Moving the Dogs

skookum in sled

While winter is a the dominant season in Alaska, we do have 4-5 snow-free months each year.  What do the poor dogs do without snow?  Mostly summer is their time to play and re-charge.  For exercise in the summer we let the dogs run around with us one or two at a time. 

Ursa and puppy Bruce Lee explore the willow bar below our camp just after spring breakup.  Lots to explore!

Ursa and puppy Bruce Lee explore the willow bar below our camp just after spring breakup.  Lots to explore!

We also boat the dogs to various islands in groups of four to play and stretch their legs.

Dogs explore "sled dog island"

Dogs explore "sled dog island"

They like getting in the river to cool down and drink.

They like getting in the river to cool down and drink.

This works great...mostly.   Three of our dogs- Yawp, Eowyn and Bruce Lee enjoy swimming and if they see something particularly alluring, say a dead fish, they are apt to swim the river to get to the other side!

The dogs really like riding in boats, but to do it safely we need to tie them in so they don't all run to one side of the boat at the same time and flip it.

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dogs in boat

Especially clumsy non-swimming dogs sometimes get a lifejacket.

jenna and polar in boat

In addition to moving them around for fun and exercise, moving the eight dogs in the summer between our cabin in Fairbanks and homestead on the Tanana River is a logistical challenge.  Step 1: Load the cars into their dog boxes in the trailer and drive them to the river.  Here is an image of our old set up (left): dog box on truck. That worked well for years but it gets hard on the dogs to jump all the way up into the boxes and hard on the truck's suspension.  Our friend Anita gave us a trailer which David converted into a dog trailer (right).  We really like this system because it gives us more space in the truck and is easier for the dogs to get in and out of.

Old system: Dog box on truck.

Old system: Dog box on truck.

New system: Dog trailer pulled by truck.  2 sleds can be mounted on this as well as a storage container.  It now has 8 boxes.

New system: Dog trailer pulled by truck.  2 sleds can be mounted on this as well as a storage container.  It now has 8 boxes.

While the boxes are made for one dog, sometimes two try to jump in the same box!

While the boxes are made for one dog, sometimes two try to jump in the same box!

Step 2: Drive to the boat launch and load the dogs into 2 boats.  Tie them in!

all dogs in 2 boats

The dogs really enjoy the ride downriver, lots to smell.

alex and dogs in boat
eowyn steve boat

Of course, we can't always travel the river.  During fall and spring when the river is freezing up or breaking up we have to take dogs on our overland trail out.  This year we left on October 17 to go to town and get a puppy.  We pulled the boats out of the water but hadn't gotten snow yet.  Our options were to walk dogs 2-3 at a time, some on a leash, some running free but this would take multiple trips and we had heavy gear to get to town..so we hitched them up like it was winter. 

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It worked great on the uphill trail but there was no way the break would work on the downhill.  We released the dogs a few at a time and Jenna put them in the dog box at the bottom of the hill.  David then mushed down with just Eowyn pulling.

Moving around 8 dogs is a lot of work in the summer, but having them with us is worth the effort...especially in winter.

chandalar shelf
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Cabin #4: Foundation

There are a lot of clichés about "a good foundation." After building our current home on rocks (99 of them to be exact, lovingly lugged up the bluff 2 at a time by Jenna), we realized that if we wanted to build a cabin that would last, the foundation was going to be a beast of a project.  We wanted to do a root cellar under the cabin, so in order to not freeze the cellar, the cabin had to be built on the ground rather a floating foundation.  We wanted to keep the logs off of the soil but have the heated space start at ground level so we have the warmth of the ground (rather than -40 degree air) under the cabin.  In theory, this will save us on cost and materials in floor insulation and the warmth of the cabin will keep the root cellar from freezing.  There are a lot of sentences in that paragraph that begin with “we want.”  This may be why this became such a headache.

But back to the project- the first thing we did was to install the root cellar walls.  We built these the previous fall out of pressure-treated plywood.

