When carpenter Spike Carlsen and his wife set out with their recently blended family of five kids to build a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior, they quickly realized that painting, parenting, and putting up drywall all come with both frustrations and unexpected rewards. Part building guide and part memoir, Cabin Lessons tells the wryly funny, heartwarming story of their eventful journey — from buying an unforgiving plot of land on an eroding cliff to (finally) enjoying the lakeside hideaway of their dreams.
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About the Author
Spike Carlsen built a tree house at the age of 8 and has been swinging a hammer ever since. He worked as a carpenter and contractor for 15 years, then as an editor with The Family Handyman — the world’s leading DIY magazine — for another 15. He’s the author of the award-winning A Splintered History of Wood, Woodworking FAQ, and The Backyard Homestead of Building Projects. He’s written for Men’s Health, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, American Woodworker, and other publications and has appeared on HGTV, Modern Marvels, and CBS’s The Early Show. He and his wife, Kat, divide their time between their home in Stillwater, Minnesota, and their cabin on Lake Superior.
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Wanted: Difficult Piece of Land
If you can't find a perfect piece of land, buy an imperfect piece and make it perfect.
Most couples who enjoy each other's company nurture a relationship with a place as well as with each other. This place can be near or far; sophisticated or simple; metropolitan or rural. This extramarital affair can begin early or late in life. It can be a place of adventure or tranquility. There are few qualifications. It must be a place you consider "your own" even though hundreds of others may claim the same. The thought of going there must make your heart rate increase by twenty-five beats per minute. Blindfolded, you'd know you were there simply by the smell and sound. Cozumel, the resort sixty miles up the road, Central Park, a log on the banks of the St. Croix River — any place is fair game.
For Kat and me this place is the North Shore of Lake Superior. We stole away to dumpy little resorts along its fringes when we first met, kayaked across it on our honeymoon, were freeze-dried by it as we skied with our kids, screamed together as we locked arms with friends and plunged into its 40-degree waters, used its waves to soothe us when life was smothering us. So slowly, inevitably, the urge to buy land crept into our bones.
But this cabin idea keeps its distance — a feedbag hung before two stubborn mules that keep plodding forward. When we visit our first realtor and explain, with bourgeois bravado, we could spend, "Ohh, up to fifty grand," he gives us that "You gotta be kidding me" lift of the brow. We soon learn the economics of the dream are forbidding. We inquire about one cabin, only to find eight parties engaged in a bidding war. The ailing resort we frequented and fantasized about buying goes on sale for seven figures.
We light out on our own. We run LAKESHORE LOT WANTED ads in local papers. We get calls about land with LAKESHORE VIEWS, meaning land across the road, up a hill where you can catch a glimpse of the lake if the wind blows just right. We add the qualifier DIFFICULT PIECES CONSIDERED when we discover lots of the sort we ache for often fetch hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands, of dollars. We view "nature areas" (mosquito-infested swamps), "cabins with potential" (mobile homes with rotted floors), and "rugged lakeshore" (jagged rock you couldn't stand on, let alone build on).
On our jaunts north we often stop at small-town realty offices hoping to hear, "Yumping Yehosaphat, I yust got a call from old Martha Wilkins down the shore, and she's been thinking of ..." Never happens. One realtor diplomatically tells us, "All the snoots from the cities are driving land prices so high locals can't afford it anymore." We are those snoots, thank you very much. So our longing for land and cabin remains just that.
We continue to keep a SUPERIOR LAND folder stuffed with ads, brochures, and leads. In the back sits a photocopied piece of paper we'd pulled from a TAKE ONE box mounted beneath a realty sign. The day we grabbed this piece of paper was iceberg cold. The kids were weary from skiing and impatient to defrost. We saw the LAND FOR SALEsign, made a U-turn, and stepped out of the van despite the dreaded quintuple kid-moan. When we looked out to view the land, it was so steep we saw mostly treetops and lake. The survey on the back showed two pieces of land: one was square and normal-looking, the other shaped like a rhombus with a dunce hat. "Difficult land" is one thing, "impossible land" quite another. The paper languishes in the folder alongside our dreams.
