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.


Dark Tales from the Finnish Carpenter

There is something strange and beautiful about our pocket of northern Minnesota. It is majestic and mystical and as close to Mother Nature as you can get. But it is also harsh and unforgiving, pounding it’s people with snow from October to April and boasting the coldest temperature ever recorded east of the Mississippi (-60F in Tower, Minnesota). 

They don’t complain. They don’t whine “Why do we live here?!” and “God, I need a vacation!” like we do in The Cities. Instead, they keep their hooded heads down and plod methodically forward in their Sorels, taking it on the chin and adding another layer.

The Finns say “There is no bad weather. Just bad clothing.” They say this to shame you and your obvious weakness. They say it quietly, with stern faces, as a challenge to anyone who foolishly thinks they can be as stalwart as a Finn.

But with the darkness of winter can also come a temporary darkness of the soul, prone to desperation and lapses in judgement. Every hamlet has its drunk, its misfit, its unsolved crime, its hidden stories buried beneath years of shushing and exchanged glances.

It’s probably not lost on you that the stories that I share seem to be from a different time. NOT winter time. A much warmer time. And the truth is that these stories are love letters to the cabin I haven’t seen since October. That’s when winter loomed and part-timers like us locked up and left town.

Our short but eventful first summer produced so many words that I’ve been able to fill an entire winter with stories of summertime and I’m not even close to being done; most of those words will never make it to Cabin Crush as spring will be here soon and new story making will begin again.

Closing her for winter for the first time was sad. And awkward. Like the last day of camp when you have to say goodbye to your crush  —  you haven’t known each other long enough to cry and carry on but you still feel like shit, looking in the rearview mirror for one last glimpse before he’s gone forever.

We don’t know how to do this, close our little cabin, so the Finnish Carpenter shares some local wisdom on how to keep her safe until spring comes.

I don’t like how this conversation makes me feel; the joy and light of summer slips away in this conversation, replaced by the darkened souls that emerge in winter.

“Take everything with you,” he says. “Don’t leave nothin’ valuable. And you’ll need to get some curtains in here.Then leave your doors unlocked. That way they just walk in and rifle around but there’s nothin’ to take. And they won’t break doors or windows to get in.

I wouldn’t leave like guns laying in here. You don’t want to leave like your computers out or nothin’.”

He looks around, sees our 90’s era TV thing, the one whose depth rivals that of a canoe….

“They won’t take that. They’d come in here and say “Damn, these people are poor.”

Which actually makes me a little bit proud.

But still, I am bummed out by the notion that someone would violate my little cabin. My face must look surprised because he reinforces the point: “There are some shady characters around here” he says nodding his head like “don’t fool yourself, lady.”

“I know this one guy” he says. “Someone stole his daughter’s snowmobile. She got it for Christmas. And the guy crashed it. Luckily, my buddy’s neighbor just got a new surveillance camera and captured the whole thing on video. Including the crash. They caught him but they can’t do nothin’.

Cuz it’s on the rez.

My snowmobile is in the lake…..that’s St. Louis County.”  At first, I don’t know what he means by this, except that it’s not the rez. Then I remember that the Finnish Carpenter lives on an island. I ask him if he’s read “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich, a book that explores the complications of tribal law. He hasn’t. He knows a lot of people, though. Like everybody. So he can usually get things taken care of.

“If that happened in Embarrass, they woulda tracked that guy down and thrown him in the bog. He never woulda been found.”

Apparently, the bog is like a north woods graveyard, full of shady characters who meet with the ultimate retribution.

“It’s like the Iron Range mob,” I say, joking. But he looks at me, with an intensity that makes me a little uncomfortable, and nods. “Yah.”

Following that ominous warning, I see a man with a fu manchu and a gray ponytail, someone I’ve never seen before, get out of a truck and walk toward the cabin. For a minute, I think I’ve been set up….and this will end like a scene from Fargo.  Like maybe the Finnish Carpenter is secretly one of the shady characters and his north woods flunky is arriving at the last minute with his woodchipper. Or maybe they don’t need a woodchipper because of the bog. It’s the perfect crime.

