February 24, 2024

People believe scams of all sorts, so I guess that I should not be surprised by the naivete of people who buy remote land in Alaska without first setting foot in the state, much less the particular site. Even if the location is a legitimate plot, not set in a mucky bog or on an eroding river bank, the challenges of this sort of life deserves more research… and introspection … than some people give it.

Below are two, recent cautionary tales of people – one from New York and the other from California – whose dreams of living in the Alaska bush came to a rapid, rude awakening – one in two weeks, the other in just two hours!

TWO WEEKS

The first story made its way into Alaska newspapers. A film student in New York City (a Russian national) bought a plot in the Interior of Alaska, north of Fairbanks. Somehow, he met or made contact with a man who had a little cabin in the vicinity. The two agreed to meet on-site and help build each other’s structures, which was a relief to the New Yorker, whose construction experience was slim. He flew to Alaska and bought supplies that he figured he might need (never having been there), including a satellite phone, a rubber raft (?), his first gun, a tarp, and some food. He did not bring a tent. I suppose that he thought that construction would be quick and easy.

When the air taxi dropped him off, he did not schedule a return flight or a fly-by check, because he figured he could call for it. Alas, his satellite phone never worked and the neighbor never even showed up! Even if he had, his “cabin” was just four walls of a shed with no roof yet. The disillusioned traveler quickly realized that this part of Alaska lacked any sizable timber for construction (or fuel), and his only protection from millions of mosquitoes was the tarp he had brought.

With food dwindling and humiliation growing, he inflated his little raft and started paddling downriver with a little kiddy paddle, hoping for rescue. Finally, he succeeded in flagging down a pilot who couldn’t land on the sinuous and rocky river, but sent help (who brought food), just in time, since the raft was deflating on a river rimmed with bear tracks. The man left the state and put his property up for sale. I wonder what stories he told when he returned to the Big Apple.

TWO HOURS

The second story was told to me by the air taxi staff that flew a California dad and his 18-year-old son out to a remote, undeveloped property they had bought about an hour’s flight north of Anchorage. The two of them had loaded a U-Haul trailer with all the supplies they could think of and drove up the Alcan Highway. I can imagine their excitement, and father-son bonding, can’t you? At Lake Hood (the float plane base in Anchorage), they chartered two Beavers (airplanes) to transport them with all their cargo.

Shortly into his return flight, one pilot realized that he still had some of their gear on the plane. When he returned to where he had dropped them off, he encountered the son in a total emotional meltdown. Apparently, some small sliver of reality had sunk in. Was it the remoteness? All the work ahead of them? A plot of land far different than envisioned? Whatever the cause, the two men jumped on the plane for a back-haul to Anchorage, leaving everything behind. They subsequently sold the land, complete with whatever supplies bears had not punctured or hauled away.

A CAUTIONARY TALE involving FIRE

The following case occurred in 2020, about 40 air miles from where we live. It appeared in various news sources around the country.

A man in his early thirties moved to a small, dry (no plumbing) cabin, at a remote location in Alaska which he accessed by air taxi (no roads). Most of the time, he was able to secure a weak cell phone signal so that he could occasionally contact his family in Utah to assure them that all was well.

Prudently, he had built up his supplies of dry and canned food to last many months. But one cold winter night in December, 2020, disaster struck. He awakened to find hot plastic dripping from his ceiling onto his face. The roof, made of plastic greenhouse sheeting, was burning! He threw the door open, grabbed his boots and parka and ran barefoot out into the snow, where he could see the fire spreading across the rooftop. After he pulled on his boots, he ran back into the cabin, calling his dog, who cowered in a corner, and quickly gathered blankets and sleeping bag off the bed, as well as his gun that stood next to the door, before exiting the growing heat and stench of burning plastic. To his dismay, his dog remained inside and died, as his cooking oils fuelled the flames and his ammunition started to explode. Then the roof collapsed onto everything inside.
The next day, he poked around the hot ruins to find whatever was salvageable. He found metal utensils and tools as well as 30 cans of food that had not expanded and popped, but the labels had burned off, so he did not know what was contained in each one. He pulled away from the burned building everything that he could use. Sadly, his plastic containers of rice, beans, flour, and pasta were ruined. His phone had melted. His ammo was gone. Now what?

He decided to ration his food to one can of mystery filling per day.

But shelter from the cold was his highest priority. The first few days, he dug a snow cave and slept in it, embedded in his sleeping bag and blankets. Yes, snow is 32 degrees F, but the ambient temperature ABOVE this snow blanket was far below zero. Weather reports for the area indicated negative 15 F, exacerbated by wind chill, to -30 F. The snow cave’s marginal warmth surely saved him but it was not sustainable. What next?
The fire was so hot that hot spots reignited over several days, despite his dumping snow on the wreckage. The area reeked of benzene derivatives. When it finally cooled down, he used his tools and salvageable wood to fashion a makeshift shelter around the woodstove. It was drafty and cold enough that he could see his breath, but he was able to build a fire that was psychologically and physically warmer than the snow cave.
What about rescue? He was certain that at some point his family would contact Alaska officials to report his lack of communications. But he had been so irregular in his calls, that this could take several weeks.

Cleverly, he stomped out a huge “SOS” sign in the snow, and filled in the depression with soot from the fire. If it did not snow, this would be highly visible, but to his dismay, he saw no private planes overhead. In December, the days are the shortest of the year (5 hours of daylight) and the temperature at the time was too cold to attract bush pilots to rev their engines for remote locations.

Twenty-one days after the fire, he heard a helicopter. His parents had indeed contacted the state troopers and described, in general terms, where they understood their son’s cabin to be. His large, black SOS sign (and surely the burned cabin, too) provided essential clues in the snowy white winter landscape. The troopers flew the man to Anchorage, where they gave him a shower and a Big Mac meal.

He responded to my blog last year, but I do not know if he returned to Alaska to rebuild. I hope that he is doing well.

QUESTIONS: Hindsight is 20/20. I would love to ask him what, in retrospect, he would have done differently, or what he did if he constructed a new cabin.

What lessons can readers glean from this anecdote?

Possibilities:
Roofing material is already important protection from fire, water, and heat loss. This cabin’s plastic roofing is unusual. Also, what was the height of the chimney above the roof line?

What started the fire? He stated that he thinks it was cardboard that he added to fire before he went to sleep, which dropped embers on the plastic roof.

Did he store all food and supplies in that one building? Did he have any other shed where some supplies were or could have been stashed?

The fire sounds like it was so hot that even if he had stored the dry goods and phone and ammo in metal containers, they might have cooked, melted, or exploded. This might be a consideration for people who rely on Faraday cages as protection from some disasters but not from fire.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)