It is Saturday morning at 7:00 and I have finished breakfast and am sitting on the porch overlooking Orr Lake to the west, at our rustic cabin. The lake is 100 yards away and the only activity is our solitary loon calling across the lake. The loon is here for his third year. This is the first time he has a wife and child with him. Our swans have been gone for the same three years—the mother having choked on a dare devil. The rich green of the alders, trees and grass contrast with the rippled silver-blue water and puffy clouded sky.
Each morning a bald eagle flies in and sits at the top of a huge old oak on the knoll between us and the lake, above the spring. Eventually he swoops off and picks up a fish and leaves. I haven’t figured out where the nest is—somewhere in the thousands of acres of woods to the west I assume. Our beaver and otters from the last few years appear to have been trapped out over winter. When you live on a lake, the enjoyment of having a beaver family and an otter family as your neighbors turns you against trapping.
Our lake view is disappearing as trees have taken over the old open cow pasture. For 25 years, when we worked in Rochester, we let the cabin rest, only stopping for brief weekend and vacation visits. Without cattle, the woods try to swallow up the cabin. My favorite tree is a huge maple, well over a hundred years, that has slowly been shedding a large branch or two each year as pileated woodpecker carves ever increasing holes seeking the tasty carpenter ants living in the decaying heartwood. One third of the crown came down in a storm a couple years ago, and the rest of the top, although lush and green again this year, looks like a puff of wind might bring it down. It is our air conditioning tree—shading the cabin from the southwest sun with its branches gently brushing the porch. The trees are close enough so that the squirrels use the cabin roof to rumble their way from tree to tree traversing the whole 40 acres and beyond.
The other trees, mostly elms, have grown up in the years since the cabin was built. One of the biggest, probably 20 years old, is dying this year, the leaves having come out and now have yellowed and shriveled as Dutch Elm disease kills it, already a foot in diameter at the base and in the prime of adolescence. Next year it will be a morel hunting spot and the year after, dry standing firewood, ready for a batch of maple syrup and to keep the cabin warm. The disease will spread to the rest of them in this dozen who sprang up after the cows were gone. In a couple years the grove will be gone.
A spreading century white oak provides a perch for the bald eagle who visits us each morning, sitting in the top for an hour or more before swooping to the lake and carrying off a fish. White oak acorns are food for the deer, turkeys and squirrels. They seem to have heavy acorn loads only every few years, a strategy to keep squirrel populations down and leave a few left over acorns for seed.
Margo, Dad and I built the cabin 33 summers ago when I was still a teacher with summers off to help on the farm. We moved into a bare spot amongst the huge maples high above and back from the lake. We built back from the lake to try not disturb the otherwise uninhabited lakeshore. We sit on the last hillside before the Sterling Sand Barrens that extend 10 miles west of us to the St. Croix River. One time this was the shore of Glacial Lake Lind, a huge lake that encompassed the area north of Wolf Creek in the St. Croix River Valley, according to a book published by Doug Johnson ten years ago, then a U of Wisconsin geologist. We built as cheaply as we could. My teaching salary was $10,000 then, and Margo wasn’t working that year being pregnant with Scott. We cut jackpines, poples and basswood logs, took them to the 100 year old sawmill that Byron and Dad had setup a years earlier, sawing boards and 2x4s. We put Penta treated foundation posts in the ground on a steep slope and built a 16x24 floor on them. We added 8 foot walls and above that created an upstairs by framing two 11 foot rafters joined at the top by a 3 foot wide flat roof top—sort of a modified A-frame on the top of the first floor to give us an upstairs loft area. We used real rough sawn boards instead of plywood for the roof, floors and walls—just like the houses in the old days. Our costs were mostly the nails and the roll roofing (replaced now by shingles).
We had no electricity and no tools of our own. We bought a new handsaw, square and a hammer for me and one for Margo and 50 pounds of assorted nails. We had never done any carpenter work before. We proceeded with advice from Dad and with much creativity and trial and error! This was in the days when Sterling was still free from building permits, zoning and the rules that make creative building impossible anymore. A pitcher pump on a point driven into the spring near the lake furnished water.
Having no money for windows and doors, we went to an auction and bought a bunch of old church windows –the framed glass panels for a dollar each and at an old school auction bought a big old half-glass school room door. We got a few more windows here and there, all just pieces making our own jackpine frames.
We put Aunt Glady’s old wood cookstove in the kitchen and a used barrel stove on the other end for heat. We never kept anything in the cabin worth stealing and credit the absence of break-ins to the gate at the road and the total lack of anything that would bring more than $5.00 at a garage sale. In the summer we cooked with Coleman stove. The few weekends we stayed in winter were comfortable with the two wood stoves heating the uninsulated building, too hot in the sleeping loft and too cold on main floor.
We built an outhouse from rough jackpine boards and lumber, sided, like the cabin, with rough sawn ¾ inch boards. For a feel of luxury, we insulated it and paneled the inside and added an old stained glass and a figured glass window from the auction. The cows soon poked the stain glass window apart with their nosy curiosity and appreciation for fine old artisanship—so we put a plastic fake replacement in. Making a double walled and insulated outhouse was really not a good idea out in the middle of the woods. Squirrels and mice soon chewed their way between the walls.
After a few summers, we paid $1000 to get the electricity brought in ¼ of a mile. We drove a point in the spring and got an old pump from Margo’s parents cabin at Weyerhauser. Our hot water was heated by the sun with black hoses spread out on the on the west hillside connected to a black painted tank salvaged from a water heater to make a solar water heater. By late afternoon we had plenty of hot water to take a bath in the big old clawfoot tub on the porch—overlooking the whole lake yet mostly invisible to the occasional fisherman. We did put up a curtain when we noticed that every Saturday evening at five when Margo took her bubble bath there seemed to be several boats finding the fishing good right off of our dock.
In the spring of 1980, after a tough year of teaching at Amery HS, we moved to Rochester where I was hired as a computer scientist for Mayo Clinic. We were now three hours away from the cabin with no more summers off.
We didn’t use the cabin much after that except on some weekends in the summer and a week of vacation each year and some spring maple syrup making. The cows still grazed up to it and kept the rest of the 40 acres looking like a park (with a few cow pies for contrast). Dad and Mom were cutting back on the farming and number of cows and suggested Margo and I buy on a land contract to supplement their retirement income. They got rid of their cattle in the big cow buyout that came along about 20 years ago and the 40 hasn’t been pastured since.
Retiring two years ago we decided to stay at the cabin for the nice part of the year. To me that is March to December! Long ago I had started a porch to the north, but never really gotten it finished. I had intended to glass it in with recycled patio doors as the walls, and make it weather tight enough to use as a summer bedroom rather than the loft above. I still haven’t done it, but have been thinking much more seriously about getting started on it any day now.