A view of the dune shack showing the main volume of the house stepping down to the bedroom and toilet room. Exterior deck is accessed from the screen porch.
A view of the dune shack showing the main volume of the house stepping down to the bedroom and toilet room. Exterior deck is accessed from the screen porch.

The Fowler Dune Shack sits just behind the outermost dune of the National Seashore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The floor of the main volume of the shack slants decidedly down to the east, a quirk that was particularly noticeable when I sat at the dining room table along the east wall. That entire section of the shack probably slouches in that direction, something I discovered when photographing the exterior of the shack from a tripod with a built-in level.

The Heart of the Shack

This main volume has all the public spaces of the shack: living room, dining room, and kitchen. The wall framing is exposed in this room except in the wood-stove corner where 1/4-inch AC fir plywood covers the walls. Board sheathing (1x8) exposed between the studs serves as the rest of the room’s interior finish. The building is simple 2x4 construction with no insulation. Let-in diagonal braces add shear strength at the building’s corners.

The windows in this room are all a single-glazed awning style, and none has a fully functional opening or closing mechanism—the cranks are frozen or corroded and the hinges rusted from the wind-driven salt. The glass on every window is pitted from exposure to wind-driven sand and salt. The good news is that they are fairly big, with expansive views of the surrounding dunes and neighboring shacks. The ocean is not visible from the shack, but the sound of the waves is a constant reminder that the Atlantic lurks just beyond the dune to the north.

The exterior door to the main volume is a 15-light fir door—warped, of course, so the top of the latch stile is almost 1/2-inch proud of the jamb. (My one carpentry contribution to the shack was adding a turnbuckle to hold the top corner of the door against the jamb to minimize air intrusion). The bottom of the door rubs noticeably on the threshold, which helps to keep that part of the door tight against the jamb: Ah, the blessings of neglect! Every door into the shack is equipped with hooks and eyes—inside and out—with occupants instructed to latch the doors coming and going to keep the wind from making an abrupt forced entry.

In This Series

The exterior door opens out to a screened porch that isn’t big enough for sitting. My guess is that it functions mostly for shading and ventilation in the summer, allowing breezes in from three directions while keeping the insects at bay. This time of year (early fall), it also provides “cool” storage for some food, as well as a place for surplus water jugs. There are two screened doors—one leading to a back deck with a pair of Adirondack chairs, and the other leading to a landing with steps down to a path to the pump and well.

The roof/ceiling of the main volume is framed with 2x6 rafters with 2x4 rafter ties every 4 feet or so. Without benefit of measuring, I’d say that the roof pitch is 3:12. The rafters meet at a non-structural ridge at the peak with curious 1x3 furring pieces that extend from the rafters (on either side of the ridge) down to the rafter ties. (Note to self: Ask an engineer what are the name and purpose of these members).

Cooking and Eating

The dining area of the shack is just a table and two chairs under a pair of large awning windows that face east to let in morning light for breakfast. On the gable wall above the table, the shack’s owners at some point added numerous shelves and shelving units between the studs. The Fowlers—like every other dune shack owner, I imagine—called on the services of Flotsam and Jetsam Inc. for their interior decorating. Besides the dozen or so oil lamps in various stages of readiness, dune shack decoration comes in the form of items collected during hikes in the dunes and along the beach: Animal skulls and bones bleached white from the salt and sun, artful pieces of driftwood, sand-worn stones with special shapes and colors, shells, fishing lures, and beach glass along with other beachenalia collected over the years. (We were admonished in the shack instructions not to add to this collection). Necessity being the mother of invention, some artifacts are pressed into duty on the interior. A piece of driftwood becomes a paper-towel holder or a place for hanging dish towels. A worn-out oar sitting on top of the rafter ties becomes a place to hang lamps at night.

The kitchen stretches across the entire south wall of the room. With the shack entirely off the grid (having no electricity or indoor plumbing), the kitchen is remarkably well outfitted by dune-shack standards. There is a small propane-powered refrigerator as well as a small propane cooking range. These sit amid a hodge-podge of hand-me-down base cabinets—some metal, some wood—that had been collected and installed over the years. The only wall cabinet (over the fridge) holds an odd collection of plates, bowls, and cups.

At the other end of the wall is an old, stained porcelain sink with a drain that leads down to what I guess is a cistern of some sort. The short countertop to the right of the sink is the staging place for fresh water: Four 2 1/2-gallon plastic jugs as well as a bunch of plastic gallon bottles for water. I got into a system of rotating the plastic jugs counter clockwise as I emptied them to keep the supply fresh.

Water and Light

Living in a dune shack is a lesson in usage. You become aware of everything you use and how much—particularly water. Water at the dune shack equals work—every drop is pumped by hand and carried (uphill) to the shack, so conservation and wise usage are important. I found that I used less than 10 gallons per day. That included water for cooking, dishes, drinking, and bathing (done mostly with a washcloth and water heated on the stove). My lack of a dishwasher at my home was a good prep for shack living. I washed dishes in warm water (heated in a kettle on the stove) and then rinsed them in room-temp water.

