ELY - It’s not easy to find alone time with Steve Lampman. The sparkly-eyed, gray-haired Ely man is simply too friendly to be exclusive.
Just ask Ely fishing guide Dean Bushey, who recently learned the extent of Lampman’s popularity during a visit to an Ely café. The two were meeting to negotiate the buying and selling of Lampman and his wife Liz Schendel’s remote cabin rental business, Log Cabin Hideaways.
“Steve would walk in, and I’d go up there and shake his hand, and three others would shake his hand, too,” Bushey said. “… He’s an icon in Ely. Almost everyone knows him.”
Bushey wasn’t exaggerating. At one point in his life, Lampman was known around town as the unofficial “mayor” for his warm and outgoing personality.
“He’s one of the most social animals you’ve ever met in your life,” said Nancy Piragis, one of Lampman’s longtime Ely friends and a fellow Ely business owner.
So, in mid-July when it came time to end the coffeehouse business meetings and hand over Log Cabin Hideaways to Bushey and his wife, Cecilia Quattromani, Lampman said it wasn’t the cabins he’d miss, but the guests.
“I’ve made a lot of wonderful, great friendships,” Lampman said, referring to his clients. “But I won’t miss the cabin. … I don’t have any attachments to anything like that.”
Longtime customers reciprocated Lampman’s sentiments.
“We really love (Steve and Liz),” said Janine Mack of Minneapolis. “They made us feel like we were special, and they always remembered stuff about our boys.”
Mack and her sister Milva Sandison of England have been bringing their now-adult sons to Log Cabin Hideaways’ remote-access cabins almost every summer since 1991. Mack said Lampman and Schendel’s hospitality was always the main reason they’d come back, recalling many visits Lampman had made in the middle of their weeklong stays to chat and deliver goods from town such as bloody mary mix and coffee.
“You feel like you’re in their family,” Sandison said.
That was the goal.
“Steve would take a lot of time to sit down with people and hear about their lives,” Schendel said. “I think that had a lot to do with our success and why people came back.”
If not for the company, Mack said she would’ve returned for the remote experience of leaving her car behind and relaxing in a quiet place just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“It’s heavenly here,” she said from her seat in Log Cabin Hideaways’ Triangle Lake cabin during the week of the Fourth of July. “We’re alone. It’s incredible compared to resorts.”
To reach the cabin, Mack and her family drove almost five hours from the Twin Cities to meet Lampman at the put-in on Ely’s Ojibway Lake. From there, Lampman guided them as they canoed across two lakes and slid their week’s-worth of gear and food over the area’s only remaining roller-portage.
As far as Lampman and Schendel are aware, their cabins are the only water-only-access cabins built in quiet, remote areas. They said the other water-access cabins around Ely are located on busy, motorized lakes.
“I wanted (my guests) to know what it’s like to look up and see the stars and not have any light pollution,” he said.
The Triangle Lake cabin and their other formerly owned cabins give the backwoods experience. They have wood-fired stoves and saunas, propane-fueled refrigerators, outhouses and compost piles nearby, and solar-powered lights. Guests bathe by jumping into the lakes in the summer and chiseling holes through the ice in the winter.
“They love doing that,” Lampman said. “It’s part of the experience.”
How it began
Schendel and Lampman met in Ely one summer in the late 1970s. Both had seasonal jobs involved in the environmental assessment of the first copper-nickel mining project proposed in the area - Schendel was with the Pollution Control Agency and Lampman with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
They spent that summer weekend camping in the Boundary Waters and, a year later, together bought 33 acres of undeveloped land between Ely and Babbitt. Schendel returned home to Minneapolis to make money for most of that year, while Lampman lived on the property in a tent as he built a log cabin to call home.
“Liz and I needed a place to live, so I learned how to build log cabins,” Lampman said.
He acquired the trade by studying books and - when he could spare gas money for the eight miles into town - through his friend Ron Brodigan’s log-building classes at Ely’s Vermilion Community College.
Once he finished building their home, Schendel returned to Ely to waitress and take on other odd jobs in the area, and Lampman, with his newly learned skill, taught log construction courses at Voyageur Outward Bound School near Ely. Among the buildings he constructed was a second log cabin on their home property - a cabin he eventually rented out through Log Cabin Hideaways.
