The moment of truth! I had lumber staged at the property, some new tools and construction hardware loaded up in the car, and a burning desire to build. It had been roughly a year and four months since I bought the property, and time had flown by without any construction progress; although, it’s not as if I had unlimited time and resources. One step at a time, and what better time start building than solstice weekend and the longest days of summer.

On June 20th, I loaded my backpack full of essentials; sono tubes, one inside the other; steel brackets inside the tubes that would be used to connect posts to my concrete footers; nails and screws; even some rebar and personal items. It made for one of the heaviest loads I had ever packed, but not much more cumbersome than lugging geological research equipment high into the Sierras years prior. It was heavier, but this terrain would be relatively flat.

Getting the pack on was a trick. I had no way of slinging it around or over me an onto my back. My only option was to set it on the hood of my car already elevated while I slid into the shoulder and waste straps. Gravel and grit that had been stuck to the bottom of the pack made a spiraled web of scratches in the paint on the hood, but it was the least of my concerns. Now it was time to step off. Standing still was wearing out my legs. Although your feet take an awful beating under such a load while walking, your leg muscles tend to appreciate movement rather than holding the added weight steady for any length of time. Not more than twenty paces down the trail from the parking lot, carrying my square in hand, I recall hoping that my strength would kick in after a bit of a warm-up. “It’s only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other,” I told my self, knowing that eventually I’d have a few miles behind me if I just kept going.

Eventually I had surpassed the length of gravel trail, crossed a marsh, and was exiting some woods at a second marsh crossing when I caught sight of two men at the far side, working on some planked trail in a particularly wet area. From afar, they both seemed older. One sported a felt fly fishing style brimmed hat, the other had a thick, mostly white beard. As I approached they looked up, and I waved. I was still far off, about 75 yards, and wasn’t particularly excited to run into anyone. It was at that moment that I realized just how absurd I might seem, hauling all those supplies in on foot. Meanwhile, I could make out a couple of nice, glossy new ATVs with the men, just what you’d expect someone to use out there, not a backpack. I figured the meating would go one of two ways. Either a, they’d think I was the next Chris McCandles headed off into the wild for an early death, or, if I were lucky, they’d find some sort of respect for me and my endeavor.

Upon reaching the trail crew, they turned out to be great guys, and were fully interested in my project. They had purchased property in the area some twenty years ago, and just now making use of it. And here I was, a new property owner and already on my way to realizing the dream of a cabin, even if I had to carry it in on my back. Multiple times the older of the two sincerely offered his approval and admiration for what I had undertook. Truth is, though they were clearly impressed, they didn’t have any idea just how much steal and hardware was stuffed into that pack and inside the sono tubes. I kept it to myself while we all got to know one another. Then, my legs tiring, they didn’t want to hold me up for long. A couple shots of whiskey the the bearded old man offered, and I was on my way.

Hours and miles later, and not without difficult travel, especially with the added weight and my feet pressing deeply into any of the marsh I crossed, I finally made it to the property. I can even begin to gauge how long the hike took. I’ve never been one to keep good track of time during long hike, which I suppose is why I’ve been rather good at long-distance hiking. I just get lost in thought and let the time pass, never concerning myself with the tedious effort it takes to make the distance on foot. All I knew is that it was getting dim out, so I took to setting up camp, and even lit a fire just for the occasion. Then I bedded down for the night on the lumpiest ground I had ever set a tent. I literally curved my body into a depression between the rooting masses of ferns beneath the tent floor.

Come morning, I woke to light sprinkles. Nevertheless, I had work to do, and there wasn’t a moment to lose. My first order of business was to decide exactly where the cabin would be, once and for all. Despite having already cleared a camp the summer before, and expecting the cabin to go there, I decided to place it just fifteen or so more feet to the south and away from the nearest property boundary. No need to cut it too close and regret it later. I still was exactly sure where it was, only the general location.

With the cabin site chosen, I then had to choose how to place the cabin. With the design in my head, I had to make a choice for how the cabin would face, what made the most sense, what would look best when approaching the cabin, and would would work well when inside and looking out. I concluded to angle the cabin so that the entry and porch was facing an open ravine. My elevated porch would be right at the top of the downward slope, affording a nice view. Windows on the other end would provide a nice view also, especially the upstairs if by chance I’d get a view of Denali. That was still to be determined. On the ground, and surrounded by trees, Denali was nowhere in sight.

