The Joys of Cabin Living in Alaska

Want to know what domestic bliss looks like? A rundown cabin with no electricity on the edge of rain-soaked Alaskan wilderness.

alaska steve rinella prince of wales island

The author off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.     Photo: Randi Berez

My two brothers and I, along with a buddy of ours named Dan Bogan, own a shack at a place called Saltery Cove on Southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. The shack is about 36 feet long and 12 feet wide, with the warped shape and discoloration of a cardboard shoe box that’s been soaked in the rain. A partially uprooted old-growth hemlock leans menacingly over the back corner, and the front deck sits about seven feet above the shoreline on wooden pilings that are in various stages of decay. The tidal fluctuations in this area are so wild that the shack might be 200 yards away from the water’s edge in the morning and then be at risk of becoming oceanic debris by lunchtime. When friends come to visit, they often scrutinize the engineering as though reluctant to commit their full weight to the structure, let alone sleep inside it. While doing so, they’re prone to asking questions like “What made you guys buy this place?” with a weird inflection that seems to betray a hint of pity.

My usual, flippant reply is that real estate cliché about location, location, location. The appeal of our shack isn’t so much the structure itself, but rather the bare-bones nature of its locality. Surrounded largely by the Tongass National Forest, it’s a place where black bears gnaw mussels from the rocks in what might be described as our yard and killer whales pass by so close that you can hear them even with the door closed. But in truth that’s only half the answer. The other half is more difficult to explain and also a bit masochistic: Saltery Cove is a place where everything—the weather, the ocean, the mountains, the people, the trees, the animals, even the buildings—seems capable of kicking your ass in a very physical way. And in today’s increasingly tame and virtual world, where our primary sensations tend to be delivered by our Wi-Fi connections, a good old-fashioned ass kicking is something worth paying for.

ANOTHER WAY IN WHICH the cabin kicks my ass is through my wife, Katie. She often regards my purchase of the shack with that eye-rolling sense of dismissal that people will use when confronted with the subject of their spouse’s past girlfriends or boyfriends. Not that Katie, a publicity director for a high-profile publishing house in Manhattan, entirely disapproves. Rather, she just feels that the expense of maintaining our “second home” is grossly incommensurate with how much time we spend there. When I try to justify the costs to her, I point out that it’s not so much a second home as a first shack, and also that it could someday prove to be a good investment. When those justifications fail, I hit below the belt and tell her that I’d intended for it to be my primary place of residence but had willfully sacrificed that dream in order to stay close to her—my true love. That usually does the trick.

The purchase occurred during my late twenties, well before I’d met Katie. It was a time when I was more or less aimlessly bouncing around the country with little or no responsibility. In 2003, this landed me on Prince of Wales Island. I went there with my brother Danny to fish salmon and halibut with one of Saltery Cove’s eight full-time residents, Ron Leighton, a man of mixed Native Alaskan and Irish descent who’ll tear your head off for tangling an anchor line and then send your kid a birthday present even though the nearest mailbox is an hour’s boat ride from his house. Ron’s résumé includes a tour of duty as a door gunner in Vietnam, a career as a detective with the police force in Ketchikan, Alaska, and a parallel career as a halibut long-liner. He and Danny originally met when Danny traveled to Saltery Cove to do some environmental survey work through his job as an ecologist at the University of Alaska. Ron offered to put him up and show him around during his stay, and they struck up an unlikely friendship. Then, about a year after my own initial visit (a trip that included meal upon meal of self-caught shrimp, crab, and halibut), Ron called Danny to tell him that the shack across the creek from his house had been put up for sale by its owner.

The price was $80,000, non-negotiable. Danny recognized that this was a lot of money for one guy to pay, especially for a place that might get knocked into the water by a hemlock and float away. Twenty grand, on the other hand, seemed reasonable. All he had to do was find three other guys who felt the same way. He called me in Rhode Island, where I was living in a short-term rental that sat so close to the water, I could watch movies in my living room at night while holding a fishing rod baited for eels and cast into the bay. I’d just sold my first book for what seemed like a staggering sum of money, and since I was still a few years away from adult responsibility, I knew I’d end up blowing my windfall on outdoor gear and alcoholic beverages. That I could take permanent possession of a setup similar to the one I was now enjoying—albeit 3,000 miles away—was an irresistible notion. Our brother Matt and our buddy Dan were equally intrigued. The four of us mailed in our checks.

