Tag Archives: mccarthy 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!


What we do in McCarthy.

~ by Maria Benner

My dentist asked me the other day, “So, what do you do when you’re in McCarthy?”

Maybe I should start by telling newer blog readers the background story.  In 2005 I dragged Scott to McCarthy in Wrangell – St. Elias National Park for the long 4th of July weekend, because I wanted to walk on the huge glacier.  Scott has always been reluctant to travel to new places, and grudgingly boarded the little plane that flew us to McCarthy in a rain storm.  Two weeks after that amazing trip we drove back to the little town to check out a 10-acre lot that the University of Alaska was selling.  In October we owned that lot.  I bought the land as an investment, but Scott had different ideas.  Before I could comprehend the implications of what he was about to do, Scott ordered 198 logs to be delivered to our lot in 2012.  That’s when we started building our log cabin.  It took us 182 days to finish it to the point where we could move in.  We still have many small projects left before the cabin is completely finished though.  During summers we go to McCarthy for two-week stints.  We can’t stay for the whole summer, because we have to come back to Anchorage to work on the art business.  So, if you’re wondering what we do out there, here’s a description of a typical day.

We don’t have to get up at a certain hour, but the birds’ loud chirping wakes us up at roughly the same time each day.  We drink coffee while checking e-mail and news, and then make breakfast.  We recently acquired a sourdough starter, and I brought it with us to McCarthy, because we went for three weeks, and I didn’t want it to starve while we were gone.  I’m really glad I brought it, because we made sourdough pancakes twice, and Scott baked delicious sourdough bread!

Sourdough bread that Scott baked in the cabin.

Sourdough bread that Scott baked in the cabin.

After breakfast we work on Real Art Is Better.  Scott usually has to work on commissioned paintings, or a Thirsty Thursday beer painting, while I take care of the business and marketing side of the business.  Luckily Verizon provides LTE out there!  Then we break for lunch.

Scott painting in the bug tent.

Scott painting in the bug tent.

In the afternoon we work on the cabin-building project.  Neither of us is a builder, and we learned from books and YouTube videos how to peel and stack logs in the shape of a cabin.  Every time we make a mistake, we think about whether it’s worth the money, time and effort to fix it, or if “it’ll be fine, it’s just a cabin in the woods in Alaska.”  Not like there’s a Home Depot in town where we can get some extra parts.  On our trip in May we insulated and installed the bottom floor, chinked most of the gaps between the logs, installed gutters so we can collect water from the roof for washing dishes, showering (not drinking), installed five windows, built a front door, AND…  MOVED IN!!!  The moving in ceremony consisted of nailing a horse shoe from a friend’s horse above the door.  Our friend gave us that horse shoe specifically for the cabin a couple years ago.

Cabin building project!

Cabin building project!

Hi! I'm moving in!

Hi! I’m moving in!

After about five hours of building we call it a day.  Sometimes we want to keep working to finish a task, but we learned the hard way that if we keep working when we’re tired of it, we’ll make mistakes, and get grumpy.  After work we take showers every other day, which involves heating several gallons of water on a propane turkey fryer and pouring the water into a bucket with a hose and spout on the bottom.  I built a shower stall out of plywood a couple years ago.  It’s simple and it gets the job done!

After relaxing, making dinner, and doing the dishes, we leave our lot on bikes or on foot (we rarely drive the dirt roads in McCarthy) and go for a little adventure.  We’ll either visit a friend, or go to a beautiful place.  On Friday nights we usually go to softball.  On most weekends there’s a band playing at the bar.  There’s a lot going on for such a small town.  Now that the cabin is mostly done, we can spend more time adventuring!

Evening canoe float on the Beaver Pond.

Evening canoe float on the Beaver Pond.

Friday night softball game.

Friday night softball game.

Now we’re back in Anchorage for a month.  The mosquitos are horrible in McCarthy in June, and we don’t mind skipping that stage of summer.  We’re getting ready for Scott’s art show at Midnight Sun Brewing Company this Friday.  His paintings and prints will be on display and available for sale all month.  Check out the details on the Facebook event page.  We also plan on doing a Kenai Peninsula breweries tour and go dip-netting for salmon before returning to McCarthy July 2 in time for another tremendous 4th of July weekend.