Next the ground had to be cleared well enough that I could move around easily, place stakes and string and be able to see everything. It took probably a good thirty minutes to get all the ferns, devil’s club and alder chopped and cut in a 22’x22′ square area. Most of the ferns were dealt with by swinging my long handled clippers fast enough to knock and cut them down. Whatever worked.

Then the important steps. I had to pinpoint where each footer would be and the exact dimensions of the cabin. The cabin was planned to be 16’x16′, but each footer and post would be set further under the floor by about a foot. This left me to mark out where footers would be placed at the corners of an area 14’x14′. With that in mind, I place my first piece of rebar in the ground to act as a stake, tied orange sting to it, measured out 14′, then placed the second steak. Each stake marked the center of my footers. From there I measured out another 14′ to string a third stake, but this time, using my square, I had to make sure the angle I created with the sting was 90 degrees. I had to move the third stake around just slightly to get it right, then pushed it deeply in place.  The same method, a bit archaic I admit, was used for the fourth corner and stake until I had what seemed to be a nearly perfect square marked out. A rectangular cabin would have been just as easy, but I had chosen to build 16’x16′ for maximum size with the least amount of lumber and greatest ease of construction. At that point I had four footers located, but my plans called for six, one more in the middle on two sides of the cabin to support the center joint of beams I’d place later.

With each stake in place, I was ready to dig. During an earlier trip I opted not to take a new post hole digger out to the property. I could only carry so much weight. I did however manage to take a shovel and had decided that it was better suited for digging the 8-10″ holes I required to fit my sono tubes in place. I had envisioned cutting the sod out in the exact size hole I needed, then working the shovel like a drill, digging in, turning, digging in again, I’d end up with just the hole for a tube. Now, the moment to test my theory. I cut the string and began to cut a circle of sod around one of the stakes. Once done, and with a clear hole started, I removed the stake and began digging and turning, digging and turning, drilling deeper and deeper until finally reaching rock bottom, literally. Just like my earlier outhouse hole, shale rock was reached at three feet. Five more times I did this same routine, taking about fifteen minutes for each hole, until each was complete. I even reached deep into every one to scrape soil with my finger, getting as close as possible to ever bit of rock I could. My footers might not be deep enough to confront frost heaving upward, but they certainly weren’t going to be sinking downward.

This was all handled in the early morning. I still had to make it back to the car and load up for another round of hauling supplies in. No footers would be poured until I had the remaining tubes and brackets on site. So I headed off back to the car with little weight but my own.

I’m not sure where I was getting the energy, but back at the car I loaded up the pack again, this time a bit lighter than my first run; however, I did have to carry an entire tube in my arms the whole way. It was a bit annoying, especially over the course of four miles or so. And once again, I ran into the same gentleman form the previous day. This time they were astounded. I was making a second trek in, and it clearly made a difference in their opinion of me.

“I’ve really got to tell you,” the oldest man said while shaking his head, “I really admire what you’re doin’. You’re really makin’ it happen.”

We chatted again for a while, during which one of the guys offered to send me off with a beer.

“Sure,” I said, “just slide it down into the tube.”

I leaned forward to lower what looked like a portable, mini missile silo on my back, and he dropped the beer in. True, it meant more weight to carry, but I could tell I’d be glad to have it later. And this time I mentioned to the guys that unlike this trip with my lighter load and emptier tube, the day before I had the tube willed with steel hardware. The old man told me about his property, and that how much his granddaughter would like to meet me. It was because of her, on some degree, that he was out there. She had finally seen his property and wanted nothing more than to help him build a cabin. She’d carry the wood in if she had to, which he dismissed. But here I was, doing just that, and to a far greater distance. With growing admiration, and with the hope that my lengthy hike would go buy in an easy blur, he offered up a personal sized bottle of wine and put it in the side pocket of my pack. Next came the traditional whiskey. A couple of shots, and I was on my way.

Well, I didn’t drink enough for the hike to go by without any feeling, but I can say that I had a little spring in my step and a little extra energy. I saved the beer and wine for later, during the big solstice push.

