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AJ LaTrace

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Small waterfront cabins are one of the things that makes the Midwest great

It’s easy to see why small cabins are so popular throughout the Midwest

Winter in the Midwest can be very tough, sometimes just downright grueling. Folks spend the punishingly cold days inside, planning trips, block parties, and outdoor movie adventures for when summer finally rolls around. And as extreme as the seasons are in the Chicago area, there’s a sweet spot between Labor Day and Halloween when the air is crisp, the leaves start changing colors, and the sunsets are vibrant shades of red, yellow, and pink. This is that time period when every midwesterner should get out of town for a weekend and go camping, or in my case, crash at a cabin on a little pond.

When we were told about this assignment, I kept sending listings for miniature cabins in the Wisconsin Northwoods to my boss. They were the kind that are commonly found around Lake Minocqua, where you’ve got a row of little red cabins spaced out several feet from one another. However, we settled on a listing for a place in the Carbondale area that was secluded, had a classic midwestern cabin aesthetic, and was just big enough for a guy and his dog.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a guy named Tom who was tearing through the rocky backroad in his pickup truck. He led me to the right place—one of several cabins on his 30 acre property—and showed me around the cabin and the pond. Tom purchased the property in 1984 and has built several cabins on it since. This one was actually the first one that he built. It was initially just a single room shack where everything was crammed into a space that was roughly 250 square feet. However, at some point in the last decade, he expanded it out to where the bed fit into a lofted area so that a living room space could created just below. The floor plan was simple, yet efficient. It’s actually a similar setup to some micro apartments I have seen in Chicago. The lofted area was particularly nice not just for the view of the pond, but because you got so much natural light that you almost felt like you were outside.

But this wasn’t Chicago and our little pond wasn’t Lake Michigan. The curtains were a heavy old cloth that had a tiki vibe. The label indicated that they were made in Siam, so these weren’t some faux vintage curtains. There was a little floor lamp with three bulbs that threw off dim but very warm light, which is actually pretty much the perfect lighting arrangement for a small cabin. And surprisingly, there was a hi-fi setup in the place as well. Tom had a pair of older (but nice) speakers paired with an amp in the cabin and the local community radio station playing when I arrived. He told me that he was involved with the station—turns out that he actually helped lay the groundwork for the station and even built the studio. The next day he took me on a little tour of Carbondale to see the studio, and his former coffee shop, and his old vintage clothing store, and the recycling center where he gets a lot of discarded but still useful equipment and electronics for his cabins.

But this wasn’t just an opportunity to test drive the life in a small cabin on a lake, it was a chance to finally disconnect from the busy city and the often frantic world of working on the internet. Although the property was secluded and heavily wooded, the location was only a few miles from town, so I had to make a conscious effort to not check the ceaseless stream of notifications, emails, and text messages on my phone. The easiest and best way to really disconnect from the digital world is to just let the battery on your phone die and just not charge it. Of course, if an emergency comes up, you’ll be in a tough place—but let’s not think about that for now, alright?

Anyways, back to the cabin. There was not only enough room in the place, it actually felt like something that I could totally get into. Of course, there’s not a lot of extra room to stash a bunch of old junk like record collections, music gear, and bicycles, but if you can learn to live with less, living in this type of arrangement is totally feasible. One thing you have to consider in the Midwest with housing like this is insulation and heating during the winter. The weather was mild when I visited—if anything a bit on the humid side still. However, so long as you have a reliable gas or wood burning stove, (or central heat in my case) then year-round living in a tiny cabin is possible.

Since I was only at the cabin for a couple of days, I never really got to that point where I experienced the beginnings of cabin fever. There was plenty to do, and just being outside soaking up the sun and fresh air was enough to feel content. Tom had a canoe and rowboat at the cabin for me to use, and at a couple of different points I took the rowboat around the pond. It’s not a huge body of water, but it was pleasant enough to sit in a rowboat and experience quiet for once. I tried to get my dog to join me in the rowboat, but she wasn’t having any of it.

Having spent the majority of my life in the Midwest, I’m no stranger to dark and cold winters. However, I do have to wonder how I would hold up living in a secluded, wooded setting in a small cabin during the short, cold days of January and February. And I think many others would wonder the same thing about themselves. I think it takes a certain type to truly thrive in these kinds of residences in these kinds of environments. Of course, town was only a few miles away, but if you consider what the winters are like in places like the Northwoods of Wisconsin or Minnesota, it’s no cakewalk (the winters in Carbondale are considerably milder). After a heavy snowfall, there’s a chance that you will be on your own for at least a couple of days, so being prepared materially is one thing, but being prepared mentally is another. And our little four-cylinder front-wheel drive city cars? There’s no way they’d serve any practical purpose living year-round in the woods.

But hanging out with Tom for a couple of days was very telling about the type of person who can thrive in this kind of living arrangement. It takes a certain determination, independence, and creativity to live on your own terms. Any person can buy a chunk of property, but it’s not so easy to clear that property, build roadways, bring in utilities, and construct shelters on them. If you’re going to put yourself out there, you have to really give it an honest and complete effort. And living on your own terms means that you have to be more than just handy, you’ve got to be very handy and resourceful. If it’s zero degrees outside with three feet of snow on the ground and your furnace quits working on you, it’s going to be up to you to sort it out. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of living in a small cabin in the woods, but it’s not always going to be simple living—in many ways, this lifestyle can be just as challenging as living in the big city.

While tiny houses are certainly having a moment right now, small waterfront cabins are nothing new in the Midwest. I’ve been to several and know plenty of people whose families own little cabins up in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. There’s a reason why they’re so popular and getting to stay at one by myself for a weekend helped reinforce why I’m drawn to them so much. After years of living and working in the city, it’s nice to just get away for a little while and to breathe some fresh air see the stars. Sure, the darkness and silence can be a little unsettling at first, but the peacefulness of the still water on the pond and the brilliant colors of the late summer sunrise is very powerful. But again, it’s one thing to get away for a weekend and another to live in a small cabin year-round. I think it’s a challenge I’d be up for though. In the meanwhile, it’s time to brush up on my handyman skills—something that as a longtime renter and city dweller are very lacking.

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