Lots of city folk have “cabins” Up North. It might be a log home or a three-bedroom cottage or even a sprawling multi-level, multi-deck vacation getaway.
Every weekend, Susan Borden and Steve Bunge escape to a rustic, back-to-the-basics cabin in the wilderness on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Their tiny pine retreat draws well water from a hand pump, is lit by lanterns, and the bathroom is an outhouse down a path. And, of course, there’s no Wi-Fi.
In fact, their 600-square-foot cabin, built in 2014, is completely off the grid. For the couple, that’s one of its most precious qualities.
“Living there makes you realize how little you need,” said Bunge. “It’s OK if it’s 30 below zero. We have a little wood stove, great meals and only go outside when we need to.”
The outdoorsy couple met 10 years ago, drawn together by their love of camping, canoeing and cross-country skiing — especially in the Ely area, a favorite destination.
Although Bunge and Borden enthusiastically portage and hike to remote rental cabins or camping spots, they decided to find buildable property, accessible for all ages and abilities, to share with family for future decades.
“We didn’t want to have to paddle a canoe to get to it,” said Bunge.
They finally found a 20-acre parcel in dense woods just 10 miles from Ely. They toured the site on snowshoes under a sunny blue sky one February day.
“It was amazing,” recalled Borden. “The terrain was nice, and a bluff was visible. The silence was striking.”
While heading back to the car, they crossed over two beaver dams. They decided that the untouched wild acreage would give them “space to roam and explore,” said Borden.
After closing on the land in 2013, the couple built a fixed wooden platform for a large tent and an outhouse to use for several years while they saved up to build a cabin.
While researching design ideas, they reached out to SALA architect Dale Mulfinger, Minneapolis author and expert on cabin design and lore, who is known as “the cabinologist.”
When the couple, along with Mulfinger, visited the site that first winter, the tent had collapsed under snow and ice, and they realized it wasn’t viable for the long term.
The cabinologist had his next project — a simple, small, well-crafted weekend retreat for a family of five built in a remote location and within their modest budget.
The couple didn’t want indoor plumbing, electricity or a bathroom. Just a wood-burning stove for heat and an outdoor firepit for roasting marshmallows. “We wanted the cabin to look like it had been there forever,” added Bunge.
Mulfinger was excited about “the incredible piece of property,” and sited the cabin at the top of a ridge overlooking a pond and pine trees to get the full effect of the North Woods wilderness.
“It fit one’s impression of a BWCA kind of place,” he said. “It reads of tranquillity.”
In one of his cabin books, Mulfinger had featured a project by Eric Mase of the Wee Cabin Co. in Ely, and he knew Mase’s unique building method would be a good fit.
The timber-frame roof structure was pre-cut off site and assembled on site. Then it was lifted onto the main-floor frame with a crane.
“We pop it on like a hat,” said Mulfinger. It’s also much safer than traditional site construction, since workers aren’t required to stand on a high ladder or scaffolding, he added.
The Douglas fir timber-frame structure is warmed by that cabin classic — knotty pine on the walls and floors.
The main floor encompasses a screened porch, kitchen, living and dining area heated by a wood-burning stove, as well as a central staircase.
A bridge connects two sleeping lofts above, with light flowing through the end gable windows.
Their three kids often play games on the bridge and are able to look down and see when dinner is ready.
For storage, the mudroom/entry pops out from the side of the cabin. One part of the metal roof faces south — the perfect spot for future solar panels.
For the design, Mulfinger tapped into the book “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, which is “a set of guiding principles that helped evolve the space,” he said.
Mulfinger applied scores of building patterns to the cabin, such as “Sheltering Roof” and “Windows Which Open Wide.” Bunge was on board with “A Pattern Language” because “it’s a good way to organize your thoughts on the way your building will make you feel,” he said.
The Bunge-Borden cabin may have only one room, but its overlapping functionality is limitless. The dining table can be used for everything from fixing a rod and reel to assembling a puzzle.
A staircase typically eats up a lot of square footage, so Mulfinger designed an alternating tread staircase that’s more practical than a ladder.
“It’s an old-style staircase that’s been around for a long time,” he said. “It takes up less space, and you can put your full foot on the tread.”
Another space-saver is a rolling cart, which doubles as a kitchen island offering prep space and stools for seating.
In the kitchen, a “Zen” window frames hypnotic views of ducks, birds and other wildlife, said Borden. A moose has yet to lumber by, “but it’s sure to happen someday.”
The cabin’s small scale is in “the same league as the tiny homes popular today,” said Mulfinger.
“It feels like the perfect size,” said Borden, especially with the sleeping loft that can accommodate up to seven people.
Close quarters and little privacy are what being at the cabin is all about, added Mulfinger. “It’s for people who choose to be there and enjoy the closeness of that one space.”
A year after the cabin was completed, Borden and Bunge built a wood-fired sauna they named Wee-Heat, matching the timber-frame cabin. The family can soak in warm steam on a cold winter day, and “it’s a place to bathe in the summer and winter with less water,” said Bunge.
And the walk to the sauna, as well as to the outhouse, can reap unexpected outdoor delights. “You might see the northern lights on the way,” said Mulfinger.
While spending time in the middle of the woods, Bunge and Borden appreciate every moment away from their high-stress jobs in the Twin Cities. “It’s meditative doing dishes with your hands in warm water and looking out the window,” said Borden.
They fill the days with chores — chopping and stacking wood, pumping and carrying water, and trimming trees.
But when the work is done, a BWCA lake is close by to canoe across in the summer, and there’s cross-country skiing in the winter. The couple also host many gatherings of friends and extended family.
Their teenagers are cool with unplugging their electronic devices, and the family never misses “the trappings of modern life,” said Bunge.
“Friends always wonder how we get by without X, Y and Z,” he said. “We don’t miss it at all.”
Mulfinger agreed. “This cabin exemplifies that less is enough.”