Cabin Reno Goes Outside: Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man Sends Me Before and After Pix via Snail Mail

My relationship with nature is complicated. When I moved from the city to a rural neighborhood in New Hampshire, I feared for my life. Seriously. I cowered in my house, more afraid of the sounds coming from the forest than I was of the drunk guy at the bus stop. There is such a thing as too much nature — and if you’d like to laugh at me and my insecurities, I will re-post my feelings about too much nature next time, in a frantic missive I wrote during my time there, probably scrawled from the inside of my closet.

I thought Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man could rescue me from too much nature at my cabin. Mike was the general in charge of bat insurgency and I was the secretary of weed defense; but I had no army to lead the campaign while I was away. I don’t know if you know this, but weeds grow. Like constantly. It threatens my need for order and has the potential to render my sweet little cabin . . . oh god . . . I can barely even say it . . . ugly.

Other examples of too much nature that I hoped Frank could manage include the charming but lethal “steps” leading from our cabin down to the dock.


The “Steps”


Crumbling and haggard from years of shifting earth and encroaching vegetation, it was probably safer to just rappel down the hill than to use the “steps.” We found ourselves going around the steps instead of using the steps because, in addition to being un-usable, they looked like some archeological find we could be desecrating.



The “steps” going up.



The path to the beach was no better; steep, narrow and riddled with tree roots and raspberry thorns, I often pictured myself tumbling down the path instead of walking. If I were more childlike, I’d just get in forward roll position at the top of the path and somersault to the bottom.


You can’t see the path to the beach because it’s buried in GD weeds.


So we never invite anyone to our cabin. It’s a total liability. Plus there’s nowhere for you to sleep unless you bring your own tent.

I also found that I went from the cabin to the dock, the cabin to the dock. I never stopped in between. Get on the boat, get out of the boat. When you get out of the boat, you go in the cabin. Something was wrong here. And we figured out that the weedy, dusty shitshow at the bottom of the “steps” just didn’t invite us to sit down and relax.

This is our weedy, dusty shitshow . . .

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It was time to take the cabin renovation outside. You learned about Frank Ford earlier; how he doesn’t have a computer. Or an email address. And how he went to London to see how the British celebrate the 4th of July.  I called him to tame my wilderness and to create more pleasant traffic lanes on my property. And he did. He truly did. With the aid of a little flagstone, cedar, and a merry band of Finns, he transformed an inhospitable place into an outdoor room. It’s like we put an addition on our house — an addition with no walls — the impact is just that great.

But just to be clear: it doesn’t take much. I’m not talking about waterfalls and pizza ovens. I’m just talking about a steady place to put your foot. A weed-free place to sit down. Delineated spaces that invite you to stop and take in the view.

But more importantly, he takes the edges off my need to weed, to conquer nature. And instead, place a little more trust in Mother Nature.

He’s very convincing that way. When he arrives the first time, before I know that we will be communicating via US Mail, I offer him a cup of coffee.

“I don’t drink coffee,” he says. “I tried it once when I was 63. Not for me.”

And I am impressed. Not because coffee is so bad for you but because it’s rare to meet a person who wants to do it on their own. No crutches.

“Oh I still get sleepy,” he adds. “Sometimes I buy a triple espresso and put it in my fridge. When I need a little charge, I just . . ”

. . . he pantomimes opening the fridge, taking the cup, throwing back one sip, putting it back in the fridge and closing the door.

And even though he just contradicted what I thought about him, I am still impressed. He’s still a man who understands the nature of things but refuses to follow the herd. I think he’s man who can help me with my rocks and weeds without making my paradise look like it sits on a cul-de-sac.

“What do I do about them?” I ask. “The weeds? How do I keep this under control?” I’m looking for permission to nuke things. Maybe some insider tips from a pro. But, instead, he looks at me and pantomimes pulling weeds. He reaches out with his right hand, grabs an invisible bundle and throws it over his shoulder. Then he repeats with his left hand.

“Oh . . okay.” I say, a little ashamed.

“What is this?” I ask, pointing to the thorny sticks that grab and poke and scratch me in the ankles.

“That’s a wild rose,” he says.

“They are everywhere! I tried to kill them last year but they keep coming back!”

