How to heat a log cabin

One of the things I miss most about Alaska is Big Lake. From when I was born until about 1989, we had a cabin on Long Island, which I’ve written about previously in these pages. Now, Alaska has four distinct seasons (although spring is ugly, summer is short, and fall is a few weeks of cold rain that eventually turns into snow) and the cabin was different for each of them.

Summer brought long days and plenty of discussion over whether the water was warm enough for swimming, and if it was warm enough, whether it was so warm that there was snail fluke in it, which was the lake water equivalent of poison ivy. Spring was the time of year we stayed home in Anchorage, because the ice hadn’t receded enough to get the boat through (Long Island being an island, and all) but it was much too thin to drive upon.

But my most vivid memories of the cabin are during the winter. Sometimes we’d drive up in the evening, if my parents had been able to leave the office relatively early; sometimes we’d drive up Saturday morning, but the evening drives were always my favorite. We’d leave Anchorage and wind our way north through Eagle River, Eklutna, Peters’ Creek and Wasilla, past roadside bars with satellites and eerie flood lights illuminating the parking lots and plastic signs with the name of the bar sponsored by Pepsi or Budweiser and more snow machines than cars parked out front. You’d be just about asleep by the time you turned off the Parks Highway onto Big Lake Road and that turn was where you’d wake up with a slight shiver and realize you were almost there.

Sometimes we’d stop at a fast food place in Anchorage or Wasilla before arriving at the lake. Sometimes we’d stop at the grocery store and the video rental place (it’s still there, by the way, as of February 2016), but the best times were the times when we’d just drive straight there because I knew what was coming next. There was an access road onto the ice near the Klondike, which in those days was a bar and hotel, and then it was about a half mile to our place.

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The Klondike, circa 1986. The bar is in the background.

There was a local snowplow truck driver who would plow roads all over the lake, and if you paid him extra he’d plow a road right to the front door of your cabin. If you were lucky, the path you’d tread during the last heavy snowfall would still be passable by the time you got back, and you’d often have to leave the headlights on so you could see in the dark, just in case the motion sensor light on the front of the cabin didn’t switch on (although it always did – this was not only so you wouldn’t fall and hurt yourself in the dark, but also so you could tell if there was a human or animal visitor on your property once you’d gone inside).

After the doors were opened and the car unloaded with the major items – my book bag, the Polaris-branded duffel bag with clothes for the weekend, the blue Igloo cooler with food, several 5 gallon semi-firm plastic containers of water (running water was a summer luxury; the well froze during the winter) the warm car got cold pretty fast, so it was my job to run inside and get the fire lit.

Anybody who’s lived in northern climes understands the distinct pleasure of opening up a cabin that has sat in cold soak for a week or more. Everything smells muted because of the cold, but you can still smell the unforgettable potpourri of all the trappings of the place – the wood walls, the ancient appliances and furnishings, the even fainter smell of old fires and bacon breakfasts. It’s a degree or two warmer inside, somehow, without the slight breeze or the dampness of the snow.

Next to the wood stove, which is in the middle of the living room, with an enclosed chimney that runs up the two stories into beamed, vaulted roof (the second floor is really just a loft over the bedrooms) is a box of newspapers and firewood, which we were always careful to fill before leaving for the weekend so we’d have fire logs immediately at hand on a cold Friday evening.

You keep your outer layers on while you do this, but you bunch newspaper balls as tight as you can, open the front door of the wood stove, and cover them with some kindling and a couple smaller sticks. You make sure the flue is open, and you strike a match to the newspaper. Somehow the smell of the flint igniting is the most vibrant among the other muted smells in the frozen interior of the cabin, and you watch eagerly as the fire spreads and you smell the aroma of the burning newsprint, then the kindling, and then you can feel the warmth of the fire spread across your face. Like a bag of microwave popcorn, you know your labors have borne fruit when you begin to hear the kindling pop, and you know that the fuel source has transferred from the paper to the wood and you know you can add a few larger fire logs without smothering the flames and you close the door to the wood stove and turn a switch on the wall that activates the ceiling fan, way up high, which will keep the heat near the floor instead of gathering high in the ceiling frame.

Now the best part. You pile back in the car because it’s one of those nights where you don’t feel like cooking dinner with your jacket on while you wait for the cabin to warm up, and you drive on the ice roads around the island to the other side where the Islander beckons. The Islander is, as it was in 1986, little more than a shack surrounded by marshy swamp on the south side of Long Island, and it’s mostly a cocktail bar with the standard issue Coca Cola signage and the snow machines out front. However, off to one side, there’s an intimate dining room with around six tables with leather bucket seats that has a view of the snow covered marsh and spindly evergreen trees surrounding the place.

The place has a slightly maritime theme (popular in the ’70s and ’80s) with plenty of leather and accents like ship’s wheels and compasses and cutlasses and those oil lamp wicked candles in glass globes on each table giving a candle-lit mood. There was a dedicated waitress separate from the bar, although she did double duty at the bar when it was busier than the restaurant, as it usually was.

For cocktails, I’d always have a Roy Rogers (Pepsi or Diet Pepsi with grenadine and a ridiculous amount of maraschino cherries) or a Shirley Temple (the same, but with 7-Up). The menu was limited, and the first course was always salad, with bleu cheese dressing and croutons (both made in-house) which I’ve never had equalled. Dad always had oil and vinegar on his salad, which I found repugnant until well into adulthood (I love it now). Most of the menu of the place was sourced from the local grocery store, and I always had a cheeseburger. The patties were made in house from bulk hamburger instead of the pre-formed frozen patties, and the burger was always juicy and char-grilled just right. It was juicy to the point where if you waited too long the bottom bun would be soaked and some of the fries would have fallen victim as well. I’d always cut the burger into quarters (or more likely Mother did it for me, as non-butter knives were off-limits when I was four) and I remember the mixed feelings I had the first time I was able to finish all four quarters of the burger and not need to take the rest home in the doggie bag with the cartoon dog drawn on it.

Mother reminds me that there were a few other items on the menu, including her favorite, which was the chicken cordon bleu, which she knew was “just the frozen Costco brand” but they deep-fried it (Mother always baked them) and it came out perfect. She also recalls they had good steaks (usually what Dad ordered if not having the burger like me).

I’m never quite sure if the food was as good as I remember (we have a curious tendency to remember the past more fondly than the reality of it) or if the schlep of driving from Anchorage and across the frozen lake and getting the fire started was enough to make you ravenous, in which case food always tastes better because you’ve earned it.

After that, it was back to the cabin, which by then would be just warm enough to take your jacket off if you slipped under one of the knit blankets we kept on the couch and kept yourself warm by laughing to The Golden Girls. By the time the evening TV line-up was over, the living room had grown uncomfortably warm (a peculiarity of wood-stove warmed buildings in winter) and it was time to let the fire reduce to embers overnight as we slipped into still-cold sheets, which were refreshingly chilling after a night by the fire.

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