Little House on the Tundra

Robbi has traveled to the Alaskan tundra every summer since 1976. I’ve been going up since 2000. Alden has been ten times so far, Kato eight, and Augie six. Jasper just made his inaugural visit.

For all of those years, we have lived with Robbi’s family and various visiting helpers at the Behr family compound, a sharing of extremely close quarters that requires patience, tolerance, and frequent olfactory forgiveness.

Sensing that the sheer bulk of our bulging family unit was starting to wear on the nerves of our fellow inhabitants, Robbi and I decided late last summer to relocate to a modest cabin on a patch of land her family owns a few miles down the beach.

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The cabin above was built by a web diver (a person who is hired by the captains of fishing boats to untangle nets and ropes that get accidentally caught in their propellors), but he moved out about five years ago. At 12′ x 16′, it is a perfectly fine size for a single man to live in for a few weeks in the summer. But upon further reflection, it seemed a bit small for Robbi and me and our four energetic offspring to inhabit without constant duress. And so we spent the winter scheming about how we might increase our square footage.

One plan was to attempt to build a sort of rickety shed adjacent to the diver’s cabin. We knew that it would not be a particularly NICE building, but we hoped it might give us a place to store the children for necessary moments of adult respite.

But then we thought of Tim, our carpenter friend from Missouri. Might he be sufficiently tempted by the scent of adventure to bring his talents to the tundra for a few weeks and build us a proper house? We asked, and it turned out that he was. We spent several months discussing an expansion. Tim sent us a drawing that looked like this.

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We said, “Heck, yes.”

Tim suggested that we acquire various tools and hardware and lumber and such and sent us a list.

Robbi spent many late night hours online ordering things. I tried to leave her alone during these times, surly as she is when ordering tools and hardware and lumber late at night.

June came. Robbi left for the tundra. A week later, I joined her. As luck would have it, the tiny bush plane that brought me to our lonely stretch of beach flew directly over our building site. Ours is the little red cabin on the left side of the U.

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As even greater luck would have it, the pilot then flew past the site from the other direction, allowing you to see how the cabin rests at the top of a hill, on the edge of the bluff, overlooking a meadow just above the beach.

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On the night I arrived on the tundra with our builder friend Tim (on the right) and his dad Denny (also a builder) in tow, we drove up to the building site and had a look at the generous quantity of gravel that had been dumped and carefully leveled by our friend James. Back in civilization, we’d dig and pour a proper foundation. On the tundra, we use gravel. Lots and lots of gravel. I thank James and his loader for placing the gravel so that I did not have to haul 500 buckets of the stuff, as Robbi surely would have made me do otherwise.

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I cannot resist taking a moment to shamelessly brag that I am co-owner of a shipping container, which is the tundra equivalent of a garage. We used the container to ship up the tools and lumber and hardware and such (in the belly of a massive barge that made its way from Seattle to Coffee Point, AK), and once it arrived, we set it on gravel, leveled it on sizable wooden chunks, and used it to keep our belongings safe from bears, which, powerful as they might be, have not yet found a way to open shipping containers. Yet.

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Before we headed off to sleep that night, I took one more photo of the building site. Here it is. Gravelly and flat and ready for anything.

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The morning came, and it was time to begin. We had only 16 days to build a house, and so there was no time to waste. We started by bringing lumber.

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Tim and Denny started by setting heavy timbers into the gravel. Known as “grade beams,” these sturdy lengths of wood would serve as the building’s foundation.

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Setting the grade beams involved digging. Tim later admitted that digging is his least favorite aspect of building. Which is why I’m glad we were able to get the digging out of the way early.

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Once the grade beams were in place, it was time to lay the floor boards. Denny instructed us to place them every 18 inches.

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Not long later, a framework emerged.

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Because Tim is a thorough and conscientious builder who wants our toes to be as warm as possible on cold tundra mornings, he insulated the heck out of the floor. And yes, “the heck out of” is a technical term used by carpenters to describe degrees of thoroughness.

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Once the floor was insulated and covered with plywood, we laid out all the windows we had managed to collect to see how we might arrange them for maximum light and air flow. There will be no electricity in our house, and so no lights, and so we want to give the sun as many chances as possible to creep inside and help us see things.

