Renewal Point: The “Blank Spot on the Map”

On December 3rd, 2019, we took ownership of a property in the north woods of Wisconsin that has been in our family since 1946 on which a dream of my maternal grandfather was realized.  His vision was to build a small, rustic cabin on the shore of a lake in the forest from which the surrounding area could be enjoyed and the beauty of a natural, relatively pristine environment could be explored and experienced. Family members together with local craftsmen carved a path through the woods to the building site and constructed the cabin, predominately from hemlock.  The build occurred in stages and spanned several years. The cabin was willed to my mother and her two brothers, and a few years later my mother and father purchased her brothers’ shares in the property and took full ownership.

I was fortunate to spend the summers at what had become known as “The Cabin” since my parents were teachers and had the summers off. No electricity or plumbing, wild animals such as Bears, Porcupines, Mink, Deer, Skunk, Bald Eagles, Great Horned Owls, Blue Herons, and many others were part of my summer experiences along with the fishing, swimming, boating and water skiing that punctuated the days.

The school years were spent in a western suburb of Chicago where a more modern, competitive, and status-oriented way of life was dominant with far less opportunity or time to immerse in the natural depth of the environment and ecosystem such as what surrounded The Cabin. I fell in love with nature during those years.  Every day was counted until our next trip up north when I could sit in the dawn, watch the mist rise from the placid morning waters, and wait for the bald eagle to fly overhead. It would dive to catch a fish for breakfast from the bay that our dock was on and pause on a piece of driftwood to enjoy part of it before taking it to the nest in the old growth white pine behind the cabin that I called “The Big Tree”. The Big Tree was the largest and tallest tree on the lake. From a distance, it stood a full tree height above the tops of the other trees, providing the ideal location for the eagle’s nest. It was left by the loggers after the Civil War as a guide tree for the barges that pushed the logs to the river for transport to the mill.

These wonderful experiences formed and shaped my early life, opened my eyes to the beauty and serenity of the created order and helped nurture an inner strength that would prove invaluable throughout the challenges of life going forward.  In my teens, I brought a poster to the cabin that still hangs there to this day some 50 years later. It contains a quote from Aldo Leopold “…I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”  You see, the Cabin and the predominately unpopulated land and forest surrounding it were, to me, that “blank spot”.

In 1976, The Big Tree fell during a violent storm while my mother and stepfather were in the Cabin. The impact of the tree hitting the ground shook the very granite underneath the property as it collapsed to the forest floor.

Now, in 2021, after experiencing many countries and cultures around the world, no one would have predicted that I would end up joined together by God with a wonderful person and her two daughters who had spent over 20 years nurturing and renewing a 100-year-old 250-acre permaculture-centric farm in that very forest, less than 10 miles from that “blank spot on the map”.  Add to that the opportunity to own, steward, nurture and renew that special place that has touched so many lives and survived in the midst of an ever-encroaching urbanization of the surrounding area and it is a truly humbling and challenging obligation.

And so, the process began. The first step was to evaluate the property and the condition of the forest on it to determine what needed to be done to support a vibrant and rich forest and forest floor. So, we contacted a professional forester who had previously helped establish the management principles for the forested areas at the farm. He came to the property, and we walked the land with him as he evaluated and shared his expertise as to what was needed to be done on our part. He was excited to see old and new growth hemlock and yellow birch on the property but was quite distressed to discover that the forest floor was all but dead. You see, the balsam trees had grown so dense around the hemlocks and yellow birch that they blocked the sunlight to the forest floor and obstructed the fresh air from moving freely about the property.

Further frustrating the establishment of a healthy forest ecosystem was a lack of decaying plant material that should have been nurturing the forest floor and breaking down into a fertile supply of nutrients to support new growth. He advised that we fell the small balsam trees and most of the dead trees, leaving some of them for the woodpeckers. The rest were to be dropped to the forest floor to decompose and allow the sunlight and fresh air to nurture the process of establishing the essential elements of a healthy forest. His guidance became the first objective of our endeavors after taking ownership and has become a fall activity after the leaves drop and the bugs stop. The effort continues to this day.

The second step was to evaluate the buildings on the property with the goal of having a small 4-season, rustic but comfortable living space that would support renewal through engagement with nature and honor the legacy of intent that will endure and sustain for generations to come. This has proven to be the most difficult of the steps to date in this auspicious project.

