Every year, hordes of tourists flock to the Last Frontier. They spend millions of dollars on souvenirs, t-shirts, cruises, tours, sightseeing packages, and moose poop jewelry. They go to the BrewHouse, Alaska Wildberry Products, and walk the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. They scan the parks and roadsides looking for the elusive moose, black bear, and caribou. In rare moments of brilliancy, they climb the fences at the zoo and are mauled by polar bears. In essence, these people are searching for one simple thing: the Alaskan Experience.
What the Department of Tourism isn’t telling them is that the two pampered weeks they spend in Anchorage, in the middle of June, is as close to the Alaskan experience as being bitten by a giraffe.
To truly know and appreciate this great land, one must possess a pioneering attitude of courage, adventure, and an appreciation of the simple virtues in life: hard work, dedication, perseverance, and patience. Or, one can simply be dumb, broke, and a little crazy. (Guess which one I chose).
To anyone who knows me but at all, the idea of me “roughing it” is generally enough to induce hysterical laughter. I hate to camp. In fact, I hate it so much that instead of tenting it on the banks of the Kasilof River while dip netting, I decided instead to spend the night in the hospital having my appendix removed. Even my removable internal organs hate to camp.
Once, I went on a three-day canoe trip through the Swanson Lake system near Soldotna. I will admit to having fun, but not when I woke up covered in frozen dew, spiders, and hearing a moose chewing grass less than five feet from my tent. I complained a lot that trip. I’m sometimes surprised that my husband, who was there, still married me after that fiasco.
Imagine the surprise (shock is more like it) of everybody I know when my husband and I casually announced that we were moving out of our three bedroom duplex into a 16×20 foot cabin in the woods.
Were we crazy? Probably, but for the most part, we were broke. Fr. John (who was not even Fr. John at the time) was only working part-time, and my full-time job in the accounting office of a local Ford dealership hardly fit the bill as a big moneymaker. Moving was the simplest way to cut costs. Since the cabin was owned by some of our closest friends, we knew we would be in good hands.
As if the size of the cabin wasn’t enough, the fact that it had no running water and was heated by a wood stove compounded matters a bit. My parents, who had lived in Alaska for the last 25 years, shrugged their shoulders and wished us luck in paying our bills. My South Carolina in-laws, however, might have thought we had lost our minds. My closest friends, some Alaskans, some not, figured my husband was twisting my arm. They were in even greater shock when I informed them that this whole insane idea was mine.
So in September of 2003, we gritted our teeth, packed our beautiful home, put 70% of our belongings into storage, and moved into the cabin.
Ten of our buddies had turned out to help us move, and they sat around in the front yard for a while, drinking beer and making fun of the Port-A-Potty that was to be my bathroom for the next year.
“That son-of-a-gun is going to be cold this winter,” was Dan’s only comment.
Since it was Saturday morning and Monday was Labor Day, I had three days to unpack. Considering the few belongings we now had, you would think that this would be an easy task. You would be wrong.
Jesse, our friend and new landlord, had spent a day the previous week painting the plywood floor a beautiful shade of green, covering the rather dingy yellow it had been before. Unfortunately, he had used an exterior paint, thinking that it would be more durable to heavy traffic. It hadn’t had time to dry completely, and, as a result, the cardboard boxes stuck to the floor with alarming strength. Green paint had also been drug up the stairs onto the brand new white carpet remnant a contractor friend had given us.
Labor Day found Fr. John and our friends Josh, Jesse and Dan doing labor: on their hands and knees scraping cardboard and goopy paint off the floor with putty knives. I stayed upstairs, drowning my sorrows in two liters of Dr. Pepper and a bag of mini Milky Ways. In less than eight hours, despite tripping over the guys every time I turned around, I converted our hole-in-the-wall cabin into a cozy, though condensed, home of which I was extremely proud.
Our first month in the cabin passed. We were saving money and paying bills, which was our goal. Of course it was hard. Cooking had turned out to be a real feat. We had a miniature propane stove (when I say miniature, I mean we were hard pressed to fit a half-sized cookie sheet in the oven), and the propane tank was located behind the house. Since we both worked, we had no desire to keep the tank on all day and waste propane. Every time I wanted to cook, one of us would run behind the cabin to turn on the propane, and then bang on the outside wall. This was the signal for the person inside to light the pilot lights before the gas asphyxiated us. As fun (and well-thought-out) as this sounds, it didn’t always work. The pilot lights were notoriously picky, and sometimes wouldn’t light for three to five minutes. By then, we were growing woozy from the gas, and afraid of the cloud of flame that would burst from the stove when it finally lit. In the end, we usually chose to skip the hassle and survive primarily off microwave hot pockets. It’s amazing we’re still alive.
Hauling water from the local fire station was an adventure. In fact, the whole kitchen water setup was an adventure. Our sink looked like a normal sink, as the builders had attached a faucet. Of course, this faucet was purely for aesthetic purposes, but on more than one occasion (about once a week) we would forget that we didn’t have running water and turn the faucet on. Our real water ran from a five-gallon blue camping container turned on its side. It drained into a large red bucket we kept under the sink. We had to remember to empty the bucket of its dirty water at least once a week, or it had a terrible tendency to smell like road kill.
We took a video of our little house down to my in-laws in South Carolina. They watched in disbelief (and a little bit of awe, I like to think), but what really put my father-in-law in stitches were the Christmas lights that we strung from our front door to the port-a-potty, so we could see where we were going in the dark. It seemed like simple practicality to us, but in retrospect, the Christmas lights almost add insult to injury to the slight absurdity of having a port-a-potty in my front yard to begin with. But despite all of this, the cabin was livable, workable, and on some occasions, downright fun
Then winter hit.
