At my parents’ cabin near Litchfield, Minn., a framed poem hangs over the toilet.

A septic tank here have we.

On its behalf we make this plea,

Flush only what comes naturally,

And use the TP sparingly.

Please help us to conserve some space,

Inside that yucky, smelly place;

If it looks yellow, let it mellow,

But if it’s brown, then flush it down.

The rules are clear, easy to follow, and, um, fun to say. But more importantly, they make everyone’s time at the cabin a little more pleasant, and a little less “sewagey.”

The cabin, after all, is a sacred space. It’s where we go to escape our normal lives, our days lived by strict schedules and rigid rules. The cabin is both more and less than a home. While there, no one wants to deal with the septic tank if they don’t have to.

While the cabin may be an escape from the strictures of home, it can’t be chaos. Even in this alternate holiday universe, some order must prevail. A cabin must have rules. Precisely what those rule are depends on many factors, including historical incidents that, at some point, ruined a day at the cabin. We collected the following rules, born of hard-won wisdom, from friends and some Star Tribune readers:

At Steve and Teresa Netkow’s cabin, for example, guests are not allowed to shoot a .44 Magnum handgun (or any gun) at midnight, because it tends to wake people up and freak them out. At Rob and Judi Tomczik’s cabin, rule No. 6 is: “DON’T MESS WITH GRANDPA’S FISHING EQUIPMENT!” because someone must have done that one time too many. At Tricia Utsch’s cabin, guests “may not run the hot water until the water heater has been running for an ungodly amount of time …. God forbid we do another weekend with only cold water ’cause someone didn’t follow the rules!!”

At Trisha Enochs Abbey’s cabin there’s a simple rule: Don’t leave your dirty boxers on the kitchen table for her mother-in-law to deal with when she arrives. (Seems easy enough.)

Most of us are familiar with these kinds of rules, their origins, and their vague (or not-so-vague) tone of annoyance. Some rules take a more general approach to enforcing the community spirit. At John Roach’s cabin “everyone has to pitch in … If you don’t help out, please enjoy your last trip to the lake.” Don Brown’s version is simply, “Don’t be a jerk,” a rule that, he notes, “if followed, always works.”

There are other kinds of cabin rules, too, such as those requiring yard work. “We went to a friend’s cabin who expected guests to do ‘sticking,’ ” writes former Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, “which was picking up sticks along paths on their property … even deep into the woods, she liked ‘clean’ woods.”‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

There are rules upholding traditions: At Jessica Peterson White’s cabin, guests were instructed to record their catches in a “fishing log” started in the 1950s. One visitor, a certain writer David Carr, broke this tradition, instead documenting “the discovery of a water route to the nearest dive bar.”

White also has encountered unspoken rules: “Do not under any circumstances throw away the jars of ‘spices’ that are definitely pre-1970, or your mother-in-law may never quite forgive you,”‬‬ she writes. ‬

Others rules are spoken but primal, like Roach’s rule that: “All men must pee outdoors, regardless of season.”‬ (In addition to marking their territory, this could also deter bears.) ‬‬

Then there’s a whole other category of cabin rules that are not quite rules, but which are more like anti-rules, designed to remind us why we came to the cabin in the first place. In addition to their firearms ban, the Netkows have had three framed rules hanging in the kitchen for the 22 years they’ve owned their cabin: 1) Eat when you’re hungry. 2) Drink when you’re thirsty. 3.) Sleep when you’re tired.

In a similar vein, the Tomcziks’ rules 1-5 (before don’t mess with Grandpa’s fishing gear) are all: HELP YOURSELF: to snacks, jackets, sunglasses, the boat and water toys.

Taking the anti-rule one step further, Chris and Brenda Seidl’s lone rule is, “We can’t get off the pontoon boat until the cooler is empty.” And over at Steve and Diane Hedberg’s cabin, the single rule is: “Whoever wakes up first in the morning, go back to sleep!”

These rules, anti-rules, and other guidelines bring order to our aimless cabin days. They help us get along. The keep families from disintegrating. They help us not waste time improving the cabin.

But probably the most important rules have to do with that unspeakable aspect of cabin life. Because even in nature, nature calls. And when other people move into your cabin, the last thing you want is for them to mess up your system. By that, I mean septic system. That’s why people like my mother, and Lou and Gwen Beauzay, post such restroom rules as poetry:

All of us people with septic tanks

Give to you our heartfelt thanks,

For putting nothing in the pot

That isn’t guaranteed to rot.

Kleenex is bad, matchsticks too,

Cigarette butts are taboo.

No hair combings, use the basket.

There’s a darn good reason

Why we ask it.


Frank Bures is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.