How one multi-generational family built their own remote B.C. cabin

Buy a lot of hammers. ‘Cause when everyone pitches in, you get more than just a cottage.

Climbing out from behind the wheel, I look first behind the main cottage at the Gunn family cabin on Canim Lake, B.C., where a man and two teenage boys are in the middle of erecting a small A-frame cabin. One of the boys is up on a ladder near the top of the structure, sinking screws into forest-green sheet metal roofing. They see me and wave. Del Gunn, the matriarch of the family, approaches from the main lodge. “Well, hello!” she says, her face a mix of pleasure and relief that I’ve made it. “Great you’re here! It’s not the easiest place to find.”

She is correct. Canim Lake is not quite in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there. After flying to Kamloops, renting a car, and driving a couple of hours to 100 Mile House, I still had to drive another 50 km east into the B.C. Interior Plateau, along roads that steadily devolved from pavement to gravel to rock. Logging trucks regularly rumbled past. I finally found the turnoff leading down to the lakeshore, a section Del had described as “doable,” which I laughed about later; I was glad to have a rental car. But the relative remoteness and the choppiness of the roads were forgotten the moment I stepped out of the car—Canim Lake is gorgeous, natural, and peaceful, with 50 or 60 cabins on a boomerang-shaped lake that’s 37 km long and almost four at its widest. It’s the kind of place that should be hard to get to, because that’s both part of its charm and part of what keeps it pristine.

Del takes me to the main lodge, where on the deck under a warm mid-afternoon sun she introduces me to her husband, Ian, and most of the rest of the baker’s dozen clan. After a brief and self-induced name-to-face test that I fail miserably, Del takes me for a stroll around the compound. “The Kennedys had a compound, didn’t they?” she says, joking. “I guess we could call our place a compound. I’m never quite sure what to call it.”

Ian and Del have been spending time at one cottage or another pretty much their whole lives. They met more than a half-century ago as teenagers at Clearwater Lake, near The Pas, Man. Ian’s aunt and uncle had a cabin there, and he was visiting from Maple Creek, Sask. Del was up from The Pas, staying with her friend, who turned out to be Ian’s cousin. Ian and Del fell in love and started their lives and their family, but they both retained a love of cottage life and the fond memory of “the cottage” being where it all began for them. Their first cottage as a married couple was actually at Clearwater Lake, and the earliest memories their children have of being at the cottage were from those days. But, in 1978, Ian and Del felt they needed a life change, and so they packed up the family and moved to the B.C. interior. Later, sitting in the main lodge by the fire, I ask Ian why they chose the 100 Mile House–108 Mile Ranch area.

“Well,” he says, opening out his big, worn hands, “we just wanted to live in a place close to nature, with lakes, and in a smaller town, not a busy place. I remember around the time we were looking, it was raining really hard, and I said to Del in the car, ‘When it stops raining, that’s where we’ll settle.’ It stopped raining in 108 Mile Ranch, and when the clouds lifted, we saw how beautiful it was. That was almost 40 years ago!”

Still, they didn’t recapture the cottage experience right away. “They were busy times,” says Del, recounting Ian’s work as a mortician and her time as a nurse. “The kids were growing up, we were busy with work. It was just a very hectic period.”

But they never lost the dream of cottaging again, and so when they saw that a cabin was for sale on Canim Lake, they decided to investigate. It was love at first sight. Well, at least when it came to the lot. The “cabin” was more of an awkward first date.

“It was pretty disastrous,” says Del, of the original cabin, the low-slung shoe-box-shaped building where we are now, having continued on the tour. “When we first bought the place, in 1996,” Del tells me, “this was the only building on the property, and, oh boy, it was rundown. No water, no heat, no electricity, and it was overrun by squirrels! But we cleaned it up, painted it, put up a new deck. And then we added the ‘wing’ off to the side, which was the tiny room where Ian and I slept for years.”

Ian and Del had some DIY home renovation experience, as did their son, Shane, so they were comfortable with the work, which included putting in cupboards, windows, and doors (all used), and bracing the floor from below. They added a metal roof and an old Franklin fireplace and called it their tent with plywood sides.

They spent a good portion of the first two years fixing up the old shack, but it was all part of the grand scheme—which wasn’t really so grand, or much of a scheme, or even something they were conscious of at the time—to give their cabin as light a footprint as possible, to reuse and repurpose, and to make the whole project something about salvage and family and joint creation. That’s giving it more structure than Ian and Del had at the time, but now, 20 years later, it’s clear that if each journey starts somewhere, the Gunns’ family construction project (in every sense of the phrase) began with restoring rather than tearing down the place.

