During a break from the construction
Lilean catches a Pike for dinner
The Rewards of Sweat Equity
By Lilean Nicolaison
"Let's build a log cabin! If we do lots of work
ourselves, we can save money, spend time outdoors, learn new skills, not to mention get
our 15+ years of office job bodies into shape!" Great idea, Chris! I pondered the
rewards of yet another Nicolaison family project. We can plan and work together, everyone
chipping in, as it was done in the good old days! "No! Please no!"
Eric and Gina protested. "Please, Mom and Dad, not another family project!"
|That summer we researched every
book on log construction we could find and visited several local log contractors'
handiwork. Our plans for a 1500 square foot log cabin with a second story sleeping loft
and cathedral ceiling with open log purlins emerged. Our goal was to capture the charm of
an authentic old north woods log cabin in our new structure. Our chosen site,
perched on a granite outcropping crowned with towering jackpines, overlooks the U. S.
Canada border, near the pristine one million acre Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota. A few moments thought
were given to the fact there is no road or electricity to our remote building site. What
the heck, the pioneers did not have those luxuries either, yet many of their log
structures are still standing hundreds of years later. Of course, their life expectancy
was around 35, just about our ages.
That fall and winter we welcomed the challenge of selectively clearing our building site,
which was totally brush and dead-fall covered. With the assistance of an adrenaline rush,
I outran a falling tree. After experiencing the feel of needles brushing the back of my
head, shoulders and back I now always stay a safe distance away from dropping trees!
Working in hip deep snow, we created a nest on which to set up our tent. We braved our
first night winter camping at 26 degrees below zero. The wind, whipping across the icy
lake, took on the thundering sound of a locomotive train barreling in upon us. The aroma
of hot coffee perking over the campfire finally persuaded me to abandon my sleeping bag to
latch on to a hot mug to defrost my fingers.
We experienced firsthand the quality of authentic old tools. After some horse trading, we
managed to barter a beautiful antique draw knife. Visits to several antique shops provided
us with log dogs, log carries and the infamous "two man carry", later renamed by
our contractors the "one man, one woman carry". At spring thaw we broke ground
with picks and shovels to remove the huge boulders deposited on our site by glaciers.
Using an antique winch system, come-alongs and block and tackle, we slowly moved massive
granite boulders, several over six feet tall, inch-by-inch. After struggling several days
we finally succeeded in standing a huge boulder on end but we had no additional line or
blocking available. Our dilemma was solved when Grandpa Carl, jokingly pronouncing he
could take care of that with no trouble, waddled over and lightly tapped the boulder with
his shovel. To our glee, the boulder crashed over, knocking over two considerable cedar
trees in its path!
The heat of summer found us carrying 75 pound bags of sand and gravel up the hill on our
backs, after transporting them in tow across Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes. Chris and his
brother Rusty did a commendable job carrying heavy sacks of concrete up the considerable
grade. I found the concrete work similar to cake decorating, and trowled the mortar joints
with the flare of a French pastry chef. Our first mixer of concrete poured into the huge
fireplace footing resembled a teaspoonful in the bottom of the huge hole. We used several
huge granite boulders as footings and piers to our rugged cabin site. We were shocked to
be only 1/4 inch off when we checked our work with a transit.
Logger Dave Eliasen had been "grooming" a stand of logs for many years. When the
surrounding forest grew heavy, he thinned trees to ensure even light filtration, creating
an excellent environment for the Norway pines to grow straight and tall. A visit to the
log site near Greenwood Lake on a clear summer day brandished the skill and talents of
lumberjacks with years of experience harvesting their product. The logs were transported
the thirty miles to a site close to town so we could get into the log peeling mode that
summer. After all, we wanted to be close to those logs so we could spend every spare
moment for several months with them. The first peeling consisted of removal of the outer
bark to the cambium of each log. After several months drying time, the more difficult
second peeling refined the finish of the logs prior to assembly.
I experienced a true love-hate relationship with the logs. I also questioned the wisdom of
two office workers taking on this battle. A few years ago, Chris had back surgery and I
worried what we might encounter. Our first day Chris and I succeeded in peeling
two-and-one-half logs. Looking at our stack of several hundred logs, I felt overwhelmed.
Chris hummed and sung his way through the log peeling process. He pronounced his back
never felt better! As day after day dragged on, I began to experience a renewed feeling of
strength overall. I believe log peeling is right up there with aerobic cross training and
crunches. All without the costly athletic club membership fee!
Armed with a mini drawknife, Grandma Percy peeled relentlessly for hours. Grandpa Carl
peeled and supervised, with needed rests along the way. Eric peeled away like a madman.
Whiskey and Mike and the few friends we had left gave us assistance along the way. Philip
and Ada stopped by frequently with cold refreshments to lend a hand where needed and watch
their cousin Chris with amusement. Finally in early winter, we worked our way near the end
of the pile. Our best day was our last, in more than one way. Working from morning until
night, we peeled a total of eleven logs. With the last log, we uncorked a bottle of
champagne, drank, sprayed, danced and generally acted silly. Now the fun part would begin!
Contractors Steve Sande and Dave Seglem began the work of precisely fitting each log.
Chris and I had the credentials required for the "bull work". Tim Briggs and
Glenn Nilsen pinch hit whenever and wherever required. Each peeled log was rolled to the
temporary building site, wrestled atop its location, scribed against the lower log, rough
cut with a power saw and trimmed with a chisel. Finally, the precision edge was cut with a
sharp fillet knife. Scribing and fitting the logs requires the strength of a bull, and the
lig ht touch of a surgeon.
