Big world, small cabin

Whenever I have to drive north through the Nesbit Forest, I try to bring my skis along for an outing on Eb’s Cross-Country Ski Trails. These are found in that glorious belt of mature-growth parkland that spans the two arms of the Saskatchewan River. Not far down the trail you leave the noise of the highway behind and reach a small rise. There, tucked among some ancient spruce, you find the little cabin pictured above. I have passed this way many times over the years and am always cheered to behold this little building. Small, picturesque cabins appeal to cranky idealists like me who desire proof that simplicity is alive and well.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it struck me on the most recent trip that this particular cabin is the real estate deal of a lifetime. You can have a piece of this timeshare — not to mention the 50-plus kilometres of groomed trails, the hundreds of square kilometres of undeveloped forest — simply by joining the Nordic Ski Club of Saskatoon. The annual fee is $35, or $60 for an entire family. This gives you access to the cabin (in fact there are two on the Eb’s Trails system), which has an airtight woodstove for heating and cooking, benches inside and out, and outhouses for necessities. And as you can see it has pretty window boxes and red-checkered curtains. What more do you need?

In my part of the world, folks jump headlong into resort property purchases — places that cost a whole lot more than $60 a year — without fully considering this very pertinent, very simple, rather profound question. What do you need? Why, if you already have a solid roof over your head in the city, do you want some kind of retreat more or less away from the busy centre of things? In fact, there are many wholesome reasons to want a place in the country. However, thoughtless resort development does more permanent damage to natural areas than logging or mining. Ugly resorts are just the sum of many over-hasty decisions. Any realtor (my dad was one) will tell you that most people put more thought into buying a car or a TV than into a house purchase. The situation with resort properties is worse yet, a marketplace of daydream and whim.

Resorts have always existed in some form or other. The Roman gentry kept villas across their empire. I once stood amid the lonely ruins of one in the hills near Fez, Morocco, the white marble floor tile still gleaming like a page out of Martha Stewart Living after two millennia. Royalty have always kept summer palaces or country estates, and sometimes tied their image to them, like sunny Louis XIV and his Versailles. The Soviet intelligentsia were given dachas as party favours; mobsters own them now. In India I saw how the well-off go to hill stations to escape the heat at lower altitudes, and the seashores offer the same kind of respite.

As the examples indicate, resort property owners tend to have plenty of money. Two houses cost more than one. Moreover, they cannot be considered in insolation, but rather refer back to the primary, urban residence of the owner. Inevitably, then, such places are status symbols in terms of both money wealth and territorial control.

If showing off was the only point, resort properties might not exist. There are easier ways to puff out your plumage within the city limits. No, I think such places are vestigial echoes of a time when human beings were still migratory, a hunter-gatherer source from which we all spring. That is the healthy motivation behind it all. Resorts are a way, more or less metaphorically, back to nature.

If you want a real showpiece, then the little place at Eb’s just won’t do. Purchase a mansion, and may God bless you. Yet, if the purpose of a cabin is to cultivate humble pleasures, to find silence, to take our entertainment in each other’s company, to exercise fully and rest deeply, then the Eb’s cabin may be just right. My point here is not to prescribe. I am only making a plea for clear thought. If we honestly appraise what we need, we often settle on something simpler than what the market suggests we want.

Cabins like Eb’s open the door of resort property ownership to families of very modest means. Yet I happen to know that persons of fairly significant means also make use of the little cabin. They have simply made a conscious choice, that’s all.

Small, cheaply accessible cabins are found upon prime real estate all over the world. On Emma Lake, which I describe in my Lakeland book, you can partake of the prettiest point on the whole shoreline via membership in the very unpretentious Prince Albert Sailing Club. Humble sailing, rowing, and canoe clubs all over Canada offer similar access. Small cabins — or big ones, for that matter — are a form of ethos. In Quebec, people revel in the tiniest of cabins, places little bigger than tents. It’s simply the done thing. Some cottage communities have organized themselves into co-operatives that bind their members to communal development standards that are relatively inexpensive and sustainable. I have seen examples on Toronto Island, within swimming distance of Canada’s largest city, and Lake Winnipeg. Or consider the famous shack-tents of Prince Albert National Park, a wonderful small-house ethos sadly brought to an end by short-sighted park officialdom of a bygone era. Now much the wiser when it comes to sustainable access, there is no reason why park officials could not bring shack-tents back to the campground.

In the more crowded theatre of Europe, sustainable, shared access is standard. Walking trails in most parts have organized systems of shared huts or inns that provide the hiker shelter and a bit of camaraderie each night at minimal impact. I will be walking some of these myself very soon and will report.

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