Mostly Trapping

Reuse and renew is a constant mantra in rural Alaska
Apr 1, 2019 08:22 ET

(Reprinted from above link)

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — “Don’t laugh too hard at the new cache,” I warned a guest, referring to the small elevated shed my sister, Julie, and I had just tossed up. “It’s not quite done.”

For years we stored winter dog food — in the form of a ton or so of whitefish — piled on an open waist-high platform. And for years, loose dogs helped themselves. Our little Icelandic horses pulled frozen fish from the cascading pile, nibbling on one for awhile before abandoning it for another that might taste better, leaving cratered carcasses scattered in their wake.

One year, every time we spent a few days out on the trapline, a fox crept in uninvited to lug away more fish, until a trap set in his path ended his thievery.

The tarp protecting our bounty from ravens inevitably became weighted heavily under inconvenient loads of snow and ultimately, during the spring melt, metamorphosed into a slimy, smelly sheet worthy only of incineration.

Improving this annoying arrangement stalled out until we lucked upon some suitable cache-building material.

About 2001, one of the better-aging cabins on our historical property showed signs of decay. Built as a retirement home in the 1960s by old timer Slim Carlson, the roof required a major overhaul. In addition to replacing the ridge pole, we replaced the 7-inch, hand-split spruce log roofing Slim had so laboriously built. Although some showed signs of significant rot, we salvaged many sections of strong, sound splits.

That major project finished (this was back when we sometimes actually finished major projects) we eventually found some time to address the fish storage problem.

Like many Bush homes, we have numerous metal 55-gallon gas drums lying around, including the older heavy-duty models. Digging out corner holes, we set four of these intact drums upright as support pillars. (Elevating the cache two feet above ground should have mouse-proofed it, but as usual the mice prove too ambitious for us.)

Using sturdier pieces of the split roofing poles, we built a platform on which we threw up the little cache, spiking horizontal splits onto flattened, upright corner posts. Nearby young cottonwood trees provided convenient roofing poles.

Because we’d be piling between 30 and 100 fresh fish into the cache at a time to freeze in the cold winter air, we didn’t construct a solid-fitting roof, instead putting up enough supports to brace the roofing, leaving gaps between it and the walls. Nor did we close up every gap in the walls; the more cold air circulation the better. We only needed to keep out snow, dogs, fox — and horses.

Instead paying for and flying in metal roofing, we salvaged roofing from another old cabin, this one half collapsed and dating back to the 1920s fur farm days.

The original birch bark cabin roofing had been replaced by our father in the 1970s with those ubiquitous gas drums. By cutting off the ends and then cutting down one side, he could flatten each cylinder to make a fine piece of roofing which kept that old cabin going another 30 years.

Drilling holes through the steel slabs, we nailed them into place like large overlapping shingles. Julie banged together a Dutch door made of real, store-bought tongue-and-groove boards left over from another project. The swivel lock that normally kept the door in one piece could be opened to allow the top half to remain open, protecting the fish inside from dogs and fox (and horses), while allowing even more cold air to quickly freeze any fresh fish added to the pile.

By the time we pull our under-ice fishnets sometime in December, the little shed may be packed with well over 1,000 fish. Buckets of additional fish, rotting quietly since late September, store safely until used as trapping bait.

Any beaver carcasses — high octane dog fuel — that we are lucky enough to obtain also hang from the ridge pole, safe from voles that love to devour the thick layers of fat. During summer months the shed provides storage for 50-pound bags of the rice we cook with the fish before feeding, as well as the odd bale of bedding straw or other supplies in need of a dry home.

The ridge pole extends over the front of the cache to provide a bit of a porch longer at the peak than the sides, providing additional snow protection. Unfortunately this causes some of the flattened drums to poke out farther than others. And because the drums failed to lie perfectly flat, some warped upwards while others warped downwards.

“We should cut off that excess,” I said, surveying our nearly-finished project with a satisfied but critical eye. “And if we tighten some bolts through those drum layers that gap, it’ll flatten them up.”

“Yeah,” Julie replied. “But not right now. Now we have to ...”

I don’t remember what we had to do. I do know that like so many projects, once this one was useable, it may not have been finished, but it was done. Now, nearly two decades later, you can go ahead and laugh at the unrefined roof, but that good little cache keeps our fish safe from heavy snow and from dogs. And fox. And horses.