Light is another commodity that dune-shack occupants become acutely aware of. Candles are strictly forbidden in the dune shacks for obvious reasons. There were numerous oil lamps, but we were instructed to bring flashlights and lanterns, so we never pressed the oil lamps into service. In fact, most of the night light we used came from solar lights that charged by day on the window sill above the dining room table. Task lighting in the kitchen was ingenious. A piece of driftwood about 10 feet long sits on top of the rafter ties above the kitchen counter. Two long double-ended hooks go over the driftwood with one of the solar lights hooked on the lower end of the hook. When light is needed for working in a particular area of the kitchen, simply slide the hook down the driftwood to illuminate that area. The old oar in the rafter ties that I mentioned earlier provides the same lighting options for the living and dining areas.

Private Areas

Next to the kitchen sink area, a raised-panel wooden door leads into the bedroom. At some point, someone cut the middle stile in half to create a Dutch door complete with latching hardware. The bedroom volume was an addition and had stayed surprisingly level. The ceiling in the room is much lower than in the main volume and all the walls and ceiling are covered in AC fir plywood. Unlike the main volume, which has no interior trim, the bedroom windows and doors are all trimmed with 4-inch clamshell (ranch) casing with the wrong orientation: thick edge toward the middle. The one exception is the hollow-core door into the toilet room that is trimmed in 3-inch ranch casing oriented properly. The exterior door off the bedroom is solid, which makes this area a bit foreboding at night. The door is equipped with a security chain to help allay any paranoid tendencies the occupants might have (for the record, I locked the door with the chain every night).

Off of the bedroom an even smaller room houses the composting toilet. This room has a similar pitched ceiling, but walls and ceiling are all covered with wood paneling, most likely fake wood grain. The two windows in the room—one double hung, one awning—had been replaced fairly recently. Both are double-glazed, and both are in good operating condition—at least for now. The north wall of the room has an open linen closet that I took upon myself to re-arrange. I stacked the dozen or so pillows and folded old woolen blankets and sheets—everything would need to be cleaned and stored at the end of the season.

This was my first experience with a composting toilet. Our guide instructed us on the proper “operation.” First off, we were asked to minimize the liquid waste going into the system, meaning that we were supposed to empty our bladders in the dunes (as far from the pump as possible). We were also asked not to put paper into the toilet. On a vacation out of the country earlier this year, my wife and I stayed in a place that had the same directive, so this practice was not totally new to us. There was a basket next to the toilet with a paper bag inside for all the soiled paper. After finishing our business, we were to put one clam-shell scoop of peat moss into the toilet and then brush the insides of the bowl. Twice during the week, I replenished the paper bag and threw the old one into the wood stove—simple and effective, and at least for our stay, completely odor free.

A Look at the Outside

The exterior door from the bedroom leads to a deck tucked between the bedroom and yet another structure at grade level referred to as “The Garage.” The deck has a clothesline for drying wet stuff (think bathing suits in the summer). This time of year, a few dishtowels are kept on the line as a signal to any would be intruders that the dune shack is occupied. The garage functions as storage for tools, materials, and the all-important dry firewood.

With the exception of the garage, the whole shack sits over a crawlspace, but I did not investigate how the building is actually supported. The exterior of the dune shack is clad with red cedar shingles, and most of the siding is in pretty good shape, considering. I did see a couple of oddities in the siding. First, solid exterior corner boards were used on the main volume and the bedroom, but the corners of the toilet room appear to have been finished with indecision. The shingles go as far as the corner, but no attempt was made to weave or meet the shingles in a weathertight fashion and no provisions were made for corner boards. The corners are just “open,” to intrusion of insects and weather. And where the gable of the bedroom butted into the wall of the main volume, the shingles step up to the ridge instead of being cut at an angle, with all the courses above following the same pattern. As unorthodox as the practice looked, it seems to be working just fine.

The roofs all had architectural-style shingles and all seemed to be in good shape. The nearly-flat roof of the garage was covered in roll roofing installed earlier that year. There was a large black plastic tank on the garage roof supposedly for heating water for a shower, but only once did the water actually get warm enough for the briefest of outdoor showers. The shower tank had to be filled by hand which involved climbing a short ladder with containers of water and dumping them into a funnel on the tank.

The pump for the dune shack is about 20 or so yards to the north down a gentle slope. Our guide mentioned that he had rebuilt the pump that spring, and indeed, it never took more than a pint of water to prime. The water is tested on a regular basis and is pretty tasty. I fully expected a salty tinge but there was none. Our guide explained that the water came from a fresh water lens that floats above a denser saltwater layer underground, so the well is actually fairly shallow.

This description of the Fowler Dune Shack was taken almost verbatim from the account that I wrote during the week I spent there, from 9/29/2019 until 10/6/2019. The time I spent out there was life changing, exciting, and inspirational. All in all, this wonderful little building provided more than adequate shelter for me during my stay. A general account of that week is included in an earlier blog.

This structure has already withstood the elements for many decades and with the annual TLC and maintenance done by volunteers it should last for several more. I have already asked to be part of the volunteer work force that will go out and work on the shack in the spring and look forward to visiting this old friend.

Photos by Roe Osborn