I've been called a sherpa before.

I've been called a Sherpa before.

It was finally spring, and I had work on my mind. No, not magazine work and writing, nor web design or anything I do to make a buck; I’m talking about construction. I was itching for that first strike of my new hammer to a nail, feeling my saw rip through some lumber and watching my wilderness cabin rise from nothing, piece by piece. The first step to achieving any of this was to get my act together, stage my lumber and supplies for the project ahead.

On June 6, unhindered by the lack of an all terrain vehicle, I loaded my backpack with gear and tools, then stepped off with excitement down the gravel trail that leads from the parking lot toward the backcountry. The load was heavy and contained a full-size shovel, long-handled branch clippers, a long level and much more. Still, I began my trip knowing that the effort I was putting into this cabin would be worth it, and that I’d best get in shape since more strenuous hikes into the property were sure to come.

Large ferns rising up to the sun

Large ferns rising up to the sun

Turned out to be a beautiful day. Spring rains were nowhere in site, and every bit of snow had been replaced by the season’s new growth; grasses, ferns, cow parsnip and devil’s club were all rising up at an alarming rate. The green spring in Alaska is amazing.

The hiking was moderately difficult as usual since I left the trail at about half-way and took a more direct yet rugged course for the remaining distance. That meant once again traveling past some lakes, up and down into a couple of gorges, over and around a number of obstacles like fallen trees, and finally reaching Trapper Creek.

Steppin it out through the easy stuff

Steppin it out through the easy stuff

Luckily, being early spring, I had few encounters with plants and brush that would slow me down, and I could see far through the forest in order to plan my direction. It really wasn’t so bad, this time.

Small rainbow trout caught in Trapper Creek

Small rainbow trout caught in Trapper Creek

I had with me my rod and real. I was not going to pass up Trapper this time without testing the waters for a fish, perhaps a nice rainbow. Sure I had work to do, but the hours in the days were already many by this time of year, and I needed to take a break and enjoy my surroundings before the coming hours of labor. And in fact, within a few casts and having already seen a fish chase my lure then dart off for cover, I cast a spinner along side an overhang in the creek, reeled in quickly, and drew a rainbow onto my hook. He was feisty but small, a beautiful fish and enough to make me feel successful in my endeavor.

After a photo or two and returning the bow to the water, I made a number of casts for upwards of 45 minutes without so much as a nibble. I walked the bank, targeting ever hiding place I could find, and eventually concluded that I had caught the only fish in the creek. It was just too early in the season to do any better, and from there I made the rest of the journey to the property.

First I saw the camp I had cleared during the summer of the previous year, the fire pit and logs to sit on. Then, to my surprise and satisfaction, all the lumber my boss and I had transported to the property before the snow had melted was in perfect shape. I had never had a chance to get back out to stack it or cover it better, and it made no difference. The wood was good, and I excitedly called John to let him know the good news.

Only one problem remained, the wood had been dumped in multiple piles with quite some distance between. Considering the weight of some of the pieces that I’d have to carry, a good plan was needed for how and where best to stack everything for later use.

After my brain deliberated for a while, and I once again surveyed the area to get a good idea of where my property boundaries were, I made a decision. Where I originally planned to put my wood was too close, and possible even past, my property line, not that I have neighbors to worry about. Just the same, some could show up at any moment. As for some of the wood in other piles, they were too far away from where I planned to build. Worse, they were downhill, not on the high ground I intended to build on. Carrying it all uphill, all the way to where I had originally planned would break my back by the end of the day.

My conclusion was to move my staging location to a location more in the middle. Yes, I’d have to move a pile that was already near where I wanted it, but that would be better than moving the other lumber all the way uphill. I’d have more trips, but each would be shorter and allow for rest between before I was burned out.

