It's lovely at the top

Nature meets nurture in Michael Carbajal's northern mountain haven

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Arctic Edge Photography

Some people are lucky enough to leave home once a year and travel to a ski resort, or a wilderness lodge, or a spa. Michael Carbajal goes home to all three. Every day.

Home builders
Steve and Stan Dufseth, Dufseth Construction
Detailed painting and texture work
Larry Cantil, Cantil Painting
Custom woodwork, window trims, bathroom vanity
Stan Dufseth, Dufseth Construction
Custom kitchen cabinets
Bob Boswood
Tuscan oven stone work
Dan Givins, Stone Castle Masonry
Tile work
Claudio Gomez, The Tile Guy
Windows, gutters and glass blockwork
ABC Inc.
Stained glass windows
Sherry Leighton

"I get off the ski-lift and ski right home," says Michael. "I'm so lucky to have a 'top of the world' place."

Located atop Mt. Aurora in the Skiland area, just 20 miles from Fairbanks, Michael's new home is an intimate and luxurious oasis. Remote and rustic, the house celebrates the forbidding splendor of the mountain and tames it with creature comforts, warmth, and above all, style.

Spoiled by spectacular scenery

If you're familiar with Todd Salat's extraordinary aurora photography, then you've seen the setting of Michael's home. A tiny cabin that once sat on the property graces the cover of "Alaska's Spectacular Aurora." And to see the spot, says Michael, is to love it.

"I've been skiing at Mt. Aurora Skiland since 1980, and I had been eyeballing this little cabin for years." Finally, a client got him in touch with the owner who, to Michael's surprise, accepted his offer. He bought it with his friend Pat Feree, and together with Pat's brother George, they built the guesthouse. Michael used the guesthouse as a bedroom, and the original cabin as the kitchen and a place to hang out.

Before long, Michael started spending all of his time in the cabin. "I just couldn't go back to town." That's when he decided to build his house. Sadly, Pat died of cancer before the work began. But the cabin he bought with Michael still stands. It was meticulously moved to Fox, Alaska where a local miner lives in it with his family. "It's sentimental," says Michael. "Instead of tearing down the cabin, it still stands and it's still lived in."

A small house with big ideas

While the surrounding landscape is boundless and sprawling, the retreat Michael has carved out for himself is invitingly cozy. At only 1,250 square feet, the house is very much a custom fit for the owner. "It's perfect for one or two people," he says. "It's a neat little house made big."

The open floor plan combining the living room, dining room, and kitchen conveys the feeling of space and fluidity and belies the relatively modest footprint of the one-bedroom house. And the windows – all 52 of them – invite the outdoors in – the mountains, valley, sky and northern lights.

The builders, Norwegian brothers Stan and Steve Dufseth, experts in cold-weather building, are carrying on a family tradition. Their father built homes in Fairbanks for 50 years before his sons took over the business.

"The house is so well-built," says Michael. "They really built it for the weather." The home boasts eight-inch walls and on top of the normal foot of insulation in the ceiling, they installed an additional foot of fiberglass. The 52 windows are all triple-paned and top-of-the line so while you can look at the chilly outdoors, you don't feel any of it, says Michael.

Michael's design philosophy embraces the outdoors – it doesn't barricade against it. "I try to bring the outside in. You don't have to live in a cave."

Nothing like the sun

Fairbanks is known for frigid beauty and icy elegance, and Michael has balanced the home's interior with a decidedly toasty, sun-baked look. "It has a very New Mexico feel," he says. Beautiful tile work in the bathroom, multiple shades of eucalyptus for the flooring, antiques and rustic accents all evoke a southwestern ambience.

A stained-glass window invites the sun in and captures light and color even in the least-promising winter months. "It puts color all across the whole kitchen," he says.

Michael's sense of color really creates the warm and inviting ambience that counters the chill outside. "I chose desert colors," says Michael, noting that, counter-intuitively, warm southwestern tones also evoke an Alaskan winter. The vivid pastels are the shades that descend upon the mountains during the long sunsets of winter. "Alpenglow colors," he says. "Machetanz colors."

Home is where the hearth is

At the heart of the home is a rustic Tuscan oven that generates both literal and figurative warmth. "I've always wanted one," says Michael, "I learned about them years ago when I was in Europe as a musician." He designed his own that goes through the wall and into his bedroom, "so it heats up the whole house."

Beautiful and practical, it is the perfect centerpiece for a house that's made for entertaining. Michael hand-selected each river rock. "I had to go to Healy to collect it," he recalls, and now, he says, each stone has a memory.

Michael does more than admire the masonry of his oven, however. A one-time professional chef, he makes homemade breads, pizzas and slow-cooking roasts.

And the oven provides a secondary luxury. Michael hangs his apres-ski clothes on railroad spikes set into the rock on the bedroom side of the oven. Warm home, warm bread, and warm clothes.

The great outdoors and a great outhouse

If the interior is warm and inviting during the deepest days of winter, then the outside of the house beckons year-round. Michael has plans to complete a 60-foot-deck which will be "an incredible viewing area," he says.

The separate sauna has three 4' by 8' windows and, in the winter, guests can watch the Northern Lights dance across the sky. Afterwards, the bench area of the sauna comes apart and converts to a king-sized bed for overnight guests. A changing area holds robes, towels and sandals for all the guests. "It's like a spa," he says.

And the luxury doesn't end there. An outhouse is promoted from its lowly status and given the star treatment. Two stained-glass windows, two regular windows, two infra-red lights, tongue and groove cedar, a heat-timer switch, and music piped in from the main sound system all combine to give indoor plumbing a bad name.

Giving credit where credit is due

Designing the home was obviously a labor of love. But Michael is becomingly modest about the extraordinary end results. "I attribute it to Mother Nature," he says. "I took advantage of what was already there." On that principle the property abounds with benches, sitting nooks and little pathways. But he can't take credit, he says, for "the little ferns and flowers, the 30-foot-boulders, the blueberries and cranberries in the yard."

Perhaps you can't improve on the artistry of Mother Nature. But you can build a beautiful place in which to celebrate her.