Scenery is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. One young family lives the North Woods dream, with daily doses of energy, sweat and optimism.
GRAND MARAIS, Minn. – It’s fair to say that David and Amy Demmer know every inch of the North Shore. Not long after they began dating, they hiked from Duluth to the Canadian border, then canoed back along Lake Superior’s shoreline.
They were city kids. She’d grown up in south Minneapolis near Minnehaha Falls; he in the flatlands of Rochester. Yet each had become smitten with Up North. As Amy said: “My heart felt at home here.”
Today, they live east of town in a house the size of a double garage that they built themselves, surrounded by a forest that’s home to deer, bear and the occasional wolf pack.
Eventually, they’ll build a larger house up where there’s an expansive view of the lake, and their home will revert to the garage it’s supposed to be. There’s no hard-and-fast timeline, for they’ll need to jimmy that work in between their full-time jobs and raising their 2-year-old, Penelope.
Yet the Demmers count themselves among the fortunate few because they each have just one job, unlike many other young families here. David, 32, a rangy hydrogeologist with seemingly boundless optimism, works in the Cook County Planning and Zoning Department. Amy, 30, with a direct gaze and forthright manner, has a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership and directs the Grand Marais Art Colony.
They are young professionals whose lives are more rain barrel than Crate & Barrel. They know their long-term earnings are significantly less than if they lived in the Twin Cities, but they bolster their wealth with walleye and root vegetables, homegrown eggs and freshly dressed grouse.
They’d lived here once before, in 2006, when she had an internship and he was a wilderness guide. But then he got his dream job as a hydrogeologist in Sheridan, Wyo., another beautiful and wild place. They bought a house, and when the company relocated to Spokane, Wash., they did, too.
Still, they dreamed of Grand Marais. Returning after a Christmas visit to Minnesota, David told Amy he’d seen a job listing Up North, running sled dogs.
They didn’t think twice.
“Here’s where people say we’re crazy,” Amy said, laughing. “We had property in Wyoming, were living in a nice house in Spokane, and left to earn $2,000 a year and live in a plywood shack with squirrels in the rafters and where we had to bring the dog into bed with us to stay warm when it was 30 below.”
They persevered, and by 2009, he’d been asked to apply for work in the county’s planning department and she’d been asked to apply at the Grand Marais Art Colony — which speaks to the depth of the local job pool.
As Amy put it: “At age 26, I became executive director of the oldest art colony in Minnesota.”
Facing the housing challenge
They had realized their dream of living Up North, but the hard work had just begun.
Finding an affordable, livable place was difficult in a town with limited housing stock. That led them to buy what may forever be known as “the old Taylor property” in 2010. David spent hours tweezing out trees with a chain saw and studying drainage.
By June 2011, they’d moved into the roughed-in garage/house built with the help of friends and family members. Their daughter, Penelope, was born in May 2012. And they got running water by October.
“That’s why it’s so hard to attract young families,” Amy said. “You can’t expect them to move into a place without running water — not to mention build it. There’s not many who want to live that lifestyle.”
That they do testifies to their energy, but also to their can-do attitude. Whether clearing land, laying a foundation, building, wiring, plumbing or facing down a timber wolf, David considers every skill acquired as something he’ll have for the rest of his life.