Tag Archives: Cabin in Alaska

Winter Trip to McCarthy | Good Idea, Bad Idea

~ by Maria Benner

Log Cabin in Alaska in winter

Did you watch the Animaniacs in the 1990s?  One of my favorite segments was Good Idea, Bad Idea.  On our recent trip to our cabin in McCarthy I kept recalling the comical cartoon as we stumbled through our winter adventure in a remote section of Alaska.

Good Idea: Driving over 300 miles to our cabin in McCarthy in a 4×4 Chevy truck. We had chains, a snow shovel, winter gear, and plenty of food and beer in case we got stuck.

Bad Idea: Not checking the weather report before departure.  Minutes after leaving our condo in Anchorage we were driving through a snow storm that lasted for half the drive.  Once we got to the McCarthy road we had sunny weather, and the first part of the road was not bad, but then the snow got deeper and we ended up getting stuck, and had to put on tire chains.  The drive was super slow after that point.

Good Idea: Buying a snow machine last fall so we could take all our stuff from the truck to the cabin quickly in the winter.  We parked it by our cabin up on blocks so it wouldn’t freeze to the ground, and covered it with a tarp.

Bad Idea: Buying a 1993 machine and neglecting to get it tuned up in Anchorage before bringing it to McCarthy.  In the winter we can’t drive all the way to the cabin, so we park about 3 miles away, and ski up to it.  Once we got there we uncovered the snow machine, dug it out, and tried starting it.  We were really close a couple times, but it just wouldn’t start.  So we had to ski back down to the truck, and haul everything that couldn’t freeze on sleds up to the cabin.  We arrived after midnight!  That was a really long day!  In the morning we got the snowmachine to start, and got the rest of our stuff up to the cabin with minimal effort!

Skiing up to the cabin with a few supplies.

snow machine snow mobile in Alaska

Scott hauling supplies with our snow machine across the frozen Kennicott River.

Good Idea: Picking a week to go to the cabin when we don’t have any major projects going on, or looming deadlines for about a week after our scheduled return date.

Bad Idea: Assuming that we can drive out of McCarthy on the scheduled day, and get back to Anchorage to complete projects before deadlines.  While we were in McCarthy there was a big snow storm that lasted for two days.  It was a gorgeous day, and we went for a long ski in the snow, but we were really nervous about how much snow was accumulating on the McCarthy Road, our only way out of McCarthy with our truck.  We have a big deadline at the end of the month, and if we got stuck in McCarthy for a few extra days, we would have missed out on a big opportunity.  The road only gets plowed when the airstrip in McCarthy has over 18″ of snow and a plow needs to get to the runway.

Snow storm in Alaska

Heavy snow storm.

Good Idea: Making a meal plan and bringing enough food for a week.  There are no stores or restaurants open in the winter in McCarthy.

Bad Idea: Forgetting to leave extra food at the cabin just in case we got stuck for a few extra days.  We followed our food plan, and ended up having a bit of extra food that could last for about two days, but we decided to stock the cabin with dried goods for future trips.

Good Idea: Going skiing on the glacier, visiting friends, and relaxing around the wood stove in the cabin.

Bad Idea: Planning to do a little bit of work during our week long vacation.  We brought our laptops and Scott packed his oil painting kit, and we did manage to work, but we were really tempted to play hooky the whole time.

glacier ice in Alaska glacier ice cave iceberg

Checking out an iceberg on the Kennicott Glacier.

Overall I have more fond memories of the trip, and am starting to forget all the inconveniences and challenges.  I can say we learned many lessons from our experience, and hopefully our future winter trips will go much more smoothly!

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A Tale of Two Homes… in Alaska

Back at the cabin after a skiing adventure.

