Before swinging the broadax, Kyle McGuire pulled on a pair of thick gloves.
“This is where the term barking’ your knuckles comes from,” he cautions, referring to the potential for scraping his knuckles while squaring off a log with what looks like something an executioner would have employed during the Middle Ages.
What the U.S. Forest Service archaeologist was executing Tuesday was the finishing touches on a log being used in the restoration of an old miners’ cabin in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest known as the Harlow cabin.
The Region 1 Historic Preservation team from Missoula, Mont., is taking the lead role in the log-replacement work on the circa-1930 cabin in the Siskiyous.
McGuire, archaeologist and minerals administrator for the Helena National Forest in Montana, periodically works with the team to restore old structures throughout the West.
“I’m sure the old-timers were way better at this than I am,” he says as he begins hewing the 30-foot-long log.
The team refers to McGuire as the “log man” because his deftness with logs would have impressed the miners of old who built the cabin.
The structure is believed to be the last largely unaltered mining cabin from that era still standing in the forest, says local forest archaeologist Janet Joyer.
“We have two or three old structures like this that were guard stations and other things, but they were not built specifically for mining,” she says.
“Throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California, mining is what brought settlers here. To have one standing mining cabin left like this makes it a rare and valuable piece of our history.”
For Joyer, who retires Friday after more than three decades in the agency, the restoration project is a pleasant way to conclude her time with the Forest Service. The archaeologist has been shepherding the project along in recent years.
“I have personally been working on this because of its deteriorating condition and the story it has to tell about our earliest settlers,” she says. “It is tremendously satisfying to have this as my final project.”
When replacing logs suffering from dry rot, great care is taken to ensure the replacements match up, says Kristen Hauge, archaeologist with the Gold Beach Ranger District.
“Inside the cabin, you see distinctive marks of the broadax having been used,” she says. “We are replicating that on the new logs.”
All the replacement logs came from trees felled near the cabin, which has been hemmed in by trees in recent years.
“They were shading the cabin — we are trying to get it to dry out a little,” Hauge says.
Once the cabin is fully restored, the plan is to rent it out, says Donna Mickley, ranger in charge of the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District.
“We want other people to come out and enjoy it,” she says. “But it will take us several years to complete the restoration. And it’s a bit of a process to enter a new facility into the rental program.
“We’ve been trying to protect this site until we can get it restored and have a regular presence in here.”
Because of its remote location, the cabin has been vandalized by weekenders holding parties there over the years. The agency put a locked gate on the access road, which dramatically reduced the problem.
Members of the local, remote community of Joe Bar, a small island of private property in the forest, have been helpful in removing garbage and keeping an eye on the cabin, Mickley says.
“Through the years, we have relied on many volunteers to work on the cabin,” Joyer says. “They really kept it at a state to where it was worthy of this large-scale project.”
In the past two decades, about $60,000 has been invested in the structure’s preservation, Mickley estimates.
“We have been incrementally doing what we can over the years,” she says.
Fees generated from the rental will be used for its long-term maintenance, officials said.
“This cabin is typical of what you see — dry rot,” says team member Jack Poppen of Missoula, a graduate student in historic preservation. He estimates he has helped restore more than two-dozen cabins and the same number of fire lookouts in the West.
“It’s typical craftsmanship you would have seen for this time,” he observes. “But it is pretty impressive. The notching is good. The logs are really big.”
Poppen, who described McGuire as a “heck of a log man,” notes the logs are smaller higher up the cabin walls.
“They started big, then realized how difficult it was to heave them up there,” he says. “So the logs get smaller as you go up.”
In fact, one 30-foot log they are working on is 26 inches in diameter, McGuire says.
“Typically, when you do replacements this big, you get them as close as you can so you don’t fight it when you are putting them in,” he says. “We worked this down with chainsaws, then matched the interior with a broadax.”
Before McGuire began working with the broadax, Dave Knutson, archaeological technician with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, used a double-bitted ax to “juggle” the log.
“He’s cutting little notches in there, which leaves us with little relief cuts,” McGuire explains. “When we come through with the broadax, they pop off instead of the ax diving down into the surface you are working on.”
With that, McGuire resumes hewing the log with the broadax.
“It’s looking good,” Knutson yells as the chips fly.
When McGuire takes a break, he surveys the scene.
“This one is cool,” he says. “If I was going to build a cabin to live in, it would be like this.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.