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It must surely be one of the country's most inaccessible architectural treasures.

Built by hand, each detail lovingly carved from locally cut timber, it is hidden away in the remote northern marshes of Ontario, miles from the nearest road and surrounded on every side by water.

Just reaching the spot involves a three-hour drive from Thunder Bay, the nearest city, and then a half-hour flight in a floatplane or a day's travel by canoe.

Now the fate of this abandoned homestead, the magnum opus of U.S.-born recluse Wendell Beckwith who came to Canada seeking to solve scientific mysteries of the universe, hangs in the balance.

The Ministry of Natural Resources, which runs Wabakimi Provincial Park where it is located, is debating whether to pour in financial support or simply allow the tiny settlement to return to the state of nature.

"I know some people think we should maintain it, keep it in condition. But others say that Wendell would have just wanted it to go into the ground," said John Thompson, a parks officer based in Thunder Bay.

The tiny settlement on Best Island is no ordinary residence. Made up of three cabins, one built into the ground, almost every shelf, step and wall has been crafted with loving care.

Among its oddities are a wooden cooler built into the kitchen furniture that can be lowered into the earth with a pulley, large hexagonal wooden floor tiles and a monumental 35-ton fireplace.

But perhaps the strangest thing about the abandoned settlement on Best Island, on Whitewater Lake not far from the northern outpost of Armstrong, is the man who created it.

An inventor, craftsman, mathematician and philosopher, Mr. Beckwith was an oddball who believed that only by setting up as a recluse could he solve some of the universe's greatest conundrums.

Seeking inspiration from Albert Einstein, he believed he needed to return to basics to successfully craft his complex astronomical, mathematical and gravitational theorems.

In the mid 1950s, Mr. Beckwith, who was born in Wisconsin, gave up his contract work for the Parker Pen company, set up a trust fund for his wife and five children and walked out.

Convinced he needed to avoid the company of other thinkers -- who, he felt, would cloud his academic judgment -- he wandered for a while seeking ever more remote places to live.

Finally in 1961, he came to Best Island, high on the Canadian Shield, and with the support of Harry Wirth -- an architect from San Francisco who was seeking a wilderness project to bankroll -- made his home.

Even as hundreds of thousands of hippies across the continent were talking of adopting a back-to-nature lifestyle, Mr. Beckwith began living that life.

But his aim was not the pursuit of a Rousseauian ideal.

Instead, he sought a haven where he could conduct what he termed "pure research" unfettered by the constraints of social pressure.

Mr. Beckwith's projects were wide and varied. He took observations of the moon and stars that he carefully collated.

Using 1930s high-school math as a basis, he extrapolated to estimate the effect of galactic gravity on population demographics on Earth.

One winter, he produced a model of Stonehenge on the ice using cedar logs. He became convinced that the ancient collection of boulders in southern England had been built as a way of taking astronomical measurements by modern man's ancestors.

Mr. Beckwith also became obsessed by the number pi -- the ratio of a diameter of a circle to its circumference -- and incorporated it as an angle or a ratio into many of his buildings.

As early as 1964, the recluse began to attract the attention of provincial officials, who suspected he was running an illegal commercial fishing operation.

Later, they returned to investigate his landed-immigrant status.

But years before, he had simply driven a truck, laden with tools and supplies, across the border at night when no officials were around and he was technically living illegally in Canada.

Officials pressed him to apply for immigration. But Mr. Beckwith refused, telling them that he was a "citizen of the world." Eventually, they signed a waiver.

In the summers, Mr. Beckwith worked outside, building and repairing. During the long winters when temperatures sometimes dropped to - 40 he conducted his research.

He would keep no schedule, clock or calendar and slept and worked as the mood took him.

As word of Mr. Beckwith's eccentricity spread, his little island became a magnet for the curious and adventurous who began to visit in higher numbers in the 1970s.

Myths grew up around him. One had him as the inventor of the ballpoint pen; another said he was a former business tycoon who had given away his fortune to live in the state of nature.

Sometimes, visitors stayed for weeks or months, helping him build and repair the cabins. Hikers and canoeists with the organization Outward Bound visited most years.

In 1970, Rose Chaltry of Minneapolis, Minn., a former secretary of Mr. Wirth, visited the island and, taken by its peace and quiet, returned to stay the next year.

She lived with Mr. Beckwith each summer after that.

In 1978, Mr. Beckwith reached the zenith of his fame when an article about him appeared in National Geographic.

During the years on Best Island, Mr. Beckwith never stopped building and experimenting.

He tried importing soil and growing vegetables but found that the thick foliage deprived them of sunlight and they fell victim to rabbits. He eventually moved his vegetable garden to a smaller island nearby where there was better exposure and no rabbits.

In his later years, he built a new cabin, an innovative design that involved digging into the side of a hill. It was called Snail and had a large skylight for the dark winter.

It was so efficiently built that the wood to heat it -- Mr. Beckwith refused to cut live trees for firewood but scouted far and wide for rotten lumber and blow-downs -- took him only 10 minutes a day to cut.

Sometimes, Mr. Beckwith dreamed of inviting other scientists to come to Best Island and he once mentioned the idea of a whole community working in tandem, though separately, each in his or her own Snail.

In 1975, Mr. Beckwith argued with Mr. Wirth and for the last five years of his life -- when cataracts dulled his vision and he survived on a single cooked meal a day -- Mr. Beckwith's bills were mostly paid by Ms. Chaltry.

When she went away in the winter, he gave up washing himself and his clothes until after spring breakup.

Mr. Beckwith died of a heart attack on his beloved island in 1980, aged 65, a year after he agreed to bequeath his life's work to the province of Ontario. Several valuable Ojibwa artifacts went to the Thunder Bay Museum.

Today, the Best Island settlement is only a pale shadow of its former self. Part of the roof of the largest cabin -- which Mr. Beckwith called "the museum" -- has fallen in.

The doors are broken and the hinges rusty and cracked. Some of the hexagonal wooden floor tiles are missing. Snail is on the brink of collapse.

The flood of visitors has turned into a trickle, although each year a few canoeists and fishermen passing through the area still drop by and sign a visitors book.

So far this year, 26 have come and with winter fast approaching there are unlikely to be any more.

The Ministry of Natural Resources says it will make a decision on what to do with Mr. Beckwith's legacy over the next two years.

But some believe that it would be best to allow his work to be swallowed up by the land.

Ernie Nichols is a float pilot who lives in Armstrong and is one of the few locals to remember Mr. Beckwith.

"He was a very intelligent man, but he was, at heart, a recluse," he said.

"He would have wanted it all just to go back to nature."

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