“Goodbye, Little Cabin”

All good things must come to an end

After living in Alaska as a young man in the military, my dream was to return someday. That dream became a reality when I moved my family to Alaska in September 1971, to accept a job about 20 miles east of Fairbanks at Eielson Air Force Base. We bought and rebuilt a small house a few miles east of North Pole and began working on becoming an Alaskan family.

A couple of years after our arrival in the “Great Land” a friend told us about Quartz Lake, 85 miles southeast of Fairbanks and ten miles north of Delta Junction—a place he described as a near utopian environment. He added that the road from the Richardson Highway to the lake was marginally passable and that until recently the lake had only been reachable by plane or a tracked vehicle. Since I had been looking for drivable destinations that would provide a safe camping venue for my family, we drove to the lake within a month. We were pleasantly surprised when we discovered that the road from the highway to the lake had recently been upgraded. It was primitive, but passable if you took your time.

As we left the woods and started down the last fifty yards or so to the water, we were treated to a panoramic view of a beautiful large blue lake without any sign of human activity. When we got out of the vehicle, the only sounds we heard were from a couple of gulls and an eagle high overhead. I did not know it at the time, but these moments of discovery were to become the place my mind would always return to whenever I reflected on the happiest times in my life. We set up our tent and camped on the beach at the end of the road. The three days we camped there would have been idyllic if our oldest daughter had not come down with the measles and we had to go home earlier than planned.

My wife Charlotte and I visited the lake a year later and it was still a quiet and relatively undisturbed, isolated place. We decided to acquire some property on the lake so we could build a cabin and own a piece of this beautiful land. We soon found a property owner in Delta Junction and purchased a tree-covered lot with nice lake frontage on the east side. Our adventure began.

The property was on the far side of the lake from the end of the road and there was no electric power within fifteen miles. Every stick and board plus tools, hardware, shingles, etc., had to be taken across the lake in a boat or by truck when the lake was frozen. I drove many loads of material across the ice and dragged them up the hill to the building site via a large metal-bottomed sled I’d made. I rigged up a block and tackle system from the top of the hill with a couple of hundred feet of sturdy rope, loaded the sled, hooked the end of the rope to my truck, and drove away on the ice, pulling the sled up the hill.

There were some incredible challenges that arose from the beginning. For example, I needed 130 bags of concrete mix and many four by twenty foot rough spruce timbers for the foundation footings. These were not easy to haul across the lake and up the hill, but determination is a fine motivator.

Since there was no power and I did not want to haul a generator across the lake, the cabin was entirely built using handsaws. I did use a chainsaw to cut the many logs used to support the cabin. I learned to move logs using a fulcrum and levers and a block and tackle. I also learned to use a draw knife to skin logs and to use hand tools that had long since been supplanted by power tools.

The best and most memorable part of the experience was working with my wife and our four children. Watching my little boy, Jim, (now 50) driving five penny nails to help make trusses is something I will never forget. When she could be with me, Char was a great help, and I’ll always remember one particular incident. I had already framed the walls, placed the trusses, and was adding the plywood sheeting for the roof. While up on the roof, I discovered that I was a couple of tongue-and-groove plywood sheets short of what I needed. Char heard me utter some harsh and self-incriminating words and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I had to come down and that we needed to go into Delta Junction to get the needed plywood. She said that she could do that and I could go on working. I told her how hard that would be for her and she insisted that she was capable and wanted to do it. She looked so determined that I did not have the heart to deny her. I told her what to get and threw her down the truck keys.

I watched her go down the hill, start the outboard motor, cross the lake (at least a mile and a half), walk up the hill to the truck, and head down the very primitive road, leading several miles to the highway. About three hours later, I heard the truck coming through the woods on the far side of the lake. Since it was so absolutely silent in the wilderness, you could hear a motor for miles before you could see it. I watched with the binoculars while she backed the truck down to the water, dragged the plywood out of the truck, and managed to lay it across the boat. After parking the truck, she started the outboard and slowly made her way across the lake. I met her at the water line and we carried the plywood up the hill. I was both relieved and amazed, and once again realized what a woman and partner I had married.

My friend, Bruce Mackey, had a small old BLM log cabin about a half mile through the woods. One afternoon, he was passing our site in his boat and yelled up at me to join him at his campfire later for a beer. I stopped working and walked through the woods to his place just as it became dark. Char and the kids remained at the cabin which was closed in and secure. Bruce and I drank beer and told stories and I forgot the time. All of a sudden, we heard a noise in the woods about a hundred feet behind and to the left of me. I pulled my shotgun closer and Bruce laid his .44 on the log next to him. I watched the area where I’d heard the noise and soon saw this unbelievable apparition standing at the edge of the woods, lit dimly by the light of our campfire.