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Various of us held up the various windows in various configurations while Robbi stood in the middle of the floor and waved her hand majestically. We tried various configurations and eventually she was happy. Or at least content. One never knows with Robbi.

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One of the various of us was my father John Swanson, good friend of Denny, father of Tim. He came along to lend a hand and get his first in-person glimpse of our Alaskan shenanigans.

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Because Tim does not mess around, soon there was a wall.

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And then another wall.

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Two walls seemed sufficient. I was ready to move in. But Tim insisted that the living experience would be considerably enhanced if I’d let him keep going a bit longer.

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And so he laid out the studs for a third wall.

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Which, cut to specified lengths and artfully combined with various nails, suddenly became a lot more wall-like.

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Tim requested plywood.

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More nails were deployed.

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Various of us were then gathered for our best imitation of a barn raising.

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I have never before participated in the lifting of a wall. It was rather exciting.

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The third wall came together in two large chunks, but because Tim doesn’t mess around, the second was erected within moments of the first.

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“NOW can I move in?” I asked.

Tim said something along the lines of, “Not until I cut you some windows.” He took out a marvelous tool called a Sawzall (saws all, get it?) and traced the outline of the window through the framing.

Suddenly, we had a view.

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The quality of the view did nothing to deter my desire to move in immediately.

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But Tim was already off to building the fourth wall. To keep me distracted, Tim handed me a rake and suggested that my energies might be better spent creating a grade that sloped away from the house, to protect the foundation from rain that might otherwise puddle up and cause the grade beams to rot.

Joining me in the raking effort was friend and fellow Chestertonian Stu, who had joined us for the summer, and who distinguished himself on the tundra by being game to help out in whatever way possible, whether fishing or raking or smiling at Jasper.

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While Stu and I were raking, Tim harvested old barge wood.

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When Robbi’s family first moved to the Behr family compound, there was an old salting barge on the property. It was so large (80 feet long) and sturdy, Robbi’s dad thought the family might live in it, but a fierce winter storm damaged it badly and rendered it unlivable. Over the decades, the barge slowly broke apart, but many pieces of it remain. Tim thought some of the timbers might make excellent exposed beams for the new house, complete with the old nails (or is this an appropriate occasion for using the term “spikes” instead?) that still poked through the wood.

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It took considerable hoisting.

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And much shimmying and banging (both technical carpentry terms as well, apparently).

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But eventually, the beams were in, and they looked amazing.

It was around this time that Tim had an idea. The original design had called for a small sleeping loft above the kitchen and bedroom. Tim proposed changing the pitch of the roof to allow for more headroom in the loft. This would mean more work for Tim, but ultimately, a better house.

We thanked Tim and gave him the thumbs up. Tim is the kind of guy who does things right.

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We shifted from a six pitch to a seven pitch, for those of you in the know about such things. For those of you not in the know, I thought you might enjoy this photo of not quite parallel lines.

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After placing the barge beams horizontally across the building, Tim added additional vertical beams that would hold up the roof.

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While Tim and Denny framed the roof, we busied ourselves with such mundane and extraneous activities as salmon fishing.

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And beach dancing.

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I went back to the site a few hours later to find this.

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As I have suggested already, Tim really and truly doesn’t mess around.

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Suddenly the house looked like a house. I raced down the hill to get Robbi, thinking she would be pleased to see the progress.

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I was not wrong.

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We climbed into the sleeping loft and poked our head above the rafters. Instead of an unsatisfying, rickety shed, a beautiful, bona fide home was emerging.

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We took a moment to celebrate Tim. But just a moment. He was already racing off to build more. If we had celebrated Tim as much as we had felt like celebrating him, our house would still not have a roof.

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The next day it rained. Mother Nature had the gall to get our new floors wet. Would the dampness deter the builders, we wondered?

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It did not deter my father John Swanson from getting medieval with the chop saw.

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And it did not deter Tim and Stu from putting the sheeting on the roof.

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Before Robbi calls me out for throwing around the term “sheeting” as if I were a veteran builder, which I am not, I will freely admit that I am throwing around the term “sheeting,” which is the way you say “plywood” when it is being used to cover walls or roofs and etc. I learned this from Tim, he who does not mess around.

As the sheeting went up, I walked inside and had the pleasing sense of being an enclosed space.