Soon thereafter, the kids started coming more often, not just to help with the construction and restoration, but for longer visits. Their daughter Christine and her family moved back west from Ottawa, and their other daughter Lori and her family moved to the B.C. interior. Shane and his family were already in 100 Mile House. The site was becoming a true gathering place, but it was also getting crowded. After a few years of using the old cabin and having most people tent, Ian and Del decided it was time for a little expansion. Not to mention that the off-grid adventure was starting to wear a bit thin. They found an old propane fridge and then, in 2006, decided to build a bunkhouse. This 10-by-15-foot log building came as a pre-cut kit and was put together by the whole family over a couple of weekends. “It was the grandkids’ first real building experience,” Del tells me. “All the logs had letters and numbers so we’d know where they went, and we kept sending them over to the lumber pile to get the next log we needed.”

The Bunkhouse served the Gunns well (Shane and his family use it now), but it was still clear that their property and buildings were a tight fit for a dozen or more people if everyone showed up, which was happening many times a summer. Fate intervened when the property next to theirs went up for sale in 2007, and so, just like that, the Gunns doubled their lot size. The land came with a somewhat run-down geodesicdome cabin that the grandkids named “Dome Sweet Dome,” and although they did get a few years of use out of it (including when some of the grandkids pitched a tent inside the dome), it still didn’t quite solve the issue of lack of space. The original shack was small and the Bunkhouse only slept four. It was time for another decision. All 14 family members voted (including Del’s now-deceased mother, known as “Great Maggie” to the grandkids), and they agreed that it was time to build something new. The cabin, or the Lodge, as the Gunns call it, was built off-site and then disassembled and trucked in to be re-erected on the new lot. When I express my amazement, trying to picture transporting 39-foot-long, 12-inch-diameter logs down that winding narrow road, Del rolls her eyes recounting the process.

“Oh, it took some serious doing,” she says, with a laugh. “But it was ingenious. Whenever they came to a hairpin, they used cranes to lift the back ends of the flatbed trucks to straighten them out. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

a-frame with maxen adam and quin outside and inside
Photo by Grant Harder

When grandsons Maxen Adam, 15, and his brother Quin, 18, built a place of their own, they were inspired by plans online, though, “almost everything didn’t go the same, so we sort of winged it,” says Quin. The A-frame they built with their dad, Mark, features an eight-foot corrugated plastic window that opens on the deck (for strength, they doubled up the boards around the opening). It took only a month of weekends and less than $1,700 (using found materials, such as the metal roofing left from the Lodge). “All the stuff that keeps it from falling over we bought, though.”

The whole family was ready to start working. They’d hired a contractor, but told him the family was to do as much of the work as possible. The thoughts of the contractor are not known, but he probably didn’t anticipate having a multi-generational crew to deploy. “It was great,” recalls Del, beaming. “That whole summer, all of us, from youngest to oldest, were sanding logs; staining pine and fir boards for inside and out; installing cupboards, insulation, and flooring; and basically doing everything we could. It was a full family effort.”

They moved into the Lodge in August 2010. It’s an elegant structure, with high ceilings and a long deck overlooking the lake (the dome having been torn down to clear the view). As with every Gunn project, most of the accessories and furnishings are used or repurposed, from the windows and doors to many of the chairs, even down to the kitchen island, which Shane found at a garage sale. There is a woodstove in the corner and old cozy couches in front of big windows looking out over the lake. It’s become the physical and emotional hub of all the generations, each of which had a hand in creating it.

“To me,” says Ian, “getting the grandkids to help out is part of the fun, but it is really about creating a sense of investment. They’ll feel stronger about this place, knowing they helped build it.”

As Del and Ian finish the story of building the Lodge, there is a bit of commotion down by the dock. One of the grandkids, Quin, 18, is hoping for a little afternoon wakeboarding. Shane is already on his boat, the Muni-Mula (backwards it spells what the boat is made of), so Del shouts down.

“Take Curtis around the lake,” she hollers towards the water, in a voice that is both assertive and affectionate. “Don’t go without him.”

I get down to the dock, where Shane is waiting with an assortment of beverages and snacks on board. The boat is also festooned with various pirate-themed flags and knick-knacks. Shane has a fascination with all things piratical. When I step onto the Muni-Mula, I notice a few long and pointy knives, real knives, in ready positions at the back of the boat. “What are those for?” I ask.

