Moving to an Island in Southeast Alaska

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The Beedle’s cabin almost enclosed. Inside the cabin, there’s a classroom, recreation room, living room, family room and bedrooms.
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“There is an incredible amount of work to do when you clear a building site in Southeast Alaska.”
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Merlin, Jayleen, Jason and Eileen Beedle venture out into the water in front of their family cabin on Shelter Island.
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Chart of the area surrounding Shelter Island.
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Professional wildlife photographer Jay Beedle takes you with him on his journey to Shelter Island, Alaska, in his book, “South Shelter.”

How would you like to live on a remote island in Southeast Alaska? Jay Beedle tells the story of how he and his family did just that in South Shelter(Island Images, 2014). This excerpt, which discusses the amount of preparation and planning that went into moving to a remote island, is from Chapter 2, “We Move to Shelter Island.”

Moving to a Remote Island in Southeast Alaska

“Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” My father reminded me of this quote many times.

A million and one things needed to be figured out and completed before my family could safely live on Shelter Island. I needed to finish the tool shed so I could move those tools and we’d have a place to live; sell our house in Juneau and figure out a place to store our household belongings because our new little abode wasn’t big enough.

How do I get rid of all the junk we have accumulated over the years? What boat should I get to travel back and forth to the island? Where do I park our vehicle on the mainland? Where will we go to the bathroom on the island? How do we get rid of trash? How will we get fresh water? How will we store the fresh water? What is the best way to treat the water so it is safe to drink? How will I heat our home? How will I make a living? Where will I get a job? What if we have a medical emergency? Are we going to have enough money to build? How will we do laundry? Will our cabin need electricity? Will I need a generator-gas or diesel? Where will I store fuel? Do I get a wood stove? What kind of wood stove do I buy? Eileen wondered if she could be a good home school teacher? How would she get ready for home schooling? Who would drive the boat if something happened to me?

My mind will not stop. Instead of sleeping, I’m running around in my dreams trying to figure out the answer to all these questions.

Eileen’s mind is racing also, but she is mentally stronger than me. She is like her father and doesn’t talk unless there is something of value to say. She leaves her worries to God.

I decided to tackle one problem at a time. Things will work out. I was mentally ready for this challenge; I practically begged for this wish. I wanted it more than anything else in the world.

When Eileen and I announced to family and friends that I was quitting my job and we were selling our house in suburbia and moving to a remote island, opinions and advice came flying in, free of charge. From extremely supportive to, “Why in the h–l would you quit a good job with health insurance and benefits to live on a remote island? You never could work for anyone for more than a few years; you always found some excuse to quit.” Or this one, “You’ll never make it more than two years; it won’t work.” A lot of people could not understand why I would do this to my family. Nobody was ever mean about it, just confused as to why I was moving my family to a remote island.

During this whole adventure (14 years and counting in 2014) my mother, Elaine Beedle, (Meme) has been 100 percent supportive. She has helped us immensely, a hundred different ways, from watching the children to letting us sleep at her house when we overnight on the mainland, doing laundry, eating meals and parking trucks, cars, boats and a moving van on her property.

Meet the Shelter Island Beedles

The move to Shelter Island dubbed us the Shelter Island Beedles (Sibs). The Sibs began as a family of unique personalities and remain so to this day.

Jay: Thirty seven-years old, wears glasses, hair is receding and graying fast, currently overweight at 187-pounds, ideal weight is around 168. High blood pressure. Bad back. Alcoholic father. Doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, smoke or do drugs. Big time water drinker. Nondenominational believer. Big fan of Jesus. Struggles dealing with his temper, possible ADD, workaholic, very opinionated, but willing to listen, bullheaded, straight forward and hard to get along with at times. Thinks out loud. Talks before thinking. Not prejudiced. Shy. Hates conflict. Cautious. Full of energy, loves the outdoors, hunting, fishing, camping, kayaking, hiking and photography. Optimist. Penny pincher. Always searching for a better way to do things. Talkative-sometimes too much. Loves life, family and friends and thanks God every day for them. More than anything wants to be the best husband and father in the world. Family, friends, honesty and integrity are the most important. Tunnel vision. Capable of making tough logical decisions along with bad decisions, but easily breaks down and cries over losing family and friends or emotional issues that are close to his heart.

Eileen: Beautiful natural curling red hair, no glasses, physically strong but has bad knees. Strong willed. Mentally tough. Not a complainer. Doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, smoke or do drugs. Big time water drinker. Has a temper but rarely does the raging volcano erupt, only when Jay pushes her too far. Leader and foundation of the family. Thinks internal. Talks after thinking. Enjoys the simple things in life. Great listener. Makes a decision and stays with it. Rock solid. Generally conservative and compatible with all types of personalities. Enjoys all types of games. Content. Optimist. Believer. Makes decisions based on emotion. Feels it is important to eat right and exercise. Loves tea, reading, pleasing people, flowers, gardening, creatures big and small, bird watching, fishing, hiking, bike riding and everything outdoors. Lover not a fighter, sees the good in people. Has a hidden wild side that rarely comes out, like the time she agreed to live remote. Weakness is chocolate and saying no to her daughter and son. The most important thing in her life is her children.

