Restoring this cedar log cabin overlooking Lake Huron has been a labor of love
That’s a crazy thing to admit On the pages of this magazine, but we never saw ourselves as shack dwellers. We told ourselves: There is a lot of work. The city is amazing in the summer! In addition, we love to travel. For years, no, decades, we have been trusted guests at our friends’ house Lake Huron The tent they pitched each summer on the dunes became known as the von Yurt.
That was until our two children grew enough that they no longer had long summer vacations to travel with us. And the idea of summer travel to hot, crowded European capitals is starting to seem less appealing than the idea of relaxing with a good book by the lake. Then, in March of 2018, while my husband Thomas and I were actually traveling, we learned that an old-fashioned cedar log cabin was located just below the lake, one of the original cabins built in the 1940s in the Southwest. An early influx of cottagers in Ontario has become available. A week later, we were walking through the melting snow to check it out.
It was a real old cabin, all right. The place was small: just… 700 square feet with two ridiculously small bedrooms and a cheap-looking bathroom that must have been a later and not particularly thoughtful addition. The lot was a mess while the wooden structure itself was a mess: neither had clearly been maintained, so much so that the cabin’s living room floor had actually collapsed. But the views of the big blue lake from its huge picture windows were crazy. In fact, the entire cabin was so magical, it felt like we had been reduced to a fairy tale set in an enchanted forest and, seeking shelter, stepped inside a giant wicker basket. A room that smelled of wood and spices, and overlooked views of a great, majestic lake that was so lively that the waves almost jumped into the living room.
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We did not sign on the dotted line at that time, as there were still obvious defects, beyond even the money and effort required to restore the place. Although the plot of land was pleasantly wooded and quiet, and the small beach was sandy and swimmable, it was not entirely private. You can still see the neighbors through the trees, which was never part of my escape fantasy. Everyone, even devout urbanites, has one, and I’ve always been located somewhere so far away that we’d be like outcasts, sunbathing naked, having to make shadows from the branches with our teeth.
This was not the place. We were five minutes from the LCBO and a lovely old main street with many good restaurants which had their merits. And of course we had great friends down the lake. Mostly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the special charm of the old cabin itself: how it was handcrafted, like a beautiful decorative piece; The delicious scent and warm glow of its surfaces; The roar of the waves outside filled the space once you opened the beautiful old wooden windows, as if you were on a boat. And how the sun peeking through the wooden walls cast golden shafts of light that illuminated them like a chapel in the woods. Yes, we were hit. And when you fall in love, you do crazy things. Like embarking on a long and somewhat expensive year of renovations during which everything became clear One corner of the place was in desperate need of attention, from the roof to the foundation with the plumbing and electrical in between.
After we finally agreed, our new neighbors were kind enough to share a copy of a wonderful black and white film. Filmed by the original owners, the Gordon Brown family of Stratford, Ontario, the film documents the cabins that were built in 1946, when the Brown family hired masons from what are now known as the Chippewas of Kettle and the Stony Point First Nation band to construct them. A pair of structures on the bluff are made of cedar logs shipped from nearby Southampton. Watching the film, it is surprising that this process was normal. None of the construction workers, who wield axes while balancing on tree trunks, wear protective gear of any kind. This cabin, small and worn, is a piece of history that deserves to be preserved.
After more than seventy years of strong winds and rain falling on the lake, restoring what was originally a simple structure turned out to be extremely complex. Fortunately, our local contractor, Terry Heard, a patient man with a passion for old buildings, was on hand for the project. First came surprises which, in hindsight, should not have been so surprising: along with almost all the doors and window casings, the foundation, such as it was, was rotting and in need of replacement. Unfortunately, original features such as great old kitchen cabinets cannot be saved but have to be replicated, unless we want to spoil our old cabin fantasy with a brand new 21st century kitchen. The local peach farmer who moonlighted at the masonry Terry brought to “look” at the fireplace couldn’t believe the whole deal hadn’t burned to the ground years ago. Then came the challenge of upgrading the infrastructure in a house that is virtually visible without any internal framework, where you cannot hide all the bells and whistles required for life in the 21st century. Every wire shows unless you cover your tracks carefully.
Signing the last of the many checks we had handed over to Terry for his tireless efforts, we couldn’t help but marvel at our madness. After all this time — and our quick decision to remove the partial wall that separated the two cramped bedrooms in order to create one cozy room — we were left with a very simple 700-square-foot, one-bedroom cabin that we could only enjoy in the summer and wasn’t in. Launch It will be particularly spacious.