Regardless of anything anybody ever tells you, you haven’t really lived until you’ve used a Port-A-Potty in –20 degree cold, while wearing pajamas and a headlamp. About halfway through the winter, my husband took pity on me and cut a piece of blue insulated foam into the shape of a toilet seat to help keep my backside from freezing to the inside of the outhouse. I love that little piece of foam, and twelve years later, we both still maintain that it was the best gift he’s ever given me.
We discovered a lot of things that winter, like how to light fires with precision, despite an accident early on that left my husband with partial eyelashes, singed eyebrows, and burned the hair off his knuckles. I learned to cook while wearing gloves, a coat, and a scarf wrapped around my head like a Russian Babushka. We learned that, in extreme cold, our freezer will thaw and everything in the fridge will freeze. We learned to wash our hair by heating four cups of water in the microwave for exactly two minutes, then pouring it over our heads into the sink, and that one can successfully entertain a dinner party of ten people with paper plates and plastic silverware in a space roughly the size of a hospital elevator.
That winter had more snow than in recent years, and shoveling was more complicated than usual. Instead of the normal path from the car to the front door, we also required a path around the back of the house to the propane tank, one to the woodpile, and one to the outhouse. I managed to only have to shovel once that winter, and that was as a surprise for my husband (he thought I had guests who’d done it for me). We also had to shovel off the woodpile on more than one occasion, and discovered with some dismay that our tarps, which we used to cover the wood, had holes in them, causing our wood to get wet.
Let me tell you how much fun it is to light a fire with wet wood, when it’s only 19 degrees in your house and you’re shivering so hard that you can hardly strike matches. (Maybe I’ll just let you guess). We never did learn how to keep the heat even. The temperature would go from frigid, to perfect, to sweltering, all in the space of two hours. More often than not, we would run around the house wearing summer clothes and opening all the windows, regardless of the external cold nearing 0 (or lower).
That fire turned out to be the bane of my existence. The extreme cold outside, combined with the uneven heat inside, a mild case of asthma and a stubborn woman who refuses to go to a doctor, caused a rather severe case of pneumonia to develop in both of my lungs. I finally went to the doctor with a body-spasming cough, a fever, and lung x-rays that caused my doctor to say, “Wow.” He sent me home with horse-pill antibiotics, and instructions to lie in bed for three days and do nothing.
His eyes grew wider and wider as I described how this was, in fact, impossible, due to the fact that if I didn’t move to haul wood, feed the fire, etc., I would freeze to death. Thus, I ended up spending the next two days on my friend Melissa’s couch, watching cable and mooching off of her well-stocked cupboard. I couldn’t go home until eight in the evening, after Fr. John had been home for two hours and there was some semblance of warmth in the house.
Despite all the hardships, adventure flourished in places where we least expected it. One morning in early summer, we awoke to hearing bizarre scratching noises inside our stove. We assumed a squirrel had fallen down the stovepipe. After heading off to work, and I made a quick call to Animal Control, hoping to have the squirrel out of my stove by the time we got home. Animal Control casually informed me that most of the time, it’s not squirrels that fall down stovepipes, but ducks.
“Ducks?” I exclaimed in disbelief.
“Oh yeah,” the lady calmly replied. “I don’t know how they fit in there, but it happens all the time.”
I hung up the phone after learning of the $100 fee they would charge me to remove the duck/squirrel from my stove, figuring that with a fishing net, thick gloves, and somebody else doing the hard stuff, I’d be able to handle the problem on my own. When I returned home, ready to face the worst, I found an empty stove. Whatever was in there apparently clawed (or flew) its way up 15 straight feet and out the stovepipe cap. Since that time, I have learned a little more about the insulation in our cabin (in particular, around the stovepipe), so if a Park Ranger ever discovers a small animal with asbestos-induced cancer, chances are that animal was in my stove.
It so happened that, when we’d been living in the cabin for about 10 months, my husband got a new job, and my new job (which was partially commission based) started to boost our income a little as well. We made the choice to leave behind our “Love Shack” and put both feet back into civilization. I was happy to have running water again, but I will readily admit to missing the cabin at times. Not the cold, and most certainly not the port-a-potty (what a blessing it is to wake up and pee inside), but the simplicity of life. It’s amazing what you can live without when you put your mind to it (or when you’re desperate, either one). My husband was sad though. After helping us move out, one of his friends made a comment that he looked like he wanted to hug the wood stove goodbye.
The ramifications of living in the cabin have reached into places that I had never expected. For example, I had to buy my husband all new pants, as his jeans are all stained with soot from the fire. We both initially developed an annoying habit, involving turning the faucet on, or flushing the toilet, looking at each other, and laughing in amazement. We also eat a lot less Taco Bell, corn dogs, and Hot Pockets now that doing the dishes doesn’t require hauling a box of pots and pans to my sister’s house down the road. One of the best things of not living there anymore is not having to open the front door, look slowly from right to left, and around the corner of the house, to ensure that our not-so-friendly neighborhood black bear hasn’t taken up abode right in front of my car.
One would think that this year of roughing it and building character in the woods would have a lasting impact on my dislike of camping. One would be wrong. I camped for an entire year. I have fulfilled my quota, and I need never do it again. Unfortunately, my husband doesn’t agree with me, and neither do my children. Therefore, as I have no more organs that may spontaneously rupture (I hope), and as I have been informed that our times camping in a back of the truck camper are cheating and don’t count, I may have to camp again.
So look out world—I’ve had the Alaskan experience, and I survived it. There’s nothing I can’t do now.