It all started back in April, when the virus was young…
I had big plans for making this the summer of exploration, intent on getting away from the quarantine/hunker down mentality and surrounding myself with the beauty of nature.
The first plan was renting an RV in June and driving to Alaska via the Alaska Canada highway. I’ve always wanted to do it, and this was the time (I even went to an RV show, an experience unto itself…). Then in late July, a sailing trip with friends to the North Channel, a 150-mile stretch of pristine Canadian water and uninhabited islands just north of Michigan that’s considered the best freshwater cruising in the world.
It was to be the perfect antidote to the incessant coronavirus news, angst and unrest. And it would have been perfect, except that Canada kept its border closed. Some people view all the closures and cancellations as government doing its job and protecting us. Others see the sweeping restrictions as unnecessary overreactions. Like them or not, they were a fact of life this summer. So I considered the alternatives. I could drive the American West instead of Alaska. That would work. However, sailing across an international border without permission wouldn’t.
I emailed my friends that the sailing voyage was off. I was the most disappointed, because I’d done it before and knew what glorious adventures awaited. As I sat there, dismayed with the state of the world, Jeb emailed saying he had an idea I might like even better. When I called, he said, “Instead of sailing, why don’t we get together and build a Walden-like cabin on that Michigan property you’ve been wanting to build on?”
That property was a place I’ve loved as long as I can remember. In second grade, I’d pack a lunch and a fishing pole and drive a little five-horsepower boat the four long miles, hugging the shoreline to avoid the big boats, all the way down to the southern end of the island, to Bosely’s Channel, a sliver of water between two islands that opens to a magnificent, uninhabited bay on Lake Huron. I’d be on my own for hours—no telephone—just sitting in the little, low-slung wooden boat in this serene and colorful channel with the beavers, Great Blue Heron, ducks, kingfishers and the occasional perch, tugging on the line.
In 1988, I was 26 and home in Cincinnati for Christmas when the phone rang. It was Con, an old family friend and Michigan real estate agent, who wanted to talk with my Dad. After they talked, I asked what Con wanted. “He said Bosely’s Channel is for sale and asked if I wanted to buy it.” “Well, what’d you say?” I asked. “I told him I wasn’t interested,” Dad said, with a long pause before continuing, “but that I thought maybe you would be.” I was thrilled. What I didn’t know until Con told me a few years later was that my Grandfather had asked Con in the ‘40s to let him know if Bosely’s ever came up for sale. And though Granddad had died 25 years earlier, Con kept his promise. He was that kind of guy.
I’ve owned it these past 32 years, camping on it maybe eight times and paying the taxes every year. I’ve always figured I’d build on it someday. But that can be a tricky proposition. Someday is always out there, safely in the distance until you realize it may have come and gone without your ever having grasped it.
There were always good reasons to put off building. It would be expensive. There was no electricity. Though unparalleled in beauty, it was also remote, and my wife preferred the family homestead within sight of town. Then came the Great Recession and three college tuitions. And so it remained, untouched—a dream quietly languishing.
Four years ago, Bob, a Michigan friend who owned a dock building company walked the property with me, keen on helping me build something, as he had 15 years ago in a similarly remote and beautiful spot. It was at Bob’s funeral a year ago that it struck me: What in the world was I waiting for? And last fall I started clearing paths and picking possible sites. I didn’t have all the answers, but I was finally moving ahead.
So when Jeb suggested we build a little cabin this summer, it was one of the most beautiful sentences I’d ever heard, and I told him so.
I emailed the other friends, framing the idea as an escape from the travails of city life—our own version of the Depression-era WPA and CCC: “The Men’s Fresh Air Camp on the shore of Lake Huron.” Rather than wear masks in the city, we’d live in tents, cook outdoors and somehow build a cabin.
Five guys signed on and we set the dates: July 15-25. We circulated a spreadsheet for a tool sign-up. My cousin Lee and Jeb had most of it covered. The biggest obstacle was us: two pharmacists (Lee and Brad), a law school professor (Dave), a family business owner (Jeb), a retired Army colonel (Geoff) and a journalist, me. Most of us were at least somewhat handy with tools, but no one had ever built a cabin.
I was among the least knowledgeable, but as property owner, the critical preparation fell to me. I had about six weeks to build a dock, pick the site, design the cottage, make a building plan, order the materials and transport them to the island. The dock took a solid week but turned out well, emboldening me. I chose and cleared the site and headed back to Pittsburgh. With a month to go, we still had to figure out what to build. Then I learned I’d need a permit, which sounded like a nightmare and, in fact, became one, when I looked at the forms and realized I simply didn’t speak the language of construction.
