Up North: Living Off The Grid

It happens around this time every year. My mind, soul, body wants to get in the car and go North. To take the road that begins on asphalt, then turns to gravel and later to sand. To take the road, that leads to a winding driveway, where the branches scrape against the car, and seems to belong more to nature than to man.

And when it at last, the road opens, you see it. A small, brown cabin, and a crystal blue lake and you take a deep breath.

The most formative years of my life were doing something we today call, “living off the grid.” From the age of 8 to 14, my parents loaded up our Chevy van, three daughters, a dog, bikes and books and left for six to eight weeks to a rustic cabin in northern Wisconsin.


I didn’t want to go. I put up a stink about it. I was not cooperative.

With no television, computer(obviously), or telephone, and one radio station that played only polka music, my sisters and I were left with our imaginations and each other for creativity and entertainment.

Our cabin, which we rented, had two bedrooms, a living room, a screened in porch, a bathroom with a big four-legged tub, and a kitchen. It had a basement that smelled like rotten cheese, of which I was certain inhabited a serial killer. I never went down there. My sisters and I shared one room, which consisted of a small dresser, a closet, a double bed and bunk beds.

There was a deer path that led to the lake. Surrounding the path, were wild blueberries. Every morning, I would go out and pick a bucket full of berries and come back to the smell of coffee and sausage and a cassette tape playing Mozart. The windows in the living room would be open surrounding a little table my Mom had already set up with math worksheets. I’d set the berries down on the kitchen table, go to the table and grudgingly do a sheet of fractions, while Mom sprinkled the berries into pancake batter.


If it looked like it was going to be a good day, it meant a day down at the lake. Jumping into the cool water over and over and over again was “invigorating.” That was one of the vocabulary words we had to learn, “invigorating.” The water was so clear, you could see the bottom three feet deep. We’d walk along the shore to the peninsula to hunt for crawlers. The water was a part of our family. Whether or not we could visit it, determined the course of the day.


Our afternoons were filled with bike rides, reading, games, and writing performances which we would be our evening entertainment.

Wednesdays were designated as Errand Day. It was the day we went to town to the laundry mat and grocery store, which meant we had to brush our hair. Going into town and seeing people was a big deal. The first stop was going to the dump. Mom put our laundry in big black garbage bags, and set them right along side the garbage. I was always certain Dad would confuse the laundry with garbage and I would be without clothes for the rest of the summer, but by some miracle it never happened.

Once we got to town, we’d pile out of the van, some would go with Mom to the laundry mat, some would go with Dad to buy night crawlers. Dad and I would bring our rackets and play tennis at the local courts while we waited for the laundry to dry. We’d finish up with our clean clothes and head to the library to replenish our books for the next week.

It was in the North Woods where Madelyn L’Engle and Anne of Green Gables became my friends.


These stories rush through my mind faster than I can write them down.

I could tell you about the time Mom stepped in an anthill causing ants to run up her pants and she ran all the way home, screaming, and jumped in the tub, drowning hundreds of little insects. It was the grossest and funniest thing I have ever seen.

I could tell about the times our dog, Jenni scared up a raccoon, a skunk and a porcupine, and our evening ritual of checking her for ticks and digging them out of her belly with tweezers.

I could tell you about the “five-mile hike,” that was more like 15, on which I complained most of the way, and surely thought I would die.


I could tell you about the nights…. when Dad would build a fire, and my parents would sing Hippy songs, and my sisters would watch them watch each other with a story that belonged only to them.

There was the night a screen was left open in our room and Mosquitos attacked us, causing my sister to swell up like a strawberry. I awoke without a bite.

There was the night our dog went crazy barking and we opened the door to find six raccoons hanging on to the outside of our screened-in porch. Their black bodies and beady eyes and little claws hanging on to the screen, un-intimidated by us humans and canine.

We were uninhibited in the North Woods. We were allowed to sing while we road our bikes down sandy roads until the traffic of a family of porcupines crossed our path. We were allowed to create, draw, write, rest, play, pretend, and be. It was the greatest gift.

It calls me back. It beckons me. It’s where my soul resides.

I’d like to go back for just one more day.

I think I just did.



  1. We’ve never met, but I am one of the Kemp kids who also spent our summers in that cabin. I only remember one time that our cabin time overlapped. We arrived from a camping trip a day before you were to leave. We slept in that little loft in the garage. Do you ever remember exploring up there? It was my escape from the cabin on rainy days when our blanket-draped tents felt a little crowded for all five of us kids. Sometimes sharing the loft with the mosquitos was worth being able to claim my own territory.

    Your words seemed to steal my own thoughts about the cabin. There is a sense of calm and release as we drive up the lane. There is still no television or internet, but the shelves are overflowing with books, board games, and puzzles. Your photos could have been taken last year. The red shell chair, the bench, and the table where you did your math worksheets are all still there.

    We’ve been so very fortunate to build family bonds and memories there since 1962. It is the place that we still gather, even though we live in many different states. Our children have all spent summers there and are now bringing their children up north. Life is good.

      1. Cindi, you asked the barn. There was a big boat in there and bikes that we would ride. It was really cob webby in there and it housed owls and bats, I think….

        We played house in the little green cottage a lot. One time a boy and his mother rented the green cottage. We learned that he had cancer.

      2. Do you remember that big, orange bike? It was so hard to pedal in the sand. I don’t know who the family who stayed in the green cabin was. Were they friends of yours? I’ll have to ask Mom. Did you ever find our comic book stash?



  2. And, yes, the basement still smells like rotten cheese. Last summer I decided to clean out that closet in the back corner of the basement. For just a second before opening the door, I prepared myself to finally see the remains of the dead body that I was always secretly sure must live in that dark, damp corner of the basement.

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