Northern Wilds Magazine
After 30 years of tent camping while visiting the Gunflint Trail, Joan Levergood and Douglas Johnson decided to purchase an off-grid rustic log cabin near mid-trail. | JOAN LEVERGOOD
Along the Shore

One couple’s journey to bring an off-grid cabin “on-grid”

After nearly 30 years of tent camping while visiting the Gunflint Trail, Joan Levergood and Douglas Johnson decided it was time to find a proper roof to put over their heads.

Levergood and Johnson, who reside in Chicago, Ill., first visited the Gunflint Trail on a camping trip in the early 1990s. They were camping in central Minnesota when Levergood looked at a map and said to her husband, “Look at this campsite up by the Canadian border. Let’s camp there.” They then packed the car and road-tripped to the end of the Gunflint Trail. They secured campsite #19 at Trails End Campground and, unbeknownst to them at the time, initiated a 30-year tradition of camping at the end of the Gunflint Trail.

Throughout the decades, the couple strategically rearranged their work schedules in Chicago to return to the Gunflint Trail to camp between May and September. Levergood’s occupation as a spiritual healer allowed her to work remotely at times, while her husband, a traveling freelance double bass musician, did not have the same flexibility. Despite their occasional conflicting schedules, they made time to pack the vehicle and make the 629-mile trek to the Gunflint Trail.

In recent years, Levergood and her husband pondered purchasing property on the trail and having a place to call their own. They actively kept their eyes on property listings on the off chance there was something that fit their budget.

“I would look at listings and drive around and look too,” Levergood added. She said they were open to purchasing a vacant lot, a cabin, or simply “something with a roof over our heads, a wood-burning stove, and walls.” She added, “it would be an improvement over a canvas tent and a propane heater at the Trails End Campground.”

After years of searching, the couple stumbled on a real estate listing in August 2022 of a rustic log cabin built by Dennis Johnson on 11.5 acres near mid-trail that piqued their interest. “I was like, wow, that’s kind of perfect,” Levergood said.

The work needed to convert this off-grid cabin to “on-grid” will be lengthy and difficult, but the Levergoods are up to the challenge. | SUBMITTED

The first few sentences of the real estate description shed light on the extensive work the couple would have in front of them if they decided to purchase the property. The listing stated, “Hand-hewn small log cabin needs love and care (and some cash too!) to bring it back to its glory.” The listing went on to say the cabin did not have plumbing, a well, a septic system, or electricity. However, despite the call for ‘home project lovers,’ it had large windows to provide lots of natural light, a loft, and a cozy wood-burning fireplace to curl up next to. Levergood and Johnson immediately put an offer on the property.

The real estate world moves fast in Cook County, even more so with property on the Gunflint Trail. Levergood and Johnson closed on the property a month later, in September. The couple spent one week enjoying the cabin before winterizing the property and driving back to Chicago. “It’s kind of like a dream come true. It was really fast, very suddenly. So unexpected,” Levergood said.

While the time spent enjoying the rustic off-grid cabin was short-lived, the work to convert it to ‘on-grid’ will be lengthy and challenging. Levergood said the winter months have been a busy time contacting well and septic contractors and electricians to line up work once the snow eventually recedes this spring. She has also reached out to Arrowhead Cooperative, an electric cooperative that provides electricity and broadband services to Cook County, to schedule the construction and installation of services. Levergood said a few steps remain before construction is scheduled. First, Arrowhead Cooperative must conduct a site visit on the property and have an electrician set a meter socket in the staked location.

In addition to adding electricity, wi-fi, plumbing, and running water, Levergood said the improvement projects are far from finished. The rustic cabin also needs a new roof and a new wood stove. She said there is a long list of projects to bring the off-grid cabin into the 21st century and on-grid. “We knew going into it there were things that needed to be fixed,” she said. “I’d like to keep a small footprint but still be in modern times.”

While she’s optimistic that she can check off numerous projects on the to-do list this year, she is aware that only some things will be completed and may take many more years. “The only concern I have is of having trouble finding somebody to do the work,” Levergood said.

And she is not alone in having that concern. Many new homeowners in Cook County would agree. The booming real estate market along the North Shore, particularly in Cook County, has created tremendous demand for local contractors.

While the couple intend to reside in Chicago and use the cabin seasonally, they are happy to have a place on the Gunflint Trail to escape and call home. Levergood said the Gunflint Trail region is “the closest to a wilderness we have here in the Midwest.” She added, “There’s something really magical about that. And there’s something really comforting about being at a place like that.”

The road ahead to transition the off-grid rustic log cabin is lengthy. However, Levergood and Johnson seem up for the challenge. They are excited to start a new tradition of returning to the Gunflint Trail to stay at their cabin and sleep somewhere with a roof over their head, even if it needs to be replaced someday.

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