Whenever Sherry O’Hearn would leave her mountain vacation home near Montana’s Glacier National Park, after about five minutes she’d pass a log cabin along the flats of the Swan River. Looking across the pasture on one trip to town, she could scarcely make out the cabin’s “for sale” sign partially obscured by trees.
“It was a dilapidated building and though it was in horrible disrepair, we could see it had just great bones,” says Sherry, who was taken with the great width of the exterior logs and the structure’s location right up against the river.
She and her husband Mike decided it was too great of a find to pass up. So they set about remodeling the four-bedroom, three-bathroom cabin for a guesthouse. “We have eight children and 21 grandchildren. We needed an overflow place to have guests,” she explains. Sherry called her trusted Kalispell builder Tim Stracener of Silver Wolf Homes, who had remodeled her main vacation place.
Uncovering the Charm
Although Sherry, Mike and Tim bounced around several ideas for aggrandizing the riverside cabin, it was agreed the project was best served with a light hand. While Tim has built many impressive projects in the area, he was completely on board with the minimalist plans. “It’s a relatively small cabin and it seemed right to leave it rather plain. We wanted to do something a little quaint.”
Built in the 1970s, most of the cabin’s quaint features were hidden under thick layers of cheap stain yellowed to the color of shellac on the classic D-style milled logs. The structure’s interior featured flat tongue-and-groove and, along with the rounded exterior logs, every inch of the place needed to be sanded. “We used reams of sandpaper hand-sanding the logs inside and out. It was a big endeavor taking up the entire summer, but it had to be done to get the finish we wanted,” says Sherry.
She achieved the rich honey-hued look by creating a signature stain recipe. “To get the exact color we wanted, we experimented and found a formula mixing three different Sikkens stains together,” she recalls. “It has an almost hand-rubbed look after all the sanding and careful staining.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a remodeling project without a surprise or two reminding the O’Hearns that they’re in the Wild West. The numbers didn’t add up when Tim was measuring the structure’s exterior and interior. “We actually discovered a hidden room behind a bookcase, about 10x12-feet, which looked like it was used for reloading ammunition,” says Tim. Now the space provides a handy storage area for the retreat.
Updates: From Floor to Ceiling
Once the logs of the cabin were on track, the remodelers stepped in and buttoned it up with energy-efficient doors and larger windows. To marry the virtues of low-maintenance practicality with interior beauty, the windows are aluminum clad on the exterior with natural pine casings inside. To add to the rustic whimsy of the front porch, local artisans carved a black bear cub motif into the lower wood panel of the screen door and cut out pine tree shapes in the wood shutters. Both were painted to precisely match the windows.
The challenge was then to add dimension, light and a focal point to the simple architecture. To combat the natural darkness of a log cabin, glass French doors replaced solid ones inside to help distribute the light and add a design element. Heightened visual interest was given to the living room, dining room and kitchen with the installation of ceiling beams. “Because the cabin was very plain, beams gave it that cozy feeling it needed,” says Tim.
But to truly anchor the cabin, the crew got busy ripping out the veneer fireplace. “We replaced all the stone façade with beautiful, stacked Montana stone,” says Tim. “It’s just gorgeous.” The floor-to-ceiling hearth provides the perfect backdrop for its substantial half-log mantel.
Although new hardwood flooring had to be laid throughout the cabin due to pet stains, Sherry wanted to salvage as much as possible. “I kind of believe in keeping things as they are if we can. In the kitchen we refinished the original cabinets and added new hardware.” Slabs of 3-inch thick ponderosa pine, which replaced the laminate kitchen counter tops, accent the cabinetry along with the farmer’s sink and French tile backsplash.
All Decked Out
Perhaps the biggest improvement to the cabin was expanding the original small deck to a 1,000-square-foot version that wraps around the entire structure. “The deck allows you to get even closer to the water because it’s cantilevered in some places,” says Sherry. “It faces east, so you’re out of the hot western sun during cocktail hour and looking at the beautiful Swan Mountains.”
Indeed, one can actually cast a fishing line into the Swan River from the deck, perhaps leading to the cabin’s name, “River Ranch.” However with extraordinary access comes an equal sense of responsibility. “You could never build there today,” says Sherry, referring to modern water easements and setbacks. “So we try very hard to protect it. We use no chemicals on the lawn and do our best to help our little portion of the river.
River Ranch Fun
While the O’Hearns adore their main vacation home high up on the mountain, having the River Ranch allows the entire family to enjoy other aspects of a Montana vacation. Sherry says, “There’s plenty of room for friends to bring horses to use on one of the pastures or give riding lessons to the children.” The fields continue to be active with alfalfa planted in one and hay in the other.
The river also teems with animals including beavers, bald eagles, fox and deer. “The kids like to take the kayaks out from the dock real early in the morning to watch the wildlife and birds,” says Sherry, who believes the easy water access adds so much to the experience. “Tubing is very popular with my grandchildren, as well.”
It has been nearly 10 years since the family acquired the rundown little log house on the river. “The children have grown with it,” says Sherry, who can’t imagine their annual summer reunions without the River Ranch and the memories made there.
Lucie Amundsen is a freelance writer with a floating cabin, The Needy Mistress, docked on Lake Superior.