Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Building a Log Cabin 40 miles from the Nearest Road

(For specific details, on plumbing, solar and wind power, furnishings, and storage, see other articles on this site)

Building a home in a remote location without road access is a long, slow process with very careful planning.  You can't run to Home Depot when you lack a bolt or tool.  Fortunately, our only full time neighbors had constructed a few kit cabins and were willing to tackle a "real cabin" from spruce trees they could harvest on our property, as well as a small 8x10 dock and two sheds.  They did a great job, but the simple box structures took 2.5 years to finish!  

The first was an 8x12 plywood shed on the high point of the property. Its most important function was to hold the battery bank for the solar panels and wind turbine, that were installed the first winter by my husband and two nimble, brave people who climbed the 120 foot power tower they assembled in -10 degree weather.  This little shed also provided much needed storage for the ever increasing number of hand and gas powered tools we needed to accumulate for future projects.   During most winters, the snow on the roof eaves touched  the “ground” level and we have to dig down another five feet to open the door. 

Another initial outbuilding closer to the cabin is the outhouse/storage shed.  Our strong teen neighbor dug a 5x5x6 ft outhouse hole (which was awfully large just for the two of us, but he was a human steam shovel), over which was quickly built an uninsulated, unheated 8x12 building that serves as an outhouse in the front third (4x8) and a storage shed in the back (8x8) for items we needed close to the small cabin.  It contained dry goods, seasonal clothes and supplies, a propane refrigerator (that unreliable purchase and its low tech replacement "cold hole" form another story) and chest freezers, powered by solar/wind.  In a fit of pique to exert some control over something, somehow, I firmly announced the rather ridiculous demand of two stained glass windows for the outhouse, and I hired a friend to design them with Alaskan flowers.  


Embarking on this construction was a complicated logistical puzzle, since there is no road here.  By that I don't imply even a gravel path.  We fly 20 minutes over three rivers or snowmachine 3.5 hours to get to the nearest road.  So every tool that our neighbors did not have and every part we needed to buy, had to be scheduled for delivery by plane (small and light parts) or by snowmachine during an 8 week hauling season when the rivers were frozen hard enough to serve as an ice highway.

Glass windows, plywood, polystyrene insulation, trusses, 2x4s, log screws, roofing metal - all was triaged and delivered over two winters in the order the builders thought they would get to that stage of construction.  And during the summers, we hacked at alders, devil's club and downed spruce and birch to clear small spaces for these structures, disrupting millions of mosquitoes and thousands of wasps and bees in the process. One summer, we encountered a nice big, steaming pile of bear scat almost every morning near where we were working, just to let us know that he/she was watching us through the high grass.   It was hot, dirty, buggy work.  I, for one, was not a happy camper, although my husband was thoroughly enchanted by each day's exertions.      

Once my husband finished the power tower and determined that he would be able to work by Internet and phone from that location, construction on the cabin commenced.

We positioned the cabin exactly where the old homesteader had built his shed, on a little elevation about 50 ft from the lake’s edge.  Our 750 square foot home has two stories, with one room up and another down, subdivided into functional areas, but not rooms.  It is 16 x 24 feet, plus covered decks (10 x16) for all those days when the temperature is pleasant enough to be outside except for the multi-day light drizzles we get here.  The front of the cabin faces west, with views of the lake, two close mountains beyond and a more remote, higher mountain range to the north.   The front door is a sturdy 3 foot wide, 4 inch thick door outfitted with a cast iron bear bar that looks really impervious to intruders until you glance left to the 5 foot picture window next to it! (which we cover with bear shutters when we leave).  (Note: for human intruders, most hingers are on the inside of doors.  To deter bears, the hinges are on the outside, so they can't push a door in as easily). 

I’m not sure what people generally consider to be the differences between a cabin and a house, but this cabin has no bathrooms, no closets, no built in cabinetry and the only  "normal" appliance is a propane stove.  The cabin is built with round log walls which are about 12-16 inches thick, held together with long log screws.  This natural insulation is enhanced by polystyrene strips between the logs but no chinking.  The floor rests on four inches of insulation.  The rural version of a pier and beam foundation is 8 foot sonatubes filled with cement and sunk through the soil and into the permafrost layer. The first floor is one open rectangle divided into an entrance area (take off your boots and hang your jacket), a sitting corner with two loveseats around a 5x7 rug, an eating corner for 2-3 people, and a kitchen corner, next to a wood stove for heating and cooking during cold weather.   (see article about furnishing a small cabin, with photos)

For access upstairs, we concluded that we did not want to lose floor space with a normal house’s staircase, but neither did we want the steep ladder/stair of many small cabins. So Bryan commissioned a black metal circular staircase (placed in the middle of the building) from a tank welder in Anchorage! They were happy to build it from our design during a fallow period and it was hauled in by snow machine one winter and stowed under a spruce tree until the second floor was constructed, the following year. The second floor is divided by the stairwell into a sleeping area on one side and a dressing/sitting room on the other. Because the cabin features a steep roof (to shed snow easily) over 3 foot pony walls, there are no second floor windows on the sides and not much room to walk on either side of the bed. A sliding glass door leads to the upper porch at the west end, overlooking the lake and mountains.  A small, slider window on the north side, above the bed, supports cross ventilation.  It is a bit off center to accommodate the wood stove pipe outside.

The first year we started with a dry sink inside (which means a jug of water above, and a bucket below, because there is no plumbing). The following year, we dug a trench for a hose to deliver lake water, through filters,  to an interior sink (which drained into a perforated 55 gallon drum below the cabin).  What an improvement, at least in summer!  The year after that we added an on demand heater and more filters to render the lake water potable through a little side spigot.  Each year I felt as excited as three successive generations of women must have felt.  It was like time travel.   (see blog with title about "Life with and without Plumbing" and "How I Wash Anything without Running Water.").  (Update:  several years later, we dug a well and connected that to the sink).  

After the initial construction, we flew out skillful novice and professional builders for subsequent structures.  The third year, three guys flew out and built us an insulated shower/wash house (see article on plumbing) in less than four days.  Even now, after almost seven years, winter use hinges on a wish and a prayer but what a great asset for many months each year!  The first hot shower I enjoyed, after a  year of spit baths inside and camp showers outside was a fantastic luxury.  The spin cycle on the low water washing machine freed me from paddling small loads of laundry in a five-six gallon bucket and then trying to wring them dry by hand before hanging them outside to drip dry (a process I still do in winters). We don't and won't have a dryer because heat producing electrical equipment, like dryers, are the most power sucking of appliances.  But just having a washer that can spin dry fabric makes an enormous difference to my hands and cuts line drying time by a full day during the months when water is liquid.  Bliss.      

In recent years, we have hired another man to build three other structures for us:  a chicken coop and run, a roofed woodshed and work shop, and a combo greenhouse, rabbit hutch, snowmachine "garage" and fuel depot.  We designed each with him during the summer and then hauled out requisite materials by snow machine sled the following winter.  When in place, he commuted 3 hours by snowmachine to build each in February or March.  Bryan served as apprentice and thus has learned to tweak and finish buildings for our various needs. 

We bought the property in 2007.  Each year we have added or enhanced what we have so that we can live full time here.  I have enormous appreciation for the effort, planning, and skill that my husband and his construction crews have demonstrated to build simple, attractive, and functional structures in this remote location.    

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)


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