Danny and I were the first ones to plan a visit. To get there from his house in Anchorage, where I’d been staying for a couple of months, we ended up flying into Seattle and then transferring planes to Ketchikan, a town with an airport that happens to be on a different island than the town itself. We collected our bags and then dragged them down a long ramp toward a ferry dock. After crossing to Ketchikan, we dragged the bags up another ramp and waited in the rain for a cab. Since this was our only chance to stock up on provisions, we made the rounds to the grocery, hardware, and sporting-goods stores. By then it was too late to get a float plane, so we booked a hotel and caught a shuttle to the docks at dawn. There we loaded our supplies into the plane and flew over Clarence Strait toward the jagged and serpentine coastline of Prince of Wales Island, a landmass half the size of Hawaii’s Big Island but with three times as much coastline.

Danny and I will forever remember the month that followed as the summer of trash. When we climbed off the float plane to behold our new treasure, we were greeted by a two-acre parcel of garbage to which we now held the deed. There were steel barrels of chemicals such as kerosene, water sealer, and gear oil made useless by the intrusion of rainwater that had dripped through rust-perforated lids. Dozens of empty barrels, concealed beneath layers of moss, gave the landscape a bumpy look that reminded me of a rash. Elsewhere we found styrofoam blocks as big as bathtubs, a mound of fiberglass insulation the size of a car, enough rotted lumber to build a rotted house, and what would eventually turn out to be 150 gallons of crushed beer cans. Two sheds made of plastic sheeting had simply collapsed over time, burying piles of junked fishing gear, inoperable chainsaws, rusted hardware, busted-up shrimp and crab traps, and coils of cracked plastic hose. When we opened an outhouse toward the back of the property, near the national-forest border, we found that both the hole and the structure had been filled with household garbage.

The only thing more staggering than the volume and variety of the trash was the fact that it had all come in on boats and planes, presumably over the course of many decades. There was no economically feasible way for us to get it out of there and into a landfill, so we did the only thing that made sense. In a weird moment of clairvoyance, I had packed along my flame-retardant military flight suit, and this became my uniform for the next month as Danny and I built infernos of burning trash with smoke plumes rivaling those seen on news broadcasts dispatched from Kabul.

In the evenings, we worked on the much more pleasurable task of learning to navigate the labyrinthine networks of straits and fjords and islands that stretched for watery miles away from our place. Initially, we stayed inside an area known as Skowl Arm; we were afraid to cross into the treacherous waters beyond, known as Clarence Strait, because of a nautical chart that someone had nailed to the wall of the shack with the words DO NOT GO written across the entrance to the strait in red marker. But of course our curiosity overrode our caution, and one night we found ourselves out there in a 16-foot open-bowed skiff with a stalled engine and no radio. We were drifting so fast on the outgoing tide that it felt like we could pull a skier. Just as I began calculating how long the 10-pound halibut in the bottom of the boat would stave off starvation as we drifted toward death on the open sea, the engine popped to life with a puff of black smoke and we beelined for the safety of sheltered water. At the end of that month, when the float plane finally picked us up for the trip back to Ketchikan, we circled around and passed over the shack. I looked down at it like a rodeo rider might view a bull that had just bruised him up. He knows it’s a lot of trouble and that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but he’s already planning another ride.

WHEN I STARTED DATING Katie, I would try to impress her with stories of the cabin. I promised to take her up there and get her hooked into a halibut that was so big we’d have to sink it with a harpoon in order to drag it into the boat. She now admits that the bravado kind of turned her on, though she has a hard time explaining how my stories resulted in her mistaken impression of the shack as some kind of classy Aspen-style retreat where you stroll out to the hot tub in a white robe with a wine glass dangling between your fingers.

In reality, the hot tub that we rigged up prior to Katie’s first visit was a livestock watering tank that we had shipped up on a barge from Seattle and then set out on some rocks by the stream. It was powered by an ingenious woodstove that circulated water through a heating box by means of its own convection currents.

