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  • Writer's pictureLanny Freng

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time...

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Build a cabin, it'll be fun they said. This is true, but at times daunting. In 2013 we bought land on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. Since then it has been a weekend process of clearing land, moving rocks and dirt, building structures, and we are finally getting close to the light at the end of the tunnel. Below is an overview of our progress up to this point. Well, it is continually being updated so might not be progress up to where we are at currently...

One of our first trips out to the land, oh and there are no roads to this land. Our access is all by boat.

Our first official trip to the land as owners.

We have some large white pines on the property. They are beautiful but they are also known as cabin crushers so they are a blessing and a curse if they are by your building site. We have lost 3 big ones in storms since we have owned the land.

Here we go! A shot of the barge picking up my dad's little tractor to skid logs. We also hired the barge company and their excavator to do some initial clearing. I think he did about 4 hours' worth of work clearing a path to the power line and knocking over a few trees and making a barge access at the shore.

Jack taking a swing at em too. Notice the adherence to safety standards. Barefoot...

Connor and Seth stumping as lumberjacks.

Jen and Jack take a quick selfie.

This is the start of the beach area.

Gotta have a place to park the boat so the next project up... The dock. Didn't want to pay $6,000 for a dock up there so found a cheapy on craigslist and refurbished it. About $600 all in.

And there she is with her new decking on. Still have to install some 1x3 cedar along the edge for rub rails so the boats don't get dinged up. I put in removable dock sections so when I attempt to make it a winch-out dock for winter time it won't be heavy or collect snow in the wintertime and collapse. That will be a complete experiment, haven't seen any other steel roll-in docks that have been winched out up here before. I welded up a bracket that connects to the concrete base on shore. I am going to weld an A-frame that attaches to the base and steel cables will run from the anchor spot on shore to the top of the A-frame. From there steel cables will run out to the mid and end points of the dock. Flip the winch switch and hopefully it all comes up out.

Floating the dock over from John's land.


Gabe & Liv got a new toy. Wood-fired hot tub. Pretty cool stuff.

Here is a pretty cool outhouse. The neighbors' Bob & Vicki built this baby. Heated slate tile floors and all the comforts of home!

That was a wrap for those two weekends. Pretty nice to have a dock so our friends can now stop by and say hi. Also makes it a lot easier to unload materials. Next up... Find an older 24' pontoon to refinish and turn into the barge boat. That will be a fun and very useful project on a boat-access property. Stay tuned for more pics!

Got 2 pallets of concrete delivered to the marina in February. Built a skid to help bring it across the ice to the land. This is for the footings of the cabin (that concrete didnt work out on account that it took much longer to get to the footings in and it hardened up over time. Makes for good fill though in low spots so not a complete waste).

Big G running a load across.

Pontoon Success! Found a 24 ft 1980 Kennedy Pontoon on craigslist. Came with two 28 hp motors and a boat lift which was a bonus. Nice to not have the toon bouncing on the dock all summer. She's a looker and check out those bus seats on the rear!

The bad thing about old pontoons is they sat pretty squat in the water. Can't have that when hauling materials so I jumped on craigslist and found a single toon and mounted it in the middle. This may be the first "tri-toon" from 1980. Got it up to the Marina, mounted the extra toon, and had Timbuktu drop it in the water for us. Works great! We have christened it "The Farge" (Freng+Barge).

When you are planning on building a cabin on Lake Vermilion there is digging to be done. I didn't want to pay a barge company $100/hr for them to do it so through a local we found "Greta". An early 1990's Kobelco SQ024 excavator. She ain't pretty but runs great after some general maintenance. For $4500 bucks it is by far the best purchase we have ever made.

Greta can't pick up trees without a thumb so I fab'd one up and mounted it.

Starting to get the path down to the dock built.

This is why you are not digging by hand in these parts. If we could sell all the boulders it would have paid for the cabin.

