In the summer of 1971, I signed a contract with the Federal Government to lease a one-acre plot of land in the Chugach National Forest. I was obligated to build a cabin according to plans I had submitted along with my lease application.
I had taken on a larger task than I had imagined!
Fortunately, I had good friends with resources. Ron, who managed all the State Farm agents in Alaska, had a beautiful wife, a wonderful child, a Cessna 180 on floats, and lived larger than life. A past college football player, he was strong in body and spirit and encouraged me and worked beside me as I began my new journey as a builder.
The first step in building a cabin in the woods of Alaska was to clear a path to the spot on which it would be built. This was my first hurdle since a rudimentary road ended two lots before my leased land. I had to learn to handle a chain saw and cut down trees. This was manageable as I learned how to keep the chain saw running without losing the chain, without crimping the chain in a tree, and without landing a tree upon myself! Ron and I spent one weekend with this task alone, after driving the 90 miles from Anchorage, over Turnagain Pass, down the 19 mile dirt road leading to Hope.
We managed to clear the trees in two days.
But now we had to lay gravel over the mossy ground to create a road for our vehicles. Fortunately there were several brave souls who were moving old mining tailings with a small D4 Cat, retrieving small amounts of gold that the 1900 miners could not extract from the nearby Resurrection Creek. I was able to contract with Don to walk his Cat to the cleared trail. There, I had several truckloads of dirt and rocks dumped so a base could be spread. That weekend saw our road extended to the plot we cleared for the cabin. I was pleasantly surprised that our section was substantial, thicker than the gravel laid for the first two lots leading into my leased area.
We now could begin construction.
A rented truck hauled the basic materials from Anchorage. A borrowed generator supplied power for power tools, mostly circular saws and drills. There were no powered hammers in those days. Shovels provided our first attack upon the land as a small crew of friends and I dug 12 holes, each about 3 and a half feet deep, set in three rows. Into these holes we placed Sonotubes which looked like 6 foot long toilet paper rolls. Very thick, these were heavy-duty cardboard structures into which concete is poured to create smooth columns. Rather than use pre-made footers, we braced the tubes into the holes so they did not quite reach the bottom of each hole. In this way, when we mixed and poured concrete into these tubes, some of it would spread out from the bottom to create a footpad that was a bit wider than the tube at the bottom. At the top, we inserted short pieces of steel rebar so that each pillar had a 7 inch “stick” of metal jutting up.
Once each pillar was leveled and the concrete set, we were able to nail together the long 2x8 pieces of lumber we had purchased to create three 4x8 girders. These were then pounded down onto the jutting metal rebar, creating a stable base on which to build our floor and front deck.
The floor was a 16x20 platform created using 2x6's and sheets of ¾ inch plywood transported from Anchorage. I remember those particularly, even today. Ron, using his football player physique, was carrying two sheets at a time from our road to the cleared area for the cabin. Only about 100 feet, this was not a long walk, but the sheets were heavy and we carried them bending over with one hand down and the other up, balancing the weight on our shoulders.
Unfortunately, I attempted to match the physical feat of my friend. I did one carry and must say that I still feel the resulting back injury today, 50 years later.
We built our floor and then marked on it one frame shaped like a diamond with the bottom third cut off. This was to be the skeleton for our modified A-frame structure, one which had a base of 16 x 20 feet. When erected, 5 of these would form the cabin, propped up like a deck of cards, and then tied together with plywood sheets to form a large roof.
It took one summer of work, with help from various friends on weekends, to build the structure. Windows were placed on either end, with a back window being framed in vertically, when it was meant to be horizontal. As I looked at the work to reframe that end window, I panicked. Ron, who was partly responsible for the error, taught me a lesson for life in that moment. He said simply, “We can do all the work of taking it apart and reframing it, OR YOU CAN PROP IT WITH A STICK.” A simple lesson when faced with a difficult decision. We whittled a fancy stick! The phrase “prop it with a stick” has found many uses in our lives since.
Back in town, Wayne and friends helped me in the school auto shop. There, I provided a “kit” I had purchased from a Montgomery Wards catalog for creating a wood stove using a 50-gallon barrel. This consisted of a collar for the pipe, a door, and two legs. We debated whether to cut the barrel down and weld a plate to it so there was a flat surface. The answer was no since I had a propane stove already in place, donated from a building Ron had torn down earlier in the summer. The demolition provided a large swatch of shag carpet, a sink, and a countertop too.
We attached all the parts and painted the stove flat black. Metalbestos insulated pipe was purchased to carry through the 12x16 loft area, necessary so no one could be burned when passing by the pipe coming up through the middle of the cabin.
A deck was completed, roofing shingles attached, plywood painted, and the cabin was completed by the end of that summer. Altogether the materials cost was just a bit over $3,000.
After 8 years of use, we transferred the lease to a new couple who purchased the improvements for $20,000.
40 years later, we revisited the lot. It was now owned by a real estate investor in California. The State of Alaska had taken over the property from the Federal Government in 1982 and sold the lots to the prior leasees for about $850 each. A rural electrification project provided lines for electricity at no cost to the owners.
We discovered several things: Our cabin had been almost untouched in 40 years. My son’s plastic sled was still underneath alongside the Sonotubes. The same table and chairs, drapes, and tablecloth were viewable through the front window. The roof was intact, though moss covered. The front deck was rotted and not safe to walk upon but the main structure looked solid. A neighbor informed us the lots were worth in excess of $100,000 in 2014.
All around were various structures built without regard to the rules and regulations of the Forest Service leases. There were ramshackle shacks beside nicely built homes. This was not the wilderness any more, and my wife and I both agreed it would not be a desirable cabin location today!
Did I mention… our original lease purchasers were a couple from Juneau, where one was blind and the other deaf?
Perhaps this story was too “concrete” There are more interesting stories to come.