It was astonishing to watch the crew work! They strolled on six inches of wet, snow
encrusted log, leaping over tools of the trade, pirouetting at the end of the log, bending
and displaying flexibility and grace, all while wearing size eleven Sorel boots. In the
process, they balanced a running power saw eight feet or more above the ground! With the
walls assembled, we began the disassembly and transportation of logs up the Gunflint
Trail. With the assistance of Mike Senty and Scott Backstrom, the trucks were loaded and
headed up the Gunflint Trail in no time.
Rain! Rain! Rain! Our logs were spread around Gunflint Lake's ice when it began to pour.
As quickly as six inches of standing water was upon us, the March weather turned colder
and it appeared our logs would freeze solid into the ice. We worked for hours elevating
each log out of reach of the threatening ice. It was all we could do to pry the last log
out of the ice as the thermometer dropped to 30 degrees below zero. That night Chris fell
asleep completely dressed, clutching a soda tightly in hand.
"The Narrows" between Gunflint Lake and Magnetic Bay is known as extremely
treacherous waters with dangerous currents and thin ice. Folklore has it, native Americans
paddled quietly through the narrows, beating softly on their drums to appease the spirits.
Weeks before, we painstakingly built an ice bridge with pails of ice water and mountains
of snow to allow safe passage of logs, snowmobiles and crew. Our bridge between the two
lakes was washed away with the relentless rain. We had a difficult choice to make. We
could abandon our plan, attempt to tuck the logs on shore until spring, hoping they would
weather satisfactorily, and count on untapped resources to transport the logs in the
summer. Or we could come up with another plan. That evening, we walked across Gunflint
Lake's frozen ice cover with long faces, knowing that we possibly had met our match.
Steve contacted a few old timers for advice. "No problem!" said Carl Mort,
"just unload the logs at the narrows, attach a rope and pull them into the open
water, cut an angled ice slide into the ice on the other side and pull them out."
Just like that. Accompanied by Dick Smith of Gunflint Pines, we proceeded to tow each log
across the icy sheet of Gunflint Lake by snowmobile, unload, then pull each log hand over
hand through the open water, up to the other side. Reloading, we then towed a second time
by snowmobile to the shore of our site. Using an old Model T powered commercial
fisherman's net winch we finally winched each log slowly up the hill to the elevated
Chris had a refreshing experience at the narrows. He was running alongside a load of logs
one minute, and submerged neck deep in the icy waters the next. Although quite a shock,
his pride was hurt more than anything. The wool clothing he was wearing, along with the
extra woolen goods packed away for a "rainy day" were lifesavers. I always
thought Norwegians enjoyed saunas and
Hastened by the rains, the ice formed a slush layer then took on the ominous
characteristics of spring ice. The dark ice was going out on Magnetic with our logs
scattered all around! Hastily we winched each log up to shore, just in the nick of time!
The ice receded several feet from shore by the time our final log was safe. During
the construction phases, we experienced several seasons and our ways of travel were
varied. We snowmobiled, hiked, skied, snowshoed, climbed gingerly over thin ice wearing
life jackets and safety lines, rode dirt bikes, pushed canoes over ice, and boated to the
site. That may be another story!
For my birthday my Mom and Dad surprised me with several antique light fixtures
originating from a CCC camp established in the 1930's up the Gunflint Trail. Dad saved the
light fixtures for many years, relinquishing the shiny brass and copper chandeliers to be
the "crowning glory" of our log cabin. We shared birthday cake and together
imagined the beauty of those light fixtures, once we had the opportunity to blow off the
dust and polish them. As spring break up was upon us, we rushed to put the finishing
touches on the roof. Tragically, we received news of the unexpected death of my
father, and shortly thereafter the death of one our friends. We relinquished the
cabin to quietly winter until spring.
We returned by boat in early May. The world renewed itself! We left ice and snow, and
returned to greenery, fresh water and streams. We threw ourselves into working on our
cabin, surrounded by the healing powers and peace of nature. Summer found us beginning the
finish work to our cabin. Sanding the logs in the window openings, we installed
true-divided light windows, with sliders intact to allow for the cabin's settling. We
hooked up great-uncle Olaf's antique barrel stove for heat and ran to the lake for
"running water". With the application of three golden honey colored finish
coats, our logs became protected against ultraviolet rays and water.
years have passed and we now enjoy our cabin at a more relaxed pace. We take time to fish,
explore and enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We occasionally work on the cabin too,
but now we refer to it as our ten year building plan. Eric saves his Air Force leave to
come home and visit us at the cabin. Teenager Gina usually has a friend in tow to help
make the family time more bearable. "Grandpa's Rock" stands in front of our log
cabin as an eternal monument to Grandpa Carl's life and character.
The antique light
fixtures are polished and hang from the log purlins, in memory of the of twinkling blue
eyes of my father that watched over me for years. We have been asked many times if we
would consider building again under similar circumstances. At first, I was not sure. I
believe our cabin is a testament that families can succeed in whatever they set out to do.
Several generations of our family worked together in constructing our family retreat and
building many blessed memories. But I realized we needed time to re-energize.
Completing the finishing touches of our recently constructed log real estate office
encourages me to reflect upon our first log construction adventure. Our newest log
creation overlooks the natural harbor of Grand Marais, and is surrounded by the ambiance
and beauty of Lake Superior's rugged north shore, in contrast to our cabin's wilderness
It was indeed an excellent time to embark upon a Nicolaison family project . . .