Lampman also built log structures for local company Bissonett Log Construction. It was while he was working there that his idea to start a remote cabin rental business developed.
“People were always stopping in and saying, ‘I wish I had a log cabin. It’s so cool,’” Lampman recalled from his time with Bissonett. “It gave Liz and I the idea that, ‘Well, maybe we should do something like that.’”
So in 1988, they took out a loan and bought 128 acres on Triangle Lake just south of the Boundary Waters near Ely. The idea was to build a log cabin on the remote property and rent it to vacationers who wanted a wilderness experience, but also wanted a roof to sleep under and a stove to cook on.
“It’s kind of like the best of both worlds,” Lampman said.
When it came time to build the cabin, Lampman and Schendel got lucky and a powerful windstorm downed hundreds of trees on their home property.
“It was like manna from heaven,” Lampman said.
To harvest the trees, they hosted a work party with dozens of friends.
“Whole herds of us would go out and lift (the trees) up on our shoulders and haul them to the building site,” Piragis said. “It was just Ely recreation.”
Lampman used a sawmill to turn the gathered logs into lumber and then hauled the finished pieces into town, where he started the construction phase of the project.
Once the cabin was built, he took it apart like a kit and used snowmobiles and cross-country skis to carry the cabin pieces across two frozen lakes and a snowy 10-rod portage to the Triangle Lake cabin site. He and friends finished the cabin reconstruction by the end of that 1990 winter.
“Good friends helped me a lot in getting going,” Lampman said. “Without them, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
Despite advertising their newly built rental cabin in Piragis’ business catalog, Schendel and Lampman said they were still unsure of themselves going into that first summer.
“We didn’t have a business plan,” Lampman said. “We thought, ‘Hell, if they don’t come, we’ll sell it.”
They did come, though. And they kept coming, week after week. The business was so successful, they decided to build more cabins every couple of years.
“It just went so well,” Schendel said, “and we could make a decent amount of money doing it.”
After Triangle Lake, they built four more isolated cabins in the area - one a mile-portage away from Triangle Lake on Lark Lake - and renovated two cabins on Birch Lake. Counting the extra cabin on their home property, at one point they owned a total of eight cabins.
Pretty soon, they also were managing and leasing out other people’s cabins in the area.
“That got to be too big,” Lampman said. “We were all over the place.”
After being totally overwhelmed, they decided to quit their stint in property management and cut back on their own rental business by selling their most-distant cabin, on Twin Lakes between Tower and Ely.
Running the business
Lampman and Schendel both said the reason they were able to live off their rentals was because they did most of the work themselves.
Besides building the cabins, Lampman was the face of the company, greeting guests and bringing them out to their vacation sites. And Schendel was the brains, managing the money and scheduling arrangements with customers from afar. Both dabbled in each other’s areas when necessary, and both cleaned the cabins between guests.
“Every Saturday was a new logistical nightmare,” Lampman said. “How are we going to do this most efficiently?”
Usually, it meant they’d grab their young daughter and pack their motorized canoe with cleaning supplies, then split up the cabins. Schendel would clean Triangle Lake and then carry Zoe the mile portage to Lark Lake. Lampman would drop them off, head to the other cabins and then pick them up at the end of the day.
“I would’ve much rather been doing that than going to work 9-to-5 and putting her in day care,” Schendel said.
Doing it themselves also meant they missed a lot of weddings and didn’t have as much time for fun.
“There’re some times when play and work have been out of balance,” Schendel said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re more business partners than being married. … I hope once we’re retired, we’ll have more fun together.”
The times they did hire friends, it was to help finish the cabin roofs and windows during the construction phases, or to split and stack firewood for the cabins’ wood stoves and saunas throughout the year.
“A lot of my friends were pretty athletic,” Lampman said. “They wouldn’t mind skiing out there with 50-pound tools on their backs and going out to work for the day. A lot of people would say, ‘No way in hell am I going to do that.’ These guys didn’t care. They thought it was a challenge.”
Jeremy Kershaw, who now lives in Duluth, was one of these “pack horses.” From 1998 to 2003, when he wasn’t guiding canoe or dogsled trips, he’d help Lampman and a group of his friends do grunt work.
