"UBC days, me (Dick Andersen) standing on the top step"
The Building of Alasker Inn
as told by Dick Andersen
Many books have been written about how to construct a log house. This is not one of those. This is the incredible story of how, in 1949, two teenagers, one 16 and the other 18 years old, built a cabin entirely of logs on Hollyburn Ridge. It was built 7 feet off the ground, without power tools and was finished in one summer, with work done mostly on weekends. The following is a detailed account of how this remarkable feat was accomplished. It is the story of Alasker Inn.
To begin, some background information is necessary. I was twelve years old in 1945, when I returned to West Vancouver after five years in Ottawa. I soon started hiking up the Westlake trail from our house in Ambleside, to ski on the small Graveyard and Popfly hills. There was a ski jump opposite the Hollyburn Lodge and I joined the competition as a junior because there was no expense involved and besides, I was half Norwegian. The whole Burfield family ran Hollyburn Lodge, after buying it in 1945 - Pop and his wife, Fred and his wife "Baggy" and Harry. It's a curious coincidence that Fred and Harry Jones ran the Westlake Lodge, while their namesakes Fred and Harry Burfield ran the Hollyburn Lodge. Both Fred's were older, more serious and married, while both Harry's were younger, single and less serious. Both Harry's would later die in accidents, one in a plane crash and the other in a car crash. The Jones family lived next door to us on Esquimalt Avenue in West Vancouver and the father ran a bicycle shop at 14th and Marine Drive. The next person to live in the Jones house was a quiet, single man, who later jumped off the Lions Gate Bridge.
My skiing continued for several years during which time I was struggling with school, due to a problem with ADD (attention deficit disorder). Then, when I was 15, a chap arrived from Shanghai by way of San Francisco who would become a life-long friend and mentor. This was Dwight Peretz. He was two years older and very bright. In fact, he did all the chemistry and blood work for his stepfather, Arthur, who was a doctor in West Vancouver, because there were no laboratories in the 40's.
Dwight had a neurological condition which affected his balance, so he couldn't do sports, whereas I was involved in skiing, rugby and pole vaulting and had very good balance. (I could walk a slack wire). Because we lived within walking distance, we saw a lot of each other and became tuned into each other's interests and strong points; he into my sporting activities and I into his academic pursuits. With his help, I was able to pass chemistry and eventually get to university. He was particularly interested in my winter activities and so in 1948 his parents rented a cabin for us from the Burfields, which was close to their lodge. Then Dwight heard that for 15 dollars you could get a 99-year lease on a cabin site and he said, "Why don't we build our own?"
This coming from someone who had never held an axe, whereas I had been splitting wood since preschool years, so knew how difficult it would be. It was only Dwight's naive optimism that got us started. His father was so sure we'd never do it that he offered to buy us a stove if we ever finished the task.
Having committed ourselves, we looked for a site and with the help of Fred Burfield and the ranger, Jack Wood, we found a spot in a valley beyond the jump hill. There was a creek a hundred feet away that ran down the Mobraaten trail to Westlake. This would provide cold, clear water for drinking and cooking. Ours would be the highest cabin on the mountain, although at about the same time, John Halstead and Wally Thompson built cabins just across the creek.
Not trusting us to fall the right trees, Fred and Jack cut down the right number and size of balsam firs on the hillside above the cabin site. Now the real work could begin.
Since we knew nothing about cabin building, we consulted with Fred Burfield who had built his own and others. They typically had a barn roof the front of which extended over a porch creating a mezzanine above for sleeping. We'd meet with Fred every Friday evening and over coffee he'd tell us what we had to do on the weekend. While building, we stayed in a small room at the front of a large log dormitory next to the Lodge.
Our first job was to acquire equipment. There were several second-hand logging stores in Gastown where we bought an inexpensive peevee, adze, snatch blocks, rope and a splitting axe. My father provided two crosscut saws, a single and a two-man and bought us a lovely small double-bladed axe. No power tools! From a chap in North Vancouver, we acquired some "dogs". These are large 17" iron staples that hold logs in place while being worked on. All this heavy equipment had to be packed up the mountain. First, from Esquimalt Avenue to the top of the properties, then up the trail to Westlake Lodge and then over to the Hollyburn Lodge and finally to our cabin site.
With the help of a friend, we began the project by trimming the trees, bucking them into lengths and peeling the bark off. Doing this in the spring when the sap was running made it easier, however, the logs would have been better preserved if there was no sap. But then it would have been a far more difficult task. The friend who helped us in the early stages was Bruce Montgomery from our high school. I don't recall how he became involved or what he actually did, but he later disappeared, I think to join the air force.
