Some celebrities are notorious for building cabins that are more like rambling palaces built with scant consideration for the aesthetics of the landscape or the local traditions. This is especially true in Montana, where Hollywood heroes are known to buy up ranches and build multimillion-dollar lodge-style vacation homes that stretch the limit of what might truly be considered a cabin.
Not so in the case of Jack Hanna and his wife Suzi. Then again, Hanna doesn’t consider himself a celebrity either, despite what others might say. “I don’t like the word ‘celebrity’,” he says. “I don’t like the word ‘star,’ either. I don’t like any of those words. That’s not me.”
The world-renowned wildlife expert and TV personality (if you must call him something, he prefers “Animal Ambassador”) could easily have gone the same mega-lodge route as others when he decided to buy property and build a cabin retreat in Montana. But that just wouldn’t be his style.
“A lot of times, people in these small communities see people like me moving in and think, ‘Oh, gosh, what’s he going to do?’ ” he says, in reference to the influx of outside influences and tastes. “Well, I tell you what. I have a little farm up there – it’s a farm, not a ranch – on 40 acres, and some trails and a few small cabins for my family.”
And when he says small, he’s not kidding. Coming in at just 700 square feet, the Elk Cabin is truly petite. But really, argues Hanna, what more do you need? “When we were building it, we really didn’t know what we were doing. But I figured, hey, it’s a cabin – four walls, one room downstairs, a loft upstairs, put a kitchen in, and that’s it.”
An Adventure in Building
Builder Randy Baker concurs – not only on the apparent simplicity and humility of the Hannas’ aesthetic, but on the somewhat haphazard approach they took to building this, the second cabin on the property. It must be noted that Baker, like Hanna, also prefers a different kind of title. “I always tell Jack, ‘I’m not a carpenter.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, okay, right, you’re not a carpenter.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m a handyman. But I think we can figure this carpentry thing out.’ ”
And over a 20-year relationship with Hanna and several cabins later, he admits that maybe he’s figured a few things out. But he also enjoys recounting the process of building the Elk Cabin, which took place in 1996: “Jack called me up and said, ‘The guys from Logcrafters are on their way up, and they’re bringing logs.’ So they brought a crane up to stack them, and then we’re building this thing, and we’d actually gotten most of it done. I’m sitting up there on the roof one day, and Jack shows up. He pulls this tube out of the truck and says, ‘Well, obviously you don’t need these.’ And I say, ‘What’s that, Jack?’ And he says, ‘Well, they’re the plans!’ See, they didn’t leave me any plans. We were just winging it the whole project. So he put them back in the truck and that was the end of the plans. We never did see them.”
Luckily, Baker’s handyman skills and common sense proved up to the task, and two decades later, the Elk Cabin is still as sturdy and charming as ever. Made of locally harvested and hewn timbers, it’s truly the quintessential log cabin.
Simply outfitted, the rustic furnishings and spare decorations let the warm wood of the interior speak for itself. Quilts and blankets abound, inviting cozy relaxation. Tucked into the trees, it’s a secluded hideaway that boasts a beautiful, meticulously built fireplace, an old-fashioned claw-foot tub, and a comfy porch overlooking cherry orchards.
“The fireplace was built by an older stonemason, who has since passed on. And if you looked at his work next to the younger guys, there was no comparison,” says Baker. “It took him a while. I don’t know how many months, actually. But it turned out really neat. It’s not very big, but it has so much character.”
So why would a globetrotter like Jack Hanna build his retirement home in Montana, anyway? “I’ve traveled the world – South America, Africa, Australia,” says Hanna. “But the reason we chose Montana is very simple: I love the people, I love the climate – all four seasons of the year – and more than anything, my wife and I love hiking. There’s no better place in the world to go hiking than Glacier National Park
He goes on to site other attributes of the area that have earned his affection as well, in particular, the proximity to Flathead Lake
, and the plethora of wildlife that frequents his property. “We’ve had elk, moose, wolf, black bears, mountain lions, and there’s been a bald eagle nest there for the past three years,” he says. And, even though he’s made a living amongst animals and the natural world, he also appreciates the trappings of civilization. “We’re near this beautiful little village, but we’re also pretty close to Kalispell, which has a great hospital. You come out of the wilderness, and it feels like the big city. You can’t ask for anything more, way up in the corner of Montana.”
He admits that some of his friends are a little baffled by his penchant for the place, especially since he’s been returning to the state, year after year, for decades. But he remains unfazed. “They ask me, ‘Gosh, what do you do out there? It’s the middle of nowhere!’ ” he says. “But you know, I’ve been going out there since 1984. That’s 30 years, and I’ve still only done 10% of the things I want to do. There’s so much more. Montana takes a lifetime to discover, and that’s what I intend to do.”
Northwest MontanaSquare feet
A Chink in Time
Part of the appeal of a true log cabin is timelessness of the design. Very little about the technology of log-home building has changed over the centuries, and although the introduction of things like cranes and power tools have hastened the process, the basic rules still apply.
One of the most iconic and distinctive attributes of the log cabin is the presence of chinking and daubing, which creates the horizontal white stripes that are apparent between each log. While stylistic choices for the application of chinking and daubing vary, the purpose is always the same: to provide the final seal between indoors and outdoors and to keep pesky things like wind, rain, and mice at bay.
The two-part process consists first of the chinking, which is a bulkier material used to fill the space between logs. Traditionally, builders used whatever they had handy, from wood scraps to rocks, which they held in place with a softer material, such as clay or moss. Once the chinking is established, the daubing – a rough clay-based mixture – is troweled into the space and smoothed flat to hold everything in place and provide the final barrier against the elements.
Always an Animal Ambassador
Jack Hanna, also known as “Jungle Jack” is a renowned wildlife expert, TV personality, and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. He’s best known for his TV show, “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” as well as his many appearances on “Good Morning America” and the “Late Show with David Letterman,” accompanied over the years by a veritable menagerie of bears, tigers, skunks, lizards, primates big and small, and birds of all kinds, from penguins to ostriches.
He was born and raised on a farm in Tennessee, and refers to his Montana property as a farm, where they have chickens, cows and goats – but only in the summer. “Because we’re not there year-round, we rent the animals. The grandkids love it. They pet the cows and play with the goats. Did you know you can rent 8 chickens for $50 for the summer?”
Jack and his wife Suzi spend much of their year traveling the world, and much of Hanna’s time is devoted to giving talks and advocating for wildlife and conservation. They have three children and several grandchildren, and enjoy gathering the whole family in Montana whenever possible.
MORE ONLINE To read more about Jack and Suzi Hanna, go to jackhanna.com.
*This story originally appeared in the print edition of Cabin Living in December 2015