Good-bye to cabin life: U.S. government tells owners to leave

OTTAWA NATIONAL FOREST - The cabin belongs to the mice now, and they make their nests at will.

In the past they never had enough time to get a good nest going. But the family that owned the cabin was recently forced out, and now the little piles of mouse shreddings grow without interruption in the rafters, and in the corner where the stove used to be, and along the wall where beds once were.

Armas Ojaniemi looked at the fluffy nests. The lifelong Yooper was standing inside Woodtick Camp, the name he gave his family’s cabin a quarter century ago, when they’d used a sled to haul timber down a high hill, a few boards at a time, and spent a whole summer working hard to build this little hideaway just yards from the Ontonagon River, deep into the woods, far from any town.

“It took a lot of work to get here,” Armas said. “Our uncle Willie, he had polio when he was a boy, and he was pretty crippled. He crawled up and down the hill to come help build it.”

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To get to Woodtick Camp, you take a gravel road to a hidden trail. Then you need a four-wheeler or a snowmobile to take you a mile and a half into the woods. From there you have to hike 300 feet down a steep slope while holding an old rope tied from tree to tree to keep you from falling down the hill. Then, after a hike through the forest, you reach the cabin. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d never, ever find it.

For years, this was a second home for the 60-year-old logger. He even built a little sauna behind the cabin. “We’d come over here quite often,” he said. “My wife and I would come down and stay for a month or so, stay down here and enjoy the spring like right now, when the ice would go out.”

His 34-year-old daughter Kristin Ojaniemi stood in the open doorway, listening to him reminisce. “It didn’t take much to enjoy yourself out here, ‘cause it’s so peaceful,” said Armas, who lives in tiny Bruce Crossing, the nearest town. “And everybody would say, ‘How can you go down there for a month? What do you do?’ Ah, there’s so much to do. All the hikin’ you could do and watch nature at its finest. As you can hear, it’s quiet. You don’t have to hear no traffic at all. Just love it down here.”

But those days are now over. Their cabin, which had been in their family for three decades, is no longer theirs. They’d already emptied it out. And soon they’d have to abandon it.

Since the 1950s, a local power company had leased little plots of land it owned to 155 locals for a few hundred bucks a year so they could build cabins along the Ontonagon River. Then, in 1992, the federal government acquired the land, and said the owners had to move their cabins or abandon them after their final 25-year leases expired. Any structures left after that deadline would be demolished, and the trails leading to them would be blocked and smothered.

Twenty-five years ended on New Year’s Day this year, and the extra 90 days the owners were given to clear out ended on the last day of March. Any day now, the cabins will be torn down or burned to the ground. The U.S. Forest Service now owns the land, which has been made part of the Ottawa National Forest, and the agency is against private property on public land.

The cabins, the Forest Service has said all along, have to go. This land, they have insisted, should be open to everyone, not just a few cabin owners. And even though everyone knew this day was coming, it doesn’t make leaving any easier for the handful who are left.

“They should’ve grandfathered it in or something, because jeez, our ancestors were here, you know?” said Armas. Like so many in the western Upper Peninsula, his family came over from Finland nearly a century ago, and they’d practically lived in these remote woods ever since. “They were down here doing the same thing we are  — enjoyin’ camp and huntin’ and fishin’. They were able to utilize it, but now nobody can. I mean, who’s gonna come out here now? There ain’t no camp to come out to here.”

In the Upper Peninsula, a cabin is called a camp, a term that describes not so much a location but rather a lifestyle. It’s a place where the world is stripped for a while to its bare essentials — fresh water, hunted food, candles and flashlights, family and friends. Families pass them down through generations. They’re an integral part of U.P. living.

For the families who are losing these camps, this isn’t just the loss of property. It’s the end of a big part of their lives.

“It’s not right,” Armis said. “Just don’t seem right at all, you know, for all the time you put in here and stuff, to have to lose it. But that was somethin’ we were told at the beginnin’, but we said we’re still gonna do it, build a nice sauna and everythin’ and enjoy it for the 25 years that we got, and hopefully they’ll change their mind is what we all said.”

He stood in the cold, empty cabin, maybe for the last time.

“They didn’t change their mind.”