“They’re beautiful when they bloom,” he says.

“Yeah, but they’re in all the paths and the thorns scratch me as I walk by. What can I do about that?”

And, very calmly, he says “Wear long pants.”

I’m beginning to feel like Veruca Salt, screeching for her own golden goose. If Veruca Salt had realized the error of her ways and felt remorse.

It appears that Frank Ford is more about adding instead of taking away. Enhancing instead of annihilating. Working with instead of against. He sees room for real steps and paths and sitting areas so that I can enjoy my weeds instead of battle them.

And now that he is almost done, I can walk safely here . . .



And here . . .



This little walkway gets me halfway to the beach without somersaulting. And it’s also a pretty good place to stand and watch boats.



And I can sit here . . .



As we plan, we discuss a small outcropping that could be tamed into a sitting area for one, a mini patio. He writes it down on his yellow legal pad. “We’ll call it your mini pad,” he says.

Here’s my lakeside perch for one, my mini pad.




And I take a chill pill. I sit down on my flagstone resting places and look around me. I stop freaking out at the notion of every errant seedling poking up through the soil. In return, I get these little orange flowers that open up while I am away.




I get these yellow ones that pop up in front of my mini pad.



And white ones and purple ones sprinkled around the bottoms of birch trees. What looks like a weed one day could turn out to be a flower the next. But how would I have known that without Frank?



Frank is finishing up this weekend. I haven’t seen the final FINAL result; there’s still more to be done. And, because cabin season is over, I won’t see it until May.

“Can you send me some pictures when you’re done?” I ask. As soon as it leaves my mouth, I realize what I’m asking. He will have to take some photos with his camera, bring them to the Target an hour away to get them developed, and then send them to me in the mail.

“Sure!” he says. This is how he lives. It won’t be a problem. “But I have one more thing to tell you,” he adds.


“Yes . . . it’s my birthday today.”

There’s really only one thing to say, isn’t there? But I pause because I’m both surprised and honored that he shared this with me. “That’s great!” I say.  “Happy Birthday!”

“Well thank you for that. I don’t talk to many people so I have to say something if I want to get some happy birthdays.”

“Happy Birthday,” I say again.

Because he totally deserves two.



Cabin Crush Rehab Updates: The Finnish Carpenter Flees the Interview and Kristin Conquers Nature

Cabin season #3 is well under way and we are still wallowing in the dregs of the Finnish Carpenter’s good intentions. To this day, two years after our cabin rehab project began, I still can’t shower at my cabin. Consider the kinds of activities that take place at a cabin, outside, in the heat, with fish. Add in one teenage boy and there just aren’t enough baby wipes in the world to take care of that kind of stink.

I have a shower – a beautiful one, tiled in river rock – but, unlike useful showers, my shower spits out a trickle of scalding hot water from the spout. It would take me two weeks  just to get my hair wet in there. And adjusting the scalding temp isn’t possible because we’re missing a vital organ in the body of plumbing called a “mixer.”

The funny thing is, there’s a “mixer” at the Finnish Carpenter’s house that I ordered from HoDe for him to install. But, just like that Cure tape you left at your old boyfriend’s house, you’re just going to have to forget about it.

Because the Finnish Carpenter’s isn’t coming back. He says he is but he’s not. I now know that when he says he’s “gonna try and make it over there” he really means “see ya later fuckers.”

I’ve learned a lot from the Finnish Carpenter, a man who promised so many things and then just stopped showing up, leaving us to stink up our new cabin when things got complicated. Or boring. Whenever we discussed needs or wants for our cabin reno, the Finnish Carpenter would nod and go “Oh sher.” He said oh sher to everything, long strings of requests and questions, nodding his head the whole time. And I would always be like “Don’t you want to write any of this down?”

Oh Kristin, that’s just your obsessive need to control everything, I’d tell myself. I tried to let go and trust his ability to maintain lists in his head; my way isn’t always the right way, amiright?

Well, that was foolish. Just like the kid who gets bored with math because he can’t find his planner, the Finnish Carpenter doesn’t have my cabin in his head anymore  – so it turns out that my way IS the right way! You DO need to write that stuff down or you might forget that you have people right across the lake from you who can’t take a shower. Can’t you smell that?

