Northern Science

Chapter 4

When we are confronted with a problem or interest, there is a pattern that we can follow that will help us arrive at the best answer possible. That answer might change in time as we discover new facts or disprove things we thought were facts.

To solve the problem we could create a pattern like this:

Solving Problems


Doing an experiment is often the best way to demonstrate something. An experiment is a fair test that a person performs where the variables are:
· identified
· held constant and one variable is
· adjusted (varied)

By measuring, we can demonstrate that a blue flame in a propane stove is hotter than a yellow flame. By experimenting, we can demonstrate that a given combination of air and propane gas will produce an efficient blue flame.

We will do many experiments in the last two chapters.

However, we do not control the forces working in many situations.

We would like to determine what causes floods in the spring, but we cannot control the variables:

· Amount of snow,
· Thickness or condition of the ice,
· Rate of runoff etc.

We are forced to observe and think. This chapter deals with observing and thinking. Much of observing and thinking includes studying other people's work.


Solving Problems

One of my favorite ways of cooking moose meat is in a Dutch oven. When the meat, potatoes and vegetables have been simmering in the dutch oven for a long time, they exchange flavors and juices. The combination is far better than the taste of each part separately. The combination of time and dutch oven cooking work well together to p roduce a great result.

If we boil the same ingredients in a pot, they cook quickly, but the exchange of flavor doesn't take place. The time involved in cooking a meal has a great affect on the quality of the meal. The dutch oven allows the juices of one to mingle with the juices of the other.

Ideas are the same. A good idea may take a long time on the "back burner". Seldom in my life have quick answers been the right answers. It takes time to compare a thought with past experiences. It takes time for a new idea to develop. It takes time to relate a new problem to what is now understood.

In order to develop a good understanding of a problem, there is a pattern that always seems to work for me.


1. Clearly identify the problem
2. Find out as much about the problem as possible. I gather facts without forming an opinion. I look at similar problems. I look for patterns with other situations. During this time, an early conclusion might block a creative solution.
3. Let the situation "simmer". Don't try to force a solution. This is the "dutch oven" on the back burner.
4. One day the answer comes. It arrives on it's own accord.

Days or years later we might think of another solution when new facts arise.


Solving Problems

Clearly identifying the problem is very important.

For years I tried to improve my trapping skills.

· I tried different methods.
· I tried different traplines.
· I tried different baits.

I finally came to understand. My problem wasn't learning better trapping techniques. My problem was discovering a better way to support my family. The facts were:

· I hated killing animals just for their fur.
· I hated skinning them.
· I hated selling fur at the prices I got. I skinned the animals and the fur buyer "skinned" me.

I did like being outdoors. I really didn't like trapping at all. As a result of that, I wasn't very good at it. Some people love it and are very good at it. I had not clearly identified my problem.

Once I identified my real problem: How do I best support my family? I did some more fact finding. I went to old timers who had been on the river for many years. I talked with one elder in Red Devil, who planted the thought in my mind to finish college and become a teacher.

With the right facts, I headed in that direction. I have enjoyed myself immensely as a teacher and haven't skinned an unfortunate little creature since.

Almost every idea you find in this book came to me over a long period of time. Good ideas take time to simmer.


Among the Native people of Alaska, there are methods of seeking answers that are sometimes similar to and sometimes different from those of Western (Eurocentric) science.

We might wonder why the caribou aren't migrating past our village this year. Certainly weather, food supplies, predators etc. have an impact. However, the elders might tell us we haven't properly cared for the animals we have killed in the past, and they are leaving us for that reason.

Such causes are hard to prove. They confuse the Western model of science. They are nevertheless real to many people. The inventor of the Xerox machine claimed to receive the understanding from a dream. Christopher Columbus said that he knew the winds blew one way above the equator and another way below the equator by spiritual revelation.

My father-in-law said that the Native people now in the lower 48 knew to migrate there from Alaska because they learned from the ducks and geese that there was good land out there. I don't know how we could prove or disprove that today.

When we learn to wait quietly for answers, they come if there has been enough fact finding. The Native people of Alaska were successful in a harsh environment because they were acutely aware of the physical and spiritual forces around them. They were attentive in an intuitive as well as intellectual way.


When confronted by a problem, I first:

· Ask a clear question,
· Find facts from elders and books. Research and experiment if possible.
· Observe, observe, observe and think
· Let it all simmer in my head.

Some of the thoughts in this book have been over five or six years in the making, some ten to twelve. This might seem too long to you, but that's how the process goes.

Solving Problems

Example: For years I have noticed that smoke always seems to follow us as we stand around the campfire.

I asked the question, "Why?"

I gathered as many facts as I could.

  • It seems to happen to everyone.
  • It doesn't matter which side of the fire you stand.
  • It happens without regard to race, creed, sex, or other considerations! I heard "Smoke follows beauty." That's a lie or I would never have a problem with smoke.