“Lampman was very hardworking, so we felt obligated to work as hard as this guy did,” Kershaw said. “He’s deceptive because he’s slightly built, but he’s one of the toughest guys I know.”
Kershaw, the founder and coordinator of Duluth’s Heck of the North 100-mile gravel bike race, said Lampman was the reason he got into endurance racing. As running partners, Lampman encouraged him to run his first long-distance race, Duluth’s Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.
“So many people I met in the woods back then didn’t take good care of themselves,” Kershaw said. “They were drinking and smoking, but Steve would be out there eating soy nuts.”
Lampman, who played hockey for the University of Minnesota Duluth in the 1960s, learned to be active at a young age. Growing up in Rochester, Minn., he’d place a coffee can full of water outside his front door and wait for winter to come. The first time it’d freeze, he’d run down to the creek and look for ice.
“If there was enough ice to hold me, I’d be on my skates,” he said.
Though he doesn’t play hockey anymore, Lampman fills his time cross-country skiing and fat-biking through the snow.
“I can’t imagine not having a winter activity,” he said.
The end of an era
As Lampman and Schendel have been spreading the word about their route to retirement, longtime customers have been calling and emailing in with concerns.
“One of them said it was the end of an era,” Schendel said. “And it is. You can’t buy land or rent out cabins the same way we did.”
Before selling their company and Triangle Lake cabin to Bushey and Quattromani, the couple was able to sell four of their other cabins to former customers and friends.
They still own three cabins and said they’ll continue to rent them out until they’re sold - which could be soon, since they’ve already received purchasing offers on two of them.
Schendel speculates the third one, which is the small cabin on their home property, will be kept for hosting guests during their retirement.
As far as anybody who could’ve taken over their business, Lampman said Quattromani and Bushey top his list.
“They’re outgoing people and (Bushey’s) a good woodsman,” he said.
Bushey grew up in the woods on Willow Lake in Tripoli, Wis., and spent many summers fishing with family in Ely. When he got older and left the house, those childhood memories guided him back north to work for Ely’s various outfitting companies. About 10 years ago, he started his own canoe-based Ely fishing and outfitting company, Bushey Guide Services.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do is be out in the woods and fish and hunt,” Bushey said. “It’s my forte.”
Around the same time he started his business, Bushey also married Quattromani. He then permanently settled in Ely - though Quattromani didn’t join him until eight years later.
The self-titled “suburbia city girl” originally from northern Virginia said she wasn’t ready to live in the woods right away, so she stayed in Minneapolis to work for UnitedHealthcare. Eventually, through her visits to see Bushey, she warmed up to the backcountry and the two decided to move into a log cabin Bushey had built outside of Ely.
“This has slowed me down,” said Quattromani, who continues to work for UnitedHealthcare from her log cabin’s workroom via internet. “When I’m in the city, I have a very busy social calendar. When I’m here, it’s calmer, and it’s about listening to the birds in the morning.”
“You can’t help but become healthier out here,” Bushey said.
The middle-aged couple said they’ll be adding two more cabins onto the business to make three, but otherwise, have no other plans except to keep it as similar as possible to the way Schendel and Lampman had been running it.
“It’s already perfect,” Quattromani said.
“There’s no reason to change success,” Bushey added.
When buying the Triangle Lake cabin, Bushey and Quattromani also purchased the unfinished cabin on the same property they now call the Guide’s Cabin.
Bushey, a skilled carpenter, said he’ll put the finishing touches on the cabin and then use it as a base-point for his fishing guiding services. His fishing customers can sleep in the Triangle Lake cabin while he prepares the food and gear in the Guide’s Cabin about a half mile away. When he’s not occupying it, they’ll rent it out to guests just like the others.
Along with completing the Guide’s Cabin, Bushey also is finishing their one-room hike-in cabin called Blueberry Hill.
The look-out cabin is located around the same area as the other two and has direct access to the 20-mile hiking loop around Snowbank Lake and the 40-mile Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters. It also has its own snowshoeing and mountain-biking trail system.
“It’s a place that you can go to get away from it all,” Quattromani said.
The couple said their cabins should be licensed and ready for occupancy by autumn.