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Cabin Camping at 35˚ Below

Last weekend, our family slipped away for a couple of days and nights of cabin camping on the Chena River. We've often enjoyed Alaska's public use cabins, and those cabins on Chena Hot Springs Road have become very familiar to our family.

In October, Stephanie had the good idea to reserve a public-use cabin one weekend each month throughout the winter until summer tent-camping season arrives again, so we've had last weekend reserved for more than a month. We could not have known when we made the reservation that the interior would be locked in this deep-freeze of twenty straight days of twenty to forty below. Had we known, we certainly would have postponed the trip to a warmer weekend. Despite the cold, we headed out.

You have to bring your own firewood when you rent these cabins, at least the ones accessible by road. I knew that and planned for it, bringing enough for our two-day stay and for an extra day, just in case. When we arrived, the temperature both inside and outside the cabin was a brisk thirty below, so the first thing I did was start a fire. It takes a lot of time and energy to warm a log cabin from thirty below to a habitable fifty or sixty above. As a result, it remained very cool inside late into that first night. And we found that the barrel stove was consuming the wood we'd brought far faster than we'd anticipated.

We read in the log book (always present in public use cabins) that previous users had noted the poor quality barrel stove and the rate at which it consumed wood. As we went to bed that night, I was already calculating rates, times, and contingency plans in the event we had to leave a day early or make some provision for more wood.

Compounding the issue was the fact that cars don't start readily at such temperatures without plugging in the car's engine block and oil pan heaters. I brought a borrowed gas generator so that I could plug in the car, but I wasn't entirely sure that setup would be enough to get it started. What I didn't want to happen was to run out of wood around bedtime, and then not be able to start the car by any means, just when traffic on the road trickled to non-existent. This is how I envision an easy family camping weekend turning into a perilous and life-threatening situation. 

With this in mind, on Saturday mid-morning, I started the generator running, and plugged in the car. I took the bow saw (also standard in such cabins) and walked into the woods looking for downed and dried firewood. After running the generator for two hours, we were able to start the car, and Stephanie drove down the road and purchased an additional few bundles of firewood. With that, and what I collected, we were better prepared for a much warmer second night.

Our plan for Sunday was to pack up casually and go to Chena Hot Spring to swim and soak in the warm water. Around eleven I started the generator, planning to give it two full hours to warm the car. But after two and a half, it was clear that the battery was cold, not fully charged, and not going anywhere. I walked to the road carrying jumper cables, and the first person by pulled over to help. We got it going, but the combination of the hard-to-heat cabin and the will-it-start car made it hard for me to relax.

Of course our children were mostly oblivious to all of this. They played hard and mostly together inside the cabin all weekend. They loved the trio of bunk beds and platforms, taking down the ladders to the upper bunks and using them to span the gaps between the beds. Throw in a couple of benches from the tables, and they erected elaborate obstacle courses that they crossed and re-crossed endlessly. Jacob came home with a black eye, though he says he can't remember how it happened.

We played Legos and board games, read books, and made gingerbread houses. We ventured outside for about twenty minutes on Saturday, but it was too cold for the kids to stay out long. We mostly played inside and enjoyed what might as well have been a wood-fired outpost on the moon. Hopefully January's outing will be warmer.

Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 12:44AM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | CommentsPost a Comment

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