Lake Leach

One man’s efforts to enjoy the Land of 10,000 Lakes without a cabin of his own.

ALL AROUND ME, I could hear my female coworkers making plans for a weekend at a cabin. There would be sun, campfires, canoeing, and wine—everything but men. Noting that my calendar was free that weekend—and that the women’s goal seemed to be to get away from husbands and boyfriends rather than from brotherly colleagues—I asked whether I might make an appearance. My self-invitation was warmly accepted by the hostess, and I’ve since paid several visits to the “ladies of the lake.”

Welcome to my life as a lake leech—someone who has no realistic hope of ever acquiring a bit of shoreline but who still finds ways to enjoy Midwestern aquatic culture. This time of year, I can be found water-skiing in the south metro, skinny-dipping north of Brainerd, even borrowing a friend’s canoe in the middle of Minneapolis. Not too bad for a guy who only owns waterfront property when his yard doesn’t drain properly after a heavy rain.

Lest I be thought a Machiavellian mooch, please know that I do not require prospective friends to provide a list of real-estate holdings; my only strategy as a lifelong cabin-crasher has been to be a good guest. On ladies’ weekend, for example, I stop by only for an afternoon—I just want to go for a swim, not thwart the female bonding. I always behave well enough to get invited back, and I always gain some new understanding of my friends.

I wish there had been a “cabin cam” focused on my wide-eyed expression the first time I stepped into the cottage of Catherine, the lake-lady hostess. Her father is a Lutheran minister who once worked as a missionary in Africa, and the family cabin is borderline monastic: it’s one big ancient room, with a slightly separate kitchen and a sleeping area with no door. I noted that the only running water was a cold tap in the kitchen, and from there I could see the outhouse, which requires a flashlight after sunset. The cabin’s open floor plan takes full advantage of any boreal breezes, but, as I discovered on ladies’ weekend, it also makes things a bit tricky for a guy who’s trying to slip discreetly into his swimsuit.

Another friend, Jeff, lives on the other side of the lake, so to speak. He’s the son of a malpractice attorney, and it took me a lot longer to size up his family’s “cabin”—four bedrooms, two-and-three-quarters bathrooms (all indoors), and a two-car garage that may be bigger than Catherine’s entire cottage. While Jeff’s house falls short of palatial, I’ll never forget how its amenities made for a confusing first visit. Upon arrival, I grabbed a towel, a beverage, and a book and headed down to the dock, figuring the other guests would be right behind me, but they were too entranced by the offerings of satellite television. Who knew that there were people who didn’t “get” what a lake was for?

Fortunately, on subsequent trips, those friends have been replaced by more outdoorsy types who understand that blackberries are better than BlackBerries. In fact, I’ve found my now-annual visits to Catherine’s cabin and Jeff’s lake home have a strikingly similar emphasis on food, drink, sunbathing, and friendship. The property values may differ, but the human values aren’t far apart.

And while I might be a leech, I’m no slug. I always help with food and clean-up, not to mention the important duty of contributing to the general morale, whether through dinnertime repartee or low-key reflections by the water. During one mellow conversation, Jeff noted the stresses of everyday life often followed his family north when he was younger, and I was gratified that our entourage had helped him see the place in a more relaxing light.

For the most part, I try to respect lake-cabin owners’ habits and traditions, although I do like to think I helped diversify ladies’ weekend: after Catherine became a mother, she brought along her baby—a boy. The kid loves the water and has been a big hit. And the fact that he’s found a warm welcome—even as an invasive species—makes him a man after my own heart.

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