The Little Cabin at 30

“Grammy, do you ever wish the cabin was bigger?”  I had to smile.  With 17 people gathered for the weekend, coming in and out of the modest abode, it was a fair question.  No sooner had I responded to the seven year old, “Yes, I do, Mya!” when her mother chimed in.

“You have to remember, Mya, when I was little it was only the five of us here.  It was just the right size for us.”  She was right.  How well I remember coming up the driveway for the first time, knowing right away that it was made for us.  Perusing the knotty pine interior, the stone fireplace, and the two tiny bedrooms.  It was the simplicity of the place that appealed to me. The bookshelf to stock with cabin reading. The short wooden dock, enough for our 12′ boat.  It was a place to build family memories.

What is it about a remote cottage, with its cramped space, mismatched dishes, mattresses that sag, raggedy towels and a needy wood stove that is so appealing?  The yard games we never play at home are entertaining there.  Bonfires invite storytelling.  Grilled meat tastes better.  The chilly lake dares intrepid swimmers and fishermen. Board games take on new life, and fierce competition.  It’s a-ok to lie in a hammock or sit on the dock and while away the afternoon reading.  Or snoozing.  And we have front row seats for the Northern Lights.

For so many years the cabin has been our haven, away from work, school and too-busy lives.  Time slows down there.  Priorities shift.  Time slips away, but the cabin doesn’t change.  We still treasure the simple existence it offers.  I still get excited bumping over the dirt road as we approach that driveway yet again.

Those three little kids in the bunk beds are now grown and married and have produced five (almost six!) grandchildren for us.  Carrying on the tradition, they have come to treasure their own family time at the cabin.  It’s still just the right size for them.

It was their idea to celebrate this milestone.  This Labor Day marked the 30th straight year we have gathered as a family with our good friends the Readingers and their offspring at the cabin.  Admittedly, we had to farm a few members out to beds in nearby resorts this time, but they all converged on the cabin throughout the day.  As Mya noticed.

Thirty years generates a lot of memories.  Everything we did triggered flashbacks, smiles, rolling eyes, laughter.  It was a weekend of déjà vu as grandchildren followed in their parents’ footsteps.

It was a celebration of friendship.  Of lasting bonds that form over years of sharing, from being new parents to empty nesters.  From being children to new parents.  From carving out time away from work to relishing retirement.  And through it all, we still relish cabin life.

We did our best to recreate some of the best moments.  Some, like this one, came as a pure gift.  Like a blessing on our gathering.

The remainder will have to wait for the next gathering, at the Same Time Next Year.  And 30 years beyond.

The End of an Era

It sat in the empty lot adjacent to the bait shop.  Nothing fancy, but in excellent shape and with plenty of good years left in its life.  The humble pontoon boat spoke to us.  Well, most of us anyway.

We’ve never had a new boat.  In the 29 years we’ve owned our modest cabin, our boats have matched the aura of this unassuming haven in the forest perched on a pristine lake.

The first was a 12′ row boat, which we proudly outfitted with a 1.5 hp motor.  We still own that boat.  We next became proud owners of a 16′ open boat with a steering wheel.  With 25 hp we could even pull lightweight water-skiers.  We called it the Silver Bomb, and it was Rich’s beloved fishing rig.  That was succeeded by the Green Boat. It was heavy and leaked below the floor, but it had cool seating up front and went fast when we upgraded to 50 hp.

In each of these boats we could bank and turn, roar across the lake.  As the boats grew in size we could twirl kids and grandkids on wild tube rides, entice water-skiers out of the wake.  We’d pile in wearing our bulky life jackets, holding wiggly little ones on our laps, keeping an eye out for those who insisted on leaning out over the edge of the boat.  We baited many hooks and caught fewer fish.  Three generations of memories were compiled in those motorboats.

But all that’s about to change.

In an age when pontoon boats dominate the boat lifts around the lake, the idea of having a safe platform for little ones and oodles of space for family boat rides was appealing.  And that simple tan and green used pontoon sitting on the pavement wearing a For Sale sign was the perfect solution.  Or so I thought. And so did the kids.  And grandkids.  “I don’t want a pontoon boat,” Rich stated firmly.  The patriarch had spoken.

I had to admit, I wondered if our age was showing.  If I was falling for something too tame.  But returning to our collective visions of family outings, I hardened my resolve. And we won him over.  Or at least got him to relent.

Rich and I took it out for its inaugural voyage.  When three loons surfaced and began fishing nearby, Rich’s camera came out and his shutter flew in rapid bursts as we drifted.  He even admitted the pontoon was a much more stable platform for photography.  Whew!

That simple pontoon now occupies our lift next to the dock.  It sits in readiness for our annual family and friends gathering over Labor Day.  In place of zooming and swishing, we’ll cruise and relax, drinks and snacks at the ready.  We’ll anchor and jump into the lake, exploring new swimming spots around the lake.  We think we can even give tame tube rides.

Not such bad tradeoffs, as we enter this new era.

Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward

Looning

I'll be the first to admit, birding is not my thing. I have tremendous admiration and respect for Rich's dedication and boundless patience in pursuing his birds, and the amazing photographs that he captures. But he no longer asks if I would like to come along. He knows better. Loons, however, are a whole different matter.

I spent several hours in the kayak today, cruising the calm water of the lake in the afternoon sun. On my travels I spotted several loons with baby chicks. The fluffy little fledglings paddled behind mama, an entrancing sight.

Rich was thrilled with my reconnaissance efforts, and was eager to photograph the young loons. Immedately following dinner he announced he was heading out in the boat to look for the loons. This time he asked, would I like to come? The answer came without hesitation. Yes!