People always ask how I like living in McCarthy.  They must see my Facebook posts and just assume since I spend a lot of time there that it’s my primary residence.  As of now, I live in an efficient downtown condo in Anchorage.  As much as I love going to McCarthy, and the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park that surrounds this cool mountain town, I will probably never spend more than five months of the year there.  It’s really remote without a real gas station and only a small seasonal grocery store.  Maria and I have been building a cabin on our lot two miles south of the town of McCarthy for about four years now.  We bought the lot in 2005, and I convinced Maria that we should start to build a cabin there in 2010.  In 2012 we broke ground on the foundation and started the log work.  Three summers later we were putting the roof on.  This year we installed the wood stove and moved in!

We have lived in a small apartment style condo in Anchorage since 2006.  It has been really efficient, and at 730+ square feet, two bedrooms with a small bathroom, it is not luxurious, but cozy and comfortable city living.  I just cleaned the entire pad in about an hour this morning.  However, it feels cramped after a long winter and I was just dying to go to McCarthy in the winter now that the wood stove is in.  Hanging out on our ten acres in the woods after living near the heart of Anchorage without an outlet to private outdoor space left us feeling hankering for some wilderness solitude.  I convinced Maria it would be cool to head out for a week in March, ski in with sleds of supplies and just hang at out mountain home.  I did some painting and Maria did some business work in the mornings and we would adventure in the afternoons.  Later in the day, which are getting longer and longer as spring rapidly approaches, we would burn large fires of forest brush in the outdoor fire ring.  On a couple of noteworthy outings we skied around the sleepy town of Kennicott, explored on skis the icebergs on the West side of the glacier, skied up McCarthy Creek, and in and around our neighborhood.  Overall, it really gave me a great feeling of mountains wilderness beauty that satisfied our itch to leave the hubbub of the city  behind.

Working next to the wood stove.

The trip was great, but a week was long enough during March.  First off, water is a problem in our subdivision.  We are up on a bluff, so you have to spend some serious cash to put in deep wells, so most of the time we collect rain water from our roof.  This works really well during the summer months, and in winter there is snow, but it takes a lot of energy and time to melt snow.  We can’t drive to our lot during the winter as the bridge is covered in three feet of snow and so is the road up to our place.  It is a snowmobile haven, and a good place to ski as well.  I ski, since I don’t have an Arctic Cat or a Ski-Doo.  Water is heavy, so we had to ration it to avoid too many heavy loads.  Another problem with wilderness living in the winter is using the outhouse, which is really far away from the warm house, and is frozen.  Lastly, the wood stove is an archaic technology that is a lot of work to keep a log cabin warm.  It’s hard to find wood that isn’t too wet from snow.  It seems that it rained and froze right before it snowed, and even though I stored the wood under a tarp, there was a lot of it full of moisture.  Yes, we are in the process of building a necessary woodshed, but as I said, we aren’t even fully done building the place yet.  The house has a bunch of drafts and we need to finish chinking, as well as installing a bunch of important trim pieces.  It seemed I was constantly loading the stove, until the creosote clogged the pipe.  This turned out to be a major cluster, but fortunately it happened at the end of the week so we just went home.  Next time I head out, I have to bring a chimney brush, climb on the roof and maintain the stovepipe before we have heat.  Then we will have to hope we don’t burn the place down.  It seems silly to have a house that is made of the same combustible stuff we heat it with, but it’s working for now.

Maria skiing past an ice berg on Kennicott Glacier.

Icebergs on Kennicott Glacier.

After a week in the woods, I’m glad to be back in Anchorage.  Working at the comfortable studio with running water, and hanging out in my small cozy condo at the corner of downtown and Fairview.  I can buy groceries and gas, drive on plowed roads, have indoor plumbing, and a thermostat.  The wilderness is very inspirational, and I loved my trip, but I also know that the people who live out there are some tough hombres.  It isn’t easy living off grid especially as you are building systems.  One thing goes wrong and you could be living in a cold cabin… or worse.

We waited for this giant slab of snow and ice to crash all week, and it finally fell with a loud thud on our last night at the cabin.

The gray jays were happy to see us. They finally started eating out of our hands last summer.

The Kennicott Mill building.

The Kennicott Glacier.