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Home away from Home
Take inspiration from three Wood River Valley families as they escape from their hectic lifestyles and relax in their own private Idaho cabins
text by Robin Sia
photos by Thia Konig

From Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living on Walden Pond to Laura Wilder’s little house on the Midwestern prairie, cabins are deeply ingrained in America’s heritage and imagination, invoking some of the very ideals the country was founded on: self-sufficiency, economy and simplicity.

Today, the popularity of the cabin—a simple living space, usually located away from it all—still runs deep, though floor plans and standards for comfort have evolved. Even for families who live in the relative peace, quiet and isolation of south-central Idaho’s Wood River Valley, the quest for the lifestyle typified by cabins still is compelling. The opportunity to disconnect from the rigors of modern life and connect with family, friends and nature add to the allure of cabin ownership.

"When we tell people who don’t live here that we have a cabin, they chuckle," said Peter Madsen, who owns Salon Gamine in Ketchum and helped build his family’s cabin, Lollygag, near Redfish Lake at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. "They wonder, why do you need a cabin when you already live in the middle of nowhere?"

Fellow cabin owner and Ketchum resident Susan Flynt, who built Serenity cabin 25 miles east of town, by way of Trail Creek Pass, has the answer: "It's the perfect place for the kids to get bored and figure out what to do. People often ask why we need a place to get away. But you do need a place to get away from your very full life. Even here."

For Community School teacher Janet Salvoni, husband Frank and their two young sons, weekends at their cabin on the South Fork of the Boise River provide adventure and freedom. "We live in a condo in Ketchum," Janet said. "For us, it's huge that we can give the boys such a big space to play in." Their 1,200-square-foot getaway sits north of Anderson Reservoir.

The Madsens' cabin literally rose from the ground on which it is built. The lodgepole pine felled to clear the land was used to build the 1,100-square-foot cabin, the bunkhouse, garage and outdoor shower.

"Our intention was to build a cabin that looks like it's been here a long time," he said. And he succeeded. The cabin, stained a deep green, nestles into the mountainside, its aged patina giving the impression that it has been handed down through the generations.

Construction was a family affair. Tori Madsen single-handedly made hundreds of wood plugs for the floors. And though only toddlers at the time, Michael and Amelia, now 11 and 8, got involved, too, painting and staining everything from logs to walls to doors. They also helped strip bark and collect rocks. The cabin was ready in fall 2004, two years after the Madsens started the project. "There always seems to be something else we can do or add on, though," Peter said. "So I'm not sure it will ever be finished."

The Salvonis took a similar hands-on approach to building their cabin. "We did as much of it ourselves as we could," Janet said. In 2004, she and Frank purchased a cabin kit from Jackson Hole Log Homes. They researched cabins online and spoke to people who had built cabins from kits. "They sent us a catalog and we narrowed down our choices, by way of size and price, and went from there. It was easy."

They then set about assembling the structure. With the help of a general contractor and about five of his men, the Salvonis pitched in to raise the proverbial roof. "We came out on weekends and did a lot of work, as did many of our friends," Janet said.

The Madsens and Salvonis tried to furnish their cabins with reclaimed and repurposed items. With the exception of two functional pieces made to fit certain spaces at Lollygag, all furniture and fixtures in the cabin are finds from garage sales, consignment stores and the Building Materials Thrift Store in Hailey. The doors are reclaimed and even the toilets and sinks were previously owned. Some pieces, like a 1906 claw-foot Crane tub that Peter uncovered in Oregon and a 1940s Chicago sleeper sofa with the original hay mattress, are real finds.

The piece-by-piece approach to decorating also worked for the Salvonis. "All of our furniture came from ads in the local newspaper," Janet said. A treasure trove of brand new doors that didn’t fit the original owner’s specifications found a home in the Boise River outpost, as did kitchen cabinets that were once fitted into a hotel room in Elkhorn.

For Jerry and Susan Flynt, the rugged landscape shaped their vision for the aptly named Serenity, situated at the end of a long dirt track opposite Copper Basin Canyon. "We cut in the road above the meadow and fenced in the boundaries. We brought in several big truckloads of boulders and dumped them into the creek bed, allowing the water to slow enough to attract the beavers to build their dams and lodges."

