Lake Cabin Allure

one way to escape
Person holding map in auto
Photo by Taras Zaluzhnyi

During June, the month when we traditionally break our routines, venture away from our familiar abodes, and explore new territory, I’ve been blogging on the theme of escape. More specifically I’ve been reminiscing about long ago getaways to destination near and far.  The weeks and weeks of “social distancing” and “sheltering at home” that are my present reality lend a luster to these past adventures they may not have held at the time.

In this week devoted to commemorating fathers (because surely a single day doesn’t suffice), memories of my father, John De Jager, fuse effortlessly with thoughts of escape from the everyday. My dad loved a good road trip.  I could write an entire memoir about those vacations to all parts of the United States and Canada. This blog, however, is focused on the years after I met Jay Ward, my husband and the Love Lessons I learned in the decades of our relationship.

the ultimate getaway

The two narratives merge not on a road trip, but at Dad’s Cabin. A tiny one

Cabin by water
Photo by Taylor Simpson

bedroom, clapboard cottage, it sat under enormous pine trees on a small ridge overlooking Devil’s Lake in Webster, Wisconsin. Despite its diminutive size, there were many nights when as many as ten folks slept under its roof.   Built in the 1940s as one in a cluster of cabins rented out by the week, the cabin had few amenities when my father acquired it.

Given our penchant for hitting the road at the drop of a hat, Jay and I set out for northwest Wisconsin to investigate Dad’s new purchase the weekend after he bought it in 1967. He warned us we’d find it primitive.  That whetted our appetite.  It would be an adventure as well as a chance to shake off the doldrums of the urban grind.

For once, we contented ourselves with sticking to the main highways and followed Interstate 95 until we headed north at Eau Claire.  As our Blue Fiat Spider sped down the exit ramp, we turned to each other and grinned – new territory!

the other real world
Cows in fields
Photo by Jan Babora

Promising sights greeted us as we veered north. The road curved up and over hills, sometimes lined with giant conifers and at other place giving sweeping views of wide valleys covered with a checkerboard of fields. Urban dwellers to our core, the only crop we could identity with any surety were the tall, waving stalks of corn, but we soaked up the diverse colors, shapes and sizes of other plantings and made random guesses – soybeans? Broccoli? Rice? Wheat?  Yes, that’s right, we had no idea what wheat, that stable of our daily diet, looked like as it grew in a field.  Farm fields were fairylands to us, enchanted places from which came the bounty that appeared on the shelves of our friendly grocery.  We knew, of course, that it involved hours of hard work rather than waving magic wands. That didn’t stop it from being a marvel to our eyes.

A little past noon, just outside the small town of Rice Lake we pulled up to the speaker at a drive-in and ordered our meal to go.  We had noted that the road periodically offered a wayside, a small turnout with a picnic table next to a parking space, often in conjunction with the historical markers of which we had become so fond. Less than ten minutes out of town, we are our meal at a table that felt like it was on the top of the world. Farms fields, scattered woods, and small lakes splashed the scene with a variety of blues, greens, yellows and browns.

much less traveled

We turned into a windy, rutted road a mile outside Webster about two hours

later. Periodically dirt driveways broke off from the road. Worn wooden signs

Car on dark dirt road
Photo by Haris Suljic

nailed to leaning posts marked most of them, but it was getting toward evening and the heavy overhang of leafy trees made it hard to read the lettering. Finally, we saw it. 8999 Devil’s Lake Road and turned in. Our car pitched forward down a steep incline. “Whoa,” Jay exclaimed and slammed on the brakes. He then slowly inched his foot off them to let the car slide forward. The drive ended at a slightly wider spot, bordered by tall oaks.

I pulled a flashlight from the glove compartment and we followed a stone path to a rusty-colored wood cabin.  It sat in darkness, but just beyond the sun was slipping behind the far shore of the lake. Brilliant oranges, golds, and reds streamed across the sky and bounced back off the surface of the water. We hurried to get a better look and tried our luck walking one step at a time onto the rickety dock.  It held, and we held each other.  In flat, crowded Chicago, sunsets were not easy to come by.

amenities not included
Single light bulb
Photo by Akshay Paatil

The dusk settled in and we went back to search for the key to the cabin, left in a flower pot. Pushing through the door, I groped for a light switch, found it, and flipped it.  A single bulb hanging from the rafters lit the interior just well enough that we wouldn’t bump into the furnishings. These were meager in the extreme. A large round oak table stood under the light. Four chairs surrounded it. A big stone fireplace covered most of the far wall with two battered, upholstered chairs squeezed in on either side of it. A low archway led into a minute room just past one of the chairs, a gold, nubby piece. Four strides took me over, but I needed the flashlight to see the bed which filled the space.

“Look at this,” Jay called. Back in the main room, he was pointing to the ornate, iron stove, which I was relieved to see had a pilot light glowing in the middle.  But, wait. Where was the sink?

Cooking on antique stove
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

“There’s no kitchen sink,” I told him unnecessarily.

“Got that,” he nodded.  “Your dad said we get water from the pump and heat it up on the stove for washing the dishes.”

“Oh, my gosh, I feel like I’m on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

“I’m pretty sure they didn’t have electric lights and gas stoves.”

“Well, you know what I mean.”

conquering the pump

“Yah, just teasing.  Better get some water.  You’ll have to hold the flashlight for me.”

The rusty pump was anchored in a cement block to the side of the cabin. A bucket sat under the spout. Jay grabbed the handle, raised it high in the air, and yanked it down. Nothing. I panicked a little.  Were we going to be without water? He tried again. Same result. “It must be broken,” he said.  “We’ll have to call your dad tomorrow and let him know.”

Outdoor water pump
Photo by Fikri Rasyid

If you’re giggling or murmuring, “City slickers,” at this point, you have good cause.  Sure enough when we called my dad the next morning from the drugstore in Webster, we could almost see him shake his head in disgust as he told us, “You have to prime the pump first.” And then he had to explain what “priming” was.

No running water inside also meant, of course, no bathroom.  We availed ourselves of the outhouse with as much grace as possible.  We should have known after all.  In any case, the dozens of National Geographics that dad had stored there at least made the trip educational.

been there, done that!

When we headed back to Chicago on Sunday evening, we were different people than the couple who had headed up the road on Friday. The transformation was subtle and not immediately apparent, but real just the same. After that time, we took ordinary life less for granted and more for the blessing it was. But we also trusted ourselves more than ever to get through tough things together with grace, humility and humor.

Photo by Dan Meyers

Over that summer, my dad and brothers worked long hours at Devil’s Lake to modernize and expand the cabin. My mother had a grand time hitting the thrift stores so that she could “doll it up.”

north by northwest

Over the next forty years, Jay and I and our children made many treks to the cabin. No place equaled it for bringing family together.  The sandy beach and shallow shore allowed even very small children to play there safely.  But the lake was also big enough and deep enough for adults and bigger kids to enjoy boating, fishing and water sports. And in the evenings, all ages gathered around the big table to play games, enjoy the crackle of the fireplace and be grateful for the gift of family.

What was your best way to reconnect with family once you were an adult and living away from home?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Campfire at lake

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

3 Replies to “Lake Cabin Allure”

    1. I wish we could find a cabin like that within easy driving distance from Portland and all go up and spend a week there.

  1. Not being a fan of cabin life myself, I did enjoy reading about your experience. It brought me a “getaway” of my own just now, where I could enjoy the scenes you painted, and laugh at the city slicker challenges you encountered. Thanks for the little vacation from my sequestered life in the age of COVID-19.

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