Archive for December, 2017

Birth of a Cabin


“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them.”

Henry David Thoreau


It was a frigid Christmas Eve afternoon. With a hot batch of rice pudding cooling for the evening feast, Nancy and I booted up and headed out to the stack of red pine logs. Each step elicited a sharp squeak in the snow as we wended our way along the sinuous packed trail.

I was as eager to peel my first log as any five-year old is to unwrap a coveted Christmas gift. This first log would be my Yule log and the task of peeling it would initiate a long held dream of building a log cabin.

A Yule log was a ceremonial log paraded into the holiday house. The thick end of log was set into the fireplace while the rest projected into the room. Each day the log was slowly fed into the fire over the twelve days of Christmas.

It is purported that Michelangelo, the noted Renaissance sculptor, declared, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it.” As I stood before the hefty pile of 57 logs, I want to believe there is a log cabin somewhere there. I simply have to whittle here and there and then assemble them. Sounds simple enough. In a delightful way, I now own the adult version of a Lincoln Log set.

Only weeks ago each of these logs had been standing tall in friend Joe’s red pine plantation. Back in the late 1970s, Joe and his family planted thousands of seedlings on the sandy fallow fields they owned.

Joe takes great pride in managing his nearly forty-year old trees. Over the years he has regularly cut hundreds of trees so as to create a healthier stand. The chosen survivors will respond with a thickening of girth and a filling of canopy.

Joe obliged my dream with giving me a great price for two 22-foot trailer loads of logs ranging from twelve to thirty feet long, each with a diameter of seven to twelve inches.

Other than laying a campfire or helping with a log cribbing for a lake dock, I have never built a log anything; so why now?

I’ve always wanted a small studio/writing shack/guest cabin in the woods next to our house. But it wasn’t until this past September that I decided to follow through on my dream.

I was visiting a dear 93-year old friend named Stan. About twenty years ago Stan built a small log cabin. He studied books on log building and jumped into the project. When I asked him about his later-in-life-endeavor he looked at me with his piercing blue eyes, smiled slightly and replied, “Tom, few things in life have brought me greater joy than building that little cabin.”

And with that pronouncement it was settled. I was going to build a log cabin. How could I not pursue “greater joy?”

Knowing very little about building such a structure I’ve talked to log builders, bought and borrowed books on the subject and began perusing the many video tutorials on You Tube. I love being a student of something new.

But first things first: remove the bark. The logs are green and heavy. If I leave the bark on while they cure over the coming seasons, I run the risk of having bark beetle infestations.

On the other hand the serpentine engravings chewed by the hidden beetles can add hieroglyphics that no human can emulate. While the squiggly tunnels bored into the wood can be lovely, I don’t want to run the risk of messing with the log’s integrity, so the bark will be peeled.

Nancy and I chose a twelve-foot log and we managed to team-lift one end up onto one of the pair of stout sawhorses I built for this project. Strong backed sawhorses are a must and out of respect I named them Sven and Ole.

“One. Two. Three. Lift!” We complimented each other for a job well done and then we repeated it at the other end of the log. Both Sven and Ole stood solid and never made a peep.

A new electric winch hanging on a tall, stout tripod will lift the remaining logs high enough to position Sven or Ole into place.

For removing the pine bark, I was armed with an antique drawknife. I had purchased the tool at a treasure-rich farm auction that spanned three days at the Carl Almquist farm near Almelund, Minnesota back in 1978. It was said that the auction attracted folks from nearly all fifty states.

I took my handmade Swedish Gränsfors axe and whacked any branch stubs off the log. I was glad I had spent time the night before sharpening the edges of the drawknife and the axe.

With the Yule log at waist height, I reached the drawknife out and pulled the blade back towards me. Strips of brittle brown bark curled and popped away as I worked down the trunk. I rolled the tree and repeated the effort until I was left with a gleaming log.

As I worked I wondered about titling this log cabin. After all, Henry Beston had his “Outermost House” and Aldo Leopold sought refuge at “the shack.”

Among the potential place names that came between puffs of exertions were •Fortress of Solitude

  • Sylvan Shelter
  • Pinus residencia (Pinus resinosa is the scientific name for red pine) •Eleanor’s Play House (in honor of my three week-old granddaughter) •Sylvan Stuga
  • Heartwood
  • The Nest,
  • Hygge Huset (Hygge, pronounced “hue-guh” is from the old Norse word hyggja,which originally meant “to be” or “to think.)

I’m open for the reader’s thoughts and ideas.

In less than half an hour, I stood sweating in the cold air feeling a surge of excitement over the skinning of this first log. Only fifty-six more logs to peel.

Uff da.

Christmas Tree Recipes

“Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

How much I love to eat thee.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

You give spruce salt and hot tea.”


Heaps of sugar, sacks of flour and blizzards of colored sprinkles are flying off the grocery store shelves with Christmas cookie season upon us. Hams, turkeys, meatballs and not enough lutefisk are also adding heft to those carts. And on the way home, why not pick up a Christmas tree or two.

Easing into another December, Nancy and I continue to show our eccentric colors and have once more erected a stout tripod of buckthorn trunks and wrapped it in ribbons, lights and assorted decorations. It’s quite lovely, requires no watering and sheds nothing. And it is the tree that keeps on giving. We can save the holiday tripod and set it out in the garden next spring. It makes a splendid trellis for the vines of sugar snap peas or pole beans.

This year we will be giving away some tasty gifts derived from Christmas trees; in this case specifically spruce. Red squirrels, red and white-winged crossbills, porcupines and even bears will feed regularly on conifer trees. In survival books you might find spruce listed as an emergency food, which generally implies you would only eat it under dire situations.

