Remote Remodeling

Island retreats create special challenges for remodeling.

July 26, 2000


Loaded with doors and other material, one of Northwoods' boats prepares to carry a load to a remote job site.


We loaded into the vehicle and headed off to visit some remodeling projects. It was a warm day, but the wind soon blew away what heat our bodies were feeling. Good thing we had the jackets. A picnic area appeared as we rounded a bend, and tethered in front of the table was a houseboat, complete with a slide off the stern for swimming.

Houseboat? Yes, we were traveling to a remote remodeling site via speedboat, powered by a 140-horsepower motor. Earl Heisel, owner of Northwoods Construction in Virginia, Minn., was taking me to see some of the projects he has done on Vermilion Lake in northern Minnesota.

Nestled north of the Mesabi Iron Range on the southern border of Superior National Forest, Vermilion Lake is a popular getaway for eye doctors, college professors and professionals from Minneapolis-St. Paul. They share this mammoth lake and build getaway cabins along the miles of shoreline. What Earl was going to show us, however, was not quite so normal as weekend cabins.

Vermilion Lake is filled with islands, many of them no more than 100 yards across. Families own entire islands or split islands among a small group of original investors and build cabins for summer or even year-round use. But they are accessible only by water.

Earl and his crews use Northwoods' speedboats to get out to these remote projects. Delivering materials takes a bit more consideration. Northwoods uses the boats for delivery as much as possible. The boats are fitted out with a captain's chair in the middle and seats in the bow. The rest of the deck is covered with durable indoor/outdoor carpeting, leaving lots of room for the loads. Some materials can't be ferried by speedboat, so Northwoods contracts with the lake's barge service. Measuring about 25 feet by 10 feet, the barge crane loads and off-loads materials.

Once there, the crews often face the challenge of moving the materials up to the job site. One cabin we visited was up a hill from the lakefront. The owners are dedicated to maintaining the natural environment of their surroundings, so rudimentary paths were all that led to the addition being built off the side of the A-frame cabin. The owners had purchased the cabin as a kit in the mid-1970s and had added to it over the years. They installed inside plumbing only recently. The current job was a room addition and deck surrounding it.

Northwoods' challenge was to move roof beams up the hill to the project. The beams were too long and heavy to be carried over the winding path of 2X6 planks, so the crew brought in OSB sheathing and built a ramp up the hill to the project. A winch at the top allowed the materials to be pulled to the top.

Construction in the Vermilion Lake area requires working around the shelf rock often on the surface of the ground or lying right below. Sometimes this rock will be on the surface at one point and slant downward below the surface several feet away. Piers are poured to the rock, regardless of its depth. In this project, the deck's piers sat on the rock in the back of the house, but the rocks rose up flush to and then above the deck in front. Decking was contoured to fit around the rock.

Heisel has built several cabins and remodeled or built additions to several others around the lake.

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