73: Snow!

72: Checks!

To the uninformed, the long, twisting cracks appearing in many of the logs might be alarming.  Some are deep, some run the length of the log, through the corner joint and onward to the butt end.  Fortunately, my log cabin research tells me that they're not a structural issue.  I'll even be able to spray more Penetreat into the upward-facing checks before caulking them all up, chinking the walls, and staining the logs.

Checks occur when wood dries unevenly, as is inevitable when there's a sunny side, or some walls are more exposed to wind.  Poplar is particularly prone to checking.  As long as they're under our deep eave, prevented from collecting water, it's all good.

71: Door!

Over the holiday weekend, I used some leftover logs, mostly created from having cut out the windows and the door, to craft a door.  Ripping them was fun.  My friend, Justin, saw it and called it a "stealth door!"  After staining and chinking, it'll blend in for sure.

I learned to draw the saw in one direction, taking my time, to rip the logs.  Cutting shallow and then retracing the same move, from one end to the other, over and over.  Moving it back and forth or haphazardly stabbing at the log results in an uneven slab.

It's as solid as it looks -- the hinges have springs, and the thing is like a rock but closes flush enough to trim nicely.

70: Dirt waves

I'm intrigued with regional dialect, mountain sayings, Southernisms from anywhere I've been, and anything that feels genuine.  Earlier this summer, during a lull in the construction of our cold holler log cabin, while waiting to cut some logs, I wrote about the names of places.

A dear friend of mine, Pablo, who visited our steep dark homestead and appreciates the power and allure of language, sent me a great book, thinking I might enjoy it, calling it "one of the best novels ever (some say the best) about Appalachia."  Here's an excerpt that sinks in pretty deep, somehow applying to our cabin, its site, the family around it, life in the holler, or anywhere else.  Of course, the metaphors apply more here than yonder.  Of course, taking an after-work walk to the cabin and watching the leaves fall, the canopy opening its blinds to reveal space and ridge after ridge, sitting beneath its sheltering roof, hearing the wind whistle through the un-chinked walls -- this leads to the kind of contemplation that strays toward existential.  This is my favorite passage so far:

from "River of Earth" by James Still
With his reference to the God, his concentration on man's destiny, his description of a grand landscape, all illusion, Still is optimistic in his agnosticism.

In the eyes of a dogmatic person, Edward Abbey might seem more cynical in one of my favorite essays, quoted below.  Not to me.  Abbey seems anything but atheist -- he's a mystic, and his words describe a sort of heaven on earth, the kind that only some kind of God might create, whether we deserve it or not:

from "Appalachian Wilderness" (Eliot Porter), specifically the essay therein, "A walk in the woods to Alum Cave," written by Edward Abbey

Some evening soon, I'll have to pour myself and a friend a Tuckasegee Brewing Company Bonas Defeat IPA, climb the new trail up to the cabin (look for a post about that), watch the sun set and listen to the owls, and talk these things over.

69: More Fall Color at the cabin

Now, leaves lay ankle-deep all the way down the trail, and there's still more red and brilliant gold than bare grey branch and the deep resilient green of that little hemlock and the surrounding laurel.  Soon, we'll trade a familiar forest, once lush but now in a mode that invokes fantasies of a bright Rembrandt painting; we'll trade it for less organic but clean winter shades of black, white, blue, brown, grey and green, and clear air, more sky, and long views.

This picture doesn't begin to do justice to our brilliant fall
but here's Nate on October 13, well before peak color, 
captured by a cheap cell phone camera. 

Here, today, were some trees outside my windows (email me for source information):
Look up!

68: Small progress on chinking!

I won't be able to fully chink the cabin until it finishes settling and drying under its deep eaves and good roof.  Spring is for chinking.

In conversation, the word, "chinking," usually refers to the whole enterprise.  But it used to describe only half of the process.

I'm still unsure what formula I'll use for the stuff that fills the cracks.  But I am using an old-style method called chinking and daubing.  Originally, chinking meant filling the void with sticks, rock, straw, horse manure, you name it.  Here's an example.  Then, clay would be daubed over it all, filling in the smaller voids and gluing everything together.  I may use clay, more likely mortar, or possibly a synthetic mix.  But for now, I'm nailing in strips of wood to fill some of the empty space.  Before actually daubing it, I'll cover the floors and see if the boys would have fun pushing loose straw anywhere they can get it to stay.

Here's a picture of my progress, so far:

67: Fall in the mountains

I'll add some more pictures in this post later, taken from the cabin, which perches on a ridge jutting out into a bowl created by the higher Savannah Ridge, our holler like a crevasse in its side. From the cabin, these ridges look like enveloping walls of flame.

I've never seen a more stunning fall leaf season.

Kathy's prognostication in the Tuck Reader was dead-on.