Back on site, and very late in the day, I had no time to spare. I quickly placed tubes in each whole. I then place stakes and string with a string level attached so that I could mark each tube where it needed to be cut. Trapper Creek Glenn - June 20-22 - 013With each tube cut on line, the tops of each would be level and would make all following work that much easier. One by one I cut each tube with a carpenter’s saw, then place it back in the appropriate hole and filled dirt back in around it and packed it in tight. It was time to mix concrete and fill them.

I had a dilemma at this point. Concrete mix requires water and a way to mix it into the concrete. Luckily, from experience I gained in Sri Lanka when rebuilding home lost to the 2004 tsunami, I knew a good method of mixing concrete on a flat surface by piling the mix up, forming a hole in the middle, pouring in the water, and folding the mix into the water. But, how would I get enough water? I quickly fashioned two garbage bags inside a rubber coated bag (“waterproof”) that was issued to me in the army then made my way to the nearest creek. I filled the bag with as much water as I could carry on my back, probably six or seven gallons, and heaved it back to the site. Once there I began mixing concrete without delay. The sun was basically down by this time, but during solstice and days surrounding, it never sets far enough to remove all light from the sky. I worked many hours through the night without ever turning on a headlamp or flashlight.

During those hours I filled each tube to the rim with two bags of concrete each which had to be mixed, sank the brackets in with rebar beneath, and placed small pieces of wood under each bracket between the bracket and the top of the tube to keep them all at the correct height and level. I also was careful to keep each in line so that all my posts would line up, then the beams and so on. Two of my footers were just offset from the rest in each row of three. What that meant was that the bracket needed to be placed off center. I’m the only one that would notice, and everything would work just fine. Still, I was a little annoyed and it took that much more time to get everything situated. Luckily, I had everything in place before the concrete set up too much.

In writing, this all sounds rather quick and painless. Truth be told it took hours, during which I polished off the wine and beer, and I didn’t go to bed until 5:30 a.m. the next morning. That was one solstice I’ll never forget.

The next morning I got up around 10:30 a.m. The concrete was setting up nicely, but I was geared to work. I didn’t have much patience and wanted to start right away. I started calling anyone I could to ask how long the concrete needed to set. I reached my dad who thought by the time I’d place any posts, the footers would be solid enough for just that minimal amount of weight. After hanging up I cut the timers that would become my those posts.

Each timber measuring 8′ long and 6″x6″ in width was cut right in the center. Three of these made six posts, each about four feet high when placed upright. I mounted brackets that would later hold the beams in place to the top of each post. I then ran my string level across all the footer brackets to check that they were still level and found some minor fluctuations. A couple of corners were lower than the rest. My solution, my only option really, was to use the longest of posts in on those brackets. Though I had cut all posts to be equal, there were a couple that were just slightly taller. By the time I had posts cut, brackets mounted, and all level matters figured out, I was confident the concrete could take the light abuse.

Placing the posts was a real trick. The brackets, standard stuff purchased at Home Depot, were junki as far as I was concerned. None of them were really straight. By straight I mean flat and true. No post would ever sit flush against the base of a bracket and be standing up straight. Each bracket was angled just enough to make things difficult. And each bracket had been placed straight in the concrete; it was the folded metal portion of the bracket that was twisted and off. But, neither here nor there, I used washers to shim each post into an upright and true position with the guidance of a level. When level, I drilled into the post, then used lag screws to bolt it firmly in place. Knowing that the lag screws will often have the affect of pulling the post in that direction, potentially screwing up my shimming effort,  I’d screw the one in first that I knew would help cause the post to become more true, if that makes sense.

One after the other, each post was mounted upright on all six footers. Things were really taking shape in my mind. I now had a clear idea just how high my first floor would be, and the exact position of walls. Reaching and completing this step in the construction process only excited me to jump on the next. That meant placing beams. I couldn’t wait, and it wasn’t until now that I realized how easy it would be.

