We came to Alaska when I was nine years old, stacked into a Toyota pickup so packed full that my grandfather had done the final shove with a broom stick to get it all in.
At the time, it was just life. I didn’t know that other kid’s dads didn’t shove them into the back of a camper shell and drive 3000 miles on a whim. It all seemed so normal and humdrum. But looking back now, in 1979 when the Alcan Highway was still an unpaved trail and Alaska had barely entered into Statehood, it was the adventure of a lifetime.
My folks bought a little log house in the woods that Fall, perched on a hill in Kasilof. The cabin had been built in 73’ from logs from a burn, so the wood was dark and the cabin was dim. An open plan with one small bedroom off to one side and steep stairs to a loft for my brother and I, the place was small, but adequate. We came to Alaska with little and so my dad built a kitchen table from a piece of plywood and four logs. Benches from logs, chain sawed down the center and a thick coat of stain to make it look fancy. The floor of the cabin had been laid when the boards were still green and so over time they’d shrunk. Caulking filled the gaps, but not well enough, and wind shot up between the floorboards. Single pain windows froze, layering thick ice and snow on the inside of our cabin. Snow piled up outside and since we’d come from a place where a snow day shut down the schools, we glorified in that first heavy fall until the front door would no longer open. And we wondered at the builder who had placed the door swinging out, and if he too had come from the south.
Dad went away that winter to work in the villages, wiring schools as the government dumped money into a state that was feeding them oil and fishing revenue like they’d never before seen. He was gone for weeks at a time and always, before he left, he’d warn us not to use the electric heat. “It’s too expensive,” he’d say. And so we huddled around the small iron woodstove all that winter because my folks, just kids from Oregon, didn’t yet know about the difference between ‘seasoned’ and ‘green’ firewood. We rotated, like chicken on a spitfire, warming first one side, and then the other. And then my father would return, rub his thick hands together over the luke warm stove and say, ‘Why didn’t you turn on the heat?’
My grandmother came to see us that Christmas, freshly divorced and still reeling from the blow. Clinical depression combined with seasonal as she stared out the window into the darkness, crying for reasons I didn’t understand. And all I could think is, grandma is ruining Christmas. But it wasn’t a total loss after all. On the Eve, my brother and I curled into our mattresses on the floor in our loft and waited for the gifts to arrive via sled. I’d long since given up on the idea of a bearded fellow, but when the snow slid from the tin roof that night with a crashing vroom just over our heads that shook our sleeping bags, we became born again believers. Christmas cheer abounded after that, despite my grandmother weeping in the next room.
We made due that winter, as people do, and survived our induction into Alaska somewhat with ease. In the years to come we would learn much about heating with wood, sealing floors, and in-swinging doors. Grandma moved on, sort of, and dad found a job closer to home. We learned about towels along the windowsill, clear plastic on the windows, and how to build a proper fire. We learned about dark nights and cooking over a stove.
We learned that “home” can just as easily be a mansion, as it can a humble cabin in the woods in the backwoods of Alaska’s wild. And we learned that we had found it…we had found home.