I allowed the problem to simmer in my mind for a long time. There wasn't much choice. I couldn't figure out why it was happening. I couldn't force a solution.

Finally an explanation came to me one day while I was driving my boat up the river.

Solving Problems

I knew other facts:

  • Warm air rises.
  • Clothing absorbs heat by a campfire.


  • As we stand by a campfire, our outer clothing is warmed by the fire. It warms us on the inside, but it also warms the air next to it.
  • That warm air rises.
  • As that air rises, smoke filled air comes to replace the air that has risen in front of our bodies. This happens on any side of the fire.

I tested the idea. I discovered:

  • Much less smoke came to me when I first stepped up to the fire. After a period of time, when my clothing became warm, the smoke followed me.

· Much less smoke came to me if I kept turning around, and didn't let my clothing get too warm.

· Much less smoke came to me if there was someone else next to the fire who had dark clothing or who was warmer than me. Dark clothes absorbed more heat and the smoke went to him.

Solving Problems

I tried making a fire at the base of a big tree, so it would absorb heat more than me and draw smoke up the tree trunk instead of in my face. This worked very well until the tree caught on fire. This was not a solution!

It helps to have a large partner who is:

· Cold,
· Wearing darker clothing,
· Ignorant of why smoke is in his face

Please understand, I asked this question for three to four years before I arrived at the understanding, which yet might need to be improved.


There are many problems that can only be solved by watching and observing. Why are the number of geese decreasing in our area? Why do caribou change their migration patterns? Why do wolves become more aggressive when they are in large numbers? In these questions, we cannot control any of the variables. We watch, observe and think. We clearly identify the problem. Then we let the thoughts simmer.

I camped out many times during the winter. The temperature seems the coldest just before sunrise. I wondered why this is so? There is no way I could perform an experiment.

I can measure the temperature at different times of night and early morning. I cannot control the sun, the air, the light or anything else. I could only observe, measure, fact find and think.

I noticed that fog forms in the mountain valleys early in the morning during the summer. I wondered why? Again, I could not experiment. I had to observe and think.

Identify the problem: I wanted our house to be brighter in the winter, particularly for reading. This was before the days of electricity and TV in the villages.

Solving Problems

Fact finding: At first I thought we needed more lamps (we burned Blazo and kerosene in those days). This was expensive.

I tried Aladdin kerosene lamps. The kids broke the mantles and they flared up dangerously.

I wanted to put more windows on the sunny side of the house. This too was expensive. It was almost impossible to get windows that far out in the woods. Besides, windows don't help after dark, and they allow a great heat loss.

Fuel was too expensive to run my gasoline generator constantly.

Simmering time: For several years, I kept rolling the problem over in my head. No clear solution came. There was no good answer.

One day I was reading a magazine that talked about the twelve volt battery systems that are available for mobile homes. I got excited, and ordered a book that told about twelve volt systems (return to fact finding). I learned all I could about twelve volt systems. I talked with people who had experience. I went to a mobile home supply place in Anchorage and talked with the workers there.

Solving Problems

I compared the cost of the twelve-volt system to Coleman lamps, kerosene lamps, and the cost of a gasoline generator running all the time, and decided the possibilities were strong enough and the cost low enough to make it worth the effort. I got a battery, and a few small lights. I ran my generator for a few hours each week to charge the battery.

I had a twelve volt system in our home for the next three years we lived in the woods. I loved it. My favorite light was a tiny one that I mounted on my bed post. From that time on, I could read at night without waking others, costing too much money, or draining the battery. We had lights with the quiet flick of a 12 volt switch.


  1. List the four steps given in this chapter for the birth of an idea.
  2. Give one reason smoke follow us around a campfire?
  3. Draw a campfire. Include a person who has been standing there for a long time, and a person who just walked up to the fire.
  4. What is the difference in outcome between a snap decision and one that is allowed to simmer while we study and think?
  5. Why do you think a battery system would be good or bad in a trapping cabin? At fish camp?

Another question bothered me for years. Why is it so difficult to dry socks and clothing by a campfire? Somehow I always ended up with roasted, crispy, damp socks. They burned before they dried.

Solving Problems


  • Clothing dries quickly over a wood or oil heater
  • Campfires give off more heat than a heater.


  • Why don't socks dry faster over a campfire than by a wood or oil heater if the above facts are true?


  • This solution didn't come easily. I didn't have enough facts. I let the question simmer in my mind for several years.

During one cold fall boating trip, I was camping in a nylon tent. I used a camp stove to make coffee in the morning. I noticed that the inside of the tent was damp. Then I knew the answer!

In school I learned this:

Solving Problems


  • Warming in the exhaust helped for a short time.
  • Within minutes my hands were terribly cold.

New fact:

  • There is water in the hot exhaust of burned hydrocarbon fuel, whether it is wood, gasoline, or diesel.
  • Also: I knew that wet clothing is a very poor insulator for heat.

