Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Cabin - The Land

     Lois and I get this magazine in the mail, The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. It's free but the DNR hints at donations. They know Minnesotans, at least the Scandi-Finno-Dutchman kind. The ones who thrive on guilt. Who know for a fact, nothing ain't free. You can pay for it as you go along or take much bigger lumps at the Pearly Gate. So we donate. It's a good rag. A joy to read and I do read it. This month's feature article centers on Sigurd Olson's Burntside Lake cabin up near Ely, Minnesota. Got me to put my nearsighted nose right up to the interior pictures. Olson's an icon in the Northland. And the rustic cabin's a thing of simplistic beauty. Of course my thoughts turned to the cabin on Deadman, not an emulation of the man. Didn't know Sigurd Olson from a rutabaga back when we built it.
     Two things hit home (actually a whole lot more than two). The homemade ash canoe paddles above Olson's fireplace and the quiet he found at Listening Point. I've been contemplating a new straight shaft paddle. Maybe even making one. Doing it right. Why not a timeless design? Skip the high-tech. Return to one from a single piece of wood. The quiet I'd written of earlier. It's a primary ingredient in the soup of the Northland. In an ever noisier world, quiet carries a lot of weight.
     Thoughts then turned to the Deadman Lake cabin itself. Never really went into any depth about how it came to be or why. Could have sworn I'd done an entire entry on the land and building. A check of the entries said no. So I guess it's time to think about something that means so much to me. A dream symbol held together by a couple of hundred pounds of nails. A door that swings both ways in my life.
     For me, it was a blind stab. Didn't know what I was doing. Did know that I didn't know. Wasn't worried in the least. I knew which end of the hammer to grip and how a circular saw worked. The rest was all learnable. Four years ago, 2007, we did a kitchen/addition remodel on our city house. Half the job was knocking a hole in the ceiling. The other half was doing an extensive repair job. Throw yourself off the cliff and figure out how to safely land on the way down. Do that enough and the fear of screwing up becomes a non-concern. Back in 1980, we'd already stuck our necks out enough times to know our heads were safe.
     The land was Lois' idea. She figured we needed it. Who was I to say we didn't? Besides, the idea of owning a patch of woods appealed to me. Lois was already in the water, why not join her? So I went with the flow. For me, the flow usually ran between the Tao and the realm of Wishy-washy. Had been a Grunt in Vietnam but wasn't much of a warrior. Had long hair afterwards but wasn't much of a hippie. But I knew if my toes were stepped on, they hurt and I was pissed.
     Turned out Lois knew best. I needed the land as a place where I could pretend. Pretend there was more to life than being on the job. Woodsman and builder, both gifts given me by Lois. Our choice of site, the second we looked at, was perfect for a person like me. The laws governing construction were simple. Required few shoulder peeks and, if properly done, the legal stamp of approval was no more than a head nod. Put the structure in a legal spot. Plumb and wire it correctly. And the Township was happy. Didn't know that when we first walked the land. Another stumble in the dark that worked out.
     Money was the governing factor. What we had in the bank told us how much we could spend. Cash on the nail. Already had a house payment, didn't want another. We were cheap and solvent. Wanted to keep it that way. Recreational lakeshore was not in the cards. The goal was a fancy wooden tent with heat. Lois' plan was to take it one paid-for step at a time. Mine was to daydream out a feasible reality.
     We first saw Deadman Lake on an iced over December afternoon. Annie was three, Allan still in arms. A pathless walk through five hundred feet of bare woods led us to a stroll on the pond. We turned around. There rose a stand of mature jack and red pines, deep green against the white of sky and ground, that said simply, "Build here."
     We'd found ourselves a semi-hippie's idea of lakefront. There was a lake, shallow in the extreme, but a lake none-the-less. Whoever'd wandered out there to give it a name by drowning must have worked at it. If it was my legend, I'd have sent him meandering on to Chicago to become a beer baron during Prohibition. Sided with Al Capone. Eventually turned coat; sold out the big man. Became intimate friends with J. Edgar Hoover. Finally ending up with his brains blown out in a Philadelphia gutter wearing nothing but a full length beaver coat and a Wendell Wilkie button. Glad that didn't happen or Deadman would have had some nondescript name like Schultz' Pond.
     The walk back to the car had the same face whipping as the walk in. I was so ignorant at the time, I didn't know those whips were hazel brush. The land had oak, birch, pine and an incredible amount of brush. Still does. God apparently loves brush. Lois feels otherwise.
     The plan started as a twelve by twelve screen house. It'd sit on piers. Knew that drill from having built a deck back in town. Also read a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright over the winter. His Imperial Hotel in Tokyo had withstood an earthquake that had leveled everything else in the city. Its survival was attributed to having been built on piers. If a massive earthquake ever hit Minnesota, our cabin would be just fine.
