Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Back when we bought the land, we wrote down some things we wanted to remember on this journey. One of them was to "Keep an open mind." To us, that means to consider other options and go with the flow. Well "the flow" has been kinda weird this year!
Like much of the rest of the world, a lot has changed for us in the last five or so months. There's been distance learning and cancelled contracts and unpaid invoices and adapting and hand washing and too much yet not enough TP and tears and anxiety and no childcare and learning the true meaning of that cliche phrase "it takes a village" when we suddenly found ourselves without one.
There has been violence and hate and division and pain. There's so much pain. And a lot of reflection and a collective shift that's uncomfortable and necessary and should have happened way sooner than now.
We went through a mandatory refocusing and have had many perspective shifts in the last 122 days. So far, this year in its entirety has been a stark reminder of what is truly important. Family, health, peace and community. It's also been a reminder that the very privileged little bubble we live in is indeed just a bubble. One that shows you a gigantic illusion instead of the real world on the bubble walls - the illusion that the people outside of the bubble have the same opportunities you do, the same protections. The illusion that our food system and our jobs and our economy are secure and stable and will always be there. That we can trust our elected officials and public servants to look out for us - all of us. 2020 popped the bubble. In a big way.
There isn't a "fix" for it either. We can't repair the bubble and put that big blue sky happy safe illusion projection back up. And even if we could why would we want to? We've been listening and learning and teaching our kids. We've been taking more responsibility for our words and our choices and what we pour our time and energy into as of late.
In a nutshell: it's been a heck of a year on multiple fronts and this is potentially just the tip of the iceberg. It's shifted what things we prioritize as important - in how we raise our kids, what we put out into the world, and our goals for the Little Forest.
The past few months been a lesson in humility and strength and patience and learning to see things from other points of view. It has been hard and depressing but parts have also been hope-instilling and transformative.
Now that we've got the deep stuff summed up, let's get into the details of what we're doing on the land and why, and what has changed in our plans from fall 2019.
Change #1: From diving into a cabin build to setting up a wall tent
Late last year after our first two fall trips up, we decided that it would be really hard to make progress on any sort of build or land development if we were tent camping each trip. The amount of prep and stuff you have to haul when tenting it is enormous. So we started to research options for a relatively inexpensive semi-permanent shelter we could put up quickly and leave up seasonally. We landed on a 14x16 canvas wall tent from Davis Tent, ordered in January, and about six weeks later had this beauty at our doorstep.
We knew right away a tent platform was our next priority but figured we'd be fine on the dirt/tarps for a couple of months while we slowly built it by ourselves on weekend trips with the fam. The tent on tarps on bare ground worked fine for trip #1, in April. By trip #2, in May, the spider situation inside the tent wasn't ideal and we made plans to accelerate a platform build (a sugar-coated summation for: I found a wolf spider the size of a tarantula on my pillow right before bed one night and demanded the tent platform happen like RN).
Andy enlisted the help of his buddy Earl and my sister and brother-in-law (who live in Ely) and went up two weekends in a row to build a basically bug-proof, sturdy, simple floating platform while I stayed with the kids at home.
The interior is just plywood flooring, and for right now we have a temporary "bridge" made of plywood on the outside until we can get enough deck boards to finish the outside porch. There is supposedly a shortage of treated deck boards due to the pandemic? We couldn't locate any last time we went. The sod cloth flap of the tent inside is secured to the plywood with heavy duty velcro strips - but that immediately started pulling up and will have to be secured another way on our next trip up. We also have to adjust a couple spots where the tent is about an inch inside the wood platform and water was able to hit the wood and come inside - nothing major but it will need to be addressed and adjusted our next trip up in a couple weeks. We're hoping the boards aren't too warped by then, but if they are we can replace that section fairly easily.
The goals for the rest of the summer are: sealing the plywood inside and putting area rugs down, finishing up the decking, and installing a regular swinging screen door that Andy got for free down the road. The screen front zipper door of the tent is a little hard for the kids to zip up and down, and is pretty much the only place bugs are able to get in relatively easily if it's not closed carefully (3 and 7 year olds don't do very much carefully). We're not totally sure how the screen door install will work, but we'll figure it out when we get there.
The last two tent related goals are fall season to-dos. Before colder weather sets in we are going to try to refurbish an old wood stove we inherited or find a decently priced used one if we can't get it cleaned up enough. This was tough to think about on our 4th of July trip up - it was 95° with no wind, even in the thick of the forest - but we'll be shivering before we know it because it's Northern Minnesota. Then before the snow falls, we need to decide if we're going to construct a roof over our tent to be able to leave it up all year, or if we're going to store the tent contents and take down the tent over the winter, somehow protecting our plywood flooring from moisture. Ultimately this decision will come down to cost - lumber and roofing materials are really expensive and we're over our budget for the year for land development already.
We'll do a whole tent + platform post at the end of the summer when everything is pulled together more. Oh also our 1.5 room cabin has morphed into a sprawling 3,000 square foot, 4-bedroom, 2-bath, 2-car garage, solar-powered, passive solar, rain-water harvesting eco-compound. But we have yet to win the lottery so we'll see how that all shakes out when it comes time to break ground in '21 or '22 (there's still time!)
