In 2003 my wife and I bought a few acres of land in Bolton Landing New York. It was a perfect spot surrounded by welcoming neighbors who happened to be some of our closest friends. They too had vacant land and one by one we all started building these little cabins. Some of these cabins (shacks) were smaller than others, and some were built better than the next…ours was somewhere in between.
It was fall, and on a quiet day in our little valley you could hear the echo of hammers pounding away. On occasion we’d help each other with some of the heavier work, but otherwise they were built solo. Working in the woods alone seemed easy and unhurried compared to my day job as a carpenter building large custom homes in and around the Lake George area. Instead of loud machines and the typical jobsite banter, I made coffee and eggs over a small fire during the day and we joined together in the evening for warm cider and whisky.
We didn’t have electricity so the shacks were built very differently. On occasion we would use a chainsaw to chop through some of the more repetitive millwork but otherwise everything was done with hand tools. The framing lumber was cheap and purchased from one of the last small mom & pop sawmills in the area. Other materials like metal roofing and windows were scrounged from the waste of all the conventional jobsites I had worked on over the years.
I took my time building but once it was fully buttoned up I wasted no time getting my brother to help me haul a heavy cast iron woodstove up the hill on a makeshift 2 x 4 gurney. We positioned the stove in the corner, assembled the chimney, gathered some wood, and lit a fire for the first time. Now, as some of you may know, a certain point is reached during construction when a jobsite loses its raw construction feel and begins to take on an identity of its own. This was that moment. As we sat and talked over the next couple of hours, somewhere within that time the shack reached a tipping point. It went from that raw cold scented assemblage of pine, glue and nails to a place that would become known for its comfort and shelter. I stepped outside to watch smoke billow from the chimney and while gazing up, I thought to myself, this may be my best fort yet.*
Soon after insulating and getting some of the plaster and panel work finished on the inside, my wife and I began spending the occasional overnight in “The Shack.” That quickly turned into spending most of our weekends there relaxing, reading, cooking, and on occasion throwing parties. Most parties would quickly fill its small 12 x 18 capacity and eventually the party would overflow to the outside.
The following spring we dug deeper into our surroundings and cleared out a few large garden beds. We were pleased at how successful we were at growing our own food so we decided to take it a bit further by getting some chickens and setting up some bee hives. A few years later, in 2007, along with our friend Sam (neighbor, good friend and fellow shack dweller) we started Bolton Landing’s first farmers market. We fell into the whole homesteading thing quickly and decided to keep things simple; learning as we went along and without feeling burdened by doing away with some of life’s more modern conveniences. It was a good time.
Over the next couple of years I inevitably started exploring different ways to make the place a bit more comfortable and a little less mouse-friendly. The most important comfort to consider was a bathroom. I eventually built a small closet-sized room off the side of the Shack with a composting “hu-manure” system that worked perfectly. Confusing at first for some, eventually it was accepted as the norm.
Electricity was the next hurdle and solar power fit the bill perfectly. The closest power line was too far away and we had perfect southern exposure making the decision easy to justify. We also had a friend who had been living off grid for a while and so as we navigated the world of solar, he quickly became an invaluable resource. I installed one 55 watt panel, an antique Heliotrope charge controller, and two used deep cycle batteries. It was enough for us to run a couple of lights, charge a cell phone, and play a car stereo outfitted with custom made “Shackvalley” surround sound speakers.
I would eventually take it further and before long we had a phone line, a full size gas oven, a gas refrigerator, and an old timey ceramic sink fed by water I hauled in daily or on a as-needed-basis. The water pressure was non-existent and would run out quickly with only a small 5 gallon tote placed slightly above the faucet. But it taught us how to conserve water and better yet, the days of cooking only on the wood stove and washing dishes outside were over.
With all the extra demands on our single solar panel we added another one for good measure.
By now everything was smooth with one exception: reliable running water. Short of drilling a well we tried every possible way to get water to our little place. We had a makeshift rainwater collection system that froze up in winter. I built a ram pump and tossed in a small creek a few hundred feet away from the Shack, but that too froze and exploded into many small pieces. So began the daily chore of lugging in warm tap water. Not for us to enjoy since we didn't stay as much in winter, but for the chickens.
While feeling slightly defeated from our water woes, some other problems became too hard to ignore. Our cozy little Shack was becoming too small. We filled it up quickly. Not with junk, but with life in general. A kitchen, books, a couch, firewood, boxes of seeds, boots, clothing, more books, etc. We couldn’t squeeze anymore in while we were feeling more and more squeezed out. All this while the local flying squirrel population decided our roof would make a pleasant place to settle down and have babies.
It was finally time to get serious with our newfound ideals and desires. We needed something more practical. We needed water, a shower; we needed more electricity, we needed more space, and most importantly, we needed a place to call home.
So in December of 2008 I sat down and began drafting plans for a new home. A straw bale house that would sit just downhill from the Shack. It would be a timber frame milled from area trees and with enough solar power to get us through the short winter days. And it would have a deep, deep well with big electric pump way down at the bottom.
This website (blog) will revolve mostly around the process of putting it all together. Ideally I’ll present it in a way that’s more visual, more nuts and bolts, and without dabbling too much into the reasons why.
To bring you up to speed, on June 15, 2012 we moved in. The house is still very much unfinished but the Shack is only a few steps away and we've been able to manage OK. The workload looms and the plaster work is never-ending. The finish flooring needs to be installed and so does the kitchen.
But before I get too far ahead the Shack deserves some more praise. It’s where it all began. It taught us what was possible and what didn't make sense. It helped define what we wanted out of a home and how to adapt to a life using a little bit less. During construction it served double duty as our job-site office and as of this writing, our kitchen. It’s also a place away from the tools and sawdust (my wife is in there right now cooking and listening to the radio…I think). As we shift everything into the new house, the Shack will be spruced up and re-purposed as a guest cottage and enjoyed, as it has been, for many, many years. So while the Shack couldn't keep up with all of our long term demands, it will always stand as a place of comfort…and as a good place to start.
*Best fort ever? A tree fort I had built as a small child was so high up in a tree, the fire department was called to get some of the neighborhood kids down. 20 years later I drove past our old house and from the road, peering into the backyard, I could still see the platform way up in that tree.