The Cabin Chronicles Pt. 1: The Decision

by Robert Maxwell

For as long as I can remember I've had the urge to live in the wild. While other kids were sucking back TV and video games, I couldn't get enough of the outdoors. When I was 10, I decided to scratch this itch by building a wigwam in the woods on my dad's land. I didn't have the permission, tools, or know-how needed. I did it anyway. With a hand saw borrowed from Dad's toolbox, I headed out to begin my adventure. I cut some tall, thin spruce trees and leaned them against a horizontal maple branch to form the wigwam's skeleton. I cut thinner sticks and wove them between the spruce poles to form walls. Taking inspiration from my favourite wilderness adventure stories, I harvested strips of moss from nearby exposed limestone bedrock, and placed them on the wooden skeleton. I figured with enough moss, my wigwam would be weatherproof. Within a couple hours a storm hit and I got to test the theory. It was flawed, but I was hooked. 


Fast forward 7 years. The year was 2008, and I was about the graduate high school. I remember getting called into the guidance office to speak with a counsellor about my plans. At the time, I had none. "Many of your peers have already applied to two or three post secondary institutions", she said pointedly. "I don't see any applications in your file yet." She didn't see any because I hadn't sent any. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but pouring 4 years and thousands of dollars into more schooling didn't seem like the answer. Not for me. I had a vague idea about taking a year to explore my options, deciding what sort of career would best suit me before choosing a school. Trouble was, the more time I spent researching university courses, the less impressed I was. I became increasingly convinced that university was not the best, and certainly not the only way to gain the knowledge needed to start a digital media production company, an idea that had grown on me gradually. I thought perhaps I could teach myself. But there was something else. I wanted to build. Not as a career, but as a growth experience. I wanted to live in a cabin in the woods made with my own hands, like Thoreau on Walden Pond. I don't know why, but a tough, physical life in the wilderness has always appealed to me. I couldn't reconcile this desire with a university education, so I let the year slip by without mailing a single application. I had no idea at the time just how heavily that decision would ripple through history.


A few months later, while many of my friends were sitting in lecture halls for the first time, I found myself in the middle of the woods on a remote corner of my parents' 91.5 acres of forest and farmland, digging a hole. I had decided to fulfill my cabin building dream. I didn't know a thing about building, but was full of enthusiasm and felt I could handle any challenge. I wanted a simple, natural life, and a cabin in the woods seemed like a great place to start. I knew not all my life would be simple and natural (I had just started making websites and videos professionally), but I wanted to live as close to that ideal as possible. The first step was building a foundation. That meant digging down to bedrock. I knew bedrock was close to the surface in the spot I had chosen, and figured a few minutes with a shovel would tell me just how deep my foundation needed to go. Frustration quickly set in. Half my shovel strokes hit rocks, sending painful vibrations through my arms and shoulders. The other half connected with thick tree roots. Not one scoop of dirt came easily. Finally I hit bedrock, about 18 inches below the soil's surface. I was sweaty, dirty and discouraged. If digging one test hole was this hard, how could I expect to dig 8 large holes for stone foundation pillars? I had no idea. And that was just the beginning of the foundation. The enormity of what lay before me filled my mind, overwhelming me. But I refused to be so easily defeated. The real work hadn't even started yet. I told myself I would succeed no matter what. If I'd known what lay ahead, I might well have given up.


I was lucky to have an expert builder dad, who helped and advised me through nearly every step of my cabin journey. The first step was building 8 natural stone foundation piers to elevate the structure above the ground, allowing for ventilation. Why stone? Beauty and authenticity. It would have been much easier to use concrete blocks or sonotubes, but I had caught the Maxwell bug for doing things in the hardest, longest, most attractive way possible. I started learning old fashioned stone masonry from my dad, who built his entire three story home from hand-shaped limestone. The work was gruelling, but I enjoyed it. I learned to cut thick stone blocks with a masonry saw, tool them with a hammer and chisel to the exact proportions needed, then carefully lay them in a bed of mortar, one on top of another. Slowly the first foundation pillar took shape. I built the pillars in plywood boxes to keep size consistent, so I couldn't see much of my stonework at first. When I finally pulled the plywood away, I was surprised how ugly things looked. The stones were beautiful as I knew they would be, but the joints between them were a mess. Loose chunks of mortar, cracks, and protruding lumps made it clear my work wasn't done. My dad introduced me to pointing – the neatening and styling of mortar joints to make them stronger and more attractive. I spent a few days with a bucket of mortar and some masonry trowels, smoothing and filling the ugly gaps between the stones I'd laid. Finally I had 8, beautiful, authentic stone pillars, ready to support the weight of a cabin. I was thrilled. I figured now that the stone work was done, the rest of the cabin would be easy. I'd learned the basics of framing in high school shop class, and it didn't seem too difficult. After the walls, all I had to do was roof, siding, and interior. How hard could it be? Harder than I thought, as it turned out, in more ways than one.


The first stages of my cabin building project. I built 8 plywood boxes to act as forms for stone foundation piers.
The first stages of my cabin building project. I built 8 plywood boxes to act as forms for stone foundation piers.