With five kids and one income, renting a cabin in Michigan or Wisconsin was the only family vacation my parents could afford when I was growing up. For the kids it was heaven with swimming, fishing, exploring, and summer friendships for a whole week. Only 100 miles from our house in south Chicago, it seemed like another country.

When I moved to the Land of 10,000 Lakes but was not in a position to buy, I read the cabins ads in the Sunday newspaper every week studying the location, price and configurations. I drew concentric circles on a map with the Twin Cities at the center; the circles represented one hour from home, 90 minutes, two hours. The closer to home, the more convenient and expensive. I wanted a place no farther than three hours away so that a weekend trip would be manageable for a family with two careers, two small children and springer spaniel puppy.

Cabins less than three hours away were less expensive in northwestern Wisconsin than those Up North near Mille Lacs or Brainerd. A Wisconsin real estate agent near Spooner showed me an A-frame with floor to ceiling glass facing the lake. The price was right, but it needed a lot of TLC.

That first summer my parents visited. My father was excited at the potential but fearful that I’d be working on the place for years. Together we rebuilt three decks, cleared out the garage sale items that filled the rundown garage and several outbuildings, and managed to catch a few bass and enjoy the sunsets as well. My 4- and 8-year old girls did smaller tasks to help, and they were eager to take on bigger projects as they grew. Fixing the place up became a multiyear family project.

After the girls were out of college I could afford larger renovations like a two-story spiral staircase from the loft to the refinished basement, a new roof, hardwood floors, cedar-shake siding, new windows and a hot tub overlooking the lake on the screened porch.

My father was right: The place required a lot of work, but each project added meaning and memories. “Labor therapy” is how I describe the joy of working hard and having a finished product at end of the day or summer. My wife and I now spend four months on the lake. This year we hosted 25 family members and friends. Labor therapy is not required of all visitors but each summer I have my people wanting to know what we are working.

Dan Detzner, Minong, Wis.