The next character to enter our cabin drama puts a salve on this wound. He is the antidote to the Finnish Carpenter. He shows me that I am right about just about everything and that my way is always the right way.

He is Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man, called in to tame my wild, rocky, weed-infested frontier. Don’t forget about my relationship with weeding; yes, this is supposed to be a wild place but it’s MY wild place and I will determine how wild is too wild.

And THIS wall of weeds is blocking my paradise. Frank Ford is going to help me.



The first thing I notice about Frank Ford the Northw00ds Plant Man, besides the sweatpants hiked up around his middle, is that he writes stuff down. Even interrupting me to do so, saying to himself “Just a minute now, Frank,” holding his forefinger to the sky, trying to remember what he was going to write down.

He takes copious notes and makes meticulous plans – ON PAPER! And he shares these plans either in person or . . . via the US Mail.

Because Frank Ford the Northwoods Plant Man doesn’t have an email account. He doesn’t have an email account because he doesn’t have a computer.

At first, I am horrified. And then, I am jealous.

The look on his face is always happy. He is never in a hurry. Everything he needs is on his clipboard. And his work is always impeccably done. DONE being the operative word. It is DONE in accordance with his meticulous notes, in an extremely timely manner. He finishes what he starts because he writes it down on paper with a pen. Maybe a pencil. End of story.

And I think he’s the happiest man alive.

“I gave my assistant $5000 to go to the cities, to that Apple store, and buy me all the doo dads and the goo gaws I would need, ” he tells me. “She said she’d set it up for me. But it’s still sitting there. In the boxes. I just don’t want it.” He waves his hand dismissively.

I warn him that equipment becomes obsolete quickly.

“It’s been sitting there for three years,” he says. “Is that too long?”

“It’s been sitting in the boxes, unopened, for three years?!”

“Yep,” he says. “She’s a little miffed with me.”


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’ll just email it to you. . . ”

Or  “I saw it on Pinterest . . .”

Or  “Can you send me some photos?”

He can’t do any of those things. But he can and does call me. We have lovely but brief conversations where we exchange pleasantries and pertinent information, just like in the olden days. Maybe he tells me how he once drove his car in reverse for 7 miles back in ’76 or ’77. Or maybe he tells me about his trip to London to see how they celebrate the Fourth of July. And then he reads from the notes he’s carefully written down so as not to forget anything.

And, if he has the time, he will definitely send me some photos of his progress. First he drives to my cabin with his Canon Sure Shot and he takes photos and then he drives an hour to the nearest Target to have them developed and then he puts the photos in an envelope with my name and my home address and a good old fashioned STAMP . . . and he will send me some photos.

And he is the happiest man alive.


As Frank’s work comes to a close, I will post before and after pix. I might post them right from my phone. Or I might draw them. We’ll see which way makes me happiest.


I’m a Badass Weeder

What you buy in the winter is not the same in the spring.  We sign our purchase agreement for the cabin in April which, in northern Minnesota, is still full-on winter complete with mukluks, touks, and snow measured in feet not inches.  What I see that day is what makes me want it.

You may remember this passage from my earlier post about our realtor, aka Marge Gunderson,  and our first visit to the cabin-that-is-to-be-ours:

“We make our way down to the dock, left in the water, frozen in place by neglect or distance or lives that have just gotten too busy.  The shore is rocky with big boulders for sunbathing and a tiny sliver of pebble beach, all tucked into a forest of birch and cedar.  I turn around and survey silently all the things on my wish list.

“So is this kinda what yer lookin’ for?” Marge says.

It’s almost like she’s mocking me.  Goading me.  But in a nice Marge Gunderson way.  I actually fight back tears – no lie – but I swallow it because I just think it’s a poor business decision to cry tears of joy in front of the person who’s trying to sell you a piece of property.”

But when we arrive in June,  I’m like “where my rocks at?”  It never occurred to me that there were weeds and bushes and thorny things lying dormant under all those pretty rocks. What once looked like the photo above now looks like this:



Bushes sprawl and cover up the rocks that made me cry when I first set eyes on them. Those were MY rocks! I paid for them! I want it to look like the goddamn Baltic out there!


(picture of me at the actual goddamn Baltic. See? All rocks. No weeds. FYI, I was pregnant, not husky).

