A few years ago someone who observed our home from the air seemed disappointed that we didn’t own just a single tiny cabin with a garden patch in the woods. “You have a lot of buildings,” she commented, looking mystified and perhaps a bit disillusioned.
In fact my sister Miki and I have a dozen-odd houses and caches on our property if you include a fallen-in cabin, two woodsheds and two outhouses. Several reasons account for our two-person little village here. Our Bush lifestyle requires lots of storage space, but local history also explains a lot. Nearly 100 years ago two adjacent fur farms were built here with the attendant animal housing, fish racks and feed caches, a few of which survive to this day. Finally, when you spend all your life in one spot, you do tend to clutter it up.
In the 1950s, some years before her marriage, our mother and two girlfriends bought the property sight unseen, and arrived to find they had purchased a cabin with a nearby workshop, two caches, a little log sauna, outhouse and a fish-drying shed. Several old vacant mink and fox chicken-wire pens lay scattered through the woods, slowly caving in as the pole structures rotted out.
Next door, old-timer Slim Carlson lived at the other long-defunct fur farm with a single cabin, small storage shed and a scaffold for whip-sawing lumber. Legend tells he also had an old cache that fell into the lake, but I don’t remember it.
Our parents tore down the fish rack and fur pens and built a big new log home for their family of five, as well as a new woodshed and a replacement for the decrepit workshop which was ready to collapse.
After a fire damaged Slim’s little cabin, he built a bigger one to retire in. In the 1970s we inherited both cabins and his storage shed which we now use for animal feed. Meanwhile we three children built a rickety fish rack, rebuilt it twice, and finally tore it down in the 1990s when our fish catch declined enough that we gave up drying regularly.
Our father liked to name possessions, including the buildings, which he named after animals associated with them. The old original cabin, a ramshackle three-room shotgun affair, was called Mouse for obvious reasons. He called the old shop Weasel, the woodshed Woodpecker. The aged sauna, converted to a fuel shed, he named Grouse. In 1969 the admired artist Bill Berry did a painting called “Visitors” depicting that tiny lakefront cabin with its namesake grouse strolling past.
That was the year we moved into our new home, two log stories atop a full stone basement. Our parents were retired then, just entering their 60s, but pursued a subsistence lifestyle for as long as they enjoyed it. Daddy built a nice screened-in shelter and told our mother it was her new gazebo. She enjoyed many a lovely summer afternoon there sorting her glass collection, even after Daddy confessed it was actually a meat shed for hanging moose meat.
By the late 1990s, when our parents aged out of Bush life, our childhood relics, Mouse and Weasel, were melting back into the ground. Eventually they got torn down, and replaced with a single gorgeous new shop that’s the most attractive building on the property, partly because it’s the newest by about 40 years and partly because the neighbor who built it does such fine work. The attached shed shelters our snowmachines and a little lawn mower.
Today, the two old caches which probably date back 80 to 100 years are barely staying upright. The fuel shed, Grouse, looks better, although we replaced the lovely sod on the roof with ugly steel sheeting when the moss sloughed off after a torrential rain. We still maintain Slim’s 55-year-old “new” cabin, which we use for those visitors who don’t mind sharing the space with saddles, dogsleds, tools, artifacts and mosquitoes.
Meanwhile, back in the 1980s Miki and I acquired horses, and horses of course need shelter, so we added a little log run-in shed to our menagerie of structures. Our Icelandics use it more for summer horsefly protection than winter cold. We also began raising chickens, and the property is now bookended between our “barn” and chicken shed.
A second wood shed, strategically handy to the dog food cooker, has proven useful for many years.
When we replaced the roof of Slim’s cabin in 2001, half of the old split logs we removed were still in near-pristine condition so Miki and I repurposed them into another tiny shed, this one elevated on old gas drums with a roof made of flattened steel drums. It serves primarily for storing the hundreds of winter whitefish that we catch and freeze for dog food, but it also holds trapline bait in the winter, and straw and rice during the summer.
We also maintain 12 to 15 dog houses and two chain-link kennels, two fenced gardens, a fenced horse corral, an enclosed patch of grass too small to call a pasture, and an electric fence surrounding the property to keep the free-ranging horses out when they overgraze the lawn, all of which add to our complicated layout even if they can’t really be called structures.
Not only that, but I really wish we had an actual shed for hay and straw storage instead of throwing it haphazardly into the handiest meat or fish shed where it attracts mice and creates a mess. While we’re day-dreaming, let’s add a shed for lumber and dogsleds, so they don’t clutter up housing already full of other possessions.
So if you happen to fly over our sprawling property, please remember it takes a lot of sheds to store fish, meat, fuel and winter gear. If you add the inherited remnants of two fur farms, it can make an old run-down piece of property look indeed like a little village.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.