Today I would like to talk about the most recent acquisition to my 10-acre property in McCarthy, Alaska — a vintage tractor! This 1967 International Harvester Low Boy Cub was a trade I made with my long time friend and virtual little brother, John Hickerson. I will be making a large oil painting for John when he moves to Oklahoma. John will be buying a farmhouse and will need a centerpiece painting for his new home. I feel this is a great trade for this sweet piece of equipment. John has been restoring this tractor for three years, and it runs really well. We still have some plans to finalize the restoration. We have some parts on order to rebuild the clutch, and we will be installing a new head gasket, and replacing the piston rings. It has already undergone a 12-volt conversion, and uses an alternator and battery from a Ford Focus. Earlier this week we used the tractor to spread gravel and grade our driveway. It was a real work horse — some of the lumps we destroyed would take weeks to level by hand.
I am really happy with the IH tractor, because it means I won’t have to break my back when I pop stumps out of the ground. It is rear-wheel drive, but has a mean set of rear tires with tire chains. It is really fun to drive, as the throttle is a hand lever, and there are two brakes — one for each rear wheel. These tractors are really popular, and getting parts is pretty easy and affordable. I have plans to build a barn to house my McCarthy motorized vehicles. I’ve acquired quite a fleet with my four-wheeler, snow-machine, tractor, and a 4×8 utility trailer. I’m looking forward to getting this tractor running like it was brand new, then pulling the trailer with a bale of straw, and we will have hay rides around McCarthy and up to my place! Maybe I’ll even join the 4th of July parade in McCarthy this year!
~ by Maria Benner
At the beginning of this summer Scott and I had a great trip to our cabin in McCarthy, and he wrote about it in an e-mail to his subscribers. His story described how much he loves being at the cabin in the woods in Alaska’s wilderness, and maybe even inspired some people to get out of the city and get closer to nature. Well, there’s another side to that story, and this latest trip to the cabin will give you a more accurate account of what life in remote Alaska is really like. Sometimes the simple life becomes really complicated due to the fact that you’re many miles away from civilization, and all your stuff just breaks in one week. That’s what happened on this last trip.
First, the most traumatic incident occurred (or so we thought at the time) when Scott’s iPhone X suddenly turned off, and just died. We used my phone to Google how to bring it back to life, but nothing worked. Unfortunately, the Apple store in Anchorage is about 300 miles away, so Scott had to live without his beloved phone for a whole week. Turns out his logic board had fried, and $549 later, Scott has a new iPhone X from the Apple store.
Then, only an hour later, I did something really stupid that could have resulted in awful consequences, but I got lucky. We started building an Arctic entry, otherwise known as a mud room. The plan is to use this addition for a shower, a small washing machine, dry wood storage closer to the cabin, and to store muddy boots and bulky coats. Well, the first step was to remove the wooden ramp that we’ve been using for years to get into the cabin. Scott told me he removed it. Then I had to make a phone call, but needed a receipt from the truck, and as I was dialing the number while looking at my phone, I opened the door and stepped onto… nothing. Right down to the ground about three feet at full speed, and onto a rock. My ankle did not like all that force, and I felt strong pain. My first reaction was to deny that it may be broken, and to keep walking on it, while repeating the phrase, “It’s not broken, it’s not broken!” Then I started to panic, because if it was broken, Scott would have to drive me for three hours one way to the nearest clinic in Glennallen. So I felt nauseous and got all sweaty, and had to lie down on the ground while Scott ran and got me some ice. Luckily we brought a small fridge to the cabin on this trip that is powered by our solar panels, so we actually had ice! Turned out that I have pretty strong ankles, and it was just sprained. So I taped it, and gently walked on it, and managed to finish my building project that day. Phew! That was a close call. I’m going to call our insurance company to confirm that we have coverage for a Guardian or LifeMed flight out, and if not, we’re buying that insurance ASAP!
The next day, we noticed that a weld had broken on our little trailer that was holding the wheel cover on. The McCarthy Road is rough, and nothing survives multiple trips without some damage. We decided we need to buy a welder in Anchorage, and bring it to the cabin on the next trip. We have a running list going on my phone of all the things we need to bring to the cabin from Anchorage.
Then we started smelling a funky odor inside the cabin, and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until Scott opened the trap door under the house to access our extra stash of beverages, and saw that they were sitting in a soapy pool of dirty water. Last year I installed a French drain next to the house, and pipes leading from the sink into the ground to drain water, so that we could get rid of the slop bucket. Well, apparently, a pipe connection had come apart for some reason (maybe the log cabin shifted slightly), and all the dish water was just going under the house. Gross! Since I was the one who completed that project, I got to be the one to clean up the mess and fix the pipe.