Entering Summer Mode

~ by Maria Benner

We are currently transitioning into summer mode, which means going back and forth between our home in Anchorage and our wilderness retreat in McCarthy.  We’ve been building a log cabin ourselves since 2012 on our 10.3 acres, and this summer we’ll be finishing this monumental project, if everything goes according to plan.  I’ve been keeping a journal of our cabin-building days and so far we’ve spent exactly 171 days working on it, starting by cutting down the first tree to make the clearing.  Unfortunately, our piece of land is about 306 miles away from Anchorage, so we try to go there for extended periods of time.  This time we’re going for three weeks.  This requires a lot of planning and packing.  We have several lists.  One for building supplies, one for Costco, one for Fred Meyer, and one for things to pack from the studio so we can keep working out there.  Why do we go through all this effort to spend some time so far away from home?  Because this…

McCarthy, Alaska

During this trip we plan to install the flooring in the cabin, three windows, a door, the gutter system, and start chinking the gaps between the logs.  As always, our truck will be loaded to the max with food for three weeks, building supplies, and a lot of other stuff that two humans need for living in the woods.  We’ll be back in Anchorage about May 28th, so we can have enough time to mail out orders, and get ready for Scott’s art opening at Midnight Sun Brewing Company on June 3rd.  We’ll stay in Anchorage for most of June, because the bug situation in McCarthy in June is horrific, and there are better places in Alaska to be during that time.  At the end of June, after our annual fish harvest, we’ll load the truck again, and drive back to McCarthy for most of July.  Summer is crazy in Alaska due to nearly 17 hours of daylight, but it’s an amazing time of year, and I’m very excited about the whole summer being ahead of us!

Progress Update on the McCarthy Property

We’re back in Anchorage after a very productive two weeks in McCarthy.  The weather was amazing, but a bit hot for the kind of work we were doing.  Thinning a spruce forest in 80 degree heat was uncomfortable for these two Alaskans.  We came back to Anchorage with nice tans, and many mosquito bites.

We wanted to accomplish five major tasks during our trip, and I’m happy to report that we did!

1. Finish fire-wising our lot.  Done.  This was the most challenging, daunting, physically taxing, and time consuming project that took about 13 days.  We cleared everything (including stumps) within 30 feet of the cabin.  Then we thinned spruce tree clumps and parked out branches within 100 feet.  Scott used his trusty forest axe to cut down trees, and then used the chainsaw to buck logs and cut down stumps.  I wreaked havoc with a sawzall and loppers.  This significantly improved the appearance of our forest, not to mention fire safety.  The VFD chief came to inspect our property and was really impressed with our work.  He said he could easily bring a large water tank, and set up a sprinkler system around our cabin.  I think this is better than having insurance — money wouldn’t replace all the hard work we put into our log cabin so far.

2. Install sill logs for the roof on the cabin.  Done.  On our next trip to McCarthy, we’re going to bring out all the roofing materials, so we finished the log work on the cabin by installing sill logs for the roof on both sides.  They were the largest and heaviest logs we’ve put on the cabin so far.  I think we’re done peeling logs for a while.

3. Continue painting and posting online Thirsty Thursday beer-themed paintings.  Scott did paint two oil paintings for his Thirsty Thursday series and we posted them online using the vastly improved Internet connection compared to what we tolerated last summer.  He worked inside our bug tent, which also doubles as his summer art studio for now.

4. Remove as many stumps as possible.  Stump removal was a gradual task.  Scott’s goal was to remove one each day, but he ended up doing three or four when he got on a roll.  My human backhoe husband did all this work with his trusty pulaski tool.

5. Enlarge the new driveway.  Done.  The human backhoe completed this task in one day (I helped by picking up branches).  Now we can safely drive the truck to the cabin.  Basically, we killed a lot of trees on this trip, but we do have enough firewood to last us for about a year.

We finished everything with one day to spare, so I built my very first garden, and planted squash, cabbage, carrots, and radishes.  A big thank you to our neighbor Mary Convey, who is going to water our garden for a month while we’re gone.

We have completely shifted gears now that we are back in Anchorage.  After recovering from culture shock, unpacking, doing five loads of laundry, and moving two couches, we are settled in and are gearing up for a busy month of work starting with a First Firkin Friday art opening at Midnight Sun Brewing.  Here are the event details, and we hope to see you there!