The next step was to cut a small tree, about 8 inches in diameter for a "gin pole". This would stand in the centre of the cabin and be supported by several ropes that would allow it to be angled in different directions. We borrowed a winch from Norm Deacon's ski tow which we attached to a tree and then ran the cable through a snatch block at the base of the gin pole and up to a block at the top.
Initially, we placed the large seven-foot yellow cedar support posts in the wrong place, a somewhat wet area. On Burfield's advice, we lifted them with the winch 30 feet to a drier spot. When the first long base logs were placed on top, we cut and placed 8 sway braces to make the frame of the cabin rigid.
This was after we had winched all the peeled logs down from the hill to the cabin site. Dwight winched and I guided them with the peevee.
Some years earlier, I had helped shovel snow from roofs of cabins built at ground level and with ten or more feet of snow it was hard work This was why we decided to build our cabin seven feet off the ground.
Jack Wood had recently built his Ranger's cabin using interlocking square notches which required less skill than round notches, so we decided to do the same. With Dwight winching, we'd lift up a log with the cable that ran down from the top of the gin pole and I'd guide it into place. After measuring for the joints, Dwight would make two saw cuts after which I' d stand on the log and knock out the wood between the cuts with an adze. In this manner, we complemented each other. Dwight doing the winching and sawing, while I, with my better balance, climbed around the logs and did most of the axing and adzing.
Each weekend we'd put a round of logs in place, two each day. After each log was notched at both ends and placed on the one below, it was scribed on both sides. This was done with an adjustable, inside caliper. Opened about 2 inches, it was placed against both logs and run down their length. Done on both sides, this left two parallel lines and when the upper log was rolled out, there were two wavy lines on the underside, about four inches apart. With the log rolled out, you could stand on the previous log and with an axe, cut a vee out the length of the log between the lines. When the log was rolled back in place, it would fit perfectly to the log below.
Before starting on the log walls, we cut down about a dozen small trees which were flattened on one side and notched into the base logs about two feet apart. These joists would support the floor.
Between each log, we laid a string of oakum, hemp fiber soaked in pine tar, which was supposed to keep bugs out.
The ends of the logs at windows and the door where held in place by large wooden pegs that were cut and shaped and banged into holes made above and below with a large hand-turned auger. One window was a large single-pane that looked to the east, while on the west, there was a double frame that opened. The same pegs held together the upper logs at both ends as they tapered to a point 20 feet high. Like the Burfield's cabin, ours had a barn roof that extended in the front over a porch, forming a mezzanine for beds.
Although I recall in great detail how the cabin was constructed, I'm at a loss to explain how the upper logs at both ends and the ridgepole and stringers were placed. We had no ladders or scaffolding and the peak was about 20 feet high. Dwight couldn't climb around on the logs, so I must have done it. When you consider that the upper end logs were scribed and pegged, it must have been very challenging. It's also amazing that there were no serious accidents, apart from Dwight cutting his big toenail with the axe. A minor problem.
At the end of each weekend, we'd stagger up the hill and stand looking down, admiring what we'd accomplished. It was dark when we headed home down the trail, lighting our way with the aid of a "bug", which was a candle in a tin can that gave just enough light to see the path.
Dwight's older brother, Godfrey, was an engineer with the American Can Co. in San Francisco. He found us summer work with the company in Vancouver and after an exhausting weekend we'd retire to our cushy jobs at the can company to rest up!
In Vancouver, behind the Burrard Street Armoury, they were tearing down army huts and the flooring was up for grabs. Hitching a trailer to Dwight's small car, we loaded a huge pile of lovely dovetailed fir and headed home. Halfway through Stanley Park the trailer started to sway and yaw and suddenly the car was flung up onto the sidewalk. With little traffic, we backed down and continued on our way, more slowly.
There was a back trail leading down from the Lodge that you could drive to and Fred Burfield then pulled the flooring up to the Lodge with his tractor. We then had to pack it half a mile to the cabin where we nailed it in place.
Next came the shakes. Red cedar only grew at a lower level and the shakes, five feet long, had to be tied in bundles and packed up the long back trail and over to the cabin. Fortunately, a classmate, Barry Sones, (his father was the school librarian,) had volunteered to help us out and did all the splitting. Dwight and I had cut smaller shakes before, but we were running out of time and were glad for his help. Barry was supposed to share the cabin with us, but he moved up north after graduation.
