My camp is rough, filled with kitsch…and blissful. What is it about the old rustic cabin that appeals to us? I’m beginning to understand
The Kijiji ad gave the impression of a trapper’s shack that a tornado dropped on the site of an ancient ruin. Jeremiah Johnson meets Judy Garland meets Indiana Jones. Clad in faded half-log and all of 320 square feet, it hunched on a small rise between granite outcrops. Linking it to the water and a few rough outbuildings, meanwhile, were a series of sunken paths, stone ledges, and enough slab steps lurching here and there to suggest the remnants of a vanished civilization. A friend’s son would later, while ascending one of these mossy, kinking inclines, liken the scene to Machu Picchu.
Panache Lake cabin. Those three browser words were the sum of my real estate search. I got this whim one night to see if there was anything that might suit me, and my budget, on the one lake near my home that I would really love to spend more time on. I had no great hopes, having canoed Panache a few times, and seen nothing so elemental. And there it was, first hit. I shirked work the next day, paddled out, and found it. Tucked away on a craggy, densely treed lot buffered by Crown land, with a view of the Killarney mountains, the cabin has now been mine for more than a year.
“Only in the forest did all within me find peace,” wrote Knut Hamsun, in Pan, a favourite novel I quickly installed on a bookshelf at the camp, which conveniently came with a set of bookends. They are miniature fireplaces, complete with tiny bundles of sticks. Kitschy, I guess, but keepers, for me. Many other things I inherited would be more accurately described as junk, and my only regret is that I didn’t spend more time figuring out what to keep and what to jettison. In my besotted haste, I basically said: I’ll take it all.
What is it about these quaint, humble cottages that cast such a spell? They aren’t always the most practical, or eco-friendly. My unplumbed place has an outhouse, which is at least properly built and sufficiently recessed, so I’m ahead of the person who inherits a lakeside crapper or a rusty septic tank. But I’m still trying to build a proper grey-water pit, and there’s a shed that should have a giant hazard symbol on its door for all the gas, oil, lead paint, and God knows what else that has seeped into its floor.
Yet it’s the broader, richer history that surely helps explain the allure: the sense of summers gone by, the care and craftsmanship still evident in the minimalist design, the little touches that show how much people loved and lived here, without imposing their presence too much. There’s a rusty triangle suspended from a pole outside that no doubt summoned family members for lunch, along with an old fish-cleaning counter. A few (lurching) steps away, a sun-bleached birdhouse with heart-shaped holes. This past summer I found some mysterious perennials—evidently sown by a previous occupant—poking from a mat of leaves, and a few useful hand tools in the shed of hazardous horrors. Inside the cabin, on walls burnished from age and lacquer, are candle-holders that likely date to the earliest days of the camp.
A survey from 1948 describes the property as a “summer resort.” The term makes me smile when I look at the scope of my Knut Hamsun hideaway and compare it to some of the grander buildings I pass on my way down the lake in my canoe. There’s a float plane parked by one of those, trampolines bobbing by others. Many, including the one with the plane, are quite beautiful, in their way, and I sometimes envy their much bigger and better windows, which, apart from letting in more light and affording a better view of the Killarney peaks, would hold way more heat. But I also love my single-paned apertures that slide sideways to let the breeze blow through screens and only sometimes get stuck.
The narrator of Pan, who inhabited a crude wilderness dwelling by the sea in 1855 (an exact century before my own crude camp was built, in 1955), recounts the joy of returning with his canine buddy from a day of wandering. The dog would curl up by the hearth, and “a warm sense of homecoming would run through my whole body,” he recalls. “I would light a pipe and lie down for a while on my plank bed and listen to the muffled whisperings of the forest. There was a slight breeze, the wind bore straight upon the hut and I could hear the calling of the grouse far away in the hills behind. Apart from that, all was quiet.” It describes my own experience so well, with the exception that I hear loons more than grouse, and my dog tends to crawl under my bed.
One could argue the age or square footage or style of a building is irrelevant to one’s experience of the outdoors, or secondary at least to simply being there and appreciating your surroundings. That the key is simply to respect the wilderness you are lucky to inhabit. I think that’s true, to an extent, but I do believe a humble abode is better—aesthetically, and ethically too. A small rustic place suits its environment, in the same way an old wood-canvas canoe nestles more naturally in the water than a synthetic alternative. And the smaller we can make, and maintain, our footprint, the more we are doing to nurture not just the environment but our relationship with it. We’re closer to it.
When wind whistles through drafty walls and pine cones land with a thunk on a poorly insulated roof, you feel it. When you walk to the outhouse in the middle of the night, you are more apt to hear that owl or spook that deer. Waves crashing on a shore may be audible from modern cottages too, but I swear they feel more real, and nearer, when you sense the building itself could get knocked over by one. All of that humbles you, attunes you to your location, makes you more grateful and inclined to stewardship.
I could blame Hamsun for the romantic feeling I have about a bolthole in the bush—and the “forest behind the hut” that he prizes even more—but he’s far from the only gifted dreamer who has made this kind of existence feel magical, or meaningful, at least. Leonard Cohen inhabited cabins outside Nashville and at Mount Baldy. Atwood made rudimentary lakeside dwellings feel consequential and defining in her sophomore novel, Surfacing. Tom Thomson stayed in a shack in the Rosedale ravine ($1 per month) and the Out-Side-Inn at Achray, from the porch or yard of which he appears to have composed several awesome paintings. It goes on and on, much further back, to the tales of the Grimm Brothers and early Buddhists and Christian ascetics, seeking enlightenment or grace in simplicity and seclusion.
I believe we all—or most of us, at least—have some innate identification with a spartan abode in the bush. Commercials and greeting cards may have fanned the nostalgia, but the feeling itself must go deeper than that—a reflex owing to our shared past, as Jung would posit, or an echo of the “dimly remembered world” that Jack London evokes. It doesn’t make it ideal, or workable in every case, but I do feel it’s important to preserve a few of these classic shacks—as a reminder of our cottaging roots, and of what it means to live lightly on the land. Even if we have to move an outhouse, or invest in a proper septic tank.
Last year, in mid-February, after a near-record snowfall, I talked my gal into a trek to the cabin. I skied across the frozen lake, the dog tethered to my waist, while she galloped along in her boots. We went past the same big cottages, some of which are homes, then a few smaller, plainer ones, angling toward my own hidden spot, now doubly obscured by drifts. And I thought of the time in mid-August, six months earlier, when we paddled this same route, at night, after a visit to a friend’s cottage with a sauna. How the stars lit our way, and others shot through the sky, one streaking meteor after another, so many we almost gave up counting. I’d left a light on in my place so I could find it, but for a few disorienting minutes wondered if we’d somehow passed it by, or if the bulb had burnt out. And then there it was, a speck of gold in the forest.a
This essay appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.