David screwing the walls into the root cellar.  We used pressure treated plywood to line the root cellar and assembled this in 4 pieces, it was heavy.

David screwing the walls into the root cellar.  We used pressure treated plywood to line the root cellar and assembled this in 4 pieces, it was heavy.

So root cellar, check.  Once the root cellar was secured, we built a form to pour the concrete into. David built this creation and the puppy spent a lot of time sleeping in it.

Puppy Bruce Lee (6 months in this picture) sleeping in the founcation form.

Puppy Bruce Lee (6 months in this picture) sleeping in the founcation form.

We debated concrete mix vs. local gravel and Portland cement.   We could buy concrete mix in town that comes from the Tanana River and snowmachine it out.  David did many a load this way on the last legs of snow and got help from our friend Glenn as well, but with every re-calculation we seemed to need MORE concrete and inevitably, it was spring.  The nice thing about spring is that the water level post-breakup is generally very low, exposing all sorts of gravel.  We decided to get the rest of the gravel from the river and buy bags of Portland cement in town and boat them out.  This process quickly became quite the workout plan.  Here is how it went:

Step 1: Boat to the island right across from our place, we call this Gull island because glaucous gulls nest here and it is gravel and sand rich.  Find a nice gravely spot.

Step 2: Shovel gravel through screen to sort out rocks that are too big.

Step 3: Shovel the pile of sifted gravel into buckets, move the buckets into the boat.

gravel in boat

Step 4: Boat back to the base of our bluff, move the buckets into the 3-wheel cart, run up the bluff and run the winch.

Step 5: Unload the winch and empty gravel into bin.  I don’t want to count, but this process involved lifting a bucket of gravel may a time.

The bluff that we're building on.  You can see the track where we've been pulling and the cart on the bottom.  It actually is steeper than it looks in this picture.

The bluff that we're building on.  You can see the track where we've been pulling and the cart on the bottom.  It actually is steeper than it looks in this picture.

So gravel, CHECK!

David and puppy Bruce Lee relax in the gravel bin.

David and puppy Bruce Lee relax in the gravel bin.

Enter our friend Heike, who came out to help us for the weekend.  On the canoe down, Jenna discovered two new facts about her friend: she was formerly a structural engineer and worked at a concrete plant!  Friends are handy.  She took a look at our plans and made some really helpful suggestions.  Now we needed MORE concrete to make additional 3’ x 3’ corner pads/footings.   And we needed to dig holes to make forms for the pads.  Like I said, foundation = a lot of work.  The main thing that she helped us with was calculating the weight-bearing capacity of the ground that we were about to build on.  Silt, it turns out, is not as solid as we thought (“like Jello” was Heike’s phrase).  We found come calculations that silt can support +/-2,000lbs/ft2.   We figure that the two-story log cabin will weigh something like 40,000-60,000 lbs with (hopefully) 75%-100% of that weight resting on the corners.  With the additional corner pads the foundation now has 9-12 ft2 of surface area in each corner,  which should support 18-24,000 lbs… plenty.

We worked together to pour the corner pads.  Each took about 16 bags of concrete mix.  We mixed them 2 at a time in a wheelbarrow. 

the footings

So pads, check. 

Then we called in the big guns (friend help) and got 4 people (thank you thank you thank you Heike, Jeff, Heather and Mike) to come out for the big pour of the rest of the foundation.  With all that arm muscle, we did it in a day. 

The process was pretty easy. 

Step 1: Suspend rebar in the form.

Step 2: Mix gravel, portland cement, and water in wheelbarrow to desired consistency (just like baking).

Hanging the rebar in the form.

Hanging the rebar in the form.

the ingredients
Heather working her abs while David practices...?

Heather working her abs while David practices...?

David and Jeff mix loads of concrete in wheelbarrow.

David and Jeff mix loads of concrete in wheelbarrow.

