Let’s go back in time to May 1, 2015. I have just laid out a small fortune to purchase this 2 acre plot in Northville, New York, with an old log cabin on it. The plot is fantastic, but I’d be lying if I said I’d be quite as interested if the old 20’x20′ pile of sticks wasn’t sitting there, beckoning to be completed and built into something grand.
That’s right, I said completed. The fellow who made the place never finished; he died before he could, around 1975. Since then the place passed hands a number of times, never quite falling back into possession of the builder’s family, though they own plots around it. And through the years, the tenants did not do the property right. The cabin continued to fall into disrepair.
This neglect is responsible for the deepest, most debilitating fear I was struggling with throughout the purchasing process. And here it is:
That’s the northeast foot of the cabin on the day I first saw it in September of 2014. The first course of logs, or “sill” logs, sit on large stones set into the ground. The property is on a large hill (or small mountain, depending on how you see it), and the rain and ground water flows down the hill and toward the back of the cabin. Right toward the ends of the sill.
This probably wasn’t an issue back when it was made, from trees felled right there at the site. The stones in the ground were likely poking pretty far out of it. But over the years the erosion due to weather (it rains like crazy up there) piled the soil higher and higher on the little landing where the building sits, until finally it actually submerged the bottom ends of the backs of the sill logs. Water rots wood.
Knowing nothing about building just about anything, the idea of confronting this issue was very daunting. Could it even be done? Was the cabin doomed?
I talked to experts, and received varied accounts of the way rot is regarded and handled. It was all-important that I find a way to stop this rot and figure out the future of these logs. Replacing sills, which go all the way from the building rear to the front of the porch and are the biggest logs in the building upon which the rest sit, is impossible. They had to be salvaged.
So one of my first trips up there after taking ownership was spent digging in the dirt, trying to unearth the end grains of these logs. In May. In the Adirondacks. Those of you who know the north country out this way surely also know what vicious foe I faced off with then, and have waged war with since: blackflies.
The blackfly is a relative of the leech and the badger, and spends the months of April, May, and June forming clouds over the entire Adirondack Park in frantic search for blood. They are persistent, insipid, and numerous. The bites swell and drain for three days. They move fast and bite fast. Their number during the spring months is so oppressive, that if they were any larger they might wipe out entire populations of warm-blooded mountain denizens. If Adirondack horseflies came in that number, we would have a national crisis on our hands.
Anyway, blackflies are diurnal and rest in the leaf litter on the ground. The best way to find them, which is something no one ever wants to do, is to rustle up the detritus on the ground. And that is how one day in early May 2015 I made a very generous donation to the forest’s blood drive, and spent the next week dabbing the weeping, hot hills under the skin on my face, head, neck, arms, legs, back, sides, and hands. Pretty much every surface but my butthole.
But, though I spent the day in a swarm, I managed to dig out those back logs. After that, it was a matter of letting them dry out, then figuring out the next step.
This is the northeast foot again, after I dug it out of the ground and used a bow saw to cut it back to the length of the courses above it. The end was sticking way out and caught rain and snow, since the eaves in the back aren’t very long. None of that was good for the log’s health.
In cutting it I noticed carpenter ants. They love moist wood. Another bad sign.
I knew, after looking around at the plot, that digging out the areas directly around the logs wouldn’t be enough. I needed something more drastic. My friends suggested getting someone up there with a skidsteer to dig out the ground around the cabin. I decided to take their advice, and in so doing made the biggest mistake I’ve made up there (and hopefully the biggest I’ll ever make).
For some reason, the fellow I hired decided to clear out the entire area around the cabin. The driveway, the raised platform, the gathering area, etc. He built up a pointless mound in front of the place, made a huge, ostructive pile at the end of the driveway, and even cut an extra parking space on the neighbor’s land. None of this was asked for. I had made it clear I wanted only the land directly around the west and north sides of the building done.
But, as it turned out, this wasn’t the end of the trouble. He wound up overturning the skidsteer in the mud created behind the cabin by the movement of the skidsteer itself. He spent most of his time trying to get it out, and damaged quite a bit of ground and trees doing it, using come-alongs etc. He knocked into the cabin repeatedly, gouging it. He tore out a section of rafter and roof. He created a landslide of mud and boulders behind the building that buried the first course far worse than it had ever been. But worst of all, he pushed against the building in his attempts to right the skidsteer, and shoved the entire cabin off its original spot. It slid across and down the rocks it was resting on, and bent over the feet that support the front porch.
The whole cabin was far off level, and surrounded in a mud pit. The mud, I knew, would drain away eventually. But the rest . . . The situation with the contractor was poised to get worse, so I cut my losses and walked away, refusing any further work.
Here’s a look at the mudslide that engulfed the back of the cabin:
After that, a great part of the summer was spent digging the building out. Just moving the mud away from the building. It was during that time that I learned how close the bedrock is to the ground surface up there. Plans of a french drain system evaporated.
I spent a lot of time very muddy. And a few wonderful friends got right in there with me. The work had to be done by hand. After dealing with a dishonest, incompetent contractor (who later became threatening), I committed to doing all further work by hand, without the aid of heavy machinery.
But it was rough going. I couldn’t even get around the property without my feet getting sucked into the mud. Had to put down boards to walk on and to push my wheelbarrows over.
I already had so much work to do, and so many things I wasn’t sure about. This was a disaster I did not need.
In time, we managed to clear all the mud away from the back of the building, all by hand. Much of it went to the front to make something of the lump of land the contractor had left there. Some of it went places where the torn up ground needed leveling out.
