The Tent in Tok


(note--most of the following is taken from the foreword in the poetry book
"More...A Tent In Tok.")

The Tent In Tok, MASH tent, and Alaska winter survival story.
"The tent in Tok - early winter."

I DOUBT.....
Few people ever set out deliberately to live in a tent, in severe
temperatures, in
Alaska. If, at sometime prior to 1977, someone had
 told me we'd be living in a tent, I'd have laughed at them. But for thirteen
 months during 1977-78 that's exactly what my husband, two kids and I did.
 We didn't intend it to happen, it just did and we made the best of it. 

The tent family, an Alaska adventure in cabin building and survival.
"Dick and Donna shouldered logs and lumber."

As life-long Alaskans living in Anchorage, my husband (Dick) and I weren't exactly Cheechakos on the frontier. We grew up there as kids, went to school there, met, married and had our kids there. But as we grew up, so did the city. We had a comfortable three bedroom house full of modern conveniences, and a two-car garage, but it no longer seemed like "home." Anchorage, pure and simple, no longer seemed the right place for us. We weren't happy there and decided we didn't want to raise our children in the city. We wanted to get back into  "the real Alaska"-- the one we had known as kids.

We sold our home, packed up our belongings and moved in 1977. It was very late summer by the time we finally decided tiny Tok was where we were meant to be. We bought land with our last few dollars. And that's all it was.  Land...densely populated with spruce forest, moss, and wild flowers....with no electricity, water or sewer available. We began hacking a road into it, then chose a clearing for the cabin.

Donna's outhouse featured in Alaskan book, Outhouses of Alaska. "Just a throne - No house around the'out!"

Once our cabin building began, we cut, hauled, peeled and spiked logs at a furious pace. Winter was right around the corner. Before we were three rounds high, winter set in. We worked in freezing cold and snowflakes sticking to our eyelashes. We fought wind, blowing snow and stiff fingers. But we could not fight the severe cold causing our logs to split in two as we tried spiking them in place.

An Alaskan family living in a Tent in Tok, Alaska.
"Katherine and Ricky ready for school."

Cabins of Alaska features this ca bin building in Tok.
"Dick works on the cabin."

The realization that winter wasn't just "coming"--that it was here with all its fury--forced us to rethink. We could leave and go back to Anchorage....but everything we owned was now stored in the huge 16' x 32' army tent we were using as "temporary" quarters on our land. We weren't willing to give up. "Temporary" became home to the four of us, two cats and our dog for the duration of the winter. We didn't know it then, but we would end up living 13 months in the tent.

A wood stove provides wood heat for sub-zero living.
"Bathtime for Ricky."

We heated and cooked with an airtight Fisher woodstove. I also cooked on that stove. We used kerosene lamps for light, and melted snow for water. Baths were a once-a-week chore. It took A LOT of Tok's freeze-dried, nearly-waterless-snow to produce enough water for bathing. The tent had no insulating liner, no floor -- just dirt -- no windows, and a door at each end. The four of us slept on cots in down sleeping bags. It wasn't warm, but it was bearable.  Some times were less bearable than others.

As soon as Katherine (age 6) and Ricky (age 10) were off to school each morning, Dick and I would hop into our truck and go cut firewood. Our survival depended on cutting wood every day. In the coldest part of the winter we were burning a cord of wood every day (8 x 4 x 4). So we had to get out and cut. The first cord we cut was ours, to burn that night in the tent. Often we'd cut a second cord to sell. With that money, we were able to buy groceries and more gas to go back down that same old road to cut more wood. In the thirteen months living in the tent, we burned 120 cords of wood.

Usually, Dick and I would still be out cutting firewood when the kids got "home" from school. The tent would be dark, cold and lonely when they arrived. Only a few coals  would remain in the stove for them to rekindle a fresh fire. That was their first chore. Next, each would stand by with a squeeze bottle full of water (left by the stove to prevent it from freezing)and wait for the inevitable hot sparks to rain down on the roof of the tent, burning holes through the canvas as they landed. With one squeeze, properly aimed, the sparks would be out. Next they brought in clean snow for melting and fed the dog and cats (the cats prevented mice and squirrels from wintering with us). Finally, they either played or did their school work.

Living in a tent is an Alaskan love story.
"Christmas in the tent. Katherine and Ricky open presents."

The tent sory and the outhouse are an adventure and family drama.
"Dick uses the throne. When ya gotta go, ya gotta go!"

When Dick and I returned, Katherine and Ricky helped us stack the entire cord of wood INSIDE the tent. This eliminated many, many trips outside at night and unnecessary openings of the tent door. Every little bit of heat conserved helped. As soon as we finished bringing in the wood, I started supper. Katherine would help. Dick busied himself with repairs of the tent roof, broken axe handles or the chainsaw itself, sharpening and tightening the chain, cleaning the spark plug and readying it for the next day's cutting. We'd eat, wash up, relax a little and then go to bed, only to start the same routine over again the next day.

