Like many city dwellers, I harbor a dream to live Up North. Just for a year, I think. I could rent a place in the woods and spend four seasons in the wilderness — be there for the rushing melt of spring, the buzzing summer, the crisp and early autumn, the black and white winter. And then I could scamper back to the city, some part of me satisfied.
Joan Crosby and her husband, Dick, had the same desire when they were first married. In September 1969, when both were in their early 20s, they left Minneapolis to spend a year in their cabin on Tucker Lake, near the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota.
Pause here and consider the word "cabin." Put aside the images that word brings to mind — a cozy log building with a fireplace and homemade quilts, maybe. Or a luxurious four-season lake home. What the Crosbys were heading to was, essentially, an unheated 12-by-12-foot plywood box they had built themselves, hauling the materials across the frozen lake on their snowmobile.
Inside, it had rough bunk beds, a small wood-burning stove, kerosene lamps, unfinished walls, and — discovered upon their arrival — a window broken by a bear attracted to the greasy smell of a forgotten dish sponge.
The "plumbing" consisted of a hole in the yard with a seat and a platform. (They meant to encase it in walls but never got around to it.)
Little wonder that the first chapter of Crosby's memoir of their year there is titled "Insanity."
"Tucker Lake Chronicle: Thirteen Months in the North Woods" is a highly entertaining, straight-ahead account of all they experienced — the friends they made (resort owners, woodsmen, a few hermits), their near-death experiences (snowmobile stuck and sinking in slushy ice, forest trail back to cabin obliterated by snow late one New Year's Eve), and their wildlife adventures (a trampled-by-moose garden, the wailing and huffing of a black bear approaching their cabin in the middle of the night, a timber wolf attracted by their young dog in heat).
But mostly it is an account of work — Dick endlessly chain-sawing firewood to heat the cabin; Joan endlessly baking bread; Dick getting up three times a night to feed the fire when the temperature dipped to 50 below.
Running errands entailed canoeing or snowmobiling across the lake, or bushwhacking with heavy packs nearly 2 miles through the forest to reach their truck, followed by a 40-mile drive to Grand Marais.
Crosby doesn't sentimentalize that year — the pair suffer cabin fever, they bicker, she wonders how she ended up in the woods when she had always planned to move to New York City. But it's clear that these memories are almost entirely happy. "The moon rose slowly, huge and yellow, gleaming on the white lake's surface and lighting up evergreen tips that spiked the starry sky," she writes. "An owl hooted once, then fell silent."
That year changed their lives. They grew to realize that the woods were where they belonged. The little plywood cabin is long gone, but the Crosbys never returned to the Twin Cities, and Joan never made it to New York. Fifty years later they are still Up North, still drawn to the bears and the moose and the loons.