When I was young my family lived for several years in a little cabin near Big Lake, and at the same time my father built another cabin out in the woods, up north and out of town, where we would go in the summers when school got out. We traded one log stove for a smaller one, and primitive plumbing for just about the most rustic form of plumbing mankind has known: pulling buckets of water from the river up to the cabin. It was the Alaskan equivalent of living in Miami and vacationing in Key West.
The out-of-town cabin we called “The Cabin,” as opposed to the cabin we called “Home,” was as much an idea as it was a built structure. As one of Philip Roth’s narrators describes it, the cabin is a place “where you disrobe, molt it all, the uniforms you’ve worn and the costumes you’ve gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you.” This notion of the cabin as a place of plain and honest living, as an escape from the pretensions of modern life, goes back at least to William Wordsworth, who lived eight years (1799-1808) in a small cottage in England’s remote Lake District. Wordsworth saw his cottage as a place for “high thinking,” and his abdication from society as a pursuit of what he called “the bliss of solitude.”
The same impulse struck Thoreau nearly forty years later, whose Walden, or Life in the Woods records his experiment in self-reliance. For him, building and living alone in his own cabin was an attempt “to front only the essential facts of life,” and the memoir of his time at Walden Pond inaugurated a distinctively American attitude that life can be experienced most fully when we strip away all the clutter, when we loose ourselves from all the many pressures society holds over us. Thoreau put it plainly: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.”
What does not make it into the published version of Walden, however, is that amid all this rustic and purposeful living Thoreau still walked back to his parent’s house every Sunday so that his mother could do his laundry. That’s not exactly the image of marrow-sucking we might imagine, and for all of us Alaskans who know what life in a cabin is like, it’s hardly “roughing it.” In Alaska we know what it’s like when the fire goes out in winter and the frost creeps inside almost instantly, first at the door hinges and window sills, where the cold claws at the humidity and builds expanding traceries of ice that would cover every surface if left unchecked. In Alaska we know what it’s like to look out the cabin window in the morning and see a bear staring back, trying to figure out how to get its claws on all the sweet-smelling goodies inside. In Alaska we know that what would be considered a minor injury in town, like a broken leg, could be life-threatening out in the woods.
When we were at our cabin my parents would bribe us with a reward of $5 each if we went the whole summer without getting hurt, though the definition of “hurt” shifted to increasingly severe injuries every time one of my three brothers and I cut ourselves with a pocket knife, or fell out of the boat, or fell out of a tree. I guess their rationale was that if there was no longer the possibility of us getting our $5 reward we would stop being careful. My youngest brother, Jake, had bells attached to his shoes, so that we could find him if he wandered off, and so that the chances of him walking quietly through the woods and startling a bear were somewhat lessened. Over the doorframe of our cabin sat a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun with two buck shots, and we were all taught how to use it in case a bear was intent on busting through our admittedly lightweight door. Such is life in the wilderness: a continual reminder that we exist in a food chain.
There is a long history in America of the cabin as a panacea for the ills of a modern culture out of touch with nature and with the basic realities of life. Jack Kerouac was known for lauding America and the freedom it allows and represents, but he was also deeply suspicious of a “Faustian” culture in America that was capable of destroying itself. He was especially critical of the “evil influence” of television, and of government “safety experts.” By the late 1950s, after the publication of On the Road, Kerouac had become a celebrity counter-culturalist, and despite the fact that he was regarded as a spokesperson for his generation, he often found himself identifying with the likes of Woody Guthrie and the dust bowl generation, who sneered at luxuries. He had become, as he said, a “rich and famous author,” and he needed to find a “cabin in the woods” to reclaim the simple life.
Kerouac’s point is all the more relevant today, and it is not too difficult to imagine a counter-cultural mantra for the twenty-first century. Are your kids spending their days on the couch playing video games? Take them to the cabin! Are your teenagers going about life glued to a smart phone? A week at the cabin will sort them out! Do you find yourself caught up in the meaningless gossip of 24-hour news and celebrity culture? Get your equilibrium back with a long stay at the cabin!
In the early years after our cabin was built, before we realized that a Christian radio station would broadcast messages out to interior Alaska homesteaders, our summers were spent without any contact with other humans. Literally no contact. We might hear an airplane pass by overhead, but that was the only sign that civilization as we knew it still existed. It was both a literal unplugging from the electronic conveniences on which we normally relied, and an unplugging from the modern lifestyle that those conveniences engender. The effect, in Thoreau’s terms, was to get to “the whole and genuine meanness” of life.
Out at the cabin I’m often struck by a sense of the sublime unboundedness of the wild, a sense of my own smallness in the presence of what Jack London called the “vast solitudes, and beyond these still vaster solitudes.” The paradox of cabin life, however, is that amid all this open country you find yourself cramped into a small single-room shelter. And when it’s cold, or wet, or dark for any significant stretch of time there is a distinct – and very real – psychological phenomenon in which those log walls seem to shrink inward. Jack London, who was familiar with cabin life in Alaska and the Yukon, wrote about this phenomenon in ways that only someone who has experienced it could. His most grisly account of cabin fever, “In A Far Country,” tells of two lazy and ill-prepared prospectors who grow increasingly mad as they attempt to survive a winter on the banks of the Porcupine River. The story begins with a foreboding allusion to the nursery rhyme of the Kilkenny Cats:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till instead of two cats there weren’t any.
In our cabin there were six of us: myself, my three brothers, and my parents – plus one dog – all living together in a space about the size of an ordinary bedroom. And while we fared better than the Kilkenny Cats, it’s safe to say that we got to know each other rather well. If there was ever a tension that persisted, my brothers and I would work it out by going down to a sandy beach on the river. There we would draw a large circle in the sand and wrestle, Greco-Roman style, until we were too tired to remember what we were cross about.
Learning to live in close quarters, and to get along, has helped us work together as well. Last year my brothers and I opened the Bearpaw River Brewing Company in Wasilla. We’re making beer inspired by the river and by our time at the cabin. If we can’t be at the cabin all the time, we thought, then why not bring a vestige of that life to our community in the Mat-Su Valley? The brewery’s taproom is larger than most cabins, and in it you can find many of the luxuries of modern life that cabins lack – most notably, taps flowing with fresh craft beer – but like a cabin we built it to be a place where folks can find solace from the hustle and bustle of their busy lives. We want it be a place where you can get together with family and friends, where you can share a cold beer, and where you can, to quote Philip Roth again, shed “your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you.” Our motto is “Go wild, drink fresh,” which reminds us of why we wanted to open a local craft brewery: to work together as a family, to have fun, and to get back to the basics of nature’s provision. From one perspective, making fresh, hand-crafted beer is a way to front only the essential facts of life.
In a corner of our cabin we used bleach to graffiti “1989,” the year the walls went up log by log, and two years after we staked the property. It also says “Built by Eric, Doylanne, Jack, James, Jed, and Jake.” It’s a sturdy little building, and it looks much the same as it did nearly thirty years ago, but the homestead has changed and grown over the years, as have we. A second, much smaller cabin went up in the mid-90s, a few sheds have popped up around the yard, and, obviously, we have an outhouse, not to mention all the tree-forts that we kids threw together with sticks and rope and overly ambitious architectural designs. But the wild will always work to re-claim itself from the meddlings of us humans, and the homestead requires more or less constant work to keep the forces of nature at bay. It is the kind of labour we like, though. Working with our hands, and using the resources the wilderness provides, is part of what makes life at the cabin so rewarding, and so much fun.
by James Wade