Winter progressed; the temperature dropped severely. At fifty below or colder a different night time routine was demanded. In order to keep the tent warm enough for sleeping, the stove had to be kept literally red hot. To do this meant stoking it every fifteen minutes, so Dick and I slept in four hour shifts.

Tent lady, Donna Blasor-Bernhardt lives in a MASH tent.
"The tent - snowed in."

It was on one of my four hour shifts, about 2 o'clock in the morning, that I wrote my first poem. I was busy stoking the stove and watching the frost creep up the inside of the tent walls. The family slept soundly. I stepped outside in boredom, something I rarely did at night.

An awesome sight greeted me. Crystal clear skies and a full moon shone on the tent. Stars leapt from their heavenly roots. Somewhere, a wolf howled. Darting in an out, climbing and diving between the great mountains of the Alaska Range, were billowing green and yellow curtains.  The northern lights, in full ballet, danced above my sleeping family. I was completely awestruck. I stood there, breathless and overwhelmed, privileged to be the one to watch this spectacular night show. The tent glistened brightly, coated in millions of frost crystals. Nothing could have been more beautiful. My love-affair with Alaska had never lessened, but now it sunk its soul deep within mine. A glance at the thermometer reminded me I had only slippers on my feet and wore no coat. Hesitating, not wanting to end the moment, and shuddering in the 70 below zero temperatures, I forced myself back inside the tent. 

Lots of true stories in Alaska non-fiction.
"Another view, looking down the driveway."

Dick, Katherine and Ricky slept like angels, unaware.  Only I knew. And I realized, being privy to this incredible night, the message being relayed in it was, "It's going to be alright. You're where you're supposed to be." I threw another log in the stove, pulled the sleeping bag up around Dick's shoulders, kissed the kids and sat down on a log stump next to the stove. A pencil lay nearby. I pulled out a brown paper sack and began writing on it... "This is our house among the spruce, the guy lines are taut and never loose..." and "A Tent In Tok" and my future years of writing and books were born. There would be many poems after that one, but none written under the same circumstances. The poem seemed to write itself. I left it lying on the table and thought no more about it. Dick, on the other hand, thought a lot about it. Being a sneaky sort, he took it to the local newspaper where it was printed the following week. And they asked for more! A few months later, Paul Harvey did a commentary on us about the tent. Most of his commentary for the show came directly from the poem I had written that night.

Winter survival includes getting a moose.
"Dick butchering a moose hindquarter."

AND SO.....
We were to have good times and bad in the tent, from running out of food and poaching a moose, to laughing ourselves silly over the problem of an unfriendly, "biting" outhouse seat. We shot a black bear for meat and I learned how to smoke and cure the buttocks as you would pork hams...and I'd dare anyone to tell the difference. We fished and foraged for meals, said a prayer to each tree giving its life to our cabin, and became, I think, better citizens of the universe for it.

Donna Bernhardt's Alaskan love story includes winter survival in a tent.
"Donna's catch of the day, an Arctic Grayling."

The four of us were fortunate that we never had any serious illnesses while in the tent.  When Dick and I came down simultaneously with the flu, we took turns giving each other shots of penicillin in order to stay on our feet and cut wood.  We had a very good first aid kit made up by a doctor friend which even included sutures, should we need them. (Eventually, we did.)

For an Alaskan family living in a tent, this bear was good eating.
"Katherine and Dick with black bear."

The Cabins of Alaska cabin, in Tok, Alaska.
"Katherine, Ricky and Von Hairy -- nearly finished cabin."

The following summer, we finished up our log cabin and moved in. It seemed to us, like a palace. I still live in the cabin, still cut my own wood and even though more modern plumbing is located in the bathhouse, I still use my outhouse.  For where else, in the winter, can you sit beneath the stars and watch the aurora dance and play? It's my private theater, of sorts! Besides, my outhouse won an award (only in Alaska!) and is featured in the book, "Outhouses of Alaska" by author/photographer, Harry Walker, so it's pretty special. Our tent winter was filled with hopes and dreams, disasters and delights. No, it wasn't easy, but through it all we struggled together, laughed together, cried together, grew together. We learned about basic priorities and what "family and love" really mean. So when I'm asked, as I have been many times, "Would you do it all again?" there's only one answer... "Yes."

Log cabin living is much better than living in a tent.
""13 months later, with the cabin complete, it was a VERY Merry Christmas."

Tent lady, Donna Bernhardt received a letter from MASH star, Alan Alda.

(A final note: The story of our tent winter has been recounted many times by myself throughout the years, in shows to tourists and through my poetry. Now I've written a full-length book encompassing those thirteen months detailing "life in the tent."  Called "Waltz With Me, Alaska" the new book is now available.  Email me to order the book or for more info.




Complete contents-text,
music, and photos-copyright
Donna Blasor-Bernhardt