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.”
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.”