The digital compass in my truck will read “N.” My kids’ll be in the back seat, eye to eye with the minnows in the plastic bag. None of this will happen as soon as I’d like. I’m writing this at 15 below zero. The one-room cabin is up north, hibernating like a rectangular bear. There’s no insulation or running water. I’m told we have the nicest outhouse in the county.
Don’t get me wrong. I love winter. Everybody in my family cross country skis. But, when you properly milk each season until it’s empty, the following season shines in your imagination like Christmas for a child. I express my excitement for spring by making a to-do list for the dormant cabin. Thinking up work isn’t normally fun. Chores suck, in my opinion. Somehow, the list to open up the cabin feels good. Lug five-gallon jugs of drinking water inside. Buy lime for the outhouse. Stain the dock planks and the porch. Lower the dock into the water. Sharpen the mower blade and tighten the spark plug. Split wood. Sweep pine needles off the roof. Clean the gutters.
I have a buddy that says his family does work at their cabin in the morning and plays in the afternoon. That’s a natural progression. Then there’s a different list. Troll a Rapala behind the canoe while paddling with my son. Catch my daughter as she jumps off dock for the hundredth time. Hang the hammock for Mama. Display the American Flag. Marinade steaks. Pour glasses of “medicine” for the grown-ups. Make homemade vanilla in the hand-crank ice cream maker. Watch the sunset.
There’s no TV. No email. No telephone. There’s a scratchy FM radio station. Could that be why this is the only spot on the globe where the kids don’t strangle each other? We marvel at the blue herons, kingfishers, and bald eagles. We chase gray tree frogs, catch crayfish, and skip rocks. We toast marshmallows around the fire. We make funny shadows on the wall from the bare light bulb. Then, we lie in bed, all in the same room, and listen to the ghostly wail of the loons. Sometimes, I wake up the children and they gawk at the northern lights. All this without the siblings attempting murder.
The 8th century Chinese poet Pang-yun explains why the cabin is better than town: “My daily affairs are quite ordinary; but I’m in total harmony with them. …Even the poorest thing shines. My miraculous power and spiritual activity: drawing water and carrying wood.”
I’m a bad fisherman and we don’t own a powerboat. Even so, I relish the idea of whipping a jig and a minnow out into the dark water. Every May, we have a big opening day right off the end of the dock. Walleyes, northerns, and even a perch or two have been in the net. The kids hoot and holler.
We had a naming competition for the cabin and my son came up with The Horizon. If an adult picked that, it’d be cheesy. But, hey, I think a seven-year old should get some slack, so the name stays. Doctors say imagining a “happy place” makes blood pressure nosedive. The next time I’m in a meeting that just won’t end, I’ll look out the window—or right through a cinder-block wall—and try to see The Horizon. It’s almost the opener, after all.
(This story first appeared in Northern Wilds, Mar/Apr 2008)