It took about 27 minutes for me to fall in love with Maine. On a recent trip there this past spring, my heart was captured in a well-worn lobster cage and thrown overboard. Somewhere in a silent cove lobster boats bob atop me like aquatic pickup trucks. Bald eagles and crows soar overhead through puffy cumulus clouds, grazing the tops of pine trees. Fog and seaspray haze the horizon at dawn and dusk. And after a spring squall, a firework display of crashing waves flashes along the craggy coastline.
These frigid, pristine waters point many vacationers’ compasses due north. Filled with landscapes a bit more protected from climate change and the unbearable heat of the south, northern summers are painted in rental cottages and fresh caught seafood, forest hikes, and crisp Atlantic or lake swimming. Wildlife. Blueberries. Just as vibrant, northern cities offer the best of human creation with a diverse cultural tapestry, bustle, and art scene. While the fierce winters limit ease and access several months out of the year, many still flock north for their vacation homes. Today’s Transitions caught up with two women who decided to go north for their second home: one opted for a lakefront Chicago condo and the other settled on the other side of that Great Lake in Washington Island, Wisconsin.
Island Life in Wisconsin
Greta Seckman and her wife Colleen Conway have owned their property on Washington Island, Wisconsin since 2007. Stretching just off the tip of Door County, a sleepy peninsula atop Green Bay, Washington Island is northern island life at its finest: slow-paced and full of swaying green grass, pine trees, and lavender fields. Rocky limestone beaches sparkle like the Caribbean — you almost forget the crystal blue coast is lake water — until you dip your toe in, that is. You take a ferry to access the island — packed with vacationers in the summer months and capable of crashing through ice in the severe winters.
“We visited the island several times and fell in love with it,” Greta explains. She and her partner wanted a weekend getaway within driving distance, and Washington Island had the serenity they desired. “It was a good time for us to buy and the project of fixing up the place was also part of our original mission.”
Greta and Colleen are handy, so they were able to do a lot of the renovations on their home with some assistance from a few contractors. “We feel super proud of all the work we put in. That first year, we went up 19 out of 22 weekends. We called ourselves ‘Weekend Warriors’ — it was tiring, but now we have spent the past 15 years making memories there. We host family reunions and make lots of memories there with our boys. Northern summers are unique, spectacular.”
The cabin is habitable seven months out of the year, and although they have visited in the dead of winter, they stress that winter there is hard. Even plowing the driveway is a major ordeal, much more tricky than hiring a lawn guy in the summer. If the snow is not maintained, it will damage equipment and becomes a liability. Over the years they have made great friends with people on the island that handle a lot of the property’s needs while they are away. Recently, a tree went down on the power line, and a neighbor-friend handled it for them. That is Greta’s biggest piece of advice if thinking of owning a second home in a remote location: make good friends that will watch out for your place. Each winter, 49 inches of snow fall on the island, with limited plows and resources available. In the summer months, they have a reliable tree guy, lawn guy, wood guy, septic man, and chimney sweep.
Originally they wanted to rent the house out for a side hustle, but decided against that option due to the stress of managing the rental. Greta advises against purchasing property for more than you can pay cash for because you never know how much extra you will have to put into the home once it is your responsibility. When they first purchased their cabin, which they renovated to include a screened front porch, pergola, and interior-exterior fireplaces, they were not planning on replacing a septic tank, water tank, and hot water heater. “We didn’t have $9000 for that and there were only so many workers on the island, so things moved slow. If you are thinking of buying a vacation investment property, make sure you love it! We were told by an advisor that a second home is diversifying your portfolio, so we treat it like that. It is an expense, but it is also a write-off.”
And if you’re thinking about heading north for that second property, also consider the maintenance of closing down and reopening for the season. Greta and Colleen winterize the place around Halloween and return in the spring to open back up for the warmer months. It is a laborious process that involves checking pipes for cracks and leaks due to the harsh winters and opening a door that may have a bat on the other side of it. But once up and running…the views, the silence, the air quality, the northern lights, and the sheets of stars are spectacular. Spectacular, indeed.
By Megan Seckman | Photos submitted