If you’ve got even an ounce of adventure in your bones, you’ve probably dreamt of dropping everything and surviving in the wilderness. That’s exactly what Nick Blanco, 27, did after graduating St. John’s University and beginning his career as a teacher. The Alaskan adventurer took a year off of teaching to live in a canvas tent with hardly anything besides a cell phone and an ATV. Now, the remote Alaskan wilderness is his backyard.
Blanco’s building the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge (built entirely of salvaged driftwood he has collected), an outpost in Larsen Bay on Alaska's southern edge, so he can share his wild homestead with the rest of the world. His adventure is being documented on the DIY Network show Building Alaska, which kicked off on Sunday. We caught up with Blanco during some of his downtime to talk about Building Alaska and what it takes to forge your own way in the Last Frontier.
Alaska is not a place for the faint-hearted. It’s rugged, it’s big, it’s the last frontier. What drew you to such a harsh place and why did you choose to start your first building project there?
I grew up in Minnesota, but Alaska is the only place that brings endless bounty and exploring. It’s the only place where I get a natural high from the challenge of just being there. Every time she dishes it out, all I want is more.
One challenge that I feed off of that would break most people is log hunting for building. Log hunting is a culmination of everything I am as an outdoorsman — it takes me to beautiful places but not without a price. It can get scary. I’m out there gathering logs in the Shelikof Strait, a body of water that has sank countless ships, in a boat that’s built for a lake. There have been times when I would get a raft of 20 or so logs put together, which would take hours, and the weather would come up and smash it to pieces. I would have to start all over and then get to the scariest part of it all: the high seas. When the wind is going against the tide it gets nasty quickly.
Where did the inspiration for building the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge spring from?
I take people fishing for halibut and salmon in the Shelikof, which runs between Kodiak and the mainland. There was a ton of driftwood just sun-dried and beautiful just sitting there in these huge piles. I saw that it was an opportunity to buy some affordable land and make something out of what’s already here.
So why build a lodge instead of a home for yourself?
The motivation for the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge is being able to have a lifestyle that I really, truly enjoy and running a place where I can have people join in on learning about this land. I genuinely like teaching people to enjoy a place like this. I understand that if you appreciate the outdoors, that’s great, generally speaking, but to truly enjoy and access it, you’ve got to have local knowledge. A lot of a guide’s work is about local knowledge, and I know this land. Building a lodge is the core of using the knowledge I have here to help other people experience this place, whether we’re looking at bears, catching salmon, or running a camp for kids.
Were there any moments during filming of the show and the building process where you were tempted to quit?
While building, I was living in a tent in the middle of the Alaskan winter. And you can bet that, during the wintertime, I was not always motivated to get out there and get to building. That’s where filming actually was a blessing. When I agreed to do the show, I accepted the fact that I had a schedule. In the end, the pressure of filming was really positive and helped me light the fire under my own butt to meet the building deadlines.
Other than that, collecting the driftwood was a big job that tested me. I had to drag the wood eight miles against the tide back to the mainland, and I had to do it in a pretty small boat considering the job. I was only able to move 15 or 16 logs at a time. The process was pretty tedious. I’d camp out on the beach overnight and spend the morning dragging logs to the beach and then spend another six or eight hours rafting them together at low tide. Then I would have to float them to the mainland when high tide came back in. Every time I collected driftwood, it would take days. Once, I was stuck out on the beach for five nights straight because the weather was so bad I couldn’t cross the Strait. I worked hard for that driftwood.
What did filming Building Alaska teach you about building?
First and foremost, it taught me that it’s important to learn by doing. I know there are benefits to planning and practice, but I’m not a professional builder. I had some experience with construction, but according to some people, I didn’t have enough experience to go off and build a structure this big in such an unconventional way. But I didn’t listen because I knew I could do it... You have to be disciplined enough to make the sacrifices it will take, positive enough to know that they are going to pay off, and faithful enough to have patience in the sacrifices before the payoff happens.
When is the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge going to be finished and open for business?
We will be open for business this fall. It would open a lot sooner if I wasn’t teaching school right now, but I have the entire summer to work on it and get it ready. I plan to be fully open and operating charter fishing expeditions by summer 2018.
You can see Nick’s work on the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge come to life on the DIY Network on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST. Check out the lodge and make reservations on the Driftwood Wilderness Lodge website or Facebook page.