Of course, if you have as many rocks as Vermilion does in the ground no one wants to pick them out by hand when you need fill. So with my dad Paul's help, I built some grizzly bars. Now we just scoop, dump and the rocks roll off to the side. Works amazing!

Greta isn't much for moving material so the next project was a dump trailer. We have a big plastic utility trailer up there that tilts but still had to shovel out about 1/3rd of the material which was slow. Came up with this, built a cam lock for the dump gate and added a harbor freight winch to lift the box. Works slick. Only thing you have to watch out for is rocks under the tires when driving the load is so heavy that it will pinch the tire on the rim and wreck em.

December 5, 2017:

Well, we wrapped up 2017 with "some" progress. It has been a while since I updated the blog so here goes... Enjoy!

The site getting prepped for the sauna, drain tile going in, pad leveled and beams brought in, building platform up, thanks to Jens dad Denny for helping. We haven't been able to make a gravel pit in the back yet. Have to make a better trail to get the excavator back there but in the meantime dug a big hole a bit back on the property next to the good trail and found some nice pay dirt. I brought in about 10 yards of fill to prep the base for the shed.

The shed base is finished.

Brother Joe hanging out with one of the white pines.

Sauna/shed going up, ordered a nice horizontal window and positioned it so you can look out over the lake when you are sitting on the top bench in the sauna. This is being used as our sleeping quarters as we build the cabin. We brought electricity in, that was a fun job. Running out 300 ft of 2.5" conduit over 4/0 service wire through the woods was not fun but at least we were not required to bury it. We wired in baseboard heat and gave it some light insulation for cool nights. It's a bit cramped but keeps the family dry. Definition of roughing it!

Siding going on. Did some custom log work for the window/door/corner trim.

Jen giving it some color.

And the completed sauna/shed.

Can't make like a bear in the woods for too long so built a matching outhouse right after the shed.

The next big project this summer was clearing the area for the cabin. This didn't appear to be much work when I started and soon found out that it took just about every weekend this summer to complete. I had to hire someone to come out to blast the 3000 lb boulders where the cabin footings were going. We had about 3-4 of those. We needed to move a lot of dirt, my excavator doesn't move dirt very well so we got a track loader to help out. I could have hired out the work but these things dont really loose value with light use, I put 50 hours on it which would have equated to $5000.

Greta got a new friend, meet "Merv". I built a rock bucket to sift out the millions of rocks we turned up when digging and a pair of forks with a grapple to move the big rocks, trees, and building materials.

Didn't want to pay $600 for a set of forks so I jumped on craigslist and found a used set of forklift forks for $100 and fab'd em up on a skid steer mount plate. Also added a removable hydraulic thumb to squeeze brush.

We started to run out of room in the sauna for tools and materials so we had to empty it every time we arrived to stay in it. That doesn't work too well when it rains and it seems to rain a lot up there. We cleared a site behind the cabin area and built a road to it. This area was near the low area where water runs down to the lake so it was quite a soupy mess at times. I brought all the rock out of the cabin area and built a pad for it. K-bid supplied us with a 20x30 foot portable vinyl garage which my Dad, Pinnow and Garet came up and helped put up this summer. Was a muddy mess! The soil I dug up for the base is like Jello till it drys out, once it drys out it is like concrete.

Here is the cabin site being prepped. (One of the boulders that were blasted)

The area is pretty much cleared of large rocks, releveled, and ready for cabin work.

Started to dig the footings. We will have 3 ribbon footings running front to back reinforced with rebar which will also be run up into 18 piers (sonotubes) which the cabin platform will be built off of. The entire foundation system will be covered with 3" rigid foam that is sunk about 18" below the final grade to protect it. This "should" stop any frost heaving of the footings. Fingers crossed.

Forms and rebar going in.