Year of Beer Paintings – Day 35

What beer tastes better than Budweiser, but costs 30% less?  The answer is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.  This adjunct American lager brewed since 1844 has been gracing the tables of Americans long before prohibition.  I am building a log cabin on 10 acres near the small town of McCarthy, Alaska, located within the heart of the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park.  McCarthyites have an affinity for this beer, to say the least.  At every softball game beer is a mandatory party favor.  People place their 12 packs on the fish cleaning table and pretty much share like it was water to participators and fans alike.  During Solstice we play softball until after midnight, just hoping nobody complains about the noise during the second half of the double header.  We have some special rules for our game.  First, there are no strikeouts, which alleviates much performance anxiety.  Second, no home runs except for in the park as there is no fence on the airstrip.  Third, if it lands in the woods but is a fair ball that is only a single.  Fourth, if it bounces into the woods that is only a double.  Finally, and foremost, there is only one important rule, don’t spill your beer while you’re running the bases or playing in the outfield.

To PBR, a cheap alternative to highly marketed American adjuncts!  Remember to stock up before softball, because softball is a thirsty sport!

The original painting sold.  You can buy a limited-edition print at my Etsy Shop.

Year of Beer 02.04 Pabst Blue Ribbon. Oil on panel, 8"x10".

Year of Beer 02.04 Pabst Blue Ribbon. Oil on panel, 8″x10″.

McCarthy AK Museum

antique cash register painting

This painting was created in McCarthy, Alaska’s lovely little museum.  I enjoyed volunteering at this small museum this summer, and will look forward to spending more days there next summer.  The day I decided to work on this painting of an antique cash register, was full of excitement.  Outside on the museum porch are a couple of relics left from the days before the footbridge, two hand-trams that were used to cross over the powerful Kennicott River.  Having arrived after the creation of the footbridge I can only imagine how isolating the hand-tram must have been.  Well, someone else must have had an active imagination as well, as I was painting away inside the museum, a great commotion occurred at the hand-tram.  A large fellow, 300+ lbs, sat down on the hand-tram and flipped it over; he had literally fallen and couldn’t get up!  Well, he asked Maria (my wife) to help him out of the contraption, but she obviously couldn’t budge him, I don’t know how she did it but Maria saved the day and the man was okay.  However the hand-tram exhibit had taken some wear and tear.  It is a good thing that the Museum carries an insurance policy because the hand tram is dangerous. I have smacked my head on it more than once and won’t sit down in it anymore.  We need a sign that says sit at your own risk…okay back to the painting.  I just love this Art Deco cash register and think about the goods that were purchased nearly a century ago.  It really was a long voyage from the steamship to the train, all the way to Kennicott!  This unique antique sure would have felt exotic in the Wrangell mountains, just look at that styling.  They don’t make stuff like this anymore.

McCarthy Museum deck, building, and rail car

mccarthy alaska museum deck painting

This year my wife and I decided to spend the entire summer in McCarthy, Alaska in the heart of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park!  We have a 10 acre lot on the south side of the town of McCarthy.  It was fun, but since we had yet to have built a building, I spent almost all my time outside in the fresh air.  Since this is a bit different than my usual life, I would jump at any chance to get some time under a roof (especially this summer as we have had so much rain).  I decided it would be nice to give back to the community, and get some inside time so I volunteered at the McCarthy Museum.  The Museum used to be open to the public without an attendant, however due to recent objects walking off without anyone to observe their departure, the board of directors decided it was imperative that an attendant be present.  I stepped up to the plate and volunteered several times this summer.  I painted this from the deck between the building and rail-car which houses the collections.  McCarthy and Kennecott have such rich histories although these settlements are only around 100 years old, aside from Nome, and Cordova, this is one of the oldest industrialized areas in Alaska.  It is extra special due to its rich history and well preserved artifacts.  It is especially interesting because the entire town shut down all at once when the Kennecott Mine closed.  What was once a bustling mining district became instant ghost towns.  The towns of McCarthy and Kennecott became devoid of life except for a few hardy hermits, pirates, and homesteaders.  Although the park has almost as many tourists and summer residents now as it had prospectors during the 20’s and 30’s, in the winter months the whole park just about shuts down except for a few hardy souls who winter over the dark and frozen months.  I love the McCarthy Museum and I enjoyed making this painting.  Later in the season, I gave it away as a birthday present to the notorious B-Mack, at his classic birthday party “The Endless BBQ.”  The Endless BBQ is an awesome party held every year, this year with great music by the Grannies and an amazing performance by a lady that goes by the name of Saucy Yoda.