     Being a little slow on the uptake was and is a way of life with me. A screen house had its limitations. When the breezes blew, as they inevitably would off of Deadman, having a means of keeping them at bay would make us comfy campers. Canvas shades evolved to wooden shutters. Shutters cut out the view and the light. Eureka! I could put glass in the shutters. At that point Lois called from the living room, "How about windows? I've heard you can buy them already made." That little note of sarcasm had its element of truth. So, windows it was. Did I ever tell you how I invented the pocket?
     Heat. Let's see. We had nine acres of wood. Maybe some form of wood stove? Kept my mouth shut during that chain of thought. Cut down on the comments from the Peanut Gallery. But a wood stove in a twelve by twelve wouldn't leave much room for people. Kinda defeat the purpose of a shelter. Growth followed rapidly. Found a deal on four foot by four foot, glide-by windows and bought eight. Those and the size of a standard sheet of plywood determined the footprint. Threw in a loft and drew up plans just like in High School Drafting Class. Floor plan, elevations and perspective. Drew in and counted the studs, beams and sheathing. Wrote a materials list. Applied for a building permit. Got hold of the Crow Wing Power Coop. Figured having electricity for my few power tools was a good thing. Through every step, Lois was along with suggestions that made sense in both the short and long run. She has a firm grasp on reality and I tend to grip chickens, so to speak.
     Foundation piers meant we needed concrete. Concrete meant we needed water. Had a whole lake of it but that was yucky water. Ducks and loons befowled it constantly. When the frost came out of the ground in late April, we shipped the kids off to Grandma and Grandpa. Headed north for a one day second honeymoon with the idea of sleeping in the car and driving a well. Seemed like some kind of mystical thing that we could get water out of the ground. Images of divining rods floated through my dreams. Gettin' hold of some old cackling hag with poison apples in her pocket. Writing out an eternal damnation contract just to get the same product we got out of the tap in town for pennies. So be it.
     We had but the vaguest idea of what we were in for. Twenty years earlier I'd watched a team of men take turns driving fifty feet of water pipe into the ground with a nine pound hammer. 'Bout a half inch a whack. Sweatin', smokin', laughin' and in general, having themselves a fine time. Remarkably, water came muddily out of the pipe about the same time the last beer came out of the washtub. Big, big washtub. Happy men.
     Back in 1981 there was a plumbing supply in Pine River. Menards and Home Depot hadn't as yet landed in Baxter and sucked up the lion's share of hardware expenditures. Those big boys are great for major jobs but a tad shy on local knowledge. Especially on the lay of the land forty miles to the north. The Pine River plumbing store was exactly what we needed. We did the right thing when we admitted we were dumb as stumps when it came to drawing water. That told them exactly what they needed to ask us. Which was, "Where's your land?" Didn't need a water witch, a drill, surveyor. Local knowledge, baby, it's a good thing. Sold us a sand point, sixteen feet of pipe, teflon tape, a pitcher pump and rented us a driver to slam the stuff into the ground for five bucks. Said we'd hit water at fourteen feet. At fifteen feet we'd hit a hard pan, hang the tip and suck air. We'd be going through nothing but sand. Piece of cake.
     The best things in life kinda sneak up on you sometimes. By the time you realize they're happening you're either in the middle of it or looking back from thirty years in the future. Like I said, I'm a little slow on the uptake. So there we were, surrounded by towering red oak and pine in a little clearing we'd made ourselves. Seventy-five feet away, a pristine lake without a cabin in sight. Sun's out in one of the bluest skies we'd ever seen. The sky gets like that up there. Bottle of spatlese, chilled, nothing complex, goes down easily. A man and a woman, alone. Married but still in love. And drivin' ourselves a well. Bam! Bam! Bam! goes the driver on the water pipe. Driver is a two foot, lead weighted collar with grasping handles. Raise it. Smash it down! Over and over. We take turns. Work up a sweat. Sip the sweet wine. Poundin' an iron tube into Mother Earth. Almost symbolic, eh? Oh, it was some kind of fun out there in the woods. Didn't take much over an hour. Screwed on the pump and began to crank. For a minute she's coming up dry. Handle goes up and down easily. Then the weight. We could feel it coming. Up the shaft, then overflowing the spout. Sludge at first. Slowly clearing to become - what shall I call it? How about? - well water. Just like the man said.

