Written 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.
During a break from the construction
Lilean catches a Pike for dinner
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 building site.
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.
A few 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 setting.
It was indeed an excellent time to embark upon a Nicolaison family project . . .
Lilean Nicolaison owns and operates Cobblestone Realty in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Located on the corner of the Gunflint Trail and Highway 61, look for the beautiful log cabin overlooking Lake Superior.