So I start pulling weeds.  I hate pulling weeds.  I say that I hate pulling weeds but the truth is that I can’t stop pulling weeds.  So I hate it but I can’t stop.  It’s a really dysfunctional relationship.

I weed for hours every day;  Mike and Liam go out in the boat and fish all day and when they get back I am still weeding.  I’m a badass weeding mothertrucker.  It becomes my sole focus, my identity.  I weed, therefore I am. Next time I go to a party and someone asks me what I do, I’m going to say “I’m a Weeder.  Yeah, I weed. It’s awesome. I’m pretty good at it.”

I’m good at it but not good enough.  I need some help.  I need poison.  The kind that poisons the earth and the sky and the lakes and the farms and kills all the fish in the sea and all the little animals from Disney movies.  I read a reminder in the local paper about keeping your shoreline wild for the benefit of the lake ecology – I know it is the right thing to do but I can’t stop.  They don’t even have to mention how bad it is to use poison, we should all know that by now. For two weeks in a row, I bring ingredients for an environmentally safe weed killer that never gets made. There’s just no gravitas. No anger at the weeds. I feel like the environmentally safe weed killer is going to politely ask if the weeds will please leave. So I have to get my real poison wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap so no one will recognize me. Actually, I buy it at home at the big box store in the suburbs where no one is going to recognize me but I feel guilty enough to hide my identity anyway.  Like maybe I’m hiding from god who doesn’t want me to poison his lake.

I see the poison on the orange shelf and I get kind of excited and I actually say the words “mofo’s goin’ down!” and then I try not to run to the register.  I throw down for the I’m-gonna-git-you-sucka-beware-cuz-this-is-gonna-kill-everything-including-your-cat formula. As we pack the Jeep for the trip up north, Mike says the mega jug is not going to fit. I pretend it’s no big deal, like I don’t really care about weeding. But really, I’m starting to sweat; if the poison can’t go, I don’t think I can go. But then, thank god, he squeezes it in between the homemade all-natural DEET-free bug repellent and the lake-friendly, sulfate-free Dr. Bronner’s soap.  Whew.

And when we arrive,  guess what I find on the porch? Another mega jug of the same exact I’m-gonna-git-you-sucka-beware-cuz-this-is-gonna-kill-everything-including-your-cat formula. I was so excited about the poison, that I completely forgot that I had already spent time obsessing about the use of poison.  I loved checking that box so much that I checked it twice.

When the weeding and the pulling and the poisoning are done, I should feel good.  Complete.  But I don’t.  I don’t feel done.  There are woody plants that need to go and I can’t pull them out with my bare hands.  So I get the loppers and I start lopping the shit out of anything I don’t like.  You’re goin’ down Prickly Bush Thing. I’m like George Bush clearing brush except I’m lopping goddamn raspberries.  I have a no-thorn policy on my property; if you scratch me, I take you out, assh*le.

There are some things I take down with my loppers that probably require a saw;  we’ve moved on from weeds and bushes to actual trees. But I have no saw and I can’t wait until next week when I could get a saw from home so I will lop the shit out of you anyway because you were not invited to my party. I will lop and lop and lop until I get what I want.  I probably could’ve taken those things down with nail clippers because I just CANNOT abide uninvited guests so get out of my way while I fell this bitch.

And instead of yelling “TIMBER…..” I let out a “mothafucka!” holding my loppers high in the air as she goes down.

Then I pull my arms down and look around quickly……I really want to be a good neighbor so I vow to say the naughtiest words under my breath from now on.

And when I’m done, I go inside and try to write these words.  But I can’t because my forearms are weak and throbbing from hours and hours of lopping things that should’ve been taken down with a saw.  I wrap my whole hand around the pen like a paw and stab at the paper with a floppy arm in an attempt to scratch words. Here is a picture of my actual writing post-lopping….


Notice that I write “And when I’m done, I can’t ride these words.”  Which means that the weeding/lopping episodes are messing with my brain, making it dull and tired and stupid.

It could also be the poison…..

I think I’m okay with that. Cuz it looks like the goddamn Baltic out there and when spring comes I won’t need a brain to go sun myself on that rock.




(Photo credit for featured image:  Peter Weimar)