In this day of glitzy spa vacations with Jacuzzis and exercise machines, the prospect of holing up in an authentic log cabin named Possum or Woodchuck might seem suitable only for nostalgia buffs. But the rustic Vermont log cabin enclave of Roaring Branch appeals to those looking for an escape -- from the hustle-bustle of daily life.
Sure, the floors tilt slightly. But what would you expect from a dozen log cabins scattered among pines that were built about 80 years ago and have settled a bit unevenly?
And they can be somber. Built by hand -- for a cost of $30 for nails and glass -- the logs weren't skinned, so the barked interiors are dim, especially since the cabins are surrounded by virgin white pine.
In recent years, though, handmade skylights have allowed more light to enter, filtered through looming pines.
Also, each has a porch with Adirondack chairs and a table for alfresco dining -- that is, if it isn't Vermont's black fly season, when it may be sensible to eat inside in front of the stone fireplace or drive a few miles to a village inn.
Folks who rent Roaring Branch's cabins are those who respect )) quietude. Some bring fishing gear; the settlement is on a piney bluff above the Roaring Branch as it churns its foamy way down from the southern slopes of Stratton Mountain to the Battenkill, a well-known fishing stream that crosses into New York State to join the Hudson River above Albany.
Few who rent these cabins -- for a weekend, a week, or the summer -- bring along a portable television. Ater all, it's television they're leaving behind. Besides, rabbit-ear TV reception in this hilly Green Mountain country produces mostly snowy pictures.
With a children's playground (which boasts a child-sized volleyball court) and inexpensive baby-sitting available from nearby residents of Sunderland and East Arlington, families comprise most guests at this bucolic retreat.
Spread out over 36 acres of field and pine forest, the community resembles a summer camp -- except for the lack of a big mess hall -- with ping-pong, badminton, horseshoes and volleyball. Not to mention two first-rate clay tennis courts -- flat-soled tennis shoes only.
One cabin is set aside for indoor recreation -- what's a summer without a few rainy days? -- with a game room and an adjacent library containing an impressive number of books shelved and numbered by Jim Stuart, who, with wife Karen ("Kiki"), owns this low-key vacation retreat, the only log cabin village in the Green Mountain State.
Built by hand
Long before Vermont regarded tourism as a growth industry, a hardy New Englander from western Massachusetts constructed 15 log cabins in nearby Vermont over a five-year period starting in 1912. Henry Shaw worked during winter months, usually completing three cabins a winter. Some were small, suitable for a writer, composer or artist. (Several books have been written here. Vermont writers Pearl Buck, Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher have frequented these pine-needled grounds.)
Other cabins were spacious, with a downstairs bedroom or two, plus a sleeping loft. Each cottage was designed to be different from its neighbor, barely visible through the trees, but all were built from native white pine, unstripped. (Today's log cabins use skinned logs since bark encourages decay.) All construction was done by hand; no power tools were used.
Shaw also made the tables, chairs, woodboxes and benches that remain today, although softer daybeds and comfortable rocking chairs have been added, along with electricity, hot and cold water, kitchenettes with stove, sink and refrigerator, as well as attached toilet and shower stall.
When Roaring Branch Camp, as it was known for a long time, first opened, there were several outhouses and a communal wash-house. Kerosene lamps were lit at night, and food was kept cool in ice boxes reached by lifting a trap door in the floor.
During the 1950s, some cabins were rented for the entire summer, others by the week or month. During the day, drives were taken on gravel back roads to historic sites, to farms selling maple syrup, or to horseback stables. At night one could attend the outdoor movie, long since abandoned, in nearby Manchester, or the summer theater at Dorset.
During the day when the sun was overhead, families would climb down the wooden stairs to boulder-strewn Roaring Branch to a natural swimming hole -- hardly big enough for swimming strokes, yet sufficiently protected from the current to splash around and cool off. Make no mistake: cool river water. As were the campgrounds. The shady grounds were 5 degrees colder than the nearby Vermont villages and much cooler than the nearest city, Troy, N.Y.
Informality is key
Imbued with the Roaring Branch's non-commercialism, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart made no attempt to alter its laid-back ambience when they bought it in the '80s. There are no organized schedules, no bulletin board of daily events. If guests informally organize a summer bridge tournament, or plan a hike to the fire tower on Stratton Mountain, or get together to drive to the summit of nearby Mount Equinox, the highest peak in the Taconic Mountains, to watch a sunset, so be it.
