A Cabin in the Woods

Almost four years ago I lived by myself in an old, historic cabin in the North Fork region of  northwest Montana–just across the river from Glacier National Park. It was completely off the power grid and for company, I had a dog, cat and hundreds of mice to keep this woman all but going crazy.

At the time I was the program director at a youth environmental education center and when I first took the position in May, I was supposed to live and work at the former Forest Service work center and then come winter, find a new place to live  in town and work from the main office in Kalispell. There was a long line of program directors before me and they were all men and they had all lived on site, from the center’s busy field season in the spring and summer to the bitter and dark days of winter. Typical Maggie, I too, wanted to join their ranks and stay on and not feel like I wimped out on the full experience. Most of my motivations in life stem from a male influence. Whether it’s still trying to impress my father or prove my salt on the ski hill, I remain that little tomboy trying to fit in with the boy’s club.

I’m also not the office type person either. Give me a day spent outside, throw in some manual labor and I’m all yours. Put me in front of a computer, make me wear dressy clothes and I’ll bail. I wanted to spend my late fall and winter working by oil lamp and exploring the Big Creek area, examining wildlife tracks and watching the creek slowly turn from rushing water to ice. I also didn’t (and frankly, still don’t) like my boss, so I pushed as hard as I could to stay on in the cabin. She and the Board of Directors relented, noting the value of my presence to care-take all of the buildings, from the mess hall to the dorms.

A few folks tried to warn me about how difficult it would be: living all alone in a very remote area, a good long drive to town on unplowed roads, keeping up with the firewood supply and removing snow from driveways, decks and roofs. My friends reminded me that I’d be an hour’s drive from the ski hill and that really, I’m kinda social and wouldn’t I get lonely? Once again, motivated by a few very adorable woodsy men who described my upcoming experience as “cool”, I disregarded their concerns and continued to split firewood.

I had a rocky start with this organization and my first summer was beyond brutal. I was hired because the former director quit unexpectedly because he was so frustrated, burnt out and fed up with the lack of support and incompetence from the executive director. The program was in its mid-season and with his departure, his staff were deeply hurt and also every bit as angry as their former leader. I, as the new boss, was viewed as an extension of the ED. As a small non-profit, the organization was under staffed, over worked, and grossly under paid, so my transition was not smooth. At the peak of the summer, two hours before the start to the fly-fishing camp, one employee literally flew off the handle and threatened to kill me. I worked 16 hours a day; tried to convince the staff that I was on their side and wanted to learn from them; drove 45 minutes to find cell reception to handle the organization’s programming business; crossed my fingers daily that the propane refrigerator’s pilot light wouldn’t go out and spoil the food; juggled staffing schedules and very worried parents; and ran around in the woods with kids, dressed as Mother Nature. At night, I cried. I took this job believing it was my dream job: sharing my love of nature at an outdoor education center in the heart of Glacier country. I left my teaching job (which wasn’t the perfect job either), took a major pay cut, packed up my belongings and moved to the woods. I lost a boyfriend due to the move too.

Once the summer and fall programs ended and the staff departed (not all of the staff wanted to kill me and I did have a very incredible and fun group to spend two seasons with, so I was sad to see them go), I wanted nothing but to simply be alone at Big Creek. I wanted to relish in the creek, trace it to the North Fork of the Flathead River and sit on the rocks and stare up at the mountains. I wanted to enjoy the front porch of my old ranger cabin and read a book and drink a glass of wine–a pleasure that was forbidden to me in the midst of running around in the burnt forest looking for huckleberries with very exhausted and homesick eight year olds.

That winter delivered more snow than I’d seen in years. The plow truck died in January and it wasn’t in the budget to have it repaired. The North Fork Road hardly saw a county plow truck either and I was expected, per my agreement to remain on site, to drive over an hour on a dirt road (that’s an hour when the roads are in good condition) to the Kalispell office four days a week. I did have satellite internet service at the cabin, powered by a deep cell battery inverter system, so I would work out of the cabin on days I couldn’t make it down the road. There were many days I was snowed in and probably one too many where I made the drive and shouldn’t have.

At the start of the winter, I loved the feeling of independence and self-reliance. OK,  I’ll admit that I mostly felt like a bad ass but it was mostly a facade.  I became so intimately involved in this landscape that it nearly broke my heart. Every morning I woke to Huckleberry Mountain out my window and noticed the changes in snow, the light, and how the wind moved the white world around me. Tracks from deer to mountain lions circled my cabin. One night, on my walk from my cabin to the generator shed, a good hundred yards or so, my dog who typically ran ahead of me in the snow, growled and blocked me from walking past the mess hall. I tried to take a step forward and Reilly once again growled and stood in front of me. She was anxious and true to her herding and protective instincts,  guided me back to the cabin. The next morning, there were fresh lion tracks around my cabin, behind the mess hall and surrounding the generator shed. The lion was stalking me.

There were days, especially after the solstice and the daylight hours increased, mercifully, that I truly loved living alone in the woods. I’d get up in the morning and stoke the fire, make coffee and inspect the stories in the snow left by the creatures of the night. I’d do some work on the computer, untangle the cat’s claws from my socked feet and then spend an hour or so wandering through the woods with the dog on my cross-country skis. Other days, I hated the cabin. I hated the propane heating system that was prone to faultiness. I hated leaving the cabin to haul in more firewood. I hated running out of water when the electric pump, fueled by the massive generator, ran out of juice. I hated how incompetent I was at handling generators, broken down trucks and budgets. I hated removing from snow, especially the three foot high berm of snow and ice the plow truck threw in front of the drive. I hated, absolutely hated, the mice and would curse the cat, Tarn, for his ineptitude. The darkness crept up on me. I missed my friends and I didn’t want to have to work so hard to just simply exist. I’d leave the cabin on weekends with Reilly and ski with my friends, party a bit too hard at night and sleep on a couch in town. I felt like my life was split in two.

On New Year’s Day of 2008 I spent the entire day on the couch in my cabin and sobbed as I read David James Duncan’s The Brothers K. It was a beautiful day and the sun even made an appearance. I couldn’t think about skiing or even venturing outside for a walk. I took out a notebook and wrote down some of the major events of the past year, from heartbreaks to hilarities of running a summer camp and the crazy things kids say. I didn’t know where my new year would lead and while I felt like the first day was off to a good start, I remembered that I hadn’t moved from the couch and my dog licked at my tears.

I left Big Creek in November of that year. I was completely exhausted of the demands of the job and knew I wasn’t doing a great job. But it was so difficult to leave that place, that magical cabin tucked in the North Fork. I still miss it. When I first moved back to Whitefish, I was amazed at constant electricity. I felt overwhelmed at bars with all of the people, the buzz of the neons bar lights. I missed being so brutally exposed to a landscape. To bear witness to all of its daily and seasonal changes. I was completely aware of my environment–from the regrowth of the burned forest to the changing water levels to the spring blooms, I witnessed it all, firsthand. My senses were sharpened to a world outside of concrete, electricity and commerce. I saw the relationships between predators and prey, life and death. I was no bigger than any other animal in the web of life. The mountains, which are slow to change do find themselves shifting and eroding, showed me that life wasn’t just about me and my footprint.

In the North Fork there are certainly more remote cabins and more hearty folks hacking their life away in the wilderness. They’re a bit more successful than I was. But on most lonely dark nights in the small cabin, with the moon high above in the cold sky, I felt like the only one in the woods.

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