After the windows were in place, we carried the stove that Dwight's father had promised, from the Lodge to the cabin. A tinsmith in West Vancouver made us stove pipes and a "Yukon", a double-layered structure where the pipe goes through the roof. Just as we finished the cabin, a single-seat chairlift began operating from Hat Inn to High-View Lodge (which later burned down). We brought an old sofa up on the lift, but it still had to be carried a mile to the cabin. After fashioning a door, a table and a bench, we were finally in business, just in time for the start of winter.
Unfortunately, it snowed 6" before we could attach the shakes, but then it melted during the week, and we were able to complete the roof, nailing the shakes to the ridgepole and stringers.
A few boxes nailed to the wall held our food and a Coleman lantern with two mantles provided light. One box was of particular importance because it held our supply of booze! Dwight's parents did a lot of entertaining and had a large collection of liquor. Any bottles that were somewhat empty were spirited up to our wine box. I remember my first taste of crème de menthe. We didn't drink much, but we sure had variety.
After the cabin was completed there was one more piece of construction, an outhouse. Like the cabin, it had to be built high off the ground. Two trees, close together, were selected and after digging a small pit, an enclosed one-holer was built with a ladder leading up to it. Nobody used it much in winter because it was hard to get to and the seat was very cold!
During our first winter it snowed 15 feet and it was very cold. We'd be in our sleeping bags kept awake by loud banging sounds. These were caused by expanding frozen moisture in the logs that made them crack with a loud report. There was no visible damage and the logs eventually dried. With so much snow, we were glad the cabin was 7 feet off the ground because the roof could be cleared in 20 minutes by just cutting chunks and letting them fall to the side.
The following summer Dwight's parents, Arthur and Gwen, made a trip up the mountain to see our cabin. The trail they took branched off from the start of the Wells Gray run from the peak of Hollyburn just beyond the Popfly and ski jump. It then wound down through a scattering of blueberry bushes and through a grove of huge hemlock trees to the hill overlooking the cabin. It was one of the most serene and beautiful spots on the mountain. Unfortunately, a road was later bulldozed through most of it for a cross-country ski trail
We met the parents in the woods halfway and unbeknown to them, I was crouching amongst some blueberry bushes with a black sheepskin draped over me. As they approached, I grunted and moved a bit which caused Gwen to scream, "Bear!" Arthur meanwhile calmly walked towards me holding out a sandwich hoping to feed me! Knowing it was illegal to feed bears, and thinking Gwen was about to have a heart attack, I stood up. I think I made their visit a memorable one.
After the cabin was completed, we both went on to UBC, where Dwight entered medical school and I studied biology and fisheries. Later, Dwight would join his father in general practice for four years before going to Montreal to train as a cardiologist. Meanwhile, I switched from fish to humans and did my medicine at McGill, after which I joined Arthur for two years before going on my own as a family doctor in West Vancouver.
My relationship with Fred Burfield continued when he became a patient of mine after he left the mountain. Even after he moved to Vancouver Island, he continued to travel to my office for his check-ups, where we would talk more about our days on the mountain than his medical complaints.
It was while Dwight was in the east that a major repair to the cabin was needed. Being on my own and busy, I had no choice but to turn the cabin over to the responsible young nephews of patients, who could do the work. It was better to have a standing cabin that we didn't own than a pile of broken logs that we did own. We still made many trips to visit what was now called the "Shrine", often with friends who were amazed at what we'd done. Unfortunately, the nephews weren't all that responsible because they didn't shovel the roof and it collapsed. After this the cabin took on a new shape, as they replaced the barn roof with a traditional shingled roof and put the shakes around the bottom.
I give them credit for preserving it even though it had a new look.
Subsequently, the cabin went through several ownerships. It is now owned by a retired fireman, Ric Titcomb. He informed me that recently a large tree fell across the front corner of the cabin knocking it askew and breaking sway braces. If it hadn't been built with square notches, it would have fallen down. A cable was hooked onto it and it was pulled back into position and sway braces replaced. And so it has continued to survive.
Considering our ages, 16 and 18, it was probably the biggest thing we ever accomplished and the memory of it has stuck in my mind for 65 years. The cabin is still standing, but neither I nor the cabin can last forever, which is why I wrote this chronicle. Now people can read it and enjoy building their own "virtual" cabins with much less effort, while marveling at what two young, novice, teenagers were able to do back in 1949.
Chris Kelly & his daughter Frances beside Alasker Inn, October 12, 2014