Tom's Corner

March 25, 2014 Alaska

How Kernwood Was Born

Tom Irons

        Most of the people who contact us do so because they relate to Jeanie’s words. She is poetic in her descriptions, precise in her literary portraits, and loving toward the Earth, Nature, and Wilderness. On the other hand those who usually contact me are interested in the construction of log cabins, ripping of lumber, or where I learn how to do all the tasks necessary in cabin building. What’s true is my first experience in cabin fabrication occurred long ago and was marred by dismal failure.

        It was around 1954 and I was about 8 years old when I ventured into the little woods in front of our farm house in southern Ohio. I had an axe over my shoulder and the intention of building a real log cabin— just like the one Davy Crockett lived in. I remember, as the first stroke of that hardened steel blade cut into the bark, knowing deep down inside that I could do this. It required four days to fell and de-limb four small trees which I then placed in a rough square with the ends of two resting on the ends of the other two. It was with extreme disappointment I realized I would never have the time and energy, nor enough trees, to actually construct a real log cabin.

        The disappointment was soon eased by time and other more successful boyhood adventures but the idea of building a cabin never completely left me.

        In the summer of 1990, nearing the midpoint of a canoe trip in the arctic mountains of Jeanie’s youth, she and I left our campsite for an evening explore. Sunlight slanted low through the old forest as we crossed a tiny drainage and climbed onto a dry bench that held a stand of healthy spruce. I noticed that the ground felt firm and appeared dry and stable; conditions I’d not seen so far that summer.

Tom Irons

        Reaching the crest of the bench we stopped to gaze around and like she so often does, Jeanie put voice to my thoughts, “This would be a perfect site for a cabin.”

        “Yeah, put the cabin here, the meat house over there and— where would we put the toilet?” I asked while scanning the area.

        “There, between those trees. They’d help keep the weather off of you,” she added, excitement in her voice. “Look there, those spruce are dead and down there are some more. We wouldn’t have to go too far to get our logs.”

        “It would take a lot more than those few trees,” I laughed, joining her in the excitement of the moment. “Come on let’s see just how many dead-standing are in the area.” We spent the next half hour scouting the bench, adding up all the plusses. “Location, location, location they say. Its all about location.”

Tom Irons

        Retracing the way to camp we were silent, lost in our individual fantasies. Pipe dreams though they may have been, I felt that we had started something in motion that would not come to rest until we had either lived it through or convinced ourselves that it was impossible. (Improbable and illogical are only rationalizations for not doing that which you really want to do but can’t see any profit in). I wasn’t kidding myself: major challenges stood in the way of our fantasy wilderness log cabin. They weren’t insignificant, but neither were they necessarily insurmountable—considering the determination and energy of the two of us. Over many a future meal we would discuss the possibility of actually returning to our ‘cabin site,’ as we revisited the feel of our little dry bench, the trees, and the energy of the area.

        The steps between a dream and a goal may be many. They may be high, long, narrow, and expensive, yet when the last step has been achieved and you have committed yourself in mind, body, soul, and bank account—life can be filled with miracles.

        Our adventure of building the log cabin is very well documented in Jeanie’s second book and our first documentary. What many folks do not know is that we have continued to return year after year. We’ve corrected early mistakes, repaired, remodeled, and built new log structures. Throughout all the years we have been stewards to the area, named the animals, and rejoiced in the serenity and beauty of our wild and scenic valley.

Tom Irons

        For me the doing-ness is one of the best parts of our northerly experience each summer. I have always loved the challenge of ‘making do’ with that which is at hand. The cost of chartering a bush plane limits us in weight, volume, and number of flights and there are no hardware stores or lumber yards around Kernwood so I have to plan wisely and be creative. I’ve manufactured some fun and interesting items: wooden sourdough spoon, pastry press, gas stove preheater for an airplane in winter (aluminum beer cans, 5-gallon metal gas can, duct tape),leather punches, microphone mount for a camcorder, windsock, roof pass through for the stovepipe, nutmeg grinder, gas cap o-ring (from a condom), and so much more.

       I recall that as soon as Jeanie and I made the decision to ‘go for it’ we started making a list of all the lists we would need. They included food, camping equipment, four seasons of clothing, guns & fishing gear, kitchen utensils, tools, hardware, photographic, medical, books, Luke’s school needs, and more. The ‘misc’ list included a trailer, a nanny, airline tickets and charter arrangements, housing in Fairbanks, truck maintenance for the 5,000 mile drive from Tucson to Coldfoot, snow shoes, skis, Christmas, Easter, and tooth fairy gifts for Luke, house rental, handling of our finances and bills for 14-months, and more. The lists, when printed out end to end, measured about 12 feet long: maybe longer.

Tom Irons

        We forgot nothing of note but we failed to take enough of two items: 16 penny nails and antibiotics. We weren’t without— we simply could have used more than what we had. I did make one major mistake and that revolved around not knowing the ins and outs of the vehicle insurance industry. From this I learned to never cancel insurance.When one is involved in a major adventure such as our 14-month sojourn into the arctic I believe mistakes and mis-steps will inevitable occur. I also believe that it is not the mistake or the resulting challenge that is important: it is how I respond to it.

       Another lesson I have learned is that when more than one problem arrises I need to realistically take stock of the situation and ask myself just what the message is. I have had the experience of deciding to change direction, cancel the trip, and take the early loss. There are times when it is far wiser to cut your losses than to ride a doomed plane into the ground out of stubbornness and ego. If you do your homework, plan well, and if you are truly following your heart you will find value in living your dream.