Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Railroad Job

The Railroad Walk
We were building a cabin on the Alaska Railroad north of Talkeetna in the winter. I had gone in on the train to get the crew started and needed to get back to town to take care of some other business, so I decided to walk the eighteen miles back to Talkeetna instead of waiting until the next day to catch the train.
I calculated that I would walk four miles an hour so it would take four and a half hours. It was about five o’clock then so I would be in Talkeetna at 9:30 or at the worst 10:00 PM. So off I went.
There are mile markers on the Alaska Railroad so it is pretty easy to determine your speed and my speed was slow. I thought I was seeing things when I had only covered two miles in the first hour. Granted, walking on the snow on the railroad tracks was uncomfortable but I didn’t think it was slowing me down that much but the next eight hours proved to me that railroad walking was indeed slower than any other walking I had done.
I finally arrived in Talkeetna about one in the morning to find that I had left my lights on in my car and my battery was dead and I was dead tired. I went into the bar to see if I could find someone to give me a jump. One guy said he didn’t want to risk doing damage to the alternator in his new truck but another couple was getting ready to leave and they agreed to help me.
The man was drunker than his female companion so she drove their old truck to my old car to get it close enough to jump. The man was directing her to the car with wild gestures and yelling at her until she stopped everything and gave him a definitive middle finger to which he responded violently and ran up on her as if he was going to hit her. I ran over and split them up and told them I would find another way, thanked them for the help and headed into the old hotel and asked for a room, I would deal with the car in the morning; I had had enough adventure for one day.

No act of kindness, no matter how small is ever wasted.
- Aesop, Greek fabulist

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Remote Estimating Part 2

(Continued from June 22, 2010)

We finally got back to camp and I started investigating the old cabin that needed to be jacked up to put a new foundation under it as well as a new roof and many other improvements. By now it was getting late and I knew I would be here for the night so I relaxed and allowed myself to enjoy the evening. A small argument broke out between a member of our camp and the neighboring lodge from whom we got our electrical power. The next door lodge shut our power off until an agreement could be worked out. For a few minutes I thought a brawl was going to start but it was soon smoothed over and it was bedtime.
The next morning I did some last minute figuring before the plane came to get me and soon I was on my way back to Aleknagik.
I got to my plane a little after noon and was soon heading to Illiamna to get fuel. At Iliamna I found that Lake Clark Pass was choked up with weather so I would have to wait until it cleared up which it did in only a few hours and I was on my way again. I made it through the pass and headed up Cook Inlet until I reached a solid wall of clouds that I couldn’t go around so I landed on a beach strip close to a little camp called Shirleyville. I knew nothing of Shirleyville but I found that they housed oil company people and other workers who were in the area and I was able to buy a meal and hang around for awhile watching TV until it was time to go back to the plane about a mile away.
I took everything out of the plane to make room to sleep and went to bed and slept fitfully even with the wind rocking the plane all night.
The next morning the weather had cleared so I took off early and flew home, landing uneventfully at my home strip as my wife and two kids raced out to meet me. What I had allowed one day for had taken three and we didn’t even get the job. The homeowner sold the property and that was the end of that.

You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.
- Shira Tehrani

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Remote Estimating Part 1

Remote Estimating
I received a call from a past customer in 2003 who wanted me to give him an estimate on building a new lodge/cabin and repair an old log cabin at Lake Nerka north of Dillingham in the Tikchik Lakes system. No problem, I would fly down, take a look at the site and come home, no problem.
I made arrangements for a jet boat at Lake Aleknagik to take me up the Agulowak River to Lake Nerka or Second Lake as it is called by the locals.
I figured I would leave the home strip at 4:00AM, fly to Aleknagik, arriving at 8:00 AM, taking the jet boat to Agulowak, arriving at say…10:00, look at the jobsite, go back to Aleknagik and be in the air heading home by no later than 5:00 PM, stop for fuel in Illiamna along the way but still arriving home by 11:00 PM or midnight at the latest. A long day to be sure, but doable.
I got in the air by 4:00AM and had flown through Lake Clark pass with good weather until I got to the Nushagak River near the village of Ekwok. The weather here was much lower but I flew on, knowing I was pretty close to Aleknagik. As I got closer to Aleknagik, the weather got even lower and I was getting low on fuel. I didn’t have enough fuel to go anywhere if I got to Aleknagik and couldn’t land so I turned around and flew back to Ekwok and put some gas in the plane that I had brought with me.
I finally landed at Aleknagik at around 9:00AM; Later than I wanted but still not too bad. I asked around to find my jet boat driver and located his office down on the lake. He wasn’t there yet but would be there shortly so I waited for a half hour or so until he showed up. Unfortunately, he was having trouble with his Jet boat so he would fly me to the Agulowak in his Turbine Otter for the same price. That was great! I would make up for some lost time right?
We landed at Agulowak and I was introduced to the homeowner and his friends that were there for fishing and the first thing he wanted to do was take me fishing for Arctic Char, after all, this place is one of the hottest fishing spots on earth. I was on a mission to estimate a job so I really didn’t want to fish at the time. I had several projects all over the State and I didn’t have time to smell the roses, at least not at that time. We went fishing.
The Char were hitting so hard that you couldn’t keep them off your hook. I’m not a sport fisherman so I was really doing nothing to entice the fish on my hook but you literally couldn’t keep them off. I politely reeled in fish after fish, all the while my mind was on getting back to camp to do my estimating.