When you buy a lot or piece of land in the cities or suburbs, you buy more than a piece of land. You buy all the city council meetings it took for the developer to get the land rezoned. You buy the time of the lawyer who made sure the land had clear title and the time of the surveyor who plotted and marked the coordinates of each lot to the inch. You buy the excavator's time to rough shape the land, bury storm sewers to accommodate the fifty-year rainfall, and put in properly compacted asphalt roads. You buy a drivable driveway and an accessible building site. You buy a street and a sidewalk. You buy a city water line buried 8 feet deep so it will never freeze and the guarantee of pure, plentiful water. You buy a sewer connection that guarantees every flush and spittle of toothpaste will be ushered quietly and odorlessly away. You buy your electric service, natural gas, and cable, which are only a phone call and signed check away. In short, you buy certainty. You may pay $200,000 dollars for a barren 100 × 200-foot plot of ex-cornfield in Oak Haven — a lot that's a Rorschach image of the lot to either side — but that lot is Lloyd's of London, 100 percent guaranteed buildable.
When you buy a piece of virgin land along the North Shore of Superior, you buy less than a piece of land. You buy the uncertainty of land that's raw and wild — land where neither man nor nature has given forethought to a driveway, septic system, or water well. The land could care less if there isn't a flat spot larger than a school bus anywhere on it. It's neither snobbish nor well polished because it's perched along the shores of one of the largest, most powerful lakes in the world. It doesn't fight back when 20-foot waves erode its banks. And there's surely no certainty that a dwelling — at least an affordable one — can be built there. You step up to the craps table, and while you may be well versed in the odds of the game, you can still get a bad roll. Mother Nature is the casino with the odds stacked in her favor.
On one land exploration jaunt we ask a North Shore Realtor to search the Internet for lakeshore lots based on price — we've finally upped our budget. Three options pop up, all bad. He scratches his head, pulls out a piece of paper bearing a piece of land in the shape of a pregnant stork, and in a single breath says, "This is at least close to your price range, and the owner makes great fish cakes." We have no notion of what a fish cake is and a strong feeling that the land he is referring to is the one suited for mountain goats we'd seen previously on a cold winter day. Yet we nod. He picks up the phone and hoots, "Hey, Dick, you old herring choker, there's a young couple that wants to look at your land." And I ponder, "At what age does one cease being called young?" We drive down a steep driveway and find Dick Thorngren, the old herring choker, and his wife, Jean, standing on the porch. I step out of our truck demanding the promised fish cakes, visions of the Saturday Night Live Basso-Matic dancing in my head. Dick fires back, "Oh, you don't want to eat those before you hike the land. The grease in 'em will kill you." Jean shakes her head.
We introduce ourselves all around; then Dick loads Kat and me into a war-ravaged four-wheel-drive Ford F150 and heads down what could only generously be called a path. We cut cross-eyed across a steep incline, smash through overhanging branches, and bounce our way down toward the shoreline. I'm not studying the land; I'm too busy studying how we'll escape from a flaming, barrel-rolling F150 before it lands wheels-up in Superior. Dick stops short of a spot that holds the remnants of a boat launch he carved out of the shoreline thirty-five years ago when he'd dabbled in commercial fishing.
From there we look up and see the two pieces of land for sale. The one we're standing on has its allure. The parcel is three and a quarter acres. The 515 feet of shoreline is boulder-strewn, almost sculptural. The rise from shoreline to building site is solid, mature rock. There are pines, birch, and poplar aplenty. But it has its drawbacks. As fantastic as the shoreline is, it isn't easily accessible. There's only one logical building site — and that's close to the highway and distant from the lake. And the price tag makes us weak in the knees.
We walk toward a point jutting 60 feet out into the lake. A survey stake with a blue flag divides the point in half.
"I couldn't make up my mind which parcel should get the point, so I split it right up the middle," Dick later explains.
We walk to the end and turn around. The boundary line between the two lots, marked by blue ribbons, zigs to accommodate a future driveway and zags to accommodate splitting the point. Its legal description requires eighteen lines of bifocal-straining print.
Above us to the right perches three acres of twisted trees, sagging ferns, and crumbling clay. You couldn't call the slope leading up to it a hill because a hill is something you could conceivably walk on — or something Julie Andrews could rustle to life with the sound of music. You couldn't call it a precipice because that's something solid enough to hurl yourself from. Maybe embankment. Parts of the slope are solid bedrock, but longer sections are a junkyard heap of landslides and somersaulting shrubs.
