The Versatile and Indispensable Five Gallon Bucket

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I’ve always known that the measure of a true Alaskan could be determined by the number of five-gallon buckets he owned.  You call yourself an Alaskan?  Prove it.  Count your buckets.  Mind you, I’m not talking about the ones that are still half full.  You see, non-Alaskans and cheechakos are often constrained to acquire a product that happens to come packaged in plastic five-gallon buckets.  But as soon as they use up all the drywall mud or honey or paint or pickles or whatever else the bucket contained, they readily and heedlessly throw away said five-gallon bucket.  I never could understand that mentality.  Would you throw away a Fabergé egg after you had removed the trinket from inside it?  I think not!  Likewise, Alaskans would sooner part with their DEET bug repellant or their bunny boots than to discard a perfectly good plastic bucket.

So once you have completed your personal inventory, you are ready to determine your Alaskan ranking based on a sliding scale ranging from venerable sourdoughood at the top to sheer cheechakoism at the bottom.  If you own zero plastic buckets, you don’t even register.  You are an Alaskan only in your own self-deluded fantasy.  You’re not even a cheechako.  You’re either a tourist, or you are temporarily in Alaska for business reasons.  On the other hand, if you own thirty or more beautiful buckets, you may indeed be a true sourdough.  Do you fall somewhere in between?  You’re highly likely to be a genuine Alaskan.  I’ll let you calculate the percentages.

However, it must be noted that sourdoughood cannot be accurately calculated by quantity of buckets alone.  Some people never throw anything away even if they never use the things they keep.  They just accumulate stuff, including buckets, because they’re too lazy to get rid of them.  So, if, during your inventory, you discovered thirty plastic five-gallon buckets in your possession but you also found eleven junked ATV’s, three sets of mildewed box spring and mattress sets, a pile of broken pallets, two rusty engine blocks, fourteen trash bags full of dirty pampers, seventy linear feet of slightly used sewer pipe, a rusty 1972 El Camino, an old dentist chair, eight dozen cases of empty beer bottles, a stack of newspapers dating back to 1953 and at least one dead cat carcass, you should disregard the bucket count as a reliable method of calculating your Alaskan sourdoughood.  Instead, the results might be useful in calculating something else…like your slob quotient.

Truly, in determining one’s Alaskan status, the way a bucket is utilized becomes fully as important as the quantity of buckets owned.  To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a true Alaskan can say about the five-gallon bucket, “How do I use thee?  Let me count the ways.”  The more creative a bucket application, the higher the probability that its owner is a true Alaskan.

You see, anybody can figure out how to sit on a bucket, or use it as a storage container.  And anybody can carry water in a bucket.  That’s fairly intuitive.  It doesn’t take an Alaskan to pick up on that.  Not that Alaskans don’t carry water in buckets.  Oh boy!  Do we ever!  We carry buckets to water our plants and our livestock.  Bush Alaskans carry water to drink and for laundry.  We carry water in five-gallon buckets to our sluice boxes.  We carry water to wash our cars and mop our floors.  We carry water in them for cleaning fish and dousing fires. But Michiganders and Arkansans, New Hampshirites and South Dakotans, Arizonans and Oregonians all carry water in five gallon buckets too. 

No, the thing that sets the Alaskan five-gallon plastic bucket collector apart from all other people is the brilliant, wacky gift for improvisation that they pour into their bucket applications.  There is hardly any walk of life, hobby, sport or vocation, for which an Alaskan cannot find a multitude of bucket uses.

Let’s take sports for example.  What Alaskan has not carried a five-gallon bucket full of hockey gear?  How many times have pairs of buckets marked the goalposts of an improvised Alaskan football or soccer game?  When I was a kid back in Moose Hole, we couldn’t afford a regulation basketball hoop so we cut the bottom out of a five-gallon bucket and wired it to a birch tree.  Five-gallon buckets are also required equipment in such uniquely Alaskan games as fish-gut toss, moose-nugget-carry relay racing and glacier-pool-blue-lipped-mega-water-battle.

For usage in construction applications, the five-gallon bucket’s usefulness goes far beyond a tool caddy.  I’ve known Alaskans who used inverted buckets for drywall stilts.  They simply take a pair of buckets, turn them upside-down, screw a flip flop to each and, presto, they just gained 15 inches in height!  The versatile buckets also work great for concrete forms when pouring footer pylons or planting fence or sign posts.  Attach a pulley and a rope to scaffolding, tie a bucket to one end of the rope, and you have a simple dumbwaiter for shuttling supplies between the workers and the supervisor, or, alternatively, dropping supplies on the supervisor’s head.  I once visited an Alaskan residence which was constructed primarily of stacked sealed five-gallon buckets stuffed with old newspaper insulation.