Here's a picture by Michael Hudson.

Our friend Beth snapped this picture nearby, in the same county -- this looks much like the landscape out of our cabin windows!

Here's a picture taken by local environmentalist, gardening expert, musician, and community activist Adam Bigelow:

66: "Improving" roads, and opening a holler for the greater good (or not)

I bought the land where the cabin sits in 2007. We had bought our house and moved into the holler back in 2002, when Sloan found a great job here in the mountains where we wanted to be. It was maybe brave, although some would say that as a euphemism for something else. The holler was deeper and darker and more remote then. The roads were different, soon to be widened and expanded by a far-off developer. Below, they were maybe 7 or 8 feet wide, hardly accommodating for a delivery truck, and flanked by tall, thick, second-growth white pines and dense rhododendron. Bouncing over gullies and ruts where no culverts existed, the bottom of our drive turned steeply up into a half-mile of essentially wagon track, even narrower and canted away from a mature oak forest above, toward an abyss full of creek and laurel. Above the house the roads became moss-covered, full-canopy laurel tunnels that emerged at around 4000 feet of elevation and delivered a walker to a comfortably-situated ridge-top trail connecting two high-up aircraft-beacon-festooned knobs, rising like sentinels over the house, the holler, the valley, and everything else in our world.

Once, before the last phase of the road "improvements," the ones that opened those high-up routes to still sparse but previously impossible vehicular traffic, Sloan and I post-holed up through the woods toward our customary loop, climbing to the ridge and traversing before taking a twisty descent, on a 20 degree afternoon in 12 inches of powdery snow. Abel, maybe 10 months old, in a backpack, Sloan, skipping as best she could, me toting both him and a thermos of single malt Islay scotch, him, covered head forward, tucked under the back brim of my hat, warm on my neck, breathing, asleep.

Now, I often drive guests up there on wide gravel lanes under open sky. That's what they call "progress." Now, instead of suffering from the rigors of ambulatory ascension, we can avoid any exposure to damp leaves or impertinent green briar, eliminate the sensation of hard granite underfoot and keep the thin soil from roughing our boots, and eschew unconditioned mountain air, by sitting encased in plastic and steel and dusty glass, through which we may still see beyond the Plotts to Clingman's Dome. Before, we just walked.

Over the next few years, in addition to the road improvements (both real and questionable), I built stuff, learning the art of making things square and plumb and level on a ridiculously overbuilt hot tub deck, independently applying new skills on a western lodge-inspired side porch (after a rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon), expanding the house for an expanding family with a bedroom addition, improving our living space with hardwood floors and a renovated garage, and reclaiming some room for myself with a two-story workshop. All those years, I'd sit in our hot tub and contemplate things, including the low ridge directly opposite from the house. I thought of another person, sitting on a deck or gazing out a window, putting wear and tear on our road, absorbing some of our peace and serenity in some kind of zero sum equation.

After buying that acreage, and not for investment, I looked for ways to benefit from its intrinsic value, ways to use it. I built three mountain bike trails on which my boys love to hike. I built a three-sided rock climbing wall with a "treehouse" perched above. I cleared a 1/4 acre on top and positioned a fire pit. Hung chairs from trees. And I built a cabin.

For my next project, I'll build a brick BBQ pit up there, and cook a pig. I'll start next summer, when the cabin's done. And blog about it...

65: Framing the windows

I'm almost finished framing the windows. Here are some October 15 pictures of the outside notches, the tools I'm using, and the beautiful new plane crafted by Mark out of maple. He even made and tempered the iron!

64: New boat!

I started the cabin for many reasons, one being to give my shoulder time to finish healing this summer. Now, I feel like I'm taking a break from the cabin to play with boats, instead of the reverse. Times change and perspectives shift!

About a month ago, at a canoe slalom race in which I piloted a heavy tandem whitewater canoe upstream and downstream through gates with Abel, hands militantly in his lap and away from the gunwales after I pleaded with him not to grab them, hollering "up up UP" for red gates (upstream passage only) and "down down DOWN"!" for green ones, I bought a wildwater racing kayak from a friend, Mary Ellen.

She had purchased it for flatwater paddling and exercise and quickly discovered how unfriendly the racing hulls can be -- although a wildwater boat offers much more secondary stability than an incredibly tippy flatwater sprint boat, they still aren't everyone's cup of tea.

My background is in whitewater, and the cabin has served well to distract me from a full return to steep creek boating, but my track racing background, love for speed, proclivity for competition, fondness for sleek light gear, and knack for niche sports drew her to me.