Change #2: Prioritize learning flora + fauna
One of the other things we promised ourselves when we started this journey is that we would focus on being self-reliant. That now seems more important than ever. Most of us are very dependent on everything working like clockwork - from having predictable weather and good crop yields, to healthy people being available to harvest and move our food, to trusting that our neighbors won't hoard, to hoping food prices remain relatively stable. Our food system is fragile, and the flaws in the system are more evident to us now. It took a global pandemic for us to fully realize that and turn our attention to how we can become less reliant on the system and more reliant on ourselves and our immediate community - gardening, foraging, buying from local farmers, brewers, beekeepers, etc.
The first thing we'd like to accomplish in the food self-reliance realm is to identify what wild edibles we have growing on the land. This is simple, free and it's just smart to know what's growing on your property. It's not an all encompassing self-reliant food plan, but it's a good first step. So far, we've found tons of wild strawberries, fiddlehead ferns and maple trees. My wonderful sister and brother-in-law tapped our maple trees and processed maple syrup - we've already used our one jar up. We have mushrooms that need further identifying (we believe they are edible but aren't mushroom experts and you need to be 100% sure!) and we know that morels and chicken of the woods and wild ramps are in the immediate vicinity. We have just scratched the surface of the plant and fungi life in our woods. Now to learn to cook with and like mushrooms...
Plant identification is also essential for knowing what to avoid - poison mushrooms can f*ck you up, poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are hard to spot unless you're paying attention and know what to look for. Giant hogweed can produce painful, burning blisters. Admittedly we weren't paying that much attention until this trip - a firsthand look at someone else's poison ivy woes after second-hand contact (pants had contact, went through wash with shirt, weeping poison ivy rash all over his side and arm pit) was enough to make us learn how to ID poison ivy and start to look for it in the woods. We've only cleared the necessary amount of trails in our immediate area - from firepit/parking area to tent, to future outhouse site. Every time we venture off those trails to explore, we are stepping into unknown vegetation and need to remain aware. We'll be clearing way more trail, but not until our woods thins out a bit in the fall.
Hunting small game birds and fishing are also skills we'd like to master in the long run.
Life in the woods is abundant. So far we've seen: deer, garter snakes, a couple of different kinds of salamanders, luna moths, so many butterflies and bees, sawyer bugs, fireflies, nursery spiders, wolf spiders, a porcupine, red squirrels, chipmunks, a pileated woodpecker, mice, hummingbirds, toads and frogs. We've heard: owls, bear (scat, too!), loons, hermit thrush birds - which sing the most beautiful bird song we've ever heard aside from the loon, it is otherworldly.
Change #3: The Privy
As we thought may be the case, our outhouse plans have been complicated slightly. It seems that the rules where we're building have changed sometime between when we called and started digging the hole in the fall, and this spring. What we thought would be a quick site visit and soil test before completing our structure has morphed into a potentially expensive project that will probably require the involvement of a contractor and professionally drafted plans. We're waiting on a call back from one of the local contractors on the township-approved list to see what $$$ this will set us back.
We get it, to a point. We also take protecting the water table and the lakes in and around the BWCA very seriously. But we aren't lakefront and chose this path after some research to avoid a substantial cost at this juncture. Now we have to be flexible and re-evaluate. A minor bump in the road.
Depending on what the cost of a contractor comes in at, we may opt to purchase a composting toilet instead. At my childhood cabin, we had a composting toilet inside. I remember it smelling. I remember my mom having to empty a tray of soil-like poop into the woods every now and then and I was thoroughly grossed out. So at first I was a little resistant to the idea of a composting toilet, but it turns out poo-processing tech has come a long way in almost 30 years. There are now models that separate #1 from #2, reducing the smell and mess. You can use them for a lot longer without having to dump the contents, and there are even models that claim to be completely odor free. We're still researching the best brands, but front-runner is currently Sun-Mar because they offer non-electric options and claim to be totally odor free.
So what are we doing now for pottying, you ask? Don't. JK. Kinda. #1 is obviously pretty simple. #2 involves a bucket with a seat and a tightly fitting lid, compostable poo baggies (think the dog ones, but larger), and a shovel. It's not glam. We hope to have the potty situation in a better place by September.
How do we feel after our first spring and part of summer on the land?
Pretty great. It feels like home. We're settling in and organizing and learning things. And every time we go up there we forget about the world and all of the things we don't need to think about that are weighing us down. We're exploring the lakes and trails around us and remembering to slow down.
I try to keep reminding myself we don't have to get it all done right away. It's tempting to want to work on all of the projects when we go up there, but it's really important to enjoy this space we've worked so hard to get to.
We are so humbled by this place and its wildness. There are times we feel small and insignificant here, and I believe we need to feel that.
The only time I ever FULLY unwind is in the woods up North. At the same time, there are moments that keep us on our toes. Trees falling near camp in high wind, a severe storm passing through in the middle of the night while we slept in our aluminum-framed tent on a ridge, finding bear scat near camp. Things like that can make you feel pretty powerless and irrelevant, but perhaps that is a good thing every now and then.