigan, true, but certainly a place with plenty in common … snow, sharp-looking governors and all. Anyway, this high-tech operation works like this: you stoke up a fire box that sits in a giant cedar tub of water that looks very much like what Billy Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo were soaking in in Hooterville at the beginning of each episode of Petticoat Junction. We got it from a Washington state company called Snorkel (named for the submerged firebox). As the fire burns, the water heats up. Right around 110 degrees, you and your friends hop in like veggies into the soup pot. That’s about what it boils down to. Oh wait, I forgot the paddle—or hockey stick if you can’t lay your hands on the canoe paddle—used to stir the water. After all, hot water rises. If you don’t mix it up, you’re simmering on top, freezing on the bottom. But, man, when you get it just right, your body goes supple as a steamed stalk of asparagus, limp as a ca … ooh bad analogy.

We burn whatever kind of wood we have—the rotted ash my husband took down, fallen limbs. Sometimes we even put up a couple of honest-to-god cords for it. This sustainable energy has sustained seven years of fun. Winters when our daughters were in high school I made a skating rink next to the tub so the kids could hop out, put on skates and skate in their bathing suits. I resurfaced the rink with water I drained from the tub (talk about recycling!). Summer nights we race down to the end of our street, jump in Lake Michigan, streak (and you can take that literally) back and plunge in the womb-warmth of our tub.

A couple of weeks ago, our son turned 12. Eight steaming boys spent more time rolling in the snow than they did dunking each other in the tub. Now that it’s getting on toward maple sugaring time, I’m wondering if I can boil sap over my hot tub fire. Kill two birds, save some energy. And my son and I are scheming a science project for the summer that revolves around our tub: We want to grow switchgrass in the yard and use it to fuel our hot tub. I wonder if Steven Chu, might want to come and test it out with us?

Here’s a picture of the hot tub birthday party:

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