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Barely There

If not for the dawn appearance of the bear, which came loping toward Maem Slater-Enns and her then six-month-old daughter as they sat contemplating the water, the Enns family might still be residing in tents at their remote island summer home on Shoal Lake, which straddles the borders of Manitoba and Ontario.
A series of reclaimed-wood-clad structures make a family compound on a 24-acre island on Shoal Lake.

If not for the dawn appearance of the bear, which came loping toward Maem Slater-Enns and her then six-month-old daughter as they sat contemplating the water, the Enns family might still be residing in tents at their remote island summer home on Shoal Lake, which straddles the borders of Manitoba and Ontario. Instead, they are lightly sheltered by graceful pavilions hand-built by her husband, Herbert Enns, a professor of architecture at the University of Manitoba, where he also directs the experimental media program.

The couple purchased the 24-acre island soon after returning from a trekking stint in Ethiopia, Kenya, India, and Nepal, when they experienced a classic traveler’s epiphany: “Canada’s greatest aspect is its landscape—and having this wild, remote place was more important than owning a house,” says Herbert. Dubbed Blueberry Island by the family (Herbert had favored the moniker
“Manhattan”), the island is two hours from their home in Winnipeg and a three-mile boat ride from the mainland. The family spent several summers camping happily atop wooden platforms before the bear’s cameo prompted more permanent digs. “And it wasn’t only bears,” adds Maem, a rehabilitative therapist. “At night the beavers gnaw down trees, which could have crushed us. At the same time, we didn’t want to shut out the wilderness. This was a rare chance for Herbert to experiment and build whatever he wanted—provided it didn’t cost more than $1,000.”

“At the time, I was reflecting on the work of Hans Scharoun, and Tadao Ando’s courtyard house, where you had to negotiate the weather and walk under the stars to move between the buildings,” says Herbert, who built the compact structures as “stepping-stones to the natural world.” Made mostly of recycled materials without benefit of power tools, the 10-by-21-foot sleeping pavilion is shared by Herbert, Maem, Sara, now 16, and 13-year-old Jamie, who sleeps up on a loft. A few years later, when another Ursus americanus appeared at the kitchen tent, Herbert borrowed a generator and added a 12-by-24-foot dining pavilion/guest cabin across a 25-foot mass of deck and boardwalks. The master bath and powder room consist of the lake (just add biodegradable soap) and a prefab pit latrine.  

Midway between tents and cabins, the buildings discourage critters great and small while remaining permeable to the landscape—in part through the preponderance of clear and opaque windows. Hinged plywood panels open out to let in the breezes, and there is no insulation: “It’s basically a wood frame of vertical two-by-fours wrapped with horizontal two-by-twos, embellished by a herringbone pattern of wooden bracing and clad with cedar, plywood, glass, and fiberglass panels to absorb sun and rain,” explains Herbert. A skylight oriented to the North Star slices through the dining pavilion, which has an eight-foot-square corrugated fiberglass wall that slides open. The nine-to-ten-foot sloped ceilings also make the rooms feel more expansive, critical for this preternaturally tall family of former and current basketball players.

In some ways, the cabins feel more embedded in the surroundings than the tents ever did. “There’s nowhere to ride out a storm,” says Maem. “You can’t hide from the lightning unless you put your head under the pillow, and then you still feel the buildings shake.” Light pours in (as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. on the summer solstice) and the fiberglass screens project shadow-puppet images of trees, plants, and animals.

Some creature comforts come courtesy of a 45-watt  solar panel mounted on the roof of the dining pavilion, which feeds low-wattage halogen and fluorescent light fixtures and outlets for music and laptops via a single 12-volt deep-cycle battery. Clean, clear water is pumped from the lake into the kitchen and drains into a gray­water leaching pit. When the propane fridge broke down, it was replaced with two Coleman steel coolers, which are filled with ice and replenished on the weekly trip for groceries.

Although some teenagers might balk at a summer bereft of video games and malls, Sara and Jamie crave the change of pace. “I used to long for TV,” says Sara, “but now I can’t wait to get back to the land.” For Jamie, the island offers infinite possibilities: “In the city, I can see the end of my backyard. Here, you’re more independent and resourceful by a billion. A lot of my friends have summer cottages with satellite TVs and microwaves; we have a 50-year-old stove. I like it much better.”

Gatherings revolve around the 1955 white porcelain propane-fueled stove that is, Herbert points out, identical to one in the Eames house in Pacific Palisades. “Within this primitive environment, there’s an overlay of civilization—we’re not eating berries and roots!” Friends can often be found sharing five-course meals and sipping wine out of old Bohemian crystal around the ten-foot cedar-plank table. “People boat and cycle from one camp to another. It’s more like a farming community—we keep an eye on each other.”

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    Natural Habitats

    The experimental buildings on Shoal Lake are featured in the recently published Cabin, Cottage & Camp: New Designs on the Canadian Landscape, a thoughtful compendium of contemporary “homes away” that—despite wildly different scales and budgets—all share an intimate relationship with the wilderness.

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