A couple days later we noticed the smell of propane occasionally, and finally decided that the only possible source was the gas range, so we shut off the propane tank, and went to bed. In the morning we had to figure out what was happening. So we moved the counters out of the way to access the back of the stove, and inspected all the connections. Everything seemed tight. The instruction manual to the stove wasn’t helpful — it just told me to call the local fire department. McCarthy has a VFD, but the Fire Chief encourages self-reliance. So I made a soapy water solution, and brushed it where I thought the gas could be coming from, and sure enough, I found a leak right were the yellow propane hose connects to the first nut. The hose had failed, because we installed it at a sharp angle. Since the closest Home Depot is about 300 miles away, we couldn’t fix this problem until we can bring a new hose on the next trip. So we just didn’t have a stove, or an oven for four days. Luckily, we have an outdoor propane two-burner that we could use to cook food, so we cooked outside for the remainder of the trip.
So, if you have been dreaming of building a cabin in remote Alaska to get away from all your problems, just be prepared to handle a whole different set of challenges. Living in the wild does have many benefits, and some amazing things happen right outside our door, like a mama moose and a baby suddenly showing up, or a bunny coming over to nibble on some grass, and the mountains and the sky are so big and majestic. The silence is also nice — we sleep so well out here, not to mention the fresh air. But it all comes at a cost, like so many things in life. Everything seems to always work out, but when stuff goes wrong, it seems like a bigger deal out here when you have to be self-sufficient.
~ by Maria Benner
We bought property in McCarthy, Alaska 13 years ago, and built a log cabin on it. We love spending time at the cabin, but the problem is that it’s 6.5 – 8 hours of driving to get there, depending on road construction and the condition of the 60-mile, mostly unpaved McCarthy Road. So it’s not really an ideal weekend destination, and when we come here, we usually try to stay for about two weeks. People often ask us what we do in McCarthy. So we explain that we’re self employed; Scott is an artist, and I’m the business & marketing manager for our art business. Now that we have access to LTE, we can work from our cabin. Scott has a small studio in the little shack that we originally built as a place to stay warm and dry while we worked on the cabin. I work on my laptop, and can use the Personal Hotspot feature on my iPhone to connect my laptop to the Internet. When we first came here we had no cell phone service at all, so technology has come a long way since 2005, and now allows us to work while we’re here.
So this is how a typical day in McCarthy goes. We drink coffee in the morning while checking e-mail, and catching up on the news and social media. After breakfast Scott works in the studio painting commissions, or Thirsty Thursday beer paintings, or new pieces for an upcoming art show. I work in the cabin on my laptop promoting Scott’s art, booking future art shows, working on grants and 1% for Art applications, and managing the business. After lunch we usually work on cabin and property improvement tasks such as building a wood shed, improving the driveway, framing windows, tiling the kitchen counters, etc. In the evenings we go for walks, burn brush in the big fire-pit, or play ping pong on the new table Scott made for his birthday, or we’ll bike or ride the 2 miles to McCarthy for a party, or to hear a band at the Golden Saloon, or at the Potato. On weekends we try to go on an adventure like searching for an ice cave in the Kennicott Glacier, hiking up to an abandoned mine, or biking to Nizina River.
This afternoon we did some Real Art Is Better work in the morning, and then walked to town to visit a friend at the museum, and to buy a few items at the store. Now Scott is painting while I’m writing this blog post. Tonight we’ll probably stay home and play Yahtzee, or burn some more brush, which is never-ending around here. We’re here for a couple more days, and our goals are to dig a deep hole for a French drain for our kitchen sink, to finish leveling the bumps in the driveway, and to cut down and cut up a couple dead trees. The list of projects is never-ending!
During my first few trips to McCarthy I met people who had lifestyles that allowed them to spend long periods of time here, and I wanted to change things in my life so that I could also come here for longer than just a three-day weekend. So we both quit our jobs, and started our art business, and I credit McCarthy for motivating me to change my life. We’re still not completely location-independent, since we lease studio space in Anchorage, and have to mail orders ourselves, but we get enough time here to justify the time and money we spent on building our cabin here.
On this Thirsty Thursday I am lucky enough to be in McCarthy, Alaska celebrating summer Solstice. I painted the Ma Johnson’s Hotel with a Sockeye Red IPA that I was drinking on the deck of the Golden Saloon. I took a bit of creative license when I made this one to show off more of the experience than what you can only see in one direction. I love that Neil Darish, the owner of the hotel and bar, bought a Model T Ford for the lodge, it really makes the place resemble its 100 year old origins. When I bought this Midnight Sun Brewing beer I thought it would be perfect for the Solstice Thirsty Thursday painting, because of the sun logo, and the brewery’s name. What’s in a name anyway? Actually a lot, especially when it is backed up by 23 years of brewing experience. I hope you all have a beautiful Solstice tonight and enjoy the midnight sun. Tonight sunset is at 11:16PM, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop partying! Cheers to the longest day of the year! Grab plenty of beer to last you the whole day.
The original oil painting sold. Limited-edition prints are available at our Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter.
~ by Maria Benner
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!
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.
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.
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!
~ 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
~ 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…
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!
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!
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!