She was in shorts and a tank top with my shoulder holster and .357 magnum revolver hanging around her neck. Her blonde hair was shining in the firelight and she was beautiful! She asked me if I was coming back to the cabin to finish making the bunks for the kids. Shamefully, I had forgotten that and immediately walked with Char down the mountain to the lake and by the beach back to the cabin. I know for sure that not one woman in a thousand and many men would have had the courage to walk that old trail through the woods at night. Most people would not do it during the daytime. It was absolute wilderness. The trail was crossed with old fallen trees and thick brush and the forest was so thick that you couldn’t see more than ten to twenty feet in any direction. What a woman!

The cabin soon became more comfortable with a few added comforts. I built an outhouse, with a window overlooking the lake, about fifty feet behind the cabin. I also dug a deep hole on the hill behind the cabin and added a large tray connected to a rope which allowed us to keep perishable food items in a place where they did not spoil. It was well shaded and the ground at the bottom of the hole was just a few degrees above freezing. I made a cover to protect it from the elements and rolled a huge boulder on top of it to keep the bears out. Beer and soft drinks were kept in a gunny sack at the bottom of the lake about ten feet deep. The lake was very cold.

We had a winding dirt trail up the hill to the cabin site when we first started. It was steep and high and we used it for a couple of years before I built a stairway up the hill, with two landings for resting on the way. At the top of the hill I built a landing about twenty-feet square with a railing and a bench seat on two sides. Since we had to carry everything up the stairs, including five-gallon containers of water, and there was always something waiting to be brought up, we had a rule: “No one comes up the hill with empty hands.”

I planted grass on a 300-square-foot area between the cabin and the outhouse. It was surrounded by huge spruce trees and soon became a hangout for a moose that had about a 50 to 60 inch antler spread. For quite awhile, it would rise and run up into the woods whenever one of us left the cabin, heading up the trail to the outhouse. We widened our trail to the outhouse and after a short while, he just watched us walk around him. We knew we had a friend when he decided to accompany us down to the beach where we had regular campfires. He walked down a gully south of the cabin and entered the lake about fifty feet from where we sat with our fire. He stood there in water up to his rear end while munching on lily pads and staring at the six of us as we ate hotdogs and marshmallows. He did not seem disturbed by our gaiety and conversation. He hung around for a couple of years, but was missing when we came to the cabin in the early spring of the third year. I was told by a friend down the lake from us that he had been shot and taken away during the last moose season. Times were changing.

We enjoyed that cabin for many years in all seasons. During the winter, I had a baffled propane weed burner to thaw the truck engine. I also hauled the truck battery up to the cabin to ensure that it did not freeze up while we were there. It was always cozy and warm in the cabin from the wood stove and we played parlor games such as Aggravation and Monopoly. The kids bickered over who was going to sleep on the top bunk as it was pretty hot up there. I let the stove die down at night and if it was 40 degrees below zero outside, it got down close to freezing inside before morning. We were all warm with plenty of sleeping bags and blankets and it was a joy to wake up in the morning to a fresh crackling fire and hot coffee and cocoa. Charlotte would shovel snow off the ice to make an area for the kids to ice skate and we had some wonderful family times.

As the kids grew older, they were reluctant to go to the cabin as there was no TV and I would not permit their music loud enough for me to hear. This created a problem for Char as she wanted to go to the cabin with me but was reluctant to leave the kids home alone. She would occasionally drive herself down to the lake and stay the last couple of days before I went home. I knew when to pick her up on the far side of the lake because of a high-powered Christian radio station in North Pole, Alaska. It is KJNP and was called “King Jesus of North Pole, God’s 50,000 Watt voice in the North.” They broadcast messages on AM radio in the morning and in late evening called “Trapline Chatter” and provide a way for folks to communicate with family and friends out in the bush. When I was at the cabin by myself, I listened twice a day for messages from Charlotte. She would estimate when she would arrive at the lake so I could meet her at the landing.

We had many adventures at Quartz Lake over the years, but the greatest of all was building our cabin as a family. We still refer to that time as “The Cabin Era” and it was the best and most personally rewarding period of my octogenarian life. I look at my wife today and still remember the wonderful personal and family times we spent at Quartz Lake. None of this great adventure would have occurred if I had not married such a “skookum” girl, or, as Louis L’amour would have described her: “a girl to ride the river with.”

We had to transfer to Anchorage for career reasons in 1984 and decided to sell our home and cabin, moving on to the next phase of our lives. It was a sad day when we said goodbye to our cabin, but, as implied in Robert Service’s poem, “Goodbye, Little Cabin,” all good things must come to an end.

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