“Oh that’s Jon.” The Finnish Carpenter sees me looking out the window.

Jon appears in my door and stands there silently. After an awkward moment he hesitantly extends his hand and says “I’m Jon.” 

I shake his hand and say “I’m Kristin.” Then I turn away from him in order to gesture toward Mike. “And this is my husband, Mike. Come on in.” Inviting the perp into the scene of the crime, I think.

“Jon don’t hear too good,” the Finnish Carpenter says. “You gotta look right at him when you talk. Jon helps me out with stuff.” Jon is still standing in the doorway, silently.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” I say. Then I turn toward him and repeat the introduction. Jon nods, not moving from his spot in the doorway.

Then the Finnish Carpenter grabs some tools and kneels at the foot of the door,  preparing to do some work on the doorknob. He touches Jon on the arm and says, “Can you hold this door for me?”

Jon grabs the door firmly and smiles. “Yah, I do stuff like hold doors.”

“Me, too,” I say, making sure to look him in the face.

That’s when I know that the Finnish Carpenter is helping Jon as much as Jon is helping the Finnish Carpenter.

And I stop worrying about the woodchipper.

That was a long time ago and winter is finally waning. We can start counting in weeks, instead of months, when we will see our little cabin again. And the good news is that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. You never know if a long-distance relationship is a good idea – you could lose interest in her while you’re away, you could obsess about what you can’t see and can’t know, or you could do the math once you’re free of her grip and realize that the costs far outweigh the rewards.

But we’ve been loyal. We work on the relationship by telling stories, making plans, and (don’t tell Mike) buying things all winter long that will make her happier and prettier and ever more comfortable. And when we finally drive up that muddy driveway and see her standing there, untouched by the darkness of winter and its shady characters, it will be like she’s been waiting for us the whole time.

Cabin Crush- front door

The Difference Between DONE and NOT DONE……and why I won’t brush my teeth in the lake.

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Can you pick out the kitchens that are done?  And the ones that are not done?


The text on Tuesday said “We are planning on coming up on Friday.  What kind of progress do we have?”

The reply:  “Will Finnish soon.  Everything done except tile.”  So his autocorrect changes “finish” to “Finnish” which means that he texts the word “Finnish” more than he texts the word “finish.”  How many of you can say that? Continue reading →

Early Winter Comes to Cabin Country


Winter has come early to Minnesota.  Which is kind of unfair because, if I recall correctly, winter LEFT LATE last season.  When we first looked at our cabin, it looked like the one above.  We tromped (seriously tromped) up the long-ass driveway in hip deep snow…….in the middle of April.  So by my calculation, that’s only 5 months without snow.  That’s messed up, y’all.

Ludlow’s Resort, in Cook, Minnesota, posted this video yesterday with the caption:  Commute to work:    The ice is setting up on Lake Vermilion. Travel to the job site is getting fun! In a few days we will be walking over.”


(Click here to watch video…… )

Watching the wake of ice shards floating behind his boat as his bow shoves them aside is both freaky and freaky peaceful;  like an icy meditation or miniature glaciers parting the waters at boat speed.  This man’s boat ride is both beautiful and a dreadful sign of what’s to come. Continue reading →

Delivery Drama and GD F*%^ing Ikea


When we buy this cabin, we know that it is remote in the same way that we know the preamble to the Constitution;  I can sing that we-the-people song all day long but I don’t really what the hell I’m talking about.  Of course, we’d driven there – once.  But we’d driven a lot of other places that day so we only knew it as a place that was on the way to someplace else.   And because we were following Janie Our Real-Tor in her Ford F150 pickup, hauling ass like a northern Minnesota Ricky Bobby, we weren’t even navigating.  Just following.  It was like driving an arcade game where you just respond to the things directly in front of you  –  like explosions, meteors, assassins  –  and steer the wheel so that you don’t die.  We don’t actually know where we are going or what’s up ahead because we are just trying to keep up with Ricky Bobby Our Real-Tor.

