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In the memoir ‘Cabin,’ a clear-eyed look at the Alaska wilderness dream

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: May 23, 2020
  • Published May 23, 2020

Cabin: An Alaska Wilderness Dream

Eric Wade, Moonshine Cove Publishing, 202 pages, 2019. $14.99

’Cabin: An Alaska Wilderness Dream, ’ by Eric Wade

Before it was called social distancing or self-isolating, it was called homesteading, and it was something heartier Alaskans did by choice. Find some land, stake out the boundaries, build a cabin, and live apart from the world. For some it was a full-time occupation, for others a part-time means of escape, but regardless of how much time one devoted to it, it was — and remains for those still inclined — a life-defining venture.

Eric Wade, an Alaskan of 40 years, dreamed of the full-time option, succeeded in the part-time option, and defined himself by the experience. In “Cabin: An Alaska Wilderness Dream,” he tells us what happened along the way.

Wade grew up alongside Oregon’s mountains and was bitten by the outdoorsman’s bug early on. He married and moved his family to the Mat-Su region to take a teaching job, but his dreams reached deeper into Alaska. In the 1980s, when rural properties were being offered up for sale by the state, he headed up a river in the Interior, surveyed a lot, and began to make his vision come true.

In the book, however, Wade takes a bit of time getting us to this point. First he invites us into his cabin, where he relates a few adventures had there, including the time he suffered a heart attack and had to be airlifted out.

Once he’s made his readers comfortable as guests, he takes us back to the beginning. Before he embarked on this journey, he tells us, he had to overcome the skepticism of others as well as himself. "Doing what society demands is not always the best choice. I was a school teacher living in town with a mortgage, car payments, wife and four kids. I wanted to be a good husband and dad, but I also wanted to live in the wilderness. Would that work?"

He decided it would, and in the lengthy narrative that comprises the heart of this book, he tells us how he got there.

It wasn’t easy going. From his Wasilla home, Wade drove 300 miles north to a river put-in (he doesn’t tell us what river, simply stating that it lies between the Yukon and Denali, although it’s an easy guess for Interior residents). From there he traveled another 200 miles by boat, not infrequently running aground, to a spot swarming with mosquitoes. That’s where he go to work.

Wade tells the story of carving out space and building the cabin from logs cut on the property. With the help of his brother and others, he erected the structure and made it livable before his wife, Doylanne, and children even set foot on the property (how she handled being left home for weeks at a time with four young boys is not a topic extensively discussed here, but in the end all came to love the homestead, so it worked out).

Wade and his brother located the land he purchased prior to the days when GPS units made such work a breeze. They had to do it with a topographical map, but their efforts proved quite accurate.

In the pages that follow, Wade details the difficult and physically demanding work that building a homestead requires. These are stories of chainsaws and winches. Of very heavy lifting. Of outboard engine repairs a hundred miles from anywhere. Of bear encounters, moose hunts, fishing with flies and lures, and sampling porcupine meat.

There are also stories of a family growing together during weeks-long summer stays, the four boys becoming hunters and woodsmen themselves. There are river mishaps that could have turned tragic, and injuries where help was unavailable and they had to be handled on the spot.

Insects, adverse weather, shifting river conditions, unexpected accidents and the ravages of melting permafrost take their toll at one time or another. Those looking for a doe-eyed ode to the beauty and perfection of nature won’t find it here. Wade’s is a hard-won appreciation of his surroundings.

Interspersed throughout these stories and anecdotes are quotes and observations from the writers who have inspired Wade, including Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and Cormac McCarthy, authors who have immortalized the wilderness ethic in American minds. It’s a book filled with both practical knowledge and philosophical musings, as one might expect from an English teacher turned homesteader. And in what is likely a literary first, Wade recounts advice given to him by an Oregon logger, and finds similar wisdom from Maya Angelou, whom he quotes in the same paragraph. An unexpected but delightful juxtaposition.

As the tale unfolds, we also follow Wade’s career from teacher to principal, the dream of moving permanently to the homestead receding in the face of both professional opportunities and practical considerations. With four kids, it really wasn’t feasible. But with summers off, plenty of time could be devoted to that cabin in the woods, and Wade takes us there to watch the boys grow into adults, and watch the family experience its formative years far from the urban regions where most Alaskans live.

In the end, the book is a plea for wilderness and for finding a place in it. Not a carefully protected wilderness like that found in national parks and on preserved lands. Rather, a wilderness that invites physical and mental residence. A place where people belong, but not a place for them to tame. A land where one’s feet can wander in all directions, and there are no signs asking visitors to remain on the established path.

“For more than thirty years, I’ve traveled north of Denali to the cabin,” Wade writes. “During those journeys, I boated the same rivers, encountered the same corners, watched familiar trees grow and became well-acquainted with a place and a couple hundred miles of river.”

A few moments later he adds, “I realize I thought of it as a fixed place, resistant to great changes, but now I see a place where small variations make big differences."

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