Saturday, March 7, 2015

An Alaskan Escape

Alaska is a place that to most people evokes images of moose, dog sleds, frontier living and endless mountain ranges.  And yes, there is a great deal of truth to those ideas; it is a massive state with a small population occupying a tiny fraction of the land.  My first trip to Alaska took place when I was only 12 or 13 years old, taking the boat from Washington through British Columbia and the Alaskan Inside Passage.  From there my family hiked the Chilcoot Trail, road-tripped through the Yukon Territory, explored Denali National Park and much more over a few weeks.  It was a wonderful trip that I still think back to every once in a while.  I've been back to Alaska something like 5 times since that early trip for various reasons, mostly the result of one of my sisters who moved to Anchorage.  (As a result of her move to Alaska, she wound up becoming a two-time Olympian, which you can read about on her blog )  In that time I've kayaked next to ice burgs, skied on glaciers, run rivers in pack rafts, helped with a wedding, seen plenty of bears, and fallen through a frozen stream on Christmas morning.

The purpose of this particular trip however was to work, and to work HARD.  A few years back I visited Alaska to help my sisters husband Rob build a workshop on their recently purchased property in the tiny town of Hope.  I'd recently returned from 6 months in Asia, decided to sell off much of my possessions and live on the road.  As such, I had the time and flexibility to fly to Alaska for a bit and help out.  You can read about that trip here .  On that trip I spent about two weeks helping Rob, frequently pulling 12-14 hour work days, one after another.  Because of my ability to actually keep up a schedule like that, I was invited back.  This time the project was to stay in the shop I'd helped build on the earlier trip and to finish the actual cabin before winter hit.  This time I actually knew what I was signing up for, but I was excited for the change of pace, change of place, opportunity to learn some new skills, spend some time with that part of the family and have some good fun in the process.  Here is how it all went down:

After the wedding on the island I returned to Seattle to catch my flight to Alaska.  However I had other business to take care of first and at the top of that list was to buy a used car and put the Baja Bug in a garage for the winter.  I love the Bug, but it was having some mechanical problems I didn't have the time or energy to deal with, plus it isn't exactly a great car to be driving in the winter!  I managed to pick up a 1996 Ford Explorer for $1,500 and hoped for the best.  Special thanks to my aunt Wilma for letting me store it in her garage.

My dad (bottom right) is the head gardener at Kubota Gardens, a Japanese American garden in Seattle and over the summer they had a group of 14th generation stone masons visit from Japan and construct this stone rampart wall.  I'd been hearing about this project from him for months (and was actually there at a stone yard with him when the idea was hatched) but this was the first time I'd been able to see it in person.  It's part of a larger redesign of that whole area of the garden and certainly a wonderful addition to the garden.

With social visits over, it was time to catch the plane to Alaska.  I've always loved the flight from Seattle to Alaska because it flies over such beautiful landscapes: of coastline, mountains glaciers and more.  I had a great window seat, however this time it was cloudy the entire flight until the last few minutes descending into Anchorage.

My sister Holly picked me up at the airport, we had dinner with her husband Rob's family and the next morning Rob and I loaded up the truck and headed out to the tiny town of Hope where the cabin is located, about two hours drive away.

Although it was a bit cloudy, it was a scenic drive around the Turnagain Arm  to the town of Hope, with the changing colors of the birch trees being a particular standout.  When I arrived it was the first time I'd been back on the property in three years, building the very structure we are looking at in this photo from the ground up.  Last time we were sleeping in tents to build the shop here, this time the shop is completed and what Rob and I (plus others who have come to help) will be staying in while completing the actual cabin.

And here the cabin is, designed and built almost entirely by Rob himself, a pretty impressive feat I have to say.  They jokingly call it the “Hope Hamptons” because it's actually bigger and nicer than their house back in Anchorage!

Here is the main level, a large open space full of exposed beams, a design that Rob says was partly inspired by our own family cabin up at Snoqualmie Pass.  As you can probably see from this photo, the structure is all in place but the inside was unfinished and largely empty.  Our goal was to finish the interior of the cabin so it could be moved into in about two weeks.  It was an attainable goal, but we had a LOT of work ahead of us.

As we were standing on the back deck and Rob was showing me around the cabin for the first time, we noticed a young moose a little ways off in the brush.  Now I'm well aware of the danger large animals can pose, but naturally I wanted to see how close I could get.  Presumably because it was young, it was not yet afraid of people and was also curious, walking towards me.  We got within about ten feet of each other before it turned away and walked back into the trees where it's mother was walking.  The mom and baby then walked together around the property for a few minutes, then wandered off.

