Planks and Slabs at Camp Serendipity

The interesting rocks at Camp Serendipity have a history going back many millions of years. Some of the trees there have histories going back over a hundred years. But of all the man-made artifacts at Camp Serendipity, none has a history longer than that of a dozen or so Douglas Fir planks and slabs. This is their story.

There were a couple of long term projects that started before the harvesting and manufacturing of the planks and slabs but they donít have longer histories. For example, the water supply system started a little earlier, but that project was finished in 2015. The final placement of the last of the planks and slabs will not be finished until 2016 or later.

Likewise, the trailer and snowshed project was started earlier, but that had a run of only 19 years. There is barely a trace of it now except that the trailer can still be seen at Ron Sideritsí place a mile or so down the road.

The plank and slab project started on May 13, 1994 when I discovered a huge Douglas Fir tree that had fallen onto my property from Forest Service land. After some negotiation with the Forest Service people, I got permission to harvest the log by buying a firewood permit since the tree was dead before it fell of natural causes.

The log was absolutely beautiful. It was straight and sound with few branches at the butt end. I didnít measure it but Iím sure it was well over a hundred feet long. It was lying way back in the deep woods with no chance of getting any kind of vehicle back there. I couldnít bear the thought of leaving it there to rot, so I began thinking of how I could use it and how I could get it out of there.

The log was too big in diameter to use in the eventual log house and furthermore, the logs would be so heavy I wouldnít be able to move them. So I decided to cut it up into planks. I figured that I could use the planks as rough door and window frames.

The two exterior door frames would require planks some 7 and a half feet long and headers a little more than 3 feet. The front windows would need 6-footers for the vertical members and 3 or 6 footers for the tops and bottoms. The rest of the windows would require various lengths.

Without making a very precise plan, I bucked the big log into sections of various lengths ranging from 11 feet to 8 or 9 feet long. Then, using only a chainsaw by hand, I ripped the sections lengthwise into three three-inch thick planks from the center of the logs which left a slab on each side. I figured that those slabs would make perfect treads for the three staircases designed into the building, so I cut three tread blanks out of each of the slabs. Those were somewhat longer than 3 feet.

Those planks and slabs, although heavy, were light enough that I could throw a rope around them and drag them through the vine maple thickets and out of the woods one at a time. As time allowed, and as I made progress on this harvest, the planks and treads accumulated near the building site.

It occurred to me that since I was not going to be able to use the planks and treads any time soon, it would sure be nice if I had some kind of woodshed to store them in. It took longer than I think it should have for it to dawn on me that I had the perfect woodshed.

One of the first projects I took on when I retired was to cut down a 62-foot Douglas Fir in our backyard in Seattle. I believed that the tree was a danger so I cut it down by myself piece by piece. The problem was that I had built a tree house 25 feet up in that tree and I had to dismantle and bring down all the piece parts of it before I cut the tree down.

So I had all the pieces of that tree house ready to go. I only needed to haul them up to Camp Serendipity and reassemble them and I would have my woodshed. So that is exactly what I did. When it was ready, I stored the planks and slabs in it as I harvested them and dragged them out of the woods.

By the time the big log was completely cut up, my attention had turned to other projects. I had designed the building, excavated the site with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow, poured the footings, and begun laying up the concrete block foundation. When the foundation reached the 4-foot level, it was clear that I needed some kind of scaffolding in order to go higher. I had bought a set of steel scaffold frames from Ray Aldrich but I didnít have any scaffold planks.

At the four-foot level I had another requirement. I had decided to fill all the cores of the concrete blocks in the foundation with concrete. How was I going to get that concrete up on top of that foundation wall in order to dump it down into the cores? I needed some kind of ramp that I could run a wheelbarrow full (or nearly so) of concrete up to the top of the wall. That too, required some sturdy planks.

Again, it took longer than I think it should have for it to dawn on me that I had the perfect planks stored in my woodshed. It would be a long time before I needed them for framing so why not use them for ramps and scaffolding in the meantime? So that is what I did. They were perfect planks. Being so wide and so thick, they only needed to be supported at their very ends in order to support a heavy load without sagging at all.

When the foundation was finished and I moved up to the log walls, I supplemented the steel scaffold frames with wooden frames that I designed and built myself. The wooden frames could be held up either by a 2x4 slanting up from the ground, or by a half-inch allthread that went through the log wall between a pair of logs.

Those frames could easily be moved up higher as the log walls progressed. I moved them after the first three log courses were installed and then I realized that if I made a 10-inch riser that would stand on the scaffold planks, I could install four courses before I had to raise the scaffold. So that is what I did all the way to the top courses.