Garbage and scrap I’d left at the foot of the property had been buried and needed unearthing. The fire pit had been destroyed and had to be re-dug and rebuilt. The logs that were pushed into the building had to be re-set to the window frame and spiked in place. The broken rafter had to be mended with lag screws and wood glue. Boulders had been lumped into the muck near the building, and had to be removed with rope and ingenuity.
But some things were not as simple.
The movement of the entire building posed new problems. The doors no longer opened and closed properly:
The porch supports were toppled. And a curious lack of support beneath the floor in the northwest corner drew my attention to a problem that would become clear once it had been dug out from the mud:
The northwest sill had broken.
All hope of arresting the rot and saving the sill end was lost. The building was sitting on its second course. In the break I could see that the rot on this side had traveled several feet up the sill log. Now that it was broken, there was no purpose in simply drying it out, supporting it, and leaving it be. Something else had to be done.
I have a saying: When circumstances are apt to become effectively impossible, the apt become impossibly effective.
I was locked in at this point. Flight wasn’t an option, so fight was the only choice.
Remember the telephone pole from the last segment here, called Getting in Touch? In this new disaster was a challenge I had to rise to, and the pole was the key. Over the following year, I used the pole to replace both the two wooden front legs of the porch, and the broken sill.
You can see the old southeast porch leg here, leaning way over due to the entire cabin being pushed out of place (it was level originally). The bottom of it is touching soil, which is another problem. Notice the coping on the new leg, which includes a flat section to support the dimensional member on the edge of the porch frame. This was one of the first copes I ever did, and it’s rough, but it worked.
Above is the southwest porch leg, before and after. Notice the single rock the leg is barely resting on. That telephone pole makes a nice aesthetic match for the cabin, doesn’t it?
After digging out the existing legs and lifting the sill with a 20-ton bottle jack, I was able to remove the old legs, which had rotted at the bottoms, set stones into the place where the new legs would rest on the ground, and set the new legs. Once in place and leveled, I drove spikes in to the copes at an angle to secure the legs permanently.
It’s all rough work, but it’s a rough cabin. And the forty year-old telephone pole pieces looked just right against the forty year-old cabin members.
The stacked-stone-under-log porch support in the center had also shifted out of place. It had slipped off its supports and caused the whole porch to sag.
Fixing it involved jacking up the second course under the front door and the porch front, and re-stacking feet and the short log support itself before letting the building sit back down on it.
It worked out well, with better stability than it ever had before the disaster.
The broken sill was another matter. The broken piece had to be removed, and a new section of telephone pole had to be added in. Jacking up the building, which is a nerve-wracking event, was next to impossible. The jack just didn’t have the range of movement needed to get the building up high enough.
I made a cut on the log behind the break, where the rot was mostly absent. Then I cut and tore at the broken piece until it was mostly removed, save for the portion pinched into the second course hook:
Then I cut a piece of telephone pole long enough to bridge the gap, and at the right diameter to match. I decided to drill and tap in a length of galvanized threaded rod into the center of the old and new pieces as a way to lock them together once in place.
The piece looked good, but there was still that last section of rotted sill to remove before I could put in the new piece. Turns out, it was pinned in place.
Most log cabins have lots of metal pins, often just plain rebar, driven into each course of log and down into the one below it. As you add courses of logs you keep pinning to the prior one, so that when you’re done, the whole thing is bonded together throughout instead of just at the corners where you’ve notched them. There are very few pins in this cabin, but apparently there are pins in the corners.
I hacked and dug and hacked and dug, but it took quite a while before I could dislodge the last chunk of thoroughly rotted wood from the second course hook. Once I realized that there was a pin holding it in place, I brought out my reciprocating saw with a metal cutting blade. That did the trick. Here’s a clip from right after I freed it:
Sorry about the loud breathing, I was working pretty hard.
Inserting the new piece turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. It had to be whacked in with a sledgehammer, and it took me the better part of an hour. Destroyed my arms and shoulders. I lifted the building as high as I could get it, but still it bore weight down on the pole segment. I wailed on it in shifts, taking breaks to catch my breath and replace the chock I was using so that I didn’t strike the pole directly. I obliterated several of these before I finally, at long last, got the new piece in and guided it into the hole in the dangling remainder of the sill.
A pretty good match, right?
The cut ends meet on the outside of the building but there is a gap on the inside, which is okay since it won’t be seen. When it comes time to chink, there will be a short vertical line of chinking over this seam. Perhaps I’ll stain over it however, so it becomes harder to see.
It took a year, but I managed to fix the feet of the cabin, as well as enhance a few of the others. All I needed was a few jacks, hammers, a chainsaw, and an old telephone pole the power company discarded.
The doors opened and closed correctly after these changes. The porch steadied and was strong. And though the cabin was sitting a little off kilter now, it seemed to settle there and not move further. Though the whole building sits on stones and not deep-set piers, there seems to be no frost heave, and I think this is due to the shallow soil depth on this mountain.
The floor could be made level when it came time to tackle that project, but that was a job for much later on. The areas where the contractor’s heavy equipment gouged and tore at the wood of the cabin would eventually become part of its character. And the mud gradually hardened to dirt and new plants began to grow in areas less trafficked. Where ferns had covered the property before, soft grasses grew. The stones unearthed and deposited in loose soil were useful too, so I set them aside as they were handled.
Though I’d have avoided the whole thing if I could go back in time, at least the ground on the west side of the building was cleared away, and that provided an avenue for drainage.
Now that it’s been a while since the whole incident, I don’t feel the heavy heart that plagued me during. The sense that I had made a big mistake in taking on something so big, and about which I knew so little. Now, what I focus on is the way I handled repairing and replacing. The way I learned new skills, and gathered experience. The way that digging made my back strong.