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Meanwhile, August brooded.

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Around this time, three of our college friends stopped by to stand cheerfully in front of the diver’s cabin for the sake of posterity. And to help us move many sheets of plywood (I mean “sheeting,” of course) in out of the rain. And to revel in the statistical unlikeliness that five people who graduated from the same small liberal arts college in Massachusetts would all spend their summers commercial salmon fishing in the same small corner of Alaska.

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While construction proceeded apace, Alden Swanson reviewed the manuscript for my next novel. (Erin Stein would have been so proud.)

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Which made me want to hug her as the sun set.

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The next day, Tim completed the most brain-intensive part of the construction project, which was framing the “hip” where the two roof lines would meet on the far corner of the new house, a process that called for various beveled and mitered edges and such. I am glad that this part was Tim’s job and not mine. My job was staying quiet and far away from Tim while he did math, which is, apparently, a big part of creating effective buildings.

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Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the summer was when Tim (Sawzall in hand) sawed out the window of the sleeping loft.

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Or maybe it was when John Swanson, my father, taught Jasper how to play cribbage?

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Or maybe it was when August, exhausted from brooding, swooned into a four-hour faceplant on the window seat.

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Once the roof sheeting was on, Tim stapled tar paper over the roof sheeting so that the rain could no longer insult our floors with dampness.

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At which point, it was time for yours truly to step in.

Those of you who have been following our exploits for a truly long time might remember the epic Fourth of July 2006, when I insulated the entirety of our barn in four days so hot and humid that my knees sweated. Ever since, I have carried an irrational love of insulating spaces I will some day inhabit.

I grabbed my hammer stapler and set to work covering every inch of the interior with soft, pillowy insulation.

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My father, John Swanson, and I collaborated in this process. He cut the bats (“bats” is how we carpenter types refer to long strips of insulation) to the proper size.

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And I stapled them securely into every nook and cranny. In the process, both of us became thoroughly covered in microscopic bits of glass fiber. Which might have been unpleasant, if not for the overall thrill of the enterprise.

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At one point, somewhat weary from the thrill of the enterprise, I stepped outside and saw that Tim had begun the process of covering the tar paper with metal sheeting.

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I stepped back inside and resumed my thrill-seeking ways. Eventually, the entire ceiling was insulated.

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When I stepped back outside again, the sun was out, and the metal roof was nearly complete. If I have not previously mentioned it, messing around isn’t on the menu of things Tim even contemplates doing.

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As we drove back down the hill that night for dinner, I glanced over at the house, which was looking ever more plausible by the moment.

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Robbi had spent the afternoon filleting fish.

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And so we had to drive them up the beach to the deep freeze at the fish processing plant.

Robbi drove. Alden and Jasper and I hopped into the back of the truck, and we headed out.

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As we passed our fishing sites, we stopped to admire my hand-painted “Swanson” site marker sign (thank you, Stu!). Growing up in Kansas, I would never have believed that one day I would have a commercial fishing permit in Alaska.

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As we drove up the beach, we hit a heavy midday fog, and the world grew strange and mysterious.

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Jasper was not fazed.

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Alden had a standoff with a formidable stack of pallets.

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Which she won, of course.

While Robbi stored our fish at -10 degrees and I took a shower inside a corrugated steel container, Alden and Jasper contemplated life’s mysteries.

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The next day, Kato and I headed down to the building site. He drove. There are no rules in Alaska.

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On the way, we stopped at our fishing site to say hello to Robbi and Erica and admire their catch.

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On the aforementioned U-shaped road that leads to the new compound, we found evidence of a visitor. A large visitor with a large foot.

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Did we let this keep us from the task at hand?

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We did not. In addition to installing installation, I am capable of applying paint. And so I did.

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Meanwhile, my father John Swanson caulked the various windows and other trim.

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For his part, Tim took a break. But, unlike other people whose breaks might resemble sipping lemonade or sitting idly in the shade, Tim used his down time to furiously transform a heap of scrap lumber into a smoker, complete with sliding vents for temperature control.

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While Tim “rested,” we painted. The far side of the diver’s cabin was in particular need of attention, battered as it had been by five tundra winters.

