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Tomáš Cerha

Log Cabin in Alaskan Wilderness

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Tomáš Maršík, 28.7.2004

Throughout the summer 2003 I was working in the Denali National Park area. After that I headed to the wilderness north of the Denali Park, there with a friend of mine we built a primitive log cabin and then I just myself spent the winter there, learning how to survive in the wild...

Since my childhood I have been interested how a primitive live in pristine nature affects human mind. It was my boy dream, to experience such a live myself and to compare it with the live in civilization. I wanted to better understand what we really gain and what we lose thanks to the modern technologies in today normal live. Now my dream is becoming a reality. It's May 13, 2003 and I am sitting in an airplane heading to Alaska. I am going to build a log cabin in wilderness and spend the winter there.

But before I start this big adventure I am going to work for 4 months in the area of the Denali National Park. In advance, while still in the Czech Republic, I had arranged the job of a landscaper. I gained the visa through the Work & Travel USA program.

Having a job here is a great opportunity how to spend the whole summer in this beautiful area of the Denali National Park. Besides work there is so much to do here. Once I am going rafting with my friends. Another time I am taking a flight in a small airplane over the Alaska Range. But the best thing to do here is backcountry hiking and camping with friends. Climbing mountains, crossing glacier rivers, passing through thick bush, avoiding bear problems, camping with the view of Mt McKinley - all this belongs to our backcountry trips.

Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley (20320 ft, 6194 m)

Time flies and suddenly it's the beginning of September. The landscape is getting beautiful fall colors and peaks are covered with snow again. The season is almost over and my mind is being more and more occupied with one thought - the long planned adventure is coming close. In a little while I will be building my new home in wilderness. But luckily I won't be there completely alone. My friend Darren, whom I met this summer, has more then one month of a free time before starting his new job and he is excited when he hears about building a log cabin in wilderness. So I will have a helper at least for a while.

Denali National Park Denali National Park

There is a lot to prepare. We are buying tools and other equipment. Also we are shopping big supplies of basic food, such as rice, pasta, oats, beans, trail-mix, powdered milk, etc. As far as meat, that we are going to hunt.

Salmon is still running in Alaskan creeks. So we are using this opportunity and heading for a fishing trip. This way we are getting enough meat supplies, so that we won't have to spend time hunting while building the cabin. We know that we will have to build fast, because winter will be coming soon.

It is the middle of September and my stay in the area of the Denali National Park is at the end. I had a wonderful summer. Working here was a great choice. But these impressions are quickly vanishing, because totally new thoughts are taking their place. The big adventure starts.

Building the log cabin

When I was in Alaska a couple of years ago I met this nice guy who lives in wilderness on his homestead. His place is a couple of miles away from a highway and there is a dirt road going to his property. Besides his house there is a large forested area, pristine nature. He and I became good friends and when he learned about my boy dream, he said: 'You can build your log cabin on my land if you want.' So I said: 'Okay!'

It is September 17, 2003 and I am walking through the bush, looking for a suitable place to build the cabin on. Here! That's exactly it! Nice little open area with solid gravel ground in the northern part of it. I could hardly find a better place. Darren is coming and he likes the place the same way I do.

Where are we going to build?

We are pitching two small camping tents to sleep in and one bigger tarp tent, which serves as our storage space, kitchen and dining room at once. The next important construction is our food-cache. We are building it on tall posts so that no bears nor other animals can get there. Here we are storing not only food, but also dishes, toiletries, etc.

Our camping constructions are all done and it's time to start building the log cabin. We are using mostly natural materials - taking down trees to get the logs, collecting moss for chinking, digging sod for the roof. We allow ourselves also some manmade resources, such as nails and glass for windows. The only powered tool we are using is a chainsaw. Besides that we only have hand-tools. We are building fast. Darren is not only a great friend, but also an amazing helper.

View from the food-cache "Dwarf" Darren...

It is getting colder and colder and it already freezes quite a bit at nights. But luckily we managed to get one big friend here. We rolled him here through the bush and now he provides warmth for us. A wood stove is the friend. Not only we use it to get warmer and to cook but also we warm up the frozen moss on it that we need for chinking.

Darren loved the wood-stove.

The salmon supplies are slowly getting slimmer. But there is still some salmon running in the creeks, so we are using this chance to get more meat and we are going fishing once more. We are getting a few salmons but it is freezing, water is cold, and I am getting my first negative experience with cold weather - the tips of my fingers are getting frostbitten and I am loosing feeling in them. At the moment I don't know yet that it is going to take two months before I get the feeling back.

It is the end of October and Darren's stay in wilderness is at the end. We are saying good bye to each other. With Darren also the good weather is leaving. Not only am I here alone to handle these heavy logs but also I am experiencing weather conditions which make everything even slower. At first it snows. Then there is freezing rain here and everything gets covered with a layer of ice. Then it snows again.

Taking a shower...

The gables and the roof is what still has to be done. Now, when I need to get the logs really high, I am here alone and there is no one here to help me. At the end though, by means of ropes and tremendous effort, I am successfully getting the heavy logs up.

'The logs are really heavy...' I am slowly getting it!

My tent is getting covered with snow and gradually becoming an igloo. It is freezing more and more. The temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero several times, while I am still living in my camping tent. The warmest part of a day is always a night, because I have a really good sleeping bag (in fact three sleeping bags in one another). The coldest part of a day comes right after that though - it's the morning when I have to crawl out of the warm sleeping bag. My hands get cold quickly when I am putting on the freezing clothes, so I am forced to crawl into the sleeping bag again and to warm up. This repeats several times before I have all needed layers on. At the end I am dressed in a t-shirt, a sweater, three fleece jackets, a down jacket, and a canvas jacket. When after almost an hour of the effort I am finally all dressed, I go running to warm up and I quickly eat my breakfast. Before that I have to warm up my spoon though. This I learned at one of my previous experiences at which I hurt my lip when the spoon got frozen to it.

