Little Cabin in the Big Woods

A couple builds a rustic getaway on a pristine Montana site.

A couple builds a rustic getaway on a pristine Montana site

Nestled in the wilds of southern Montana sits a cabin shrouded by soaring pine trees. In the evening, with golden light spilling from its windows, it's an island in a sea of wilderness. And for owners Al Wise and Trish Wolf, it serves as a haven—a place to go when they want to leave the world behind. Trish found this slice of paradise nearly 10 years ago. While driving, she spotted a "for sale" sign just off the road, which led her and Al to a wooded, undeveloped spot they fell in love with almost instantly. "The setting just called for a cabin," Trish says. "I just liked the rustic setting, right on the river." Al had been interested in log buildings for years. "I'd always wanted to do it and the environment was suitable for it," he says. Wanting only a getaway, the couple decided to build a cabin rather than a full-scale home. "The cabin was simple, something we could do ourselves," Trish explains. At just 544 square feet, the cabin provides an unmistakable coziness that's heightened by the trees surrounding it. "The setting is one of the best things about this cabin," Trish says. The land lies on the middle fork of the Flathead River just south of Glacier National Park. Each winter, the area gets between 8 and 10 feet of snow. During the winter, Al and Trish must strap on their cross country skis or snowshoes to reach the cabin, which lies about a mile in from the main road. Even before they began looking at plans, the couple knew they wanted to preserve as much of the land's unique natural properties as possible, building what they hoped would be an unobtrusive addition to the landscape. "We picked a plan that would mesh with the environment," Al says. "We wanted the wood to blend in with the trees." In 1993, they began working with Timberline Log Homes in Darby, Montana, selecting a basic floorplan and making a few minor changes to better suit their needs. The couple chose lodgepole pine for their logs, then coated them with a clear, natural stain. "Lodgepole pine is a tight, hard pine," says Jim Hollingsworth, owner of Timberline Log Homes, which manufactures log structures of all sizes. This particular pine should prove especially durable. "Lodgepole pine takes about 60 years to grow 12 to 14 inches in diameter," Jim says. That slow growth means more rings within the wood, making it tight grained and resistant to disease. "It's a pretty log and it weathers well," Jim says. Al and Trish built the cabin themselves during the summer and fall of 1993. "We had to clear the land, which hadn't been developed. We also had to bring power to the site," Al says. "We did all the surveying, concrete, electrical and plumbing. I'd done some building in the past, but not a log structure." The couple undertook the project in what turned out to be one of the wettest summers in Montana history. "Building in the rain was not fun," Trish says. "Getting the first few logs up was the best part. After the foundation, we put the floor in next and it just looked like a big deck. But then we started adding the logs and it started to look different. I really liked it when the walls were about 4 feet high. You could see the progress. "A small cabin is definitely do-able," she adds. "Building it was time-consuming, but not complex. The electrical was a little tricky and it took muscle just to drill and stack, but it's kind of like a puzzle. Everything comes labeledâ€â€?walls one, two, three and four. It was really gratifying and it wasn't so large a project that it consumed us." This ability to do it yourself is part of what appeals to cabin owners, Jim says. "People really can go out and build it themselves. This isn't a huge project and a couple can get it done during the summer." With the structure complete, the couple turned to the interior space, making it another do-it-yourself project—albeit a drier one. For the kitchen and dining area, they chose fir and larch tongue-and-groove flooring to complement the pine logs. Neutral carpeting accents the main living area. The couple turned to pine once again for their kitchen cabinetry, which a friend built and hauled in one winter day on his toboggan. To go with the handcrafted cabinetry, the couple chose appliances that Al calls "old classics": a 1950s Philco refrigerator and a vintage stove with rounded corners. "I enjoy the warmth of the cabin's interior," Trish says. "Each item has a story and everything is warm and natural." The cabin also features an old wood stove, salvaged from a friend's yard. The stove adds warmth on cold winter nights, working in tandem with the electric heat. Upstairs, the couple's sleeping area consists of a half-loft with a window looking out at the trees and mountains. In the summer months, the best place for nature-watching is the deck on the front of the cabin. Through the years, the cabin has evolved, with the couple adding amenities such as a shower and details including small, woodwork features. "It's been a work in progress," Al says. The couple plans to keep the cabin for many years to come. And although Al says it's unlikely they will add anything more to the original building, the couple has considered adding an additional structure to the site—perhaps a guest cabin or bunk house, something to accommodate a few friends. The couple is in no rush, however. Happy with the cabin and its setting, they are content in the knowledge that, because of their proximity to Glacier National Park, the landscape will not change anytime soon. "The serenity of the place is just really special," Trish says. For resource information, see the August 2002 issue of Log Home Living.

Story by Liz Lent Photography by Roger Wade