An all-season culture of cabins ‘up north’

Follow Crystal Lake Road to Land-o-Lakes, and hang a right at Duck Lake Road until you reach Moon Lake. If you hit Black Bear Road, you’ve gone too far. When directions to a cottage go something like that, you know you’re in for something special.

So special, in fact, that people from Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and even as far as Chicago, Illinois, will drive four or five hours into Michigan to get there. They come for the giant swath of wilderness covering nearly one million acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan called the Ottawa National Forest. On one of the thousands of lakes dotting the region, about 400 km north of his home in Madison, sits the family cabin of Alan Turnquist.

“Our cabin is on Moon Lake, shaped like a crescent moon, spring fed and crystal clear—you can see 10 metres to the bottom,” Alan says. “The greatest thing that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has going for it are its inland lakes. There are literally a thousand lakes within maybe a 50 or 60 km radius of our cabin.”

Alan’s grandfather bought the land on Moon Lake in the 1950s. It was only a short drive from where he lived with his family and a mere 700 other people in the town of Land-o-Lakes. Taking their time over the course of eight years, Alan’s father and grandfather spent their weekends building the cabin themselves. As a family, Alan recalls going up to the cabin even while it was still under construction. “While building it, we first lived in a tent, then a pop-up camper and then eventually moved into the cabin while work was still being done on it.” The labour of love continues to evolve as his parents, who have recently retired there full time, add more space and modern amenities, such as a gas furnace, albeit rarely used.

For most of Alan’s life, the cabin “up north” was his family retreat and the “one place where we all wanted to be.” Sharing the one bedroom and loft that served as a second bedroom, Alan’s parents, brother, cousins and friends would huddle in front of the woodstove in the winter and gather around the outdoor fire ring in the summer. With rustic wood beams, the cabin mixes an earthy, organic vibe with minimalist simplicity.

But the main draw to the cabin is what’s on offer outside. National forest and small wilderness areas with mature white and red pine, oak, maple, and birch surround the cabin. “We’re on the fringe a bit further away from things,” Alan tells me. “It’s still pretty wild up there compared to places like Eagle River.” Sparsely populated with public access to nearly everywhere, the area offers something for every season.

In late November, Alan’s family and many others flock to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for deer hunting season followed by many meals of grilled venison. Rolling into the winter, Alan says, “We ski every day; step out the back door, put skis or snowshoes on and just go.” In fact, to access his cabin in the winter Alan has no choice but to snowshoe or ski, as the roads don’t get plowed.

Heaps of snow and miles of frozen lake allow for full days of cross country skiing or snowshoeing into national forests and wilderness areas, such as the Sylvania Wilderness Area adjacent to Alan’s cabin. “Snowmobiling is a huge part of the winter there, with the World Snowmobile Championship Derby just 20 miles south of my cabin.” And if you don’t fancy exerting yourself, there’s always ice fishing, although Alan’s family isn’t quite “dedicated enough to fish in the winter.” Before Christmas nearly every year, Alan and his family have ventured into the woods together in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

As the ground thaws and days grow longer, the snowmobile trails become popular for biking and ATVs and ice fishing augers are swapped with canoe paddles. The lakes come alive. “Boating is huge because of the thousands of lakes,” Alan says. “You can spend all day paddling through the chains of lakes connected by streams and rivers.” Recreational sport fishing is another big cultural drive that brings families from Wisconsin and Michigan to the lakes. You can lure a pan fish or large mouth bass, but the real prize is the enormous Muskie, which can grow as large as 1.5 m in length and 25 kg.

It’s become customary for families to bike along the trails to visit various lakes, ending the day at an ice cream stand. Rustic bars and grills draw

crowds for their Friday night fish fry. “We find it hard to not have cocktails and grills on the deck every night,” Alan says. After an evening of casting from the canoe, Alan and his family have their nightly ritual of lighting a fire and converging around the outdoor fire ring with beers in hand.

It’s common for families to have a little cabin or piece of land “up north,” and the appeal of lakes, forest and sparse population inspires the city folk to drive the distance to get there. “The cabin is a really important part of my life and I think that’s the case for a lot of people,” Alan adds. “The laidback lifestyle—it’s an important part of the culture in Wisconsin and even in Illinois. If you don’t have a cabin, you know someone who does.”

When asked to choose which season at the cabin he prefers, Alan doesn’t hesitate: “I have to say winter because it’s so quiet. Being able to ski out into the woods and stop and hear the snow falling—that’s the only noise you hear. It softens everything and makes it feel more intimate. If I had one day left to spend up there, I’d definitely say take me up there in February during snow flurries.”

All photos by Alan Turnquist