By Adam Granger
Why write about a summer cabin in the wintertime? Read on.
Although I was raised in Oklahoma, I had Minnesota connections. My great-grandfather, Albert Laubach, owned a store in St. Paul until 1912 when his partner absconded with their funds and the business went belly-up. Albert took off a-wandering, proto-Woody Guthrie-style, winding up finally on a 40-acre homestead on Big Sandy Lake, in Aitkin County. A piece of land for which he paid $5.31 in fees to the Department of the Interior in Duluth in 1917 that ended up being worth, a century later, a million dollars. An inadvertent success after a life of financial frustration.
Albert had four daughters, one of them my grandmother, and each of them inherited a ten-acre strip of the property. My grandfather, architect Magnus Jemne, designed and built a simple-but-classy 25-by-50-foot cabin there in 1931, replete with outhouse and hand pump. It was christened Seven Pines.
By the 1960s, my mother had inherited the place. No family members lived anywhere near it. So, it sat unused until June 6, 1974, when, with Norwegian and German in my blood, Minnesota in my roots, my three cats in my arms and my then-wife Sherry in hand, I moved from Oklahoma to Seven Pines.
Let me make clear that the plan was never to spend the winter in a glorified shack made of 3/4-inch board covered with asphalt shingles. Sherry was going to get a job as a librarian somewhere in the state, where we would then move. But Minnesota positions were tight, so, in early fall, she took a temporary posting in New Mexico, while I remained at the cabin with the cats.
I intended to move to the Twin Cities, get a job and a place and check out the music scene. But I was making OK money doing construction right where I was and my rent was zero, and those factors promoted inertia.
As it got cooler, and then cold, it became apparent that I would, by default, be spending the winter at Seven Pines. My workmate, a jack pine savage right out of Central Casting, suggested laconically that first, I should get proper clothing (Sorels, a parka, fleece-lined leather choppers) and, second, since this cabin was heated only by wood fire, I should start cutting. Yesterday. So, with fervor equal to one bailing out a leaking boat, I spent six hours a day for the next two months cutting firewood by hand with a bow saw. By November I had seven cords stacked outside my door, cut from beautiful standing deadwood.
I had come up to the cabin often as a kid, but always in the summer, so I wasn’t hip to Minnesota winters. After it got cold, it got colder. And then it got a lot colder. And then, my car wouldn’t start and got buried in snow.
And then the hand pump froze. The hand pump froze? What are you talking about? I mean, I could understand if the pump didn’t work because the vandals took the handle, but. . . .
As winter progressed, I hung a wall of blankets over half of the cabin—the fun half that was all windows—and hunkered down in the dark, crowded, windowless part. I kept fires burning in two stoves day and night. The cats slept at my feet under the blankets. I settled into a rhythm of bringing wood in, making water from snow, stoking fires and playing my guitar. I sometimes went days without seeing anyone and I also had no phone. I was keenly aware that if I screwed up I could freeze to death.
And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more interesting, I awoke one Monday morning in January to a 28-inch snowfall. It was the Superbowl Blizzard of 1975—Minnesota’s Storm of the Century—whose epicenter was 50 miles west of me.
So, there was another thing I didn’t know: That it could snow so much that you couldn’t get out your door. Or even your windows, because of drifts. I had to climb out the cabin’s only upper window.
And once out, then what? I looked around, climbed back in, got my snow shovel, climbed back out and started digging paths, first to the outhouse (priorities) and then, over the next week, down our quarter-mile-long road to the county road.
Despite all of this, I wasn’t in full hermit mode. I got a part-time caretaking job at a summer camp that was close enough to hitchhike. And I would occasionally see friends who lived at a Teen Corps encampment nearby.
Finally, in late March, I met a guy in a bar who, thanks to an alcohol-inspired lapse of judgment, agreed to plow my long, twisty, hilly road for $25. Then, I dug out my car and got it started, packed up the cats and made my way down to the Twin Cities.
A half-century later, the cabin is still in my family. We all love it and use it extensively in three seasons. But I alone have the distinction of having wintered at Seven Pines.