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Cabin opening is a rite of spring, but do it the right way

Whether opening your cabin yourself or hiring professionals, planning ahead is the key to helping the process go smoothly.

Wooden house and pond
Opening the cabin sets the stage for a summer of relaxing on the porch and making memories.
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PARK RAPIDS — The Minnesota fishing opener is fast approaching, and for cabin owners, it’s time to get ready for another season on the lake.

Some families do the work themselves, while others hire professionals. In both cases, it is helpful to plan ahead.

Mark Diede and his family have owned a cabin in northern Minnesota since 2010. They live in the Twin Cities, and leave their Wi-Fi on all winter so they can check on their cabin wherever they are.

Eagle on deck.jpg
In addition to providing security, a cabin camera system can alert owners to weather conditions or unexpected visitors like this young eagle.
Contributed / Mark Diede

“I can control everything remotely from security systems to lights to thermostats,” he said. “When I see on the cameras that the snow is gone and we can get into our road, we head up.”

Last spring, a baby eagle that had fallen out of the nest in a tree on their property showed up on camera footage. The young bird stayed around for about a month until it could take flight.

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“The mom would bring it food, dropping fish right in our yard,” he said.

Do it yourself

In the fall, Diede said he does three things to close up the cabin: “Turn off the water heater, turn off the well pump and unplug the water softener,” he said. “Some years, we keep the cabin open and some years we close it. Last year, we closed it up in October. The plumber came and blew everything out and we turned the heat off.”

In the spring, he turns everything back on.

“I also make sure all faucets are working and there aren’t any leaks and check the furnace,” he said. “Checking everything takes a couple of hours.”

Once the heat has been turned on for the season, he can turn it on remotely before their next trip to the cabin.

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A row of cabins are seen Sept. 4, 2021 on Long Lake in Park Rapids, Minn.
Rob Beer / Forum News Service

Plan ahead and come early

Diede said one thing he learned over the years is that when opening the cabin it is best to start out early.

“You don’t want to arrive late at night and find out it’s freezing cold in your cabin,” he said. “And what if you can’t get the water going or the furnace doesn’t start? Who are you going to call?”

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Diede said the first trip up to the cabin in the spring starts with “a couple hours of chaos.”

“We take all of the food from the pantry home in the fall, so we have to bring everything and clean up the yard and get everything working,” he said. “When we come up it can be 60 degrees outside, but only 40 degrees in the cabin. Then opening the windows helps. It still takes a good half a day to get it warm enough to be usable.”

Starting a fire in the fireplace helps the cabin warm up more quickly.

Hire a professional

According to plumber Andy Lindow of Nevis, who has been opening cabins for 22 years, about 80 percent of people call a professional to deal with the water and septic issues of cabin opening.

“Most plumbers have 100 to 200 existing customers,” he said. “For them, a week’s notice is usually enough. New customers should call two weeks in advance.”

Cabin water systems are drained in the fall so there won’t be any water in the system to freeze and burst pipes.

“We blow them out with a compressor and completely empty the water system from the well or the pressure tank all the way through the whole entire house,” he said. “In the spring, it’s the reverse. One tip for turning water on in a cabin is flushing the well out. Right out of the pressure tank usually there's a faucet to hook a hose to. Open that hose and let any debris flush out of the well for 30 seconds to a minute, outside on the ground or through a floor drain, to clean it out before filling water into the system in the house.”

For cabins up on posts with pipes above ground and unprotected from the weather, he said May 1 is usually the date when freezing pipes shouldn’t be an issue.

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In addition to turning the water back on, Lindow also turns the electrical power on.

Handyman services provide yard cleanup of branches that blew down during the winter for cabin owners who don’t want to do the job themselves.

Lindow said cleanup may be more extensive this spring because several days this winter with winds in excess of 50 miles per hour took down larger branches in many areas.

While some homeowners put the dock in themselves with the help of family members and friends, many cabin owners call a dock service to do the job, especially those with larger, heavier docks.

Check the septic tank

“Usually you can just start using the septic again, if you come up in May, and it will be fine,” Lindow said. “In April, there’s a chance the septic could have ice in it. This winter, with the snow for insulation, it kept the ground from getting too much frost. A rule of thumb is, if there is still ice on the lake near your cabin, you should check the septic tank to make sure it isn’t frozen.”

If the tank is frozen, ice needs to be chiseled off both the inlet and outlet.

“Then start running water,” he said. “You can also use a bucket heater or a stock heater to thaw the ice in the septic, usually in about a day. And when you start using water, if the drainfield is frozen, using water will thaw the ground.”

Check for critter damage

When cabin owners are gone for the winter, animals sometimes move in.

Lindow said one early spring morning he arrived at a cabin before sunrise to turn on the water and electricity.

Walking into the cabin, he saw papers and other debris on the floor and noticed the window panes were all chewed up. Closer investigation revealed several dead squirrels, who apparently entered through the fireplace chimney and were trapped inside.

Summer home cabin in the woods at the lake
Whether large or small, opening the cabin for the season is a ritual of spring. Stocking up on summer essentials now means you will have more free time to spend on the lake once summer is here.
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Diede said mice can also do a lot of damage over the winter. “You need to find where they are entering and fill those holes with steel wool,” he said. “It took me a couple of years, but I opened up a deck board and found there was a corner underneath my deck by the foundation that had shifted. I put steel wool in there and now my cabin is mouse proof.”

Get set for a great summer

Taking time in the spring to get everything ready will make for a smooth transition to summer fun.

“The best thing about coming up to the cabin is getting away from the city and back to the solitude,” Diede said. “Sitting together in front of the fire, relaxing, reading and fishing.”

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Cabin opener checklist

It is helpful to have a checklist of what will be needed for that first trip up to the cabin.

  • Groceries to restock the pantry. Include matches, firewood and ingredients for s’mores, as the nights are still chilly well into May. 
  • Wool blankets and clothing that can be layered under a waterproof shell, along with a stocking hat and gloves. 
  • Cell phone charger
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries
  • New batteries for smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Mousetraps 
  • Sunscreen with a current expiration date
  • Tick repellent 
  • Tackle, bait and fishing license 
Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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