Other improvements over the years included an adjoining workshop to store boat engines and tools. This freed up space in the shack’s sleeping area so that it could actually be used for sleeping. Also, we’d worked out the problems in our plumbing system, which meant you could more reliably take warm showers using water that was diverted from the creek and heated with a propane burner.

In fact, the place had gotten so comfortable that my two brothers figured it would be a perfect time to introduce their significant others to the shack as well—along with Danny’s three-year-old daughter. And in case things weren’t quite cozy enough with seven people sharing three bunk beds and well under 500 square feet of space, we extended an invitation to our friend Brandt and his new girlfriend.

I was a tad worried about the crowding issue, but in hindsight I should have been much more concerned that it was midwinter. The area gets an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year, about four times as much as Seattle, and the bulk of that seemed to fall during Katie’s stay. On her trip out to the cabin, she got stuck in a Ketchikan hotel because of the weather. When it finally cleared enough for her to get to the shack, it promptly turned shitty again once she landed. For days, the wind howled and snow dumped. We got out in the boat only a few times. Once, when we took a ride to set crab traps and ran out of daylight about two miles from home, the engine hit a submerged log with such ferocity that the bow of the boat dipped below the surface and scooped out a wave’s worth of water, which flooded through the vessel like a tsunami. We bailed it out with a solemnness that came from knowing that we were maybe just a few gallons away from a capsized boat and possible death by hypothermia.

Another outing in the boat occurred during a storm surge that pushed the high tide up over the porch, and we had to chase down all the gear and food that had been swept into the ocean. The surge also caused a temporary shutdown of what so far had been the trip’s one salvation, the hot tub. Its creekside location offered scenic views plus a handy source for changing the water. But when the high tide backed up the creek, all you could see of the tub was the top of the chimney. When the tide fell we moved the tub to higher ground and filled it with water siphoned from the creek with a long hose. Then the improperly drained hose froze and ruptured, so we were unable to change the water when it became soiled with dirt and spruce needles and the general funk caused by nine human inhabitants and a spilled White Russian that gave the water a milky tint. The tub’s popularity waned significantly after that, though not as badly as my own after announcing that I’d miscalculated the kerosene usage and we’d soon have no way to heat the shack.

ONE OF THE BEST things about life is that now and then, when we’re lucky, the reality of a situation rises up to meet our hopeful expectations. I thought of this a couple of summers ago, when Danny and his significant other, Corrina, got married on a grassy beach across the cove from our shack under sunny summer skies. Well over a dozen friends and family were gathered for the celebration. Salmon rolled in the stream mouth and flashed spectacularly during the ceremony. A bear sow and her two young cubs appeared down the shore and seemed to pose, as though Steve Irwin had been resurrected as a wedding planner. In the evening we gathered on the deck, drinking beer and boiling crabs and expecting at any minute the deck to finally collapse beneath the weight of all our friends.

It held firm and was still standing strong in the morning as the guests packed up their sleeping bags and tents and boarded planes headed to Ketchikan. Later that day, I took Katie out on the water and fulfilled at least part of my seductive promise. Although the halibut she caught wasn’t big enough to require a harpoon, it was her first nonetheless. That night, she glowed with pride as we grilled a fillet of the fish. I served it with leftover boxed wine poured from the liner bag that someone had thoughtfully pinned under a rock beneath the creek’s surface. After dinner, we went down to the shoreline and watched the light fade. We’d been married a year at that point. Something about the experience—maybe the air, maybe the wine, maybe the residue of hopefulness left over from a day of fishing—caused her to say that she was ready to have a baby so long as I was up for it. We were leaning against the gunwale of a beached skiff, and we just stood there for a while in silence. There was a mountain empty of people behind us, an ocean full of fish in front of us, and at our side a cabin in the slow and steady process of accumulating memories. And in that moment I could see clearly why I’d bought a place that was so hard to get to: even if I had to leave right then, I couldn’t.          

Correspondent Steven Rinella is the author of Meat Eater: Adventures From the Life of an American Hunter.

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