     -Pictures finally being added to Learning Curve. Ain't that thrilling?-

     A once-in-a-lifetime, woodtick hatch of the century, provided entertainment during the driveway clearing. Me and my nephew must have hit the hatch on the nose (unless woodticks are mammals). We sat on the tailgate of my car, drank a beer in the evening, and watched hordes of the little guys crawl by. Made us want to be small enough to climb aboard a pair of itty-bitty horses and herd 'em. Yee-haw! Never saw anything like that before or since. If you've been in the woods when they're out and about, you know the feeling they inspire. Every moving hair takes on a magnified significance. And you know where they're heading, "Wasn't so much the tick on his heart suckin' blood what done him in. 'Twas the shrapnel from the bug's hide when it exploded. Blew a hole in the old man's heart. Bled to death in a half minute. Good news is there was two ticks in there and we saved the second."
     Lord, what's wrong with my brain? Did we do the driveway first or the well? Chicken and egg rear their ugly dilemma once again. For the sake of my fingertips I'll go with well.
     The driveway. Lois had a vision for it. Idyllic as all get out. And a long distance vision of the first order. The layout was no problem. High and dry from the road to the site. No gravel, no pavement. Our vehicles would make the tracks. The oaks and birches would lay out the weave. Natural. Real feng shui. Except neither of us had ever heard of feng shui at the time. Would even have mispronounced the term had we seen it in print. You'd think if they'd have wanted it pronounced fung shway, they'd have spelled it that way. Complaint aside, Lois was in touch with the concept. Along either side of the track was to be a row of spruce and pine. Trimmed to provide a Little Red Riding Hood effect as you wound your way through the evergreen tunnel. That second part took a couple of decades.
     Figured eight to ten feet wide would do it for the track. Took us two days of chainsawing, trimming with a loppers and moving deadfall. Made a small mountain of brush. Didn't drop a live tree. Finally, we cleared the cabin site a legal seventy-five feet from the pond. We were set and awaiting the building permit.
     Headed back up on Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend with permit in hand, the power company on the way and a wheelbarrow in the car that needed assembly. Also had seven weeks off from work in my back pocket. Over the winter I'd gone from full to part time. A moral issue concerning a brief period in management I was being punished for. Don't have many regrets in my life. Can't actually think of another besides those six months as a supervisor. And maybe forgetting to put that minnow bucket back in the Sauk River. Becoming part-time worked out as another bed of ironic roses for me. Had an understanding manager. Turned the eight hour full time vacation days I'd accrued into four hour part time ones. Doubled my time off. Enough to get us through the summer and the initial building buttoned up.
     First order of business when I rolled into town was business. Had my list in hand. Found the lumber yard's office and walked in. Was I intimidated? Shouldn't have been but I was. Most of what I knew about building I didn't really know. Readin' ain't doin'. It's easy to say, "I know what you mean." But if you haven't been there and put in the hours, you don't really know. Hell, I'd never built a building before. And there I was walking through the door, about to spend a couple of grand - remember, this was 1981 when a brand new, self-exploding Ford Pinto could be had for around thirty-five hundred bucks - on a bunch of stuff that might fall over faster than I could stand it up. Had my plan and notes taken from the Uniform Building Code. The man behind the counter didn't know he was dealing with a pretender. Probably didn't much care. I was willing to spend money. He was willing to help. All for a pile of squared up sticks. At least I was smarter than that first pig.
     Had to bide my time while Rollie went into a detailed explanation of soffit assembly with the man first in line. Tried to put on my best know-what-a-soffit-is face. Mistake. Took a couple of encounters with the local business people to realize they'll assume you know what you're doing if you don't say otherwise. Best to come right out and say, "Don't have a clue. Sell me all I'll need and tell me what to do with it." Honesty is the best politics per Stan Laurel.
     As it was, felt like I was standing in line for Confession on the Saturday before Holy Week. Hated that. Priest or no in that dark little room, I felt no real need to tell a stranger what was festering in my dirty little mind. No need except being twelve years old and looking down the barrel at eternal damnation if I didn't. All that was going on in my dirty little mind this time was gettin' me a load of two-bys and a pile of plywood. But those pubescent experiences do come springing back as feelings that can cloud a person's day. Was kinda off in the ozone of reverie when my turn came. Almost started out with, "Bless me father...." Instead, I slowly slipped my list across the counter. Rollie looked at it for a few seconds. Didn't pick it up. Didn't touch it.
     Slowly raised his head to pierce me in the eyes and asked, " What you gonna do with all this here wood?"
     Thought for a second he was going to accuse me of the sin of presumption. "Build me a cabin up by Deadman Lake."
     Looked down at the list again. Then said, "Hmmm." A fly landed on the window sill. He looked up again, "Guess you won't need everything at once. Yup, we got it all. No problem. Just let us know where and when. Pay for it when you ask for it."
     Ordered and paid for the framing material right off. Walked out the door. Realized I'd been holding my breath for the last five minutes. Got in the car and drove north to dig me some holes. Big holes.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could unread the whole pump metaphor section of this post ;) You crack me up dad! This was a fun read.