Since 2013, I’ve owned a little, off-grid wilderness cabin in Superior National Forest, smack-dab in the middle of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, but seldom stayed more than a few nights there. I used to fantasize about spending entire summers kayaking or recording the succession of flower blooms in my phenology journal. It was the stuff of retirement dreams, which was a decade or more away.
That is, until 2020, when everything changed as Minnesota locked down under stay-at-home orders in the early days of the pandemic. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, those dreams of spending day after day, night after night at the cabin quickly started to seem like a real possibility.
At first, I was unsure if I could get a phone signal, limiting my visits to weekends. But it worked; I was able to toggle my laptop to my phone’s hotspot and work remotely. I bought a generator, a bounty of bug spray and I went to war with the mice.
For two wonderful summers I lived primarily on the screened-in porch, where I attended Zoom meetings and answered calls. I spent my evenings in the kayak and mornings under the hummingbird feeder. I hauled in water, mastered the lithium-ion battery charging schedule that kept the lights on and brushed the area around the cabin to keep the bugs down.
When that second summer turned into fall and I didn’t leave, my grown son hesitantly asked if I was planning to return the city. He was mostly joking. The days were quite short, and the first significant snowfall was in the forecast. My hand was forced.
As the pandemic retreated, it was clear that I would not be gifted with another summer of working from my cabin outpost. My university job wanted me back in the office. My mind raced and my body talked back. I woke in the mornings with a clenched jaw. It was time to make a change.
I left my job, called my financial advisor, sold most of my furniture and shed my electrical appliances. I listed my house in town, sold it and closed in three weeks.
There was still snow on the ground when I arrived back at the cabin in May, two dogs and a cat in tow. Exhausted, I practically collapsed through the cabin’s front door. Then I started making lists.
At the top of my first to-do list was the purchase of a new wood stove. While the wood stove was a no-brainer, insulating the floors was not on my radar, but it quickly found its way onto the list. And now skirting, which became necessary after one of the dogs came out from the crawl space with porcupine quills in his nose, has made a surprise appearance.
As you can imagine, other projects have fallen by the wayside as these more immediate needs have become clear. This year, there will be no sauna built down by the water without a fairy godmother. Rather than finishing the porch, I will be saving for a snowmobile. Four miles of plowing may not be possible if it’s a heavy-snow year, and I have to have a way in and out. Not to mention that I have been told that if I want a social life in winter, I better have a sled.
So now there’s a new cadence to my days. Priorities have shifted. For one, everything, and I mean everything, is about winter. It’s either cleaning up after winter or preparing for winter.
Otherwise, it just is winter. I have exactly four months to prepare for an eight-month season. Future summers will not be like the previous two.
If I want food or am low on any kind of supplies, it’s an hour’s drive to the west. When I need water, I slip into the national forest’s campground along the way. When I need more, it’s two hours to the closest city of any size.
In all honesty, I have moments of overwhelm. What have I done? Can I contend with weeks of sub-zero weather by myself? Can I handle the isolation and short days? Can I haul water up the hill to the cabin in deep snow?
But these moments are tempered by small wins and deep certainty.
All my life it’s been my dream to live alone in the woods, along a little lake, with my birdfeeders and my books. There are days that I sit in my kayak, watching an osprey hunt, and I experience a contentment like never before.
I think I’m home.