Years ago, Edie Smith, an Eskimo friend, could not grow a garden on her forested hillside property in interior Alaska. When a friend parked his car in the only sunny spot in her front yard and left it there for the summer, she created an improvised greenhouse by planting tomatoes inside in boxes of dirt. The tomatoes loved it, filling the car with a jungle of greenery and ripe fruit. Edie knew how to make the most of what she had.

Like most people in Alaska’s wilderness areas, the Penzes at Kako Retreat Center make do with the resources on hand. When the center was just beginning, Dave and Vera made good use of the old buildings from Kako’s gold mine days. They lived in one of them. They used others to lodge the first campers. They tore some apart and reused the lumber for new buildings. Sometimes Dave bought an empty building in one of the villages, disassembled it, and brought the materials to Kako for reuse.

Now they have their own lumber maker, called a Woodmizer. They cut logs from the  property, saw them into rough boards, and plane them for use in building projects. When we were there, they were making lumber to build a shed around the Woodmizer where it stands. The building will be big enough to store and dry a lot of lumber.

Over the years a lot of equipment has worn out. There is no place to send scrap metal for recycling, but that’s all right. Broken-down snowmachines, four-wheelers, even trucks and other large equipment are parked out of sight, ready to serve as parts-donors for other machines still in use. I saw a good-sized “boneyard” of scrap metal where the men can scavenge for the just-right piece of metal for projects in process.

When everything you need must come by small plane or by barge up the Yukon River, then be dragged by sledge over an 8-mile trail, one develops great skill in reusing, recycling, taking apart and rebuilding. Here are a few photos of some clever ways of repurposing materials at Kako:

The Woodmizer with a log in place, ready to make lumber. The drying-storage shed is going up around it.

Hank sorts nails and screws into vegetable cans from the kitchen. (He’s taped one of each kind to the outside of its can.) Dave pays a small amount for the nails that get spilled and swept up from the floors of hardware stores. Once sorted, they’re ready for Kako’s use at much less than full price.

Playground area for summer campers. Tires are worn out, but still fun to play on.

Storage area along the runway. Old freezers and refrigerators are reused for dry storage for small parts and pieces.

A broken shop broom and an old handle get together.

What do you do when you want to pick berries in the rain? You tear the bottom of a garbage bag open and cinch the ties around your waist. Now you can kneel on the tundra and not get wet.

The laying hens live in the shed. The young chickens live in the repurposed camper. They’re fed the kitchen scraps.

Hank made this shop table on the spot when Dave noticed a piece of pallet lying there and said, “That would make a good table top.”

This scavenged street light was spotted high on the wall of one of the shops. It can brighten the shop or be moved anywhere someone needs lots of light.

A plastic barrel cut to shape protects the innards of Kako’s Cessna 182 while the engine is being rebuilt.

A fabricated metal water tank sits on four oil barrels next to the garden. Gravity feeds the water to irrigate the garden. The tank is filled from the canoeing pond which is out of sight below the brush.

Candles on the Christmas Tree

Celebrating the Gift

  When we Rawlins children were young in the 1940s, money was scarcest at Christmas time. With five children in our family, close as stair steps,  frugal meant making do.

  Excitement built as we threw ourselves into holiday preparations. We memorized songs and pieces for programs at school and Sunday school. Giggles and shushing came from various corners as we children used our imaginations and household scraps to fashion gifts for family members. Mama’s treadle sewing machine clacked downstairs at night, and Daddy worked in the garage behind closed doors.

  We snipped white-paper snowflakes to decorate the windows. Mama pulled her stash of already-used wrapping paper from the far recesses of the under-the-stairs closet. Lois and I heated flatirons on the woodstove and ironed the creases out of the paper. We cut some into strips to make colored chains for the tree, fresh from the woods , damp smelling and spicy.

  David and Patty, our youngest siblings, festooned the lower boughs with clumped tinsel. When they weren’t looking, Mama thinned the clumps, hanging the strands higher and more evenly until they glittered in the Aladdin lamp’s light like rain falling through sunshine. The beautiful cardboard angel in her cloud of spun glass soared from the topmost spire. The colored coating inside the old glass balls and blown-glass ornaments was flaking, but we noticed only if we looked really close. The finish on the blue and red and purple clip-on candleholders showed the shiny metal underneath, but who cared?
   None of our town friends had candleholders. They used strings of big, glowing colored lights, but electricity hadn’t yet come to Robe Valley. The holders held candles about five inches high, twisted in pretty spirals. Keeping a bucket of water nearby in case of fire, we lit them on Christmas Eve and turned the lamps down. We sang a carol and watched the points of flickering light. Then we blew the candles out, to be lit once or twice more before the tree came down.

(From A Logger’s Daughter: Growing Up in Washington’s Woods)