Log home course wraps up at Helen’s Fish Camp

The graduates of the Ta'an Kwach'an log cabin building course are already getting a little cocky.

The graduates of the Ta’an Kwach’an log cabin building course are already getting a little cocky.

“They’ve already seen a couple of buildings that they’ve commented to me and said, ‘That one, boy, they didn’t do a good job at this or that,’” said their instructor Don Reams.

“They would have never noticed that before.”

It took Reams and his students less than a month and a half to build two log homes on the shore of Lake Laberge, at Helen’s Fish Camp.

“When they’ll be looking at log cabins they’ll be looking at them with a closer eye,” said Reams.

Twelve students from eight different Yukon First Nations participated in the program, which lasted from early February until March. Another course ran in Mayo near Ethel Lake with another dozen men involved.

“We worked through all kinds of weather and lots of snow,” said program co-ordinator Betsy Jackson. “But the guys did really well and enjoyed it, they said.”

They learned everything from cutting down trees to putting in windows.

“They basically proceeded from logs laying on the ground and lumber piled up in a shed to building two 4.8- by six-metre log cabins with a floor and a roof with metal sheeting,” she said.

The two homes now stand side by side at Helen’s Fish Camp. They were built with thick timber logs and still smell of fresh wood.

The students, who were as young as 20 and as old as 50, spent their nights at the Ba’hai Centre down the road from the fish camp during the course.

“They want to be able to build log homes for themselves and also hopefully for their First Nation and anybody else who is willing to pay them to build a log home,” said Jackson.

“There are quite a few (log homes) spread out across the Yukon and I think a lot of people are turning towards them, especially for their summer place,” she said.

“But also because I think they’re a lot warmer than frame housing.”

Log home building is a useful skill in the Yukon because they can be built for rural needs, said Reams.

“I would say the younger guys haven’t really been into a trapping or bush lifestyle,” he said. “They’re probably pretty much living the town type of lifestyle. So for some time, they’re thinking of building a house.”

“The older guys have likely spent time on the trap line and they’re thinking of cabins out there and all those places they’ve always wanted to build a cabin,” he said.

“Now they can get out there and build a cabin and get working on it.”

The art of log home building isn’t something you learn in school.

“I was down in southern BC (in 1973) and met a fellow there and he was going to be building a log house,” said Reams.

“So I said I would work cheap and worked with him on that building and, before I was through, I had another one planned to build in the Yukon.”

Ten years ago, the Liard First Nation asked him if he would offer a log home course, and the idea took off.

“For a person that doesn’t know anything about log homes, you look at a building and you think they just stacked some logs up,” said Reams.

“But there are some techniques and skills that need to be learned so that the logs fit together,” he said.

“So you don’t have wind blowing though the cracks.”

Reams prefers a low-tech approach because of its attention to detail.

“One of the main differences in log homes is basically the hand-scribed or hand-built homes, like I do, or the machined logs run that through a planer,” said Reams.

“The majority that are sold are probably machined,” he said.

Everything at Helen’s Fish Camp was hand scribed, using chisels, axes and chainsaws.

“We used angle grinders quite a lot this year because the logs were pretty rough,” he said. “So we sanded all the logs before we fit them and put them on the buildings.”

An angle grinder is used to grind metal, but you can use sanding disks on them for wood, he said.

The students studied chain-saw safety, tree falling, rigging and hoisting for five days before working on the logs, which were cut in Canyon Creek.

“The bark was off, but they were peeled fairly roughly,” said Reams.

Reams could have just gone ahead with the rough-looking logs, but the students insisted they be sanded.

“The students in the course said they wanted the logs to look nicer, because they wanted the houses to look good when they’re done,” said Reams.

“It took a lot of extra time, but the end product looks nice.”

Each log dips into the log under it, into a space called a “lateral groove.”

“Each log has to be custom-fit scribed and made to fit into the other logs that are already on the building and then you place them on,” said Reams.

This sounds simple enough, but it’s tough work getting each log to slide perfectly into another without leaving a crack.

“No two logs are the same,” said Reams.

Doors, windows and gable ends were the finishing touches.

“A little stove to take the chill off the place might be nice too,” he said.

Reams designed the log homes, but the technique is more important than the designing.

“There’s not a lot of designing in house like that,” he said.

“We discussed those kinds of things in the course. It’s pretty hard, in a two-month course, to come away saying you’re an experienced full-fledged log builder.”

“In most trades, there is either four years of working all the time or eight to 10 weeks of school per year plus working the rest of the time, and this is one basically eight-week course.”

“In eight weeks you’re not going to learn everything, but it’s a good start,” said Reams.

“I think with the courses that we did in Watson Lake, a lot of the guys went out and used their skills to build a cabin on their trapline or out in a traditional family spot on the lake.

“So it’s really good to see them put their newly acquired skills to good use.”

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