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On the edge of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, volunteers are reconstructing a 135-year-old log cabin, originally built 100 miles north in the rolling farmland near Hancock, Md. The cabin had been uninhabited — except by raccoons — for at least a decade, and the owner was considering tearing it down.
But soon, it will be open to hikers, at the foot of Old Rag Mountain, the park's most popular hiking trail.
The cabin is being rebuilt by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which operates some 40 other cabins throughout the region, mostly along the Appalachian Trail. Trail club member John Corwith is leading the project. On a recent Saturday, he stands near a pile of century-old logs, trying to make sense of a list scrawled on a sheet of ruled paper.
"The guy that wrote the drawing, when we were taking it apart, isn't here," explains Corwith. The list has a number for each log, but it's unclear which log goes where. "I wanted to have a drawing of the outside of it, with all the logs numbered, and I had people starting to do that, and they stopped that and came up with this other plan, that's now causing us grief."
It's a crisp, bright autumn day, and just beyond the construction site, hundreds of hikers are heading up for the 9-mile loop. But Corwith doesn't have time to hike.
"I've never been to the top of Old Rag. I've been coming out here for two years, and I haven't hiked the mountain yet."
Corwith and a dozen or so volunteers are hard at work, rebuilding this cabin that, eventually, they'll be able to rent out to hikers here, right next to the trailhead.
The project started two years ago, when the cabin's owner got in touch with the trail club.
Laurie Burch had purchased a parcel of land in Hancock in 2005, and the previous owners had told her she would probably need to demolish the derelict old cabin on the property.
"Take it down or even just burn it down or whatever," says Burch.
But she soon found it was actually in pretty good shape — wood siding had protected the logs from the elements.
"When I pulled off the siding, I found logs that looked like they had just been in pristine condition."
But still, it would cost thousands of dollars to restore.
"I just really wasn't quite sure what to do because I couldn't afford to put that kind of money in it, but I didn't want to see it just deteriorate and fall down."
A friend suggested she donate it to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. A couple guys from the club came and looked at the cabin — and the location, surrounded by farmland, not hiking trails. When they reported back, they said, "Great cabin, bad location."
"I came in and said, 'Great cabin, bad location, can we move it?'" says Corwtih. "Here was a structure that had stood since 1878 and I thought, those logs are still good, wouldn't it be great to reuse them?"
So, last year, a crew of trail club members descended on the property, and like a busy ant colony, deconstructed the cabin, piece by piece.
"It was quite a job," says Lou Schuetze, who was part of that crew. "First of all, we had to tear out all the internal structures. Walls and everything and they were just full of animals and bees and wasps and everything else. We had to get it down to the bare logs, then took it down a log at a time."
But that was the easy part.
On this day, in the shadow of Old Rag, things aren't going too well for the volunteer construction crew.
Eddie Murawski has spent a frustrating day fixing an unfortunate mistake. "There's vents that are required on the foundation, and somehow one was missed," he says.
In September, the crew finished the lovely stone and concrete foundation, only to discover they didn't leave enough holes for vents under the cabin. So Murawski has spent most of his Saturday in the dark crawlspace, drilling and sawing and chiseling and hammering through the thick concrete and stone.
"It's 10 inches thick. Plus there's rebar. I think there's a piece of rebar in the middle of this holding it all together."
Mark Allen is working on the subfloor above the foundation.
"We're having fun," he says. "I love it up here. I love being in the woods, and I love building things. So I'm right at home, and happy."
The new cabin won't be exactly the same as the original — the crew is adding an addition for a kitchen and bathroom, and they're redesigning it to be handicapped accessible. Laurie Burch, who donated the cabin, is pleased it will be available to as many people as possible.
"As much that I would have loved to have had it, and had it as a wonderful structure on my property, I would have been the only one using it, other than me and family and friends."
There's no date yet for when the cabin will be finished. When it is, it will be one of some 40 that the club rents to hikers, mostly along the Appalachian Trail. And, in this busy location, it's likely to be one of the most popular.
[Music: "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros from Up From Below]
Photos: Appalachian Cabin