The inside of the shop, being used as the living space during construction of the cabin.  With a wood stove, couches, two burner propane stove, sink and large sleeping loft above it was a pretty comfortable way to live, and a whole lot nicer than living in a tent and cooking outdoors like the last time I was up here building!

Here is the back side of the cabin the next morning.

We quickly settled into a routine of waking up around 7am, eating a quick breakfast and getting to work.  Sometimes we would stop for a proper lunch, often times we didn't.  Dinners were the same way.  On most days, we would continue working until 10 or even 11 at night.  A schedule like that is a bit tough, but made for very productive days!

This photo is the landing at the top of the stairs, to the left is the guest bedroom and to the right is the master bedroom.

Occasionally we wound find we needed something Rob didn't have, a certain tool or piece of material.  Luckily one of their neighbors Frank, the man who they bought the property from had a lot of tools and supplies laying around his numerous buildings and we would walk or bike over and grab what we needed.  The weather was wonderful (rare this time of year) and we got some nice views of the scenery and wildlife as we walked around.

Even though I was brought up to Alaska to work, Rob wanted to make sure we had a little fun as well.  After a few solid hours of work in the morning and a quick lunch, we hopped on bikes, rode a few miles to the base of Hope Point.

From there, we walked through the beautiful forest which was full of fall color and started climbing up the very steep trail.  The cabin is out of this photo, but sits in the valley to the right.

After an hour and a half of hiking and entering snow and below freezing temperatures towards the top, we had climbed up nearly 3,000 vertical feet.

We spotted a mountain goat just below us at the top which we observed for a short while, then the snow and wind chilled us enough to remind us to turn back down.  Naturally, we both decided to run large sections, I guess we hadn't been working long enough days!

Upon returning to the cabin, our “break” was over and it was time to get back to building.  Luckily for us Rob's parents were also visiting to help with the cabin and Sue was a wonderful to have around, cooking meals so we didn't have to stop.

Working by headlamp, in the snow.  Yah, I'd say that sums up our work ethic perfectly!

Doing trim work in the bathroom.

One afternoon, some friends came by to see the cabin and made delicious tacos for dinner!

Building the kitchen counter and installing cabinets.

One thing I spent a lot of time doing was sanding and staining wood.  It's not exciting or glamorous, but it's an important part of finish work in a home.

Back in on the main floor, here is some progress for the built in bench seating for the dining area.  If I remember correctly, this was inspired by a place Rob stayed at somewhere in Europe.

Although I had a wide open schedule, open enough to take time off and come to Alaska, Rob on the other hand still had to work from time to time back in Anchorage as a fire fighter.  And as much as I enjoy working (really!) today was a day to have fun doing other things.  I decided to sleep in, take a lazy morning and then go for a bike ride.  The weather was perfect and as I rode away from the cabin towards the trail head, I stopped to admire the huge cottonwood trees and their deeply furrowed bark.

Hope is a tiny town, under 200 people (just like Shaw Island where I live!) and this is pretty much the center of town, the Seaview Cafe, which is closed during the winter.  Not much (or anything) to see or do here, but it is a neat little place.

Just a little further down 'main street' you come to the water and some beautiful views.

I planned on just riding to Porcupine Campground at the end of the road, walking for a short time and turning back, but naturally that didn't happen.  As I got to the trail head, the path beyond looked awfully inviting as a mountain bike ride, so I just kept riding, and riding, and riding.  It had been a long time since I'd done any real mountain biking, but it felt awesome to be back in the saddle doing some technical single track again, above the water in Alaska, all alone.

Because I'd gotten a late start on my journey, after an hour and a half of riding it began to turn into evening and I decided for safety's sake I ought to turn around.  The ride back was even more fun than the ride out since I knew the trail a bit and could push harder, plus trying to get home before dark made me ride even faster.  As it turned out, this schedule brought me back to the campground and the paved road at the perfect time to catch this view from the shore looking across the water.  Stunning.

But you know, I didn’t come here to play, I came to work!  The next day Rob was back and it was time to get cracking again.  Getting covered in wood shavings and working by headlamp were a common occurrence.

By this point we had finished the counter base and it was time to do the tile work.  I'd never done tile before so it was fun to learn a bit about it.  I'm not sure why, but I really enjoyed using a tile saw for the first time.

Rob had some nice true 2”x12” spruce boards milled up and wanted to make them into a dining table.  After some hand planing and sanding, we screwed and glued them together, creating an awesome 4x7 foot dining table.

Back upstairs, we finished the stairs to the guest bedroom loft, but Rob still hadn't learned how to use them.  (but seriously, it turned out really well)

Finished the built in seating around the dining area.

