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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Shack (but not the one you're thinking of)

I've posted a couple pieces under the theme of "Going Home." This is another entry in that series. On the surface at least it has little to do with church, theology, etc. It is, however, a place I go to be renewed.

I have tried this before and it’s never gone well, but because it’s so important I will try again. I am at the shack. Long before it was the title of a popular novel, my family went to the shack. Growing up, we almost never took a traditional “vacation.” Instead, we took two or three days a couple times a year and went to the shack.

Back in the 1950’s my dad and some of his buddies started hunting in the Lost River country far north of Bemidji. (Unknown to most of humanity, there is a great deal of Minnesota north of Bemidji and yet south of Canada.) Dad’s brother Cliff had been part of a logging crew in 1943, logging the woods around Waskish, MN. He came back with wild stories of wild country, and my dad couldn’t resist. Eventually the gang (that’s what Dad called them) arranged a lease with the DNR and built an old cabin back in the woods, a half mile east of the Lost River itself. Today that site is twelve miles from the nearest paved road, eight miles from the nearest full-time neighbors, and a half mile from the nearest -- and only -- other such cabin in these woods. If you walked out of the shack and headed north, assuming it was winter so you could walk through the tamarack bog without sinking, you’d walk forty miles before you came to a paved road. In first thirty-five of that forty miles you’d cross three dirt roads, one every ten miles or so.

It will be easiest to tell about the shack if I tell you about arriving today. Jason and I had grand plans to spend two days here hunting grouse. Earlier this fall we spent a week hunting black bears, and the grouse numbers looked great. It’s been a busy fall, so we plotted and pried and finally decided we needed to block out these two days. Our wives had a women’s retreat, our kids planned to spend the weekend with relatives, and we were so excited. I picked him up at 5 am sharp. With a small arsenal and two dogs in the back of the pickup, we drove north -- as far as Grand Rapids, where we got a call that one of his daughters was throwing up. The relatives who planned to care for his children were not equipped to care for sick children -- and so we turned around. We did stop along the way to explore a piece of public land just southeast of Hill City. The dogs had great fun romping around in the brush scaring up grouse just far enough away from us that we couldn’t bring them down.

We finally got back to Jason’s place and I decided to turn north again. This place is deep in my bones and it hurts to be away from it, so the idea of abandoning my plans to visit the shack was unbearable. The dogs liked the second drive north much better, as they got to ride in the cab. We started the long drive on the gravel road from pavement (MN Highway 72) to shack (12 miles east, past the Balsiger Road, the Little Tamarack River, the Anderson Road, and the Lost River) about a half hour before sunset, and pulled up at the shack just about the time the sun dropped below the horizon. I noticed on the drive in that it’s been windy. Dozens of trees have fallen across the road, but grouse hunters -- and possibly a few industrious DNR workers -- have cut up the trees and pulled them clear of the road.

So we pulled up at the shack before dark. It’s a one-room affair, eight paces by five. This is not the original shack my dad and his gang built. I stayed in that one when I was a child. I remember coming up here one time and finding a hole in the side of that shack where a bear had chewed its way through the wall. That shack used to stand just down the trail from this one -- there was a tiny housing development of two one-room shacks back here in the wilderness. The guy who had the lease on this one always used to keep it locked -- we left ours open. Ours burned down one winter when I was about eight. The other lease-holder’s son and a couple friends came snowmobiling and stayed overnight, but they’d forgotten the key to their shack, so they stayed in ours. During the night the oil stove got out of hand, and the son died in the fire. His father couldn’t bear to come up here anymore, and gave the lease and his shack to my dad.

So now this is the shack. One room. A cantankerous oil stove, one not at all prone to get out of hand and barely prone to throw out any heat, sits in the middle of the floor. I don’t understand how inside the stove is a merry oil fire, quite hot if you open the door and stick your hand anywhere close -- but the outside of the stove is cool to the touch. I’d think all the heat is going out the stovepipe, but that’s cool as well. It mystifies and, on cold nights, frustrates me. An old iron pump occupies the southwest corner, and next to it is the kitchen -- a couple metal cabinets (metal so they’re impervious to mice) and some countertop. At the east end are two sets of bunk beds -- the old squeaky metal kind. Between the bunks and the stove, an old metal dining room table and four chairs complete the ensemble.

As I was saying, we got here just before dark and I unloaded my gear, climbed the suicide ladder and took the old coffee can off the top of the stove pipe, and added a gallon of diesel fuel to the barrel out back. Started a fire in the fire ring, started some water heating on the Coleman stove I brought along, and got my Coleman lantern set up. Most of these tasks were unnecessary, but I did each one partly for convenience and partly for the joy of the skill it takes to light a fire, prime the old cast iron pump, or light a lantern. Both the stove and the lantern have been fixtures in my family since Julie and I were first married, and both are exactly the type we used to bring to the shack when I was a child.

