Ryan and Sara Cox live in St. Paul but heed the siren call of Lake Superior. Several times a year, they make the trek northward to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the lake and its rugged hiking trails.
They especially enjoy the North Shore during the frosty months when they can snowshoe through quiet, peaceful woods.
"We love winter! It's our favorite season," said Sara. "Nothing like blue sky, white birch, beautiful snowpack — and the waterfalls are frozen. It's just magical."
The couple typically rented a place to stay in Lutsen for their northern getaways. But about three years ago, with a young child and another on the way, they decided it was time to have their own family cabin.
"We wanted to buy land and build, to share our love of the Shore with our kids, our families and our friends — to have a place to gather with them," said Sara.
So they started looking for a site that was no more than a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities. "We didn't want to be so far away that nobody would visit," Sara reasoned.
They found 2.3 acres of land between Lutsen and Tofte, close to the Superior Hiking Trail, with a view of the big lake off in the distance on one side and the Superior National Forest on the other. "It had the view we were looking for," Sara said.
The cabin they envisioned would be simple, modest in size and low-maintenance inside and out — a place where they could focus on enjoying the outdoors, not homeownership chores like painting and mowing.
"We wanted it cozy and cabin-y, but modern," said Ryan.
To design their cabin, the Coxes turned to architects Meghan Kell Cornell and Dan Wallace, Kell Architects, who had helped them with two previous remodeling projects.
The modern cabin would be very different in style from the Coxes' Craftsman bungalow in St. Paul. But its simplicity as a shelter from the elements would hark back to homes of an earlier era.
"From the beginning, it was about the bare essentials," said Wallace of the Coxes' cabin. "That continued throughout the project — things they needed versus wanted."
Maximizing views of the beauty around them was a primary goal. There was a natural clearing on a hill, with view corridors, and the cabin was set there. "You can see Superior on the horizon," said Wallace.
The floor plan and window placements also were strategically designed to highlight the outdoors. "We tried to twist the layout for optimal views," said Kell Cornell.
The cabin was set high above the land, as dictated by the site. "It's all rock. No earth," said Kell Cornell of the rugged terrain. "Creating a basement would be really tough."
Instead, the house is set on concrete piers with steel struts. "That drove the whole design, to put it up on piers," she said. "It feels like you're living amongst the trees because of the height."
Kell Cornell dubbed the cabin Snø Skur, which translates to "snow shed" in Norwegian. It's a shelter from the snow, she noted, and it sheds snow off its steep-pitched roof. The Norwegian moniker is also a nod to the cultural roots of the area and the Norwegian brothers who originally founded Tofte.
The architecture also has Scandinavian influences, such as a deep roof overhang that shelters a spot for storing wood, Kell Cornell noted. "That's a very Nordic move."
The cabin's walls were balloon-framed, a traditional building method that requires one wall height for the entire structure. "It's not done much at all anymore," said Wallace. "But it's a faster build."
And that's helpful in extreme northern climates.
"It's such a short season to build up there," Sara said.
The cabin is clad in cedar with a fire-resistant metal roof, creating the low-maintenance exterior the Coxes were seeking. The cedar requires no upkeep and will weather to a soft gray. "We didn't want to have to paint the cabin," Sara said. A cedar deck with a pipe and cable railing wraps the cabin on two sides.
Inside, the two-story, 1,200-square-foot structure is just big enough for a family of four, with two bedrooms, plus a multipurpose loft space that the Coxes can utilize when they have guests. "Two bedrooms is enough, to keep the size and cost down," said Ryan.
Originally, the cabin was going to have only one bathroom, but Sara lobbied to include a second one. "Ryan would be OK being off the grid, but I want a few creature comforts," she said.
The main-level bathroom is accessible, with a no-barrier shower, to accommodate Ryan's father, who uses a scooter. There's also a bridge to the main entrance that functions as a ramp. "He can navigate it really well," said Sara.
The upper-level bedroom has exposed rafters, and "a cool asymmetrical layout because of the dormer," said Kell Cornell, as well as "a sensational view of the lake."
In the main living area, there's a cozy wood stove, Douglas fir flooring and sliding doors with a railing in front. "In summer, you can really open it up," said Kell Cornell.
Also bringing in light are six skylights. One weekend during construction, the couple drove up to check on their cabin's progress. "It was getting framed, and Ryan said, 'I think we need skylights for this side,' " Sara recalled. "We call them the Northern Lights skylights" because the Aurora Borealis is visible through them.
The skylights can be opened, and they help cool the cabin in summer. "There's no need for air conditioning," said Sarah. "And it's so nice and bright."
The kitchen also is light and bright, with a big window above the sink that frames a view of the lake. The materials are quiet and utilitarian: Douglas fir flooring, cabinets with a Douglas fir veneer and no hardware, just pullouts. "It's casual. Nothing glitzy," said Kell Cornell. Ryan made their dining table using leftover Douglas fir from their flooring, and the countertops are Richlite, an eco-friendly product made from recycled paper.
"We kept coming back to just simple," said Sara.
With no basement or outbuildings, storage was needed inside the cabin, so the architects designed a large storage ledge above the laundry and front closet. "We tried to get the canoe on it, but it's not quite long enough," Kell Cornell said. However, the ledge is great for storing snowshoes, the family has found.
The Coxes also kept it simple when it came to their landscape. "There's no grass. We let nature do what nature does," said Ryan.
And what nature does is pretty spectacular.
"The wildflowers are amazing," said Sara. "Something new is always blooming."
Every season brings sights to savor. "The birch between us and the lake is beautiful yellow at birch peak," said Sara. "You really do feel like the outside is inside. It's very peaceful up there. You can just relax and enjoy. … We love every minute we spend in the little snow hut."
They look forward to sharing the beauty of the North Shore with their children for decades to come, Sara said. "We brought Leo up the first time at 4 months old, and Muriel at 6 weeks old, and hope this is the start of a lifetime of trips for them."