I learned to value spruce for culinary treats while we lived in the Yukon Territory of northern Canada. There I learned to collect and freeze the soft green tips of spruce in the spring. And if we made the sixty-mile trip to Skagway, Alaska we would often lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company where we quaffed a glass of spruce tip beer.

In Minnesota, the window of opportunity to pinch off spruce tips is late May and early June. The optimal period lasts only days, and it can vary from tree to tree. Simply take the tender, bright green tips, put them in a plastic bag and freeze them. You can process them later.

Or you can dry the clusters immediately and mince the tender needles into fine little pieces to add to various dishes.

One of my favorites is spruce salt. It is simple to prepare and offers a unique flavor that I promise will raise the eyebrows of your dinner guests. Simply chop the tender spruce needles in a food processer to a fine consistency and add to your salt. A little bit will add a distinct flavor that I especially like on broiled salmon.

Another treat is to blend minced spruce into softened butter. One of my favorite uses is to put a dollop on venison steak as it comes hot off the grill.

With cold weather upon us a hot pot of spruce tea is tasty and good for you. One Yukon friend was a firm believer in making spruce tea when he felt a cold coming on. It is a good source of vitamin C.

Last summer, while paddling on a windy chilly morning on the giant Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan, we stopped before paddling a long exposed stretch to boil up a pot of hot water. We tossed in a hefty handful of freshly collected spruce tips for a flavorful tea. And I am here to tell you we succeeded in making the tumultuous crossing. Popeye might use spinach in those moments of needed strength but we had our spruce.

While out in the bush one day, a Yukon friend and forager accidentally cut himself. Immediately he took his knife and scored the bark on a spruce tree. It didn’t take long for the sticky sap to weep out of the slash. He smeared fresh sap on his cut and the blood flow halted. He left the resin in place until it dried and then later peeled it away. Sometimes repeated resin applications are necessary but with shallow injuries one application is usually enough. The sticky nature of the resin also inhibits the growth and spread of bacteria.

Some of our Yukon neighbors like to make spruce tip syrup and even spruce tip vinegar but I have yet to try them.

Be sure to take that new 2018 calendar and jot a reminder to investigate the spruce trees in May. When the tips are tender and bright green you need to get out and harvest. Remember a little bit goes a long way; in a few minutes of collecting tips you will be set for plenty of good tasting.

And you will not look at a Christmas tree in the same way.

Bear-ing a Gift


Our house is pretty quiet. But the other day I detected a stirring in the basement. Was a mouse twitching its nose around our stash of squash, potatoes and apples?

I eased down the stairs hoping to catch a glimpse of the noisemaker. This wasn’t the first time I’ve done the basement sneak.

A few years ago, mutual surprise erupted when I discovered a cottontail rabbit sitting in front of the washing machine. We stared at each other for a second. Then the rabbit scurried and skittered across the basement floor and disappeared into the labyrinth of piled firewood.

A quick investigation betrayed the rabbit’s entry into the house. The outside screen over the dryer vent had fallen off and the rabbit had taken an unfortunate slide into the basement. It took three days and fresh kale leaves inside a big live trap to catch the fugitive lagomorph. After scolding the rabbit to not return, I freed it outdoors.

I heard a noise again from beneath the basement stairs. Was a mouse exploring the integrity of the rubber of my chest waders? Or was it interested in the packed boxes of toys stowed away before my two daughters left home and went off to find mates and new homes.

No, this noise sounded more like a slow awakening. There was no quickness or alertness authoring this disturbance. It was born of lethargy similar to that of black bears that emerge from winter’s hibernation.

We are a long ways from spring and yet when I opened a plastic storage box, a small bear lay with its unblinking eyes staring as they always have. The rounded left ear was partially torn away but nothing that a few minutes and a needle and thread couldn’t patch. The large plastic eyes were not as clear as they once were and the shiny ribbon that graced its neck is long gone.The label was tattered and faded. But hey, what do you expect? The bear and I were introduced to each other sixty-five years ago.

From a nearby box I extracted the baby book my mother had made for me. Here was a piece of my own history with pages of black and white photos, captions inked in my mother’s cursive. Soon I was turning page after page, remembering some of the moments captured. It didn’t take long to find the image of my first Christmas Eve. I I was sitting in front of a Christmas tree, flanked by a chubby new Teddy bear, a gift from Great Grandma Carlson.

Two months ago I attended the annual Theodore Roosevelt Symposium in Dickinson, North Dakota. I heard about the origin of the Teddy bear in a presentation by Darrin Lunde, biologist and author of The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History.

After three days of bear hunting in Mississippi in 1902, Roosevelt had not seen a bear. The guides tracked down a bear that the hounds had trailed and attacked. The guides managed to capture the wounded bear and they tied it to a tree, beckoning Roosevelt to come and shoot it.

Roosevelt refused. He deemed it unsportsmanlike to shoot a tied animal.

Soon political cartoonists portrayed the president refusing to shoot the bear. New York candy shop owner Morris Michtom saw one of the cartoons and got an idea. He requested permission from the White House to christen two stuffed toy bears that his wife had sewed with the title “Teddy’s bears.” He placed them in his shop window and sold them quickly. Other shoppers began requesting such a bear. Soon Michtom was mass-producing them and Teddy bears were launched across America and Europe.

I put the baby book away and eased the Teddy bear out of its hibernacula. With the mystery of the ramblings settled, I carried the bear upstairs into the new light.

The sun glistened off the fresh snow in a manner unlike any I’ve witnessed. Perhaps all seems brighter with the birth of my first grandchild the day before. I think it fitting that I mend a bear’s ear and clean it up before shipping him overseas to know another special Christmas Eve with little Eleanor Kay.