Posted by: Juniper Road | August 11, 2012

Our Cabin in the Mountains

We’ve been on the road for however long we’ve been on the road, and Montana has been the state that has captivated out attention the longest. There is no doubt in the minds of people who know me that I love mountains, and was a young follower of the television series Grizzly Adams. The terrain in southwest Montana, which is primarily where where our time was spent, has the type of country that can keep you occupied for many years. Things to do and places to see are abundant, all with distant calendar-worthy views.

Before leaving this state, I had a chance to build a log cabin. It was in a perfect setting- in the mountains, approximately 7000ft elevation keeping nights cool in the heat of summer, next to a fish-laden stream, and within hiking distance to alpine lakes. It’s been my dream to do this for a very long time.

The Jeremiah Johnson film with Robert Redford has a pretty accurate
glimpse of what went into log cabin raising for early pioneers. My cabin included all the basic principles of this construction using Juniper’s help and a few needed shortcuts. I must admit I admired the craftsmanship of all the old structures we found in the woods during our PIT Project survey not so long ago. It was clear that different methods of “notching” resulted in different longevity for the dwellings. Saddle “notching” is the fastest and easiest, where “dove-tail” is the most artful and the strongest of designs. Mine would definitely have to be the best on the premise it’s not worth doing if it’s easy.

I began with hanging the American flag. This seems fitting as I was realizing a lifelong dream, and I always admire construction sites with Old Glory flying far above the workers on some slowly moving crane. I then set out to find the proper logs. The straighter the better. Location of your cabin is possibly the initial work, but without good materials the fruit of your labor is wasted. I chose logs that were straight, had good color, and a good type of character that was to my liking. No doubt I couldn’t get ones that Juniper and I couldn’t carry, and I couldn’t find a supply too far from my worksite. I estimate 2-3 hours were dedicated to rounding up a log supply that would be enough for four walls and a roof.

Once I had the bulk of my materials back at base camp and began to process my cabin logs, I quickly realized that “dove-tail” construction was out of the picture. With my limited knowledge, I discovered to make the proper V-Notches for dove-tail you need to have a square log. This requires a great deal of labor and additional time. Hand “hewn” logs are beautiful and ramp your dwelling up from shelter status to castle, but super time consuming is this process. Since the first snowfall in this region could be as early as September (and possible any month of the year ) I decided to execute a “modified-V” notch compromising a blend of time and strength.

It must be stated that I used only logs that were already dead. I was already building a (semi) permanent structure on Federal Land without permission, and I had no desire to stack charges… only logs.

In my mind twenty-four equal sized logs were needed for the walls, with additional logs required for the roof including the overhang portion. Surely part of my dream to build a log cabin also includes sitting outside the front door on the porch during inclement weather, and sheltered by something made of my own hands. I worked hard that first day, so hard my back was stuck in a cycling position. Frontier life was hard. Period. Life expectancy was something life forty-five years old… If the Indians didn’t get ya.

After gathering materials, sizing their length, and conducting a quick form of hewing to remove any branches or branch nubs resulting in a smooth-ish product, I then began my foundation. Once again, my limited experience with cabin building recognizes the importance of a good foundation. Cabins built on the ground have a drastically shortened life expectancy of a few winters due to rotting of logs in contact with the ground. They maybe last a decade or two. Cabins placed on a stone foundation can weather a hundred years of wind, rain, and snow. Lucky for me there was a decent supply of rock right in camp. Moving the rock into a solid foundation was the easy part, fighting off the ant colony that occupied some of the rocks required a few trips to the the creek where I was relieved of the crawlies in knee deep water.

A lot up to this point was what I would consider prep work. I was now ready to begin the artful sculpting of my logs that would go together like a puzzle
and create that familiar looking refuge in the woods. The tools I had to use were not unlike the tools our ancestors used. I had a saw, hatchet, and file. The saw was first deployed for length defining purposes, the hatchet for hewing, and the file for any detailed work or making reference point marks. Now that the real work was beginning, all three tools were to be used multiple times on every single logs. Just thinking about this makes my back want to curve forward in a cycling position in memory of my project.

The biggest logs go on the bottom. This makes perfect sense. It’s funny, I haven’t had any training, no books to guide me, and no supervision to carry me along. Only years of looking at cabins, and a past few days of seeing them off trail in the mountains after years of disrepair is what I was going on for blueprints. It was taking shape! Working with a sense of diligence I put up tarps to shade me from the afternoon sun so I could make the most out of daylight. Either heat or horseflies was nature telling me to take a break to drink water and eat something. I had a fever. Cabin building fever. The only way to cure cabin building fever, is to build more cabin.

About day number three, I was looking at walls to a beautiful little cabin. My modified V-notch was looking pretty sharp too. The end of each log has a “Saddle-Notch” on one side, and a “V-Notch” on the other. Individually the logs could be wiggled, but the rows of logs soon gain strength and stability from other rows of logs placed on top. United they stand, divided the fall is very cliche as well as appropriate. A somewhat heavy roof I could see would keep everything together.

