Downsizing for adventure

by • October 31, 2016 • Feature, Feature Photos, HighlightsComments (0)1041


Vicki and Willie Salmon of Fairbanks discovered the freedom of living smaller when the 12-foot-by-16-foot tool shed they build became their temporary, and then permanent, home. Courtesy Vicky Salmon.

How two Alaska couples pared down to live it up in the Last Frontier

In the home of sourdough men and pristine landscape still untouched by many, lies small cabins and wood burning stoves filled with adventure seekers waiting to go play outside. This may have been the case 80 or 90 years ago in the last frontier, but today many still follow the ultimate Alaska dream.

It is unknown how many people have switched to live in small cabins from homes the traditional house size of 2,600 square feet in the state. But for Kathy and Pat Irwin, going from a large 3,600 square foot home in Anchorage to a 800 square foot cabin in Homer was worth it.

“We absolutely don’t want to go back to a bigger house,” says Burt.

The couple have lived in their ocean-view cabin for eight years. The location allows Kathy to paddleboard on warm days and ride her bike to the grocery store.

“We downsized our car the same time. We don’t drive as much,” she mentions. They noticed in the past few years that moving their whole life from the busy city of Anchorage to the more serene hippie town of Homer has simplified their life in many ways. “What we found was in Anchorage we were working pretty hard. It was more of a rat race. Everything was more expensive, much less time… [In Homer] You have more time for life, Period.”


Downsizing from a 3,600 square-foot home to an 800-square-foot beach-view cottage allows Pat and Kathy Irwin to spend more time outside and less maintaining their home. Photo by Kensey Finnegan.

Before Kathy and Pat settled down into their bungalow, they were afraid to make the jump to downsize. It all began when they were looking for a new home.

They found the home through a real estate agent, he notified the couple about the home.

“We couldn’t get it out of our head,” Says Kathy. But one thing was also on the back of there mind – the size.

“How the hell are we going to downsize to this?” Pat thought when it hit him that they were officially moving into the small home.

But they did downsize. Getting rid of ⅘ of their clothes and their now non-existent dining room. However, the challenge wasn’t downsizing their closet, but their large outdoor equipment. Not only did they downsize the amount of bikes and other equipment they owned, they built a couple of sheds to help with space in their home.

After eight years in their home, the couple still is constantly downsizing.

“I will always have a bag in the back for Salvation Army once a month. Are you using this? No or yes don’t get it.” Kathy says.

When contemplating if she should buy a certain product she says, “It’s a freeing feeling.”

With the smallest house out of all of their friends, it still doesn’t stop this couple from entertaining. They recalled a night when they hosted and slept nine people at their home.

Additionally, with a home that doesn’t have a dining room, they have to improvise by taking their entertainment outside.


The small loft of the Irwin’s cozy home holds the master bedroom which overlooks Kachemak Bay. The only shower in the home is also located in the loft, which makes for planning ahead when relatives are in town. Photo by Kensey Finnegan.

The Irwins built a temporary wall to block the cold wind coming in from the ocean by their outside living space. They also bought many chairs for friends and family to come visit and enjoy their breathtaking view of the ocean.

“I’m outside more. Even for my morning coffee, I’ll just go outside.” Says Pat.

There is a downside to living small. Since their house is tiny, they tend to stay away from sleeping outside.

“It’s hard to motivate yourself to go camping,” Kathy laughed. They both feel like they are always camping when in the house, which may be a problem for people who tend to avoid the outdoors. “I think to have a small house, you gotta be outdoorsy… We love it because we are out all the time.”

After years of inhabiting this small home, they said they’ve learned how to live smarter and find the simplicity of life.

“We live more smart,” says Kathy. “ I spend way less time cleaning the house, less utility bills.” This has allowed her to work less, but still enough to get by with a successful small business.

Pat on the other hand, has accepted the simplistic lifestyle with open arms.


This natural gas powered fire place is the sole heater, warming up the Irwin’s house during the winter time. Photo by Kensey Finnegan.

“Downsizing was the best thing I ever did. It did just simplify everything. I’m never wanting anything – It’s just here.”

“Just do it.” He said about people who are finicky about making the switch to go smaller.

Farther up north in Fairbanks, Alaska is Vicki Salmon and her husband, Willie Salmon. They started their journey to smaller living by accident. After trying to build there dream home, they came across harsh weather that delayed the process.

“We didn’t intend to do it.” Says Vicki. They now live in a 12x 16 cabin – which was intended to be a tool shed. The couple have spent a few years trying to make the small space feel like a home.

“The plan was not to live in it forever. But we ended up, we just made due with the tiny house.”

“When we were trying to make the tiny house livable, we came up with Jay Shafer, he built a 90 square feet… We then began to take interest in the tiny home. I had ways to make it work and build a tiny home.”

In six years, they built two homes in different locations and are in the works of building another home in Homer. They have used their extra cash that they have been saving up from living tiny to invest in building other properties around the state of Alaska.


The living space of the Irwin’s. Every nook and cranny has been utilized for storing items. Photo by Kensey Finnegan.

According to Vicki, her story would probably not have happened in the city of Anchorage.
“[They have] more stringent codes, we started with an outhouse and no running water. But the rest of Alaska welcomes this kind of project,” She mentioned. Even downsizing was easier for the Salmon’s as they decided to start from scratch. “We started at ground zero. So we didn’t need to get rid of anything. We decided not to bring anything over from the previous house.”

Vicki and Willie have both noticed that they have more time to go outside and play.

“Having the tiny house, we were seen outside all the time. We used the tiny house to store basic things so we can do more things out on our land,” says Vicki.

Since they spend a lot of time outdoors fishing, hunting and gardening, they have spent hours making their property fitting the needs of their lifestyle.

“Right out the bat, we made a big outdoors cooking area. Game and fish is very traditional for his background,” said Vicki. “We’re very much outdoors, so we never feel cramped.”

The challenges that Vicki sees in going tiny is always having to keep it neat and clean. She mentioned that it was nothing negative compared to the best reason to go smaller.

“I was always happy because we paid for with it in cash, we owned. We can actually spend our money on other things instead of a mortgage.”

Both couples seem very content with the decision of downsizing for their adventurous lives. As they have embark on the new chapter in their life, they see opportunities to become debt-free and spend more time outside.

For many in the lower 48, the popularity around the tiny house movement has exploded. But for the state of Alaska, living small in cabins has become a tradition in our culture that many still follow for a more simple and adventurous life.

– Kensey Finnegan

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