May 11, 2013
Building Cabins Off The Grid
By Peter B. Mathiesen
Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a new life in Alaska. Here’s why he made the move, what everyday life is like, and how it feels to have Denali right outside your window.
If you’re a second or third generation Alaskan, you most likely have a family cabin tucked away somewhere in the wilderness. Many are homesteads settled during the 60s through the early 80s, or the land was simply purchased and a family built a structure over time.
Cabins can be anywhere, on lakes, rivers, or just sitting on a hill with a view of the mountains. It’s romantic to think of a floatplane pulling up to a majestic log building with a view of glacier. And although they do exist, it’s more likely you'll access the 16 x 20 foot post building by snow machine (no Alaskan would call it a snow mobile) 10 miles from a main road.
Most Lower 48'ers may be surprised to know that the majority of cabins are built in the winter. Snow-covered frozen lakes provide an instant highway system that can be traversed by snow machine, making it inexpensive to freight building supplies to a site.
Alaskans will haul materials up to 40 miles into the bush to a winter construction site. You can buy or build a freighting sled that will often be pulled by older wide-track Polaris, Artic Cat, or Skidoo.
In Talkeetna, anytime of the winter, the downtown parking lot at the Chase Trail will be a buzz of activity with lumber, generators, and cans of fuel being readied for transport up the trail.
The most active month is March, because of the tricky warming weather. By April, most rivers, the true Ice Roads of Alaska, are at least partially open with substantial amounts of over-flow. Once the ice on the river is unstable, it can be highly dangerous to traverse. A sporty snow machine running at 40 mph can easily skim water. But on a slow-moving wide-track with a freight sled, you simply won’t make it. The machine and platform will be sent into a frigid hole and will likely be impossible to retrieve. Every remote cabin owner I know has sunk a sled at least once. Sometimes it’s not a big deal. Others times, people have lost everything, and every once in a while, a few perish.
Some of these cabins can be accessed by jet boat in the summer or by ATV, but it’s in the winter when 90 percent of the bush cabins are restocked or built. Some small villages, like Skwentna on the Iditarod Trail, even have Snow Cat contractors that will haul thousands of pounds of supplies.
The conveniences found in many of these small homesteads can be amazing. With the advent of more reasonably priced solar systems and smaller generators, almost all cabins have electricity. Some have hot running water to a sink or shower. But few have toilets. Most use outhouses, but when it’s cold or you’re creeped out because a grizzly is hanging out by the back of the cabin, the traditional Alaskan honey bucket (a five-gallon plastic bucket equipped with a toilet seat and sawdust) will do nicely.