When Rachelle and I set out on this adventure a few years ago our intent was to provide useful and informative articles about living in Alaska. For those of you that follow our podcast, you know that like many of you reading this, life took a turn that we just didn’t see coming. Firstly, the pandemic had huge impacts on us both on a personal level as well astronomically increasing demands on our professional lives. This left little time for much else. The times we were able to sneak away were few and brief.
As we entered 2023 Rachelle, and I made a commitment to each other that we were going to take back our lives and get back to enjoying all of the incredible adventures that Alaska has to offer and to working towards our ultimate goal of living in the cabin that we are trying to build. We would love to bring everyone who might be interested along on this journey with us. This is not one where we’ll just show off the successes.
You will get to experience everything from the planning (and sometimes re-planning) to the challenges, the things that don’t go right (it’s never really a failure, just a chance to learn another way something shouldn’t be done…) as well as the successes. We’ll talk about the lessons we learn throughout the process. We anticipate literal blood, sweat, and tears when it comes to many of the things, we plan to take on but we’re ready and we’re committed.
Our First Trip to Camp
For years Rachelle and I have been searching for a piece of land to build on. My goal for as long as I can remember was to have a remote cabin and be as close to self-sufficient as one can be. I have been incredibly blessed with an absolutely amazing wife who not only supports me in my vision but wants this as much as I do. After years of searching for the perfect place, we actually learned that Rachelle was already named as an owner of a piece of land that had been used by her family for generations. We first visited the location in 2019. The only access to the land required a long drive and then a boat ride. This was Rachelle’s first visit in over 25 years and my first time ever.
This had been the site of the family’s fish camp. A location used for generations by her Athabaskan family to catch and process salmon. The old smoke house built by her grandfather was the only structure. It stood tall and proud, the poles that made up the frame of the smokehouse looked as solid that day as they probably looked the day it was built, a testament to the care taken in the preparation and construction of the nearly 15-foot-tall smokehouse.
Nearby we found the remains of an old picnic table, the fire pit, an old sink used my Rachelle’s grandmother, and what was left of a two by four and plywood platform that her dad had built to put their tent on all those years ago. The area had become overgrown with the wild Alaskan Rose. The rose is a beautiful flower, but the stems are covered in wicked thorns that often puncture even the best leather gloves. At this time, we didn’t know that this would become our future home, but I could see in Rachelle’s eyes the connection she had to this location that day. I knew that this place was special to her, and we would likely return.
In the Spring of 2021, Rachelle and I were married standing on the point overlooking the Minto Flats. It was a beautiful day surrounded by our friends and family. Rachelle had spent nearly a month making her dress out of traditionally tanned moose hide and I had made our rings from the leg bone of a moose. The moose is incredibly important to the people of Minto, and we wanted to include this in our celebration. The ceremony was followed by a reception at the Tribal Hall and included many wonderful foods to include moose and beaver. Friends had called in a band and many hours of dancing followed.
Days after our wedding, and having learned of Rachelle’s ownership of the land, we decided to spend a four-day weekend at the old fish camp. The trip was mostly just opportunistic. We were both away from work and all of our other obligations at the same time so we chose to escape someplace that we couldn’t get recalled easily.
It was a smokey Friday in the interior of Alaska. Something we have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to every few summers. Forest fires in the interior of Alaska have become something we just live with. We quickly packed up the wall tent, the coolers, and camping gear, hooked up the boat and left Fairbanks, excited about what the weekend would hold. After an hour on the road discussing our plans of what we would do immediately upon arriving at camp, we made it to the boat launch.
A quick change into our XTRATUF boots and we began transferring gear into the boat before pushing out into the river. The bright summer sun was dancing off of the ripples of the river’s surface as we worked our way along trying to avoid the shifting sandbars of the Tanana River. About an hour and a half later and a mile from camp, we spotted a bald eagle flying along with us as if escorting us on our journey.
