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Before Leaving...

On the cottage door is the decades old note, posted by the father of the son, meticulously protected with rows of scotch tape. The insurance policy. A reminder of what you have been given over the past few months, and what will be available once again when the ice goes out, the walleyes spawn, and the loons return. If you comply.

Before leaving have you…Locked the windows. Pulled the shades. Removed the garbage.

A fisherman’s chat at a diner one morning led to a discussion about the dream; to have a place “up-north.” A place to call your own. A base camp for fishing and hunting, sleeping, eating, warming the bones. With one fell swoop, the fisherman tried to kill the dream.

“Renting a place is better than owning,” he said. ‘If you own it, you spend all of your time taking care of it.”

He was wrong.

Before leaving have you…Rebuilt the fireplace bed. Filled the wood box. Locked the boathouse.

Its more than just a cottage. It’s a sanctuary. A temple. An archive. It beckons you. Holds you in her arms. Warms you. Feeds you. Tells you stories. A source of immortality for as long as the members of the tribe survive and remember. And it has a name like Eagle Rock, Robin’s Nest, Wren Haven.

Before leaving have you…Locked the basement. Locked the garage doors. Locked the cottage doors.

As the saying goes - if these walls could talk. Embedded in the pine panels is energy. Hanging on the walls are memories and tall tales. And with a translator, the walls do speak to us.

The trout, walleye, and bass will tell you of the day their judgment failed them. The man will smile and recount, as he has many times before, the known details and point of view of the victors. Antlers that once rubbed nearby trees raw and sparred with others of its kind mark history. The man will speak for those who have passed, tell us the particulars of kill, the accomplishment, and pride. Turkey feathers and beard, a spent shotgun shell provide forensic evidence of a murder in the woods. The man will tell of the stalk, the enticement, and the justification.

Before leaving have you…Pulled the 2 switches in the basement. Turned off security light.

Drawings by a child, posted on the refrigerator like the pictographs of ancient peoples, tell us how the traditions and culture are being passed on. Photos of the living and deceased are attached to cork on a door, smiles and joy frozen in time. Old hats hang here and there as does the story of a fishing lure that hooked more than fish. Fishing tackle scattered about the boat house, some used up and collecting dust, some waiting for an opportunity to be part of the lore.

And as the stories are told you’ll hear the words, mom, dad, brother, sister, son, daughter, grandkids. You’ll hear their names spoken out loud as if you were part of the family, and you’ll wonder about the stories untold.

And there’s the bear above the fireplace who came with cottage 52 years ago. Her story unknown to the living, she has seen everything, watching all in silence. An overseer. In late November, when the blinds and curtains are closed, her hibernation begins again. In April, when daylight is allowed to enter the cottage once more, she’ll re-emerge from her cold dark den as she did in a previous life.

Outside the old hand pump still delivers cold clean water to drink. Trees planted by hand decades ago thrive. A dog’s collar draped over a cross, the final resting place for a friend and giver of unconditional love.

The tribe is smaller now, dispersed across the land. The gatherings are fewer and more uncertain. Yet the spirits are there filling every room, standing on the dock, sitting in a chair watching the lake, waiting for the man to arrive. In the quiet moments I can see them. And when the man tells me their stories, I can almost hear their voices.

So, tell me again how hard it is to have a cottage in the Northwoods, a place to call your own, and I’ll tell you why it’s worth whatever the price.

Before leaving have you…Reflected on what was given to you in this year. Said a word of thanks to the cottage, the land, and the lake. Said goodbye, for you might not pass this way again.

Dedicated to Wren Haven and my friend, O.T.

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