The roof I would have to take some time to consider. My first inclination would be wooden shingles, but there was that labor intensive time thing to consider once again. I made a few variations of hand-made shingles, but my untrained designs failed to give me confidence in their ability to withstand the weather. A roof made of sod would be classic. I again had the future discovery of my dwelling and potential disturbing and destruction of local flora and/or fauna weighing heavy on my mind, and decided to skip the classic roof design and preserve local vegetation. Yes, with rafters and support beams in place I would have my roof made of flat-rock. I know not the classification of stone that I used, but it was fractured in flat palm sized pieces, I found a

supply from a nearby cliff area that was weathering a big pile for my use. I needed a few bags worth to cover my roof, which required crossing the freezing cold creek thigh deep a few times, and the selection process for a rock shingled roof was just as important as finding the right logs that began my project. No too fat, not too skinny, but just right. It’s the type of roof structure that will withstand the test of time if done right. A stone shingled roof can regulate temperature in the summer, withstand a pounding from the elements, and be virtually maintenance free if they remain in place. I hoped I was doing it right, and only time will tell.

Foundation, walls, roof, and I was almost finished. No house warming party yet, the nights in summer were getting down into the lower 40’s and believe it or not, upper 30’s. A fireplace and chimney were nearly the last order of business. As silly as it sounds, this was knocked out in the shortest amount of time. River rock is the most beautiful stone to use beyond comparison. Its soft rounded edges and flat colors make most anything it’s used for a work of art. Exercising the ancient concept of mortar-less construction, our chimney

was completed in less than 45 minutes. (I would officially call this a Polish chimney. ) But not so fast! A fireplace doesn’t do any good without fuel, and frontier life was all about chopping wood. Lucky for me, I love chopping wood. In no time I had a stack of fresh chopped wood leaning against my freshly built cabin… in the dream setting of Southwest Montana.

Nobody in, nobody out! Windows and a door are a lot of work and I skipped that part. I also skipped “chinking” and/or “daubing” the gaps between the logs so despite a fire in the place, wind will still blow right through the walls. I could’ve continued making modifications and improvements, but my time was up and other obligations were at hand. Although our cats would’ve simply been overjoyed to have a living room log cabin, I left it behind. In this case, it was definitely more about the process than the end result. Clearly by now the scale of my cabin has been realized, but I’m confident the process and details are the same for a full size project. As things get bigger, the time invested grows too. I estimate that my four day log cabin in real life, working with a purpose and combined with other chores of living, would take four months.

As we prepared to leave the state of Montana, I felt proud to have accomplished my log cabin building. I witnessed many folks from our N.F. charcoal kilns volunteer project taking pictures of it which made me gush. My scale replica was equally an engineering feat as well as pure sculpture. I offered everyone a chance to take it home with them, but despite its smallness, who has extra room in their car for a log cabin? Really?

A final note about my Montana experience is the fishing scene. Apparently my fishing license afforded me the opportunity to confirm where the fish were not. I invested many hours from the beginning of June through the beginning of August at several lakes and rivers with no play or game at all. Even our base camp the last ten days was right next to a creek I considered too small to even give the effort. Until Juniper Jelly and I bumped into this fella with a pouch full of brook trout. He was up to seventeen and indicated a daily limit on these guys was around 20. I had renewed vigor.

I set out with some worms and a lure I had found on a branch near the water. The first hour was slow, and I caught a few little guys I had to throw back. Then I landed one that was a keeper. The next three hours flew by and my luck got better and better as I moved up stream. At one point I was in a canyon that provided no escape due to the sheer walls left and right. My eye became focused on the swirls of slow moving water where hungry fish may be. My ears were ringing with the sound of rushing creek. I had the fishing fever, and the only thing to cure fishing fever… I soon had eight keepers, and a few stories of how the big one got away. Fish dinner! The only real trouble was how beautiful these brookies were. Red-orange spots with a blue halo, my oh my what a gorgeous fish. Back at camp and feeling terrible about chopping their heads of, Sweet Wife and I attempted to honor the great spirit and set one free, but this guy jumped out of our hands and flipped about so hard in the dirt some scales were damaged. Well, his life would provide nourishment for our bodies, that is the ultimate rationale. Food is the greatest gift. Our small apartment on wheels soon began to smell like a real deal fish fry. Yum, yum yum yum. It seemed fitting to finally live that little dream of catching a meal of trout in the mountains. And, we would be departing this beautiful state on a positive note with a anglers license not totally wasted, albeit some say fishing ain’t about fishing.

So many positive things to say about our time in Montana. Our trip keeps getting better and better. At some point it’s gonna have to be a big bummer, but that time is not now.



  1. You are a true story teller:) Through your words, I felt like I was right there with you both – enjoying your build (no matter how big or small), fishing with you, and then enjoying a delicious trout dinner – YUM!!

    Thank you:)

    Aunt Sue

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