North Kenai wasn’t an official place, it was just the area north of Kenai. To get there you took the road north out of Kenai, the North Road to we locals, but officially named the Spur Highway. Only cops and paramedics and the like called it that, though (as in: Spur Highway mile 18, behind Dick’s Arctic Welding, teen gas huffing in progress, over!).
The real name for North Kenai was Nikiski, and if you lived further north than us, past the refineries and the elementary school and closer to where there was a grocery store and a fire station you called it Nikiski. But the elementary school was called North Kenai Elementary, and that was good enough for me. Plus, that is where I learned that Nikiski means moose turd in the local native language, so of course as a kid I wasn’t going to go around saying I was from Moose Turd. Duh.
Anyway, nothing was called what it was really called, but I didn’t notice that much until I was old enough to understand the reason: to confuse the tourists.
North Kenai (Nikiski) was like Kenai without the town. The population was about the same, but instead of neighborhoods and malls and infrastructure we had woods. The woods had lakes and marshes, many of which were accessible by tracks or unpaved roads, and people would build any kind of dwelling they wanted to live in once they had purchased a piece of this pristine land. Ideally your property would be large, isolated or densely forested enough as to let you feel like you had the whole place to yourself. It was one of the main reasons freedom-minded individuals were drawn there. Even one of Kenai’s first mayors lived way out north in the boonies. He and his wife got as far away from town as they could, then built their own road even further into the woods until they hit a nice lake, and that is where they built their cabin. The people of town admired this I guess, and made him mayor.
Our house beside Cabin Lake on Cabin Lake Road in North Kenai is where I spent most of my growing up years. There wasn’t really a cabin on Cabin Lake, and the road was actually called Interlake Drive, not Cabin Lake Road. But Interlake Drive split off from Cabin Lake Road, and plus Cabin Lake Road sounds better than Interlake Drive, so that’s why everyone called it that. Plus, you know… the tourists.
My dad built our house on Cabin Lake, and as far as I know, of the many projects he undertook over the years, this was the only one he did in the proper way. He secured a real loan from a real bank, got a real architect and contractor, cleared the land with the appropriate equipment, purchased fresh lumber from a regular lumber yard, used a cement mixer to mix the cement, and so on. No bartering or scavenging of any kind, no “pay as you go, finish whenever”, and no improvised tools either, as far as I can recall. (There was a time when I actually thought the term “jerry-rig” came from my dad’s name – Jerry, natch).
Most extraordinary of all was the fact that the Cabin Lake house building project resulted in a fully built house. Of course I was only five at the time, but I remember it because it was exciting and new, and uncharacteristic of our usual way of doing things, i.e. the opposite of all of the above.
And to what do we attribute this sudden (but temporary) switch? Well, I can imagine a stipulation in the loan that said: Must result in a completed ranch-style home; no shanties, lean-tos, or partially-built dwellings of any kind shall be permitted (see Section 7 for a comprehensive list of prohibited structures).
However, I suspect my mom may have had more to do with it. You see, my dad was essentially an Alaskan before he and my mom and my older brother Nathan moved up to Alaska from Kansas City. The stated reason for the move was missionary work – he was a freshly-minted Nazarene pastor, and had a “calling” to do the Lord’s work in the trackless wastes of the frozen North. But my dad was gung-ho for the move with or without the Godly go-ahead, and he would have been just fine with moving us into a borrowed army tent or an abandoned bear den as long as it was in Alaska.
My mom not so much.
It’s not that she was still a cheechako, mind you. A noob, fresh off the boat rookie immigrant, a non-native. No, she’d gotten her three-year badge a while back.
OK, let me explain that. Sometime during a transplant’s third winter in Alaska, her mind tells her brain one of three things:
- That’s enough. Time to go someplace normal.
- You stay. I’m leaving. Ding-dong! Waka-waka-waka!
- Hey, I no longer feel homicidal. Maybe I’ll plant a garden when the light comes back and the ground thaws out.
Almost every long-term, non-native Alaskan is still there because they managed to survive the first three winters, and that included my mom. They learn to love it and then they don’t want to leave. The rest are like my dad, a little crazy even before they get up there, and they just don’t notice how damned inhospitable it is.
So, my mom was cool with roughing it by this time, doing the Alaska thing. She was just done with roughing it all the time. Especially now, with three boys and a new baby girl to haul around, she was ready for some modern amenities. Nothing luxurious like a jacuzzi or sidewalks, mind you. But it was nice to have carpet, and have it be all the same color even, and to have central heating in addition to the standard woodstove. That was a bonus. Matching appliances. No drafts or leaks. Everything was square and level, no exposed wiring, and none of the windows had Visqueen® instead of glass. There was quality T1-11 siding (forest green) covering the entire exterior. It was quite a step up for the Keenes, and yet completely out of step with the Jerry Keene style, and I’ll bet you green money that it was Mrs. Keene that made sure it all got done right.
We had a quarter acre of wild woods that sloped down to the lake. We cleared enough to have big lawns in front and back of the house (another Marlene Keene requirement I’ll betcha), but there was still plenty left to remind you that you weren’t in Kansas anymore. Of course we kids didn’t have anything to compare it to, being natives and all. Grass or underbrush, these were just different types of terrain for us to play in.
That was 1975. In subsequent years my dad applied his can-do attitude and can’t-do building skills to construct a woodshed, a greenhouse, a treehouse and a chicken coop in various wooded spots around our property. He used his customary methods and materials for these projects: improvisation, found or homemade lumber, and free chickens.