Dick confirms the price. "Oooooh," we sigh; the number of o's commensurate with the price he's thrown out. And while it's beyond our budget, it's within our imaginations.
Dick and Jean Thorngren had purchased this thirty-eight acres of land with 3,500 feet of undulating Lake Superior shoreline in 1952 — the year I was born. Dick was nineteen. The area was called Kennedy's Landing. In 1952 land along Superior was purchased for work, not play. The previous owners had acquired it with the intention of starting a mink farm; the cool weather and close proximity to cheap fish made it a natural location. This was blue-collar land.
I've never asked Dick or Jean what they paid for the thirty-eight acres; surely they bought the entire chunk for a fraction of what they were asking for these little slices. But in 1952 the price was staggering. Payments on the land kept sucking them dry. Sucked them dry when their two daughters were born. Sucked them dry as they raised them in an 8-by-40-foot trailer for thirteen years. Sucked them dry as Jean used a propane torch to heat the water for their washing machine.
"There were times Jean and I didn't have two nickels to rub together," Dick later explained. "We couldn't afford to go to a movie. When it came time to clear the land, I couldn't afford a chain saw, so I cleared it with an axe."
Jean worked for twenty-six years in the office of Reserve Mining, the Valhalla-size taconite plant in Silver Bay. Dick worked construction, operated heavy machinery, and supervised projects. He traveled a lot. In between stints he built a ranch house down along the lake. In 1980 they opened a campground and put up with the highs and lows of thirty-nine campsites full of people — some with nothing but Coleman fuel between the ears. They put up with softball teams that put soggy cleats in their dryer at one in the morning, church groups that turned the shower house into a mud pit, and people who thought a KEEP OUT sign meant WALK RIGHT IN. Fifteen years later they took down the campground sign and officially retired.
A few years later they surveyed the land, divided it into six lots, and started selling off parcels seeded with fifty years of sweat, tears, and laughter. We were weighing two of them.
Dick jostles the F150 around in baby steps and drives up to the spot where we'd first grabbed the flyer describing the land many months ago. From the top down is the easiest access for exploring "the other" piece of land — this ugly sister, the piece of land we were destined to fall madly in love with. The land is so steep we have to hold on to branches with one hand, keep our balance with the other, and let our feet slide to descend. None of us is quite sure how we'll get back up. After a couple of hundred feet we hit a small flat spot.
Dick isn't a small man. He has the build of a man who's worked physically hard all his life, then let the muscle convert into, well, fish cakes. We turn around to see him completing the last part of the descent, wheezing, but standing. "I wish I could tell you two a little bit more about this land," he pants. "I've owned it forty-seven years but only stepped foot on it three times: twice to hunt and once to help survey it. It's just too damn hard to get around on." Our guess is that Dick has never been in sales.
We stomp the land up and down: the uphill slope defined by Highway 61, the primary route between the Twin Cities and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Canada. The lower slope ends in 340 feet of meandering shoreline. It's situated in a half-mile-wide cove labeled Crystal Bay on the survey, defined on each end by towering rock cliffs. In both directions we see the lake interacting with the shoreline. That's what we want: views of land and water meeting in all their calmness or ferocity, not endless horizon.
One part of the beach — the part we can't see from the point below — is a flat, pebbly area peppered with boulders. There are hundreds of birch trees and a small area where the land smoothe out to provide at least an imaginable building site. Below the site is a thumper hole — a small cave where, when the wind blows from the right direction, incoming waves compress and crash wildly outward. We hike the ravines, find the grown-over survey stakes, and hike the boundaries. The parcel of land directly next to it is a "State 40," forty acres of state-owned land so rugged and steep the chances of its being developed are nil.
Dick crab-walks his way back up the hill and leaves us alone. We pace out possible building sites, 3 feet to each of my strides, 2 feet to each of Kat's. We do this tongue-in-cheek, each of us waiting for the other to admit that the price simply doesn't jibe with the budget. And getting a driveway down that unwalkable slope — man, what will that cost? And a septic? And a well? We play chicken; neither of us swerves.
