When some people look for an adventure or challenge, they go for a walk in the woods. Or do a puzzle with a bunch of small pieces. But Nick Blanco isn’t just some person. During his college days at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., Blanco scored a summer gig as a deckhand on a charter fishing boat in Alaska. Then he graduated, looked toward the future, and decided he wasn’t done with the adventure of the Alaskan wilds.
Blanco wasn’t making much money out of college, so he applied for an airline credit card that, upon approval, provided 25,000 miles. “I got those miles and bought a round-trip ticket to Anchorage for a teaching job fair,” said Blanco, 28, who grew up in south Minneapolis and graduated from Southwest High School. “Within about 15 minutes of being at the job fair, I had signed a contract to teach in Shishmaref (Alaska, which is a village just north of the Bering Strait). That was the craziest day of my life, but I was so excited to be moving up there.”
He taught math and science and coached in remote Shishmaref for three years, until 2015, and then pursued another dream. He took a year off from teaching, and bought land on Kodiak Island, hundreds of miles south, near Seward. He moved there, lived in a wall tent for nearly seven months, and set about collecting the pieces of massive driftwood and other materials he’d need to build what’s known now as the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge. Friends and family helped out as they could. Blanco envisions hosting hunters and fishermen there for parts of the year, as well as youth from Kodiak Island. The lodge currently has two 25-by-40 buildings with covered decks, and he’s beginning work on three smaller cabins where guests will stay. Blanco is hoping he’ll have made enough progress by this fall that he can start hosting paying guests.
“I love it there now, and spend every spare moment I have working on it,” he said. “Right now, I’m really looking forward to the summer [when school is out].”
Blanco, who teaches elementary school on Kodiak Island, is one of the subjects of the upcoming season of a show called “Building Alaska” on the DIY Network, which premiers Sunday and chronicles the construction of his wilderness outpost. Blanco shared his thoughts on the show and life in Alaska in a recent conversation. Here are edited excerpts:
On the lodge
When I was teaching in Shishmaref, I would work on the plan little by little. Lots of times I would watch YouTube videos or read books to learn how to do something. Then I would assemble a materials list. I had contacts in Kodiak, so I had some of the tools there prior to me coming down full time. Then after teaching, I stopped in Anchorage and assembled a truck and 22-foot flatbed trailer full of stuff. People were laughing at me as I went down the road.
On the driftwood, which he cut and milled
When I was on the charter boat guiding fishermen, I’d see driftwood on beaches. On certain beaches that were right next to the big water, the driftwood piles would be like two stories high. I just thought there was potential that nobody had thought of. To collect it, I have an 18-foot metal skiff. I’d drive my four-wheeler onto the skiff and then I’d land on the beach [which is about 8 miles from his land, around where the Shelikof Strait and Larsen Bay come together] at high tide. I’d assemble logs when I knew the weather was going to be good, and at low tide I’d bring all the logs as close to the water as I could. I’d raft them together, wait for the tide to come up and pull them off the beach and drag them home. If I was lucky, I could raft 16 big logs together. It would take one day to assemble all the logs and most of another day to drag them all home. There were a couple of times I would start assembling the logs because I thought the weather was OK, then I would get them all rafted together and the weather would turn and my raft of logs would get pulled apart like toothpicks in the waves. I would say I gathered 25 massive, old-growth logs and maybe 75 regular-sized logs.
On life in Alaska
It’s been great for me. You’re forced to think a little bit before you do anything. There’s always an element of danger, and it’s harder to get help if you need it. You can’t just call AAA. Because of the nature of the risk involved with whatever you’re doing, you have to plan ahead.
On his plans for the future
The five-year plan is definitely to be up here full time. I love Minnesota, though, and I’d like to have a family someday. I don’t know if that’s going to happen living in the village. It’s pretty rough that way. So unless that happens, I’ll probably be forced to leave because I do want to have a family. But every summer I’ll be up here.
Joe Albert is a writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.