The agricultural applications of the trusty five-gallon bucket are almost endless.  Alaskans can hardly garden without mixing goat-berry tea or fish emulsion or hydrated lime in a…you guessed it…five-gallon bucket!  Sealed five-gallon buckets full of water distributed around the perimeter of a greenhouse can provide thermal mass during those chilly late-summer days and help coax a few more reluctant days out of Alaska’s notoriously short growing season.  If I had a dollar for every tomato vine or flower arrangement that my wife has planted in a five-gallon bucket, I’d be retired by now.  She doesn’t just put dirt in a bucket and plop a seedling in it, though.  To her, a bucket isn’t just a bucket.  It’s a basic component which when artfully modified with a drill and a jigsaw can be converted into an ingenious masterpiece of horticultural engineering.  She comes up with mad scientist contraptions such as the “nested dual bucket sub-irrigated planter” or the “wicking dearthbox bucket stack”.  Her next project is something called “aquaponics”.  I’m a little bewildered by it, but it seems to involve lettuce and fish somehow.  Not dead fish.  Live fish.  It also involves a bunch of buckets with pvc pipes plumbed into the sides and a grid of large holes cut into the lids.  It sure looks impressive.  I just hope it results in at least one fish sandwich for me.

Speaking of fish, I honestly can’t think of a single fishing scenario in which a five-gallon bucket doesn’t play a prominent role.  Anybody who has ever fly fished for grayling knows you don’t carry grayling home on a stringer.  The stringer tends to rip out their soft flesh.  Instead, keep them in a five gallon bucket full of creek water.  It keeps them alive longer.  Ice fishing?  What do you sit on?  What do you put your fish in?  Enough said.  Chitina?  The five-gallon bucket is indispensible for cleaning and hauling those magnificent Copper River Reds.  It’s also critical for sloshing the slime and blood off of the rocks when you’re done fishing so that the mess doesn’t attract a bear to the next hapless dip-netter who uses your spot.  Halibut?   Where do you keep the bait?  What do you use to swab the decks, me hearties?  Lake trout fishing?  There’s no better boat anchor than a five gallon bucket full of concrete.

On the farm, there is no better chicken waterer or feeder than a five-gallon bucket modified with a shallow pan, some wire, and a few strategically drilled holes.  When it’s time to collect the eggs, you can just reach into the nesting boxes made out of horizontal buckets.  For those Alaskans who are vermiculturalists, a couple of stacked buckets appropriately perforated makes a better worm bin than most of the fancy schmancy $150.00 units you can buy off of one of those internet dealers.

For survival or camping purposes, a stack of five-gallon buckets can serve the function of a whole room full of appliances.  What Alaskan has not used a five gallon bucket for a porta-john?  When it’s laundry time, a five-gallon bucket with a hole in the lid, and a toilet plunger handle sticking up through the hole makes an awesome churn style washing machine.  Just put in the dirty clothes, add soap and hot water and then plunge the dirt away.  Now to dry them, you just remove the lid and the plunger, slide another bucket with a bunch of holes in the bottom into the first bucket on top of the clothes, turn the whole thing upside-down and sit on it.  Your wet laundry is drained and the excess water is pressed out of them while you sit there and eat an energy bar.  When you feel the need for refreshing, you hang up a bucket with a rubber hose plumbed into the bottom, fill the bucket with hot water and treat yourself to a hot shower.  What could be more convenient?

One of the most neglected applications for the humble five-gallon bucket is water transport.  Shoot, by the time I was twelve, I had learned that 8-14 sealed buckets lashed together beneath a plywood deck make an awesome lake raft or swimming platform.  But we Moose Hole kids didn’t limit our bucket boating to rafts.  We launched flotillas of clever bucket ships ranging from outrigger canoes to looming pirate galleons.  I clearly remember the kayak that Walrus Fahnestock built entirely out of five-gallon buckets and duck tape.  The reason I remember it so clearly is that Walrus nearly drowned before we were able to right his craft and get his head out of the water.  I think he needed to work some bugs out of his keel design.

I trust that I’ve provided enough evidence do demonstrate the role that the five-gallon bucket plays in everyday Alaskan life.  Personally, I would be devastated if for some reason they were to be declared illegal.  I don’t think Alaska would survive.  Hopefully the terrorists don’t find out.  Five-gallon buckets could become the next high-profile targets.  Next time you see a bucket, take time to give it a warm hug and thank it for the role it plays in preserving your Alaskan heritage.  If you can’t bring yourself to do that, it’s pretty obvious you’re not a true Alaskan.

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