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Building A Cabin In The Woods

Building A Cabin In The Woods

How to work with the seasons to have a home by next snowfall
By Dwayne Wohlgemuth
May 25
From the May 2017 Issue

The stars and the dancing aurora provide all the light I need to unload the lumber. It’s nearly midnight, but the sky’s twisting green lights tempt me to keep hauling more loads. It has been a multi-week affair to simply take the materials out to the cabin site, and there are already a half dozen snow-covered stacks nestled around the site: 2x4 studs, 2x8 floor joists, plywood for the floor, metal for the roof, windows, and insulation.

I am constantly worried that the snow machine will break down, and one sunny afternoon I notice that the steel snowmobile hitch has a crack, and could break at any time. I buy a small welder—having welded a few projects before—and reinforce the hitch. The heaviest load is a green spruce tree, 15 inches in diameter at the butt, and cut to sixteen feet long. We brought it from Hay River to be a central post in the cabin. Amazingly, I burn through only one belt on the snowmobile despite dozens of heavy trips.

In late March we install our solar panels and batteries. We bring out a small freezer stocked with food, and hope that we’ll have enough sun that we won’t need to turn on a generator during summer construction. So we’ll have fresh vegetables to eat, we haul out enough soil to fill two garden boxes, each four feet by eight feet.

On the first day of June we paddle and portage to the cabin site amidst a late season snowfall. Thus begins a summer of construction and life in a tent, along with Emile, our two-month-old son. First we build the two garden boxes and fill them with the soil we hauled out in March, and plant seeds. Then we mark out the four corners of the cabin and the locations for small concrete pads to support the blocking and the timbers under the floor. 

Luckily, my partner Leanne’s cousin Keith was looking for adventure and came all the way from Toronto to help. He’s a kindergarten teacher, loves children, and helps a lot with Emile as well as with the cabin. The four of us end most days with a swim, a late dinner cooked over a wood fire, and an early bedtime.

One day, Keith plops Emile into a plastic five-gallon pail padded in the bottom with sawdust. Emile is close to the work site, so his mandatory PPE (personal protective equipment) is on: green earmuffs to protect his young ears, and the bucket protects the rest of him. He’s still far enough away to be outside of the hard-hat zone. His face, barely poking out of the bucket, sports a huge smile. He is content to sit and watch us.

Emile naps about half of each day, either because he’s so young or because he’s in the fresh outdoor air, or perhaps because he knows we’ll never finish the cabin if he doesn’t sleep well. He naps in a tiny chair with a mosquito net overtop, and we move him around as required to keep him in the shade and just far enough away that the noise of the power tools doesn’t wake him. 

We build the floor and then use its flat surface to make the roof trusses. Then we set the trusses aside, build the walls, and stand them up. But we need help to lift all of the roof trusses onto the walls, so we advertise a goat party. We butcher one of our goats the day of the party. We prepare one dutch oven of goat curry and another big pot of goat stew. We are 16 people for the Friday night party, and our five gallons of homebrew beer is ready just in time. Everyone tents overnight and Saturday morning we raise the trusses. Many hands means we’re finished in a couple hours, with all the trusses nailed into place on top of the walls. 

By late July we are ready to put metal on the roof. The cabin becomes waterproof and we relax a little. We insulate the walls, wrap Tyvek around the exterior, and install the doors and windows. We realize while insulating the attic that we are somehow short a few bags of insulation. We go back to Yellowknife and get what we need but the bags are too bulky to haul in a single canoe out to site, so I tie two canoes together like a catamaran, using eight-foot-long 2x4 lumber. We stack the bags in a pyramid, and Leanne and I stand, one in each canoe, and paddle. Luckily, the wind helps us carry the load.

When September arrives, we take a break for a three-week canoe trip. Hopefully the temperature doesn’t drop early this year. We haven’t yet installed our woodstove.