I needed to escape. I craved a hearty dose of quiet simplicity.

Our home office, where my fingers work the keyboard constructing words and paragraphs to assemble and sell, is a stimulating room. And while I love it, I wonder if it harbors an overdose of stimuli. There are scores of shelved old and new books, an assortment of rocks, several bouquets of turkey and ruffed grouse feathers, a wood carved hawk head wearing a finely tooled leather raptor hood, birch baskets, birch bark scraps, a pair of small carved cedar canoes, a plant press, a single antique snow ski, a tube of back country maps, two fine whitetail skulls adorned with impressive antlers, a dinner plate-sized snapping turtle shell, a scattering of turkey, crow and owl calls, photos of my two daughters and a younger rendition of me and my wife on our wedding day, a half dozen old bottles in the east window, a carnival of colors on the wall as the sun filters through them.

While this might seem like the perfect writing retreat, there are days when I pause in trying to find the perfect word or phrase.  And in that moment of respite, my gaze rests on a book title that seduces my focus and suddenly I am man-hauling heavy sledges with Shackleton in the Antarctic or I might be making the first descent down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I might ignore the phantom shoulder tapping of other book titles and turn my head in a different direction. It might be up and to my right, directly at the bleached deer skull with the dark, heavy antlers. And then I am back at the November deer shack that sits quietly in the boreal wilds at the edge of Superior National Forest. Clearly for a mind as wayward as mine, I have created too many wonderful distractions in this room.

Sometimes I need a change of scenery. So recently I declared to my Lovely Lady that I had to get away for a midwinter trek to the deer shack to work on some rewrites, a book synopsis and proposal. She thought it was a great idea as she was going to be gone anyway teaching a life coaching course in Minneapolis.

The deer shack is over 200 miles north of our farmhouse that we refer to as Base Camp. A crew of Nelsons built the shack on July 4, 1940. The lumber was recycled from a dismantled potato warehouse in a local small town and the only real expenditure was the twenty-nine dollars worth of shingles. The single paneled door hung that buggy summer day has been patched, strapped and signed over the years but it still remains in place. It sorely needs a door sweep as snow blows in and drifts just inside the door. I believe a daily newspaper, perhaps not the Sunday Edition, could be delivered directly under the door.

The only interior light comes from three small windows, barred on the outside with old oven racks to keep erratically flying grouse from breaking the windows. At night, candles or lantern light up the interior. There is no insulation whatsoever, other than the lacey cobwebs that shudder and pulsate during any west-northwest breeze.  If you peer close enough at the exposed wooden planks that made up the original siding, you might discover brief penciled notes such as “1954: Ev -1 doe and 1 buck, Art -1 fawn, Tip -1 buck.” The other stories of that particular year and many years, are soaked into the old, dark boards, trapped in the tars of countless smoked cigarettes particularly during those first twenty five years. Why if those tales and the following forty years worth could emerge from the walls, I suspect new libraries would have to be constructed.

Henry David Thoreau, the simple living transcendentalist of the18 century would have nodded approvingly of this most simple shelter.

It took me about an hour to pull the gear-laden sled from my parked truck to the remote shack. For most of the pull I was able to take advantage of a snowmobile trail. The sled pulled easily here and I was glad I encountered no snowmobiles.

The first job upon opening the shack is to get a fire built in the homemade stove, made from a two-foot section of ¼ inch thick pipeline pipe. There is nothing colder, nor lonelier, than an unheated shack or cabin. The alchemy of fuel, a dry scrap of birch bark and dry spruce twigs covered with thicker sticks, combined with a single struck match must first deliver a warming fire before that evolves to a cooking fire. And only after my belly is full and dish washing water heated will I accept the company of a friendship fire where I will relax and listen closely to hear what solitude has to say.

Not only is there no nearby road, there is no electricity, nor running water. Well that’s not entirely true, there is running water under the ice of the river that runs less than fifty paces from the shack. To fetch the water I listen to the muffled riffle rapids that I stand over. I know this drop of river and it is shallow so I confidently seek out an opening in the ice or a thin skin of ice where I can kick a hole to scoop water with an old cooking pan to fill the five-gallon bucket.

For the next three days my time was refreshingly simple. My focus would be to chop wood, fetch water, keep a fire going, cook simple meals, set a chair within inches of the crackling stove and find, scribble and arrange words. Here in this most humble of shelters there is no hum of a fridge, no blathering of  a television, and no prattle of a radio. If I want music, I need to sing it myself. I found myself almost giddy with satisfaction as I reveled in the quiet simplicity and intention of tasks.

In the evening, after chores were done, I mostly read. One night I considered searching the single wood cupboard for a deck of cards. It’s been many years since I played a game of solitaire. I could have a solitaire tournament. I wouldn’t have to worry about whose turn it was nor wallow in the dregs of defeat if I couldn’t beat myself.

I celebrated a time-out from writing or reading to hike along the river and follow the serpentine, sliding dash-dot-dot-dash trail of an otter or the more purposeful single file trail of a good-sized wolf. I marveled at how the cast-off raven feather laying on the river surface contrasted with the snow, like an old black and white negative. And even more astonishing was how the delicate black feather had absorbed February sunlight and melted a custom fit, feather-shaped tub into the ice.

Each night before bed, I would stand outside under the parade of stars to pee. I always tarried a bit to listen for howling wolves but heard none. And a quick involuntary shiver would always hustle me back indoors to the companionable stove and two lit candles. And silence.

The temperature was dropping as the afternoon sun began its descent. I knew the night would be cold. I do not like getting out of bed in the predawn darkness to get a fire going. I decided to gather materials before supper. No tinder is better than a dry scroll of birch bark and you cannot beat dry cedar twigs for kindling that will explode into a fire when you give it a flame.

Across the river I climbed uphill to an area where I knew there was a good stand of old birch. I found an eight-inch tube of birch bark on the ground and stuffed it with more birch scraps. Then downhill, I walked under a dark canopy of white cedar and found an dry branch on the ground where I easily snapped off a good handful of cedar twigs. On the hike back to the shack I stopped along a snowshoe hare trail to consider the loping prints of what I guessed was a fisher. The fisher, a misnamed member of the weasel family, considers the hare its kindling and inner fuel.

I re-crossed the river and made my way uphill to the shack. I had less than 24 hours before I had to load up my sled and return to the truck. And though I had had some writing success, the better lessons were the mute ones of simplicity and intentional living.