Step 4: Get the most attention-to-detail person in your crew to tap, vibrate, and smooth the concrete in the form.  Cover with plastic.

Heike smoothing the top and "vibrating" it even.

Heike smoothing the top and "vibrating" it even.

Step 5: Drink! After a long day of mixing and pouring concrete, we celebrated with scotch and hot tubbing to celebrate "a good foundation".

booze toast

Cabin 3: Digging the Hole

When we decide to build a cabin, I foolishly thought to myself "great! no digging!" Unlike the sun lodge, which is dug into the hill, I presumed the cabin would be made with more log and less shovel.  Think again.  This fall we worked on preparing our building site.  This involved:

1. Clearing the site.  The cabin will be 20' x 20', so we cleared a 40' x 40' area in the forest.  We cut down trees and stacked them into future firewood piles, used our new toy- a portable winch to pull out the tree stumps, then chopped the rest of the roots out by hand.  We removed the top layer of sod and stacked it on the side for the future green roof.  Then, we removed even more soil, digging down to firm loess along the perimeter where the logs will rest.

But David the level master was not satisfied with the silt we dug to.  We decided to dig our root cellar in the center of the cabin and use the really nice silt and shale that we removed in making the cellar hole to create a level area for the cabin. 

Once we got a few feet deep we set up a tripod and pulley system to get the buckets of silt up.  As we dug down 8 feet we encountered different layers of silt and even some rock (quartz and shale).  We spread and tamped this material to create a level foundation.

The final step in the root cellar was to reinforce the walls.  We used pressure-treated plywood to make a reinforced "box" to line the root cellar and stapled spare tarps to make a vapor barrier.  No pics were taken of this as we were racing the snow!  The root cellar is 6' x 6' and 8' deep.

Cabin 2: Barking the logs

This spring we rushed back from a traveling and hunting in the Arctic with an important task in mind-to protect our logs.  As summer sets in, numerous insects were hoping to call our pile of cabin logs their new home.  We had a bunch of logs that looked like this...

That we needed to look like this...

"Barking" the logs is the process of roughly removing the bark so that the wood can dry quickly and without becoming damaged by insects or rot. 

Luckily, we are no strangers to getting bark off of logs.  There is a magical time window in the spring when it is easy to peel green logs.  Using mostly shovels, and sometimes drawknives, we were able to shovel, peel, pry and push the bark off our logs.  Check out the video above to see how it works.

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Once the logs are barked we rested easy, knowing that they would spend the summer drying safely. 

Note to the wise- It is a bad idea to sit on the logs while you are peeling them.  Jenna knows this, but did it anyways, finally doing in some already very patched-up pants.

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Cabin 1: Logging

This winter we decided to begin building a log cabin at our Tanana River homestead.  I say begin because unlike our fish house, sun lodge, or wall tent cabin, this one will take longer than a month.  In order to build where we want to, we'll need to cut trees, drag them 1/2 mile to our location, peel the bark off them, let them dry for a year, notch them, and assemble them into a cabin.  Plus things like roofs, floors, doors, etc.  We're envisioning a 20 x 20 ft 2 story cabin.  You've got to start somewhere, so this is what we did this winter.

Stage 1 is gathering the materials (24 foot, 12-16inch diameter spruce logs) to our building site (the bluff 1/2 mile down the hill). These logs were a LOT bigger than the ones we used to build the sun lodge and moving them was a challenge.

Step 1: Finding the right trees- We were looking for trees that were really straight, the proper diameter, close to our main trail, safe to take down, not rotten, and pleasing to David's sense of aesthetics.  It took a while.

Step 2: Felling the Trees- This was the fun part.  We used a chainsaw, wedges, and an axe.  Windy days slowed us down a bit.

cutting down trees

We eventually wizened up and bought a second chainsaw.  Now that we didn't have to fight over the saw our speed and relationship improved.  Jenna used the Shindawa and David got a new Stihl.

