Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Land is Prepared for Buildings But I'm Not Prepared for this endeavor

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Although my husband had the vision to anticipate what this property could become and what it would mean to him, I definitely didn’t.  Our first few seasons felt like the absolutely bleakest way to spend a summer, like some chain gang of convicts clearing swamps for future county roads to nowhere.  I was hot, sweaty, bored, humiliated, sore, and lonely, particularly when he would disappear for a week at a time on business.  I had absolutely no confidence that Bryan had any idea of what he’d gotten us into.  One day, when the weed whacker’s head spun off, sending in who knew what direction all the little screws and washers under ferns and devil’s club leaves, I sat down in the middle of the forest and cried.  “What are we doing here?  You don’t know anything!” 
We didn’t have any of the right tools and we invariably broke the old ones our neighbors loaned us, in what started to seem like a canny plan to get new replacements from hapless cheechakos, as neophytes are known.  We certainly were na├»ve.  Each replacement required expensive arrangements to fly them out by air-taxi, along with anything else we suddenly realized we’d need, although we as yet had no place to store them.  Weren’t husbands who bought land in Alaska supposed to intuit all this stuff?   

Further, we also had to pay $3000/mo to stay with the people who were building our cabin part time.  I observed some days of enormous energy and activity using gas and generator powered tools and then days and weeks when nothing on our project appeared to transpire.  As a result, this took 1/2 a year longer than we discussed.  It was frustrating, but I was so ignorant of the process and expectations that I was reluctant to say much other than to offer to lend a hand, which was gently rebuffed.

Whereas I had felt like the good wife supporting yet another of my husband’s hare-brained, “shoot now, aim later” schemes I could feel myself starting to whine.  Every exotic, romantic, or sophisticated trip I’d ever hoped to take were rapidly being defunded by every expenditure at Home Depot and every other manly supplier in the greater Anchorage area.  I cringed every time my husband crowed, “Isn’t this fantastic?  Isn’t this the perfect place to spend the rest of our lives?”  (How many spousal readers have felt the same?  Probably many).    

For each of the next three visits, two in summer and one more in winter, we stayed in one of our neighbor’s guest cabins, about six months all told.  This transition chafed a bit at the time, but it gave us the gift of time to learn about our surroundings, to accumulate relevant tools and clothing, and to think about the buildings we wished to construct before we would be on our own. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us decompress from an air conditioned tropical city life in which weather and light don’t change dramatically of impact what ones does to a sub-arctic rural one in which weather and light determine just about everything you do.  
Our cabin's progress the first summer

The 12 x 20 foot guest cabin in which we spent many months had a lovely view of the lake fringed by a thicket of blueberry bushes.  Like the cabin we would build, it had one room downstairs and one upstairs.  In the guest cabin, like many, the upper story was accessed by a steep and narrow ascent, somewhere between a ladder and a stairwell.  The cabin, and two others on the property, had been built by hand decades earlier by a homesteading couple with fewer resources than we had - certainly no Honda generated log mill; perhaps no gas powered saws either.  The first floor logs were arranged vertically, which I hadn’t seen very often, but it is apparently an easier construction technique than lifting enormously heavy logs laterally when your sole power source is the labor of one or two people!   (With that logic, though, I’m not sure how they added the second floor). 

By our neighbors, the guest cabin had been outfitted to accomodate a crowd of eco-visitors, hunters, or fishermen.  Upstairs could now accommodate up to five people in a queen, a single, and a bunk bed.  Downstairs was crowded with a queen sized futon couch/bed, a small dining table and three chairs, a barco lounger, several burl and leather stools, a woodstove, and a kitchen wall with a dry sink (which drains but has no fitted source of water) and little propane stove connected by a short counter, with cabinets above and below.  The outhouse for the guest cabin was about 100 feet away and we shared the shower house with the family, every other night, after they turned their generator on at 6 pm.  Since we ate delicious, healthy food with the family, we didn’t need to store perishable food, but this experience was useful for thinking about how to do that in the future on our own property.  This bucolic setting enabled us to start thinking about what it means to live "out of town."  How much food do you need for six weeks at a time when you can't spontaneously run to the store for eggs or a lemon? What medicines, tools, seeds, entertainment, clothes do you need and how do you prioritize them?

The goals for the first summer were to (a) clear areas we had eyeballed for buildings, (b) pour cement for the base of the future 120 tower which would support solar, wind, cellular, and satellite power, and to take down the existing homesteader’s shed, which was where we wanted the future cabin to be.   We commuted each day by kayak, often carrying a lunch that our hostess had made for us on her delicious homemade bread.  Bryan and I disassembled the little cedar building, preserving some of the useful tools we found inside, and also some reuseable wood, like the floor and door frame, while burning the rest, in a constant, smoky fire intended to discourage the mosquitoes whose homeland we were now invading, much to their obvious chagrin.  With a weed whacker, a chainsaw, and various garden implements we slowly cleared patches of underbrush and created huge piles of debris for future bonfires, to be lit only when the weather would render them safe, during a rainy fall or snowy winter.  

It was hot, slow, hard work.  Despite the fires, mosquito magnet, and smoke coils, the mosquitoes menaced Bryan incessantly.  In defense, he dressed like a Victorian widow, with a large head net tied under his armpits, over a full set of clothing tied at ankles and wrists, and further protection of gloves and high work boots.  By contrast, except in dense woods, the mosquitoes didn’t bother me nearly as much.  On most days, I could wear T shirts and a judicious shot of DEET unless I needed thicker clothes near prickly plants. But after hours of hunching over, I'd go to the flat areas of the land and lie down, mosquitoes or not, to straighten out my back.  Ah...... joy.... smack, smack... back to work.   

