My first challenge when we built our log house in northern B.C. was standing at the base of a 70-foot [21.3 m] cedar tree, peering up to its crown, and trying to decide whether it would look better in the living room or kitchen.
Our trees were limbed where they were felled in the Nass River Valley and transported to our building site south of the Skeena River, where they lay for over a year to “check” or dry out. We learned, over time, that 12 months of checking wasn’t really enough, and for years, loud cracks, sounding like gunshots, rang out as the logs continued their drying and shrinking process. It was unsettling, but we got used to it.
Naive, we sold the house we lived in and moved onto our property about 20 miles [32.2 km] out of town, figuring it would be fun “camping” for four months during the summer while our wonderful dream home was built. Our family of four - husband, wife and two girls ages 10 and 12 - squeezed into a converted school bus and a sagging construction shack for seven long months, which included the wettest summer on record. Our world was a sea of mud.
We were babes in the wilderness. When I was alone during the day, black bears sniffed my clothesline strung between two trees. At night, wolves howled and Screech owls terrified us with their shrieking, whistling calls. Meanwhile, the house was taking shape with agonizing slowness.
During this interlude, the girls and I collected river rocks to face the fireplace and cover the exposed cement foundation. Every time I started the pick-up truck and called the girls to join me, “Oh Mum, not again!” became their refrain. After countless trips to the shores of the Copper River, the three of us collected five tons of rock - gorgeous variously coloured flat rocks the size and dimension of large dinner plates. When the time came, we hired a novice stonemason, Rick Dakin, who crafted what we thought was the most beautiful fireplace in the world with enough rocks left over for me to attempt facing the foundation.
Old-timers had warned us that log house construction was an art form and builders had a tendency to be prima donnas. Once a job was started, no other craftsman dared move in to finish it, consequently, we couldn’t fire our highly- recommended builder. Unfortunately for us, he was an alcoholic who enjoyed a daily liquid lunch at a hotel pub in town and often returned to our site with a bevy of beer-happy friends to show off his work - while we paid him and watched - in the rain.
The day the last log was put into place and secured, I fired him. He reciprocated by burning his initials in large letters into the crossbeam directly above our future living room. As soon as possible, I obliterated his initials using a large steel plate from which I hung our main light fixture.
Our banker was convinced we were holidaying in Hawaii as we went back for more and more money - almost $300,000 - far beyond our original estimate of less than $200,000.
The building of a log house is interesting, even in the rain. A large V is cut into the length of the bottom of each log and filled with insulation before the next huge log is settled on top. Our walls were 10 logs high. We had a four-foot [1.2 m] high cement foundation above ground on which the first log was placed and every subsequent log was at least 18 inches [45.7 cm] in diameter. Holes were cut for doors and windows. I wanted a large triangle window in the living room. Glass isn’t sold in triangles, but in squares from which the triangle is cut. Hence, the additional expense.
The builder is finished when the last tons-heavy log is gently manoeuvred into place by a crane with nothing but blue sky up above. That day eventually came and when it did, it came with a shock. A local builder electrified us by nonchalantly remarking, “You’ll never get a roof on that place.”
Fortunately, an experienced crew from a company based in Prince George, had finished a previous job and was still in town. Their foreman inspected our roofless home and proclaimed his team could do the job; I hired them on the spot and watched as they swarmed in like locusts. They also built our cabinets and counters.
The bank manager blanched at the cost of the Prince George crew, but the job was done in jig time. (And truth be told, the bank was in so deep, by this time, they had to have a finished product to secure their investment.)
Winter was coming, but there were still major issues to be resolved. We had yet to dig a well, buy and install three telephone poles to carry electricity across the site, and install a septic system. At this point, the floor of our home was comprised of roughly-hewn 2 x 10 planks but we moved in anyway, out of the rain, and hauled water in green garbage cans, lit candles and continued to use the chemical toilet in the converted school bus.
In retrospect, I don’t think it entered our city-oriented minds when we excavated the foundation that we would need a water-well, a service road and telephone poles. We also needed a huge furnace because the peak of the interior of the house measured 20 feet [6.1 m] in height, meaning we had a lot of house to heat.
We were out of the rain, but not out of the woods. Everything that could go wrong did. The septic system was installed in reverse with the outlet at the intake. The “dowser” or Water Diviner we hired to find water on the property was a drinker like the builder, and staggered around with a willow wand until we asked him politely to leave. Our 12-year old daughter found that she could “dowse” too, and we had the well dug where the willow wand almost jumped out of her hand pointing to the ground. Water was there all right, after 200 feet [61 m] of clay, sand and gravel were removed by a cabled contraption that looked like a torpedo with a hole in the middle. It thudded down and emptied on the adjacent ground during the daylight hours, costing us a small fortune with each and every thump. Once completed, a “friend” came by to inspect it and dropped an irretrievable two-foot [61 cm] long pipe wrench down the 200-foot hole.
To heat the house, we ordered a Valley Comfort furnace, the largest model the company had available at the time. It was situated incorrectly in the basement in such a position that the pipes went around a corner before entering the chimney. This caused the wood to burn more slowly than it should have, thus creating ongoing creosote problems.
My husband’s job meant he was out of town a lot, and one night when I was alone with the kids, I smelled something burning. When I went to investigate, the whole basement was filled with acrid white smoke. I raced upstairs and phoned a neighbour who lived a few country miles away. He told me to get the girls out of the house and into the bus and said he would come over right away. When he arrived, he donned asbestos gloves and dragged burning four foot [1.2 m] logs out of the furnace, throwing them outside the basement door, where I frantically shovelled snow to douse the flames. Panic over.
In time, the septic tank was refitted, the well water ran pure, we were able to turn on switches for electricity and I kept the road to the house clear of snow in the winter on my bulldozer. The bank manager was heard to heave sighs of relief as we repaid our unexpectedly large loan.
Because there were five cleared acres around the house, the girls were able to have horses and I became a farmer with friendly chickens, geese and pigs.
When I think of “home,” my mind goes back to that beautiful log house in the forest. The bad memories have vanished and all that remains are images of the glorious early morning pink mountains viewed from the kitchen window; the horses gambolling in their corral; black bears wandering harmlessly by our front window, and all the peace and serenity of country living.
OCTOBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
OCTOBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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