Shelter Essay

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Shelter

By David Hooke ’84


A primer on something more than building.

Quotelines:

'It must bend and twist as the logs do, or as the plot of a good story is shaped by the characters.'

This perspective on when to be precise, and when not to be, makes for the best of companions in any enterprise.

They will feel the bite of a broadaxe into green spruce, and hear the clanging of steel on a hard knot, and smell the mix of old polypropylene and sweat with the sweetness of balsam and the subtle breath of mud.

The temptation to lift a heavy log can be overwhelming for a young man in the woods, especially a man who has never learned the lifelong need to compromise.

The attachment you get to a structure is directly proportional to the amount you have changed yourself in the process of building it.

It is more than memory, of the sawdust that leaked out of your socks when you pulled them off, or the impossibly deep fatigue at the end of the day, or the amazing taste of macaroni and cheese (a taste resulting more from context than ingredients), or the joy of the crew’s geekiest member showing off the rock skidway he engineered to slither a half-ton boulder out of the site, or the lurid screech of a dull file on a dull axe, or the hands covered with pitch and mud like gloves, or the sudden realization of power by 15 people hauling a thousand-pound log with rope.


On the north flank of Dartmouth’s Mt. Moosilauke, alongside cold and rushing Beaver Brook, stands a new Appalachian trail shelter. It replaces one built by Cabin & Trail students in 1957, which replaced an even earlier shelter. The new one is 3,600 feet up the mountain, about 1,000 feet below the summit. The view takes in the nearby Kinsmans and the Franconias, with Mt. Washington rising above them, and when the leaves are off the birches you can see the rest of the Whites, nearly all of them, a great crinkled mass of blue-green. The logs were cut from the College Grant and trucked to Moosilauke. All the materials were helicoptered in. For the most part, though, it was up to the Cabin & Trail students to build the shelter, organized by Pat Carney ’94, Cabin & Trail chair. It was a crucial time for the organization. No major new project had been undertaken in the past three years. The chain of building knowledge had been stretched to near breaking. The students fell back on its old guard—Director of Outdoor Programs Earl Jette, '55a Kevin Peterson ’82, and me—to design the shelter and supervise its construction. But there was a larger purpose to our involvement than the shelter itself: We were rekindling a flickering fire. It is a powerful experience for a student to stand, blistered and sap-stained, on that windswept mountainside. But that doesn’t get the shelter built. What gets it built is the sort of preparation—not all of it physical—that is not taught in the liberal arts, and is taught very little in the rest of society. It is nonetheless an important education. And so here is a small primer. It will not teach you to build a shelter, but it may prepare you for the education.

To build a shelter, you must first understand what you are building, and why. In hiking parlance a shelter is a rectangular building with walls on three sides, low in the back and high toward the open front, generally with a plank floor and a roof that overhangs the front opening to keep the worst of the rain out. Most DOC shelters are made of logs, and these logs were cut off the land locally, and the whole shelter is built simply and roughly. Roofs are of metal or asphalt shingle. Shelters are therefore a peculiar piece of architecture. Though generally watertight and oriented so as to face away from the prevailing wind, they are completely open to the elements. The outside is always present. In a cabin, with its four walls, there is a door that can be closed, gas lights that can be turned on, a stove that can be cranked up to stave off the outside. Even a tent has doors that can be zipped closed. But in a shelter, the outside is ubiquitous, impossible to ignore. The shelter therefore compels an inclusive ethic. Lie inside with your head toward the front, and the woods surround you. The truce with nature is blurred and uncertain. In a shelter, everyone sleeps on the floor, on the same level, and shelter etiquette forbids one from sleeping parallel to the back wall, hogging the warmth and roof. Everyone has just about an equal shot at being soaked by rain or caressed by wind. In this uncertainty lies the paradox that shelters are among the most comfortable places on earth—a rudimentary bend to the needs of the human anatomy, but no more, pulling forth in a completely different context Melville's wisdom that without some small discomfort one cannot truly be comfortable. The luxury of a feather bed is best felt in a cold room, he said. He doubtless would have appreciated a shelter: stretched out flat on a thin foam pad in his bedroll on the plank floor, warm and dry against an October night’s lick of frost, the pack’s weight off his shoulders, the great author would have watched the eternal stars wheel by and listened to the brook chuckle, and he would have felt confirmed, complete.