Both devil’s club and alder grow incredibly fast in clumps connected by nefarious root systems.   Alder forms giant bouquets, 8-20 feet tall, with 5-20 trunks bowing out of one central root stock.  The wood is so dense and hard and it burns so hot that it is used in forges, and thus is dangerous for a woodstove.  Since they grow so fast (and invariably in areas where you don’t want them), obscuring the breezes so valued for discouraging mosquitoes and black flies and no-see-ums, and since one can’t use them for indoor fuel, they are regarded as Alaska size weeds.    Most of these trees required a chainsaw for removal above the ground.  However, alder will grow again from the stumps, even in that same season, so it was necessary to remove the root structures below ground for any alder located in a particularly vexing spot, such as where the outhouse was planned.  We spent many a day on hands and knees with hoes, axes, and clippers, hacking away at these pernicious plants.  Not delightful.

I hate devil’s club.  I hate everything about it.  I understand that many native tribes prize parts of it for medicine, and I can only hope it has some terrific value.  Below ground, the roots have no thorns, but everything above – the top and bottom of the plate sized leaves, the thick stalks, and any ground runners or stalks that travel above ground, often for 6 or 8 or 10 feet - have thorns which pierce clothes, gloves, and, of course, skin, leaving tender red welts which hurt until the thorns decompose weeks later.  Cutting down one stalk invariably frees another to spring forward into the leg or chest of the increasingly maniacal weed whacking fiend, usually me, who is chopping madly while trying to avoid tripping on the ground runners unseen for the forest of wide, flat leaves.   Did I say that I hate these plants?  Their only redeeming quality is that they are pretty in the spring and fall: white spires of little flowers in the (short) spring and yellow and, in the fall, attractive red leaves topped by spires of bright red berries, that the moose love (so hunters often take down winter’s main food stock in these thickets).  For me, cutting down Devil’s Club offered the same sort of determined satisfaction as swatting a blood swollen mosquito.   After cutting them down by the hundreds, we left them to dry, which rendered them less vicious, and then hauled them off to ever larger pyres.  It took us all summer, about two months, to clear the limited areas for a small cabin, an outhouse, the power shed, and the narrow paths to connect them.  What a way to spend the summer.  Not pleased.. but a bit proud.

Meanwhile, our strong teenaged neighbor dug the 5 x 5 x 6 outhouse pit, over which we placed the old floor of the homesteader’s shed until an outhouse building would be built over it, the following summer.  The night after the pit was dug, a bear marked it with a big pile of scat, as occurred afterward when other building projects were completed, too.  Apparently, we had an audience.  The neighbor also dug a fire pit that he and I surfaced with rocks dug up from the lake as a judicious precaution, since the land here is very peaty, and fires can burn underground, popping up to ground level some distance away, along some root.  My first celebration of "home" was cocktails in the little clearing around the first fire in the fire pit, as we sat on birch logs. It is important to celebrate milestones.    

On days when we couldn’t face another intractable patch of foliage, we worked on the power plant, to be situated on the highest, most open point on the property.  This was quite an impressive endeavor.  We dug out 3 foot squares, 60 feet apart in an equilateral triangle for the future guy wires, plus a larger central square for the future 120 foot tower.  We lined each one with rebar, and mixed cement in a hand cranked mixer.  Bryan’s 77 year old father, bless his heart, was indispensable in this project, as well as the weed whacking, but it is true that he didn’t return again for three more years, until the property was fully developed and he could relax on the front porch of a completed cabin! 

While we cleared the land, our neighbor and his family peeled the logs with a generator powered power-washer and dug holes for 8 foot deep sonatubes, which, filled with cement, would withstand the substantial ice heaving that toppled many another cabin in the vicinity, including the remaining ex-lodge buildings leaning helter-skelter on a neglected property on the lake.  When I was too tired or disillusioned to work, I polished off every book I had brought with me – an entire suitcase full, weighing 65 lbs. (Do you think there is a correlatin that my husband bought me a Kindle the next year?) Fortunately, our neighbor/hostess was an avid reader, too, and having home schooled four children, both our guest cabin and her home cabin contained scores of books on Alaska history, plants, folklore etc which I devoured.   How wonderful, in the midst of a forest in a low density state,  to have a neighbor who is a big reader, too! 

Reading about the privations of prior generations rendered me extremely sheepish about my whining and gave me the gumption to head outside again to joust with another of God’s least attractive creations - floral or faunal.  In a way I had never done before, I really came to appreciate the challenges and the exertions of those who endeavored to carve a home out of some remote land.  In addition, I confronted and prioritized my wants vs. needs and my own strengths and weaknesses.  It was pretty humbling.  (Maybe this is what busting rocks does for people who are incarcerated.)  In retrospect, I'd recommend similar durations of alone time and physical effort for any whiners!

I believe that it will teach humility and, after a while, a sense of accomplishment. 

1 comment:

  1. Ever since I heard that you and Bryan had the Alaska land and cabin, I have wondered about the experience. Thanks for sharing it, including your reactions to the enormity of the project! It sounds like a LOT of hard work!