I got the dogs fed and watered and cut a stick to use for roasting bratwurst over the fire. Sat for a long time cooking and eating supper, watching the full moon climb over the trees at the east end of the clearing. The shack used to sit in deep timber and the moonlight never reached the ground here. In those days the temperature inside the shack was consistently five degrees colder, it seemed, than outside. A couple years ago, though, the DNR logged our little backyard. I was furious then, but I’ve come to appreciate the openness. It’s good to see the stars, and on days like today when it’s not quite warm enough, a little sunshine coming through warms the shack right up.

We sat by the fire, me and the dogs. They hear and smell things I don’t, so I wasn’t surprised when they both turned to look down the trail and began to bark and growl deep in their throats. Very likely they smelled a bear or a moose; less likely it was a wolf, but the number of grouse hunters coming through lately keeps the wolves away from the road. Bears and moose just get nocturnal when there are lots of people around. I told the dogs to ignore whatever it was, and they curled up at my feet, next to the fire, the three of us looking like some combination of a Pleistocene diorama and a Norman Rockwell painting. Then the breeze switched to the northwest. I had to sit at the very end of my log to keep my face out of the smoke. The dogs smelled something off that way. Again, it could have been something big, but it might just as easily have been a skunk -- it’s hard to say. We did have a skunk in camp while we were here bear hunting earlier this fall, and for a while it took up residence underneath the shack. We were very, very careful if we had to use the bathroom (forty paces from the front door, around the back of the shack) during the night.

After supper and the show the stars and the moon put on, I came in and used the water I’d heated earlier to take a sponge bath. I wouldn’t normally worry about bathing for a one-night stay here, but Jason found a deer tick on his pants when we were hunting earlier in the day, and I don’t care to experiment with Lyme’s Disease. So I was fastidious about getting clean. Now the oil stove is throwing out just enough heat to keep it good for sleeping in here tonight. (Outside there will be a layer of frost on everything by morning. It’s one of those perfectly clear, crisp nights.) The lantern lights up the room very nicely, thank you. It hangs over my head giving off a great deal of light and a comfortable hissing sound. I sit at the table with my laptop, writing. It seems like violence to have this bright bit of technology here. I do feel vaguely guilty, but there is precedent. I remember being completely horrified the first time we were hunting here and my brother’s cell phone rang -- and he answered it! Now I’ve come to expect cell service here, though it’s spotty enough that I have to turn the phone off when I’m not using it or it will expend all its battery searching for a signal. It’s a good idea to limit one’s dependence on technology, and I enjoy turning off the cell phone for most of the time I’m at the shack. In the same way, the laptop comes out so I can write. Thank God there is no wireless network here, and I refuse to consider a cell phone uplink.

That’s the shack, though I haven’t talked about mice or traps, the sheet metal on the roof, the solid 2x6 construction of the single front step, or the bear claw marks on the southeast corner. Each of those items and dozens more have stories attached. I come here and I am reunited with my father as a young man, hunting here with his gang back in the 50’s. I remember shivering in the early stages of hypothermia when I was eleven. My mother tried to get me to drink coffee to warm me up, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could choke that awful stuff down. I think of the many times my brothers and I have come here to hunt bears. At least that’s the excuse. In reality we get to spend a week with each other, and hunting is the best way to do that. I remember bringing Erica here when she was five, and the first words out of her mouth when she saw the shack were, “Daddy, is that building going to fall down sometime soon?” Or Teya, on the same trip, at two years old discovering on the sandy road that runs past the shack that deer leave tracks -- and she was so proud to show me each and every print along fifty yards of a deer’s trail.

It is a lowly place, left unlocked because there is nothing of value here, nothing worth a thief’s trouble to steal. Yet each year when the lease comes due, and we hem and haw about paying that much for a ramshackle old building and wouldn’t we just be better off saving up for a trailer of some kind so we could camp anywhere? We pay the money and keep the memories and come back again next fall. We are richer for it.

The skunk is back. He must have wandered in late and denned up under the shack again. His odor comes with him, faint but unmistakeable, not the gut-wringing smell of a full dose of spray but rather the tenuous reminder of early mornings on a deer stand when skunk scent served as a cover. Until a moment ago, the dogs were asleep on a scrap of carpet I laid out for them next to the other bunk, the one I’m not using, but the skunk smell woke them out of a sound sleep. We’ll have to be cautious if we need to go outside tonight!

1 comment:

  1. Gonna keep this post handy. I found myself day dreaming as I read it. How is that I have been there a handful of times and I feel incredibly connected to this place!