Platform to store lumber, off the ground and flat

Platform to store lumber, off the ground and flat

With a location chosen, the next phase was to determine just how to stack it to keep the wood straight and dry. With some scrap wood and cutting just a few of my good pieces, I pounded together a platform just a little over a foot off the ground. One of the corners was set on a flat area of a bulging birch root. The others were atop some makeshift footers and legs. It didn’t take long before I was certain the platform was stable enough to begin stacking wood on it. Immediately after, I began to clear devil’s club out of the way so that I could carry the lumber back and forth without being impaled in the legs and waste by those spiny stalks.

The act of moving all the lumber, making trips back and forth all day long, carrying pieces up to 80 pounds uphill for a somewhat of a long distance, was more than I had bargained for. Again and again I told myself to just keep going, piece by piece, one sheet of plywood after the other, then 2x6s, then bags of concrete, until I was finished. It was only a matter of time and will power to keep going. Mean time I took moderate breaks, pumped water and looked around the nearby lake which was looking beautiful and blue, and pondered the mathematics of what I was accomplishing that day. Eventually, after great strain to every muscle in my body, the task of consolidating my building materials was complete. Most wood went on top of the platform, some went below, ready for my next trip out when I would start building.

Tossing the last piece of wood on the pile

Tossing the last piece of wood on the pile

Other wood such as the posts and beams for my foundation were leaned against a tree where I’d be building. Treated with creosote, they were fine to leave in the open. The platform on the other hand was neatly covered by a blue tarp.

The neatly stacked lumber

The neatly stacked lumber

The math I had been thinking about, well, I had to figure it out on paper later. In all, with no mechanical assistance, I moved 3395 pounds of lumber and concrete 35 yards, in 72 trips, with a average of 47 pounds per trip and a total ground covered of 1.45 miles. I then moved the 500 pounds of posts and beams about 15 yards.

As if I hadn’t done enough work, I also took to digging my outhouse hole. This was actually a very useful thing to do. First, it achieved getting the outhouse hole dug. Second, it gave me a very clear idea of how deep the soil was until I hit rock and gravel. This is how deep I’d be digging the holes for the footers of my cabin foundation.

Three feet of the outhouse hole with volcanic ash layers

Three feet of the outhouse hole with volcanic ash layers

To my delight, I hit large rack and shale at exactly three feet. Not only would I not have to dig too much for my footers, I’d not have to mix any more concrete than John and I had already transported to the site. Good luck was on my side.

Trapper Creek in the evening

Trapper Creek in the evening

Finished, in more ways than one, I packed my things and began the trek back to the highway. Things were good for a while. I eventually crossed Trapper Creek again, rose out of its ravine and down and out of another. Unfortunately, do to my delirious state from having worked so hard for some 12-15 hours and all the extra daylight, I was making bad choices. I came across a trail and headed along it for a time, thinking I had already past specific lakes and cabins that signaled me to get on the trail. The problem was, I hadn’t past them. I was heading off the wrong way.

Eventually I realized I had made a mistake, but for the life of me, I couldn’t quite determine where I had gone wrong. My lack of energy was causing me brain to simply accept my dilemma and barely formulate a course of action. However, I did find a lake, backtrack, go around it and continue heading east. Unfortunately, I was still off track and not running into the trail that would connect with the trail I had hiked in on. I had wasted even more time and energy and had little comfort in my situation aside form knowing that I was at least heading toward the highway. Whether or not it was by trail was no matter.

With that, I pushed on and on, crossed muskeg, navigated the forest and drove on some more. Finally, and too my delight, I came across a trail I recognized, a bit further to the north than where I had hiked in at, and followed it to the main trail. I followed that for a couple of miles to the highway. On the way I captured a magnificent view of Denali with the slowly setting sun. An hour later I was at the parking lot, long past midnight. I loaded my things in the car, sat in the driver’s seat for a moment to relax, then fastened my belt and drove off to Trapper Creek Inn to get something refreshing to drink and a bit of dinner.

Denali in the sunset

Denali in the sunset

Another lesson learned; just because you can work yourself almost to exhaustion doesn’t mean you should. Always save some brain power. Traveling in the backcountry while delirious is not a good idea. And still, I accomplished far more in one day than I ever thought possible.

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