To create such a structure, you must see how others have been built. A scholar on campus would call this a literature search. Try to find the builders. Learn their biggest lessons, listen to their most important mistakes, have them tell you what humbled them. Picture every step of that process, and then form a picture of your own. When you build a shelter, the zen moment comes when you have the whole thing in your mind, like a kind of story—not the last detail, but the shape of things to come. The characters of this story are the logs: you must know what you have to work with and how you will use it. A shelter is not a structure made of logs, but a collection of individual logs made into a shelter. You will be thinking constantly of the order the logs will go in, balancing the taper and the bends, using the imperfections not so much to cancel each other out as to complement each other. You must, in short, think about how to think, which is at the heart of being a practical idealist. The logs do not allow straight-line planning—an exact determination of what to do in advance. Logs are not straight, and neither must be your plan. It must bend and twist as the logs do, or as the plot of a good story is shaped by the characters. This is not a license to be slapdash. Certain parts of the job require great precision and time. The cornerposts, which define the whole shape, must be hewn properly to create the two perpendicular planes that embody the corner, and then they must be dead vertical and well braced, or some overzealous log-installer will knock the whole building out of true. There is no magic formula that tells you when precision matters and when it doesn't, but fortunately, with practice, you will learn it. My rule of thumb is that inaccuracy matters if is readily noticeable. The people who will help you best are the ones who think like that as well. In fact, this perspective on when to be precise, and when not to be, makes for the best of companions in any enterprise. The site itself may daunt your plans—nothing but woods and a lone flag that marks the spot. Through the trees the Franconias are just visible, giving the lie to what view this building will permit. Chances are, however, you will come to the shelter site without knowing your fellow bulders very well. They will be strangers to you for the most part, and the virtual building in your head must be reconciled with the virtual buildings in their heads. But you will adjust: the building with the site, your building with the ones your companions want to build, your desire to use simple tools with your need to work quickly. [Get the idea of how this builds friendships...out of the adjusting]

