In 1996, I bought 10 acres in Saranac Lake, N.Y. At the time, I was living in Pennsylvania, but I had visited small town New York several years before while visiting Paul Smith Forestry College, and I had always wanted to return. Following the death of my father and getting divorced, it seemed a good time to start on my dream.
Until I was able to move to Saranac Lake permanently, I worked many hours at a utility company and spent my vacations camping on the land with my two kids. Over the course of those vacations, I cut, stacked, and hauled trees, and put up a shed to store my tools. I also had plenty of time to decide what to build on the land when the time came. At first I wanted to build a cabin or timber frame house, but as I thought about my age, the costs, and maintaining the property as I got older, I decided to look at alternative building options. The idea to build a yurt came from an ad in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. I could purchase a tall-wall yurt package with three standard windows, an insulation package for the roof and walls, and French doors for the front and another door in back. I did my homework, wrote to yurt companies, and decided this would be a great way to accomplish my goal.
In 2009, when the company I was working for scaled down, I accepted a good severance package and decided to cash out and move to my land. I packed what I needed, put the rest into storage, and headed to upstate New York. I made a cabin out of the shed, closing off one end for sleeping quarters and making a temporary kitchen and bathroom at the other end. I put up tarps outside to collect rainwater and bought two rain barrels to store it in. I bought a second generator to use with the one I brought with me. My temporary living arrangement was ready.
I laid out plans for the deck and base for my yurt. I built it 4 feet off the ground to make room underneath for utilities, such as the water tank for collecting rainwater and storing water from a stream on the property, as well as an instant hot water propane heater. Early on, I installed all propane appliances, including a propane refrigerator to store perishable food.
To grade part of the property and pull out some tree stumps, I rented a track hoe. We kept getting heavy rain, so I also hired a contractor to finish grading the plot and driveway. He finished the job in four hours, including grading the road coming into the driveway.
That July, I laid out my lines for the yurt and started digging post holes. I rented an auger for the digging, but knew there were going to be rock issues, as there’s a lot of glacial drop-off boulders here. Sure enough, I hit my first major rock trying to dig the first hole. Given the space I had to work with, there was nowhere to move the hole to, so I drilled a hole in the rock and set a bolt in it to act as a pin that would hold the post in place. (I didn’t want to pour footers or any cement in hopes that the yurt would be classed as a temporary structure for tax purposes.)
The Community Chips In
After I figured out how to stabilize the first post, I continued digging away a little each day. At 54 years old, I found out quickly that my aching muscles and joints weren’t the young ones I once had. I also needed to get a job, and both of these factors slowed the process a bit. I found work at a local lodge where I met Paul, a young man who needed some extra cash, so I offered him $20 an hour to help me. After he started, it was cool to see our progress as we worked in the mornings and on our two days off.
I built and installed beams, 2-by-8s for the verticals and a 2-by-6 on top of those, to make a stable beam. My best friend, Dean, who’s an excellent framer and carpenter, helped me set more 2-by-8s on top of the beams going in the opposite direction to complete a frame for the floor. Two-by-eight sheets of waterproof, three-quarter-inch- thick lumber lies on top of the frame to make the sub floor. Dean also helped me get the 4-by-8 decking sheets on the deck, and then it was time to start working on the insulation under the deck.
By then it was October and just starting to get cold at night. The shed wasn’t equipped to provide real warmth, so it was great when my neighbor offered me a room until the yurt was up. Every morning I would motivate myself to get over to the lot to keep plugging away.
I didn’t yet have all the insulation installed when the opportunity came to get the guys together to put up the yurt, which had been sitting in crates in two locations. Dean brought his friends, and the five of us started uncrating and laying things out. A few people from work showed up, too, and the help was welcome.
Learning Along the Way
Having read the yurt directions numerous times, I figured I had a handle on everything. We started by setting space for double French doors for the front and back of the yurt, then unfolded and placed the accordion-style wood frame. Next we raised the roof joists, setting them in the ring at the top of the yurt that holds them in place. We framed it all in five hours. Finally, we added the roof liner and insulation panels, then put a temporary tarp over the structure for the night.
The next day the guys showed up to help put the roof cover on, which turned out to be the hardest part — getting a roughly 300-pound cover up the scaffolding and on top of the ring that supports the roof joists. We got it up, unfolded and rolled out. It went fairly well, though we realized we made the mistake of rolling it down the back instead of the front, so we tied ropes to the grommets and lifted it around to the front. When we unfolded the other half, we found that now the door awning for the back door was off. That’s when I saw that I hadn’t centered my doors! The side cover now wouldn’t fit the placement for the doors.
I called Colorado Yurt Company and asked whether they could alter my side cover to fit the new dimensions. I had no problem paying for my mistake, and the company’s staff was a great help with making the adjustment. I shipped the cover out and got it back, ready to go, in two weeks. Dean helped me put the biggest side piece on, and I finished the yurt the next day. It was complete!
I celebrated with friends and rested for about a week. Dean and I went to Pennsylvania to see some friends and my kids for Thanksgiving. While there, we loaded up the belongings I had in storage, then headed back so I could finally move into the yurt.
Back in New York, I got the woodstove going, but it was still bitterly cold until I ran down to the heating supply company and got my heater (and quickly installed it that day). That was a big relief and made things much more manageable. I still needed to finish the insulation underneath the deck and wrap it in thick plastic until spring, and I found another eager young man to help. I couldn’t pay him for his services, but I fed him well.
It was quite a process from start to finish, but it was all doable — and now I have my own yurt and land to live on. To anyone who wants to follow her or his dream: You just have to brave it and do it. I was scared of many things, but I confronted those doubts and made my dream a reality.
I still have much to do, such as setting up a solar power system or connecting to the grid, or both. I still need to install plumbing and an incinerator toilet. The list goes on, because I am just getting started. As for now, I’m finally living my dream in upstate New York — just in time to enjoy the warm seasons and the plants, flowers, herbs, and vegetables from my homestead garden.