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'It's just not right'

The Ontonagon River starts as several branches spread throughout the western U.P. that come together as one before flowing into Lake Superior. The river spawns several waterfalls and skirts dozens of lakes on its way. And it’s tainted a muddy brown because the red clay and sandstone beneath it stain the water.

For years, much of the forest around the river was owned by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which serves two-thirds of the population of the U.P. and which bought the land in the early 1950s to build dams for generating hydroelectric power.

Since the company had no real use for the land on either side of the river itself, UPPCO leased scattered 1-acre parcels to local residents who couldn't afford to buy their own property so they could build small cabins near the water, where there was good hunting, great fishing and beautiful scenery.

People built structures in all shapes and sizes, and gave them names like Bar None Lodge, Doe Haven, Altoon’s Alehouse, Da Troll Camp and Fuzzy’s No Road Condo. Most were bare-bones log cabins without power or running water. But they were solid camps that lasted for decades.

The dams never materialized, so, in 1992, the company sold 34,000 acres to the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to create public parks and protected lands. But before they did, the company offered the camp owners 25-year nonrenewable leases. The TPL then sold the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which made it part of the 993,000 acres of the Ottawa National Forest. Suddenly the camp owners were staying on federally owned public land. The government said it would honor the leases until they expired, but then the camp owners had to go.

When all this happened, 25 years seemed like a long time away. Surely something could be worked out in that time, most owners figured.

Nothing changed, though.

As the deadline approached, efforts by local politicians to sway the Forest Service failed. A resolution was passed last year in the state Senate calling on the agency to grant exemptions to the families, partly based on the roughly $45,000 in total taxes and fees that cash-strapped local municipalities stood to lose from all of the camp owners each year, and partly based on the 15,570 single-family cabins currently permitted on National Forest System lands throughout the country under the Recreation Residence Program. Why not, they argued, add these mere 155 people to that number?

It didn’t work.

“It’s just not right,” said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, the sponsor of the resolution. He argued that the trails leading into the woods were provided and maintained by camp owners, and with those trails soon to be gone, only the most adventurous hikers would ever make it this far into the woods, thus defeating the Forest Service’s stated purpose of opening the land for everyone.

“They say it’s for all of us so we can enjoy it, and then they turn around and block things off, which means you and I can’t go out there.”

Casperson said he has brought the issue to the attention of federal officials both inside and outside the Forest Service, with no luck. “The clock has ticked down here,” he said. “I think if the right people were aware of it and the appropriate people stood up it could be changed, but it’s getting late. Once these people tear these things down, it’s over.”

Three years ago, Armas’ daughter Kristin, a director at a TV station in Wisconsin, began shooting a short movie about life at her father’s cabin. “To tell our story, you know?” she said. “My dad’s camp is being taken away. In a few years he’s not going to be able to come down here and use it anymore.”

Soon, she met other camp owners in the same situation, and her short film snowballed into a full-length movie called “Up a River,” a two-year project that took her to 30 of the camps, where she interviewed the owners, filmed their lives and captured some of their last days in their cabins. The film was shown at a number of regional film festivals, and she drew further attention to the issue by writing letters to politicians and starting online petitions to get the camp leases extended or grandfathered.

It didn’t work.

“I really don’t know what their logic is for really wanting us out,” she said. “There’s way too many more pros than cons for us being out here.” She mentions the lost canoers who became stranded deep in the forest at night several years ago and were rescued by her dad, who happened to be at his camp. And the Boy Scout troop that sheltered in someone’s cabin one night during a rough storm. Most of the camps remain unlocked throughout the year, she noted, and camp owners encourage people to use them if they’re facing trouble or they’re lost. In that sense, they already essentially belong to the public.

“I think the U.S. Forest Service just doesn’t like people on their land,” she said. “They want the public to utilize it, but at the same time they’re kicking us out. It’s the public’s land, but I think they feel that it’s their land, not really the public’s land.”

Lisa Klaus, public affairs officer with the Ottawa National Forest in Ironwood, said there’s no provision to allow people to keep their camps, no matter how sympathetic forest rangers might be.

“As you can imagine up here it’s hard for some people to lose access to those cabins, so we totally understand that they want to stay,” Klaus said. “But we just do not have the authority to extend those leases.”

