For many, the dream of a cabin in the woods is what keeps them going in the day to day grind. It is seen as an idyllic reward for blood sweat and tears. Some will imagine it for a long time and forget about it. Others will chase the dream and make it happen. Such is the case of Mathieu Allaire, S.O.S. correspondent from the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region of Quebec. He here shares with us the step he climbed on the day he and his wife were able to restore and make for themselves a tiny nest in paradise: the vast Canadian boreal forest.
A cabin towards another reality
Speeding on a dirt road is not recommended but as you go further down this winding path populated by overloaded logging trucks, you start to feel the gravitational pull of the heart of the forest getting stronger and stronger. The worries and duties of your day job and family life are shaken off by the vibrations and disappear in the cloud of dust trailing behind your vehicle.
Some basic rules of the civilized world no longer apply and are replaced by good old tradition; driving on a gravel road with a beer in your hand is totally fine as long as you don’t hit a bump too hard and spill it all on your shirt.
But the gravel road is just a buffer zone designed to adapt your mindset before you engage in the last passage to that other dimension. And to be effective, this last passage can only be made on foot. First step on the trail, a deeper than expected puddle of mud floods your high tech hiking boots; your feet will be wet for days. You engage on the trail, a tunnel of slippery rocks, misbehaved face-slapping branches, jungle like ferns and colourful fungi. So eager to get there that you would run if possible but the heavy burden of gear and food in the backpack most likely will make the progression slow and exhausting.
Both hands holding jugs of water make you defenceless against repeated micro-aggressions so a generous blood donation to the Mosquito and Black Flies Association of America is inevitable.
Almost made it to your little piece of the forest but the clear print of a bear paw, claws included is a friendly reminder that you don’t really own the place (and that you better stay off his blueberry patch). But there it is: still standing after many years of abandon, the old hunting cabin of the grandfather.
The current landlords and tenants; mice, marmots, bats and ants were not very good in keeping this place in order while it was abandoned by humans. And the pieces of wood salvaged decade ago from an old logging camp are only holding together by habit.
Time to rebuild a brand new camp! But again this is no place for new and clean material, all you have is different pieces of wood left over from the renovation of the house and miscellaneous furniture from various yard sales. The rest will come from the forest.
The first thing one has to boldly make clear is an eviction notice for the rodents and insects. A moldy mattress, some old vests, books with mice teeth marks and canned food from another era; everything is taken out and will be hauled out of the forest to the municipal dump. Some traditions are still good but others have to change. Back in the day, if a pile of trash disappeared in the forest it was no longer a problem. Once empty it is time to let loose your crowbar tearing aspirations, through rotten wood and rusted sheet metal like a machete in the jungle. The wood itself does not hold any strength from the memories of those many years of family hunting parties, meals of canned beans and gallons of gin, it is rotten all the same and easily turned to dust. Indeed, a new camp will rise in place of the old one to continue the cycle.
The construction can begin, no plans, no blue print no engineer and an inexperienced work force. The few power tools available rely on an old generator coughing blue smoke and producing more noise than energy. An experienced well equipped crew could build a camp in a few days, but in our case the work is very slow due to many mistakes (and too many beers) and the occasional 5 hours round trip to the nearest hardware store for that one thing we forgot that we absolutely needed. But the real challenge, achievable with an equal amount of swearing and sweating is to transport on foot all the construction material, 2 by 4, veneers and furniture on the muddy trail.
Floors and walls are relatively easy to build, but finishing the roof before the coming rainy days is a bigger challenge. Fortunately work safety inspectors don’t pass by as we push our luck juggling with tools and balancing on the very last step of a shaky ladder.
Lastly, the master piece, the heart of the camp; the wood stove is installed. This essential heating device (which can also serve as a toaster and grilled cheese machine) is by design slow to react to any command. A cold user will inevitably feed the stove to full capacity in vain hope of some instant warmth leading to a delayed and unstoppable overheating. But in the cold rainy days of late fall it is not uncommon to overheat on purpose to create a numbing heat wave where the only option is to lay naked and nap all day (a practice best done alone with your spouse and with some port wine).
In reality, all we have is a lease from the government for an area slightly larger than the footprint of the camp; we own nothing more than what is inside the cabin. But that is not how the emotional part of the brain sees it. After working so hard, not only to get there but to build the place you have no choice but to feel as if this part of the forest is indeed your own. Another trick that the mind plays on you is in the perspective. In the dense boreal forest ‘’as far as the eye can see’’ is only a few meters away. The brain processes this lack of information by adding infinite layers of forest beyond what you see. With no other human in sight you could very well be alone for thousands of miles in a dimension centered on this 15’x20’ wooden cabin.
In this simple but oh so comfortable cabin in the woods, it is time to recharge our inner batteries. Fear no more, the fruits of hard labor have been attained, rest has been earned. In this endless sea of boreal forest, no one could guess that there are, here and there, other cabins like these, where exquisite calm exists. Perhaps one of those cabins perched in the woods belongs or will in the future belong to the one reading these lines now.
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