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Walden Cabin revisited

As a young man, Stuart Hickox saw a peaceful retreat in a devastated P.E.I. plot. Twenty years later, he shares his rustic-chic getaway and his love of nature with his family

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Photo by Stephen Harris

Stuart Hickox fell in love with a 4-hectare lot in Hartsville, the heart of Prince Edward Island. The clearcut lot was covered in uprooted plants, but a panoramic view of the rolling farmland was just a hike up the hill.

“It’s the land that caught my attention first,” he says. “Even though it was devastated. Heaps of branches and debris and stumps were all that was left.” Hickox, then in his twenties, decided this would be the perfect location for a small cabin where he could escape life to work on his writing. He envisioned a cabin with simple furnishings, made from quality materials that let nature steal the show. Consultations with Carter Jeffrey, a senior draftsman and Hickox’s friend, began in 1995.

  • This rustic cabin is nestled on a four-hectare lot in Hartsville, Prince Edward Island. Homeowner Stuart Hickox wanted to create an oasis in the woods that would reconnect him with nature.
  • Hickox's late father, Frank, helped him start construction on the 14-by-20-foot main cabin.
  • The drop leaf-table opens up to seat six comfortably and folds down to offer more space for after-dinner conversations. The bay window seat is a twin-sized custom foam mattress that doubles as a bed. A storage space underneath offers a place to stash extra blankets, pillows, and board games.
  • What started as a plan for little more than an outhouse became much larger when the architect sat down to sketch the bathhouse. The final designs contained a full three-piece bathroom. “It feels like a sunny spa in there,” Hickox says. “The morning sun and summer moon shine in through a cathedral window onto a claw-foot tub.”
  • The back door off the kitchen takes visitors across a country-style back porch. Adirondack chairs make the perfect reading spot with an outdoor light positioned above to keep the story going long after dark, and an overhang offers shelter on drizzly days.
  • Summerside, P.E.I.-based Malpeque Fine Iron welded a unique stool for Hickox out of an old tractor seat that his wife, Suzie, gave him for his birthday. The seat is welded onto a flower stem-like base. In addition to being a personalized present, it adds another eye-catching feature to the room.
  • The cabin sits at the end of a winding gravel driveway, through mature maple, birch, oak, and beech trees. Hickox says it is only a hike up to the top of a hill to see a panoramic view of the surrounding P.E.I. farmlands.
  • Hickox added the open, outdoor shower in 2004. Guests often say that it takes a few days to feel completely comfortable showering out in the great outdoors, but once they do the shower is hard to resist.
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Hickox wanted a creative oasis where a week spent in the woods would cleanse his soul and reconnect him with nature. “People thought I was nuts. I loved that,” he says. “Other people said my tiny cabin on the clearcut was very Thoreau. I had no idea what they meant. Then I discovered Henry David Thoreau and his classic philosophical treatise Walden, or, Life in the Woods and was blown away at how my little place accidentally reflected his world view and spirit.” Jeffrey recommended Parker Perry of Parker Developments in Cymbria, P.E.I., as the prime contractor. “Parker is a young guy who just gets the importance of how design works with a natural setting,” he says.

And so Walden Cabin was reborn. Hickox’s late father, Frank, helped start the construction on the small cabin in May 1995 after they replanted the land with over 8,500 trees. “Everyone I know donated trees,” he says.

Long before the current tiny-house trend, Jeffrey designed the 14-foot-by-20-foot main cabin in the style of a heritage carriage house to include traditional touches such as a cedar porch, pine floors, and an open bedroom loft. Each of the cabin’s two bedrooms sleeps six. Classic features like the wood stove and screened-in porch play off modern comforts including stylish custom-made sofas and an updated kitchen.

Nothing in the cabin is prefabricated. The floors throughout are tongue and groove spruce, hand sanded and varnished. Pine wainscoting and wide pine trim surround the windows and doors. The corner spools in the trim echo an early 1900s P.E.I. heritage farmhouse.

Even the warm brown paint colours used throughout the cabin were locally made. Charlottetown-based Northumberland Paints took their inspiration for the hues from the trees just outside the cabin’s windows.

