Bootjack Cabin

The story of a young couple (and a baby) building a modern cabin off the grid in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Summer projects abound, and so do the mosquitos.

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This summer we have a lot of projects planned that are are starting to kick off.  At the…um..request(read: demand) of the county Building and Health Department we are replacing our composting toilet with a full septic system and our beloved hand dug well with a proper drilled well.  In order to pull  this off we are improving our trail so that we can get a well truck (well trucks are huge) and dump trucks in to build the septic mound.

At first I was bitter and angsty about all of this, but now I am looking forward to it.  We are working hard to have as minimal and discrete of an impact on our forest and have had to scrimp and save to afford it.  However, when it is all said and done, having potable water will be nice (our current well is only 9 feet deep and we filter all of our drinking water) and we love our sauna, but the convenience having a shower in the cabin will be pretty great..

AWL

AWL visiting some pigs in Providence, RI

In addition to these big infrastructure projects we are also putting in a full bathroom (to take advantage of our new septic system) as well as carve out a place for our now 19 month old son.  Our cabin is only 500 square feet, but with some creative planning, I think I can fit everything into the space while keeping the bright, open airy feeling the space has.  Oh, and we are milling up some local cherry wood for our floor, which is the project I am most excited about.  We’ve had a painted OSB floor “temporarily” for nearly 3 years. It is hard to keep clean and doesn’t look or feel very finished.  Once that cherry floor is installed, it will really bring the room together.

Tomorrow, we will have about 80,000 pounds of mine rock dropped off to help build up our trail, filling in some of the muddier parts. We will use a small tractor with a bucket (thanks to my every helpful father) shuttle it around. It will be nice to have a dry trail to walk in on.  Not having to don rubber boots just to hike out to the car will be nice.

Living almost a quarter mile off the road with a toddler in a tiny cabin certainly has its challenges, but it is also rewarding, fascinating, and can be fun. These projects will make life a little bit easier, I will have lots of opportunities to learn new skills and I, for one, embrace it.

We are alive

We are alive, though we’ve been silent for nearly a year.
It’s been a long and challenging year with many ups, downs, arounds and throughs.

In the next few weeks, Marci and I will be getting back into the blogging mood.

Hurray.

A Worthy Cause

It’s a rare privilege to be able to chose family. I count myself truly blessed to have a Mexican godson, Luis Fernando. I met him in Chiapas at the children’s home I was volunteering at several years ago. He is incredibly bright and tenacious, he is hard working and kind. Luis asked me to be his godmother when there was no one else in his life to truly listen and love him, to encourage him and believe in him. He’s the kind of kid that makes me proud every day to be his godmother. I’m raising money for a laptop for him. Take a moment and check out this link. http://www.gofundme.com/3bk33c

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We are Land Barons: $12,000 out the door.

Kalamazoo House

 

In early May Marci, Abel and I fled the still snow Upper Peninsula to head to Kalamazoo, MI where we could visit with friends and family and sit in a sunny biergarten. It was great. However, while we were in Kalamazoo we realized that houses can be insanely cheap (like around $10,000 for a fixeruper).  We would slowly drive around sketchy neighborhoods looking at rundown houses while Abel slept in the back.  We would drive by condemned buildings, wondering what they cost. But then we saw a house 3 doors down from some close friends in a rapidly improving neighborhood that was a little more than what we could easily afford, but interesting enough that we wanted to take a look.

We called the realtor, found out it was bank owned property, and scheduled to take a look. It is a 1905 1400 sqft house that….needed some work.  But all the pieces were there. It had gone through several alternating periods of neglect and renovation, but all of the important parts where sound (good foundation, newish roof, mostly updated wiring, etc.  We looked at the house with the realtor  saw its potential, and made a low ball offer, 25% less than what they were asking.  The realtor stepped away, called the client and came back with a lower offer of 40% off of asking price if we could pay cash. We did some quick math then realized we could probably make that work.

So in two days we went from idly looking at super rundown houses in kinda scary neighborhoods, to buying a semi rundown house in a nice neighborhood. Our plan is to fix it up and rent it to some friends. So at the beginning of June we came back to Kalamazoo and started working on the house.  There is more work than I had hoped, but not more than I expected.  I’ve been removing the last vestiges of the worn out and over taxed knob & tube wiring, tearing out the kitchen, gutting and replumbing the bathroom, reinforcing some framing, ripping out the carpet and getting ready to CLEAN CLEAN CLEAN.  The house had been a rental for the last 15 years and pretty well neglected. The occupants appeared to have been wheelchair bound chainsmokers without any propensity towards cleanliness.  It kinda looks like they had food fights and filled the duct work with cigarette ashes.

