'Stand over there, it won't hit you.'
So I did, as my uncle deftly began cutting into the tree that would make the centre pitch of the his cabin, deep in a remote part of British Columbia's Kootaneys. It was a spruce that he had selected some months before, if you aren't familiar with trees, the spruce is a particularly dense wood that when dried is fantastic for log cabins, when wet however, it can be a real task to work with.
Watching my uncle work was incredible, the chainsaw, after years of practice was very much an extension of his arm. After he had felled the tree, which as predicted hadn't hit me, he began cutting the branches around where he had marked the sixteen foot beam. I stood meekly with the axe waiting for instruction, something I had become used to, you could tell he was comfortable working alone. After the beam was cut he called me over, I tied a rope around the shaft of the log and we stuck an iron bar beneath it. Building a log cabin felt very much like practical elementary physics, the log itself weighed somewhere between 600 and 800 pounds and we needed to drag it about a hundred feet before letting gravity 'take over' at a slope behind us, and have the log slide towards the cabin in the valley below. My uncle is built very much as you would imagine a lumberjack, thick and strong despite nearing sixty, to me the task seemed almost insurmountable, this perhaps is one of the greatest failures of twentieth century technology. We pulled the log, which, because it hadn't been peeled (the bark hadn't been removed) was an unenviable task. After about a half an hour, a lot of cursing and one hell of a work out we had the log perched on the hill, deciding on the best course into the valley below.
My aunt and uncle have been living well off the grid for about fifteen years, having both retired early from the RCMP in Edmonton in order to live out this life they had very much planned for themselves. My aunt grew up just outside of Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia she was one of two girls with four older brothers, her childhood wasn't what most 'city-folk' would consider normal, and to her the outdoors, nature was a close friend. She is tough, tough by virtually every measure, but still to an interesting degree decidedly feminine. She loves her garden and making wine from the berries she collects, every night she prepares dinner often from venison she hunted herself and in between she is wandering the forest caught conflicted between her two passions; hunting and photography. When you listen to her recount stories about wildlife encounters, watch her scour the hills for mushrooms and berries, point out different types of flora and note when they are in bloom you begin to understand the deep respect she has for the local ecosystem. Hearing her explain her fascination with hunting becomes substantially more understandable once you have spent significant time with her, once you begin to understand how she was raised. My aunt won't shoot an animal until it is cold enough, it becomes that much easier to make good use of all the meat once temperatures hover around freezing, each night we eat meat that she or my uncle had killed, for them it isn't sport as much as it is a way of life, the have a deep connection with the local game, nothing is ever wasted.
My uncle is a simple man, simple by choice. For him much more value is found being self sufficient in nature than reliant within the city, he is exponentially more happy working his trapline than dealing with the drama found outside his small, yet by square footage relatively large, bubble. Both of them are very well read, something he credits to time out of service when work cannot be done, in many of our conversations I was amazed just how much time we spent talking about philosophies, about the misinformation in regards to nature and about what environmental issues are truly pressing and relevant. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that 'great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss ideas' in a few days spent around the fire without service or internet I was reminded just how much society corrupts that notion.
The log was finally in place, resting beneath two smaller logs which would act as levers to hoist it onto the top of the in-progress structure. My aunt and I began peeling it, which as they predicted was made more difficult by the season, logs are most easily peeled in spring, something about the bark and sap. Despite this it only took about an hour to have it ready, all six hundred or so pounds to be hoisted up about eight feet, I remember thinking as we went how much of this would seem impossible to many of my peers. After a considerable amount of work, where my aunt would go back and forth to help my uncle and I push it up foot by foot from either end, we were finished, all three ceiling pillars were now atop the cabin ready to dry over the winter before completion in spring. By that time my uncle and aunt will have built their trappers cabin with little other than a chainsaw, four hours from the nearest road, a project that despite being difficult and requiring a lot of knowledge was very far from impossible, actually once I was introduced to the methods it seemed fairly straightforward and quick with the requisite man power, the whole time we worked I couldn't help but be reminded of Thoreau's famous book 'Walden'.
Looking back it was the beauty in simplicity which I found most fascinating about their lifestyle, the excitement in my uncles eyes the night before we hiked along a trail he himself had blazed, years earlier. There was an intense purpose that drove both he and my aunt, most of which lay in the solitude. The idea that a small part of the world, really and truly was theirs. As we walked together back towards their cabin near the entrance of the Ferguson Valley I stared in awe at the pristine peaks that decorated the sides of the creek bed. As we came around a bend my uncle stopped and held his finger to his lips, pointing at the creek, where a mountain goat was perched on a rock.
'thats the first goat I've seen in the valley' he said
'he must been passing through' my aunt noted
As she said so, it seemed as if he had heard, about four hundred metres away, because quickly he bounded back in the brush and up the other side of the valley. We stood and watched, and watched, and watched. Finally continuing down the trail.
'I always knew there must be goats around' my uncle said excitedly
As if he was welcoming a new neighbour, I guess he was. Walking back to the ATVs I couldn't help but be overcome by the magic of solitude, the beauty of being one with nature. For the first time it seemed I had realized that we, as humans, really are but a part of a beautiful system, a system that can only be understood once we acknowledge that we truly are, just a part.