The Cabin That Keeps On Giving
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The Cabin That Keeps On Giving

With its rambling shoreline, scenic Bay Lake, Minn., was fittingly named. Its moniker is linked to an Ojibwa word meaning “every which way lake.”

How appropriate then, that construction of Ruthann “Chi Chi” McDermott’s summer home – which is located on Bay Lake – also took a meandering path. It developed over time on an evolutionary track from fishing shack to summer home.

Originally, Chi Chi’s cabin featured the typical “add-on as needed” style of construction that caught up many post-World War II lakeshore cabins, as they morphed from weekend fishing shacks to summer getaways and vacation homes.

And of course, these types of cabins were magnets for children, grandchildren and friends. They were full of charm and challenges, from an era back when people seemed to have more time to spend at the lake.

The challenge for the owners of these types of places became this: How to update into a more comfortable and usable place for a growing family – while keeping the charm, complying with current codes and taking advantage of the natural setting.

The Beginning
Chi Chi’s Bay Lake history began at age 12, when her parents rented a cabin at the very end of the road from where she is now.

How did she get to where she is now? Chi Chi’s dear memories of numerous summers on Bay Lake – coupled with wanting to bring that cabin life into her own children’s lives – led her to her cabin purchase. “I’ve been on the lake now one way or another for 53 years,” she says with pride. Coincidently, her sister, Mary, has also owned a cabin only a few doors down for many years. This sense of family is what Chi Chi cherishes.

In 1985, Chi Chi bought her cabin from the original owner. It was perfect for her, yet it had enough space for her children and grandchildren when they came to visit. And as fate would have it, the cabin next door was also for sale at the same time. Though much smaller, it is only 40 feet away from her main cabin, and has come to be a guesthouse.

Chi Chi’s cabin had a typical log exterior, a no-nonsense profile and functional features that belied the beautiful rough cedar paneling inside. It had a definite dated but charming look. Plus, with all of its built-ins, it wasn’t too bad for entertaining – something Chi Chi loves to do with fellow Bay Lakers, out-of-town guests and, of course, family. Her second sister, Patty, who resides in Dallas, visits each year in August. “I entertain all summer long,” Chi Chi says.
Going Outside to Get In
With an eye toward modernization and unity, Chi Chi’s endeavor to upgrade her cabin took over a year of work to obtain permitting with regard to her setback. As her cabin is only 33 feet from shoreline, she was granted the opportunity to update through a maintenance clause. This opportunity proved enough for Chi Chi’s place to be remodeled into one cohesive cabin while still preserving the existing footprint. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that much,” she says.

The original single-room fishing getaway had sprouted rooms over the years – as it was enlarged to accommodate a growing family and changing lifestyles. But it was a design hodgepodge. At one time, after one addition, people had to go outside just to get into the kitchen – a kitchen that had only one counter and one outlet. Quite a problem, as Chi Chi loves to cook. A prized dish – Chicken Marabella – is one she says everyone loves. “I make it several times a summer.”

Though the kitchen was bad, it was the roof, which proverbially sent her through it. By the time she bought her getaway, it had three-plus additions, each with a unique roofline. It seemed the problematic roof was springing a new leak every year. The time had come to take action, and Chi Chi did what any practical woman (who had to stay within the boundaries of the setback and maintenance clause) would: She had the place gutted, then rebuilt almost exactly as it had been. She wanted to keep its character, but make it more “family friendly.”
A Small Addition, Big Gains
By hiring Nor-son, Inc., an architectural and construction firm, to handle the renovation, her plan was set into motion.

First rooflines were simplified. New roof trusses were installed over the existing roof structure, giving it a steeper, more prominent profile and reinforcement was added to support the heavier roof.

As the renovation went on, walls were knocked out here and there, windows were added and doors were removed.

Chi Chi’s remodeled summer cabin doesn’t look a whole lot different on the outside at first glance. One might think all she did was just add new decking and stain the weathered logs a different color. But the odd-size windows are gone, and the structure’s profile fits in better with the pines, blending well with the surroundings that it has been a part of for so many years. Inside, however, there’s no mistaking the changes.

Although she only gained 200 square feet, Chi Chi’s cabin looks and feels much bigger than it felt before. The additional space means a larger guest bedroom and bathroom. She also was able to open up the entire front of the cabin facing the lake with walls of windows.