(to be continued)

"An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."

Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Swamp Builder

It was early in 2000 when I was contacted to build a cabin for some folks in the Susitna Duck flats. I agreed to do the project without a site visit first. Not a good idea.
I flew down with the owner in his Cessna 185 on amphibious floats and landed on a small lake near the building site. We couldn’t taxi all the way to the shore because the lake was too shallow so we had to wade from the plane to the shore. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It had the rotten egg smell of stagnant water and bird poop. (Thousands of noisy seagulls inhabit the area.)
The building site, as it turned out, was at least 100 yards from the lake and it was all swampy trail. The cabin we were to stay in had large holes in the roof but there were areas in the old shack that were dry and it was slightly better than a tent so what the heck.
We contracted with Rust’s Flying Service to fly the materials. Since I knew a lightly loaded 185 couldn’t taxi to shore, a loaded Turbine Otter wouldn’t even get close so I sent down some Styrofoam float logs so I could build a raft to shuttle material from the plane to the shore where we could pack it another 100 yards to the building site.
I went out on the first load to build the raft and get ready for the following loads. We basically had to unload in the middle of the lake and unload the plane onto the raft, push it to shore, unload it and push it back to the plane for another load. This took some time but by the end of the day we had material on the shore.
Paul Holmes and I were going to do the actual construction so I agreed to pack material while Paul did the building, at least for the first two days. If you’ve ever packed moose meat through a swamp, you can imagine what it was like packing a cabin through the swamp. It took two full days to get the material to the building site. Paul worked in his bare feet because It was so muddy on the ground that it was making a nasty mess on the floor. We both slept well for those four days despite the bugs, noisy birds, mud and the rain but we got it done.
From this job we were able to develop better estimating procedures for hand packing materials in a swamp. Up to that time I didn’t really know how to estimate the cost for building so far from the lake in the swamp. Now I do, but there hasn’t been much call for cabins on the duck flats lately.

. The only job where you start at the top, is digging a hole.
- Anonymous

Friday, June 11, 2010


Trying to keep up with the culture isn't easy for an old guy but thanks to my daughter, Andrea, we now have a Facebook page.
We are trying to keep it current with Wall Posts several times a week and regular updates.
It is amazing to me how many of our past clients have contacted us through the Facebook page.
I am still learning my way around this medium but why not join us?

I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
Mark Twain

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Interesting Requests

Over the years we have received many requests that were out of the ordinary. Any reasonable request can be accomodated here as long as we are reasonably compensated for it.
Most requests have to do with using alternative access, not damaging trees, parking, set backs and the like. Rarely would we decline a request from a client.
One request was so ridiculous that we actually had to laugh it off, literally.
In the mid 1990's a fellow called and talked to Gwen, my wife, about building a remote cabin. "No problem, that's what we do."
"This site is very remote and I don't want anyone to know where it is." He stated.
"OKAY" She replied, knowing there was more.
"I want to blindfold the crew so they won't know how to find the place when they are finished with the project."
...Long Pause...
"Sir, I can tell you now that my husband will not be submitting himself to being blindfolded for any reason, sorry!" End of conversation.
We all got a pretty good laugh out of this one and it continues to get a chuckle every time I tell this story. (Whenever I come across someone who hasn't heard it from me already.)

I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
- Thomas A. Edison

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Summer is Heating Up

The summer season is upon us. 2010 has already been a very busy year so far and our summer season is very busy.
The cabin kits have been very popular and we are working on adding more sizes and styles as requests come in.
If you have ideas on different sizes and styles of kits, please let us know. Your input is valuable for us in deciding what products to offer.
We still have start dates available this season depending on your location and the size of your project.

Always do right - this will gratify some and astonish the rest.
- Mark Twain

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Access Horror
We had contracted to build a cabin at a popular lake near a remote village in Southwest Alaska in 2004. We had flown the material down in a DC-6 with Northern Air Cargo and it was sitting at the airport waiting to be transported three miles to the jobsite. The only problem was, we had no legal access to the building lot. This was not divulged to me before contracting the job which was my own fault, I hadn’t asked.
When I called our customer and explained him of our predicament I was told that that was my problem. That much was true, it was definitely a problem. The building site was on a lake with public access so I knew we could do it, but it would definitely take a huge bite out of our profit.
I ordered some Styrofoam float logs and had them flown down so we could build a raft. Now you can see where I am going with this. We wound up floating all of the material from the boat landing to the lot, unloading it and carrying it to the building site. This wouldn’t have been so unusual if we had known about it ahead of time and could budget for it.
So, if you are doing a remote project and I am asking a few questions about the site that seem ridiculous, you will know why. There are always surprises but we try and keep them to a minimum. We do operate on the premise that once we contract for a project, the price will not change if we find we neglected to do our due diligence and the conditions are not what we expected. It is our responsibility to check out the site if we are concerned about conditions.
Most people are very honest and forthright when they give us the information on there building site so it hasn’t really been much of a problem. I am proud to say that we have never asked for more money due to “unforeseen conditions.”

You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him. ~Leo Aikman