House Beautiful: Forester's secluded log home transformed into eco-retreat

A serpentine driveway stretching more than a kilometre and a half descends a gentle slope to the lakeshore.

Its destination is a rustic home built decades ago from cedar logs harvested and hewn on site.

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The house nestles amid masses of luxurious ferns and carpets of moss, lichens and fungus in the heart of a 30-hectare forest of ancient western red cedar, big leaf maple, arbutus, flowering dog-wood and Douglas fir.

This magical environment, on the shore of Quennell Lake just north of Ladysmith, is the legacy of Merv Wilkinson, who purchased the property in 1938. It’s now a nature preserve called Wildwood Ecoforest and Homestead, operated by the non-profit Ecoforestry Institute Society.

The home sleeps six and can be rented by individuals, but is also used for corporate retreats, mushroom foraging, nature-identification workshops, bat-colony counts and weddings. Tents are erected in the apple and pear orchard for large events.

Wilkinson originally planned to farm the property, but after taking farming classes at UBC and conferring with his Swedish professor, he changed his mind. After hearing about the terrain and trees, the professor advised the young man to establish a sustainable forest operation instead, modelled on similar ones in Scandinavia.

It was the seed of a grand idea.

Wilkinson spent the next seven decades creating a sustainable forest based on diversity and resilience. He also built a log home with his own hands, and, after the original burned down due to a chimney fire, rebuilt it in 1965.

After Wilkinson died in 2011 at the age of 97, the home was left vacant and gradually deteriorated.

In 2017, the Ecoforestry Institute Society, which had acquired the property, embarked on a major 14-month renovation, with help from a $150,000 grant from the Regional District of Nanaimo and a $65,000 B.C. Capital Project Gaming grant.

“The home was being reclaimed by nature and had filled with all kinds of rodents,” recalled volunteer board member Cheryl Bancroft.

“So we took up all the flooring and old shag carpets, and stripped the whole house down to the bare logs to get rid of all the rats and the bat colony.” (The colony was carefully relocated to new bat boxes.)

The project included removing asbestos from the attic and lead-painted cabinets, as well as an old oil tank.

Bancroft, a former commercial interior and graphic designer, was project manager and the volunteers were energized. The team added new plaster walls and wood floors, doors, energy-efficient appliances, low-flush toilets, insulation, double-pane energy-efficient windows, heat pumps, LED lighting and more.

They refinished the exterior logs, drilled down 86 metres for a new well and added a cistern, rainwater-collection barrels and solar panels.

Today, the Wildwood Homestead retains its rustic charm and historic flavour, but with the added comfort of modern conveniences, said Bancroft, who met the Wilkinsons after retiring to Yellow Point.

“I became a neighbour of theirs and would check on them now and then, sit and have chats. He was a wonderful person to talk to.”

She met others who were helping the elderly couple, became entranced with the property and was asked to join the EIS, along with co-founders such as ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner, who studies First Nations traditional knowledge, including plant cultivation and use.

“The home is a pretty special place,” said Bancroft. “When people come in they go ‘Wow’ because on the outside, the house doesn’t give a hint of what’s inside, including the 16-foot-high vaulted ceiling when you enter.”

Bancroft said the home already has more bookings this year than for all of last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic quashed many travel plans. That’s a relief for the society, as rentals pay the $450,000 mortgage as well as insurance and other costs.

“It’s becoming a popular getaway for environmentally conscious people and has attracted visitors from Japan, Korea, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.”

And while the home is now open to overnight visitors, the property is still being selectively logged. A harvest took place in the fall of 2019.

Management is based on Wilkinson’s eco-forestry methodology, which ensures trees flourish without overcrowding. He would harvest trees once every five years, selecting them based on light and the density needs of the forest, as well as market prices per species.

He developed his techniques over many years and lived a modest life, heating his original home with wood, drawing water from the lake and using horse teams to pull logs from the forest.

No replacement trees were ever planted, as he always left the biggest and the best untouched as seed trees to regenerate the forest.

The property — ecoforestry.ca — remains a unique window on the wonders of Mother Nature. Besides the larger species, its mini menagerie includes brown bats, giant ant hills, bright yellow banana slugs, eagles, osprey, pileated woodpeckers, great horned owls, great blue herons, wrens, warblers, towhees and more.

Smaller flora range from rattlesnake plantain orchids and wild roses to ocean spray, salal, Oregon grape, salmonberry, mosses, lichens and fungi, while the ancient trees are showstoppers.

One of them dates back 1,600 years, while another colossus had a fungal disease and exploded in a recent windstorm. Left where it fell, it has become a stunning natural sculpture.

In addition to partnering with local First Nations for educational, language and cultural programs, the EIS is working with singer, composer and conservationist Ann Mortifee, cofounder of the Trust for Sustainable Forestry.

“We are aiming to develop ecoforestry education. That’s our long-term goal,” said Bancroft. “We are very excited to be working together, thinking with great, bright minds.”

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