Flimsy by any standards, long and thin-walled, narrow in the beam except for the winged stern with its pointy tips on each side designed only to achieve the Olympic committee's proscribed minimum width, tippy beyond reasonableness, fast, hawk-like, this boat would be mine to paddle, race, or just look at. It looks like a long-nosed wasp, with a fat stinger of a thorax-shaped stern. The bow resemble some type of missile, its long skinny round bottom and pointed deck like an arrow, built to travel fast in a straight line on the long axis -- no turning in mid-stream -- destination-fixed.

The hull is thin, its walls crafted from epoxy-impregnated kevlar. Light. I need to hang it outside, in partial shade and protected from rain and all-day direct sunlight but still vulnerable to some UV. The boat was naked when I bought it and tested it. Built to racing spec, she had clear coating but no frivolous extra weight in cosmetic paint. I could see through her -- see this picture of my legs during some experimental rolls on Bear Lake the day I tried her out with Mark, him in his beautiful hand-built kayak and me in a craft through which you could see my legs, us gliding 2.3 miles in just 20 minutes to Sols Creek Falls.

Gliding around in Mark's "Night Heron" that he built with his own hands:

So I spent this weekend up to my elbows in expensive, toxic, highly-glossy two-part green epoxy. With TBC stickers, it looks sponsored and ready to race down river in support of my favorite brewer, through class 2-3 which may feel ever so much more challenging in a vintage racer built for only one thing, with none of the ultra stability offered by a modern whitewater boat. But fast as ever. If I flip and roll, or swim, well maybe instead of doubting my skill they'll all reckon we drink too much of the stuff we're marketing, and talk about how good it must be.

New paint and decals!

Living here, I actually have several opportunities each year to race it. NOC, right down the road, hosts races every spring, even Olympic qualifiers. See schedule and lots of resource information here!

Abel has been incredibly interested, and beyond charming this week -- with no direction or help of any sort from me, he built his own boat, in the foreground, while I prepped and painted mine. Fast as mine might be, his is the best:

63: Chinking experiment

I tried Good Stuff foam -- I like the ease of application, but not how it bulges out on the sides.

I suppose I'll pull this stuff out and stick with my plan to research ways in which I might chink the cabin over the winter.

62: Hammocks!

Lacking room for large furniture, I've wondered what kind of sleeping option would work best out in the cabin. Here's the solution: hammocks!

Come nap time, I'll be strolling up to the cabin. Until I build a door and windows, I'm not so sure about spending the night out there. Several weeks ago, over the sound of our two springs, our resident owls, and the wind in treetops, I woke to the sound of coyotes yipping. We've had more than one bear come through, although they wouldn't bother us unless we were had food. Lots of skunks, raccoons, and possums share our holler, and thousands of bats that probably thrive because of the abandoned mica mines, one right down slope, found by two college students who were building a mountain bike trail, who went into the earth more than 200 feet, by their estimate. Not recommended.

61: Featured in "Tiny House!"

Apparently, there's a national trend or at least an evolving subculture dedicated to building and then actually living in tiny houses. Some seem to do it because it's cute; others are living frugally, saving on the structure so they can live on an otherwise unaffordable piece of land. Still others do it to downsize their lives and simplify living in what seems to be an increasingly materialistic and unsustainable society of ownership and ubiquitous stuff, with expanding dwellings to hold it all in, until they burst...

I won't actually live in our cabin, but I did get some great camping hammocks the other day! And this site offers a connection point, even a forum to reach other like-minded folk, a resource that'll help me lots as I decide how to furnish, heat, and finish the cabin.

Here! http://tinyhouseblog.com

60: More on Chinking, some on horses, and advice from the Last American Man

There's a place nearby (Boone) where they do this kind of thing all the time. It's called Turtle Island Preserve. I would have gone over there to learn some things if being self-taught hadn't been part of the game.
I wrote this letter some time ago:

Hello Mr. Conway,

I'm writing with a couple of questions. I understand that you may not check email regularly, and I'd be grateful for any small amount of time you take to respond.

I live in the mountains and have heard some good things about what you are doing from folk who have visited there. Then, I read The Last American Man, and I visited your website.

I'm a rank amateur, but I've been building a small cabin on my property, for the experience and for my boys to use and play in as they grow up on the mountain. I've made many mistakes and will do some things differently the next time, and I'm doing all the work during some of the scarce moments that I'm free from my day job.

I'm specifically interested in how you'd chink the thing given that I have some very big gaps, due to differing sized logs (a mistake, for sure). I was thinking about nailing down some scrap planking split to size, waiting till the spring while the poplar dries and shrinks, and using a homemade mortar mix with lime, concrete, and sand. But how would you do it?

After it settles and dries, I'm going to build windows and then have glass cut for them at a local glass shop here. Any suggestions regarding very simple joinery for these? I can get rough sawn wood at a local saw mill a couple miles away.

