Growing up with a cabin near the Boundary Waters

Part 1

When I was around seven years old my grandma sat me down on the deck of the screen porch for a talk. By the end of it the moss that was sprinkled all around the forest floor had a whole new meaning.

My parents brought me up to our cabin for the first time when I was a few months old. I grew up in Minneapolis, and the family cabin sits way up north. Up north past Lake Superior and Grand Marais. Almost at the end of the Gunflint Trail and just a few miles before the Canadian border. The Gunflint trail provides the east access to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and runs through miles of forest and lakes.

My great grandparents came to the US from Finland. From what I know, they were kind and hardworking. My great grandpa could build and he sounded pretty tough but loved his grandkids. My great grandma knew her way around the forest and canoes. She also knew how to forage the best mushrooms. They settled down near Chicago to find work and a home. And, somehow they also found the northern woods of Minnesota. I imagine the forested hills and many lakes felt like home away from Finland. They were very fortunate in their ability to buy a small piece of land on Seagull Lake.

They built their first cabin by hand along the lake's edge. They had to canoe all their materials, tools and some wood across the lake to build. There wasn't road access to this cabin at the time. They took my grandma up there in all four seasons. My grandma became well acquainted with cabin life up north. You could always see it when we were up there. She loved it and seemed so at home there. She became a teacher back in Illinois. And, during one of her trips up north she met my grandpa Bill when they were out with a hiking club. I could imagine that they both loved rompin around in the woods up together. Eventually, my great grandma and grandpa bought a home in the nearest town to the cabin, Grand Marais.They eventually retired and passed there.

My grandma Courine and grandpa Bill started their family and continued taking them up to the cabin. At some point they decided to move the cabin across the bay for road access. As a family, they
rebuilt the cabin by hand. They built the cabin, a screen porch, a wood shed, the sauna and the dock - on their own. As it always has, the cabin got its water supply directly from the lake. It was heated mostly by a wood fire stove. They would venture out to the lakes for portaging trips, fishing, and adventuring. During my grandma's older age, a vast expanse of forest was deemed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It changed and became an official wilderness space that was open to recreation and exploration. It didn't change much about the way my family enjoyed their time there. It stayed pretty wild and pristine. My grandparents continued coming up there their entire life and eventually retired in Grand Marais too. My grandma passed all her wisdom and care for the woods up there along to my dad (who now lives in Grand Marais.)

Part 2

By the time I came along, the cabin was well lived in. Its floors were creeky, it was filled with worn in cabin furniture and the coffee mugs were stained. It had a smell that I wish I could remember and so, so many books. I remember jumping off the dock after learning how to handle the heat of the sauna when I was a rugrat. I remember telling my parents I wouldn't go further than earshot and scrambling around on the big granite rocks surrounding the cabin. Sometimes slipping and bashing my knee and then coming in when I heard the bell ringing to signal dinner was ready. I remember going on night walks with the family to stargaze, and my dad walking through the forest along the trail and jumping out growling, as if he was a big black bear. My aunt hated that one.

I remember sitting quietly that one day and listening to my grandma tell me about the forest. I know that talk had a deep impact on me, for many reasons. One of them being that every time I walked around the woods, as much as I could I would avoid stepping on moss. If I stepped on moss I imagined my grandma telling to me be careful! When she sat down with me, she was trying to instill in me this acknowledgment of the forest and its cycles. She told me about the trees and how one day they will die. They fall to the forest floor and overtime they decompose. They lay on the forest floor and they give back to the plants and the soil. As they slowly break down they give nutrients to the soil and eventually, over a long long time, moss will grow off what the tree gave back. The moss is very important - I remember that vividly. Moss = very important. Moss would allow more plants to grow, like ferns and eventually more trees. It was the cycle that she wanted to teach me. It was looking down at the moss and knowing how much it took for it to get there. How important it was to the forest and its cycles. It made me feel like a guest who was just lucky to be there.

Part 3

The first time I realized that the cabin was also part of the forest’s cycles was during the Ham Lake fire of 2007. I was a junior in high school and I remember getting news that the cabin had burned down. The fire came through blazing hot and fast and the cabin wasn't saved. For the first time I had this realization that nothing is permanent and so we better appreciate the sh*t out of it. Wildfires are natural but as we see now they are also on the rise due to climate change. They take out hundreds of thousands of acres of forest every year across the west. The places that we cherish are always at risk of change.

But, sometimes...those risks are the ones that are in our control. Today, that risk for the Boundary Waters and the wilderness we love so much up there is copper mining. The land up there is so valuable. Its true value sits in its beautiful trees, the wildlife, the fresh and pristine water. Economically it is valuable because of the copper rich land that stretches across the Boundary Waters. & if it were mined by corporations hungry to dig, there would be irreversible damage & pollution to the entire wilderness area. The generations to come would never know the BWCA like we did, or our parents or grandparents. More or less, it would be destroyed.

About 250,000 people visit the BWCA each year to camp, portage, fish, hike, kayak, winter camp, snowshoe, dogsled, or just be there to enjoy it. Right now, you could dip your hand in the lake and drink directly from it. After mining, that water would be toxic for humans and all the animals living in this wilderness.

We are in a rapidly changing environment and economy. And, if there is a piece of nature, a place in the woods, a beautiful vista that means something to you then it is time to start doing what you can to protect it. If we want it to stay then we have to do what we can to keep it.

Part 4 

There is more I could say. What has meant the most to me in all of this is my grandma and everything she took the time to express to me. She passed down a deep love for the natural spaces that I get to spend time in. When I look at moss, or a fern, or a tree, I see so much. In some ways I wonder if she knew, somehow, that this forest was going to have to fight to stay here one day.

All of my stories are a lot to share, but I did that for her. Hopefully she would like my shirt designs.

This print is a small batch, but let me know if you'd like one and I'll make sure you get one. You can also get them on my shop. 20% goes to They do incredible work to make sure that BWCA is here to stay and its water stays clean. Visit their website to learn more about what you can do to help.

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