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Cabin life isn't for everyone

Big Ray is gone now. He left about a month ago -- for good. He only got here in August. But I'll miss him. I liked his cologne; you don't smell that in Haines often. And his East Coast accent and his quick wit. He reminded me of people I grew up with.

At first, Big Ray loved Haines and bought a cabin near ours thinking he would live off the land, hunt, fish and zoom around in speedboats in the summer and snowmachines in the winter. He'd take his giant new truck four-wheeling in the backcountry out his cabin door.

The trouble is that the Chilkat Peninsula doesn't have wide-open spaces. It's mostly homes on a few acres and protected state park land. The woods are hilly and dense. There's one main road.

Hunting season is about a month a year, and legal bull moose are hard to find. The lake at the end of the road has brook and cutthroat trout, but they are not like the pictures Big Ray saw in Alaska magazine. The biggest ones are 8 inches long.

Aside from a few rambling brown bears, the biggest game on Ray's five acres of alder and spruce were porcupines.

And there were neighbors. Ray had about a dozen off in the woods and down on the road. They range from retirees in new dream homes to serious environmentalists, the kind who wouldn't sign up for electricity or phone service even when the power company put the lines in. All of Ray's neighbors like to walk on the dirt road past Ray's place. Which meant Big Ray couldn't shoot his rifle in the yard.

Ray's nearest neighbor was not the wise old sourdough he might have expected either. The man has a shack in the bushes and a junk truck Ray could see from his house. He limps from an old gunshot wound his girlfriend gave him and, when he's drinking, disappears for weeks at a time.

We spent last weekend at our cabin. Big Ray's snowmachine trail had melted and thawed enough since his departure that the two-mile hike up was like walking on an icy balance beam. If we missed it, we fell up to our hips in crusty snow. It was so bad it was funny.

When we finally got to our cabin, we worked quickly to get a fire going in the wood stove, hand-pump water for drinking and dishes and shovel a path to the outhouse. While the house warmed up, the kids played outside and we used the last light to snowshoe around the lake.

We walked by the Podsikis' old house. It is the picture-perfect Alaska farmhouse with porches, gables and a storybook barn against a backdrop of distant mountains.

Greg Podsiki built it and lived there with his family before moving into town when the kids were all in school.

One night, when we were coming up for the weekend, we caught up to Greg's headlamp on the trail. Deep, wet snow had stopped his snowmobile. He had to walk home with a backpack full of groceries and a 5-gallon container of fuel for the generator in one hand and a 5-gallon water jug in the other.

Greg was, as always, cheerful, but as we skied by him, enjoying our winter night, we knew we were playing at rural life. Unlike Greg, we could go home to do laundry, shower and make phone calls. We didn't have to be up here tonight if we didn't want to. But we admired him enough that we hope to live on this lake just as he did when all our children are out of school.

Big Ray did not find joy -- or even use the bragging rights he'd earned -- in roughing it. As winter bore down on him, he bought a bigger generator, built a real bathroom and put up a satellite TV dish.

He was still not happy. "I'm going crazy here," he said. "There's nothing to do, and there's no sun. My skin is green. I don't know how you can stand it."

I was thinking about that when our cabin came back into view, with lights in the window and smoke coming out of the chimney. "How can you stand it?" he had said. How can I ever live anywhere else, I thought.

The last time we saw Big Ray, he was packing up his trailer and giant pickup for the trip to a ranch in New Mexico he said he had bought. He was going where he could drive to Vegas for the weekend. We said we hope he comes back. "No way," he said. "Never."

Inside the warm cabin, we sip cold beer, eat cheese and crackers and talk about Big Ray. "I guess this place isn't for everyone," my husband says. The fire pops, the dogs sigh and the children deal cards. "I don't think Haines is too quiet. Do you?"

Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines. She can be reached at hlende@adnmail.com.

From the February 26, 2004 in alaska, we don't care how they do it outside! | Permalink