Cabin fever a wee dream on a lake

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2011 - 9:41 AM

The old place had to go. The new one had to be just so. It all proceeded slowly, until satisfaction arrived in a rush.

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Why on earth would a level-headed raised-in-the-South woman, with no mortgage and no debt, buy a long-abandoned lakefront property in Wisconsin smack dab into the worst economic downturn in modern America?

I still can't fully explain it. I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., going to the beach and using chicken necks to bait crabs.

But with friends and colleagues getting laid off, Wall Street bankers going belly-up and my 401(k) in the tank, I began to crave something tangible to sink my money into. Something I could enjoy in the here and now.

So what did I do? In October 2010 I bought a decaying cabin, too far gone to save, on a small, overgrown lot. The price was right, but it would take some work.

Remnants of a past life remained -- two rotten boats, three broken-down lawnmowers, numerous old tires. There was pancake mix in the pantry, exploded beer cans in the fridge. On my first trip to the county recycling facility, I cashed in 22 pounds of aluminum cans.

A neighbor with land just off the lake recently told me she considered buying it. "Too much work," she said, shaking her head.

Yet even as my fearless mate Chris (a.k.a The Handsome Handyman) and I hauled skanky mattresses and sofa cushions out of the cabin, the view of the lake, the auburn sunsets and our everpresent campfire kept us grounded and inspired.

We cross-country skied through a village of vintage trailers converted into ice fishing huts, and paddled around in a 1968 Alumacraft canoe I inherited from a friend. My black Lab wore himself out swimming in the spring-fed lake. We saw eagles, loons and turtles.

And we dreamed of the future.

What kind of place would we build? Where would we put the dock? How could we use the place year-round?

"It's not that you simply want a cabin," writes Minneapolis architect Dale Mulfinger in the introduction to his practical and delightful book, "Cabinology" (which I read cover to cover -- at least five times -- and then hired him for a scouting mission).

"You need a cabin," Mulfinger says, "to bring some balance into your life, to recharge those rundown batteries, to cleanse the soul, to reconnect to nature."

About 5.6 percent of homes in Minnesota and 7.4 percent in Wisconsin are used for seasonal, recreational or occasional use, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. That compares to a national average of 3.5 percent.

Cabin life is an elemental part of the Midwestern psyche, whether or not we own our own places. In warmer months, we get stuck in Friday afternoon traffic jams as families head out of town. We send our children to summer camp, and rent rustic retreats for weekend getaways.

Whether we prefer primitive cabins with no running water to lake homes with hot tubs and saunas, many of us have a compelling urge to get to the woods. I'm now a proud member of that clan.

The past year of tear-down and cleanup has been daunting, intense and full of surprises. Friends provided key assists as we worked to restore the eyesore into a beauty.

I envisioned a small, dog-friendly place that would feel cozy whether I was there alone, with Chris or with a group of friends. Energy efficiency was key, as was finding a builder with an earth-friendly mindset.

I combed through cabin plans and weighed the differences between traditional stick construction and Structural Insulated Panels. I found myself researching such things as composting toilets, tankless water heaters and alternative energy.

At one point, I tried -- and failed -- to purchase a faux log cabin jacked up on steel beams and wheels, at the side of a road, ready to be moved.

In August, as Chris and I talked about building a basic bunk house and letting the land "be" for a while, I learned that St.Paul-based Alchemy Architects was selling one of its storied weeHouses. These small and modern prefabricated homes are the firm's signature design, constructed with high-end, sustainable materials with as little waste as possible.

This particular weeHouse once toured auto shows and other expositions with the Saturn Sky convertible. As a pre-owned model, it was selling for a discount. I jumped at the chance.

Before long, I'd found a local builder, J&A Custom Homes, willing to take on the unconventional job of marrying prefab and new construction. We broke ground in early December on a walkout basement and downstairs living area to complement the 324-square-foot wee.

The weeHouse arrived Thursday on a flatbed truck. Just in time for Christmas.

A jolly crane operator named Wayne, with a red beard, hearty laugh and nerves of steel (did I hear him say, "Ho, Ho, Ho"?), placed it gently under the spruce trees.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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  • The prefab weeHouse is set on a foundation, which also will be finished. Decks, front and back,will be added, too.

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