I started watching YouTube videos every night and followed the motto of the “Little Engine that Could.” Pittsburgh friend and architect Steve Casey gave me a crash course in construction one afternoon, and Mike from the local lumberyard filled more of my knowledge gaps. “Okay Mike, after you put up the studs, what comes next?”
My wife and I went through design books and a pad of graph paper, and she drew up a plan (with an assist from Pittsburgh friend and designer Betsy Deiseroth). What was originally going to be a 10×15 Walden-like shed doubled to 16×20 (with a loft)—big enough to be a nice little bunkhouse and small enough that our crew theoretically could pull it off. I filled out the permit forms, and with a week to go, ordered the materials. Thoreau’s cabin cost him $28 in materials. Mine would be $15,000.
On July 10, Jeb and I arrived in Cedarville, and the project began. We lifted 12 80-pound bags of Sakrete and a great quantity of lumber into our non-work boats, drove the four miles from town, beached the boats at the site and unloaded. The next day, we figured out where to place the nine footer holes and began digging.
“That’ll be the toughest job,” predicted Dave, who would join us later. And he may have been right. We rented an auger, which did little more than wrack our shoulders whenever it hit rock, which was all the time. We clawed with our hands (just terrible for your nails!), pried with an iron bar and pulled rock after rock out of each deepening hole. After a full, sweaty day of toiling in the dirt, we had dug nine holes and set the first 6-by-6 footer in concrete.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, boys,” said every football coach I ever had. Well, I took the project one day at a time—sometimes one hour at a time—because everything was a new challenge. And five times, by the grace of God, we recognized and avoided what would have been irreparable mistakes, just in the nick of time. Clearly, we weren’t pros, just a group of guys figuring things out together, which may have been the most satisfying thing of all.
The 18th marked the arrival of Brad, our final friend and another wizard with tools. At the end of that day, we finished the subfloor and drank beers on it—six feet off the ground, looking at the vast blue of Lake Huron. “Should we check and see if it’s level?” Geoff asked. Apprehension reigned as we looked at the bubble in the big level. “Would you look at that!” Lee proclaimed. Perfectly level and, as we then checked, perfectly square. A remarkable victory that called for another beer.
The last week flew. Walls went up, windows and doors were framed to the sound of Lee’s portable generator, circular saws, nail and screw guns, and old-fashioned hammers. Those who weren’t doing carpentry cut beautiful wide paths through the woods to the point almost half a mile away—assisted by the three strapping brothers from a neighbor family who came wielding chainsaws. Troubleshooting and keeping everything flowing was my job. When we had an impasse I’d ask enough questions to understand it and call Mike at the lumber yard as I drove a friend’s rickety pontoon boat back and forth from the mainland hauling load after load of lumber. Each trip, the left pontoon sank deeper until the boat finally sank just after our last load.
By the final day, we had framed just about everything except the roof. A local contractor said he’d help us get the roof up. The apex would be about 23 feet off the ground, and as the end neared I became increasingly cautious that no one get hurt. So having an expert would be a big help. “Do you have any young bucks to help you lift the materials?” he asked, and I said, “Absolutely. We have two guys who are only 57.” Maybe that was what scared him off. At any rate, he didn’t show up. So we never got to the roof, which was okay; I told the guys I’d hire a local team to finish it (which turned out to be much more easily said than done).
Many times around the fire, we discussed what to name the cottage. And many suggestions were made. Some had a “Game of Thrones” ring to them, like Utgard, the home of giants in Viking mythology. Others borrowed from the natural surroundings. Cedar Cove was one of those, but that’s also the name of the local nursing home. Someone mentioned Defiance—and I liked that. We were defying the summer’s pervasive ethos of “sheltering in place.”
I said I’d considered just calling the place Jeb since he was the catalyst. And then I mentioned what a neighbor had said when I told him what we were doing: “These must be some good friends if they’re willing to come do this for 10 days.” And so I said, “Why not just call it Friendship Cottage?”
There was polite consideration of that, followed by my saying that we would have to sign an interior wall in a big way when it was all done.
“How about Reliance Point?” Jeb asked, which I liked. First, it reminded me of Thoreau’s buddy Emerson and his great essay “Self-Reliance.” I imagined future generations saying, “That little cabin is called Reliance because my grandfather built it himself before anything else was there.” But that wouldn’t be accurate. It wasn’t self reliance. It was a group of friends who built it—a group of guys who came together at a time when people were afraid to be near each other and took on a project.
I looked up reliance in the dictionary: Dependence on or trust in someone or something. That was it. We trusted that we could do it. And to become reality, this project depended on every person mentioned in this story.
And so there it is. Next year and hopefully for long into the future, family and friends will enjoy summers in a little lakeside cabin called Reliance.