ALONG THE SEA GULL RIVER — It was 20 below zero on the morning Ashley Bredemus, her fiancé, Victor Pilon, and their very big dog, Arlo, walked across the frozen river to greet visitors at a parking lot a half-mile away.
It’s the closest place to their camp that you can drive a car, where the Gunflint Trail ends and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness begins. It’s about as remote as one can live and still be in Minnesota. Ontario is just down the river.
“It’s a different lifestyle for sure. But we love it,’’ Bredemus said as puffs of steam rose from her breath.
Their tiny cabin on the grounds of Birchwood Wilderness Camp has no running water. It’s heated with wood that they split. The closest town, Grand Marais, is a nearly 90-minute drive away. They have to haul everything the last half-mile to camp by boat, canoe, sled or snowmobile.
“It’s not that it’s a hard way to live, it’s just different,’’ Victor said, noting it’s especially remote during fall freeze-up and spring thaw. There’s a week or more when no one's going anywhere.
What’s the worst part of living past the end of the road?
“I guess forgetting to get something at the grocery store, because you don’t just run back and get it … you go without for a while,’’ Ashley said. “That and having to go outside at night when it’s 20-below to go to the bathroom.”
The best part?
“Just look around,’’ she said.
The fishing here is fantastic, lake trout and pike galore and the state record walleye was caught not far off their dock. The water is unspoiled. The air is clean. There are moose and bears in the woods and wolves hunt out on the ice. Whiskeyjacks and chickadees flitter between the balsams. Ashley and Victor can work at camp for half a day and then take the afternoon off to go hiking, snowshoeing, skiing or fishing and never see another person.
“I would never go back now,’’ Bredemus said of her move in September 2018 when she left Florida and moved to "God’s Country." People asked her how she could do it. Now she wonders why it took so long.
“I’ve described it as like when you drive out of a fog and, poof, suddenly it’s clear and you can see everything again. That’s what happened to me when I moved up here,’’ she said. “Like I had been in a fog and suddenly realized this is where I’m supposed to be.”
The Cabin Season runs year-round
You may know Bredemus by her online presence, as the woman behind “The Cabin Season,’’ a popular blog and Instagram account she’s been writing since moving north in late 2018. She has nearly 10,000 Instagram followers @ashleybredemus and more than 4,000 regular readers at thecabinseason.com.
Bredemus, 28, graduated from Grand Rapids High School in 2010, then attended Itasca Community College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
She landed a job with a big company and ended up in Florida, calling on large industrial factories like paper mills. It would be some people’s dream career. But after visiting Minnesota during summer 2018, Bredemus had an epiphany. The summer boys camp her grandparents started in 1969, where she spent so much time as a kid, was the place she most felt at home. So she quit her job and came home.
“Moving into the cabin at camp was only meant to be for one season,’’ she said. But “one winter has snowballed into a lifetime. We expect to raise our family here.”
Bredemus liked it so much that she and her dad decided in 2019 to buy Birchwood Wilderness Camp together, a wild hair idea that changed both their lives. Dan Bredemus, a former Grand Rapids shop teacher, was well into a comfortable retirement. They both pulled up stakes, Dan sold his house in Grand Rapids, Ashley cashed in her savings.
“OK, it helped that there was a cute boy back here, too,’’ she said of Pilon, who had worked at the camp when Ashley visited in 2018.
They fell in love at the camp. Victor proposed last winter, at camp, Ashley said yes, and the couple will be married at the camp on Sept. 4. Last year they built a gazebo on a hilltop at the camp where the ceremony will take place. They’re scouting locations to build their permanent home here.
“Our kids will have to take a snowmobile to get to the school bus,’’ she said.
Ashley’s grandfather, Jim Bredemus, Dan’s dad, bought the 66 wild acres here and built the camp in 1968. Their relatives had run it in recent decades. Now Ashley, Dan and Victor — a Duluth native who earned a degree in outdoor and environmental education from UMD — are in charge.
Ashley said becoming a business partner with her dad was an easy decision, in part because the guy can build or fix anything. An only child (her mother, Gail, died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer), she and Dan have been “glued at the hip’’ forever.
The timing of the purchase couldn’t have been worse from a business standpoint. In 2020, what would have been their first full year running the camp, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down youth camps in Minnesota. Their new business had no customers and no income, even as nearby canoe outfitters that cater to families and adults had among their busiest summers ever.
But they have remained positive, adding features and improving the camp during their year of waiting.
“We’re ready for 2021 after (youth) camps in other states showed how it could be done safely,’’ Ashley said. “We’re confident the demand for youth camps is going to come back strong this summer.”
Writing her passion
As Ashley settled into life at camp she began writing long emails, descriptions and explanations of life in the north woods.
“I was doing it for friends and family who wanted to know what I was up to. They thought it was interesting enough for me to blog about,’’ Ashley said.
