When writer and carpenter Spike Carlsen and his wife, Kat, went looking for a spot along the North Shore on which to build a cabin, they quickly realized that their budget would not allow for the traditional flat lakeside lot. So they looked up. Way up. And they ended up buying a chunk of land that, yes, had a lake view, but also was on top of a 50-foot cliff.
“Suited for mountain goats,” is the way Carlsen puts it in his new book, “Cabin Lessons,” which traces the story of how he and Kat built the cabin, from design to drywall.
The cabin is small, but not as small as it would have been had Spike been calling the shots. The initial design was so tight that Kat realized, with horror, that they would have been able to “load the woodstove from the toilet,” Carlsen writes.
So it got a little bigger. But only a little: The finished cabin is 16 by 20 feet, with a loft, and an 8-by-12 bump-out off the back.
“Cabin Lessons,” which was published this month, is part how-to, part memoir and part love story — love of Kat, love of Lake Superior, love of building.
Carlsen, who lives in Stillwater, will be at Chapter2 Books in Hudson, Wis., on Thursday. Here he answers questions about their crazy scheme, how well it worked and how the land almost got the better of them.
Q: You and your wife built a cabin on an impossibly steep bit of North Shore cliff. How long did this take?
A: Two years from start to 95 percent finished — which is the state it’s currently in, and most likely always will be.
Q: What was your biggest obstacle?
A: The land itself. It cost more than we’d intended, was steeper than we envisioned and had a mind of its own.
Q: Biggest mistake?
A: Building the cabin on posts rather than a full foundation to save money. But, you’ve got to roll with your budget — it was either that or wait another year or two.
Q: Was there ever a moment when you thought this wasn’t going to happen?
A: No. I worked 15 years as a carpenter, so we knew we’d get all the pieces put together right. And Kat is nuclear-powered, so we knew we’d overcome any hurdles or momentum issues. We make a pretty good team.
Q: Was it worth it?
A: A cabin is a terrible financial investment. If you add up the taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance costs, then divide it by the number of days spent there per year, the numbers are downright depressing.
But a cabin is an investment in happiness, and on that count it’s been the best investment ever. The intent is to pass this investment on to future generations — as long as it doesn’t slide into Lake Superior.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to build his own cabin?
A: Make it fun. Take your time. Keep it small. Personalize it to meet your quirks and loves. Build something different from your house so when you’re there you feel different.
Q: Your book is part guidebook, part memoir of cabin-building and part love story to your wife. Why did you decide to combine all those elements?
A: The book started out as a construction guide with a few personal thoughts thrown in and wound up the flip-flop. We built the cabin at the same time we were blending families (actually “crock-potting” families, as the book explains), and it turns out building a cabin and building a family hold a lot of common ground: You need a solid foundation, the capacity to fix mistakes, an absolute stick-to-it-iveness, the ability to combine styles, whether that style has to do with architecture or child-rearing.
Kat put in a ton of work on the cabin, and each of our kids put in a half-ton — so there was a lot of learning and growing going on in that alone.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: My workspace is above our garage, which is attached to the house. I have the best of both worlds; solitude when I need it and easy access to the Nespresso machine when I want a break. I have a commanding treetop view of three old Stillwater church steeples and a few dozen endlessly amusing squirrels.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: When I’m working on a how-to book, I write three pages a day, which takes about six hours. I carry a little notepad in case lightning strikes. When starting a book I begin with a “rough skeleton” — number of chapters, length, topic — then start hanging meat on it. The skeleton changes, but I have a place to start.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: A Robinson Crusoe book illustrated by Jay Barnum. Crusoe builds a fort, tames a parrot, salvages stuff from his wrecked ship, lives by his wits — every kid’s dream.
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: I built my desk from a single 28-inch-wide sheathing board yanked from the side of our house while remodeling. I have a Michael Perry quote tacked to the wall that says, “When I meet a dreamer with calluses I try to sit up and listen.” And a handwritten note from Jimmy Carter endorsing my first book, “A Splintered History of Wood.”
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: At the Coho Cafe in Tofte, Minn., about 25 miles north of our cabin. They have free wireless, great soup and comfortable chairs. I see a lot of happy people.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: Tracy Kidder, Bill Bryson, John McPhee, Joan Didion and other authors that muck around in the real world in order to bring amazing stories to the rest of the world.
Q: Now that you have your cabin, how much a part of your life has it become?
A: A cabin is great because when you’re there, you’re there, and when you’re not, you still know it’s there. That alone brings great peace of mind.