We had about 550 bags of concrete delivered via barge. We were not going to mix these by hand. Craigslist to the rescue again. Found an old mixer for $75 bucks. Pulled off the electric motor, installed a hydraulic motor, mounted the barrel to a trailer axle hub and a skid mount plate and we now have a portable skid steer mixer that can do 3 bags at a time. Worked surprisingly well!

First row of footings done, just have two more rows of footings to do...

Getting ready to pour concrete in the other rows of footings. We had one snafu, the east footing hole was dangerously close to our setback from the property line so I decided to fill it in and put another footing to the west side to make certain we weren't over the "line". Tough to move a cabin if they bust our chops about it.

Built a pad for the concrete block chase that will house the utilities coming into the cabin.

A couple of random wildlife photos. Moose tracks in the mud here. Unfortunately, I did not have the game cam up at this time.

A coyote on the powerline right of way. Looks hot...

And Mr. Bear making his way toward the cabin. We actually had a mother bear and two cubs run by us as we were finishing up the cabin platform.

This is all OSHA-approved activities.

Leveled off an area on the peninsula for a firepit. Pretty cool being surrounded on 3 sides by water.

We got some lights run down the peninsula to brighten things up a bit. This will be a new landmark for evening navigation on Oak Narrows.

Jen got her first garden installed with deer-proof plantings.

There is a whole lot more to upload, I will get to it as I have time. Thanks for checking in on the progress!

The trail down to the dock is starting to take shape. Installed some electrical to the shore line as well. You can see the base for the firepit to the right.

Greta needed some new shoes and a new set of teeth. The old ones were worn out.

The summer of 2018.... who wants to see a cabin going up? I do too but it hasn't. You always think more is going to get done than actually does. A lot of digging was done with some good results. We are getting closer to being able to start framing but still have the hardest part ahead of us... The foundation.

Started off the year with a winter trip over to the land with all the foundation insulation. Bought enough to cover the entire cabin area with 3" of rigid foam. Found a guy on Craigslist who tears off old commercial roofs and sells the used foam for cheap. Paid $1100 for it all. This stuff is $50 a sheet new which would have been close to $4000.

Here is the foam being installed around the footings and plastic laid over it to help shed some water till the cabin covers the area. The foam was then buried under about 18" of soil.

As the spring progressed we soon found out that a 55-gallon drum buried as a sealed vault for the outhouse is not the answer. Got a little ripe, to say the least. Craigslist to the rescue again. I found a 275-gallon liquid tote down in Faribault for $60. We dug a new hole further away from where the cabin is going to be for a little separation.

And then the outhouse was on the move...

Arriving at destination.

Remember that beach area we started with?

Its getting there!

And then this happened.... 4" of rain in short order one day after we were done with it. No Bueno! Lots half our top dressing.

Seed started to take hold and brought a load of sand in.

We had so much rain this spring that it started running through the cabin site so I had to make a little creek to run it around. Don't worry it is not a wetland area, just runs over the area when we get heavy rain.

Made a new sundeck for the back of The Farge for relaxing and sitting on at the beach. Added some insulation around the motor to keep it quiet.

Now for some framing! The cabin platform is started!

And the finished frame work... Treat wood on the front half will be porch and deck area, rear will be cabin area.

Once we had the framing up it was off to the races on getting the subfloor on. We also wanted an insulated floor for winter trips so we used loose-fill rock wool (won't mold if wet), i welded up a little agitator drill attachment to break up the clumps and make it "loose".

We had to skin the underside of the joists before we could add the loose-fill insulation. Not a fun job... Thanks Jen and Seth for getting under there and screwing the plywood up.

Insulation getting installed.

Relaxing after a hard days work! Platform complete! This is just before the cubs and mamma bear ran past us just beyond the red 4-wheeler at the top right.

One of the tougher jobs was keeping this platform dry until we got a shell on it. Looking back I would have stained it with a good oil base stain before tarping it. A couple of pieces of subfloor got roughed up pretty good over a season of rain. They may have to be replaced.