She can now see clear from the kitchen through the dining room and living room over the deck and out to beautiful Bay Lake. “The best thing I did was to make all the windows the same size. It’s a wonderful view, but views weren’t a priority back when it was a fishing shack.” Now it’s an easy look to see the grandkids playing outside, friends and neighbors in their kayaks and pontoons and speedboats out enjoying summer on the lake.

In the remodeling process, Chi Chi’s kitchen went from being dark with a low-ceiling room and very ordinary décor to a bright inviting showcase with new cabinets, countertops, lighting and appliances. “I love my workable kitchen. But I’m just a basic cook.” However, as a master gardener, Chi Chi uses her homegrown produce to make her recipes extra delicious. “I’ve got a huge garden. I grow raspberries, blueberries, vegetables. And, of course, flowers. Dahlias are my specialty.”

The low kitchen ceiling was replaced with a vaulted inner roof with recessed lights and an easy flow into the dining area. The artificial flooring was replaced by hardwood oak that along with the pine paneling blends into the dining room. That hardwood floor, along with the cedar and pine paneling, carry through the entire house.

The old deck, which was actually more of a porch, was remodeled and is now a well-used outdoor living and entertaining space that enhances the cabin’s appearance. “We enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres out there,” says Chi Chi. “I’ve always had a large umbrella on the deck, and we all just sit and visit out there.” This expanded lakeside deck has log posts and cable balusters, with ironwood decking and easy staircase access. “It’s a great place for my grandkids to eat lunch,” she adds with a smile, reflecting on her five grandchildren – ages newborn to 9.

The bathrooms (which were the bane of many older cabins) are now welcoming modern comforts with infloor heat and expanded storage space.

The unified roofline allowed her to raise the ceiling inside to give the whole cabin an airier feel. But she maintained the cedar paneling, several unique doors, the nooks and the handy built-ins – and of course, the fireplace and cathedral ceiling. “I kept the exterior doors because you can’t replicate those details today. The square nails, old hardware. They’re absolutely gorgeous.”

Even though Chi Chi was restricted in her renovation efforts, she is extremely pleased with the new look and feel of her cabin. In the distant past, it hosted weekend fishermen, and now it’s a great cabin for Chi Chi to entertain family and friends and to continue her Bay Lake adventures. 

Florida freelance writer Pat Faherty spends his spare time putting off remodeling projects. Contributing editor Gina Chiodi Grensing spends her spare time getting to know fantastic people like Chi Chi.

The Region of
Bay Lake, Minn. & the Brainerd Lakes Area

Ruthann “Chi Chi” McDermott’s cabin is located within the hub called “The Brained Lakes Area,” which provides countless options for adding fun to your day’s itinerary – from chains of inter-connected lakes for boating, to numerous courses for golfing, to trails for summer hiking or winter skiing, to the Brainerd International Raceway for watching motorsports.

Why I Love this Cabin Area
Many communities claim to be family friendly. The Bay Lake area is the real deal, according to Chi Chi. “It’s really all about families here.”

The Wonder of Water
About one-fifth of Minnesota’s lakes are in this North Central area of the state. It’s a water enthusiast’s nirvana. “We spend so much time on the water,” says Chi Chi of her family and guests. “We love to go kayaking and pontooning.”

The Links
Golf enthusiasts get the swing of things on top-rated, nationally acclaimed courses designed by professionals including Arnold Palmer.

A Trail for Every Season
Walkers, bikers, inline skaters and snowmobilers can hit the trail – all 100 miles of it. The Paul Bunyan Trail, which is almost fully paved, takes travelers to 14 towns.

Vacation Homes on the Market* 

  • 5+ bdrm, 4 bath, half-log-sided lakehome; 4,143 sq. ft.; $1,495,000.
  • 2 bdrm, 2 bath, custom-designed lakehome; 1,945 sq. ft.; $799,900.
  • 2 bdrm, 2 bath, lakeshore townhouse on amenity-filled wooded campus; 1,000 sq. ft.; $174,900.

* Actual vacation homes in the area that were on market at the time this article was reported.

For More Info

Rick Hammer
Before: Prior to the renovation, the kitchen had only one counter and one outlet.
Rick Hammer
After: The kitchen in Chi Chi's cabin was updated to accommodate all the cooking and entertaining she enjoys doing.
Rick Hammer

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