Shane gives me a good-natured look that nevertheless indicates I am failing to grasp the obvious. “In case we’re boarded by enemies,” he says. Two of the grandkids, Jazmin, 19, and Madelyn, 21, nod soberly and glance at the knives, as if to reaffirm their whereabouts. As it turns out, we are not boarded by rampaging pirates, primarily because there is no one, pirates or otherwise, on the water. Or on the shore. Or in the woods. “Make sure you mention to people how crazy busy this lake is,” Shane says, grinning as we speed along with Quin in tow behind us. “You know, that there’s no room to waterski or canoe, too many people, the water’s too cold. That it’s not really that great a place.”

“I read you,” I say. But the reporter in me cannot tell a lie to protect the sanctuarial feel of Canim Lake. It’s beautiful, remote, perfect. The water is not warm, not cold, and crystal clear. Shane heads towards the northeast tip of the lake. Then, out of the horizon behind us, there appears an old Beaver float plane. We wave frantically at Quin to turn and look but he is focussed on staying upright. The Beaver dips and does its best to give Quin a fright, getting within 50 feet of his crouching frame as it passes overhead like a colossal prehistoric bird swooping down to snatch a salmon from the water.

“That’s one of the local tour guides,” explains Shane. “They take people up to Mahood Lake and in and around there, show them the falls, do some fishing.”

When we get back to shore, Del is waiting, and as we continue our walk she shows me a couple of tiny little touches they’ve been working on for the past 20 years. We stop near the Bunkhouse, by an old stump turned into a chair with a makeshift back made from wound branches. “This is where we take pictures of the grandkids every year, once a year, always in this chair. That way we can see how they’re growing and always have this special place for them to sit.”

Closer to the lake, we stop in front of a small dollhouse-sized construction made of a log and twigs. It resembles a micro-diorama and has tiny colourful flags strung up under a moss roof. “This is our fairy house,” says Del, smiling softly. “It’s where our forest fairies live, and they sometimes leave notes for the grandkids.” Her voice falters a touch. “You know, just little notes telling them how to care for nature and each other.”

There is more than a little fairy dust sprinkled around the Gunn cabins, to be sure, some of it possibly sawdust from family projects. The miniature projects—the fairy house, the photo chair—may not be construction in the normal sense but they are “built” over time. They are organic memory traps that take root—sometimes literally—in the family unit. And the cabins are not just a collection of buildings, but a repository for experience. Like driftwood gathering at the downwind end of a lake, shared emotions will over time end up where they belong. It’s simple and beautiful.

Still, to make it happen takes time, patience, application, curation, and even sometimes an old-fashioned happy bossiness, as Del and her family will attest. Ian and Del have a kind and quiet way about them, but they aren’t just passive players in the game of life. They have a plan. Well, at least Del does. She oversees everything with the contented warbling of a partridge shepherding her brood across a prairie road.

“I just let her run things,” Ian says, laughing. “I sit where I’m told.”

After dinner, the entire clan gets a big fire going down on the gravelly beach, near the dock. It’s a brisk but clear evening, and whenever we look into the sky, the vastness of the universe is on a platter for us. I settle in and listen as the Gunns share some stories, some laughs, a few beers. Soon, it is time for bed and I say goodnight.

Hunkered down in the Bunkhouse, I drift off to sleep quickly and deeply, listening to the oddly arrhythmic rain that falls in large drops overhead (only to learn from Lori the next morning that it was not rain but squirrels dropping pine cones on the metal roof). I think of that sound again as I am departing. The boys are back at it, hard at work on the A-frame, but they stop when I come up to say so long. The workstation where they are cutting the sheet metal is covered with a tarp, and the whole project has the air of a shop class run by an enthusiastic teacher. They have the second half of the sheet metal up. When one of them touches it, it makes that same light hollow rap-tapping sound that I’d fallen asleep to the night before, a kind of natural xylophone note. It isn’t quite fairy dust falling in the forest, but it is magical nonetheless, a ringing, twinkling tap tap tap, a sound you can’t forget, a sound that says something fundamental about what is going on in this place.

Curtis Gillespie has won numerous awards for his writing and editing. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and two daughters.

This story was originally published as “How to Build a Family Cabin” in the Fall 2017 issue of Cottage Life.

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