We wanted to get the decking on prior to starting construction so we have somewhere to work off of. Went with composite so we would have less maintenance AND it was the same price as wood due to the lumber spike.

The old adage measure twice-cut once came to fruition when I put the deck boards on. Off by 1.25" on center. Was trying to figure out if I should split the middle with a board or start a board on each side of the middle. I chose wrong! Had to take out 800 hidden fasteners and move all the boards over a bit. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. That took a while... Nevertheless the dance floor is done. We wanted to get the deck boards on so we have somewhere flat to work off of when building the cabin.

COVID hits... Lumber goes through the roof! Thankfully we had the expensive lumber already built but $8 for a 2x4??? Do we wait till prices come down OR do we switch directions? Well... here we go.

We engaged Anderson Log Homes out of Walker, MN to build us a log cabin shell. These folks are true craftsmen. They finished it in December of 2021. Originally we were going to have it delivered in the fall of 2021 but the water was too low to get the barge close enough to shore to unload it so it had to wait. Some pics of it being built.

What happens when you need to bring a semi-trailer and crane over by barge? You need to redo the land so they can get straight on and off the barge because it is difficult to back up a log trailer with a bulldozer and a fifth-wheel trailer dolly. Sorry, time for more work Greta...

Had to call Jack the rock blaster back to get rid of this hog. Pretty cool watching him work his magic.

Had to build a new pad in front of the cabin area for a staging area for the log work. Built a boulder wall next to the shed. Final goal will be to have a 12ft cattle tank sunk in the ground halfway plumbed to the sauna stove for a up north hot tub.

It was a sad day but we sold Merv to the neighbors so we could buy roofing material. Thankfully we got to that before metal went through the roof price-wise. Had Carl the barge guy drop that off.

For side projects this year I built a woodshed out of pallets, restored a Kuuma Lamppa sauna stove, and restored a newer damaged 4-stroke boat motor so I can actually hear people when we are out for a sunset cruise.

That's a wrap for 2021. We will update some more in June of 2022 as log cabin assembly begins.

May 2022 and here we go. What did we get ourselves into is my thought when this thing went up...

The water level is WAY up (thankfully) but I was worried. The water level came up so far that about 3 ft of the end of our roofing material and rafter joists were underwater. No one could get up there because the ice had not come off the whole lake yet so barge equipment was not available. I thought we had just lost $4000 in rafters to water damage. Remarkably they were not damaged, they were impregnated with wax and glue that kept them in good condition. Whew!

Bring on the big equipment. The barge brought over a Cat D7 and trailer dolly, an 80,000 lb crane, and 2 loads of logs. Quite a sight! (sorry for the fuzzy pics)

Had to frame the gable ends before they got there.

Man are they quick. This thing went up in a day and a half. They had 3 guys there and we had a couple of extra hands to help out.

It is go time now. Time to get the roof on before the subfloor gets wrecked from rain. Here we have the rafter joists going on.

Plywood and underlayment going up. Of course, it is 85-90 degrees when we are doing this. 70 sheets of plywood had to be lifted one by one. I though the foundation sucked to do. This topped that easily. The roof is a 10/12 pitch, just steep enough to not be able to walk on and not steep enough where everything sits in front of you as you work.

We are running out of time now before winter and colder temps so we have two goals. First is the stain as we need temps above 50 to apply, second is getting at least the steel panel on the roof so it will shed snow. But first, we had to sand the entire cabin TWICE with 4.5 inch angle grinders with flap discs (36 & 80 grit) to get the weathering off the logs since it was built last December and had greyed a bit. That was a miserable job. I imagine if you go to hell they hand you a grinder and a log cabin when you walk into the place. First coat of stain is on.

Steel roof is going up. This was actually pretty easy, the only tough part is not bending a panel as they are 21 ft long.

Here are some more shots of the progress.

This is where 2022 closed. A nice shot of the porch lit up by our gas fire pit. Quite a view from the lake. More to come in 2023! Stay tuned...

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