The next day my sister Holly showed up to see the progress and help a bit.  Because she is so busy doing her own thing, this was one of the few times I got to spend time with her, but it was a lot of fun and I'm very happy to play a small part in building this awesome cabin that will be enjoyed for years to come.

Cutting uprights for the railing to the second story.

With most of the inside work finished, it was time to clean up and prepare for sanding the floors.  It was a lot of work to clean up, but by doing so it really started to transform the place from a construction site to a livable space.

That night it snowed about 6 inches and transformed everything into a picture perfect scene.

Ah yes, sanding the floors.  I put on my MP3 player, some ear muffs and spent the next SIX hours running the floor sander.  I can't say it was a lot of fun, but it was amazing to watch how it transformed the scratched up floors into some great looking wood ready to stain.

Speaking of stain, after running the vacuum to pick up any dust that escaped the sanders built in system (of which there was plenty of) that was the next step in the process and another major transformation.

The end result.  Not bad for the floors being just sanded plywood eh?

With the cabin largely done and ready to move into, we headed back to Anchorage for the night to gather furniture and other supplies.

The drive out of Anchorage was beautiful.

Back in Hope there was still plenty of work to do so after unloading the truck we got right back to building.  Here Rob and I are working on the stairs.

The dining area.  There is still more work to be done of course, and the table legs are only temporary, but it is always a lot of fun to see this kind of great progress!

Moving all the mattresses from the shop to the cabin.  A simple task, but one that marks the real shift from a project to a (mostly) completed and livable space.  Very exciting.

Setting up the living room area.

We didn't quite get everything on the kitchen area finished but got most of the way there.  As usual we worked up until the last minute, getting as much done as we could with what time we had.

When it was all said and done, I have to say I'm extremely please with what we were able to accomplish, and impressed (but not too surprised) at the crazy work schedule we kept up the whole time.  When a 12 hour day is a short one, you know you are working hard!  I had a lot of fun working on the place with Rob, it was great to see how much had happened since I was first up there building the shop a few years back, I learned a great deal and feel good knowing I was able to contribute to such a wonderful place that will surely be the foundation for many great experiences and memories in the future for family and friends.

On the drive back to Anchorage we were treated to clear blue skies and the type of beautiful views that get people from the lower 48 to buy plane tickets and see Alaska themselves.  I took a quick shower, repacked my bag and headed to the airport to fly back to Seattle, feeling refreshed by the journey and pleased with what I'd been a part of.

I arrived in Seattle around midnight, got some rest the next morning and then packed up my car to head out that same night to visit my friend Chads out in Indianola.  This meant taking a ferry across the Sound, and I have to say it was strange taking a ferry and not winding up home in the San Juan Islands.  It's been a while since I've been on any other boats!

I arrived around 10 in a light rain and was excited to see Chad's little home.  He made me some snacks and a hot drink, talked a bit and called it a night.

The place from the outside, a small and very creative little home.

There were a number of hazard trees leaning towards the house, as well as a dying cedar that was leaning towards his neighbors home.  I put in a few hours work until it started to rain and we ran out of sunlight, then had a shower and another nice dinner cooked up by Chad.

Inside Chad's place.  The bay window is a wonderful feature and the stairs lead to the sleeping loft.

Upstairs.  Living in a small place myself, it was a lot of fun to see the way this space is set up.  The footprint was small, but it provided a ton of usable space and everything a person needs.

Another reason I came was to experience 'Breakfast Club', as described on the website, Food Muse Inspirations

“Inspired by a cozy little dining cottage my husband found while walking through the woods in Denmark years ago, my son, Sam and I decided to offer our own version of this lovely vision. We started the Underground Café, a “sometimes on Sundays” brunch offered out of our teaching/catering kitchen. We’re open when we feel inspired to cook, and because we live at the end of a long dirt road, mostly people do walk through the woods or ride their bikes to dine here. Our menu reflects the abundance of our neighboring woods, waters and gardens, with a bit of whimsy tossed in for good measure. Sometimes even“Honeybear”, the neighborhood miniature pony, follows his nose to join in the fun---he knows he’ll get to eat apples right out of our hands! Keep an eye on our Facebook updates to find out when we are open!”

The food and the people who showed up were wonderful, a great little community space in another wonderful little part of the world.  I ended up eating with a family who I was at first only sitting next to, and chatting for a long time about travel and chainsaws since the man had done some logging in Hawaii.

After cutting a few more things I said goodbye, took the ferry back towards Seattle and was lucky enough to have my visit coincide with my brother being in town.  We went to visit my grandmother at her apartment and had to get a picture with this old photo of us, one that had been on my grandparents wall our whole life growing up.  Yah, we still look alike.

That evening I headed home to Shaw finally, after nearly a month long absence.  It was another dark and rainy night, but it was good to be back.