Marci and I miss our cabin in the woods, the thick moss, fresh scent, camp fires,  cast-iron cooking, the summer saunas, and the long peaceful drive into town. We don’t miss the ticks,  the biting black flies, the ticks, the mosquitos, the ticks,  and the mud. Hopefully when we are finished with this project we will still have enough summer in the woods to get our firewood put away for the winter, to do some cabin projects, and enjoy the summer!

But for now, I will slog around remodling an old house. Its actually kinda fun.

 

Seeking Spring

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It has been a very long winter. Snow in May can be quite disheartening as it feels like the rest of the country is reveling in flower petals and warm sun.

A couple of weeks ago Caleb was in Chicago for work and I was home checking the weather after a long day with Abel Wilder. Another storm was blowing in with another foot of snow. That night at 9:30pm I decided to get out of town. My folks live 600 miles south of us in Kalamazoo, MI, three hours north of Chicago. I told Caleb to skip his return flight and meet me in Kalamazoo.

The next morning, I closed down the cabin, grabbed our dog, baby, and miscellany and made the difficult trek to our jeep. Freezing rain, punching through our trail into thigh deep snow, baby on my back, pulling a heavy sled loaded with our stuff, and of course a whiny wiener dog who didn’t want to walk.

600 miles of driving alone with a 5 month old is slow going. We stopped a total of 12 times. Abel Wilder stayed in his first Motel and I enjoyed seeing the growing evidence of spring as each mile passed. We visited my grandparents in Amish farm country in the middle of Michigan’s glove. They loved meeting their fifth great grandchild and we had wonderful meals together at their round antique dining table. We watched pretty birds at their feeders and Abel Wilder and I took an evening walk in the woods and breathed deeply the earthy green spring air.

Back on the road again after meeting up with my dearest aunt for breakfast, Abel Wilder and I pulled into an emerald green rest stop. Plunk, down he went to sit in the soft dewy grass. He loved it. I will never forget the look of bliss on my little guy’s face! He’s never known any thing but snow.

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We made it to Kalamazoo tired but happy to be in a place with family, friends, and lots of warm sun.

What was meant to be a two week hiatus has now been three and the snow on the ground in the UP (upper peninsula of Michigan) has gone from 48″ to 8″. It is time to return.

Yesterday, our visit took an unexpected turn. We bought a house in Kalamazoo for $12,000. It was too good of a deal to pass up. With a lot of sweat equity and cosmetic fix ups and a few larger fixes we are hoping to have it ready to rent out by August. With renters in this house we could pay off our cabin property in no time. We’ve never wanted to be landlords and by golly we sure had some very different plans for the summer other than fixing up this house, but we are excited about this investment and a little flabbergasted at the speed with which we became house owners.

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As we head back north this weekend we have a lot of planing and reprioritizing to do. We miss home, our dog, the woods, and our friends. It will be good to get back but this spring get away was much more than we’d expected.

My Little Helper

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Abel Wilder helps me make bread every week. Lately he’s really been getting into it!

Note to Self

 

The interior of our cabin, a couple of days after we moved in.

The interior of our cabin, a couple of days after we moved in.

Life goes by so quickly. Moments that I swore never to forget I’ve forgotten already. Memory is fickle like that. I’ve always admired those people who keep journals. I’ve tried dozens of times but given up after feeling overwhelmed and behind in my journaling time and time again. Instead, I take thousands of pictures. Pictures I rarely look at again but sentimentally cling to because one day I may want to remember even those small moments like that perfect taco al pastor in Tulum.

Recently I came upon a list that I jotted down from the first several months living in the cabin. Occasionally I’ll do this because I do love making lists. Unlike an elaborate journal entry, a list is more like a footnote and there is less pressure to make it good, to elaborate, to accurately depict the exact mood of the moment. Then again maybe I expect too much of myself when it comes to journaling.

Barely a year has passed since Caleb and I pulled a few of our belongings in on the sled and camped inside of our very unfinished cabin. Part of the drywall was up and we were sleeping on the floor on a very cold air mattress. We didn’t have power or running water for quite a while. And honestly, it was an adventure of our own making and fun. Most if the time. Here’s the list of those first few months cabining.

“Don’t forget:

The first week getting ready for work by candlelight and singeing my bangs.

Our fist meal in the cabin.

Caleb putting my first temporary kitchen together and the shower and having it all set up for me when I got home.

The surrealness of hiking out to the truck in the early morning to go to work.

Blowdrying my hair with the dryer plugged into an extension cord on the floor.

My first attempt at bread on the squirrel wood stove – inedible but I learned I could make bread!

The first successful loaf tasting like heaven – Caleb, David, and I nearly ate the whole loaf.

The first week getting the truck really stuck in the landing. That was the end of driving up for a while.

The first time I saw a deer in our yard and how magical that was. Caleb named her Carla.

Waking up to a 42 degree cabin.

