A WILDERNESS CABIN

A WILDERNESS CABIN        Published in Travelin’ Magazine

A half day’s drive southeast of Fairbanks, where a wild stream roars out of the Alaska Range and tumbles down a boulder field, we pulled our rented car into a turnoff near the water.  It was early autumn.  The low sun stood just above the mountains, their slopes burnished with the coppery reds of tundra blueberry bushes.

We ate snacks in the car.  I noticed a two-track dirt lane leading away from the highway into alder and willow thickets.  We pulled on our coats and, walking at a brisk pace to stretch our legs, followed the road into the wild.

The place was pervaded by a strange sort of peace, the deep serenity I find in raw solitude and the vast spaces of the north.  Despite the harsh reality of thin soil and stunted trees, in country where rivers run amok and winter can be unspeakably cruel, the valley felt protected and good.

We saw no tire marks or other tracks on the road.  A mile in, the road ended abruptly at the rim of a cut bank bluff, as if it had launched into the air and vanished.  Grabbing pine branches for safety we looked over the edge into the cold, raging creek below.  Tangled roots hung above the water’s roar.  Something had been connected by that road, and was now cut off.

The golden day was crisp, the dry air scintillating with gusts that shook the leaves.  An animal trail continued on beside the stream, and we decided to keep going.  Breaking into golden willow bushes, we brushed past the springy limbs of young spruce trees, singing to warn off any nearby bears.  Bears don’t like to be ambushed.

We plowed along through overgrown country, then suddenly in front of us stood a log cabin.  It looked well kept.  We called out but nobody answered.  Was the owner nearby?  We did a little exploring.  The outhouse looked as if it had been abandoned, a sure sign nobody was in residence.  The unwritten rule of the wild north is anyone is welcome, any time, as long as you respect the place, so we knew we would not be seen as trespassers here if anyone did show up.

Many hopeful settlers find their way to Alaska, build a home and settle in, but few are able to earn a living in the rugged land.  It is not unusual to come across an abandoned homestead, in perfect condition.  This one had a tool shed, a hunter’s meat cache up on stilts to keep out the wolves, and an outhouse.  These cabins have saved many lives in bad weather, and everyone respects them because of this history.

We stepped up on the porch and pushed on the hand-built plank door.  It didn’t budge.  Through the front window we could glimpse a shadowy interior in good order.  But the place was locked up tight.  I sat on the edge of porch, feet swinging over the ferns.  This was an inviting location, well chosen.

The view took in a grand scene of sawtooth summits, framed by large spruces.  Beyond the creek, a canyon drew our eyes to a glacier at the end of the valley.  A breeze shimmered through a stand of yellow cottonwoods upstream.

Perhaps the builders had to give up the picture book place when the road washed out.  We sat on the rough planks and imagined living here — the cabin as home, a shelter in a remote country, a human place amid this endless wildness that had been preserved untouched since the beginning of things.

We started back to the car.  Not yet.  I hesitated, wanting to give it one more try.  I stepped up on the porch again.  In a moment of irrational hope, I pulled on a cord protruding through the door planks, and it lifted the hand-made wood latch inside.  The heavy, low door swung open.  We stepped over the high snow-threshold and onto a basketball court.

How could this be?  Painted stripes decorated the beautifully polished blond floor.  It was smooth as pond ice. It looked like some clever person had salvaged the wood from an old gymnasium.

Inside, the cabin was roomy and tight enough for winter, even a central Alaskan howler.  Temperatures hover below minus 60 degrees in the area for long periods some winters.  But, fire up the old cast iron stove and the thick walls of the cabin and its low sloped ceiling with sod insulation above would offer solid and friendly protection.

I recalled a story about a couple that wintered over in a crude shelter in Alaska’s northernmost Brooks Range.  This place would do nicely for such an adventure.  Yes, one could survive here quite content, chopping wood, carrying water and reading by the fire.  The one room was about 16 feet square.

In tightly closed bottles on a shelf under the counter we found flour, sugar, coffee, tea, rice, noodles, beans, dry milk, split peas and more.  Lots of supplies here, and even a few baggies of spices and herbs.  Several cans of kerosene sat by the wall below a lantern hung on a nail.

The sun beamed in through the open door and squirrels in the tall evergreens scolded and chattered their warnings.  The creek rumbled a constant undertone.

Squirrels had got inside somehow.  They’d torn up a corner of the mattress and knocked a cup off the table to shatter.  I shared the wish to preserve this haven.  With the broom, I tidied up a bit, even dusting off the shelves.  When I lifted pots off the top shelf, two bits of writing paper fell to the floor.  I found more notes under the sink.  It seemed everyone who had been here had left a note for the next people.  Gathering the notes, we began to read, stepping out on the porch for brighter light.  Each entry was in different handwriting, on a bit of paper or cardboard, left by a visitor to the cabin who felt moved to communicate with anyone lucky enough to find the place.

June 15, 1995
Dear Hikers, Climbers, Skiers, etc.  This is my first “social” visit to this exceptional accommodation and wonderful area.  Last year I had a party of five up the mountain on a ski trip–great time.  I’ve spent several summers skiing off the glacier since the first year I stumbled into this place, back in ’92.  I’m glad to see the place is in just the same condition as when I first found it.  Happy camping.  Steve Hayes from Kenai
I pulled a three-legged stool out into the sunshine and read on.

September 26, 1996
A beautiful cheery day.  Jeff O’Conner and Nancy Butler from Fairbanks sure enjoyed the shelter of this cabin these past few rainy days.  I believe I, or should I say we, came to a point of turning toward the light in our life while staying here.
This roof needs more tin.  It would be a shame to let the cabin rot away.  Who owns it, anyway?

June 23, 1997
Greetings, Jay.  Do you still own this lovely cabin?  I stop in every year to see how it’s doing.  Still peaceful, as ever.  Good to be back this way.  If you pass through here, my message is — take care.  Deborah Thomas, Anchorage
P.S. It would be nice to see you again, Jay.

I could imagine the builder now — a young man named Jay.  Deborah had known him and hoped he might be here when she arrived.  Perhaps his life had led in a new direction when two paths diverged in the yellow wood, and he’d be back someday if he could.  The next note set a new tone.

March 14, 1998
We arrived here at this picturesque cabin hidden in the trees, about 8 p.m.  The snug comfort of this shelter is a true blessing, shielding us from the tempest outside. But actually, this hut is a disgrace.  I spent an hour looking for an electric outlet.  Now how are we going to make microwave popcorn?   The real bummer is, the ghetto blaster batteries have gone dead.  And on top of that, my partner forgot tapes for the VCR. But, I guess that will make this more of a wilderness experience.

On a separate sheet, on a different shelf, we found the most recent letter along with a pen and some blank paper for future note-makers.

April 16, 2001
Hi climbers and visitors. We’ve been using this cabin this spring and winter and were wondering who owns it.  If you have any information or would just like to leave a note of your stay or climb, feel free to use the paper I left.   Ruth Koenig, Fairbanks
P.S. I swept and cleaned.  Let’s try to keep the place neat.

We wrote a note of our own and left it with Ruth’s, certain that some future visitor would add to the ongoing story.  As we closed the door behind us, our words lay on the table with a pen, waiting for the next arrival, months or years from now.  Who would come  next?  Would the cabin endure for decades, sheltering fortunate explorers, cared for by each?  In the wilderness, that cabin is important, so we’d no reason to assume anything but respect in Alaska for what it represents — its lifesaving potential, its innocent goodness and its hospitality to all.

We may never return to that secret corner of the woods, but if we are lucky we may find another cabin weathering the seasons in the vast wilderness of the north.

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