Once they had determined the ideal spot for a 1,200-square-foot cabin and 900-square-foot bunkhouse, construction commenced and Susan went to work on the inside. An interior designer, she picked all the finishes and colors (test patches for the plaster finish walls are still hidden behind the refrigerator). The cabin is a batten board design—a rustic siding finish that alternates wide boards with narrow strips—typical for a building in Western/pioneer style. She chose a rugged, cowboy motif to complement the surroundings."The floor gets scratched up. Nothing is too perfect. The dogs are welcome to sit on the couch," she said. "It's a place to play and experiment. The kids (Travis, 12, and Reta, 16) are constantly cooking—creating concoctions we all have to sample."

Though each family uses their cabin differently, one common thread unites them: the desire to let the days unfold as they will. The Flynts enjoy rising early, while the children are still asleep, and taking in spectacular sunrises through the picture window. "I take all the magazines I never get to read, stay in my pajamas and relax," Susan said.

And the days don't get much busier from there. The family rides their two quarter horses, Zane and Doc, fishes for brook trout in the pond, hikes the surrounding hills and returns to their picnic table to take in the sublime views of the rugged Pioneer Mountains, looking out toward Devil's Bedstead and Hyndman Peak.

None of the cabins has Internet, cell phone service or cable. "It's like being at camp," Peter Madsen said. "We don’t come up here to do a bunch of things. It evolves naturally. We take out the boat, play games and just hang out.

For the Salvonis, the cabin is the ultimate escape. "We're about as off-the-grid as you can get," Janet said. Whenever they leave for their river retreat, they tell people they’re going camping. And that's not far from the truth. Propane is their only source of power and, until this past summer, they had no running water.

The rustic lifestyle is what makes it fun for the Salvonis. The hot tub is heated by a wood-burning stove and dishes are washed with water heated by the sun in a huge container. French doors open onto the wide deck, allowing the family to quickly move the dining table outside to enjoy a meal under the stars, serenaded by the river.

Still, no matter how long and unscheduled the days, cabin ownership is a form of second home ownership, and trips require planning and upkeep.

With two children five and under and the nearest diapers 40 minutes away in Fairfield, organization is key for the Salvoni family. "I make a grid each week for what to bring," Janet said. The added work is worth it to her, though. "I can’t wait to get there," she said, "My shoulders drop three inches when we arrive."

And while running a cabin is an added expense, once the land is purchased and the cabin is built, bills are minimal. Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves quickly heat up small spaces; wells provide water. There are no phone or Internet bills.

Key for the Madsens and Flynts is the proximity of their getaway spots. It takes both about an hour to reach their cabins, a point that Peter Madsen insists makes all the difference when it comes to actually using their cabin. "If it's longer, it becomes complicated. And if it's complicated, you won’t use it."

For the Flynts, cabin ownership provides more than just a getaway—it’s a chance to give back. When they bought their property, they entered into an agreement with the Wood River Land Trust, an organization that works with private landowners and local communities to protect and restore land, water and wildlife habitat.

"Our deeding of an easement to the Wood River Land Trust ensures there will be no more ‘people’ development to Serenity," Jerry Flynt said. The easement also binds future owners of the land, meaning that "Serenity will stay as it is now for perpetuity."

This legacy includes wilderness, moose, elk, antelope, cougars, bluebirds and sage grouse—but also growing children, shared laughter and a lifetime of memories.

Michael Madsen greets Isabelle from under the outdoor shower at his family’s cabin near Redfish Lake.

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Tyler and Cooper Salvoni relax in the hot tub (above) at their family’s Boise River escape (below).

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Own your Own

A huge draw for cabin ownership for these families is just that—they own it. All three cabins are built on private land, not land leased from the government. And, according to real estate professional Jim Figge of Sun Valley Associates, opportunities abound for land and cabin ownership in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

"From Fisher Creek to Smiley Creek to the city of Stanley, there are many interesting areas," Figge said. However, these lands often include easements, and Figge, a cabin owner himself, emphasized the need to work with a knowledgeable real estate agent who has experience with this type of property.

Some cabin areas, like those on Pettit Lake, 45 minutes north of Ketchum, are built on land leased from the government, through the National Forest Service. But according to Figge, that’s the exception, not the rule.

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Michael Madsen plays with his puppy, Isabelle, under a vintage daybed in the Madsens’ Lollygag cabin.