But the little things can be so beautiful, as we discovered during our first summer at the cottage. It is a lot of fun to set up and play at home where it should have been illegal. (Hidden fun in a second home? Comes with permission to shop.) In this case, I have to shop for a cool found object (say, a cabin), whose pre-existing energy, style, and verve will define my direction.
With this vision in mind of what the cabin could become if I reimagined its warm wooden interiors as a kind of surf tiki hut, but… around Mid-century, throughout the winter leading up to our move-in date, I scoured flea markets and antique dealers, searching like Goldilocks for the right chair, rug, and bedside table. Other found objects, whether handmade, organically or materially inspired or drawn from nature, when thrown into the mix, only enhanced the ambiance. It would not be appropriate to carry out random evictions from the basement of our house in the city. With no room for error, every piece of this design puzzle had to fit my vision – and the limited space of our cabin.
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As I searched the wilds of the internet for the platonic ideal of indigo fabric, Thomas’s own design obsession was a fabric tent for guests. Inspired by his student-era summers working with a fire crew in the wilds of British Columbia (and our freewheeling years as freelancers in Von Yurt), he sourced a classic prospector model from old-school supplier Woods, who still sews them to order at their factory in Scarborough, Ont. . With Terry’s help, he built a wooden platform cantilevering out of the bluff, and then, using driftwood poles pulled from the shore as support, he erected the entire folly under the trees overlooking the lake. Once it was furnished with an antique Persian rug, solar light, and matching bedding, our kids (and even some of our more adventurous guests) were blown away.
It took over a full calendar year until we were finally able to move into our little tiki hut, but it didn’t take us long to learn the ropes. If we leave early enough on Fridays, not only will we avoid the worst of the out-of-town traffic, we’ll make it to the farmers market on Bayfield’s main square in time to pick up some delicious vegetables and fresh local trout for dinner. The morning begins with yoga on the deck followed by a quick swim. On Saturdays, Thomas would make a quick pilgrimage to the Mennonites on the road in search of their dangerously addictive sticky buns, which we devoured with our coffee by the fire. Afterwards, we would spend the afternoon on the deck, reading, playing backgammon, sipping Campari and soda under the new Campari umbrella (another Wayfair discovery), and dipping in and out of the cool blue lagoon. (Another hidden benefit to a tiny cabin? Once we get down to it and set it up reasonably well, the house isn’t particularly demanding to maintain.)
Naturally, there were other, less welcome lessons to come. After a jam-making incident resulted in a pot of boiling water being uncomfortably spilled on my front, we learned that our little dollhouse in the kitchen might not be ideally suited for large-scale cooking projects. One morning, when we were out for a walk, we encountered a mother deer and her calf on their way to breakfast in a nearby farmer’s field. She was unfazed by our human presence, her hind legs tucked down like a ballerina’s as she pranced the rows, her baby prancing behind her—presumably the same culprits who had successfully beheaded the lilies all day long that I had just planted under the cabin windows. Long-drawn plans to create a botanical garden have now been crossed off our list.
Perhaps the biggest of these revelations is that as much as traveling to new and exciting places is wonderfully motivating — and I still hope we can do as much of it as possible — it’s never quite as refreshing as being allowed to do a lot of things. Nothing but swimming, napping and gazing at the lake. Maybe our little bout of madness was actually a stroke of wit? It was exciting, after our full week of residency, to see Thomas, who is usually too distracted to focus on fiction, get started on his second book.
On our first weekend at the cabin without it being a construction/labor camp site, we arrive early. It’s incredibly hot, really scorching on a mid-summer afternoon, so we strip off our city clothes, put on our suits, and climb our (brand new, finally finished!) stairs down the bluff to the beach. The lake is like glass, incredibly still but for these quick shimmering pieces of silver around us like the sparkles of a pride parade. It takes me a moment to realize that these are actually fish, and like in the old song, they are actually jumping. Along the beach, Mennonites also wade in the water, but they’re fully clothed, wellNet to toe. That night, the sunset was stunning, going from a Fragonard blue with peach to a vibrant pink glow. As the stars unfold and the fireflies emerge with their little netsTerns, Thomas turns to me and asks, smiling, “What took us so long?”
Karen von Hahn is a former fashion columnist The Globe and Mail And house houseAnd also the author of the memoirs, What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss. This story originally appeared in the March 21 issue of Home life.