Monday, September 13, 2010

On The Banks of the Klondike by Marcia Lee Laycock

We drew the plans on the back of a pack of cigarettes. It was to be an octagonal log house on the Klondike River. Every Yukoner’s dream. I have pictures of it all – the first one is of a friend, standing in the centre of the markers, stakes driven where posts would be. The backhoe is behind him, waiting. We discovered later we had measured wrong, and when the holes were dug the house had become larger by two feet. Someone said something about how much wood it would take to heat it, but we kept going. Posts were soon standing in a circle like primitive landmarks.

We found the centre pole by the river only fifty yards from the building site - a massive cottonwood that had been polished to a smooth grey finish by the water and sun. A neighbour's tractor helped to pull it and hoist it into place, then we built the floor around it of ten inch planks. Going for a walk one evening, I was startled by the sight of that tree, a stark but somehow powerful statement thrusting up thirty feet into the air as though it had suddenly grown there, in that barren spot where nothing had been before.

I scrambled up onto the floor, went to the base of the pole and lay down on my back, staring up the long grey length of it, watching the high scudding clouds that would soon be blocked out by a complex and angular roof. I felt that we were somehow betraying the landscape, to close it out, wanting instead to have openness that would let the green hills still surround us, the rushing river still speak. It was a summer fantasy that I knew would be replaced with the need to be enclosed as the days grew colder and the walls rose higher.

The log-peeling was mostly my job, and I took great care with it, skinning the logs down to the under-bark, peeling even the thinnest layers away until the bare wood gleamed smooth and white, then treating them with a solution of bleach and water to ensure they would stay that way. At first it was enjoyable work. I let my mind wander as the days grew hotter through that summer, but the day came when I went to the task, draw-knife in hand, and looked despairingly at the pile of logs yet to be done.

It was with relief and anticipation that I heard the thump of the bridge that morning. Company was coming. The peeling could wait. Pauline and Bob were the first to arrive, Pauline with an enormous bowl of potato salad and Bob with a new generator in the back of his truck. Sally and Greg came next, carpenter's tools and draw knives in hand, then Barb and Pat, Bruce and Brenda, Terry, Julie, Liz and several more. Someone brought a salmon, freshly caught from the Yukon River that morning, and the barbecue pit was put to use. At the end of the day we had seen much accomplished and much food consumed and we had a newly kindled love and respect for our friends.

We did finish the house before winter. The final task was to hang the front door. It was a foot thick, made of planks, filled with insulation and hung with large black barn door hinges. It had a hand-carved handle and was beveled into the wall. When it swung shut it thudded closed, completing the house like a switch completes an electric circuit. Two days after we hung it, we moved in. The day after that the temperature dropped to minus 40.

I remember walking down to the river to get water on that first morning, the earth crunching beneath my feet, the river already noisy with bits of floating ice. Turning back, I watched the straight pencil line of smoke rising from the chimney of our new home. My nostrils threatened to close as I breathed, but I knew I was only moments away from the warmth of the stove, the cup of coffee, the good book just begun. The thought of the coming winter was no longer a threat. We had a home.

Marcia now writes from Central Alberta Canada. Visit her website -


  1. Sounds idyllic, Marcia. Thirty years ago, I, too, built my house with my own hands. I live in it still and love every inch of it, even the mistakes Be it a humble hut or a crenellated caste, there's no place like home.

  2. What an adventure! We fantasize driving to Alaska. Maybe we'll drive by your cabin!