We carefully rolled the big spruce log with our peaveys, and it settled into place with a thunk, fitting almost perfectly over the log beneath it. A little fine tuning with axe and chisel and it should fit even better. After six or seven courses, we were finally getting pretty good at scribing and fitting logs for our cabin.
The dream began when my grandfather gave my brother Todd and me (then boys of nine or ten) little wood-handled hatchets for Christmas. We were instructed on their safe and proper use and shown some places where we could cut some brush. It wasn’t long, however, before we were in the “deep” woods, eagerly taking turns chopping at the biggest, tallest fir we could find in hopes of building our own log cabin. I can remember chopping all around the tree like a beaver would do, which gave us no control over the direction of fall (tree felling hadn’t been covered in the hatchet safety course). After what seemed like a very long time chopping, and with the tree finally on the ground and limbed, we soon learned just how much work it would be for small boys to drag logs that big to our proposed cabin site. The project was abruptly abandoned.
Later, as adults, we read over and over again One Man’s Wilderness, a book by Sam Keith based on the journals of Richard Proenneke. Richard had quit his job, built a log cabin on the shore of an Alaskan lake, and lived there for thirty years. His photos and the PBS documentary about him, called Alone in the Wilderness, were inspiring.
In the late fall of 2011, it was suggested, rather strongly, that I wasn’t ready to be grown up. My brother had also recently reverted back to bachelorhood, and we decided it was as good a time as any to revisit our boyhood dream of building a cabin. We picked a site on our grandfather’s woodlot and got to work. We had some building experience and were skilled with chainsaws, but we had never done any log scribing. After watching several YouTube videos on the subject, we felt we were ready to try it. Like Proenneke, I kept a journal and took photos of our progress.
January 1, 2012: Went up to the woodlot to cut and peel some cabin logs. Built a nice fire and cooked lunch. Felt good to work with my hands in the fresh air.
February 24, 2012: Cut and peeled some more cabin logs. Finished seven today. Felt good to be working in the woods. We’ve been working on logs every weekend this warmest and least snowy winter I have ever known. Logs peeling pretty hard.
March 12, 2012: Warm and sunny today. Rick Alger brought his horses, Emma and Ruby, up to our cabin site to twitch our logs. We stacked the logs up off the ground to dry. Sixty plus logs cut and peeled this winter – should be just about right.
September 30, 2012: I took a week off from work and spent the last nine days working on the cabin. Beautiful fall colors, crisp nights, hard work, and satisfying progress. Scribing logs and cutting them to fit is challenging, but we’re getting the hang of it. Many visitors and a few helpers during the week.
November 5, 2012: Worked on cabin this weekend and made bean hole beans. Brought a sample up to Grandpa – he approved. Snowed pretty steady on Sunday, but didn’t accumulate much. Cabin building helpers have really tailed off!
November 10, 2012: Beautiful, clear, breezy, with a little snow on the ground. Leavitt Stream is babbling, the fire crackling, and the wind sighing in the trees. All was calm and peaceful until we fired up the saws! Seven logs high now.
November 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day: Eight logs high. Very satisfying work. I dropped a log on Todd’s chainsaw. Saw damaged pretty bad.
February 3, 2013: Finished fitting purlin logs and rafters on cabin. One of the 20-foot purlin logs, weighing probably 400 pounds, rolled off the gable ends. A close call but nobody was hurt. A big step and now we’re ready for the roof.
February 23, 2013: Finished boarding up the roof. We worked by headlamps until 8:00 p.m. and tarped it off. Snowing heavily by the time we finished. Will plan on shingling next weekend, weather permitting. Dandeneau family and friends helped carry the shingles up to the site and joined us for lunch around the fire today. Also, Mom and Dad, Aaron, Simon, and a multitude of dogs.
March 10, 2013: Finished roofing, flooring, and installed the little wood stove. We lit a test fire to see how she would draw. All went well. It’s still cold, but the woods road is getting soft in the strong afternoon sun.
March 16, 2013: Made and installed door and put in windows. We stayed overnight for the first time and slept on the floor. A very cold night, near 0 degrees, and it probably wasn’t much warmer on the floor!
March 23, 2013: Finished building bunk beds and stayed over again. A much warmer night. We removed our tools and left over building supplies as it may be the last weekend we’ll be able to drive close to the site.
April 19, 2013: First warm day of the spring – near 70º. Walked into cabin tonight with Todd and Bodie the dog. We began our walk just at dusk and the air was alive with woodcocks. Must have been 7-8 different males peenting, whistling, and diving. The sky was heavy with dark, slategray clouds and it was windy. Heard one lone peeper in the distance with a plaintive and half-hearted attempt at song. Rain and wind during the night and the sound of the rushing brook coming in through the open windows. Awoke to cold, clear air from the northwest and a pair of dueling winter wrens singing right outside the cabin. I stepped outside, looked at our little cabin and in the words of Dick Proenneke, “enjoyed thinking about what I had done to make reality out of a dream.”
As Don Enman strode through the silent winter woods on snowshoes, he carefully surveyed his surroundings. It was the winter of 1960 and he was 39 years old. Alongside him was Dr. McVetty, a popular local family practitioner and the current owner of the woodlot they were cruising. McVetty was thinking of selling and knew that Don had been looking to buy some timberland. Don operated a dairy farm a couple of miles away and had purchased a 100-acre woodlot near the home farm some years earlier, in hopes of supplementing farm income with timber cutting during the winter. He found he really enjoyed the woods work and the idea of owning another woodlot excited him.
The property they were looking at had been heavily cut over in the late ’50s and was now mostly saplings and poles. This would be a long-term investment, for sure. Although it took some imagination, Don really liked what he saw. It appeared to be a lot with good growth potential; there was a beautiful stream winding its way through the center, a beaver pond, and a side hill that showed potential for a good hardwood stand and maybe even a sugarbush. Before he left to snowshoe two miles back to the main road, he had already made up his mind.
Fifty-three years later, I am grateful to Don – my grandfather – for his foresight. Since that winter day in 1960, over 1,700 cords of sawlogs, pulpwood, and firewood have been harvested off the site. Almost without exception, the trees that we selected and cut for the cabin were 50-55 years old, just seedlings when he first set foot on the property. There remains a beautiful stand of trees, of mixed species and varying age classes. There are patches of pure spruce and fir, a couple of hardwood ridges, some enormous white spruces and towering white pines, a small cedar bog, beaver ponds, and the little stream still flows peacefully along.
Grandpa was still harvesting timber in his early 80s. As I write this, I’m thinking of him getting ready to go to the woods. The blue Ford tractor, outfitted with tire chains, winch, chainsaw, and tools, would be idling in the driveway warming up on a below-zero morning. He’d leave the house, lunch in hand, climb up into the open cab, and drive away from the farm bundled up against the cold. It was obvious how excited he was.
Grandpa, now 92 years old, was very much interested in the cabin building project. He expressed genuine regret that he wasn’t able to work alongside us, sawing, drilling, and handling logs. We surely would have been happy to make use of his woodsman skills and chainsaw expertise. He did visit the site on several occasions while we were working, joined us for lunch a couple times around the fire, and on one beautiful, clear fall day when the leaves were at their brightest color, enjoyed a ride up with Rick Alger on a cart pulled by two horses. While he can no longer work in the woods himself, I am certain that he’s happy and proud to see his grandsons carrying on where he left off.
Ross Caron lives in northern New Hampshire and works as a procurement forester. He enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, reading, working with wood, and managing his family’s woodlots.