PRICHARD, Idaho — A crane and a bulldozer would be much easier methods of disassembling the three old cabins. But that would be such a waste of imagination, said Cliff Kunze, the energetic 24-year-old leading the cabin removal effort. More than 100 teenagers from all over the country have traveled to a remote homestead site along the upper North Fork Coeur d’Alene River to help in the process. “They’ve got their hearts into this place,” Kunze said while taking a lunch break. “If we wanted to do this as quickly as possible, I’d hire a crane and a crew of six guys. But the objective isn’t to take it down as quickly as possible.” As the cabin walls come down, the teenagers are growing, Kunze said. Skittish young women have overcome their fear of heights while tearing off the roof. The heavy lifting demands teamwork, which has bred unlikely friendships between teenagers from big cities and small towns. The sweat, dust and hard labor have erased much of the image-consciousness: no one looks particularly pretty at the end of the day. “This is the ultimate challenge course,” Kunze said. The two-story cabin and barns were built by hand 80-some years ago by Frank “Mac” McPherson, a bachelor trapper who lived a life straight out of a Jack London novel. After his death in the winter of 1980 – McPherson’s body had to be hauled back to civilization on a sled – the cabins began to be reclaimed by nature. Vandals smashed the windows. Mice chewed through the furniture. Heavy snows began taking their toll on the roofs. Bob Baker, the executive director of the Coeur d’Alene-based Lutherhaven Ministries, spotted the cabins a couple of years ago and knew right away they had to be saved. Baker previously worked for the National Park Service, where part of his job was renovating old cabins. “They were going to disappear,” Baker said. “We hated to see them auger into the ground.” Baker thought the restored cabins would be perfect for his organization’s Shoshone Base Camp, a summer camp about 20 miles downstream the homestead. He contacted the new owner of the land, Coeur d’Alene businessman Ray Grannis, who agreed to donate the cabins to the group. Within two or three years, Baker hopes to have the cabins completely reassembled atop new foundations at the Shoshone Base Camp. The public will be welcome to view the structures. Apart from providing the camp with historical, hand-built cabins, Baker thought the project would be ideal for young people. About 80 volunteers from six states are spending this week working on the project. Last week, 45 teenagers worked on the project. “There’s a lot of horsepower there,” Baker said. Many of the teenagers are doing the work as part of a summer service project. Mixed in with the effort is time for quiet contemplation, hiking, swimming and Bible study. The foreman of the group, Clint Kunze, said the experience is difficult, but is designed in such a way that the young people come away energized. Some of the energy also is rubbing off on Kunze. Each day, as the cabin walls become shorter, his spirits are hoisted, he said. “I’m just getting more and more revved.” The teenagers are eager to discuss their work. Many say the experience has been transforming. Jennifer Burcham, a 15-year-old from Indiana, could barely control her enthusiasm. A simple greeting from a reporter prompted a gushing narrative of her time at the homestead. “I’ve never done any of this before,” she said. “We flew to get here. I’ve never flown before. I really like the scenery. I even got to help on the roof. I especially like the power tools. This is really cool.” Burcham then paused and asked a question on many of the young campers’ minds: “How did he do this all by himself? It’s taking ten of us to move one log.” McPherson’s life story has been the focus of many campfire discussions this week. The teenagers learned that he attended Gonzaga Prep Academy in Spokane at the same time as Bing Crosby. They learned that McPherson had to snowshoe 28 miles one-way to Prichard twice each winter to buy supplies and sell mink, beaver, weasel and lynx pelts. When he wasn’t running his 70-mile trapline, McPherson would spend long winter nights studying psychology, poetry or learning foreign languages from a record player. According to some accounts, he was fluent in French, German and Spanish. “He was pretty eloquent,” Baker said. “When people would invite him over to Christmas dinner, the evening entertainment was often him reciting classic works of poetry.” McPherson’s story was well-known to locals. It was chronicled in a 1975 edition of The Kellogg Evening News and in Bert Russell’s collection of oral histories, “North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.” McPherson was briefly married but had no children, according to Russell’s book. “He kept a piano in his log house in later years and enticed women to stay up there over the winter. But it was a lonely place for a woman through the snowbound months and Mac was gone days at a time on trapline. In each case, when spring came, his woman flew.” Ax marks are still clearly visible on the old logs, many of which were from trees burned in the great fires of 1910. Small souvenirs of McPherson’s life have remained hidden in the cabin for the young people to discover. On Tuesday, a 1968 copy of The Saturday Evening Post was found. Last week, a young man found McPherson’s famed German Luger pistol. He was often spotted wearing the pistol, Baker explained. After his death, locals searched the cabin in vain for the handgun. The teenager found it behind a cabinet — with a live round in the chamber. The colorful stories about McPherson have made the hard work interesting and the Old West feel fresh, said 15-year-old Indiana resident Josh Ilgenfritz. “This is quite a scene,” he said. “It’s been a lot more fun than I thought.” But with each heavy log lifted from the homestead, thoughts return to one central question. “How’d he do this by himself?” asked Nikki Larson, 14, from Wisconsin.
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