Jayleen: Beautiful long brown hair, tall and skinny. Just turned six-years old. Physically strong. Often sick as a young child with ear infections. No glasses. Fun to be around, but very strong willed. Athletic. Competitive. She was the perfect baby, super easy to take care of. Loves the outdoors, playing on the beach, Frisbee, card games, Wiffle ball, driving boats, hiking and fishing. Never complains when she gets cold or hurt, not a crybaby. Tough. Big time water drinker. Does not like spiders. Loves listening to stories her mother reads.

Jason: The wild card in the family. Two-years old, curly brown hair, solid muscle, wears diapers, no glasses. Has never been sick. Nonstop activity, runs everywhere. Happy. Trickster. Perfectionist. Competitive. Incredibly sensitive, aware of the smallest detail, super vision, sporadic indications of genius. Loving, caring. He never took the time to learn how to walk; at ten months he started running and didn’t look back. Screamer. Cries and screams about everything that makes him unhappy or hurts the slightest amount. Every time he cries he throws up. He has thrown up on his mother and father hundreds of times, in their ear, in the face and down the front of their shirts. After he was born, for the first year at night Eileen was up every 45-minutes because he would start crying. Advisers said let him cry-bad idea-nonstop vomiting. He can’t stand to wear socks, shoes, coat or a life jacket. Does not like to be touched, held or cuddled, never has. Was potty trained at the age of 1-1/2 but decided he preferred diapers compared to using the outhouse. Does not like things out of place or changes of any kind. DOES NOT LIKE boating, hiking and spiders. Big time water drinker. Loves games, Legos, his blanket, building sand and snow forts, macaroni and listening to stories his mother reads.

Planning the Move to Shelter Island

I, the money maker of the house, quit my job with the State of Alaska in late February 1999; as weather permitted I overnighted on Shelter, working on the cabin, splitting time between the island and the mainland.

During one of my solo trips to the island I installed the metal roofing. I carried each sheet up the ladder and then screwed it to the tar papered roof, all the time without safety gear (I shudder now, realizing how lucky I was not to get hurt.) Rain was forecast for the following day, I really wanted to complete the job. As time passed and it became darker, I started the generator and set up the big halogen work lights on the hill behind the cabin to help illuminate the area. By two in the morning I was blurry-eyed, dog-tired, hungry, thirsty and apprehensive as the rain started. I heard a helicopter way off in the distance. Before I knew what was happening, a United States Coast Guard search helicopter, 200-feet above shined a monster spotlight in my face!  I’m not sure what they were doing. Maybe they received a report that some crazy guy was about to break his neck. After a short time, they continued flying north up Stephens Passage, newly inducted members of the Jay Beedle is Crazy Club, I supposed.

Eileen and I decided if we were really going to do this, live on the island permanently, we would eventually need to design and build a bigger cabin. But first things first. We would live in the tool shed/small cabin for one year, a trial period, to see how we liked living remote. If we pass the remote living test, we’ll build the larger cabin. We also needed to plan for the future, saving as much money as possible and complete all the excavation work at one time. Once again, Jack, saved us a bunch of money, stress and time, and designed the bigger cabin for free.

We couldn’t believe our luck when Dwain Reddekopp said he was available to do the excavation work; besides being one of the best operators anywhere, he is one of the nicest, hardest working persons we have ever met. To top it all off, Dwain practically charged us nothing for all the work he did.

I transported everything I thought we might need for clearing the land, chain saws, gas, oil, come-alongs, axes, picks, wheel borrow, log splitter, four wheelers, wedges, tools, rope, fuel transfer pumps and over 200 gallons of diesel fuel to the island. In early April, Mitch Falk owner of Gumption Freight, delivered the excavator we rented from Tyler Rental with his landing craft, the Gumption.

I watched in awe as Dwain performed his magic; seemed to me, when Dwain operates an excavator, the machine becomes an extension of his body. I stared in disbelief as he defied the laws of gravity and sweet-talked water into flowing up hill to fill our septic tank. In less than 40-hours of operating time he transformed our raw land into a place of hope and dreams. The building pad for the large cabin, septic system, garden, mooring, landing and an access road up a steep hill were all completed.

Clearing a Building Site in Southeast Alaska

There were some exciting and memorable events while clearing the land: first, hanging over a steep hill, Dwain lifted me in the bucket of the excavator, permitting me to tie a rope 2/3 of the way up a tree. This allowed him to safely pull/guide the falling tree (I would fell) up hill and away from the tool shed/small cabin, myself and the excavator all at the same time-genius. Second, extremely nervous, I fell a 130-foot tall, four-foot diameter tree that was rotten in the center with my father’s 36-inch chain saw. This was the biggest tree I ever fell. I felt sad about felling such a beautiful tree, but relieved this rotten tree would no longer tower over our future cabin. Third, Dwain had me cut the huge stump from that 130-foot tree vertically in half with the chain saw so he could remove the monster root wad. Fourth, one of the tracks fell off the excavator while working the landing at low tide. Dwain was able to walk the machine on one track, safely back up the beach above the high tide mark and reinstall the track. Fifth, we were running out of time. To speed things up Dwain picked up wood and root scraps from the garden area with the excavator bucket then carefully set them into a wheel barrow I was holding, I then ran 100-feet down the beach and threw the scraps on the bonfire. Sixth, every morning I ferried crew and gear out to the island and every evening returned to Auke Bay in my boat. On one of those trips Dwain and I got knocked around big time in a major southeast storm. The water was really rough off the south end of Shelter Island. I remember asking Dwain if we should turn back? He replied, “We are short on time and need to get the job done. Let’s go.” Seventh, on one of my solo trips out to get things ready for clearing the building site, I forgot the keys to the tool shed. Three hours later I returned with the keys and hid them in a safe place. Forgetting keys on the mainland plagued me during the early construction phase.