Step 3: Prepare the trees for hauling- Once the trees were down we used axe and chainsaw to limb them and then used a block and tackle, rollers, a cant hook, lever pole, and the power of prayer to move them into a reasonable position and haul them back to the trail.  Some of the trees had rot in them, which we cut off (photo on right).

cutting off rot

Step 4: Hauling the logs- We started using our dog team, a log hauling sled, and attaching the dogsled behind the log for a brake.  Our friend John Manthei came out and gave us some tips on sled modifications that greatly improved our process.

David came up with the "death saucer", a green birch sled that we placed under the rear end of the log that greatly (too much) speeded up hauling so we could do it with 2 dogs, not 6. Frozen green birch slides like greased lighting, in case you were wondering.

dog hauling

We progressed to using snowmachine to haul a log down to our cabin site.  Praise the lord for the iron dog.  This allowed us to haul with one person so the other person could prepare the trees in the meantime.  Jenna, who really really hates to waste things, ran around like a banshee between hauls making firewood stacks.

Step 5: Rolling logs into place on the storage rack-  We also had to clear an area for the log storage.  They should dry quickly at this sunny cabin site.

rolling logs

Viola! A pile of logs. Now for steps 6-200....

david, jenna, polar, logs

Building the Denali Pink cabin

In the fall of 2014, we had two wonderful young people named Jasper and Pip stay with us.  They helped initiate the building of our second structure- the "Denali Pink" wall tent cabin.  

Note the bucket of moss in the foreground,used for chinking the cracks between the logs.  You can also see the birchbark sheets that are keeping the logs from direct contact with the earth.

Note the bucket of moss in the foreground,used for chinking the cracks between the logs.  You can also see the birchbark sheets that are keeping the logs from direct contact with the earth.

David milled out 4"x12" beams for the basewalls out of several dead standing white spruce with his Chainsaw mill.  He used hand tools to make the dovetail corner notches.  The boys leveled the spot and carried up gravel from the river to keep the wooden beams off of the dirt. They also gathered moss and used it to chink the cracks.

Several dozen large sheets of Birchbark, stored flat under weight, so they don't curl.

Several dozen large sheets of Birchbark, stored flat under weight, so they don't curl.

We used large sheets of birchbark to protect the wooden walls from the earth that is backfilled on 3 sides.  The frame was made from straight, dry spruce poles, which Jenna and the boys harvested and peeled in the forest nearby.  

denali pink structure
frame

The Denali Pink frame fits our 10 x 12 wall tent.

tent on denali pink

To save the tent for traveling use, we decided to use 12oz. untreated canvas to cover the structure.  This was about 1/4 the cost of the tent, and is arguably nicer for several reasons. The roll of canvas was 48" wide, so by making the rafters and frames 24" or 48" apart, we easily stretched and tacked the canvas to the frame without much wasted fabric.  Unlike draping a tent over the frame, this skin is drum tight and cut-outs for the doorway and windows are easily and neatly made.

David the "Human Ladder"for Jenna so she can reach the peak to lag bolt the second ridge pole in place.

David the "Human Ladder"for Jenna so she can reach the peak to lag bolt the second ridge pole in place.

On top of the main frame are three long ridge poles that keep the fly a few inches above the canvas, allowing it to breathe and creating a dead air space for a little better heat retention.

A handmade barrel stove heats the place with gusto.  Over the winter we put in a window, door, floor, desk and shelving unit. 

And viola- a simple, breathable, inexpensive structure made from mostly local materials.  We love this cabin because it has some of the benefits of a tent- bright, quick to heat, as well as some of the comforts of a cabin-  window, door, floor, hooks, bed and stove.  Much to David's dismay the name "Denali Pink" (coined by Jenna) has stuck,  but one can't argue that Denali can be seen quite clearly at times from the doorway.

Our dogs eat salmon

Boat full of fish!

Boat full of fish!

