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.
"It's like a gift almost, this experience that showed us what it takes to get here."
They also know that "getting here" means coming from somewhere else. Being a newcomer can be hard no matter where you live. But in a county with just four people per square mile, the dance can't help but feel personal.
"We will never be locals to some people," Amy said matter-of-factly. "The 'your grandfather is not in the ground here' kind of thing. But people here are passionate about making the community better, and those who sound resistant, well, they may just have a sense that this is the best it could be.
"But we feel that even the founding families are accepting of us. We're here year-round and we're really working here."
The Art Colony plays a big role in the county, serving 600 students last year and hosting 17,000 visitors. Cook County ranks high on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's creative class index — sometimes called the Bohemian index — with a greater share of artists than other rural counties in Minnesota. In the last census, 1,990 county residents identified themselves as artists, Amy said, "and when you consider the whole county is 5,000 people, that's a strong community. Artists are a resource that we have, so how do we grow that?"
Never look back … unless
Would anything cause them to rethink their lives?
"Education for Penelope," David said without hesitation. "If the high school wasn't good, that would be a deal-breaker for me." But even if circumstances would cause them to move, "I know I will retire in Cook County," he said.
This spring, they'll build a chicken coop. The cherry and apple trees seem to have survived the winter. Their eventual homesite, roughly marked with stakes that Penelope keeps pulling up, beckons.
"People ask when will I be done," David said, then grinned. "When I'm up there sitting in my living room on a leather couch, sipping a beer and watching a Twins game. That's when I'll be done."
Amy doesn't miss a beat: "You mean, when you're retired."
If they have a word of advice for other young families nurturing a similar dream of ditching the Big City for a brisk Mayberry, it's to caution against thinking that living a simpler life means living an easier life.
David smiled, saying without complaint that he's never worked so hard.
"But I can put in a solid day's work, come home, do the chores, and in five minutes be suited up and skiing a trail," he said. "There is the moment that it is simple."
Amy said she'd do it all over again, "but I think the key is to come as a couple without kids."
And, she added, be sure this really is your dream, and not a passing fantasy.
"If you commit to Cook County, Cook County will commit to you," she said. "But you have to want it. You have to really want it."