Arriving at camp, the first priority was a security check. This is most definitely bear and wolf territory and there’s nothing worse than to start offloading your stuff only to find a curious bear who’d like to see what you’ve got. They just don’t have much of a gentle touch as they paw through your gear tasting everything to see what might be edible. Thankfully, there was no sign of anything but a pair of squirrels around the camp.
The Tanana River is long and fed by many creeks and rivers which can cause some very dramatic water fluctuations throughout the year. Because of this, the camp sits high on the bank well above the water line. Most of the trees are balsam poplar with some black spruce and birch scattered throughout the area. Since the camp was overgrown with rose bushes, the next task at hand was to clear the area to setup the tent.
The old tent platform built by Rachelle’s dad was looking pretty rotten, so we opted to clear a new location to setup the canvas wall tent. Once the tent was up, it was time for a fire and some food. I hauled up a load of sand from the riverbank to put in the bottom of the old fire pit. Rachelle lined the pit with large river rocks and lit a nice fire that quickly dispersed the mosquitoes that were lingering around the camp. A wonderful meal cooked in camp, seated around the fire with an incredible view of the river and the most incredible wife sitting beside me. Things were perfect.
There is just something that I can’t quite explain about that cup of coffee from the percolator while in camp. It is the absolute best cup of coffee each and every time I experience it. That next day was spent improving and clearing our camp site, we also took a few hours and rode upriver a couple of miles to a gravel bar to do a little rock hounding. We love to get out and look for agates when we’re on the rivers. While no agates were found this time, we did get a number of other beautiful rocks that would be taken home to be tumbled.
Upon returning to camp, we walked the riverbank as far up and downriver as we could in order to see the property lines. We also walked back into the woods away from the river looking for possible cabin locations. As we sat around the fire that night was discussed the options and finally settled on the area that made the most sense to us. The hard work would begin the next day…
We walked the shoreline to the area we had chosen. Several times, we climbed the riverbank and walked into the tree line to scout the area until we found the spot that spoke to us both. We had walked about 100 feet from the river and located an area with many large balsam poplar trees. The area was overgrown with willows and small trees and more roses. There were also quite a few large trees that had fallen over time. Clearing this area was not going to be easy but as we stood there together, we both knew this was the spot of our future home.
With just machetes we began clearing out the underbrush immediately. By lunch time we had most of the small brush and bushes cut and a large pile started. We made our way back to camp to take a break and get something to eat. We both ate quickly, excited to get back to work and then returned to the site with additional tools including the chainsaw, mosquito coils (PIC) and camp chairs to allow us to take more comfortable breaks.
While I ran the saw, Rachelle expanded the cleared area nearly doubling the space we had. One of the great things about Alaska in the summer is the never-ending sunlight. You can get so much done. One of the bad things about Alaska in the summer is the never-ending sunlight. You find that you JUST KEEP WORKING without realizing how late it is. We were making so much progress. Our breaks were spent envisioning how things would be setup. It was late when we finally realized just how hungry and tired we were. We gather up our stuff and made our way back to camp where we made a quick meal and then it was off to a much needed sleep after a very long day of strenuous activity.
The final morning was a tough one. It was almost painful knowing that we had to pack up and return to our jobs with no idea of when we would get another chance to return. But now we knew there was something out there for us. There was additional motivation to return soon and keep the momentum going. We told ourselves that the break would give us an opportunity to pick up additional tools and materials that would help us be more efficient on the next visit. It didn’t really make leaving any easier though. We took down the tent, packed up our gear and loaded the boat for the ride back to the truck. We pushed the boat out into the river, looked at camp and promised each other that we’d return as soon as we could get another few days free.
Make sure to check back to hear about our return and the start of the build and maybe even a little bit about our late-night visit from a black bear.
Also check out our podcast in the side bar or wherever you get your podcasts. Rachelle and I discuss the cabin site and our plans.