We feed our sled dogs a mix of chum and coho salmon caught in the Tanana River.  They're hungry puppies, and the fish this far upriver are not fatty enough to supply all of the dog's nutritional needs so we supplement the fish with fat and rice.

david checking net
set net

We primarily fish with 4 and 6 inch set gill nets.  We check the net with our riverboat or canoe.

David, Jasper and Pip cut fish in the river on a hot day.

David, Jasper and Pip cut fish in the river on a hot day.

We start fishing in late August and keep going until the river starts flowing ice.  For the first few weeks if the temperatures are warm we cut the fish to dry and hang it in our smokehouse.  We keep a smoky alder fire going in the fish house to keep flies away and help the fish dry so they are preserved for winter use.  We cut fish in many different ways with homemade knives.  When we are cutting fish to dry, the dogs feast on cooked up fish guts and eggs.    We cut the largest fish in a special way so we can tan their skins.

Chinook salmon tlabaas and chum strips

Chinook salmon tlabaas and chum strips

A large chum salmon cut to save the skin.

A large chum salmon cut to save the skin.

We also pick out some fish to dry for ourselves as salmon strips or freeze as fillets to eat during the long winter.  When cutting strips to dry, we choose the nicest fish and carefully slice them into many strips, brine them, and hang them in the fish house to dry for a few days.

David with some fish strips.

David with some fish strips.

Fresh frozen whole whitefish 

Fresh frozen whole whitefish 

Once it gets cold enough (consistently freezing at night), we can hang the fish to dry without cutting and scoring them.  We call these whole fish.  This is how we prepare the majority of the dog fish.  It is much easier than drying them and allows us to keep all of the guts and moisture in the fish for canine consumption.  All we have to do to cut "whole fish" is slice a hole in their backs so we can hang them on sticks for storage.  In a good season, we can provide enough fish to feed our dogs (and ourselves) salmon all year long.

Top left quadrant is dry fish, all others are whole fish.  Skookum the dog is exercising great restraint.

Top left quadrant is dry fish, all others are whole fish.  Skookum the dog is exercising great restraint.

hanging fish
the dogs haul their own food.
cutting fish to cook

Staying 98.6 in -40

Disclaimer: This article addresses some things we’ve learned from traveling in very cold temperatures.  These temperatures are not necessarily the temperatures we take clients out in.  For our guided tours we pick locations and times of year that allow us to travel more in the 20 degrees above to twenty degrees below range.  We do, however, live in the interior of Alaska and on our own trips like to experiment with colder temperatures, or whatever Mother Nature provides.

david mushes the dogs along the much cooler than everywhere else Tanana river near manley alaska

david mushes the dogs along the much cooler than everywhere else Tanana river near manley alaska

When moving outside in the 40 below zone, it feels like your body is a precarious little bubble of warmth in a landscape of cold.    By traveling I mean going from one location to another, when you’re outside for 12 or so hours a day and not darting back and forth from a heated cabin.  It’s a glorious feeling when you’re underway in a landscape and your body is producing and pocketing its own warmth.  And traveling in the cold comes with all sorts of special treats.  For one, the colors look different- more chalk-like as if someone sketched the mountains and the rivers with a silvertip pen.  Cold almost always means clear, so you tend to see more northern lights.  Cold also has its own sort of weather pattern- its constant.  Cold rarely combines with wind in the interior, and -40 is too cold for snow.  If there were clouds up there, they would probably raise the temperature. 

I get the feeling that people who say that anything below -20 F is pretty much the same don’t spent much time outside in anything below -20.   There are lots of differences between -20 and -30 and -30 and -40 and so on.  One thing I learned on this past trip about the difference between -30 and -40, for example, is that at -40 when you snap off spruce boughs to make camp they shatter a bit.  Having wooden skis has taught me the vast difference between trudging at 40 degrees, gliding at zero and trudging at -40. Wood, plastic, metal, they all work differently at different temperatures, so when Alaskans obsess about the temperatures, we’re not always showing off, we’re figuring out what to wear and what sled to take.   I practice telling the temperature by which part of my face the air bites.  Nose, cheeks, eyes, it’s all different. 

