Taking a course in woods

Project: Four McDaniel College students are earning credit -- and a place to relax -- by building a log cabin as an independent study project.

January 18, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Some McDaniel College students are learning the basics of hip-hop lingo. Others are munching popcorn and watching Thelma and Louise and other movies. Senior Melanie Sheets is away on a working vacation of sorts, snapping photos in Italy.

Her brother is building a log cabin. For college credit.

Rather than enjoy the warmth indoors or travel to a foreign land, Tim Sheets, 19, and three fellow sophomores from McDaniel College are enduring temperatures in the 20s while sawing trees, stacking logs and stripping bark to erect a home away from home -- or at least a place where they can hang their fishing poles.

This is their project for McDaniel's January term, the time between semesters for students at the Westminster liberal arts school to find a release from the academic grind.

For three weeks, students take such offbeat courses as "What's the Rap on Rap?" or "Ethics and Film," where a classroom subs for a movie theater. They can work as interns or travel and receive a half-credit to four credits.

If they're more industrious, they can attempt an independent project -- such as turning trees into a small house.

"We didn't know it'd be this much work," said Chris Hines, 19, one of the sophomores working on the cabin. "We love it, and it's no problem getting up early every day, but we're doing five times more work than they're doing in a class.

"We're getting four credits, which is more than what most people are getting, but we should ask for more," he said.

In pitching their idea, Sheets and Hines, along with Ian Loper and Eric Williston, emphasized the project's potential to foster leadership and team-building skills. They submitted their proposal to art instructor and sculptor Wasyl Palijczuk, who approved it.

They haven't had to dip into their wallets for supplies, asking for and receiving $1,300 worth of plywood, caulk and nails from Lowe's, a $500 grant from the college and $100 in private donations.

The four are working on a deadline -- they have to finish the cabin by Friday, when the term ends.

After that, they'll start using the cabin, on the Loper family's property in the woods of Eldersburg, as a "playhouse." All four know each other from their days at Liberty High School and live on the same dormitory floor. With the cabin providing enough room to fit a couple of couches, a wood stove and maybe a small table, they plan to use it as a place to crash after taking a biology exam -- all but Williston are biology majors -- or after wrangling with largemouth bass at Liberty Reservoir.

The prototype for the cabin is one built by Loper's father, Richard, who created a log shack from scratch on his father's property in Randallstown in 1975. It was his senior year at Western Maryland College, which is known today as McDaniel College, and he needed to do a January term project, a requirement the school began in 1969.

After he finished, he took it down and rebuilt it on the wooded property where he and his family have lived for more than 20 years.

It's just big enough to provide basic shelter.

This year's model is an upgrade that includes extras such as skylights, a loft (big enough to fit two twin beds or a queen-size bed), stained-glass windows (made by the younger Loper's grandmother) and a patio.

It's also roomier than the 1975 cabin -- 10 feet by 12 feet on the ground floor room and 9 feet by 11 feet in the loft.

The thing about building log cabins is that it takes a lot of work.

The students started in the fall by digging a 3-foot-deep foundation.

They alternately stacked logs, one course at a time.

Between the logs, they've added insulation and wire mesh.

The roof, which they put up weeks ago, is galvanized tin. The next thing they're going to do is slather a mortar, called chinking, over the insulation and wire.

On a typical day, they split up into teams of two. This week, Loper and Sheets worked together to fit the cabin's door into its frame.

When the hinge broke, the two hopped into a golf cart to get a replacement at Loper's house, a short ride down a gravel driveway.

While they were taking care of that, Williston and Hines sawed the loft's wall panels to fit, and they cut a square in one for a stained-glass window.

The four said the most grueling part of the experience was sawing 25 trees -- maple, oak and poplar -- and hoisting them on their shoulders on an uphill trek to their work site.

Loper had a close call when he lost his balance and a log fell on him.

He feels lucky he came away with only a bruise.

In their khaki cargo pants, sweat shirts and knit caps, they resemble those hardy types in the Northwest who spend most of their time outdoors.

Loper's black Labrador, Champ, is never far away, usually with a branch in his mouth, inviting a game of tug before letting go and allowing the tugger to play fetch with him.

Tool belts wrapped around their hips, each of the students usually has something in his hands -- a saw, a sledgehammer, or some other tool -- while working with the wood.

Strips of bark are strewn throughout the area around the cabin, leftovers from one of the most labor-intensive tasks -- using long knives to strip the bark from the trees they took down.

They took a week off for Christmas and New Year's Day, and Mother Nature gave them some setbacks: It rained before the roof was up.

With a week to go, all that is left is chinking.

"I can't wait to finish it, and then we can hang out," Hines said.

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