Many hurdles and challenges presented themselves, not the least of which was determining if the buildings were in or out of the flood plain. Requirements had recently changed, and it became our obligation to prove that the Cabin was not in the flood plain. If the cabin was determined to be in the flood plain, only 10 percent of its assessed value could be invested in improvements to the building, one time only. This would mean that we would not be able to replace the roof or do any substantial improvements toward winterization or structural repairs in excess of about $2,400, a drop in the bucket when it comes to paying for carpentry or restoration work on a 72-year-old building. If it was determined to be out of the flood plain, then there would be no 10% limit and we could go on to the next step in the assessment.

The determination of the flood plain status had to be done by a licensed surveyor and the results submitted to FEMA for approval before the county maps could be changed and compliance/non-compliance could be indicated on the associated maps. So, we arranged for the surveyor to assess the property against the flood plain requirement and indicate to us what areas on the property are compliant with the county’s 75 foot “setback from the ordinary high-water mark” ordinance. Then we would know if the cabin, it’s garage and the outhouse (remember there is no plumbing) were compliant.

It was nail biting time as we waited months for the surveyor to do the work with no further action taken on the buildings until the results came in. Well, we were excited to learn that the surveyor found that the buildings were not in the flood plain! However, he also found that the buildings are not compliant with the setback requirements and there was no record of the outhouse existing as the records only go back to 1968. Since the buildings are too close to the water, any modifications, renovation, or construction must be limited to the existing cabin footprint. Remember, these results still have to be approved by FEMA and the maps changed before going forward with anything,,,, 45 to 60 days is now required for that process, so, it’s nail biting time again !!

While waiting for FEMA to review the surveyor results and for the county to revise their maps, we brought a licensed contractor to the site to evaluate the cabin to determine what repairs need to be done to support the goal.

We learned that the foundation under the cabin was unstable. There was also water damage and advanced rot in the footers, floor joists and walls where an outside deck had been secured to the building. In addition, water damage and rot was found in the ceiling and rafters in one corner where two parts of the building joined along with damage from a carpenter ant infestation in the opposing corner of the roof.  Insulating the open stud walls to support winterization would require encapsulating the insulation by adding internal walls, either of wallboard or of paneling, and mouse proofing the building.

Most all of the windows and doors require replacing the casings and, as for the doors, rodents had chewed holes in the corners to gain access to the building. The weight of the roof and the winter snowpack over the years combined with the unstable footing and a weak ridge board made from 1×6 boards spliced together has resulted in a gradual spreading of the side walls.  The roof is now pressing down and outward on the building walls leading to a potential collapse of the structure over time!

The contractor informed us that the cost of repairing those issues would be more than 4 times the assessed value of the building if we could find someone who was willing to do the work and much of the required work would be beyond the capability of a non-professional. He also said that once the project was underway, it was highly probable that there would be more things uncovered that would increase the cost further. His council was that given how the cabin was made, it has served well over the past 70 plus years as most similar cabins in the area have long since rotted away or fallen down. His advice was to remove the cabin and build a winterized cabin positioned further from the water to be compliant with the shoreland ordinance also making it a quiet, peaceful spot since the lake has an ever-increasing population. It could then support the enjoyment of that “blank spot on the map” for the next 70 plus years.

As tragic as it was to find that the original cabin had reached the end of its useful lifetime, we now had to make the hardest and most necessary decision in the process of renewal of this beautiful place. There are so many memories wrapped around the years for so many people. However, our commitment and responsibility remain, which is to restore balance to the ecosystem and impart a small, minimally invasive human footprint honoring the dream of my grandfather.  His vision was to build a small, rustic cabin on the shore of a lake in the forest from which the surrounding area could be enjoyed and the beauty of a natural, relatively pristine environment could be explored and experienced.

Interestingly, after the removal of some of the dead and dying trees threatening to fall on the buildings, a tall, 90-foot white pine was revealed which most certainly is a child of The Big Tree. It now stands above the trees around it and lives as a testimony to the resilience of the natural order of transitional change and renewal. The cabin, like The Big Tree, will be retired and replaced with the next generation, capable of continuing this legacy long into the future.

It may seem like a simple goal, yet the accomplishment will be no small feat.  The lakeshore is being filled with large homes on small lots resulting in further disruption of wetlands and other natural habitat. Without dedicated effort, our property would likely end up following the same path. We have become keenly aware of the need to preserve this “Blank Spot on the Map”.

The journey continues…