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2013 05 19

[photos] [anatomy of a saddle notch] [the original tale]
        Building A Log House ~ with a little help from our friends

             Break-up has to be the best time of year to work in the bush. You can smell spring already, but the nights are still cold and keep roads and forest trails frozen so vehicles can travel summer's impassable bogs and muskegs. And there are no bugs. Well, only a few ~ at first.
             We'd made a small camp in the bush where we prepared our dinners over a small fire. Such dinners! Moosemeat, beans, and tea. One time we even had pancakes.
             We had started skidding the trees out of the bush, about one mile to the road, with a twenty-year-old Massey-Harris 44. Soon, though, we had the benefit of a lot more horsepower upon borrowing an old Ranger skidder.
             With the further addition of a large trailer from a local farmer, we were ready for the seven-mile haul to town. The trailer parked in the ditch ~ so it would be as low as possible ~ and poles slanted onto its sides, we loaded the trees with the tractor at first and later used the skidder. By this time, we had a smudge going all the time, to saturate our clothes with smoke to ward off pesky insects.
             Loading with the skidder was a lot quicker, and it didn't seem long before we were chaining-up our load. And what a load it was!
             That old skidder just sat back, roared, and sucked that loaded trailer out of the ditch. And away we went down the road, to our site. Of course we had to do this a few more times until we had about eighty trees nicely decked in straight piles. But finally we had a pile of trees to sit on and contemplate the job ahead.
             Sand and stones were hauled from the lake-front and a nearby gravelpit for use in the foundation and fireplace. Concrete piers were poured into holes dug into the ground with a post-hole auger at about fifteen feet intervals. A con­crete foundation pad was poured for the fireplace, and a wooden form placed on it. The first trees had been placed on the piers and were relatively level. Further trees rested on top of these, ready for the first round of saddle notches. String was stretched everywhere to make all level, for on these trees (the "sleepers") the floor would be laid.
             First, an indoor well was to be dug. After the first three or four feet, the earth had to be laboriously taken out of the hole by means of a bucket ~ raised and lowered with the help of a crude tripod. The previous year we had dug a well by the same method down twenty-four feet and come out dry, so this time we had it witched to locate it. From the first cut of the spade we confidently awaited the first bubbling water.
             While, one of us was digging below, the other had enough time between bucket-pulling to start on the fireplace. Building a stone fireplace is like doing a giant jig-saw puzzle. For each place there is a stone that fits just so in its mortar­bed (a fireplace masonry mortar of 3 parts sand ~ well sifted, and 1 part cement ~ of which 1/10th is lime). I used the fireplace design of an old stonemason that was described in one of the Foxfire books.
             The well came through at twelve feet in depth (magic works!), cribbed with a three feet diameter culvert. The zinc with which these are galvanized does not poison the water ~ but don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. We covered it with a hinged wooden top, mounted a pump on it, and had water at the building site.
             Now, at last, the first ceremonial saddle-notch was cut ~ the first of many, for there were many corners and many notches to each round of logs. With the saddles notched into them to the proper depth, the sleepers could be laid in place. On the sleepers, we put three inch thick pressure-treated timbers for flooring.
             I might as well confess. I am the sneaky snitch who used the bridge lumber that 'Da Department' left for years to rot by the site of the proposed bridge that was never built on that backwood trail. I don't think it was ever missed, but if they ever need it more than we do, I guess I'll have to tear-up our floor.
             With all the flooring in place, the building proper was begun. Hand-lifting did most of the work, although the tractor was used as much as possible. As the house rose, so did the number of notches completed. The layout demanded that some logs receive several notches, while in some we thought it prudent to drill and insert green poplar pegs for support. At least there was never a shortage of firewood for the cook stove with all that cutting and hewing.
             An early Canadian settler wrote that "the temper and edge requisite for the axe is such that the woods­man is as careful over it as he is of his razor, and so treasures it, that he sleeps with it under his pillow to prevent the frost from rendering it brittle." We did not carry it quite this far. The appreciation of weight, feel, and the keenness of our axe came with the daily handling.
             During this time, the fireplace also slowly rose. Once over the arch, which was supported with a piece of bent spring-steel, another wooden form was placed on top of the previous one to make the smoke-chamber. Soon October came around and we found ourselves racing winter. Haste does make waste, though, and a bouncing axe can give a nasty crack on the head. The last notches were done without injury, however, and the early snows of that year left the house by the winter of '73-'74 six rounds high.

Log Home Guide Information Center
Log World ~ directory of builders and designers
Log Home Builders Association of North America
             The following year was more of the same, but different, if you know what I mean. Windows and doors were cut in, while the building continued to rise. By this time it was getting pretty high, and every morning a small crew would stop in to help lift up the logs for the daily round of notches, before going off to their own chores. We had thought of various ingenious devices for raising the logs onto the building, but found simple muscle-power the quickest and easiest for the task. And, by Thor, it was beginning to look like a house!
             We ran short of trees, of course, and had to get some more from another location, but we were old hands by now. To make a long story short, would you believe a Hallowe'en party in a new log house? I don't know how much it cost to build, but I wasn't gainfully employed ~ as they say ~ and we didn't have a lot of money (still don't). We scrounged a lot. Windows from an old mission for twenty dollars, for instance. Maybe we spent a thousand dollars cash, in little dribbles here and there for materials, and ate from the garden and the animals. What we did invest was our labour, and it has been returned to us many times over in friendships gained, as well as in quiet pride in our handiwork. It has also given us a fierce independence rooted in the knowledge that by our hands we can fashion our world.
             We'll never be finished. That chimney still hasn't quite made it through the roof. The sleeping loft is as yet neither loft nor fit for sleeping. The winter cold still nips us in our beds now and then. But hell, we ain't old, we'll keep plugging at our dream home in the woods that is all ours ~ with that little help from our friends.

~ published in Natural Life Magazine 1977


we come in 1966; we stay
buy land with an old log house (1930s or 40s)
laid to ruin by fire
learning the pioneer view
seeing the native way

create your own life
make your own way
build your own house
on your own land


Anatomy of a Saddle Notch
photographs by Eleanor Toshiko Hyodo