The Recreation Residence Program, which started in 1915 to entice people into America's newly designated national forests, ended nearly 50 years ago, and while those cabins already on federal land at the time were grandfathered in, no new private structures have been allowed on federal property since the program ended. And having private property on public land simply goes against the concept of “public.”

“The Forest Service inherited these camps as part of a land purchase in 1992, and typically the Forest Service does not acquire private property when we purchase land, but because of the unique situation we’ve been working very closely with these lease holders,” Klaus said.

“We truly do understand the attachment these leaseholders have and we recognize the challenge it posed for them, but the intent of the 25-year period was to allow them the time to find a place to move those camps.”

The last days

Alvin Hiitola looked out the window of his little cabin. Outside, the river swept past the snow-dusted banks on either side of it. This was a view he’d soon lose. And he had a culprit to blame.

“It’s the federal government,” said the Trout Creek resident, “and the federal government is beholden to the federal government. They don’t care what anybody says or does. They make the rules, and that’s basically it.”

It was just days before the deadline to clear out, and Hiitola sat inside his unheated cabin, sunk deep into an old couch, which was still there with all his other belongings — the stove, the fridge, the bed, the table. He hadn’t removed anything yet. He couldn’t bring himself to. Besides, he figured, it would be a long time before officials made their way this deep into the woods to tear down his cabin.

“I guess I’m still in a state of denial,” said the 59-year-old propane deliveryman, whose cabin is called the Agate Hilton, named for a nearby waterfall. “I can’t understand why they couldn’t work with us, extend our leases. I just can’t fathom that.”

He, too, hoped for some last-minute agreement with the Forest Service that would let camp owners stay. And he, too, thinks this place is so remote, so hard to get to, that nobody else will come this far into the forest once he’s gone.

“You think anybody’s going to come down here out of the blue? Where now we got a nice trail comin’ in where people can actually come down here and actually enjoy the forest? When this is gone they’ll have that road bermed off, gated off or whatever, and nobody will have access down here.”

He used to stand on his deck in the mornings, and the only sound he could hear was the rushing river and the faint sound of the waterfall that feeds it. A partridge living in these woods used to come greet Hiitola every time he came to camp because it was completely unfamiliar with humans. And just about every day, a bald eagle would swoop over the river, looking for fish. “Can’t beat that,” he said, smiling.

Inside the cabin, skillets and pans still hung from nails over the sink. Beer mirrors featuring images of wildlife still hung on a wall. Hornet nests that he collected from the woods were still hanging like decorations, delicate and papery, from the ceiling.

And he still had a framed photo of his partridge on the wall. “I had my camera, and he’d be pecking the lens,” he said. “He was there for seven years. Seven springs. And one day he disappeared.”

Hiitola built his camp three decades ago. He and his buddies tore down an old house to get the wood to build it. A lot of effort went into dragging those boards this far into the forest. And soon he’d have to abandon it.

“This will be 30 years we’ve had this camp, and to see it gone after all the work we’ve put into it, after all the good times we’ve had down here, it’s just sad,” he said. “And, I believe, for absolutely no reason.”

Too many memories to leave behind

The two old friends made their way up the long, icy trail toward their camp. Their two dogs led the way.

Tom Caudill and Pete Heidemann have walked this long path for 40 years. They’ve come to know every tree along the way, every dip on the path, every turn of the trail. They know which poplars blew over during a fierce windstorm, which valleys were the landing spot for cars that slid off the trail during winters, which tracks in the snow beneath their feet came from the wolves.

“The wolves have taken out a lot of bear dogs,” Caudill said. That’s why he walked with a pistol on his hip. “They’re efficient killers. By the time a guy can get to his dog, it’s half eaten. They kill ‘em quick.”

Freshly cut tree stumps lined the way, and just-sheared spruce branches were scattered along the trail. It made the air smell like a Christmas wreath. Somewhere up ahead, a logger contracted by the Forest Service was removing trees, widening the road to give the agency better access to the remote area.

The two men used to be schoolteachers in the nearby Ewen-Trout Creek school district. Caudill, who’s 72 and lives in Bruce Crossing, taught business and coached basketball. Heidemann, who’s 71 and lives in Ewen, taught science and coached football. They’re both retired. They’ve been friends for decades.

