After 12 years of renting tiny cabins, cross-country ski enthusiasts Bill and Marilyn Gorham finally have a "ski shack" of their own, where they can store their gear and unwind in a sauna after hours of being outdoors.

Best of all, the Gorhams' cabin is in the middle of the northern Wisconsin woods, only a mile from the American Birkebeiner trail, North America's largest cross-country ski race. Next weekend, Bill will ski in his 16th Birkie, while Marilyn, a recreational skier, cheers him on.

"The Birkie is really pretty -- and challenging -- with lots of steep hills," said Bill. "But it's really the camaraderie and people that make it."

The Gorhams have befriended many other Birkebeiner enthusiasts, and the highlight of each winter is their pre-Birkie party at the shack. The warm wood interior welcomes neighbors who snowshoe or ski over. The couple serve soup and chili in front of a woodstove fire.

"People share their Birkie stories," said Marilyn. "The shack feels really warm and alive."

The Gorhams owned a home in western Wisconsin, but traveled to the Hayward area every February for Birkebeiner events.

"We were always looking for property near the Birkebeiner trail to build on," said Bill.

In 2000, they found 10 acres covered with birch and balsam near Spider Lake Township and the Birkie County OO Trailhead. Bill would have miles of cross-country ski trails on which to train for the race, and Marilyn could snowshoe on the illuminated loops.

While searching for an architect, the Gorhams were impressed with the work of SALA in Minneapolis, and enlisted architect Tim Fuller to design their Birkie retreat. The Gorhams made it clear that they didn't want the typical "lake home" with a big front porch, but rather envisioned what Marilyn called a "ski shack."

"We wanted something simple and cozy that would fit the environment," said Marilyn.

"But unique and with some character," added Bill.

Fuller, along with SALA's Sara Whicher, designed what he described as "a box with a big gable." The structure encompasses 3,000 square feet over three levels, including a walkout basement with a sauna.

"The simplicity of the box with the gabled roof reacts well with the scattershot of trees," said Fuller. "It claims that space."

Fuller also integrated some Swiss chalet-style features the Gorhams found appealing while on a tour of other cabins in the area.

Supper-club style

The exterior's prominent gable is shaped by wide overhangs, and painted chocolate brown with green and red trim. The cabin's cultured stone base, which gives it a grounded feeling, was inspired by the all-stone Poodle Inn, a supper club near Wascott, Wis., that Fuller remembered from childhood.

High on the Gorhams' must-have list was a front entry that allowed them to ski up to the door, slip off their skis, step inside and have designated spots to store wet boots, jackets, mittens and gear. Fuller responded with an ice-house-shaped entrance outfitted with a slate floor, a built-in bench for storage and ski racks.

For a cozy lodge feel in the living room and kitchen, the couple chose three different species of wood paneling -- ash on the ceiling, knotty alder on the walls and reclaimed Douglas fir for the floor and railings.

"We picked the woods by the way they popped when we applied varnish," said Bill. "Alder looks like cherry."

The 6-foot-tall double-hung windows on three sides draw in ample light. "We open all the windows in the summer, and it feels like a screen porch," said Marilyn.

Upstairs is an enclosed loft bedroom with a "North Woods Juliet balcony," said Fuller. Another larger open balcony offers more sleeping space when the Gorhams have overnight guests.

The balconies, clearly visible from the main floor, carry out the cross-country ski theme with folksy cutouts of ski poles in the Douglas fir railings. "We wanted something related to skiing -- but no pine trees," said Marilyn.

The railings were a labor of love for the Gorhams, who put in more than 2,000 hours of sweat equity staining and varnishing the wood and laying tile. "It saved us money but we also enjoy doing it," said Bill. "It's like a hobby."

His other hobby is cross-country skiing up to 35K a day to train for the 51K Birkebeiner and then hitting the sauna in the basement to "help warm up the bones."

When the Gorhams have finished their exercise regimen in the brisk outdoors, they go inside their ski shack and "drop off the grid," said Bill.

"There's no TV, cellphone service or Internet," said Marilyn. "We read and do jigsaw puzzles."

"The toughest part is leaving on Sunday," said Bill.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619