Alaskans transform backyards for less risky wintertime pandemic socializing

A group of friends sits around a fire outside to enjoy socializing despite COVID-19 and the winter cold.
A group of friends sits around a fire at a South Addition house. Owner Matthew Lohr said his housemates are doing their best to be COVID conscious at gatherings by separating into household groups and keeping gatherings outdoors. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaskans are known for being adaptable and crafty and those traits have certainly come in handy as they find fun ways to socialize and get outside during the pandemic winter. 

Around the state, residents are installing new features in backyards like movie screens, hockey rinks and space heaters. 

Gathering outdoors still carries some risk, especially when done without masks. But outdoor gatherings are far safer than indoor ones, especially when masking and distancing are observed. 

Anchorage resident Natasha Price found a cheap way to set up a movie screen with a quick trip to the thrift shop. 

“We purchased about five king-sized white sheets, and I fused them together with fusible interfacing tape, so I didn’t have to sew them. And it’s like 300 inches across – it’s huge,” she said. 

Price, her husband, and elementary-school-aged son have been enjoying regular movie screenings on the giant screen against the back wall of their house. Most recently, the showing was “Aquaman”. They roasted brats on one of two roaring fire pits and had lawn chairs spread around the Oceanview property. 

Before COVID-19 numbers got really bad in Anchorage, Price said, she was having regular get-togethers with friends. 

“I made a huge batch of chicken noodle soup…and brought it out here and we’re just huddled up around the fire eating our hot soup, roasted marshmallows, watching movies. It was really nice.”

An Anchorage family watches an outdoor cartoon around their fire pit in October.
Natasha Price and her son enjoy a backyard cartoon in Oct. 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

That was weeks ago. Price thought she’d be able to keep the gatherings going regularly with friends but said she’s still enjoying movies with her nuclear family. 

Strings of lights and blazing fires illuminate yards across the city at night. Firewood suppliers report higher demand than ever, with some reports of shortages, though Anchorage’s largest supplier said it still has plenty of dry wood. Price is splitting her own with a mechanical splitter and has a nice stock in her backyard. Other Anchorage-ites are eschewing commercial firewood to feed their wintertime habits.

Anchorage resident Logan Murray said he got a tip about some beetle-killed wood on a trail near his house that municipality workers had left nearby. He said it wasn’t easy to haul. 

“They’re pretty big here – like 100-150 pounds. We just we couldn’t pick them up. So we just rolled them along the grass there, just like, picked it along, kept rolling and rolling,” he said. 

And in addition to the wood, he said it was just something to do. 

“It’s a nice way to get outside.” 

Murray said he’s been having more fires than ever on a newly rebuilt deck.

At the dead end of a residential South Addition street recently, about a dozen friends gathered around a steel fire pit. They were careful not to get too close together, and had lawn chairs grouped into household units.

Matthew Lohr, the house’s owner, said his roommates are pretty COVID conscious, but they also like to socialize. They had a house meeting a few months ago to decide what to do. 

“We talked about a lot of stuff. We talked about how you – some of us are single, like, how do we date? Or how do we bring people into our bubble? Maybe? Is that a thing? Should we do that?” he said. “And we talked about winter. Like how are we gonna hang out with our friends?”

They decided they really didn’t need much to expand their existing front yard hangout spot: Just a few extra chairs and some lights, which are hung off a salvaged steel pole. But they also decided they need to have a way to coordinate with friends and acquaintances having their own backyard get-togethers. They settled on a Google calendar to keep track of who’s hosting where. They even named the calendar.

“It’s like BBBB, which stands for bibs, bubs, backyards, babes, maybe brews,” Lohr said. “So the idea is you get your insulated bibs out and get a drink and head over to someone’s backyard to hang out with your friends.”

He said it’s not all that different than previous years. He still plans to host his annual Christmastime party that includes a giant ice bar in the yard. But he has a modification in mind: Instead of a single day bash, he’ll hold it over a few days or weeks. That way, he can spread out the crowds, and drag out the fun.