In all men in some degree the wilderness wish exists, however hidden in the haste and habit of the world we make. For me, this wish is symbolized and fulfilled by log cabins I have known, built or lived in. I am thinking especially of certain remote cabins sequestered on the banks of rivers or the shores of little-known lakes. And there is one cabin in particular...
This one is on the roadless shore of a lake in the wild, mountainous region north of Katahdin, in Maine. It is the realization of a very long, strong wilderness wish. My wife and I built this cabin, mostly with our own hands. The view from its windows and the smoke from its chimney are a constant source of wonder and of warmth. The night sounds are music, the moose tracks a mysterious record in the dooryard. Six months a year for nearly 10 years this cabin has been our home?the only one for which we have ever been homesick. This is a score for the wilderness wish, or the log-cabin dream.
Every true wilderness cabin has a story. There is history in the slant of its stovepipe, the dents in its water pail, the scars in its chopping block, the footpaths in its dooryard, and in the very pitch of its roof.
Whether its purpose be for hunting, fishing, vacationing or living, the cabin itself and everything in it are by the hand of a man using age-honored tools. By the mark of his ax and the track of his chisel and plane, his designs have formed; and from his handiwork you surmise what manner of man he is, and something of his policies and dreams.
BILLY GRAY'S CABIN
Such a cabin was Billy Gray's on the bank of the Nepisiguit River in northern New Brunswick. In a south wind the smoke from Billy's cabin had a peculiar lean to it. Drifting downward over the high bank of the river, the wind created strange drafts around the stovepipe, so that the smoke leaned outward in a long blue column before it vanished in the sky.
I have never laid eyes on Billy Gray. I've never known anyone who has. His cabin was old in 1930, when I saw it for the first and last time. But perhaps it still stands by the lonely river, a lard pail capping its chimney, rusted ax in the pine stump, tin cup hanging on an alder by the spring, and its windows like eyes in the wilderness.
Ollie Rodman and I beached our canoe at this cabin an hour ahead of a violent July thunderstorm. In the stillness before the storm a mass of flies hatched over the river, and we took eight fine trout on fan-wing Green-well's Glories. It was classic dry-fly fishing on a classic river. And when the storm let loose, we took shelter in a classic log cabin.
It smelled of cedar, pitch and the smoke of untotaled fires which had burned in the ancient Wood & Bishop stove. The peeled-spruce wall logs, laid horizontally, were chinked with moss and river clay. The fir rafters and ridgepole, straight as masts, tapered imperceptibly; and each log was beautifully notched and fitted.
From the evidence in this long-abandoned cabin, Billy Gray had been a trapper, hunter, lumberman, reveler and superb craftsman. His elaborate door latch was whittled artistically from pine. The pegs in his walls were as smooth as dowels. A pair of handmade snowshoe bows stood in a corner, the rawhide webbing eaten out by mice. A birch rolling pin and breadboard hung beside the stove. On a shelf were the plane and crooked knife with which Billy had shaped his cedar stretchers for fox and mink skins.