“I’d forgotten what it was like to live alone and how I had to sustain. The cabin was going to teach me some of those lessons very quickly.”
When Ryan Douglas was hired in 2008 as a seasonal grounds-keeper at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (two hours south of Fairbanks, Alaska), he never dreamt that his summer job would one day offer him the opportunity to live for part of the year in a tiny secret cabin just a stone’s throw from the tallest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley.
Itching for a change from a life consumed by the demands of his landscape design and installation business in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, Douglas decided to take some time off to seriously reflect on his future. So he piled a sleeping bag, basic camping supplies and his two American cocker spaniels – Brinks and Koy – into his truck and drove to Alaska, without a plan and not knowing where the road ahead would take him.
Through the grapevine, he learned that Princess Cruise Lines was looking for help maintaining the grounds of their expansive Denali Lodge, located just outside the gated entry to the 6-million acre Denali National Park and Preserve. The charming lodge is one of five luxury accommodations Princess operates for guests who visit the interior of Alaska via train and motor coach as a part of their cruise experience during the summer months. Nestled on the hillside high above the rushing Nenana River, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge commands impressive views of the park and mountain peaks on a clear day.
The lodge’s maintenance director took one look at Douglas’ resume as a professional horticulturalist and hired him on the spot for the season.
A Simple Existence
Though he was offered a bedroom in staff quarters, he chose instead to live out of the back of his truck on a nearby beaver creek, doing his laundry and washing up in the remote creek – and only taking occasional meals with other employees.
It was a lonely existence by choice, he admits. Although it never really grows dark during the summers in Alaska, Douglas would cook a simple dinner on a camp stove and retire in the back of the truck with his dogs by 9 o’clock each night, writing in his journal by flashlight and listening to the howling wolves and coyotes calling in the nearby woods.
Each day at 5:30 a.m., he was awakened by the whistle of the passenger train line rumbling past his campsite. And so he’d begin another day with a shower at the maintenance shop before going to work. The solitude he sought came from this simple existence, and at the end of five months he returned to Minneapolis mentally recharged.
Before he left Denali, he vowed to return the following season – but this time, he made a special request of his supervisor to allow him to make his summer home in a now-uninhabited cabin built decades ago by the family who sold the property to Princess for the construction of the lodge.
Living Out a Dream
When Douglas first set eyes on the log structure, it was a sunny day in early May. “It was surrounded by spruce trees, far away from the back buildings of the lodge. Most people didn’t even know it existed, because only the maintenance crew and some upper management had access to the area.”
“The cabin looked nothing like it does today,” Douglas recalls. “It was primitively set up – all that was inside was a table and two chairs,” he remembers. “Still, it just seemed to shine in the light.”
Returning to the lodge that following spring, “I started to homestead,” Douglas says, “and began to live my own personal Alaskan dream in a remote, simple cabin in the woods. I’d forgotten what it was like to live alone and how I had to sustain. The cabin was going to teach me some of those lessons very quickly.”
He worked with maintenance staff to open up boarded sashes and install awning windows with screens – to allow air, light and the sounds of nature inside.
There was no running water or kitchen, so Douglas hung simple shelving for supplies and purchased a single burner hotplate. “It’s amazing what you can do with a burner and one pan,” he laughs. He used a north-facing window and his porch as a refrigerator for provisions that first year.
“Then,” he says, “I bought some accessories: tablecloths, a teapot, a candle, bedding and curtains to put up on the windows. It was very basic, but I filled the cabin with everything a home should be.”
He foraged through storage areas on the property and found cast-off furniture. And when he discovered vintage travel posters that had been discarded, he washed the cabin’s dusty log walls and hung them.
With no indoor bathroom facilities, he boiled water on the hotplate and took sponge baths at night. “Then, I’d pour a glass of wine and turn on my portable radio. The only stations that would come in clearly were National Public Radio playing mountain music and reruns of Seinfeld, weather reports from the north slope of Denali, and a program called “The Sounds of Majesty” – the most beautiful, soul-searching sacred music I’d ever heard. I was living the good life … and everything about it was pretty primitive, by choice.”
An Enormous Gift
Douglas returned for his fourth summer this year and has become a valued member of the Denali Princess seasonal staff. His hours are busy, as he carefully tends the Lodge’s hundreds of flowerbeds and baskets that explode with riotous seasonal color. But at the end of each day, Douglas loves to retreat to his tiny cabin in the woods, where he’s often lulled gently to sleep by raindrops tap, tap, tapping on the tin roof.
“It’s been an enormous gift that Princess has given me by allowing me to live here,” he acknowledges. “In everyday life, we surround ourselves with artificial barriers. But here, for just 20 weeks at the foot of the mountainside, there are none.”
Every year, a mockingbird comes to Douglas’s window and his insistent presence reminds him that winter is only six weeks away. “This cabin has freed my soul,” he reflects. “When I’m here, it feels like my life has come full circle … and when I leave, it just sits there in a quiet state, waiting for me to come home again.”
Robyn Roehm Cannon, from Seattle, and Ryan Douglas have become e-mail buddies, although their views on the necessities of life differ slightly. For starters, she just can’t cook a meal without four burners.