Your choice of tools will say a lot...It is not shameful to use a chainsaw, but it is good not to use power tools at all. It is a measure of how far removed from hand tools we have become that is necessary to say that there is nothing in log building construction that can't be done with hand tools, and not even necessarily less quickly than a chainsaw might. Dartmouth's Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, the largest log building in New Hampshire was built under the direction of Ross McKenney, Dartmouth’s pre-eminent woodsman, almost entirely by human and animal power, in the space of six months; the only exception was a gas-powered cement mixer. McKenney also created a forestry team that still competes with other schools in the use of traditional woods skills and tools, allowing students today to build without artificial power if they choose. I hope they do. They will feel the bite of a broadaxe into green spruce, and hear the clanging of steel on a hard knot, and smell the mix of old polypropylene and sweat with the sweetness of balsam and the subtle breath of mud. And if they swing their axe properly, they will earn a particular kind of blister that is the pride of a new woodsman. The sore is on the first knuckle of the left thumb and is caused by the right hand, which glances off it as the two hands come together on the axe handle. This only happens if the chopper slides the right hand up the handle to raise the axe, and then back down onto the left during the swing—offering vastly more power and control than the standard two-handed golf swing. [idea that workin with hand tools is much better for communication - sheer lack of noise plu s requirement of cooperation.] When clearing the trees from the site, you are creating a view, bringing the mountains closer to you. You are also creating mud. With shovels and mattocks you tear into the upslope and pull the fill downhill, making the site level. The result: a hill of clayey soil. Then when it comes to actual building, there is an order, and you should know it, and you must follow it. This is probably true of life, except that in shelters the order should be obvious and mistakes are more apparent. First the logs must be cut and peeled; bark keeps the wood’s moisture in and causes rot. A shelter’s life is short, and your task is to extend it. A dozen conversations will be spinning at once around the mindless labor of peeling logs. Even at this first stage, you must think about gravity. The temptation to lift a heavy log can be overwhelming for a young man in the woods, especially a man who has never learned the lifelong need to compromise. Dragging is more tedious and less dramatic, but the builder’s back is less likely to be crippled. Four people with a rope can easily drag a large log if a fifth person uses a five-foot iron bar to keep the log’s end from burying itself in the dirt (gravity again). Learn the timber hitch, an excellent knot for dragging because it is easy to untie. Get used to the heft and feel of that bar. It is the crudest, and among the most useful, of all the tools you will ever use. There should be rock piles where the sills—the shelter’s bottom logs—are to go. Get the sills settled onto the piles. Now haul the stringers—the next set of logs—across the stream and lay them in rough position atop the sills. This is when your math may be rudely corrected; a small error may mean the waste of a tree, or the need, once again, to compromise, to cut a deal between your plans and the reality at your feet. Notice that once peeled and lying together the logs are no longer the straight, uniform things of beauty you thought they were. Suddenly they have numerous knots and bulges. Rotate the logs until their imperfections marry, until there are no spaces between them. The peavy, a pike with a hinged hook that revolutionized the logging industry in the 1860s, allows you to grip and turn a log easily. Mark an arrow on each end of each log to show which end is up. A lumber crayon is the tool for this; be in the habit of carrying one. The next step is the notching. No, actually, that is not the next step. The next step is to plan the notching. Building from logs makes a person circumspect, untrusting of absolutes (not a bad education for a 20-year-old, when you think of it). The carpenter’s rule to measure twice, cut once, seems to a log builder a flightly and ill-considered plan. In building a shelter, you must measure many times and plan for your measurements to seem to change before your very eyes. When the logs are all notched (it may take several attempts before they sit firmly without rocking or hanging), lay them roughly where they will go. Note where they touch, and how wide the gaps between. In an ideal world, the logs would touch along their entire length. If the ideal is important to you, and you are willing to spend the time, you can hew each log along its entire length. Or you can rig a portable saw jig and mill the logs to make them uniform. It is your choice: to work with or against the logs. I, for one, like to use the irregularities in a log, to take advantage of them. In this sense, too, logs have something to teach us about ourselves and what we do and what we aspire. I will not say what this lesson is, because it is better learned on site than on paper, and I’m not sure how to explain it (having been only recently married myself), except to note that imperfections are not always a bad thing. You may allow some gaps between the logs, but no wider than an inch, so that the smallest hiker’s foot could not slide between and get wedged. It takes a good partnership to fit a log to its neighbor below. You must set it in place, teetering on the top of the partially built wall, and rotate the log, 15 to 30 degrees at a time, to find the best fit. You must argue the merits of a given presentation. You will reach a decision and prepare to mark the log to be hewn to fit, just as you remember you have loaned your last lumber crayon to someone on the other end of the building. You must find another crayon, mark the log as accurately as you can, roll it back off, and set it on the crude staging you built the day before. Now you use a broadaxe, scoring with deep cuts that follow your marks, and then hewing with cuts that lift off chips. You marvel at the broadaxe’s simple efficiency. And you set it aside and muscle the log up to its place, setting it as it was supposed to fit. You and your partner realize that you skipped a high spot, and you argue whether it will do as is. You make the old joke for the hundredth time about not being able to swing a dead cat through the gap, compare the gap with other gaps, take the log back down, hew it some more, and replace it. Perfect. Take a spike out of its bucket, clean off the ice and mud, and drive it home. Stand up a bit stiff, but a log higher, and go in search of the next log. It will not be long before you are building scaffolding to lay on the roof, and not long after that when you are getting the floor joisted and laid, creating a simple pattern of wide pine board by wide pine board, snug and tight. Two weeks [CK] altogether, and then it is no longer a project—an amalgam of logs and nails and lists and helicopter noise and food and gas—but a place to sleep, a place where someone’s family can be snug and safe and inside and still outside at the same time. Inside the shelter you, a student, provided. You yourself will come back, at first often, then less so, then not at all for years after graduation. But the shelter will stay there, and it will mean something to you, like nothing else, except maybe a cabin. What you put into it is what it is, and what will last. As the poet [CK] Gordon Box wrote: “and here’s to the carpenter, may patience guide your hand for the dearer the work is to you, the longer it will stand.” But your shelter will not stand forever, no matter how dear. It will be destroyed, through storm or carelessness or old age, and you will feel the loss deeply. This too is a lesson of cabin building; it would be well to prepare for it, but I am not sure how it is done. The first Stoddard cabin stood only six years before it burned to the ground. Bob Smith ’81 one of the cabin’s eight builders, called a fellow member of the construction crew, Bill Hunt ’80, to tell him the news. The two had not spoken in five years, but Smith had only to identify himself for Hunt to know the message. “What is the saddest thing you can imagine?” said Bob. But Bill was already imagining it: the chars where there labor of love had been. But it was not a total loss. The attachment you get to a structure is directly proportional to the amount you have changed yourself in the process of building it. It is more than memory, of the sawdust that leaked out of your socks when you pulled them off, or the impossibly deep fatigue at the end of the day, or the amazing taste of macaroni and cheese (a taste resulting more from context than ingredients), or the joy of the crew’s geekiest member showing off the rock skidway he engineered to slither a half-ton boulder out of the site, or the lurid screech of a dull file on a dull axe, or the hands covered with pitch and mud like gloves, or the sudden realization of power by 15 people hauling a thousand-pound log with rope. It is more than memory, what remains of a shelter. It is a kind of talisman. Thirty years from now, a gray-haired alumna from the class of ’95 will walk up to the place she helped build as a student. She will set down her pack, and seek out a log in the back wall with an odd swirl of grain, a gall from where another tree leaned and rubbed against this one in its long-ago youth. She will rub her hand over the age-smoothed spruce and think back to the autumn day when she learned how to shape this misshapen log to fit its neighboor below. She thinks of a thousand storms and nights ridden out in cities wrapped in concrete, and of the contemporaneous countless strangers she has sheltered here in this space by that simple act of caring, of setting log on log and making this shelter real. This is not a liberal art, this act. But it is no less an education.

Bio:

Manager of the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge and semi-professional mountain man, David Hooke is author of Reaching That Peak: A History of the Dartmouth College Club.