We like to take the boat to Zimovia Strait and moor to the piling there. There is an old cabin there that has stood for over fifty years. Time and weather are slowly taking the structure away, but residents of Wrangell occasionally volunteer fun stories about staying at the cabin in times past.
A friend recently told me that her family went to the cabin for Thanksgiving when she was a young girl. When they were unpacking their supplies they realized that they had forgotten the forks and spoons. With short daylight, and limited time for their holiday, going back to town wasn’t in the cards. Her father set everyone to work with their pocket knives, whittling out spoons and forks to eat with. Her Thanksgiving memory is of self reliance and creativity in the beautiful setting of a remote cabin.
In 1938 Mack and Mattie Dunn moved to Alaska from Washington state aboard their thirty foot troller. They started building a cabin in 1945. At first it was a shed to store their firewood and fishing gear, and later they closed it in with vertical logs. This is a ‘stockade style’ cabin, and the vertical logs shed rain better in this drizzly country. Everything was done by hand. Mack and Mattie cut the cedar logs, packed them out of the woods, stripped the bark off, and cut them to size before they could nail them into place. The cedar shakes for the roof were hand split. They even built a grid to put the boat up on so that they could work on the hull.
They were happy on their little fishing boat, but decided to partially move into the cabin so that they would have more space. Mattie could set up her sewing machine and make sturdy new garments for both of them. Mack could sit by the woodstove while repairing fishing gear and working furs.
Mack and Mattie fished and trapped for a living, and were sometimes gone from the cabin for weeks. They came home after one of those fishing trips and someone had broken into the cabin. Everything of value was gone except for the wood stove. Mattie was heartsick over losing her sewing machine, something too valuable to replace easily in those days. They were so determined that they would never go through that again that they lived on the boat from then until they retired.
Mack and Mattie were married for 51 years, and Mattie talked happily about it as a good life. She was busy all day long, even filling small moments in between work and chores. Mattie took up whittling, and her detailed and distinctive woodcarvings are occasionally seen around Wrangell.
While they lived on the boat, 21 miles from Wrangell, they were not lonely. Friends would stop by and The Old Salt (a pilot in those days) brought the mail and news. They did lots of visiting during the occasional trip to town for supplies.
After Mack had passed on Mattie sold the cabin to my dad, The Old Salt. He explored around the place, marveling at some of the improvements that had been made. Mack and Mattie had built a stone breakwater out from the beach. I have looked at that breakwater in wonderment. They had no heavy equipment to move the tons of rock, but they did have determination, ingenuity and a willingness to back that up with lots of hard work.
The Old Salt found fifty-five gallon drums of fuel up the hill behind the cabin. It was a big job to get the drums down to tidewater and transferred to a boat so that they could be used. He later asked Mattie how in the world she and Mac got those four-hundred pound barrels up the hill. Mattie answered, “Well we had a lot of time!”
The Old Salt took Mattie on one last
boat trip in the 1980’s. She was living in town then, and getting some help to
get through the day. She brightened up quite a bit on the trip. Being out on
the water even gave her the verve to do some beachcombing.She walked along the rugged beach near Cape Fanshaw, enjoying a brisk breeze and the sound of the waves rolling onto the beach.
The cabin that they built still stands all these years later. The shake roof has been replaced with metal. Lots of work would have to be done to make it a comfortable structure, but it is good for an emergency shelter.
I raise a glass of homemade blueberry wine to Mack and Mattie Dunn. Two people who lived dreams and lived fully.
...and here's to your dreams, too, may you enjoy making them real.