So she did. Originally called “An Outdoor Experience’’ Ashley changed the name to “The Cabin Season” last year. The blog covers a variety of subjects focusing on how Ashley lives, works, plays and thrives at a camp on the edge of the wilderness.
“Much like my plans to stay at the cabin, my blog snowballed into something more,’’ she noted.
Bredemus stamped the mission statement on the home page. She wants it to be “redefining what it means to be an outdoors woman” and “the intersection of outdoor adventure and seasonal self-care for the modern outdoorswoman.”
Yes, she’s climbed Grand Teton and canoed the Quetico. But it’s not that Ashley Bredemus is some sort of hyper-tough lumberjill. Instead, she hopes the online persona of the woman in “The Cabin Season” is an inspiration.
“I want people to realize that being an outdoors woman can be different things to different people. ... It can be summiting a mountain or it can mean sitting on a dock and dipping your toes into the water,’’ Bredemus said. “My goal is to get more people out here. ... If I can write a blog that has a packing list for a canoe trip, and that helps someone decide to go on a trip, that’s what I’m after.”
Some readers are simply curious about life in the woods, even if they wouldn’t try it themselves.
“There’s some of that living vicariously through the blog, I think,’’ she said.
She describes her blog’s theme as “part cabin life memoir, part outdoorsy girl guide to up-leveling life in every season.’’ Recent posts include “5 Realities of Winter Camping,’’ “14 Tips For a Stress-Free Road Trip,’’ and “7 Uncommon Cures For Cabin Fever.”
The “average”’ reader of “The Cabin Season” is a woman, ages 24 to 34, Bredemus noted. But about 40% of her followers are men.
In addition to writing, she’s been delving into photography more recently, her latest favorite thing to learn and do. Her posts are full of stylish photos of Ashley wearing outdoor clothing and gear — a sort of Eddie Bauer or L.L. Bean catalog mashed up with Outside Magazine. Throw in Victor to play the woodsy fiancé, add Arlo, a giant Shiloh Shepherd, add the north woods and a log cabin as the backdrop and, presto, you have the perfect ingredients for instant blog success.
Bredemus already has several business partners, including Coleman, Wintergreen, Frost River, Askov Finlayson, Friends of the Boundary Waters, Save the Boundary Waters, and she’s always looking for more ways to make the blog a part of their north woods income and not just a hobby. Her website has links to places to stay as well as things to buy, with Bredemus getting a commission from some if you do click to purchase. But it’s not a heavy sale, and Bredemus pushes sustainability. She pledges “a slow/sustainable/quality favorites page with mama earth in mind.”
In 2020, a year marred by COVID-19 and social unrest, Bredemus took several months off from writing and posting, unsure of the relevance of her work during dark times. Now, the blog is back to being her way of staying connected even when her friends are hundreds of miles away in big cities and her closest neighbors are across the river and down the road.
“If you crave a lot of social attention, then I think this place could be lonely,” she said. “But I’m really an introvert. I’m an only child. So writing is my way of connecting with people.”
The family camp forever
Many of her posts feature the tiny, 200-square-foot cabin that Bredemus and Pilon call home. It’s called the Pepper Shack because Dan Bredemus, when he built it in 1980, was listening to Beatles music at the time, including "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (there’s still a turntable tucked in the corner of the cabin.)
Dan now lives next door (just down Penny Lane) in the camp manager’s cabin, which has a full kitchen and running water and a big table that serves as the camp office in winter, where Ashley spends much of her indoor time. A fiber-optic cable that runs under the river gives them internet access.
The first campers — boys only, ages 7 to 17 — will show up in June for two- or four-week stints, canoeing into the BWCAW or Quetico Provincial Park during the week and coming back to camp to spend weekends swimming, hiking, playing games and otherwise being kids. Other camp trips take kids rock climbing on the North Shore.
The camp is capped at 46 boys per session. There's no electricity in the camper’s cabins. No cell phones are allowed (there’s no service anyhow).
“We’re kind of a boutique camp because of the wilderness experience. Parents usually know if their son is a good fit,’’ Bredemus said. “We do the disconnected wilderness experience here very well.”
The month-long sessions cost campers $5,600 each. Still, eight weeks is a short business season, Ashley noted, so they are expanding into family camps and women’s getaway sessions to keep the camp busy into autumn. Late fall, winter and spring are theirs to travel, explore their back yard and get ready for the next summer.
Bredemus now says she and Victor are dreaming of ways to enrich both the camp and their lives together on the Sea Gull River for years to come. And we’re all invited to follow along online.
“This place is part of our history,’’ she said. “My grandparents were here. My mother was here. My dad is here. It’s part of who I am.”
Previously: Read about another couple choosing to live deep in the woods off the Gunflint Trail here.