As a convenience, the Stuarts keep menus of all nearby restaurants (from humble roadside eateries to French restaurants in Dorset) handy for inspection in the office, since many guests, content to prepare breakfast and lunch in their cabins or on a porch grill, prefer to go out for the evening.
Mrs. Stuart sometimes suggests they take a flashlight after dark and walk up the narrow dirt camp access road to a field to gaze at the stars. For many, this view of the sky, unobstructed by surrounded lights, is a startling summer experience.
Woodsy creatures are part of the experience, too. While the log cabins perched above a river are well-chinked and screened, who can prevent an occasional spider, mouse, chipmunk, beetle or butterfly from being an uninvited guest?
Although the chipmunk is part of the rodent family, which generally gets poor press, something about its coffee color and stripes makes it appealing enough so that city dwellers become transfixed watching them scamper over the porch or adjacent pine needles. After all, these log cabins (several sagging ones simply couldn't be preserved) are unoccupied -- at least by humans -- eight months of the year.
In May, the Stuarts, who live in one of several new barkless log cabins on the grounds, prepare for summer. On Memorial Day weekend every cabin is usually filled, followed by a lull during the next few weeks. The cabins are open through the first week of October.
Roaring Branch is approached over a single-lane serpentine dirt road with a clump of grass in the middle leading from a two-lane blacktop road north of the Chiselville bridge, an ancient covered bridge with modern underpinnings spanning the Roaring Branch the town line between Arlington and Sunderland. The Stuarts pay taxes to both towns. Cars can be parked under trees next to each rustic cabin.
Local residents are hired to clean and do chores. Blankets, towels and bathmats are provided. Each housekeeping cabin has a grill for outdoor cooking, although guests are requested to supply charcoal. Also suggested: insect repellent, fishing and tennis gear, flashlights, warm clothing for nippy mornings and evenings, although fireplaces take the chill off. Wood can be bought, but the first day's supply is neatly stacked on the porch, along with kindling.
House special: tranquillity
The Stuarts admit their retreat isn't for everyone. Surely not for those who miss the sound of motorboats on a lake, a boombox on a dock or soap opera dialogue at 11 in the morning.
The specialty here is tranquillity. Commune with nature. Play solitaire. Toss horseshoes with the children. Since guests are given local papers when checking in (along with a map of the premises), they are alerted to auctions, art exhibits, yard sales or library book sales.
Perhaps a Roaring Branch folder expresses the sort of vacation offered: "A special outdoor world of authentic log cabins, virgin white pines, a clear mountain stream, and a sense of Green Mountain tranquillity, . . . deer, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, partridges, pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, thrushes, . . more than 40 kinds of ferns and flowers, . . . polliwogs, salamanders, mosses, fungi."
Whenever this peaceful surrounded-by-nature life seems a bit too tame, there's plenty of activity nearby: three golf courses within a quarter of an hour's drive. Dorset's summer theater has evening and matinee performances. Much to the distress of many Manchester residents, their village has become home for factory discount stores.
No more than a five-minute drive is one of the state's best river canoe outfitters -- Battenkill Canoe Ltd. on state Route 7A. Here one can rent a canoe and coast or paddle down the slow moving Battenkill to be picked up hours later by Battenkill's livery service.
En route picnics on a sunny sandbar are popular. So is swimming in the natural pool underneath the West Arlington covered bridge, about a hundred yards from the house where Norman Rockwell lived when he had a studio in Arlington. He and Robert Frost sometimes volleyed tennis balls on Roaring Branch's clay courts.
If you go . . .
Virtually all Roaring Branch's guests reserve in advance, with deposits. Memorial Day and foliage weeks fill up first.
Except during June, September, and October, when a three-night minimum stay is required, weekly rentals are the rule. A small cabin (one to five persons) rents for $545; a cabin for one to eight persons (six adults maximum) for $580. Vermont has an 8 percent room tax.
Special rates are offered for stays longer than two weeks. Cabin rentals begin at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, with a mid-morning checkout on subsequent Saturdays.
For details, write Jim and Karen Stuart, Roaring Branch, Arlington, Vt. 05250, or call (802) 375-6401.