Saturday, December 24, 2011

First Winter Visit, Before Building

When visiting the area with his dad, before buying the property, Bryan had scrutinized the full time neighbors to ensure that they weren’t some weirdo Unibomber survivalists, and they checked him out, too, to make sure he wasn’t some escaped convict from the lower 48.  Then it was my turn for inspection of both the property and our neighbors.  We flew up in March, spending the coldest week I have ever experienced (-30 degrees), renting one of the guest cabins owned by the full timers.

The Cessna ski-plane flight in March from Anchorage over the Cook Inlet was gorgeous.  The near shore ice forms a kaleidoscope of pieces that form and break and reform with the tide, refracting the light.  It is one of my favorite views.  Beyond that, the initial trip was pretty sobering.   My first impression was that there was NOTHING down there, mile after mile.  Certainly no roads (which meant no electrical lines or plumbing either), and very few, scattered cabins, among which only a few sported smoke curling up from the chimneys.  The frozen lakes, and what I later learned were extensive bogs, were traversed by dozens of snowmobile tracks (called snow machines in Alaska) carved by intrepid people enjoying all day treks with a picnic, an extra can of gasoline, and an emergency pack of supplies and matches in case they fell through thin ice or got lost or stranded. 

The plane landed on the lake ice in front of the only cabins visible along the lake.  Two, homeschooled teenage sons and their dogs greeted us and carted our gear in plastic sleds to one of their winterized, rustic, hand built guest cabins which felt warm and cozy after the chilly flight.  I was eager to meet this family that would become our neighbors and they, it turns out, were curious about us.  This family, whom we found absolutely delightful, and the owners of the two other residences on the lake (seasonal hunting/fishing cabins) were absolutely essential to our ability to learn all the lessons we needed to transition to this very different, remote, rural lifestyle, just as they had done many years ago.   I’ve never asked them, but I bet they thought we’d give up as we showed again and again how na├»ve we were about, well, everything:  food, transport, temperatures, healthcare, dangers.   

I am not sure whether going in March was the best idea or not.  On the one hand, it was sooooo cold.  What a contrast from south Texas!  Fortunately, our hosts bought for us used bunny boots, which are double or triple layers of rubber with air bladders in between.  They look like something Ronald McDonald would wear but wawrmth trumps fashion in my view and my feet have never been cold in them in any the ensuing years I have worn them.  We bought clothes we thought would be warm enough and our hosts discreetly supplemented where our purchases fell short, like every time we went snow machining with them!  The setting was stunning, we got to try moose steaks for the first time, carved off the frozen carcass hanging outside the barn, complete with a squished bullet in one of them.  We eagerly listened to some of their learning experiences as they had developed their property and lifestyle from a previously suburban existence.  On this visit, I enjoyed delicious home cooked meals of great variety and learned that, yes, I could survive an outhouse at 30 below as long as it had a polystyrene toilet seat.  I also discovered that I very much enjoyed the natural beauty and silence of a remote location – something I have since discovered is very disturbing to some other people.  I was particularly impressed by the contentedness of the family that hosted us.   

During that week, the father took us on snow machine excursions to visit some of the other remote cabins and their owners.  We also saw some of the buildings he had built for these neighbors and for his own family.   Although he was retired military (like many people in Alaska), he discovered a previously untapped woodworking skill once he moved out to the bush.  We were quite impressed by his craftsmanship, evident from both construction and art carvings.  By the end of the week, we asked him if he would build a cabin for us.  Since most of his construction projects for others were, by necessity, remote, our commission surely must have appealed to him as the shortest commute he could possibly have. 

He offered us two alternatives:  he could assemble a “kit house,” as he had done for others, if we had the materials flown in by helicopter, or he could build from local spruce he would cut and haul and strip if we bought a log mill that he could use on site for construction.  The costs of either alternative seemed so high for the little cabin we envisioned that we considered an all-weather yurt as an alternative.  However, he recommended a clever friend who, like many Alaskans we have met, could build something from nothing, and in this case, could build a log mill for a reasonable price.  Since the idea of a log cabin built from our own trees was far more appealing than a “Lincoln log” generic house, and since hiring a helicopter to deliver “kit logs” would cost thousands of dollars to deliver what would be a generic product, Bryan checked references and agreed to pay $14,000 for the “mill” that would be hauled in pieces by snow machine sled and reassemble on site before the construction season.  Once assembled on site, the mill looked like a 15 foot metal roof beam horizontally supported about seven feet above ground.  From the top dangled a pulley system of chains that support a log.  Two Honda car tires and a small generator propel the log along so he can plane them into useful sizes for decking and door panels. 

We three designed a simple two story log cabin, with dimensions of 16 x 24 inside with two 10 x 16 covered porches facing south (toward the lake) and a 6 foot wide utility porch on the back.  Our neighbor figured he could cut the trees that winter, age them, strip them the next summer and build the cabin over the ensuing year.   He would haul in by snow machine sled some of the supplies needed for initial construction before the snow got too soft in April.  Other supplies we would need to bring in by plane during the summer or snow machine next winter.  We started developing a long list.

At this point, I felt like we were checking off items on Maslow’s hierarchy:  we had land with fresh water/fish and plenty of fuel, now we would build shelter, too.   Additional construction projects would accumulate over the next three years, such as an outhouse, a storage shed for food and another shed for tools, a fuel depot, a power tower with solar, wind, telephone booster, and a shower house.   Some of these our neighbor built for us, and some we built ourselves or with others. 

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