Yurt Workshop 2007       Picasa Photo Album

I first heard about yurts in a conversation with Sean Gaultois when we used to be office mates back in the 90's. I was in my 'tarp as a shelter' phase and making little domiciles in my backyard with all sorts of left-over rope and nylon tarps. I really liked the idea that you could make something quite substantial out of a few basic materials.

What strikes me most about a yurt is the basic structure. Like a bicycle, the design is more than time-tested and has hasn't changed much since it's inception. Circles, triangles and arches are the most efficient shapes and we have used them for shelter (igloos, teepees, yurts) and transportation (carts, bridges, bikes) since we crawled out of caves.

I have it in the back of my mind to build a yurt as the first structure on a small woodlot I hope to buy in the Valley a few years after I leave Dalhousie. When the chance came up to get hands-on experience in Nova Scotia, I immediately signed up and told Sean. He and his wife Sarah also signed up as they have some land on the Noel shore and are looking to build a timber-frame house, with the yurt more of a small shed.

The workshop is put on by Alex and Selene at Little Foot Yurts and it was a great weekend all around. The food was fantastic, the people very interesting and the whole experience had quite an effect on me then, and I am hoping will continue to help bend and shape what I do and who I am over the next number of years.

The weekend was busy and yet quite laid back at the same time. We all met for a pot-luck supper on Friday and everyone got to know a bit about the other participants. We then watched Mujaan (The Craftsman), a movie about a man called Sukhé making a yurt from scratch in some part of Mongolia. When you get right down to it, the yurt was made with some wood, some rope, some wool, lots of labour and a few hand tools. Simplicity itself. Watching buddy split 12" logs with a hand-axe and some home-made wooden mallets and wedges blew me away. My father was a power-tool guy from the get-go. If I thought a yurt was the coolest design ever, finding out that it could be built with simple tools...Man, I'm hooked.

Friday nite, we headed out to the workshop site, which involved a covered work area, 2 yurts and a small cabin with a wood stove that would serve as Selene's kitchen. Each yurt had a wood stove and a small lamp run off a deep-cell battery. An outhouse provided the washroom facilities.

Friday nite's entertainment was provided by Sarah on guitar, Paul on guitar and harmonica, Jake on bongo, Rémi on guitar and bongo and Ken on berimbau, an instrument I had never even heard of much less seen and heard. A very cool evening.

We had 7 people sleeping in our 17' foot, which still left a lot of room. When the other 'croo came over for the music, we had 13 people in there with still lots of room. It's hard to realize just how open these structures are until you're in one. My favorite view was the light canvas covering the tono wheel made out of bent ash. Nice way to go to sleep.

Saturday morning, we all filled up on serious coffee, more serious oatmeal, apple sauce, yogurt, juices and home-made bread. Just what you need to spend the rest of the day outside, working on your first yurt.

The food was being provided by Selene, using just that wood stove. Delicious, hot soup and bread for lunch, ongoing muffins, tea, squares and brownies, a wonderful curry dish for dinner. The food really was as memorable as the yurt-making.

While Alex covered the classtime and outdoor teaching, Selene was in charge of everything else, including the agenda and timing and class participation. Us Canadians can be quite shy in groups, and she structured the talks so that everyone was encouraged to open up a little about themselves and offer their opinions on some of the issues that were being discussed. This workshop was about more than yurts, it was about woodland management, ecological footprint, lifestyle sustainability and the health of the planet, things we have gotten away from in the past few generations. While it is obvious to most people that the planet's inhabitants can't keep using up resources as we currently do, it is people like Alex and Selene that are trying to bring back skills and attitudes that make sense for our very near future.

Building a yurt takes time. While the ingredients are simple enough, it's hard to realize just how much labor is involved until you actually start building one. Alex was a great teacher, lots of skills, tons of enthusiasm and a strong committent to making sure we each got our hands dirty with the various tasks involved. His ability to adjust to the situation or 'MacGyver' a solution to a problem was a skill to be admired. I wish I had taken pictures of his steam-box and forge, Lee Valley be damned. The man is unstoppable!

Saturday was spent making a kana or wall section, building a green-wood break, constructing a small yurt (including our new wall) and enjoying a walk in the woods to identify tree types and learning about coppicing. There was also a nice mix of class time, which allowed us to get lots of background on what we were doing. The day got a little long when we had to start doing math to figure the length of wood poles and just how many of them it took to build a wall that would give you the size of yurt you wanted. The good news is that we finished putting together a yurt, including the wall section we had built and got to see the results of our handiwork.

Sunday, we had another kick-ass breakfast, some classes and time spent cleaning the bark off of wood poles using our newly built green-wood breaks and some drawknives. The work was again much slower than anticipated. We also got to work on some red maple, to see the difference that hardwood makes, harder to make long peels, but easier overall to clean, as the wood has more resistance.

We also got to use a froe and split some nice, long ash logs, just like the guy in the video. How cool is that!

How much did I like this workshop? I really liked the agenda, which had us getting to know each other in a very short period of time. I liked the back and forth mix of class time and field time. I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge that both Alex and Selene exhibited. We had a lot to learn and they put together a workshop that imparted about as much knowledge and hands-on experience that you can deal with in a weekend. I loved the food, the preparation, the flavor, the diversity, the amount. Healthy, tasty food, and lots of it. I really liked the participation factor. We all had our say and our time at each task. I liked the participants. Definitely a varied crew, all sorts of ages and experiences and talents, everybody friendly and helpful.

I really enjoyed the headspace and speed at which the weekend chugged along. We were busy, but not rushed, and that was because of Alex and Selene and their good friend, Sammy. She came up to provide support during the weekend. This was a great idea, as both Alex and Selene were going non-stop all 3 days. Sammy provided the glue between the participants and the instructors, helping whenever and wherever she could. She also ministered my foot, which I had injured at hockey on Friday.

A great workshop all around and one that just about everyone could get a lot out of.