When I told my friend Jo (who blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com) that I was building an outdoor cooler to refrigerate my perishables she said: "When I was a kid we lived for a while in a house that had one under-counter cabinet that was a cooler. It had a screen-covered opening to the outside. It was alternatively a freezer, cooler, and warmer, and it took us a while to learn to manage it."
We had one of those, too, when I was a kid, mounted to the wall in my parents' floathouse. I thought about making one like that, but in the end decided I didn't have the kitchen space to spare so the cooler would have to go outside. I've also used plastic and styrofoam coolers over the years but they have a tendency to mold and don't work well with produce.
The problem was in getting material out here to build it, but that wasn't a new issue. I did what we always do in these situations. I turned to what we had on hand: an old, weathered ladder; beachcombed dairy crates; weathered cedar shakes left over from an old project; the handrail from an old dock ramp; and the remains of a shipwreck on a nearby beach.
After checking the homemade wooden ladder for rot and finding it still in good shape, my dad hand-sawed it in half, at an angle in order to give the cooler its own little roof to keep the rain off. He cut it at high tide and said we'd have to wait for the tide to go out before he used his battery-powered screwdriver to attach the two pieces to the side of my house. (I didn't want to nail them on--everything on the other side of the wall would react to the hammering, so that what was on the shelves inside my kitchen would be tempted to fall off.) We've learned, after losing various tools and other items overboard, to not build anything on the houses when they're floating, if possible.
When the tide went out we arranged the two halves of the ladder at the side of my house that faces away from the sun. Even on the hottest days, it's still cool on that side, especially when the tide is in. We measured the beachcombed dairy crates to find out how far apart we needed to put the ladder halves and then screwed them in place.
We had to take a few days off from the project as other things intervened. In the meantime, I gathered a weathered and worn handrail from an old dock from the nearby village, and a T-shaped piece of wood that used to be part of the roof to a shipwreck--a commercial fishing boat named Daybreak that listed Petersburg on its battered stern as its home port.
I've heard conflicting reports on how it wrecked. Some say it tore its bottom out during a winter gale when the waves and tide were so high the owner couldn't see the rock right outside where I live and ripped the bottom out. Another story says he was setting his gear, unaware of the rocks in this area--though the one he hit is on all the maps and is quite large, always visible even during the highest tides--and ran aground, holing his boat.
Whatever the case, nearby locals came to his rescue and pulled his boat off the rock. It started sinking and they beached it about a 10 minute walk from my house. He escaped with his life, but the boat was a dead loss. It's been stripped by locals for salvage materials and battered by successive winter storms and tides ever since. It probably has only a few years left before it disappears entirely.
As I carried the piece I wanted for my cooler from the beach and through the woods, I thought how the owner of the Daybreak could never have imagined that a part of the roof above his head as he steered his boat would one day become a part of some floathouse dweller's refrigeration unit.
I measured and sawed the T-shaped end from the shipwreck and fitted it under the forward 2x3s of the two ladder sides to support it in front. Afterwards, I gathered up shakes that my dad had cut years ago--they were nicely weathered, and would go well with the weathered siding on my house.
As I gathered them I remembered when I was a kid watching my dad the first time I'd seen him cut shakes and how fascinated I'd been to see such perfectly flat rectangles fall at his feet from a round of wood. It was like watching a machine as he smoothly sliced, with a froe and mallet, through the rounds of cedar he called shake bolts. He could tell just by looking at a log whether it was good shake bolt material or not.
Now he picked through what I'd brought, considering how to place them as shelves and for the roof. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, and occasionally he had to trim a piece with his pocketknife before he screwed them in place on the rungs of the old ladder. Since they were old they'd warped quite a bit and I found that I had to shave them down in some places with my pocketknife in order for the dairy crates to slide across them without getting hung up.
Next, I sawed the handrail to the lengths needed to support the shake roof, which my dad screwed in place, putting the largest shakes down first and then lapping over the seams with narrower shakes.
I loaded up the dairy crates with groceries and slid them in place. I now had a new outdoor cooler to put my produce, dairy, and beverages in to keep them cool. On the hotter days I'll put a jug of frozen water in with them to keep the temperature down. It may not be the ideal refrigeration system, but in the wilderness you make do.