Earlier in planning, I assumed I’d have trouble lifting me beams in place, but at only four and a half feet off the ground, it was going to be a snap. I had no need for the rope and pulleys I purchased just for this purpose. Two of the beams were only eight feet long. I could lift those into place. Two others were twelve feet, but I could lift one end into place, then the other, with little trouble. And so it all worked out better than I could have ever hoped. With one beam in place I checked for level. To me delight it was right on the money. I could get any closer. Then I place a second beam, a twelve footer. It too was perfect! Then for the other side. What were the chances, I thought, that things would continue on so well. But sure enough, the third beam was again level. Then the last. No way. No way could every beam be perfect. There are just too many variables that were out of my control. AND IT WAS PERFECT! I was so jazzed and excited. Then quickly realized that one row of beams could be lower than the othe row, which was more likely than anything considering I worked hardest to keep each row level. Trapper Creek Glenn - June 20-22 - 022With that in mind I ran a string level from one end of a row of beams to the end of the other. And, I could have almost cried for joy; they were level. The other end, well, at that point it would have been impossible to not be level, but I checked anyway, and it was perfect. I dropped everything I was doing at that moment and called my dad to share the great news, that my cabin foundation, against all odds was so incredibly, perfectly, flawlessly level, that I just couldn’t believe it. Being a carpenter, I knew he’d take some pride in that and would join me in celebration of my moment of carpentry excellence. Clearly I got some of the carpenter genes and never knew it.

After screwing the beams firmly into place, I again was overcome with a burst of energy to start the next step, THE FLOOR!

All things considered, this was one of the easier steps in construction. By late evening, I had four rim joists cut nailed together to form a 16’x16′ square on the beams. The hardest part was just holding them in place and upright while I nailed, but I managed. I also nailed in was floor joist through the middle, then called it quits for the evening.

Needless to say, I never took much time to eat during all this work, which is one reason I was getting so much done. Whenever I felt hungry enough I just grabbed a hunter stick (moose sausage), granola bar or something simple, wolf it down and keep going.

The third and final morning I woke with a serious mission. By the time I’d have to hike back to the car to head home, I wanted my floor built and covered with plywood. All day I cut the 2″x10″ joist, by hand, to fit and nail into place, one each for ever 16 inches or 16 inches on center. For each, by the time my arm was worn out, it was time to nail it in. Then onto the next board, measuring, cutting, and the same routine until every joist was in place. My cutting arm always got just enough rest between each sawing.

After a number of joists I was able to stand up on them and have a look around, take in the view that I’d have from then on, from the first floor of my cabin. It was nice, and the extra height made all the difference. I was approximately six feet off the ground. But, the entire structure was severely unstable, swaying back and forth. Some reinforcement boards were needed to stiffen the foundation up. I devised a temporary method using 2×6 boards and nailed them into place under the floor at angles. What little I did made a great improvement, and more would need to be done in the future. For now, it was time to get the floor covered.

Eight sheets of 3/4″ OSB were carried from my stack of lumber and slid up onto the floor joists. One at a time I set them flush with the rim joists and tacked them in place with just a few nails. The OSB is cut with a tongue and groove so that each piece fits together with the next. Problem is, it’s a total waste of time and it’s next to impossible to get them together, especially if any bit of the tongue or groove has been damaged or expanded due to moisture. Still, I jammed them together as best I could and nailed them in place. By the time I was finished, the floor was covered and all the board set flush with the rim fo the loor until the very lase edge which had a minor overhang that I planed to saw off during the next trip.

I barely had a moment to enjoy the new floor and walk around before rain started to fall. I had so wanted to just lay down for a few minutes, take a break, test it out and take in the new view. I had dreamt of that moment of simple, quiet satisfaction. But, fearful of rain damage, I hurried to get the floor covered with a tarp. It was too small and required some garbage bags to be duct taped along the bare portion of floor. By the time I finished rain was falling steadily but not too heavy.

I still had to clean up the site, put away tools and the tent and hike back to the car. I did everything as quickly as possible, wadded the tent the tent up and jammed it under my lumber platform, slid the tools in, packed my backpack and stepped off for the hike out.

I was in a rush to beat any bad rain, but it did me little good. Half way out I was soaked through, cold and miserable. But, at least it hadn’t rained on my while working. I could deal with wet and cold as long as I’d be back in my warm, dry car in a matter of hours. And eventually I was, as usual. My camera was malfunctioning due to getting wet, but other than that, it was a success and fairly trouble free trip. AND I HAD A FOUNDATION AND FLOOR! WOO HOO!