Farewell to Jack English, Who Built a Life in an American Wilderness (Story and 2 videos)

Categories: Life Stories


WWI-era canvas tent with sleeping bags and pads, and lanterns and flashlights, and not much else. The water source was a natural spring by a creek 300 yards away. Food was packed in and cooked by campfire. They’d catch fish and occasionally hunt deer.

On Fridays after work, Jack would load up his pickup and drive with Dennis to the nearest campground parking lot, arriving by 830 p.m. They would start hiking and would get to Pine Valley around 1030 p.m. Each trip was meticulously planned out so they could avoid hiking back and forth more than once. With a handmade sifter he’d fashioned out of a redwood frame and wire screen, Jack started creating two separate piles of gravel and sand by the creek. Gradually, they hand-carried the sand and gravel in five-gallon buckets back to their site.

Whenever Jack came across a larger stone he liked the look of, he’d grab it and put it on a pile by their tent. On the trail, if he spotted a handsome stone, he’d toss it into his pack and bring it to Pine Valley.

When he was a teenager, Dennis English helped his father build the small cabin on the valley floor below.

Each weekend, father and son packed in more tools and materials: Jack carried a 25-pound Alaskan chainsaw mill on his back, while Dennis carried the mill’s two 22-pound Husqvarna powerheads in one trip. When something was too big or cumbersome to carry or strap onto their backs, such as a gas-powered generator, they used a wheelbarrow or a makeshift cart. Over the course of many trips, Jack and Dennis hand-carried several hundred feet of 1/2-inch-thick rebar in bundles that weighed 80 pounds each. They’d wrap each end of a 12-foot-long bundle in foam, then each of them would shoulder an end and head out onto the trail. “It bounced and would beat you up,” recalls Dennis, who was a lanky teenager, “Your shoulder started aching pretty soon, and then you’d switch to the other shoulder and go back and forth.” At the site, as piles of rebar grew, so did bucketloads of sand and gravel. “I knew all the heavy work was making me stronger,” says Dennis.

In 1976, Jack and Dennis felled mature ponderosa pine trees that were newly dead or dying from infestations of pine beetle. The following spring, they milled the lumber. To dry the wood, they built racks using rebar, and piled up the boards with sticks in between each one to ensure air could pass between them. While they waited for the lumber to dry, they continued multitasking. Jack’s collection of eye-catching stones continued to grow.

Once they’d collected enough gravel and sand, Jack and Dennis began to haul in a substantial supply of Portland cement. One one occasion, they lead a train of at least ten mules and horses, each carrying two bags of cement. Jack used the cement to hand-mix his own mortar. He cast the cabin’s foundation wall and footing for the fireplace in solid concrete and rebar. The foundation was finished in the spring of 1977. That summer, they finished the framing, outside sheeting and siding, and roofing.

The wisteria plant growing across the front porch was planted in the 1990s. The flowers bloomed for the first time in the spring of 2013.

For the next three years, the family spent most of their weekends in Pine Valley. Mary planted a garden with grapes, blackberries, raspberries, and various fruit trees. Jack labored on the cabin’s interior. Once, when he stumbled across a felled black oak tree a quarter mile away from the cabin, Jack convinced Phil to help him lug the mill over to the tree. Jack knew the wood would be both beautiful and durable, so he used it for the floorboards. One larger piece became the fireplace mantle. To do away with the chainsaw marks on the wood, Jack resurfaced the wood using a broadaxe and adze. The technique involves first striking the beam with the axe to create a series of parallel crosscuts on the surface. Next, the adze is used to smooth out those cuts. The mantle took Jack two or three hours to finish. He used that same technique on the ceiling beams, which took even longer.

After the four bunks were built and the kitchen was set up and the windows were in place, Jack began the stonework on the chimney, foundation, and fireplace. He would work a little bit at a time. By then he’d gathered stones from riverbeds and trails all over the valley.

The stonework was purely cosmetic. But it helped give the cabin a detailed level of craftsmanship deserving of the area’s natural beauty. Over the years, the five-acre plot had become Jack’s favorite spot in the entire valley. He placed the final stone in 1980.

The exterior boards were never planed, so the patterned cuts from the chain saw blade are still visible.

That same year, Jack and Mary began extending their stays out at the cabin. Sometimes they’d hike in and spend up to a month at a time, just the two of them. Having retired, Jack had no obligation to be elsewhere. He took up crafting bows for violins, cellos, violas, and basses. Out in the woods, time seemed to stand still. Ever since the 1950s, Jack had grown increasingly disenchanted with modern society. With the rise of commercialism, people were turning away from farming and building and making things. He believed that products were getting cheaper in quality.

The wood-burning stove was helicoptered to the cabin for $250.

“I don’t care for progress. I’d rather go back. My wife was the same way,” Jack says, “When I lost her, it’s not been the same since.”

In 2001, Mary died at the age of seventy-eight. Soon after, Jack moved to the cabin and began to live

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