The Timber Queen
A couple of years ago, Natasha Penney applied to have the Timber Kings work on her cabin. The scruffy, canvas-clad TV stars of the former HGTV Canada show build log home getaways stocked so plentifully with timber you can almost smell the forests from whence they came. Ultimately, Penney and her home weren’t selected for the show—and the crew’s construction services were a tad out of her budget. But the universe works in mysterious ways. Or at least, the North does.
Penney, who worked as a counsellor and CFL cheerleader in Ottawa, lived in Yellowknife as a child and always dreamed of moving back to the North. “Twenty-some years ago, I remember when my father worked with the 440-Squadron in search-and-rescue in Yellowknife and flew over Virginia Falls,” Penney says. She looked through his photos of the landmark—double the height of Niagara Falls—and knew it was something she had to see in person. Fort Liard, NWT is a take-off point to visit Nahanni National Park and its famed falls, so when she saw a job posting in her field there, she jumped at it. “I got the job and it was a dream come true,” she says. Penney was on a plane to visit Virginia Falls within a year.
They stopped at a thrift store and found light fixtures and a fancy wine bottle opener. Someday, she reasoned, she’d be toasting to her new home. Someday.
Fort Liard is a small community of 500 people tucked into the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories. It’s known as the tropics of the NWT because its lush forests dwarf the spindly stands elsewhere in the territory. Penney’s posting as a mental health and addictions counsellor was for one year, but when the job became permanent, she was happy to stay. She just needed somewhere to live.
When she moved to town there wasn’t any suitable housing available, so she spent her first year at the Liard Valley Motel—the only one in Fort Liard. Her co-worker, faced with the same situation a year earlier, had bought an old garage and fixed it up enough to be liveable. It had a single room with a small woodstove in the middle. There was no running water, but an outhouse was close by.
The garage’s original owner intended to build a log cabin on the property along the river, but that never happened and the garage sat empty for a decade until Penney’s co-worker scooped it up. When she was ready to retire, she put it up for sale.
Penney, in a bind and seeing the garage’s potential, bought it in March 2016 and planned to make it home. She ordered furniture and fittings and organized to have plumbing and residential electrical installed. She also found a local contractor who could build an addition with a bedroom and bathroom. Meanwhile, she stayed at the motel or with friends, and her neighbours offered up their showers and laundry rooms. “It’s almost the house that the community built because everyone took such good care of me,” she says.
Taking a lot of the finishing work on herself, Penney’s mother came up from Ottawa to lend a hand. In June, they drove down to Fort St. John, B.C. to pick up supplies and check out appliances. They stopped at a thrift store and found light fixtures and a fancy wine bottle opener. Someday, she reasoned, she’d be toasting to her new home. Someday.
Weeks later, after a particularly frustrating day, Penney’s mother suggested a glass of wine. They took the opener out of its package and found the logo for Pioneer Log Homes—the company featured in the Timber Kings show—carved into the side. “I said to my mom, ‘Wow, I couldn’t afford their services, but I have their wine opener.’”
By this point, the renovations were beginning to take their toll. Things tend to take a bit longer in the North, with a limited supply of tradespeople spread thin. Summer became fall. Fall would soon become winter. And she still didn’t have water or a proper woodstove installed. She doesn’t consider herself a gambler, but this project had its risks from the beginning—the garage wasn’t even inspected before she bought it. She wondered if her logs were any good, as she took a grinder to them to shave off 20 years of fumes and wear. “It was starting to get cold,” she says. “It was just the beginning of September and I was a little disillusioned. Am I going to make it in there?”
Penney was stressed. Then she took a work trip to Fort Simpson that would change her life.
At dinner, she recognized a man sitting one table over. She couldn’t quite place him, but then he moved his arm to reveal a Pioneer Log Homes logo stitched onto his shirt sleeve. “I stopped my colleagues from talking and I’m like, ‘Girls, you’re never going to believe who’s at that table there.’” It was a member of the Timber Kings crew, there with two others.
Penney, a bubbly extrovert, walked over and introduced herself. The crew was in town building a massive tipi for the Liidlii Kue First Nation. The 17-metre-tall structure was a reconstruction of one built in 1984 to welcome Pope John Paul II. (The Pope’s flight was actually rerouted to Yellowknife due to fog. He didn’t make it to Fort Simpson until 1987.)
With the renovations consuming her life, Penney unloaded about the joys and (mostly) pains of refurbishing the spruce log garage. The Timber Kings listened intently, even offering advice on the best finish to use on the inside walls. Before leaving, she quietly sent over desserts for their table.
The next day, she attended a fire-feeding ceremony to mark the tipi’s opening. There, she bumped into the crew again. And this time she met Bryan Reid Sr., Pioneer’s owner. They talked about the show, the tipi and the Pope’s visit, and how much the project meant to Reid—a religious man. And of course Penney told him about her cabin. Reid said he’d try to stop by to check it out on his drive back south to Williams Lake, B.C., where his company is based. ‘Wow, he seems like a man of his word,’ Penney thought. “And I said, ‘You don’t have to, but I would love it if you did.’”
Sure enough, the next day Reid rolled up in his motorhome with his entire crew behind him. They all came in for coffee and Penney showed Reid the wine opener. “He couldn’t believe it,” she says. It turns out Reid only had 40 of them made. Somehow one of them ended up with her. It felt like more than a coincidence to them both.
Word of the Timber Kings crew’s arrival got around town and people started dropping by. Fort Liard’s old church was torn down earlier that day and the mayor stopped in with an envelope pulled from the rubble. There were five pictures inside, each signed by the Pope during his visit years ago. “Do you and Bryan want one?” he asked Penney. It was another coincidence—another sign. Reid asked Penney if he could stay in touch with her.
He did. In fact, he called her later that week and asked her out to dinner and a show—in Winnipeg. “And the next weekend, I flew out and I was having supper with David Foster and being serenaded by Michael Bolton,” she says. Reid came home with her for Christmas that year. “And it’s been like that ever since.”
By then, Penney finally had plumbing and a new woodstove installed. The bedroom and washroom addition, along with a mudroom, turned the 530-square-foot garage into a comfortable 900-square-foot home. (She kept the outhouse as a reminder of how far her place has come.) And Reid has added his own touch to her cabin—a rare Western red cedar pedestal for the bathroom sink and an island for the kitchen. Penney decorated the cabin with local art and crafts like birch bark baskets.
And when she falls asleep at night, it’s to the sound of bison scratching their backs on the spruce log walls.