Jenna all bundled up

Jenna all bundled up

Keeping that bubble of warmth requires a lot of self-awareness.  If you’re out all day you can’t afford to not put on another layer when you need to, can’t get too hot, and can’t lose any clothing.  It’s an art learned with practice.  I (Jenna) am writing this article to share a little of what I’ve learned.  We’re not racers or mountaineers, but we do stay pretty safe and comfortable and enjoy winter.  There is always more to be learned and I welcome your suggestions and thoughts.  Without further ado…my top 5 tips on staying 98.6 in -40.

When David and I pulled into Manley the thermometers were reading -45.  I needed to work on my eyelash frosticles.

When David and I pulled into Manley the thermometers were reading -45.  I needed to work on my eyelash frosticles.

 

1. Fight the frost!

In -20 F and colder temperatures, your breath quickly freezes around your face, causing frost to form on hair and clothing.  While a frosty face may make for an “epic” looking photo, the reality is that when you’re outside for 12 + hours, frost on your clothes is a bad deal.  After a few hours, frost can clog your facemask, turning it from something soft and warm to harsh and cold.  It becomes uncomfortable on your eyelashes and if you have a mustache, clearing frost can cause you to chap your lips.  It is important in cold temperatures to periodically clear your face of frost.  In -20 and warmer, a handkerchief works fine, colder than that and it really helps to have a small towel or washcloth in your pocket.  On our last trip, David and I cut up an old quick dry camp towel and that worked wonders.  It is nice to have this on hand in an outer pocket so you don’t end up just transferring the moisture to your mitts or whatever else you use to clear frost.  For the bearded types, David highly recommends what I loathingly refer to as a “goat man” beard- trimming your mustache short and keeping the rest of a beard at an inch or two.  This lets you keep warmth on your chin without chapping your lips.  Fight the frost!

A lunchtime fire- Rejuvenating!

A lunchtime fire- Rejuvenating!

A takedown fire- very handy!

A takedown fire- very handy!

2. Make Frequent Fires

I live with fire almost every day, but I never appreciate it more than when it’s really cold out.  On this last trip we made fires at every opportunity.  Having a fire is the difference between taking a rejuvenating break and a painful, rushed one.  Fires are easy to make provided that you keep a fire kit with matches, candle, and some birch bark on hand.  We carry such kits in the pockets of our anorak and the sled bag, so they’re always close by.  For lunch we choose a spot with close-by easy to break firewood.  You don’t have to get out an axe to have a warm fire, a small one with hand-broken pieces of alder, willow or spruce works fine. 

The hardest part of winter camping for me is usually untying the wall tent and packing the sled once the woodstove is removed and dumped.  On a recent trip, David went up three notches in my book by tossing our extra firewood on top of the ashes when dumped the woodstove.  This way we had a happy fire to warm our hands as we completed these tasks.  This allowed us to dry our mitten liners before leaving camp as well so we hit the trail already in warmth surplus, not deficit.

Beaver mitts with deerskin and sheepskin liners.  Fox and wolverine ruff, marten hat.  All made by David.

Beaver mitts with deerskin and sheepskin liners.  Fox and wolverine ruff, marten hat.  All made by David.

 

3. Fur is Good, Fashion is Optional

For true cold temperatures, there’s nothing that beats fur clothing.  The most important items to keep warm are your head, hands, and feet.  David makes most of ours from animals he has trapped.  Since we make the gear, we can design it to do what we like.  Very high on the list of things we like is clothing that comes apart easily so we can hang it in the wall tent to dry.  For example, he made me mittens that have fully detachable sheepskin liners and beaver, canvas, and smoke tanned leather outers.  They are easy to separate and turn inside out.  Another item I can’t say enough about is a canvas anorak with a fur ruff.  This breathable but windproof outer layer keeps you snug and warm, does wonders in the wind, and dries easily.  Under the anorak we wear layers of thrift store wool sweaters for warmth and insulation.  On the bottom I like wool long johns, fleece pants, down pants, and then wool pants if its really cold, topped with canvas pants if its windy.  All of this layering means that your clothing has to be big and baggy.  It might not be an image out of the patagucci catalog, but we stay warm when it counts.