The sun dipping low in the sky lent a beautiful golden hour light to the scene. Evening's calm stilled the waters, and the waterskiers had been replaced by boats claiming their fishing spots. All was quiet on the lake.

We found mama loon and her twins in the same bay where I'd seen them. At first, they were hidden in the reeds, but they soon obliged by swimming out into the open where they didn't seem to mind us watching. We could hear soft sounds made by mama to her chicks – something entirely new to me. Never before had I been close enough to hear their nurturing murmurs.

Loons 1

Papa soon materialized and proceeded to hunt for dinner. He repeatedly returned with food to feed the chicks. We could tell when he was coming as he would swim under water but near the surface, creating a v-shaped wake above him. By this time the chicks were nestled on mama's back, well situated for papa to bring them tasty treats.

Loons 2
Loons 3

As we watched, a chorus of frogs suddenly broke into song, croaking mightily around the bay. It was magical witnessing nature in the warmth of the setting sun.

Loons 4

There is something deeply compelling about loons. From their haunting cries to their mottled black and white coats, they are are undeniably special. It is an honor to share our lake with them. I never tire of their majestic presence. I may not be a birder, but I'm always game to go looning.

 

When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

Three Generations of Awe

The scene: Our cabin. A modest 3-season cottage on North Star Lake, 25 miles north of Grand Rapids MN. In the heart of the Chippewa National Forest. At night.

The time: Labor Day Weekend. Affectionately known as Same Time Next Year for our annual tradition of spending summer’s final hurrah with family and friends. For 27 successive years.

The circumstances: A display of Northern Lights.

Northern Lights over Smith LakeThe set-up: Arriving a day ahead of time, well before the onslaught of kids, grandkids and long-term friends, Rich and I were at the cabin in time to see an amazing display of Northern Lights. Not only did we watch them from the dock even before the sunset was complete, but soon afterwards brilliant yellow-green arcs of light shot over the cabin, from east to west. It was clearly an exceptional display, and Rich was soon off in search of more scenic landscapes to photograph. While we have an excellent view from our dock, the foreground is not interesting enough for Rich’s photographic eye.

Day 2: Another good forecast for the Northern Lights. Pondering the lack of interest off our dock, Rich lures me to be his model. In exchange for a good back rub, I am to sit motionless in a kayak in the glow of the Northern Lights should they reappear. I admit, I am a cheap hire.

 3 Generations view the Northern LightsOur kids and grandkids are all expected to arrive some time that evening. Just as the final car pulls into the driveway, the Aurora also makes its appearance. No time for hellos, hugs or hauling stuff into the cabin. All are urgently summoned to the dock. There we all assemble and murmur our appreciation and marvel at once. It is the first time for many. Our son-in-law has his first view at the same time as his three kids. The evening is mild, the bugs are gone for the season, and it is a magical moment.

Kayaker in the Northern LightsEver the photographer, Rich captures the multi-generational assembly. Then calls in his favors. I am launched in the kayak and given strict instructions to paddle here and hold still. Shift over there and stop. Don’t breathe. It takes numerous shots to get a single good one, but we all agree it’s stunning.

I look forward to the back rub. But even more I treasure that moment on the dock. From 14 months to 61 years of age, we all shared the same awe.

(Photos courtesy of Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com)

Feuding with a Loon

Disputed watersIt’s all out war. A territory dispute between me and a loon. The area in conflict is the patch of water between the reeds in front of our cabin. I claim it’s my swimming hole. The loon insists it’s his fishing ground, and perhaps his young family’s hangout. I have history on my side. Twenty six years of morning swims. He has fright tactics on his. And they are terrifyingly effective.

I’m not sure who was more surprised. Me or the loon. As I turned away from the reeds to swim another lap across the opening, the water suddenly exploded. To my immediate right the loon launched into his ritual warning dance. His eerie cries pierced the air and his displeasure was highly evident. The normally enthralling display took on a whole new perspective at close range. Far too close for comfort.

Molly chased by loonSeeking to quell the nascent fury I quietly turned away, breast stroking back toward the cabin. Attempting invisibility. Looking to put distance between me and the frantic bird. But he wasn’t so easily appeased. While his antics ceased his mission persisted, and he followed me in toward shore while continuing to holler. It wasn’t until I fully conceded defeat, nearly reaching the dock that he relented. Round one to the loon.

His behavior implied a baby loon in proximity. And I assumed my timing was particularly poor. So I thought little of taking a refreshing dip later in the hot afternoon. I will admit to scanning the waters for said loon or his family prior to immersing myself in the lake, but the coast was clear. The only loon in sight was well out in the middle of the lake. My laps proceeded and I regained my confidence only to have it shattered once again. Catching me on the opposite side of the channel, the loon repeated his performance. This time I knew I was a direct target, to have drawn him from such a distance. Forget the breast stroke, I made a hasty front crawl retreat with the loon in hot pursuit. Round two to the loon.

It’s quite a standoff. While I refuse to admit defeat, I confess to curtailing my swimming activities. No sauna for me last night, or swim under the prolific stars. I did boldly reclaim my ground for my morning swim, but only under the watchful eyes of a dock full of family members scanning for loons. As soon as one began motoring it’s way over from a distance, they sounded the alarm. I didn’t hesitate before returning to the safety of the dock. Round three, a draw.

It isn’t over yet. Swimming is my greatest love at the cabin. And I do so love the loons. Just not at the same time. My hope is that by our next visit the baby loons will have a greater range, and they will have moved on from my swimming hole.  I’m not particularly fond of feuding with a loon.

Loon Family

Loon family, taken by Rich Hoeg

(Click here to visit Rich’s blog for more photos of the loons.)