On the way to their cabin they walked past the sites of other camps. One was nothing but an empty space between trees. The owner had cleared out last year. There was no sign a camp had ever been there.

Another was the empty cabin of an old friend who’d passed away not long ago. They went up to look it over.

“I’m sure the door is open here,” Caudill said.

It was freezing inside the cabin. The faint spring sun was too low still to make its way through the trees into the windows to warm the place. Their friend’s bed was still there, along with his stove, his table and his easy chair. It was as if he’d just been here. A beer even waited for him in the old fridge. Water trickled from the faucet. It came from a nearby spring.

“Don’t shut it off. It’ll freeze,” Heidemann said.

The camp passed on to the owner’s family after his death, but they weren’t here as much as he used to be. It just wasn’t the same. And soon they’d have to abandon it.

A quarter mile ahead and a sharp turn later, the two old friends finally arrived at their own camp. It sat in stick-throwing distance from the Ontonagon River, rushing past in its spring thaw. They’d had this place for 40 years. They called it Hillbilly Heaven.

Like most camps up here, the door was left unlocked, and they went inside. “The only thing that ever broke in there was a porcupine,” Caudill said. “The porcupine went in there and ate a table.”

After four decades coming here, every part of their camp was imbued with memories belonging to them, their friends, their families, the small towns around here.

The cabin was made of pines that were cleared when the state moved a nearby highway and gave the men the logs for free.

The floor boards were once gym bleachers in the school where they both taught.

The thick wood dining table was made by kids in their school’s shop class, and the names of countless friends and relatives had been carved in it over the years.

The chairs around the table were bought for a buck apiece when a century-old school building in Trout Creek closed.

The heavy black iron stove came from a church in Ewen, and its layers of thick grease came from years of wild-game meals.

Everything here had a story, but none more meaningful than the hats hung on the antlers nailed over the front window that overlooked the river. Each hat had belonged to someone close who’d passed away, and each hat’s story spoke of how central the cabin had been over the years to everyone’s lives.

“My brother Bill, my brother Dick who just passed away, my sister Gery is the cowboy hat,” said Caudill, pointing to each hat as he spoke. “The corduroy hat is my dad, the hat underneath my brother’s is my father-in-law’s hat, the two old World War II hats are my uncles Clifford and Bud Murphy, and this is my wife’s uncle who used to hunt here for years. And then we have some other hats that are supposed to be up there. But we were tearing the thing down and it was such a mess in here they just got knocked off.”

To lose this cabin means losing many lifetimes worth of memories, of long nights talking at that carved-up table, days spent leaning out the windowsill to hunt, anxious good-byes for sons sent to war, happy homecomings when they got back safe. And soon they were supposed to abandon it.

With all that at stake, there was no way they were going to leave it behind. Unlike most of the other camp owners, the two old friends decided they had to take the place with them.

The plan was to try to move it out of the woods, up the narrow trail, and put it somewhere else. It wouldn’t be by this river, it wouldn’t be the same, but at least some stranger from some agency wouldn’t be able to tear it apart or burn it down.

They’d already torn off the back bedrooms, which were now just a pile of siding and timber. The front porch was next. If the cabin was made smaller, they reasoned, it might just fit on a trailer and make it out of these woods.

“We’ve had a lot of memories here,” Caudill said. “All my sons grew up here. My daughter, my grandsons caught fish here, shot deer here. I came from a big family of 11 kids, and all my brothers have been here for parties and deer season, and nothing but good memories here. Really nothing but fun.”

The two old friends stood outside their cabin in the slowly melting snow.

“Are we going to change the name after we move it?” Heidemann asked.

“I don’t know,” said Caudill. “Probably not, Pete.”

“When we move it,” Heidemann replied. “If we move it.”

“If it happens,” Caudill said. “It might fall apart. Who knows?”

“It remains to be seen,” Heidemann said.

It was so peaceful and quiet as they stood there, with just the sound of their dogs playing on the shore, and the river rushing forward, and the logger moving ever closer to their camp, bringing with him the end of their lives here.

“We’re going to try it, though,” Caudill said.

John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him:  jcarlisle@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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