A red barn-style door opens into the main cabin. Walking up the cedar steps, one enters the screened porch built with cedar beams and a spruce floor. One side of the porch hosts a twin-bed sized bench and mattress that’s great for mid-afternoon summer naps or sleepovers, and doubles as a storage bin. “The bed side of the porch is finished with sliding plexiglass walls so even rainy-day naps and sleeps are possible and blissful,” Hickox says.

The front section of the main cabin opens to a vaulted ceiling that’s home to the original candlelight chandelier that was the cabin’s only light source after the initial build-out. A Vermont Castings high-efficiency wood stove is located at the front corner and a sectional sofa bed and reading chair sit near the front window.

“All the furniture is custom-made for the space or was carefully selected to be minimal and useful,” Hickox says of the furniture built by Victor Arsenault, a woodworker in Victoria by the Sea, P.E.I. The pommes de terre throw pillow on the couch was made by St. Peter’s Bay-craftsperson Chez Charley. At the end of the main room is a wide portal to the new kitchen addition. Before the renovations in 2014, Hickox roughed it, using a small gas burner, a sink, and a small fridge. “It was the size typically seen in a hotel housekeeping unit,” says Hickox. “Not very functional for cooking.”

The new kitchen was carefully designed to maximize light, airflow, and function,” he says.
Like the main room, the kitchen also has a vaulted pine ceiling and includes unfinished larch trunks as beams: trees Hickox planted as seedlings over 20 years ago.

Pine-finished windows in the kitchen offer the illusion of a much larger space and create a sunny hangout space in the cabin. Myers Borden A. Woodworking Ltd. in Charlottetown custom-built the windows. “Being in there is almost like being outside,” Hickox says.

The kitchen cupboards are designed so that every inch is used, including a shelf notch in the pantry to accommodate the broom, and a butcher block-top for food prep doubles as an open space that encourages conversation between the kitchen and nearby sofa.

A red wool lap blanket from Bloomfield, P.EI.-based MacAusland’s Woolen Mills hangs over the sofa for chilly mornings, and a pillow made from an antique potato bag encourages visitors to lounge around while breakfast is prepared. The screen door in the kitchen, purchased from Back Road Folk Art in Lauretta, P.E.I., opens onto a porch leading to a separate bath house built in 1997. What started as a plan for little more than an outhouse became much grander when Jeffrey sat down to sketch. Behind its door, the small outbuilding houses a full bathroom. “We landed on the idea of this 1912 claw foot tub set below a cathedral window for maximum exposure to the August full moon,” Hickox says. Birch flooring, cedar walls, and a vaulted ceiling complete the feeling of a mini spa getaway.

He added an open, outdoor rain shower in 2004. He calls the space under the Concord grape vine-wrapped cedar trellis his favourite place on earth. “It’s just you naked and open to the wind and the woods,” he says. “There is a great reconnection and sensuality in this experience.”

There’s also a two-piece bathroom tucked under the stairs in the main cabin for those who don’t wish to venture outside in the night.

The small staircase leads to the bedroom loft where a queen-sized bed sits below a skylight so one can drift off to sleep under the summer stars. The loft is half the size of the main room, and a railing at one end offers a view of the living room below.

Natural stands of regrowth trees now overshadow much of Hickox’s formal tree plantings. He says he enjoys the way that pathways have evolved, almost as if revealed by natural energy courses. While the cabin started as a solo retreat, he says he now relishes the opportunity to share it with his wife, Suzie, and sons, 11-year-old Simon and 15-year-old Jasper.

“Simon, in particular, has come to see himself as a friend of all nature because of the interactions with small creatures, neighbour barn cats, squirrels, and chickadees that he has had at the cabin,” Hickox says. Jasper likes hanging out with his teen friends in Ottawa now, that is, until he gets to Walden. Then he doesn’t want to leave.

“Sitting by the wood stove, playing checkers, hanging out in the kitchen, walking in the woods: I know that they recognize the value in these things even though they can’t articulate it,” Hickox says. “I wear my love for that place on my sleeve.
I will be happy if it’s just in their hearts.”

**Due to a fact checking error Carter Jeffrey’s designation was misstated in a previous version of this story. He is a senior draftsman. East Coast Living regrets the error.

Cassandra MacKay

East Coast Living