Note: A version of this story first appeared in Capital City Weekly, July 5-11, 2017.
After reading this story in the paper, one long time resident of Juneau wrote and told me that coolers like this were common in the Fifties, but instead of jugs of frozen water to keep things cool, chunks of ice off the Mendenhall Glacier were used.
The question was: how to move a building from point A to point B in the bush with only one or two men?
In 2006 longtime Meyers Chuck residents Ed and Marian Glenz sold their property and moved to Wrangell. Marian had been the village post mistress for many years, going from one building to the next, until an official post office was built on the end of their false island. ("False" because it's reachable by foot when the tide's out.)
After the Glenzs left, the couple who bought the property didn't want the post office building on their land so another resident, Al Manning, acquired the building from them. My dad had built his summer home, so when it came time to move the building, Al approached him. Rather than disassemble it and then reassemble it on Al's property, my dad proposed moving the building intact.
But how? Especially since there was a shortage of manpower and it would just be my dad and my oldest brother Jamie doing the work.
First, with Jamie's help, he took everything moveable out of the post office, including an old, very heavy glass and wood counter that had been salvaged from the Bay of Pillars cannery decades before, and a pool table that the locals had played at while waiting for their mail to be sorted.
I asked him how he knew what it would take to move it and he said he had an approximate idea of how much it weighed, which was more than it looked. "It's well-made," he said appreciatively, then added meaningfully: "Ed Glenz built it." He noted that, "When we lifted one corner, the opposite corner lifted. That's how well made it was."
Next, my dad pulled the sway bracing off the two outside rows of the pilings that the building was pinned to. He left the two inside ones for stability. After that, using a cumalong, he pulled two 50 foot long, eight-inch in diameter logs under the building.
To make sure the house slid on the logs, he oiled the logs and fitted homemade plastic sleeves around the four-by-eight timbers that the floor joists sat on. To stop them from falling over as they were slid down the logs, he put stiffeners between the four-by-eights. On the outside of each log he nailed two-by-sixes to keep the building tracking. To stop the logs from pulling together he put 2 four-by-six spreaders between them at the top and bottom.
He jacked up the logs until they lifted the post office just off the pilings. He had to cut off all the steel pins, that attached the building to the pilings, with a sawzall. Next he tipped the pilings in their holes and dragged them out. He did all of this prep work on his own over a couple of weeks.
Now, ready to move the building, he called in my brother Jamie again.
Together they put rollers (smaller logs) on the ground and then dropped the logs the post office was sitting on, down onto the rollers, and then moved everything until the support logs were hanging out over a sheer drop off above the water.
When the tide was right they floated the logs underneath the support logs. They secured the support logs to trees behind where the building had originally stood and then pulled the post office farther onto the supports. As neat as can be, the building (on its support logs) sat down on the float logs that were tied together with ropes so they wouldn't separate.
With Jamie on one side at the back of the float in his 13 foot Boston Whaler, and our dad on the other side in his 16 foot Whaler, they pushed the building across the harbor toward Al Manning's property. As they turned the float, ropes hanging off the logs got caught in my dad's propeller. Pausing to free the prop, the breeze took them where it willed and the tide began running out.
"There's always something," my dad says. No matter how much you think things through, nothing ever goes as smoothly as it could.
They got the float into position and let it "go dry" as the tide receded. Then they jacked up the support logs to the height of where it was going to be by putting blocks under it--six cedar blocks two feet in diameter and six inches thick--two at a time, using double jacks. They got it to the height they wanted it to be and floated the float logs out from under the two long support logs.
They dug holes to put the pilings in and leveled them by setting one of the pool table balls on the floor. "When it quit rolling," my dad says with a grin, "we knew we were getting close."
They put the pilings under the timbers, took the blocking out, and pulled out the support logs. After that, all they had to do was put the sway bracing in and they were done. The old post office had a new home.
Archimedes once said: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum upon which to place it and I shall move the world." I think my dad and Archimedes would have had lots to talk about.