David eating lunch- ignore the funny face and focus on the neatly organized grub- we're trying tins for this next trip!

David eating lunch- ignore the funny face and focus on the neatly organized grub- we're trying tins for this next trip!

 

4. Do things Fast and keep essentials handy

When it’s cold, my natural reaction is usually to try to sneak deeper into my clothes and endure.  I have to keep on myself to stay active, move quickly, and remember that work = warmth.  After riding the runners and running all day, it’s amazing how much warmth I can get from doing camp chores like gathering spruce boughs and firewood.  It is important to know what chores need to be done and just keep moving. 

It seems like most of the difference between tasks seeming easy and impossible comes with good preparation.  Whether it’s cold or not, I try to travel with “extra” and essential items quickly accessible.  I keep 2 pairs of spare wool liner gloves, an extra face mask, chap stick and a fire kit in the pocket of my anorak, so I can easily change into spare items throughout the day.  When it’s really cold, even simple tasks like digging something out of the dogsled can become daunting, so we work hard to keep lunch, the thermos, dog coats, lines, camera, puffy down jackets, spare mitts and other items that we expect to need during the day organized and in containers that are easy to open, at the top of the sled bag.

This goes for food as well.  While the idea of slicing cheese sounds very appealing on a summer’s day on a gravel bar, the idea of using a knife and baring your hands is not so ideal on a cold day.  For really cold weather its best to cut everything- cheese, butter, etc. into bite-sized pieces ahead of time and pack them in a container that is easily opened.  I draw a line with some foods: banana bread is delightful when it’s above -20 but a chilly brick when it’s colder…dipping it in hot tea is nice.  Cookies, crackers, dried things are easier to eat in the cold.  A hot thermos and hot soup is a must, just don’t tighten the cup lid or it will freeze shut and you’ll have to bang it to break the ice loose.

manley hotsprings, yum!

manley hotsprings, yum!

 

5. Find some hot springs

If you’re going to spend some of the day really cold, you need to balance it by spending some of the day really warm and comfortable.  On the last two trips we did, we accomplished this by visiting hot springs, which is a tried and true tactic.  But on a day-to-day basis, we plan on being very warm and comfortable in the tent at night.  David made our wall tent with short walls so its peak is about 5’5 but most of the inside is just right to sit in.  This keeps the heat concentrated.  We also made a woodstove to fit a 4 inch stovepipe, which really lets us keep roaring fires as opposed to 3 inch pipe, which makes for less draft and clogs quickly with creosote.  While we seldom cut enough firewood to burn all night, we do keep fire starting materials right by the stove so we can make a fire in the morning while still in the sleeping bag.  Oh yes, and we carry 40 below rated down sleeping bags.  If you have to spend money on something, get a good warm sleeping bag. Good sleep in a warm bag keeps you happy and relaxed so you can get up and keep your warmth all through the next day.  Or, you know, you could move somewhere warmer :)

hotsprings 2

 

Building the Sun Lodge

At the end of September in 2013, we decided that there might be alternatives to living in a wall tent for another winter.  The berries were picked, fish mostly hung, and we had gotten a wonderful moose close to home, so we actually had time to consider a building project.  David had made several cabins and earthlodges before, and keeping in mind the late season, he created a design on paper.  It would face due south, for passive solar gain, and be dug deep into the hill, to take advantage of the relative warmth of the earth.  The roof  would be covered in sod for insulation. Building in October in Alaska is risky business.  We knew that any day the river could start freezing up, the ground could freeze, and snow could cover our plans.  Nevertheless, we started out by gathering materials that we needed the boat to access. 

