Through the Eyes of a Rookie: Shelter Construction in the 21st century

September 22, 2017


With the door completely off, the lap belt holding me to my seat seems like a far cry from something that would actually save me in an emergency. The helicopter’s rotator blades accelerate, shifting from a rhythmic to a constant spin, as we effortlessly start to ascend. Ten feet, 35, 50, and suddenly we are cruising 200 feet above a sea of fir trees. Soaring over hills and ridges with which I’m well acquainted from walking them in years past, we crest the Mahoosuc ridge and bank a hard right just south of Old Speck Mountain. It comes into view quicker than I had expected. At 3,400 feet, Speck Pond prevails as Maine’s highest body of water—glacier fall-out from 12,000 years ago.

Our descent turns the glass surface into a frenzy of motion. Take a deep breath. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. You don’t want to be the guy that falls out of a helicopter. People tend to remember stuff like that. The helicopter slows down and hovers just feet from the shores of the pond. I take my seat belt off, click it back together behind my back, stay low, and move quickly. Before I have time to overthink it, touch down. I’m off the bird and back on the planet. Radio in one hand, and helmet in the other. Three miles northeast and 1,800 feet higher from where I stood mere moments ago.

But this isn’t a joy ride. I’m on the clock for the Appalachian Mountain Club Campsite Program, and I’m standing next to local legend John Nininger, owner and architect of Vermont’s Wooden House Company. If you’re in the business of log shelters in New England, then you’ve heard of this guy. With his signature log design and cedar roofs, these shelters are true pieces of art.

As soon as the helicopter disappears over the hill, the sound quickly dissipates, and we stand there in silence. The experience is jolting. It takes a minute to adjust to our new surroundings. But there isn’t much time to spare—we know the chopper will be back, and this time it’s not landing, but dropping off the first logs of Speck Pond’s new shelter.

This isn’t the days of yesteryear, in which one could just cut local native logs onsite and build a new shelter. No, times have changed. These days it’s a little more complicated than that.

And then we hear it. As the decibels start to rise, we clear the landing zone. Anything that isn’t tied down is going to get shaken up. Trees begin to dance with the downdraft of the rotating blades. The helicopter has returned with its first in-load.


Hanging from a 45-foot cable from the bottom of the helicopter, the base logs of the shelter (attached at two points by a nylon sling) come down first. Everything is built off of them, so as soon as they hit the ground, it’s important we set them with pinpoint accuracy. It won’t be long before the chopper returns with more work.


The stripped white cedar logs fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Each one is scribed with incredible precision to meet its counterpart.

John isn’t as surprised as I am to watch it all come together so quickly. No, this isn’t his first rodeo, and it’s not the first time he has seen this very shelter constructed. He first assembled it one month ago at his log yard in Vermont, labeling each piece with a number and its weight as he dismantled it and loaded it onto a tractor trailer.

The 1979 Jet Ranger helicopter maxes out at 800 pounds per load, and it’s important to get as many logs in one lift as possible. Time is money, and you don’t want the helicopter to have to make any unnecessary trips. Matching out-loads with the in-loads proves harder than I imagined. It’s difficult to eyeball 800 pounds of shattered wood planks—the old shelter we dismantled last fall.

Back and forth the Jet Ranger flies as we scramble to prepare the next out-load and set the logs from the last in-load. The 33-year veteran pilot Carl Svenson is an artist in his own right. Almost as an extension of his own body, he places the in-loads with care from the cable attached to the bottom of his helicopter. I communicate with him through a radio and microphone attached to my helmet.

“Where would you like the next one, Joe?”

“Just about 10 feet east of the shelter, Carl!”

“You got it,” he jovially replies. His demeanor is calm. There’s no question this man enjoys his work.

Eight hours later with only a 30-minute lunch break, the deed is done. And just like that, 40 Cedar trees accounting for 93 different logs weighing 8,427 pounds come together from 143 hand-scribed notches to form one of the most beautiful shelters I have ever seen. Calmness returns to the shores of the pond.



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Joe Roman

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