Owning a cabin on an island and renovating a cabin on an island are different propositions and one is slightly less romantic.
This was among the discoveries Maggie Lunetta and Kevin Leisen made after purchasing a 720-square-foot cottage on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka.
"Everything has to be transported over water or ice," said Lunetta.
When she says everything, Lunetta means everything — each nail, two-by-four, rug, couch and can of paint gets to the cabin by boat until the ice is thick enough to drive on. In this renovation story, winter is a friend.
A waiting game
The couple never thought they would own a cabin. It wasn't in the budget and they had busy lives. Lunetta and Leisen traveled for work and prioritized spending time with Leisen's two daughters when they weren't.
"Being in the car for three hours after traveling during the week was not appealing," said Lunetta.
However, they did spend lots of time cruising on Lake Minnetonka in Leisen's boat and even got married on an Al and Alma's charter seven years ago. The couple also rented a one-bedroom cabin on Big Island several times. That's where they fell in love with the island, the feeling of community among the residents and how it felt "up north" even though they were only 4 miles from home.
When this property first came on the market in 2018, Lunetta and Leisen saw the for-sale sign while boating and thought they might be able to swing it financially. They scheduled a showing.
Then the Star Tribune ran an article about the cabin and the couple knew that what was already a hot listing (Big Island properties rarely come on the market) would be even hotter with the additional publicity. But they'd read that the owner was hopeful whoever bought it wouldn't tear it down.
"We sent her a letter saying we would love it for our family and wouldn't change the footprint, and if she was interested in entertaining a reasonable offer to let us know," said Lunetta. "We lost out."
A loon from the past
Two years later, the loon came into their lives.
"I got a note from my parents' friends who were unpacking boxes at their new house. They said they were about to put my dad's carved loon on a shelf and decided it would be nice to reunite it with his family," Lunetta said.
Her dad grew up outside Newark, N.J., and, according to Lunetta, discovered nature when he moved to the Midwest for college. He especially had a thing for loons, perfecting their call and carving them out of wood as a hobby, giving some as gifts and selling others to offset the cost of his children's sporting activities.
"He always talked about making one for each of us, but he passed away a year after he retired," said Lunetta.
Seven days after she picked up the loon, the Big Island cabin came back on the market, a coincidence she describes as a sign. Lunetta recalled, "Kevin groaned and said, 'This time you're going to make us buy it,' and I said, 'Obviously!'"
A year-round island project
On a chilly October day in 2020, they went with the listing agent on his boat to look. The property was overgrown, but the structure was sound.
This time they got it and now had to figure out how to pay for the updates. The couple decided to put their backs into it and cash-flow the renovation, hoping it would be ready to enjoy by summer. Like true Minnesotans, they embraced winter and used it to their advantage, especially the ability to drive on the frozen lake and transport materials.
"The ice froze around New Year's and was out by early March, so we had about 60 days to do all of it," recalled Lunetta.
Lunetta and Leisen only wanted cosmetic changes — the plumbing and electrical were fine, which is a good thing because Lunetta said getting a tradesperson to the island is triple or more the price to account for travel time. But they still had a lot of work to do, gutting most of the interior to eliminate moldy drywall, boards and asbestos tiles under laminate floors.
"I pulled out one wall and it was full of acorns," said Lunetta. All that debris needed to be hauled off the island and all the new materials needed to be brought in.
"At first, the ice was just thick enough to walk, and we brought tools out on a snow sled. Then we bought a four-wheeler, then we got a sled for the back of it, then a trailer and finally we could drive a truck with the trailer attached."
They removed the flat ceiling, revealing a vault that makes the space seem larger and brighter. The couple taught themselves how to insulate it via YouTube videos and splurged on a contractor to install shiplap on the sloped ceiling.
Since the work coincided with the pandemic and all its supply chain issues, Lunetta got scrappy — finding furniture, appliances and lighting via outlet stores, secondhand shops and Facebook Marketplace. The new custom kitchen cabinets came unfinished from an online company.
One of the pieces she scored on Facebook Marketplace was a $50 midcentury modern dresser. "It had 'Property of U of M' stamped on the back. It was like the one in my freshman dorm at the U," said Lunetta.
Because the cabin is small and has no closets, Lunetta devised a few rules for furnishing the cabin, the most important of which is that pieces need to serve multiple purposes. For example, the coffee table in the living area can also be used as a bench, the couch is a pullout, the chair in the girls' bedroom can fold out into a twin bed and the chairs on the deck can move to the firepit.
And then there are the island rules. "If you bring it in, you take it off. Don't bring us a gift unless we can eat it or drink it!" said Lunetta, adding that they've learned how fast garbage and waste can add up.
She also notes how Big Island is like a small town where neighbors know each other and share. "You can't just run to Target, so you become very resourceful."
The Lunetta-Leisens spend lots of time here in the summer. Once the ice freezes, they spend many winter weekends having bonfires, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, exploring the island, snowmobiling and playing board games.
The loon carving sits on a shelf in the living room, looking out over the water. The family calls the cabin "the Loony Bin" in honor of Lunetta's dad and their fun-loving nature.
"Sharing this smaller space and spending time here has made us closer and we've created so many memories," Lunetta said.
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.