Unloading freshly-milled boards for table and shelves just in the nick of time.

Unloading freshly-milled boards for table and shelves just in the nick of time.

The boat often looked more like a raft!

The boat often looked more like a raft!

Step 1: Gather materials.  Mostly, we used sticks and stones.  We boated along the river and collected 99 flat rocks on which to rest the vertical poles and to create a fire hearth area.  Next, we harvested about 12 large dead spruce logs and 150 mostly green spruce poles.  All materials were harvested close by and lugged on our shoulders.

Jenna and minto model the very large pile of small poles

Jenna and minto model the very large pile of small poles

Jenna hauls rocks up the 60-foot bluff.  99 times.

Jenna hauls rocks up the 60-foot bluff.  99 times.

Step 2: Process materials.  As in, peel the poles.  All the poles.  We listened to a lot of public radio during our daily peeling sessions.

David split this large spruce with a small chainsaw.

David split this large spruce with a small chainsaw.

Jenna peels some of the larger front wall pieces.

Jenna peels some of the larger front wall pieces.

Step 3: Dig a hole.  David described it as equivalent to digging twenty outhouse holes. The footprint of the lodge is about 14' X 18'.  The back wall of the hole we dug was about 5.5' tall.   Luckily, the soil is loess (wind blown silt) and the largest rock we encountered the whole time was smaller than a penny.  We sharpened our shovels and got to work.

David takes a bite out of the silty soil.

David takes a bite out of the silty soil.

At its deepest, the hole was just over 5 feet (Jenna is 5'5)

At its deepest, the hole was just over 5 feet (Jenna is 5'5)

Step 4: Build the frame.  We dug holes and buried our 5 big post poles about 5 feet deep.  We did a LOT of tamping to get the powdery silt to compress and secure the posts .  We cleverly scheduled our digging so there was still solid high ground to stand on in order to get the beams on top of the 8 and 12-foot tall posts.  

The frame!

The frame!

Step 5: Lay on the poles! We did this in a day and it felt great.  David added additional braces inside for strength and a frame for the stovepipe to exit the cabin.  We used 12" spikes to hold the frame together.  We also fitted large logs to make the front wall and David framed out the window and door.

fort sun lodge!

fort sun lodge!

David exercises good balance while nailing in spikes

David exercises good balance while nailing in spikes

Bracing and "chimney box"

Bracing and "chimney box"

extra braces for strength.  Note the small burl on the wall.

extra braces for strength.  Note the small burl on the wall.

Step 6: Unroll the vapor barrier.  If we had planned ahead we would have used birch bark panels for a vapor barrier but we did this one with a very durable pit liner from Alaska Tent and Tarp.  This accounted for $750 of the just under $1000 we spent on the project.

Hauling logs up the hill method 1- muscle powered.

Hauling logs up the hill method 1- muscle powered.

Hauling logs up the hill method 2- block and tackle, comealong, and old dogsled.

Hauling logs up the hill method 2- block and tackle, comealong, and old dogsled.

Step 7: Back fill and cover it with dirt!  At this point, it was getting pretty chilly so we used dirt leftover from digging the hole and didn’t get to covering it fully with sod until spring.

The lodge pre-window and door.

The lodge pre-window and door.

Step 8: Finishing touches.  We put in recycled windows (very interesting getting them up the hill).  David milled up some spruce boards and made a door with wooden hinges and curved birch branch handle.  We stuffed moss into the cracks to seal the front wall. 

door
insulation

There were enough boards to also make a bed, table, and a few shelves. 

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bed

David made a big woodstove from an oil drum that we rescued from the river and….

Making the woodstove from this recycled barrel

Making the woodstove from this recycled barrel

This is the"stove jack" box

This is the"stove jack" box

Viola! A cozy, warm, inexpensive, and totally homemade home in less than two months.  If you want for more details, send us  an email. borealjourneysak@gmail.com 

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