We hike the land so mesmerized that day turns into evening. We scramble our way back up the hill, then walk down to Dick and Jean's. We lay our naive financial situation on the line. Dick glances at Jean, gets some kind of silent signal only the long-married can give, then offers, "We can knock $10,000 off for getting the driveway in." A glass of water 10 inches beyond your reach doesn't quench your thirst any better than a glass 12 inches away, right?
We head out and creep north along Highway 61 to see two other pieces of land on our "to see" list. One is flat-out gorgeous with a million-dollar view and price tag to match. Another piece is affordable but swampy. We grab a room twenty miles up the shore and plot in that luxuriously impossible way people do when they first fall in love.
We go through the financial scenarios. Dick and Jean had said they'd carry a contract for deed if we could come up with a hefty down payment. I have money in an IRA we can cash in with a penalty. We have some savings and a few stocks. Kat can maybe finagle an advance out of the company she and her partner started two years before. We could try beating them up on price some more. We balance all this with the reality that we have five kids (some in college, some shortly headed that way), a house, and Kat's fledgling business.
The next day we head back to the land and explore every hill, cliff, and ravine. We try with little success to figure out how to get a driveway down the slope and how to scrunch a cabin, septic, and well in once we're there.
Dick suggests we call Bradley, an excavator from the town of Finland ten miles away. Brad fits every stereotype of an excavator: rough-and-tumble, fingers the size and color of hydraulic hoses, as sturdily built as the Cat 5 bulldozer he drives. We hike the land, scouting septic, building, and driveway sites. At one point the three of us are scrambling up a hopelessly steep and eroded part of the land. I'm in the lead, grabbing roots and finding footholds; Kat follows, and Brad brings up the rear. We reach a point where I've hoisted myself onto some flat land, but Kat's helplessly spinning her wheels. It becomes clear she's going down, taking Brad with her. Brad gives me a quick "a guy's gotta do what he's gotta do" glance, grabs Kat by the ass, and with one arm catapults her up the hill. Okay, here's a guy I can trust.
We ask Bradley for a rough estimate on the length of the driveway and what it would cost. He hems and haws. He has a couple of helpers start measuring the distance by extending a 100-foot tape, establishing a point, then pulling 100 more feet all the way down the hill. We press him again for a guesstimate, and again he stalls. He finally throws out "600, 700 feet."
His workers come panting back up the hill, huffing "325 feet." Kat and I glance at each other. Do we want an excavator who is 100 percent off on his estimates? A guy who would need to estimate slopes, angles, and fill? The answer turns out to be a resounding "yes." Bradley is honest to the penny and the most skilled — and, as we find out, ballsy — excavator around. Math just isn't his strong suit. But if I had to choose someone to pluck an apple off my head with a ten-ton backhoe, it would be Bradley.
Excerpted from "Cabin Lessons"
Copyright © 2015 Spike Carlsen.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter 1: Wanted: Difficult Piece of Land If you can't find a perfect piece of land, buy an imperfect piece and make it perfect. Chapter 2: Designing Small You can't buy happiness by the square foot. Chapter 3: The Rules When you build, build with hands, head, and heart. Chapter 4: Paperwork & Earthworks Mensch tracht, Gott lacht. (Man plans, God laughs.) Chapter 5: A Solid Foundation When you dig a hole, be smarter than the shovel. Chapter 6: Kat--Wife, Lifesaver, Carpenter When you marry, you marry the whole person -- not just the parts above the waterline. You get both the silk sails and the barnacles. Chapter 7: Cabin Bones Destiny can thrown down a pretty sparse trail of popcorn for you to follow. Chapter 8: The Drive If all the difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all. Chapter 9: Buying Cabin Parts Keep an open mind -- you never know what might crawl in. Chapter 10: Skin of the Cabin & Middle-Age Blahs Beauty is only plywood deep. Chapter 11: A Superior Lake (Some Superior Towns) When you get caught with your pants down, run like hell. Chapter 12: Wood, Wire, Pipe, & Drywall The quandary with life is you're halfway through before you realize it's a do-it-yourself project. Chapter 13: Family Matters Life is a fluid, not a solid. It changes. Be ready for it. Chapter 14: Finishing Touches When it's ninety percent finished, it's finished. Chapter 15: Troubles in Paradise Mistakes are the dues you pay for living a full life. Chapter 16: Settling In, Grooving Out There's more to life than increasing its speed. Afterword For Further Reading