Studying in the uninsulated, doorless, windowless ( except in the changing room) sauna in January with hot chocolate and the little buddy propane heater. My nose was so cold but my shins were burning from the heater. Bill was mudding and Caleb working.

My first snowshoe and chickadees came so close I could have touched them. I felt like Snow White.

Getting up at 5am to take the pregnancy test – twice! Finding out I was pregnant on my birthday. Going for a snowshoe that day and feeling so joyful and elated that even Caleb being sick in bed couldn’t change that.”

A year after we moved into the cabin.  Our family.

A year after we moved into the cabin. Our family.

 

I never meant to homestead

Caleb, Marci, & Abel Larsen - 2013. Photo by Andrew Ranville

Caleb, Marci, & Abel Larsen – 2013. Photo by Andrew Ranville

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
– Henry David Thoreau

I wouldn’t call what we are doing homesteading. In fact when we started this cabin project we planned it to be a getaway place – a second home (despite lacking a first home). We expected to be done in a year or so. We are now midway into our second year of ‘cabining’ and recently celebrated our one-year anniversary of living here full-time. Being off the grid, our life is necessarily more self-sufficient than most. We generate all of our electricity, supply our own water, harvest our own firewood, and deal with our own waste. In the last few months we have taken a keener interest in doing even more ourselves. Last summer we raised Guinea fowl for food (far from the most cost-effective meat bird), we had a small vegetable garden, and were a part of a small pig co-op and we now have a pile of pork stashed away. From that pig I’ve been making my own Pancetta, I’ve got some Lardo and Jamon curing, and soon we will be making loads of sausage. Marci bakes all of our bread (an amazing no knead dutch oven bread that makes PERFECT crust and crumb with hardly any effort, just time), I’ve been making Kefir, and recently started salt curing egg yolks. This summer we plan to raise a flock of Muscovy Ducks.

I think one thing that has pushed me to become increasingly self-sufficient, besides the economy of it, is the satisfaction is provides. Not just looking at something and saying “hey I made that”, but the deeper satisfaction knowing that if there is something in my life that I find lacking, it is possible to do the research, gather the tools and supplies, and make it happen – be it culturing milk or building a building.

This goes beyond some DIY trend or a stylized hipster new-frontierism fetishization, this really is about deliberately living. When we lived in Tulum, Mexico, it was beach life. And it was easy: do a little work, head to the beach, bake in the sun, eat a taco, drink a beer, then repeat. Seven days a week. It sounds nice, and it was, but Marci and I both settled into an ennui. In the end, it was relaxing, decadent, boring and unfulfilling.

After Mexico we were itinerant for about a year. During that time we spent time with family in suburban Kalamazoo. We quickly found that boring as well. We enjoyed the time with friends and family, but basically all we did was drive in a car between air-conditioned places and sit on comfy sofas. Both were lives of leisure. Both were easy.

We never meant to own land or live in a cabin. This all started on a whim. We saw land, it was cheap, we bought it. And since the only sensible thing to do with 20 acres of thick swampy woods is to put a cabin on it, we decided to build one.

While this whole adventure started spontaneously, we have fallen deeply love with it. We long for the city and everything it entails, but we love our life in the woods in the middle of nowhere. I love heating with firewood that I cut. I love eating food that I produced. I love being able to walk for a mile and still be on my own land (admittedly I need to walk in a circle for that to happen, but still, it’s a big circle). I love knowing that my whole world is plastic and that I can build it, change it, break it, fix it, design it, and develop it as I see fit. There is an immeasurable freedom found in seeing the world as something infinitely mutable. The only boundaries are geographic and the only limitations are self-imposed.

To live this life I’ve found that you need to bend to the weather (you can’t battle it), relax some inhibitions, be ready to get dirty, find satisfaction is the most unusual places, eschew the easy for the deliberate, and be prepared to face challenges with gusto…oh and enjoy working hard. Despite being off the grid, in the middle of the woods down a long road and far from even the nearest gas station – our life is quite civilized and not at all rustic. We did not come here to escape the world, but to live in one of our own making.

Cabin Life

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Our Friend Jesse Smith’s Deep Prep is on PBS!

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Our dear friend Jesse Smith from Seattle is a fantastic chef . His Youtube cooking show, Deep Prep,  is now available on PBS!  Yes PBS! That is the Public Broadcasting Service.  Kinda like the BBC for Americans, kinda like NPR for your eyes, kinda like Youtube before there was the Internet. Check it out, I am sure you will like it.

From the PBS description:

Deep Prep is a weekly cooking show hosted by chef Jesse Smith. Jesse is a Washington born chef that has worked in many of Seattle’s favorite restaurants. He brings a northwest flare to this quirky and entertaining cooking show where he cooks classic and also innovative food. Never taking himself too seriously, his show will be sure to keep you captivated while learning step by step instructions on how to cook dishes that will inspire you in the kitchen and keep your dinner guests satisfied!