The biggest challenge associated with restoring an 85-year-old log cabin nestled in a forest-fringed meadow by the shore of a sparkling clear high alpine lake is not finding logs of the same species and dimensions to replace those that have rotted beyond salvation.
Neither is it living for two weeks without electricity, running water or flush toilets, sleeping in tents surrounded by an electric fence to keep curious bears out of the canvas-walled kitchen, nor working through intense summer heat, ferocious thunderstorms and chilly mountain mornings at 1,936 metres. Rather, those are factors the members of the Banff-based Parks Canada restoration team list among the perks of the job.
And no, the biggest challenges are not even horseflies, no-see-ums and whining mosquitoes, although those do rank high on the list.
Nope, the biggest challenge when restoring heritage buildings in Canada's national parks is resisting the urge to make improvements during the process of rebuilding and replacing just enough elements to ensure the structure can be enjoyed by visitors for another 100 years.
"The biggest challenge is that we're professionals, and we tend to want to make things better than they were," said Frank Burstrom, one of three Parks Canada heritage restoration carpenters working to restore the charming one-room Eva Lake log cabin in Mount Revelstoke National Park. "When we're looking at an older building like this, we're looking at the story of the building, and we have to preserve that."
That story includes details such as the type of craftsmanship employed during its construction, the design style followed and the construction tools used.
"You have to resist the urge to want to fix someone else's mistake," added Sean Buckle, a heritage restoration carpenter with 25 years experience in Jasper, now based in Banff. "That's part of the history of that structure."
And all restoration projects are different and unique. Before the crew flew in by helicopter with four loads worth of tents, food, firewood, building supplies and equipment, including a generator, three chain saws, a circular saw and axes, Buckle hiked six kilometres through wildflower-profuse meadows to the remote backcountry site to determine the state of the cabin and the work that would be required to restore it.
Constructed in 1928, the cabin was one of four built prior to 1930 to assist the park's wardens patrol the park in order to protect its flora and fauna from the depredation of hunters and forest fires. Its construction coincided with the completion of a 26-kilometre road to Mount Revelstoke's summit, where camping facilities were also developed at Balsam Lake. The restoration work was scheduled to be completed in advance of celebrations planned to mark the park's centennial in 2014.
One of the oldest structures in Mount Revelstoke park, Canada's seventh national park located next to Revelstoke, B.C., the Eva Lake shelter does not function as an overnight warden facility anymore, but is open to day hikers or backpackers camping at a nearby site during severe weather conditions. The cabin is a recognized federal heritage building primarily for its association with the origins of Mount Revelstoke park, its simple, unfinished rustic character and craftsmanship, and its environmental significance.
The restoration crew's work included replacing the bottom rounds and floor, removing existing windows, manufacturing and installing new ones, and chinking the building. Harvested from timber from the same elevation and prepared onsite to match the original cabin construction, as they age the new logs will darken to match the rest of the cabin.
All the work was done so that the cabin maintains its original appearance and character — in this case log construction with hewn, squared corners and hewn interior, two multi-paned fixed sash windows, plank door, wood shingle roof, purlin log roof and a porch roof extension supported on simple log posts.
"With these restoration projects, you never know what you're going to encounter until you get there," Buckle said. "They've all been built by different people in different styles."
This cabin, he described, had a floor that was floating and not attached to the building. Laying directly on dirt and rocks, it had rotted over time, as had the lowest round of wall logs.
"This cabin was probably built fairly quickly — the square notches show a lot of axe work and probably a cross-cut saw to cut the corner notches," Burstrom said. "The chinking is burlap, a little mortar at the top — who knows what the origin of the burlap might have been."
A Jasper native now living in Exshaw, Burstrom learned his trade by accompanying his father and grandfather, both park wardens, as they patrolled Jasper's remote backcountry.
"Back in those days, a warden was assigned a district and every cabin in the district was your job to maintain," Burstrom said.
The restoration crew, whose third member was carpenter Rick Brown, from Field, B.C., first removed the floor boards. Then they built a wooden brace which they scribed to the walls to hold them together before placing hand-operated jacks under each of the four corners, and inserting logs underneath for support to enable them to remove the bottom round of logs. The new floor incorporates a layer of rodent mesh under it to keep out unwelcome visitors.
"It's a modern addition to a heritage building, but you can't see it," Buckle said.
"But it protects it quite a bit," Burstrom added.
While the restoration team takes great care in ensuring the exterior of the cabin maintains its original appearance, they take the same care with the interior, making note where a table and cupboard will be replaced, and ensuring the new bottom round will blend perfectly in their new home.
"The colour of the logs will change naturally with age," Burstrom said. "But it will take longer for the wood to darken inside the cabin."
Admiring the walls inscribed with the names, dates and hometowns of generations of visitors, Burstrom commented the oldest date he'd noticed was 1932. During the course of removing the floor boards, the crew discovered a bottle with a note in it, and an ancient pair of shoes.
"What we now consider graffiti are now artifacts," Burstrom said. "This was quite a local hangout. There's a huge amount of history in all those names. And in those logs too."