Solving Problems


My gloves were actually getting damp in the exhaust of the chainsaw. Initiall, the warm exhaust helped my hands. As soon as my hands were withdrawn from the exhaust, the dampened gloves allowed the heat to conduct away from my hands faster than ever. The true solution was to:

· Keep my hands away from the exhaust

· Bring dry gloves

· Set the saw down often, and let circulation return to my hands. (Holding any tool firmly cuts off blood circulation.)

A new application came from understanding this. I was watching a TV show that showed desert mice. The show said that the mice never drank water. They didn't say where the mouse got his water from. But I knew. He could eat a dry seed, and I knew that when he digested it, it would give off


energy + carbon dioxide + water

It always excites me when one idea links to another one and many answers come from one discovery. People have asked me about the above conclusion. I ask them, "Have you ever seen water come from the exhaust pipe of a car as it is warming up? If so, where does the water come from?"

Solving Problems

It could be condensation from the air taken into the carburetor, but that moisture went in as vapor and went out as very hot vapor. It didn't condense. The water comes from the burning of gasoline.

Another example of related thoughts

Old Tom built a home. He was concerned that his wife, Melissa, would have a warm house when he passed away. He built the house, but had trouble with the oil stove. It kept sooting up. He tried adding stovepipe to increase the draft upward in the pipe. It didn't help. He tried different fuel. That didn't help either.

After many months, he discovered the cause. He had made the house very airtight to avoid cold drafts. In order for air to go up the stovepipe, fresh air has to come into the house to even the pressure. After a little while of burning (pulling a vacuum) on the house, the stove started sooting for lack of air. His solution was to drill small holes through the floor right under the stove. It got enough air and burned very well after that.

Cross section of
chainsaw tank
Solving Problems

The next spring, he had trouble with his chainsaw. He could not understand why it would run for a while, then starve for gas. He checked the fuel, and the carburetor. Both were fine. Again, it ran for a little while and quit. Then, after thinking, he understood. What do you think he did?

Solving Problems

Yet another example of related thoughts

As people play sports, they perspire when they get hot. It takes heat to evaporate a liquid. Our bodies perspire to cool us off.

Mothers use this same principle when their children have a fever. They sponge the child with water. The water cools the child a little, but evaporation is what truly cools the child. Heat comes from the child's body to evaporate the water.

Later in life, I noticed that when I took a warm off. The evaporating water took heat from my body.

Years later, my propane bottle seemed to have run out of propane. I went outside to see why the propane wasn't coming out of the bottle. I shook the bottle and it felt half full.

Then I understood the problem.

It takes heat to evaporate the liquid propane in the bottle to turn it to a gas. The outside temperature was -45°F. There wasn't enough heat available in the cold propane and air to cause the propane to evaporate.

I thought about wrapping the bottle in a blanket. This wouldn't help. It needs a heat source. A blanket keeps heat in, but it doesn't give heat. I put a light bulb beside the propane tank, and covered it with the blanket. Soon the propane came out of the bottle to the stove. We had a flame under the coffee pot. We also had flames outside our window. The light bulb caught the blanket on fire!

Who would think there is a connection between a propane bottle, a mother caring for a feverish baby, a bathroom chill and an athlete in a sporting event? They are all working on the same principle.

Science ties many activities together.


Failure in this process is usually due to:


1. What often happens when we try to dry socks over a campfire?

2. What are the two main causes of failure to arrive at a creative solution?

3. Explain why my gloves were damp in the exhaust of the chainsaw.

4. A friend had a root cellar. He was going to burn candles in it to provide enough heat to keep it dry. Predict what would happen if he did this.

5. _______ + ________ +_______ = plant fibers

Plant fibers burning = ________ +________ +_______.

6. What does warming hands in a chainsaw's exhaust have to do with a mouse in the desert?

7. What connection was there between Tom's airtight cabin and his chainsaw?

8. What relationship is there between a bottle of propane, an athlete, a mother caring for a feverish baby, and a bathroom chill after a shower?


Very seldom have my quick decisions been good ones. Good science ideas take time. They are linked with each other. Do not be troubled if answers don't come right away. Let you thoughts be like a good dutch oven. Let the "juices and flavor" of one ingredient blend with the others.

If you can:

  1. Clearly identify the problem.
  2. Find out as much about the problem as possible without forming an opinion. New measurements and experiments add to existing knowledge.
  3. Let the situation "simmer" in your head. Don't try to force a solution. This is the "dutch oven" on the back burner.

    One day, the answer will come. It's one of the greatest feelings in the world!

    Don't worry about questions that don't have answers yet. They are on the back burner simmering. Good cooks know that you can't rush good soup.


There is a great sense of excitement when you finally solve a problem on your own. It gives a natural high that cannot be imitated. Guard your thoughts well. They will be handy months and years from now. You will not forget them because they originated in your own mind.

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Write to me at:

McGrath, Alaska 99627