There is an incredible amount of work to do when you clear a building site in Southeast Alaska. Hauling branches and wood scraps down to the bonfire along with hundreds of other chores. Eric Nelson and my brothers Jim and Jack were a huge help during this time. Jack also surveyed the area where the big cabin would go if we eventually built it.

A few neighbors walked down and informed us, this once beautiful lot now looked like a bomb had gone off; a beetle infestation. One neighbor joked that it was no longer a 10 acre woods, but nine acres.

My whole body, but especially my arms, were beyond tired and burned out; I could barely lift a chain saw by the end of the week. During this time I drank a lot of water and lost weight, pounds that needed to be shed, my body hurt but I was starting to get back in shape for the first time in many years. It felt good to feel pain from physical labor instead of pain in my lower back from sitting too much.

Preparing for the Move

We purchased a used 40-foot moving van to store our household goods and parked it next to my mother’s house, promising her it would be there only for a short time. She said, “Don’t worry, it can stay there as long as you need.” Little did she know, it would be seven years before I would get it off her property. Every two mile trip I made, hauling household goods from our home in Mendenhaven to the storage van, it rained, it poured. No matter how hard I tried to cover and wrap our belongings with tarps and plastic, by the time I managed to get it moved inside the van it was drenched; I cut holes and installed vents in the van to help things dry out (wishful thinking in a rain forest).

I knew if this crazy idea of living remote was going to work I needed to make our living conditions as nice as possible, and would buy the items to make living enjoyable. This wasn’t totally a Jay show; my wife and children were involved. I bought all these things for the tool shed/small cabin, the one we would soon be living in. A generator, inverter, batteries, wire, switches, outlets and A/C lights, along with all the other items needed to install electricity in the cabin. A 500-gallon water tank and a bunch of rain gutter supplies. A Monitor heater, associated plumbing parts and a 110-gallon heating oil tank. I installed insulation and a vapor barrier in the walls and ceiling. Valley lumber made me a good deal on a bunch of tongue and groove spruce 1-inch x 6-inch misfits and scraps I used to finish the inside of the cabin. Jack came out and helped me install some of the difficult bow shaped boards and installed the kitchen cabinets and counter tops that he gave us. I purchased a used $75 plastic outhouse (even came with graffiti already installed on the walls, no extra charge); it would be our main outside potty while we lived in the small cabin. I also bought a new port a potty to go inside the small cabin for the children and nighttime use.

We needed some type of indoor shower and a private place to put the port a potty in the second story of the tool shed/small cabin. I couldn’t believe it when Jack custom designed the perfect little private room between our sleeping and living areas. I plumbed in the kitchen sink, small shower and a six gallon hot water tank, but still hadn’t purchased the washer and dryer and I didn’t know where they would be installed.

Making safety for my family the number one priority, I ordered up a new 20-foot Hewescraft aluminum boat from Rocky’s Marine. For good luck I named her the Miss Eileen.It had a windshield and canvas-covered cabin to keep the wind, rain and snow off and could seat six people, carry a huge load of cargo and travel on step comfortably in rough water. This was a safe, comfortable boat to carry my family in. The weather would have to be really bad for me not to get them safely to Juneau.

Eileen didn’t want to take Jayleen out of school early so we planned moving out of the Mendenhaven house and to the island right after the end of the school year. Jayleen’s last day of kindergarten was around May 20th, 1999. Our little cabin wasn’t completed yet, but fortunately Eileen and I were partners with other members of my family on a cabin located on the east side of Shelter Island about one mile away from our property. Everyone agreed to let us live in the Shelter Bay Group Family cabin, until we finished ours.

Eileen and I raced around like dazed chickens with our heads cut off, working ourselves to near exhaustion. I filled our new 20-Hewescraft multiple times delivering loads of clothes, diapers, food, furniture, sleeping bags, water jugs and cookware along with all the other things needed to live. Eileen cleaned and packed up our Juneau house along with performing all the duties that come with being a loving mother. Jason, an extremely active two-year old, was a handful all by himself.

FINALLY, in May of 1999 with high hopes, I headed out of Auke Bay with Eileen, my unwavering supportive wife and young children Jayleen and Jason. I powered up the Miss Eileen and headed toward Shelter Island, toward a new life, a new beginning. My dream, my wish.

Was I being selfish?

Would I become the husband and father I dreamed of?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from South Shelter, by Jay Beedle and published by Island Images, 2014.