In this day of glitzy spa vacations with Jacuzzis and exercise machines, the prospect of holing up in an authentic log cabin named Possum or Woodchuck might seem suitable only for nostalgia buffs. But the rustic Vermont log cabin enclave of Roaring Branch appeals to those looking for an escape -- from the hustle-bustle of daily life.
Sure, the floors tilt slightly. But what would you expect from a dozen log cabins scattered among pines that were built about 80 years ago and have settled a bit unevenly?
And they can be somber. Built by hand -- for a cost of $30 for nails and glass -- the logs weren't skinned, so the barked interiors are dim, especially since the cabins are surrounded by virgin white pine.
In recent years, though, handmade skylights have allowed more light to enter, filtered through looming pines.
Also, each has a porch with Adirondack chairs and a table for alfresco dining -- that is, if it isn't Vermont's black fly season, when it may be sensible to eat inside in front of the stone fireplace or drive a few miles to a village inn.
Folks who rent Roaring Branch's cabins are those who respect )) quietude. Some bring fishing gear; the settlement is on a piney bluff above the Roaring Branch as it churns its foamy way down from the southern slopes of Stratton Mountain to the Battenkill, a well-known fishing stream that crosses into New York State to join the Hudson River above Albany.
Few who rent these cabins -- for a weekend, a week, or the summer -- bring along a portable television. Ater all, it's television they're leaving behind. Besides, rabbit-ear TV reception in this hilly Green Mountain country produces mostly snowy pictures.
With a children's playground (which boasts a child-sized volleyball court) and inexpensive baby-sitting available from nearby residents of Sunderland and East Arlington, families comprise most guests at this bucolic retreat.
Spread out over 36 acres of field and pine forest, the community resembles a summer camp -- except for the lack of a big mess hall -- with ping-pong, badminton, horseshoes and volleyball. Not to mention two first-rate clay tennis courts -- flat-soled tennis shoes only.
One cabin is set aside for indoor recreation -- what's a summer without a few rainy days? -- with a game room and an adjacent library containing an impressive number of books shelved and numbered by Jim Stuart, who, with wife Karen ("Kiki"), owns this low-key vacation retreat, the only log cabin village in the Green Mountain State.
Built by hand
Long before Vermont regarded tourism as a growth industry, a hardy New Englander from western Massachusetts constructed 15 log cabins in nearby Vermont over a five-year period starting in 1912. Henry Shaw worked during winter months, usually completing three cabins a winter. Some were small, suitable for a writer, composer or artist. (Several books have been written here. Vermont writers Pearl Buck, Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher have frequented these pine-needled grounds.)
Other cabins were spacious, with a downstairs bedroom or two, plus a sleeping loft. Each cottage was designed to be different from its neighbor, barely visible through the trees, but all were built from native white pine, unstripped. (Today's log cabins use skinned logs since bark encourages decay.) All construction was done by hand; no power tools were used.
Shaw also made the tables, chairs, woodboxes and benches that remain today, although softer daybeds and comfortable rocking chairs have been added, along with electricity, hot and cold water, kitchenettes with stove, sink and refrigerator, as well as attached toilet and shower stall.
When Roaring Branch Camp, as it was known for a long time, first opened, there were several outhouses and a communal wash-house. Kerosene lamps were lit at night, and food was kept cool in ice boxes reached by lifting a trap door in the floor.
During the 1950s, some cabins were rented for the entire summer, others by the week or month. During the day, drives were taken on gravel back roads to historic sites, to farms selling maple syrup, or to horseback stables. At night one could attend the outdoor movie, long since abandoned, in nearby Manchester, or the summer theater at Dorset.
During the day when the sun was overhead, families would climb down the wooden stairs to boulder-strewn Roaring Branch to a natural swimming hole -- hardly big enough for swimming strokes, yet sufficiently protected from the current to splash around and cool off. Make no mistake: cool river water. As were the campgrounds. The shady grounds were 5 degrees colder than the nearby Vermont villages and much cooler than the nearest city, Troy, N.Y.
Informality is key