Thanks for any thoughts or advice. I hope to visit over there so

me time. Turtle Island seems like my kind of place.

Here are pics of the cabin (in progress) on a blog I'm keeping:


I received this reply:

[Dear Michael]

...use a mix of 1/3 red clay and 2/3 sand, with some straw squashed up and worked in - or shredded up horse manure works well. This is much better than cement products, is authentic and doesn't cost much if any...

Yes, do let the logs dry a year or more before finishing out and chinking windows, etc.

You can use 1/2 used motor oil with 1/2 diesel fuel to oil-sludge against rot and insects.

Best Wishes.

What do you think? I think I'll pass on the petroleum-based insect repellent, but I'm realizing that Portland Cement isn't the best bet. I'm not going to use manure either, but I'm beginning to think of going back to nature more than I'd planned. Maybe sawdust, maybe horse hair if I can get it? Wonder where I can get red clay in large quantities?

Maybe I should have used a horse to haul logs out of the woods. This almost happened, actually. My oldest friend owns a large horse and carriage company in Savannah, and he breeds draft horses on his Statesville, Georgia farm. He has the experience, skills, and tack, and on multiple occasions, he has offered to bring up a team and put them to work on the site. Wouldn't Abel and Angus and all their small friends be into that? This sounds like a digression, but here's Conway doing just that at Turtle Island:

Anybody who buys and reads the book will intuit that I'd be pleased to receive any kind of response from Eustace Conway. If I'm a passage in some text about trying to do something special using the old ways, well, then he's the book itself. Read about him, or beat me to the punch and visit over there.

Conway's compulsions and philosophy around the acquisition of land, his aggressive, even fanatical focus on both method and results, the balance he seems to need and imbalance he creates between fellowship and solitude or some kind of peace, these things I feel. At least according to somebody's gift for description -- I've never met the fellow, and I'm not usually one for pedestals. But he sounds interesting to know. Certainly a great resource, given my interests. Maybe a good friend to the select.

The next time I participate in some inane (they all are) group icebreaker that requires me to identify the "ideal dinner companion," I might share a vision of a small party comfortable in the blaze of a large campfire in some transcendental spot, maybe in a national park, or better yet around my own fire pit above the cabin surrounded by all the colorfully decorated trees that escaped my saw and bark spud and adze, during one of the full-on winter evenings masquerading as fall in our frozen, high-elevation North-facing holler, enjoying the added warmth of smoky scotch, and conversation with the likes of Ed Abbey and Mr. Conway.

59: Ruminations on chinking

Doesn't everybody think about chinking? Doesn't popular sociological research suggest that the average male thinks about it for X number of minutes for each wakeful hour of every day? I know I do!

I know my options and have to visualize them each in order to choose and establish my plan and move on. Because I tend to think out loud, my visualization process can be shared with anyone in earshot. Lucky them!

This winter will be the winter of chinking discussions. Soon, very soon, at the dinner table:

Me: "Sugar, I was thinking that instead of a sand and cement mix I could [interjection here by Sugar]..."

Me: "But honey, this is important! Don't you want to hear?"

Sloan: "Babe, Angus has more macaroni and so Abel wants some too."

Me: "But about this idea [forceful interjection by Sloan AND Abel]..."

Me: "OK, OK. Here Abel, stop crying please. We'll work chinking into the bedtime story instead of Donald the Dinosaur."

Nate: "I just really really want more macaroni like baby."


So I have choices, and, because I cut and crafted the cabin with green logs, they have to shrink and settle over the winter, which they'll do now that we have such a solid roof and deep overhangs keeping the walls dry. If I chinked it now, I'd just have to patch or redo things next summer. Needless to say, without windows, a door, or glass in the eaves the cabin will be a drafty place this winter, a dry but perpetually cold room bereft of sunlight and cooled by the uninterrupted breeze that drops down slope at night from the frozen North face behind us and gets driven up during the day by the valley thermals below.

For those interested (certainly not Sugar or the boys), I'll post my options and deliberations here in the future. I'd be happy to hear suggestions!

58: Kids, showing off the dried-in cabin

Here, Abel and Angus sit with their grandparents, DoDaddy and MoMomma. Hand'em a pitchfork, and it'd look like an American classic!

Showing DoDaddy the log cabin!
Look! Everybody's wearing shoes! Too bad we don't have a door...

57: Wow! Somebody else thinks like me...

This author/builder operated with a slightly different philosophy than did I, but we both built tiny cabins (he used only salvage material, and I used only local stuff) of a Thoreauvian nature and blogged about it. I relied on loads of friends for their healthy backs, expertise, and good company. He worked alone most of the time. His hit-count (on the blog) is even similar to ours!


I found out about it here, on this amazing capture point and resource devoted to projects like mine!

About Me

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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.