Of the hundreds of photos I’ve pawed through in the past few weeks, the one above stands out as a favorite. (Sorry, Alaskans, for the misspelling of Teklanika, but that’s part of the charm.) I can positively identify only three of the guys in this picture, but I believe I understand what every one of them is feeling, which is some combination of misery and relief. They had just arrived at the land after a long hike over the ridge and across the wide tundra valley. I know several of them were not at all prepared for what that would be like. (Birch, on the far right, was certainly prepared. He could handle that hike better and faster than anyone; this time he probably felt like he carried the whole crew on his back.) The cabin hike may be the hardest physical thing I ever do — and I wish I had been there with them anyway.
The cabin was built over several years and many visits to the land, with lots of help. I posted Part 1 of Stewart’s cabin building story last week. Here’s Part 2, which beautifully offers us a slice of his early experience. The photos below are an assortment of images from different cabin building trips, to give you an idea of how it all came together. Again, you can click on any image to open up a larger slideshow.
Question: How did Stewart build the cabin? (Part 2)
The cache was complete and we were busy working on the cabin. After some discussion, we’d chosen a building site on the upper part of the property with a broad view to the south and west. One window would look directly into the river gorge; another opened toward the western sunset. We arrived on the land in early August. Birch and his teenage son Tam were with me and we were excited about making progress on the cabin walls — now waist high. But very quickly we’d used up the available logs and realized our unavoidable job was now to cut and prepare new trees for a year’s rest, during which they would dry and ready themselves to become solid members of the shelter that was slowly taking shape.
We’d long ago reached a compromise on the chainsaw, realizing it was a necessary piece of equipment if we wanted to finish the building in our lifetime. The task of log cabin building was deliberate, requiring patience, foresight, and tremendous stamina. It’s not a work of immediately visible rewards; rather it’s a long process of preparing and putting into place pieces of a vision that will manifest much later. The time had stretched us all to our limits of endurance — we’d cut, limbed, and peeled over forty new logs — and the cold and damp weather had not made it easier. At first I was extremely protective of my well-being, careful to make sure I had a dry change of clothes and times of rest and relaxation. But I noticed that floating beneath my self-care was a kind of withholding from the elements, a background fear that prevented me from fully enjoying this opportunity that so few people get to live out. It had been my cherished fantasy to build a cabin in this wild and remote place, and now I was doing it — but why was I holding myself back from totally experiencing it?
Birch inspired me by his tremendous fortitude, plunging into the drizzling forest each morning in search of new trees. I would rather have hung out by the warm fire drinking my cup of tea, but I guiltily slid into my still damp clothes and followed him into the bleakness. Once a straight tree was found, one without a “wow” — Birch’s term for a strange jog to the left or right in its growth pattern — it was felled by chainsaw, hopefully into a clearing where we could begin to work on it unencumbered by thick brush. The easy part, wandering through the woods exploring for trees, was over. Now we set ourselves to work with axes to lob off all the branches close to the main trunk so that no knobs remained that could catch our drawknives. Once this limbing was done the long task of peeling off the bark would begin. This requires getting on your knees next to the log in the wet undergrowth, or stooping over the tree and forcefully pulling the drawknife toward you again and again, stripping off the bark as you go. The drawknife is simply a blade with handles on either end, with just the right angle to slip between the bark and the main trunk of the tree. The peeling was a process that could easily take four or five hours on a given tree. It was an immense effort each time I kneeled to that seemingly endless task, and my back screamed out as the days and weeks rolled by.
Over time my resistance wore down by the sheer scope of the work. There was no question of not doing it — this was my heart’s desire, although I had to keep reminding myself of that fact. Slowly my longing to rest and stay warm diminished, and I began to feel more at home in the late summer’s wet chill. Small signs of animal life and changing colors in the forest caught my attention. I even noticed my own elation as I went to the woods in the morning. The beauty around me — and my participation in it — was beginning to penetrate the protective armor of a psyche made fearful by the buffering effects of civilized living. I became at home in the elements, and reveled more and more in the freedom from concern about physical comfort. I welcomed the storms, the wind, and the dampness as well as the sun, the woodstove, and tent. It all became natural to me, my own nature was finally trusting itself in wild nature as log by log my sanctuary in the woods was finally taking shape.