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The cabin stands on the bluff above the river, so the front of the house doubled a billboard announcing that the diver was there and saying how to get in touch with him—a white diagonal stripe (the universal “diver” symbol), and “VHF 10,” which is the channel boats were supposed to call when their propellors needed untangling.

We were torn about painting over the stripe and “VHF 10.” We liked how it looked and wanted to respect the history of the building, but we also didn’t want to confuse boats into thinking I’d be willing to put on a snorkel and meddle with their propellors. And we liked the idea of creating a fresh canvas on which to make our own mark in years to come. And so I opened a bucket of red paint and started a new chapter.

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Slowly, surely, the walls turned Apache Red and the trim turned Souful Grey.

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Breaking countless OSHA and child safety regulations along the way.

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It is worth noting that Jasper refused to lift a finger, contributing nothing but criticism.

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In spite of his infantile laziness, the rest of us pressed on. The weather was extremely cooperative, and we kept painting for three straight days.

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Meanwhile, back at the main compound, Robbi cut salmon fillets into thin strips for smoking. After cutting and soaking the strips in brine, we hung them to be dried in the sun. This process of “glazing” creates a dry, hard outer layer that protects the fish from cooking (as opposed to slowly growing smokily delicious) during the smoking process.

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We loaded the smoker onto a truck.

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And brought it to the main Behr family compound, where we lit a fire and let the smoke do its work.

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Magic happened. For three straight days, we filled Tim’s creation with alder smoke. The results were quite delicious.

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While the fish smoked, the painting continued. Under normal circumstances, Robbi will not let me anywhere near the top of a ladder. But these were not normal circumstances. We were building a house in 16 days. Certain precautions had to be thrown to the proverbial tundra wind. Certain risks had to be embraced.

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Inside the house, Tim and Denny were busy covering all my beautiful insulation with 1/4 inch sheets of plywood (otherwise known as sheeting).

As detrimental as this was to my legacy, the sleeping loft suddenly emerged as an actual space where actual people would actually sleep, with a window where actual people would gaze out at actual bears leaving actual paw prints in our actual driveway.

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Not content to obscure only some of my insulation, Tim sent out to conquer every inch of the interior while standing heroically on stacks of sheeting.

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Does this look to you like a man who messes around?

Outside, a bald eagle flew by.

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Inside, Robbi swept out the sleeping loft, which Tim had made more accessible by building a sturdy ladder.

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Once the sheeting was hung inside, the exposed beams suddenly emerged as the gorgeous pieces of history that they are.

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Outside, my father, John Swanson, began the process of cleaning up the building site by artfully stacking hundreds of pieces of scrap lumber on the bed of one of the two abandoned and non-functional pickup trucks that grace our new “yard.” (Every “yard” along the beach is littered with abandoned pick up trucks; if your yard were to be abandoned-pickup-truck-free, you would surely be mocked.)

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That night, we had sockeye salmon prepared in four different ways, because why not?

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The next day Dad and I built special frames around the windows that would eventually hold the sheets of plywood we use to protect them in the winter. From bears. From high winds. And etc.

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It started to rain, so Tim and Denny installed the front door.

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And then they built a kitchen.

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Because, why not?

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Once the interior of the new building was complete, the final step was connecting it to the diver’s cabin. Tim removed the studs and insulation from the wall they now shared.

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And then the sheeting. Suddenly our house seemed to double in size.

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Meanwhile, Dad threw caution to the wind ad removed the chimney (we’re replacing the wood stove with a gas one).

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And then he burned some trash (there’s nothing else to do with it in our corner of the world).

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All was well in the world. The project was nearly done. All Tim had to do was hang sheeting on the walls of the diver’s cabin, and he’d be free to put away his tools and take the next day (our final day on the tundra) off. The next day, I should add, was his birthday. He had never previously worked on his birthday as a matter of principle and policy. Which was why he had budgeted his time accordingly. The end was in sight. Nothing could go wrong.

Until.

Until it was revealed that one of the walls of the diver’s cabin was completely rotten, the result of faulty flashing (another carpenter’s term that has to do with the material that prevents water from getting in around windows and such).

The studs were rotten and so was the exterior sheeting.

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And so the wall was removed.

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And rebuilt.

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And repainted.

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Tim was remarkably graceful about all this. Remarkably. Because he likes to do things right. Because he does not mess around.