Because of the fact that the planks were proving to be so useful as scaffold planks, I abandoned my plan to use them as door and window frames. I decided to use plain old 2x10s instead, which brought its own advantages.

Some of my fondest memories of the project were of climbing a ladder to get on this scaffold system and moving around on it, maybe shoveling snow off of it before I did. It just gave me a real pleasure to be up there with that view in the fresh air being supported by structures that I made completely by hand all by myself. What a pleasure.

But to continue the story of the planks and slabs, after the roof was on I needed scaffolding on the outside of the cabin in order to clean up and stain the exterior surfaces of the log walls. I used my same home-made scaffold system again but instead of the scaffolds hanging from the inside of the building, they were hanging on the outside.

And then, when the staining was done on the outside, I started at the top of the walls and did the chinking. Here again I used the same traveling scaffolding and the same old planks. By this time, the planks had borne many loads and had endured many footsteps. They were greyed by UV and discolored by dirt so that they looked dark gray to black in color. But I really appreciated the work they had done for me.

The same system went to work for me during the installation of the windows, and after that, they moved inside to give me a place to stand while I varnished and chinked the insides of the log walls.

Finally, I had no further need for the planks and wondered where I could store them where they wouldnít be in the way. About that time, the front porch log structure was being built and as the first several log joists had been installed, it was convenient to store the planks right on top of the joists. In fact, it gave me something to walk on and to store other stuff so it worked out great.

My plan for the porch had been some kind of cedar decking but I hadnít given it much thought. But now that the deck joists were nearing completion, it was time to make that decision.

Here once again, it took longer than I think it should have for it to dawn on me that those old planks, which were just lying there to keep out of the way, would make really nice deck planks. So I started making a plan to use them.

After taking an inventory and making some measurements, I was a little disappointed to discover that the planks would only cover about half of the porch deck.

And once more, it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I had the perfect solution. Some years back, a huge Douglas Fir had succumbed to the root rot that was systematically killing the big trees on the property and I had asked Earl Landin to fall it for me. I was nearing the top of my gable walls and I had run out of logs. The top end of that big tree supplied me with the smaller logs I needed, although they are fatter than average (when you are in the cabin take a look at the top four courses on the gables and you will see those fat logs.) But the butt log, which was much too big in diameter for using in the log walls had been lying on the ground ever since.

The butt log was 55 feet long and an absolutely beautiful specimen of Doug Fir. I had wondered for years how to put it to use or to sell it or something. Now, after my brain finally put two and two together, I decided to buck and rip the butt log into the planks I needed to deck the porch. A few measurements and calculations showed that it would provide exactly what I needed.

So I spent most of the winter of 2003 bucking and ripping that log and stockpiling the planks and slabs that resulted.

Finally, during the summer of 2003 the planks were installed in their final place, decking the front porch, and they are now on full display in all their glory for all visitors who walk up those front stairs.

Meanwhile, the slabs patiently waited all those years in the woodshed. Some slabs had been used as planks for ramps and such by placing them with the flat side up. And there were various other slabs that had been cut as a result of other activity, but by-and-large the slabs werenít put to much use until I began installing the log staircases. There they blossomed in all their glory.

One of the beautiful features of Douglas Fir is that there is a very pronounced difference and distinct line between the heartwood and the sapwood. The sapwood, which is the outer layer of wood in the log, is a beautiful, almost white, color that looks like pine. The heartwood, on the other hand, is a rich deep red color. So at the end of each slab, those bands of color are brilliantly displayed. And with that pattern repeating with each of the treads in the staircase, the symmetry is gorgeous.

As of this writing, the story is not complete, although the end is in sight. The treads in the loft staircase have been finished since February of 2010. The log treads on the staircase to the front porch were finally all put in place on December 16, 2015 and have been on full display since then. My most recent project has been the installation of the stoop in front of the front door. As of this writing, the slabs making up that stoop are all in place and only need to be fastened down to the deck. There also is the big project of equipping all of the staircases with guardrails and handrails, but that is outside of the story of the planks and slabs.

The final plank and slab project, which I have just started, is to install the log treads on the back porch staircase. Hopefully that will be completed by the end of summer in 2016. When that is done, the story of planks and slabs at Camp Serendipity will close out its last chapter.

I hadnít realized, until I sat down to write this essay, how much pleasure those couple dozen pieces of wood have given me over the years, how much I appreciate them, and how much more pleasure they will bring to people, as far into the future as I can see, as they visit Camp Serendipity and walk all over them. I hope you will be among them.




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