My tent is getting covered with snow... My bedroom...

Building the cabin is slow because I spend a lot of time doing activities that protect me from cold. When my hands freeze I just stop working and intensively rotate my arms to get the blood running even in the tips of my fingers. When my feet get cold I simply go running for a while. Besides I have to keep preparing the firewood. One of the few advantages of coming winter is that the bears are already asleep and I don't have to worry about bear safety any more.

There is no other chance but to build. I know that it is going to get even colder and that I have to move into the cabin soon. It is the end of November and I am finishing the roof. Then I am making the door, putting it in and ... I am moving from my tent into the cabin!!! I can't believe the perfect timing - the very first night the temperature drops to 55 below!

It got a bit colder... View from the roof of my cabin

Living in the cabin

It is December 2 and my first day in the cabin. It is far from being done but one can live in it already. The outside temperature is 50 below and I am able to get the cabin about 60 degrees warmer. So the inside temperature is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, it feels warm - especially when I come from the outside to the inside.

If you don't recognize him...

While I am living in the cabin I am going on building it. I am plugging remaining holes with moss, sealing the door, and the cabin is getting always warmer. After building the loft I am moving up there and I sleep right above the stove. I almost forgot how it feels, to sleep on a warm place.

The next thing I am working on is a table. I am finishing it one day before Christmas. So I have a nice Christmas present for myself. It is something amazing, to have an even surface. I am placing a little Christmas tree on my table and a candle under the tree. For the Christmas dinner, of course, I am having salmon.

With a lantern

After more than three months sitting on a stump I am starting to miss a seat where I could lean my aching back. So I am making a chair with a back. Now I have all I need. It is such a luxury - I have a warm place to sleep, a table and a chair! I don't need anything else.

I am running out of salmon. It is time to start hunting. I am taking a rifle and going for an all-day hunting trip. It is forty below and I am not seeing one single animal. Only later I learn that animals hardly come out when it's cold like this. I try hunting several more times but always with the same result. So I am starting to set traps and snares, hoping to get a rabbit. But I am not successful in that either. I have no experience with trapping and besides that the rabbit population is low this year.

Hunting

It has been two weeks since I set my traps and still no rabbit. It is a bit warmer and from time to time a squirrel comes out. I am shooting and eating two of them. There is not too much meat on them but I am grateful even for the small amount. Then I suddenly meat a moos cow with a calf. I know it would be a lot of meat but I don't want to kill these animals. I am leaving them alone and trying on to get a rabbit. Before long I am getting one and then a couple of more. I don't like killing the animals but I know it's the way how to survive in wilderness.

I really like living here. I am making firewood, working on details on the cabin, fixing the worn out equipment, maintaining the traps, snowshoe hiking in the nature around, reading at nights with the light of a kerosene lantern. I like all these activities. Also I enjoy solving different problems that the live in wilderness brings. But even though I like it here after some time I start to miss some bigger variety. The live here is becoming a bit monotonous. Also what I am missing is some companion.

The cabin inside Reading with the kerosene lantern

At the beginning of March, my friend Willie is stopping by. He lives in the area of the Denali National Park, but from time to time he goes on a snow-machine to his cabin in wilderness. It is in the same area where my cabin is but his is about 10 more miles farther back into the woods. And so he is picking me up and we are going to his cabin. The weekend after, Willie's friends are joining us on their snow-machines and we are heading there again. I am happy to be in a company of other people after being alone for such a long time. Also it is nice to experience snow-machining, this modern way of traveling in wilderness.

The spring is coming to Alaska. The sun rises up high and gives beautiful shine to the snow-covered landscape. With the spring mood I am spending the last month in my cabin. Besides the snow-machine trips with my friends I just alone do a couple of extended snow-shoe hikes.

The springtime! The spring mood...

It is the beginning of April and my stay in wilderness ends. I am said to say good bye to my cabin and to this wild place, which was my home for half a year. Before leaving back to the Czech Republic though, I am stopping by at my friends at the Denali Park. Besides a couple of hiking trips into the mountains we do one trip with a dog team. Dog-mushing is such a great and smooth way to travel through the winter Alaskan countryside.

The springtime in Alaska What a traveling... Mountains of the Denali National Park

My stay in the far north is at the end. I am sitting in the airplane which is taking off and in a little while flying up high. For a long time I am looking through the window at the beautiful mountains until they disappear of my sight. Good bye, Alaska.

Some thoughts at the end

My boy dream came true and I got to experience primitive live in wilderness. I had a wonderful time there even though I didn't have any comfort nor luxury that the live in civilization provides. I traded it for much deeper, longer lasting, and, in my opinion, more precious feelings resulting from balanced physical and mental activity, healthy environment, hard work, and accomplishment. But, as I mentioned before, the live in wilderness became a bit monotonous. I didn't miss comforts nor luxury but I missed the variety that the civilization provides - I missed modern sports, emailing friends, meeting new people, traveling, and many other things enabled by modern technologies.

I came back to civilization with new appreciation. I better realize the value of today resources. But I also realize the necessity of their sensitive use so that there is still enough natural resources and healthy environment for the future generations.

So thanks to my stay in wilderness I better realized that the modern technologies are beneficial if we use them sensitively and in a reasonable extent - if we use them in a way that we don't become controlled by their comforts and that we don't damage the environment to us nor the future generations.

Sunset Northern lights
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