The cabin on the outskirts of Holyrood is nearly 40 years old, says current owner John Harris during the half-hour walk in over a snow machine trail that, in the summer, is a road. The pickup truck is parked a few kilometres away, about as close as it gets at this time of year. Between calls to his dog, Roxy, who bounds through the snow ahead of us, he explains how the cabin is a work in progress that has kept him busy for most of the warm-weather weekends of the past two years. It sits on the edge of a large pond, just a few metres down from the mouth of a river rumoured to be good for trout. In the summer months, a long dock reaches into the water and secures a pontoon boat.
It’s no wonder John’s wife Patrice fell in love with the place when she first saw this classic, rustic lakeside getaway. Large windows reach up to the roof, providing ample light in the gabled living room overlooked by a loft. The trees have been cut back to create a yard space with a firepit and Muskoka chairs, and a path leads down to the water. The cabin is neighboured by two others, and John and Patrice have become good friends with the other cabin owners. But beyond the trio of cabins, and a few more further down the pond, there isn’t much out here. At night, the stars are the only light. It’s a quiet solitude and escape that nearly eluded the St. John’s family.
Had it not been for Patrice mentioning to her realtor friend, Holly Rideout, that she and John were looking for a cabin, they may have never found this secluded spot. The cabin was quietly put up for sale, the listing passed among realtors but never made public. It’s what realtors call a pocket listing. Holly told her friend about it, warning her that it was rustic, difficult to get to, and in need of some work.
“I looked at it and said there’s potential,” said John, not immediately sure he wanted to take on ownership of this project. His wife, though, fell in love with the place right away, and the two decided they could make it work.
Many repairs and renovations followed the purchase, and the couple bought a pickup truck to handle the rough road and loads of material coming in and out of the cabin. Holly, who joined us for the day trip to the cabin, described the place as having new life breathed into it since she last saw it.
There’s a long list of work that has already been completed, along with a list of things still to be done. The cabin hadn’t been used for at least a couple of years before John and Patrice bought it, and it had a list of issues that needed attention. The roof leaked, the pipes leaked, the floor was going, the generator had issues, the well didn’t work, the yard was badly overgrown, the windows needed replacing, and the existing floor plan was too cramped. In the first year, says John, he lost 24 pounds just from the physical work of fixing up his family’s new summer getaway.
John, a self-described lifelong tinkerer, took on much of the work himself, along with the help of a local handyman and the advice of his new cabin neighbor, Bob, a structural engineer. When Bob would stop by, John would announce his plans to remove a wall. “Bob would have a look at the wall and give the nod. Yup, it can come down,” says John, who also relied on Bob for advice on how to keep the cabin structurally sound.
After spending some cooler days and nights at the cabin, John and Patrice noticed the fireplace in the living room never seemed to adequately heat the somewhat sheltered dining room area, so another fireplace – this one propane-fueled – was installed. Sitting next to it at the dining room table, John describes the work he’s done, beginning with the fireplace. Its tile border is still waiting for mortar and the cabin’s outside wall is still visibly scarred from the fireplace grafted onto its side.
The open-concept kitchen and dining area wasn’t always this way. The room, which isn’t large, used to be divided by a three-piece bathroom. They tore it out, removed the walls, and built an addition onto the back of the cabin to house the new bathroom. It’s still just off the kitchen, but doesn’t interfere with the flow of the space anymore.
Sitting on a couch in the living room, you can see most of the cabin. The stone hearth incorporates three stairs leading up from the living room to the kitchen and dining area. The stone chimney climbs to the ceiling, two stories overhead, where the fire warms the loft and its three cozy bedrooms. The stones used to lead from the stairs all the way to the front door. They have since been replaced by tile after it was discovered the floor under the stone had rotted away. One of the most labour-intensive repair jobs, and one that few people will ever see, involved John and a local handyman crawling through the dirt-floored crawlspace under the house to replace every floor joist.
A 250-gallon tank used to sit under the roof in the loft but the idea of all that water hanging over his head didn’t sit well with John, so he moved the tank to outside the house. During all this work, John battled leaking pipes. “It got to the point where every time I’d put water down the pipes I’d find another leak,” said John. The best solution, he figured, was to replace all the plumbing. So he did. Tracking down one water leak led to the discovery of roof problems. John patched it where needed, but stopped short of replacing the entire roof.
In John and Patrice’s bedroom, the window didn’t provide a view of the pond, so they moved it to a wall that would provide the view they wanted. The rest of the single paned windows in the cabin are being replaced with insulated double paned windows.
While John worked on the structure, Patrice took over decorating duties. Red and black plaid, snowshoes, and rustic-looking country-themed furniture creates a classic cabin feel. Patrice used sticks found in the woods near the cabin to create the chandelier suspended from the living room ceiling.
Lights in the kitchen feature cutouts of trees and moose, and candlesticks are made from cut birch branches.
The renovations, combined with Patrice’s cottage-country inspired decorating, have created a cozy, rustic getaway that has become their favourite place to spend a summer’s day.