Kootenai National Forest Off-Grid Cabin

A Kootenai National Forest off-grid cabin is transformed into a family retreat

Getting stuck in the driveway can be a deal-breaker for some prospective cabin buyers. But Cherlyn Jones and husband, Seth Sutherland, are made of stern stuff. So when that happened to these Montana transplants the first time they drove toward the off-grid log cabin at the end of a mile-long driveway, they were not put off. On the contrary, they spotted the cabin, and their immediate response was “We’ll take it!”

Outdoor opportunities abound at the Kootenai National Forest Off-Grid Cabin

“It was perfect,” says Cherlyn. “It had 10 acres, a spring, two wells and easement to a creek.”
That was back on New Year’s Day, 2013. The first winter, 5 feet of snow fell, and the temperature plummeted to -36°F. “We love the winter, the quiet – it’s so beautiful,” she says. “And we’re just 12 miles from a ski resort.”

The property lies in Montana’s remote Yaak River Valley. Located in the far northwest corner of the state, the Yaak borders both Canada and Idaho.

“We were living in the Missoula area and looked at a map of Montana for the fewest roads and the most trees,” Cherlyn recalls. The couple found that particular spot here on the edge of the Kootenai National Forest. “We’re on a private road that borders tens of thousands of acres without roads behind us,” Cherlyn continues. Opportunities to fish, hike and cross-country ski abound, right on their doorstep.

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Kootenai National Forest Off-Grid Cabin

Converting campsite to cabin

When the couple purchased the site, the log home that was already there was used as a hunting cabin. It was “basically a campsite,” notes Cherlyn. “The power system and water weren’t hooked up, but the cabin itself had good bones.”

Cherlyn and Seth have devoted the past four years to making the three-bedroom cabin both functional and homey for themselves and their toddler. With two woodstoves (a big workhorse in the basement and one with a glass door in the great room), new windows and Perma-Chink elastomeric chinking, this log home stays warm and cozy.

“It doesn’t feel any different from an on-grid home,” says Cherlyn. A solar array includes six solar panels, 38 deep-cell batteries and a powerful Magnum inverter. The couple installed a well pump to draw water from the 400-foot deep drilled well. Brand new Unique (a specialized off-grid appliance manufacturer) kitchen appliances include a propane range and refrigerator. The water heater also runs on propane; fuel is stored in a 500-gallon tank. The previous owner left behind a Generac Olympian 30K propane generator, but most of the time, the couple relies on a smaller Honda generator for backup, says Seth.

Two connected cabins

The 1,500-square-foot cabin is actually two cabins connected by a dog run. One cabin was built before the other, hence the different roof levels. In the past, the dog run (also known as a dogtrot, breezeway or possum-trot plan) was used as a dining area, says Cherlyn. “Now it’s a utility area, behind the woodstove.”

The great room boasts a cathedral ceiling – a perfect setting for the Christmas tree and holiday celebrations with the clan. Seth’s mom, artist Kay Sutherland, visits from Virginia – Seth’s home state. Kay’s paintings of the mountains where Seth grew up hang on the walls. Cherlyn’s family makes the trip from both North Carolina and her home state of Florida. Her two older boys, who live in Montana, visit frequently.

The couple has filled the cabin with family heirlooms. In the great room are Cherlyn’s grandparents’ chandelier, her grandfather’s chair and Seth’s great-grandmother’s pedal-powered sewing machine. His grandfather’s guitar is on top of the gun safe.

The library, with its log rafters and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, is furnished with antiques inherited from both sides of the family, including chairs, a table and a 100-year-old mirror. Stairs with a knotty pine column at the base lead up to the master and second bedrooms.

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Kootenai National Forest Off-Grid Cabin

Close to nature

The master opens east onto a balcony. Along with the south-facing windows, the bedroom boasts a 180-degree view of mountains and forest. “We like to head out on the balcony on a cool evening and enjoy the view, watch the garden grow and wildlife frolicking in the meadow below,” says Cherlyn. The balcony is also a favorite hangout for the family’s “guard cat” Ann, who alerts her owners to the presence of bears.

“I like living here among the animals – elk, wolves, coyote, the occasional moose,” says Seth, who enjoys hunting when he’s not tending the large vegetable garden. “We do a good amount of canning and drying our garden haul,” adds Cherlyn. “When living off the grid, it is always a good idea to put food away, along with having bulk supplies on hand to reduce our need to make the long drive to town.”

That drive time could be better spent outdoors, picking berries or morel mushrooms or just communing with nature in this beautiful corner of cabin country.