"We've got a problem," my dad said over the radio to me first thing in the morning. He sounded a lot like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 saying pretty much the same thing. I got a distinct sinking feeling. "Have you seen the boys' cabin?"
"Hold on." I went to my back porch and looked past the floating garden and floating greenhouse--which were on solid ground at the moment because the tide was out--and saw my nephews' "Man Cave." This is a small floathouse that has been passed down from one family member to the next until it came to belong to my nephews when they were in their teens. They're now in their twenties and far away, one in the Army, the other raising a family, so maintenance for the hard-used cabin falls to my dad and me.
It only took a glance to see what the problem was. An old snag that barefly floated had gotten under the back left side of the cabin's float and when the tide went out the floathouse sat down on it. One of the cross poles that we'd put in last winter to add more flotation with an outside log was bent at a very bad angle. I was sure it was broken.
Instead, when I went and looked at it close up I saw that one of the original brow logs under the cabin, that helps tie the entire raft of logs together, had broken. In fact, it was rotten and would need to be replaced--which would be an enormous job.
But first things first. We had to somehow get the "deadhead" (as sinking logs/snags are called here) out from under the float log. Deadheads are the bane of SE Alaskans' lives. They're dangerous to boats when they hide beneath and between waves, only a tiny part sticking up ready to impale a hull and sink a vessel. Whenever my two young cousins, who grew up on their parents' fishing boat, drew pictures of their boat they always drew sinister deadheads bobbing in the water nearby. The dread of deadheads starts young and goes deep! And we were seeing first hand some of the trouble they can cause in a world where everything floats.
My dad first of all sawed all the limbs off the deadhead to make sure it wouldn't get hung up on rocks or lines later when the tide came in and we pushed the snag out of the way. He had to wade into mud that clutched at his boots, up to his ankles, wielding the saw as he did it...a tiring job.
Next he went and inspected where the log was pinced between the rocks and the outside float log. The entire float was being lifted off the ground on that side. Which meant there was a tremendous amount of pressure involved. What would happen when he sawed into it, the deadhead gave, and the pressure was released?
I'd seen my dad in this situation a hundred times before and knew he had it figured out, but I get anxious every time since there's no help readily available out here if something goes disastrously wrong.
I was on the back of the cabin's float, checking to see if the cross log was broken or not (incredibly, it wasn't) and felt the drop when the deadhead broke as my dad sawed through it. The house came down and shook. Fortunately, the deadhead didn't kick up or roll on my dad, one of the catastrophes I hadn't been able to help picturing in graphic detail.
On the other hand, it did pinch the saw. My dad tried pulling it out, but it was locked in place.
"What do you need?" I asked. "The peavey?"
After inspecting the situation, he agreed. I crossed over the various floats in our system to where we did our firewood chopping and found the logging tool, a heavy steel pipe pointed at one end with a hinged hook. When I was a kid I had my first encounter with that heavy steel hook. My dad had asked me to fetch it for him when he was working on his mobile sawmill. I picked it up casually near the point and instantly the hinged hook swung down and smashed my fingers.
That was a rookie mistake that you never make again. I remember it every single time I pick up the peavey and always check to make sure where my hand is in relation to that swinging hook.
When my dad hooked into the deadhead and pulled nothing happened. The waterlogged snag was too heavy to budge, especially since it was still stuck down in the rocks. He had me hold onto the saw so it wouldn't fall when it came out--if it came out--and put the point into the broken section where the saw was pinched and tried jerking the log apart there, but again nothing happened.
"Wait," I said when he tried to think of something else. "I think that will work. If I pull on the saw while you jerk the peavey--"
We tried that. While he gave powerful jerks on the peavey, I steadily pulled on the saw. The bar barely moved, only a tiny bit at a time, but eventually we got the entire bar out.
My dad sawed the deadhead into segments and I used the peavey to break them apart and roll them out of the rocks.
Everything is back where it's supposed to be...but the Man Cave still needs major work.
For more Man Cave maintenance projects look under "Chores" in the categories, and then hit the previous button at the bottom of the page three times. And please overlook the messed up photos. The app my blog is on arbitrarily shuffles and repeats photos and because of my poor signal I can't go in and fix them. Sorry!