And now I know why it’s necessary to haul ass in the north woods;  if you don’t go fast, you’ll never get anywhere.

Plus, it was still winter so there was a “this isn’t what it’s normally like” quality to the surroundings   –  although since it was April and still the middle of winter I would argue that WINTER is what it is normally like.  I just wasn’t paying attention and translating this information into a delivery scenario.  The driveway was still hip deep in snow and the trees on either side were leafless so there was no way to visualize how the simple addition of leaves would turn the snowy driveway into a narrow tunnel.  I was so focused on pulling each foot out of the snow and finding a nice crusty spot to put it down again where I wouldn’t fall through and get buried alive like that made-for-tv-movie starring John Ritter and the girl who played Bess on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (I could’ve just made that up but it sounds really familiar to me) that I didn’t even notice that the driveway was really fucking long.  And steep.  And definitely not passable by a delivery truck. Continue reading →

Step 1 in New Cabin Ownership: “Trash Out”

We agree to buy the cabin “furnished.” 

Meaning “we’ll take it with your shit inside.”  This actually sweetens the deal because now the owners don’t have to figure out how to move all their shit out or where to put it.  If I were Mrs. Cabin Owner, I’d look at Mr. Cabin Owner and all his crusty 45 year old cabin shit and I’d be like “Don’t even THINK about bringing that crusty cabin shit into my house.  Don’t….. even….” (dramatically holds hand up like Diana Ross).

So we’ve solved a huge problem for them and that helps them accept our modest offer.  We are actually paying LESS because they’ve included MORE.  We call this cabin math.

As a result of buying our cabin “furnished,” Janie Our Real-Tor recommends what is known in cabin-country as a “Trash Out”  –  and the fact that I just spent decades worth of my savings for something that requires a “Trash Out” makes me shudder just a little bit.  She gives me the number of Tammy and Duane, the trash out people, and I am both grateful and sad that someone has Trash Out as a job.

I dial the number and a man’s voice answers….. Continue reading →

This is Janie, Your Real-Tor




Janie is our north woods realtor.  Every phone call begins with the phrase “Helloooo! This is Janie Your Realtor!”  Except she has her own way of pronouncing realtor, so every phone call actually begins with the phrase “Hellooooo! This is Janie Your Real-Tor!”  So that’s what we call her.  She is Janie Our Real-Tor.  Everything about her screams the Frances McDormand character in Fargo, minus the pregnant belly,  and when I don’t call her Janie Our Real-Tor, I affectionately call her Marge Gunderson because Marge rocks.  And so does Janie Our Real-Tor.   When we meet her at the driveway of the first cabin, she is wearing mukluks up to her knees, a classic touk with dangling pom pom, and she carries a snow shovel in one hand.

“I hope ya have good boots on,” she says.  “This could get deep.”  

It is almost mid April.

We journey toward the cabin like Pa Ingalls in a snow storm, at times balancing carefully on the hardened top layer of snow and at other times, sinking up to our hips.  When we reach the door, Marge says, “Ok now, that wasn’t so bad.”

She is a walking, talking, mukluk-wearing encyclopedia of cabin structure and maintenance, local ordinances, lake geography (“ya just go round behind this island here, Pine Island.  We call that “goin’ round back o’pine.”), commercial and retail establishments (“And if you wanna go get a pop, you can boat over round back o’pine and go here, here and here.”), lake people (“Just bring him a six of Michelob Golden Light and he’ll be super helpful.”) and fishing spots (“That’s my honey hole over there right off that dock.”).

Right away, Marge has got our number and quickly starts crossing cabins off our list like she knows I might get there and say “Umm……it’s ok, I’ll just stay out here.”  I imagine her getting home and scribbling notes like “north woods good, raccoon poop bad”.  I’m more than happy to wade Ingalls-style to the front door but I’m not so much into the haz-mat thing and she knows it.


After the first weekend of looking, she emails this photo: Continue reading →