To cut to the chase, Tim worked on his birthday, sheeting the new wall, finishing some trim, and cleaning up the site.

He showed up at the main Behr family compound at dinnertime only to find a surprise party waiting for him. The surprise party included a truly magnificent, Alden-Swanson-made hat.

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It was a festive affair. Everyone got in on the celebration. Everyone but Jasper, who refused to wish Tim happy birthday, but who did consent to be labeled appropriately.

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There were two cakes.

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And hugs all around. If you ever meet Denny, don’t let him fool you. The man loves to make faces at babies.

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After dinner, we went outside to get a group shot. Missing from this scene are Denny (who was taking his own photo at the time) and Gina, who was setting up our “official” Alaska 2017 group shot on her fancy real film camera.

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Here is the “official” Alaska 2017 kids photo, taken with my non-real film camera. (That handsome fellow on the right is Robbi’s nephew, Raiden.)

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That night after dinner, Robbi and I drove up the beach to have a first look at our new home in its fully finished state.

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Gone were the tools and scraps of lumber. Every window was framed. Every seam was trimmed.

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We gazed out the window and pinched ourselves. It was absolutely spectacular.

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The sun was setting as we went outside.

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I’m not the type who is prone to taking photos, but it seemed important to document the moment.

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Thanks to 16 days of feverish work from a bunch of fiercely talented and dedicated people, our little house on the tundra was finished.

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A blank canvas atop the bluff, waiting for us to move in.

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The next morning, it was time to leave the tundra. On our way to the air strip, we stopped with all the kids to take their first official measurements on the ladder to the sleeping loft.

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And to take this photo of our remarkable team. Thank you Denny and Tim, and thank you, Dad, for giving us your time and expertise, your sweat and your love. Thanks for your patience and creativity and insistence on doing things right. This house could never have happened without you. You’ll be part of every day we spend there, every memory we make moving forward.

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Here was my final glimpse of the place as we drove up the beach to catch our bush plane. My one regret is that I have to wait eleven months to move in, to lie in my bed and hear the wind whistling up the bluff, to look out those windows and check on our nets.

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I never like to wish away a moment of time, but as far as I’m concerned June 2018 can’t come fast enough.

 

11 Comments

  1. Congrats on the newly expanded homestead – and newly expanded list of inhabitants (welcome, Jasper!). Could not be happier for you all!

    Reply
  2. What a great blog! Denny & Tim are my in-laws. I have been impressed with work they have done, but this is amazing. It was a team effort with great teammates. Hope I get to see some of your future memories in Alaska in future blogs. Enjoy.

    Reply
  3. This is truly amazing. Your Dad told me the story, but the photos make it all real. What an accomplishment – in 16 days!!!

    Reply
    • One thing is for sure, it could never have happened in 16 days without him!

      Reply
  4. This is amazing to see their (Uncle Denny’s & cousin Tim’s) “Alaska cabin” project unfold like this! Thanks for documenting and sharing the experience. Now I’m looking forward to hearing the stories.

    Reply
  5. Only been there once, but, god, I miss that place. The smoked salmon brought tears to my eyes. Oh, yeah, the house ain’t bad either. Got to go back at least once before I croak, that is if you’ll allow it.

    Reply
  6. Awesome.

    Reply
  7. This is so beautiful and amazing. I am in awe of the beauty of your corner of the Alaskan Tundra.

    Reply
  8. Wow! What a project…what an outcome! We “Hotz’s” had a family reunion at the Lake of the Ozarks a few weeks prior to Tim and Denny’s departure. Always knowing the talent of this father-son duo, we had no idea of the scope of this building project. Congratulations to all of you. Memories are forever.
    PS. Your children are absolutely adorable!

    Reply
  9. WOW! I’m in awe. But what of the logistics—where did all those additional people sleep? And how did they get fed?

    Reply
    • Bernice: We have many buildings on the family compound. Although each one offers a different degrees of amenities, all have horizontal surfaces (aka “floors”) upon which mattresses (aka “aging wafers of foam” can be placed for comfortable (aka “technically not inhumane”) sleeping. As for food, the tundra nanny (aka “Matthew”) provided an unending stream of delightful (aka “delightful”) edibles.

      Reply

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