It is popular nowadays for ecologists and survival celebrities to inform the world that the action of building one’s own shelter is a human right. From personal experience, I believe it to be more of a punishment.
At some point in our development, my father thought it was essential that he teach his sons how to build their own shelter…perhaps because he harbored hopes that we would move out. Our first goal in this new endeavor was to find a suitable location, which we did on a friends property, a small clearing conveniently located next to a swamp. I believe we thought that the swamp would keep us cool during the warm summer nights we envisioned spending there. It could have also been because there was a windfall of pines nearby, and we didn’t have to haul the logs very far.
We set to work cutting and positioning the pine trees, stacking them up into a rectangle roughly the size of a small bedroom, and then lining pine poles to form a roof. To keep the water out we layered chunks of thick rubber conveyor belt which had somehow ended up in our hands, hopefully legally. Inside the cabin, we then proceeded to dig down a foot into the ground. The reader will readily notice the great benefit of digging down through roots and rocks and hauling out bucketloads of dirt instead of just adding another log to walls so we could stand up. Or, we may had run out of logs.
The cabin was a questionable affair, lacking all the comforts of home, and deliberately boasting some additional discomforts. Built during the warm temperatures of early fall, we saw no need to fill the large gaps in the walls where the twisted pines zigged and zagged. As we admired our handwork, beholding the view afforded through the walls without the need for obtrusive windows, we commented, “For air circulation. Yes! For air circulation!” That dillusion lasted until we tried to spend the night in it during the winter. The faint whispers of “for air circulation…” could be heard late into the night…if you could block out the distracting sound of teeth chattering and frozen feet clinking together.
I am not sure how many winter nights we spent in the cabin. Most of those memories have now been repressed. But the general strategy was always the same. We would pile all our essential food and gear into the back of the suburban and drive out to the cabin. We would unload everything into sleds and drag it down the hill to the frozen swamp and our luxury accommodations. We would then proceed to build a fire and cook whatever food we had brought along. Sometimes we would ski through the forest or across the lake, and at other times we would just sit close to the fire.
In order to sleep in the cabin one had to follow a strict preparatory regiment. Everyone knew that morning started early when out in the fresh air. Morning actually started late the night before since there was no real way to sleep longer than a few hours. For that reason, it was best to get to bed early. First one person would yawn and stand up from the campfire and comment on how tired they were and warn that they were headed to bed. Then another person would look at their watch and state that it was only 7:30. The first person would then sit back down and go back to poking the fire. This would last until the boredom grew to insupportable levels, and everyone would decide to head to bed, normally around 7:45.
Once inside the cabin, preparations for sleeping were fairly complex. First, you wanted to make sure that you survived the night. It might seem rather obvious, but it couldn’t be assumed. You must plan for how you would 1) keep the cold out; 2) keep the warmth in; and 3) make sure nature didn’t call in the middle of the night and disrupt the previous two. A failure in any one of those areas meant a night of no sleep…at best. At worst, well, there would be some explaining to do in the morning.
Someone would load wood into the rusty metal stove in the corner, and then everyone would begin to put on more layers and begin to work themselves into an assortment of sleeping bags, blankets, and tarps. One night I pulled myself into my old army surplus mummy bag and tested the oft-repeated advice of sleeping in the buff for more warmth. It only took fifteen minutes to realize it was a filthy lie. To add more misery, the way the chicken feather insulation poked me was unbearable.
By the time you were just about to fall asleep you could look through the rust holes in the old fireplace and watch the last coals die away. That meant you had about forty minutes before hypothermia would set it.
On one particularly cold excursion we pulled ourselves out of our sleeping bags after having survived the night. At least a couple of us were convinced we had actually survived a year of nights. The universe has a way of slowing down the clock so Misery can take her jolly good time. That morning, as all others, the first moments of daylight were dedicated to getting a fire started and making some breakfast. While everyone else was busy preparing things in the cabin, I gathered an armload of wood and birch bark to set to work on the cooking fire. At the time I was a firm believer in the “brush pile” method, which is essentially heaping a large mass of brush in the fire ring, and then setting fire to it. Having lumped together enough combustible material, I then struck a match and gently placed it to the base of the pile. A small trail of smoke and then nothing. I tried again. And again. And again. Every time my frozen fingers would get the match close to the pile, the wind would blow it out.
I pulled my gloves back on and trudged back into the cabin, looking for my lighter. Unbeknownst to me, my father had observed my feeble attempts at getting the fire going. Wanting to be warm just as much as I did, he generously soaked my meager attempt at a campfire with gas from the chainsaw fuel can. By the time I exited the cabin with my lighter, he had moved on to another task.
I took up a strategic stance, positioning myself to block the wind, crouching down low over the fire, and ignoring the smell of gasoline. Very deliberately I moved my lighter to the pile, and gingerly placed the open flame to its base. What happened next can only be explained by the famous words of Jerry Lee Lewis, “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!”
Not one to be overly pessimistic, I would like to point out a couple things which went right in this whole scenario. And these silver linings to the mushroom cloud of the experience have had a direct impact on my current physical state. To begin with, my contact case had frozen in the frigid temperatures of the previous night. This meant that I had been fortuitously wearing my glasses which not only blocked my eyes from the direct flame, but also created a funnel for the flame to pass through, relieving me from the unnecessary, and visually extravagant, presence of eyelashes and eyebrows.
The second blessing was that in the split second I saw a flame surging toward me I opened my mouth and yelled. The heat and flames quite completely burned my tastebuds, an effect which saved me from tasting what we would later be eating on our survival expedition.
There were many more trips to the cabin throughout the years, most of them in warmer temperatures. Each year in mid summer, as the swamp would bless us with its bountiful supply of mosquitos and horseflies, we would lay in the cabin at night and slap at the insects. If you could get past the buzz of tiny wings you would hear someone muttering, “for air circulation…”