My “living alone in a cabin in the wilderness” years weren’t really comparable to what people are experiencing now.
The outside world was proceeding more or less normally while I was living “off grid” in the Cariboo in the mid 1970’s and I could, I suppose, have chosen to leave at any time.
In some ways though, I felt I had to stay.
Most days I loved it and, on days when I didn’t so much . . . well, for much of the time I was there, I couldn’t drive and didn’t have a vehicle, so an impulsive exit wasn’t really an option.
I’ve been trying to think of which things I learned during those years that are handy now. I chose that experience instead of going back to school to do my Master’s degree. While there have been many times I’ve thought that was a crazy decision, now that I’m older I’m less sure. Every day I’m grateful for things I learned — about myself, mostly — in my Cabin Fever period.
As it’s a bit of a long story, I’m dividing it into a few parts and will end with a small summary of Cabin Life Tips.
The first cabin I lived in was an old dynamite shack, left behind from a gold mining operation. Located several miles down a road that ended in the rushing Quesnel River, it was pretty remote.
Only about half a dozen people lived further down Seven Mile Road than me, and getting to the cabin involved a twenty minute hike from that road, including the fording of the creek that fed into the main river, via the rather dodgy log bridge.
This was less, or more, exciting depending on the season and the water level.
While at the dynamite shack I learned how to make bannock and discovered that no-see-ums can fly through mosquito netting. A fit of rustic craftiness almost lost me a finger when trying to cut a bracket fungus off an old log to make into a candle holder, as one did in those days. I’m sure I must have learned some other things.
One of them should have been “keep a diary so you can remember this stuff forty years later.”
After a few months in the dynamite shack I inherited another, closer to the road, vacant cabin. I had stayed there before with my good friends, Richard and Denise, but they had two babies by then and were moving closer to the amenities of “town” — aka Likely, where the one grocery store, bar and post office/gas station were located.
It was during this period that Finlay the Magnificent arrived in my life.
A neighbour stopped by with two puppies that his dog had given birth to. Using a uniquely hard sell technique, he told me that, if he couldn’t find homes for them, he’d be hitting them on the head with a hammer. I hadn’t really been planning on getting a dog, but . . .
Of the two, one was much prettier. I picked the plainer one, confident that the “looker” would have a better chance of adoption.
This was the start of a beautiful 15 year relationship.
I was told that cabin dogs needed to be kept outside so they could keep watch for bears, so little puppy Finlay slept in the great outdoors. He would get revenge by crawling under the cabin and getting stuck under the porch, yowling, so I’d have to get up in the middle of the night and pry a board off the platform to pull him out.
He was so tiny that first winter, when we walked through the deep snow to visit the nearest neighbours a couple of miles away, his forward motion was accomplished via a combination of swimming and tunnelling.
There are so many Finlay stories. He came tree planting with me for years and was a pretty legendary camp dog. His favourite sleeping spot was, not beside, but under the airtight stove in the cook shack. While I was out planting, he would stretch out in the blazingly hot sun beside the tree box supply. Sometimes when we got back we could hardly find him because he’d be completely and obliviously covered in dust.
There will actually have to be a whole separate post on Finlay for some of the other stories. The time he went missing for a week, the memorable day he brought me a bear, how he adapted, years later, to city life . . .
My first winter in the log cabin was very enlightening. First I learned that a cabin made of logs needs to be “chinked” — i.e. insulation of some sort put between each log. This one had been built without such consideration, so when it was 20 below outside, it was about 18 below inside — with an arctic wind blowing across the floor. I would keep the airtight stove going all night and still the water bucket, located next to said airtight, would be frozen in the morning.
Keeping that stove going all night meant lots of wood chopping, which meant a crash course in the care and maintenance of firewood.
First I learned that if you locate your wood pile under the eaves of the cabin, where three foot long icicles will inevitably form, your wood supply will become deeply encased in ice. It actually took longer to use the axe to chip wood out of its crystal prison each day than it did to split it. That’s the second fun thing I learned — splitting rounds in freezing weather is kind of fun as it only takes a tap with the axe and the wood explodes in a satisfying manner.
Miraculously, by the end of the first winter I had neither frozen to death, nor bled to death in the snow from an axe injury. And I had taught myself Fair Isle knitting.
In kindergarten I had been the worst knitter in the class. I still remember the humiliation of being the only one still forced to struggle on with a tangle of red string when all the others had graduated to actual wool.
Perhaps it was over-weaning pride in my new accomplishment, but I somehow concluded that, because I had mastered knitting Fair Isle socks, I was now ready to build my own cabin.
I headed into Williams lake and bought what was to become my bible.
As you can see, I still have the book “Illustrated Housebuilding.” I don’t think I’ll be building any more houses myself but I keep it handy in case either of my kids should feel inspired.
My goal was to build my “dream” cabin — i.e. insulated to an extreme level, and close to a water source. The log cabin was only a few minutes walk from the road, but was a long trek uphill from the stream where water had to be hauled from. I decided I’d rather be further from the road and closer to the water.
So all that remained to do was get supplies and build it.
Since there was just me, and I still didn’t drive, there were a few technical details remaining to be worked out.
Stay tuned for the next instalment, Cabin Construction!
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