MILWAUKEE — Whether you're a tiny house hater or devotee, there's no denying the little abodes are hot right now.
From HGTV's Tiny House Hunters to minimalist blogs and Instagrams, everyone's getting in on the tiny house game. And it's finally made its way to Wisconsin. At Canoe Bay near Chetek, you can live the tiny house life — at least the tiny house vacation life.
On the first night I stayed in one of the resort's 344-square-foot tiny homes, I pushed back the blinds in the window next to my bed to take in the late-night view — the frozen white expanse of a lake was visible through a smattering of trees, and the night sky was full of constellations whose names I should know.
It was quiet, peaceful, cozy — everything I was looking for in a non-adventurous weekend getaway. I could get used to this tiny house life — at least for a weekend.
My mom had bigger ambitions, metaphorically speaking, of living in one full-time.
I don't remember when exactly she birthed her tiny house dream.
I do remember it was conceived with the help of shows like Tiny House Hunters that follow couples (and families!) on their quest to squeeze their lives into 200-square-foot boxes.
My mom had always harbored dreams of retiring to the RV life: touring the country in a bus with a bed, parking it semi-permanently at my siblings' and my houses between trips.
Then the tiny house revolution provided a more homey solution, an actual house in tiny proportions. A self-contained mother-in-law suite for more permanent parking in a child's backyard.
Through the aspirational lens of HGTV, I couldn't disagree that a tiny house was intriguing. It certainly beat my itinerant home, a 30-square-foot tent. And as I watched my friends struggle to find affordable, traditional homes (and battle the clutter, cleaning and maintenance that come with them), the idea of a compact, budget-friendly home grew more appealing.
So when I saw Canoe Bay had opened ESCAPE Village, with a few tiny homes available for vacation rentals, I figured we could both get a real-life dose of tiny-house living.
The tiny homes are part of the first large-scale tiny home village in the Midwest. Built by Rice Lake-based ESCAPE, developers checked off many tiny house boxes, with some major pluses: red cedar siding gave the abodes a rustic-chic (and Instagram-friendly) look; modern, full-size appliances and plumbing; large windows and high ceilings for plenty of natural light; a queen-size bed in a separate bedroom on the main level; perched on a wooded lake for maximum privacy and natural views.
We pulled up to our Traveler XL model after dark, so we'd have to wait until morning to take in those views in the daylight.
What we did take in was the "tiny" space, still new-smelling with a hint of pine. One wall featured a full-size refrigerator, a gas stove and oven (not available for use by guests), a full-size kitchen sink and a flat-screen television above an electric fireplace. On the opposite wall, a butcher block table with two chairs sat beneath an oversize window and alongside a couch that could fold flat into a bed.
On one end of the home, a queen-size bed filled a bedroom — an upgrade from the lofted bedrooms that are common to tiny homes. On the other end of the home, a bathroom featured a large vanity, toilet and shower with tub — another tiny house upgrade. A loft above the bathroom provided another sleeping space. Pine lined the walls, and frosted glass doors let light pass between the bedroom, bathroom and main living space. The high ceilings and large windows made everything feel bigger than tiny.
That's the goal, according to ESCAPE CEO and founder Dan Dobrowolski.
"You can go in and you can go, 'I don’t feel like I'm in a box.' The ceiling is high, airy and it's light. It feels real," he said. "Everything is real-size. The bathroom is bigger than the one I had in my first two apartments. It's a real bed, it's a real bedroom, there's a real sink, there's a real stove, refrigerator, table where you can sit."
Aside from the price and portability, Dobrowolski doesn't hesitate to point out what attracts people to his tiny homes: design.
When Dobrowolski left a two-decade career as a television meteorologist in Chicago to start Canoe Bay on the grounds of an old church camp outside Chetek, he teamed up with architect Kelly Davis to design the resort's cabins, with heavy influence from Frank Lloyd Wright.
"That kind of Zen, quiet architecture is what we love the most. ... I like things that are peaceful to the eye and are calming," he said.
Dobrowolski started building Canoe Bay in 1992 with his wife, Lisa. Since then the resort has garnered awards for its high-end cabins, elegant dining room — supplied from the onsite organic garden — and top-notch service.
John Rattenbury, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, designed some of the cabins along with Dobrowolski and Davis.
"We had people almost from the beginning who would come to Canoe Bay and say, 'We want one of those,'" Dobrowolski said.
About four years ago, they began putting some of the smaller versions of their homes on frames.
"When we saw the tiny house thing coming on, we already had in place the designs, the people, the build teams, etc., because to a large degree we were already doing it. So all we did was made them mobile," he said.
"Everybody loved them. It instantly kind of went viral," he said, noting that ESCAPE's website saw a dramatic jump in traffic when a few blogs posted about their tiny homes.
Tiny house, or just a small cabin?
But isn't "tiny home" just clever marketing jargon for a cabin or mobile home?
"The term tiny home legally means nothing," Dobrowolski said. "It just creates confusion. A tiny home is any small building that people inhabit for some amount of time."
In 1998, architect Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live. The bestseller advocated for smaller homes that maximized space and took advantage of flow and natural light — an emphasis of quality over quantity and pushback to the McMansion era. Susanka and the book are credited with sparking the small-home movement.
Tiny houses are generally under 500 square feet and of course are not new — pioneers lived in one-room cabins and modern hunters have their shacks. But tiny houses these days are different. They're usually mounted on trailers for transporting and they're impeccably designed to maximize every inch of space.
Photos: Canoe Bay's tiny house village
The problem comes in legally defining them. They don't fit into existing zoning laws and building codes, which often require homes to be larger or don't allow permanent residence in mobile structures.
Legally, ESCAPE's tiny homes are recreational vehicles — they conform to department of transportation standards and all have their own VINs.
"It's not built like a normal travel trailer, it doesn’t act like a normal travel trailer, it doesn’t look like a travel trailer, but it's a travel trailer," Dobrowolski said. "There's quite a difference between an Airstream and a Traveler XL (ESCAPE's most popular model). … But they both have everything in them to be certified as RVs. One is built like a house … one is a tin can."
Consider insulation: RVs typically are not insulated as well as a house, but ESCAPE's tiny homes are.
Dobrowolski said they've sold units to "every socioeconomic group and every age group," from Silicon Valley billionaires to single 20-somethings, but "a lot of them are vacation or second homes."
It's easier to imagine vacationing in a tiny home than actually living in one. As I lay in the queen bed, I couldn't fathom fitting all of my belongings in the small space. My outdoor gear alone would need its own shed. The rest of my stuff would require serious purging.
And the thought of a family living in one full-time — like in some of those HGTV shows — is insane. Even with just two people, you better really like the other person to live in such a small space with them. Talk about testing a relationship.
But for a weekend getaway, it was the perfect size. More homey than a hotel room, but more affordable than cabins of the same quality. Some of the bigger ESCAPE units have two full bedrooms, larger living rooms and screened sleeping porches.
Aside from one of those larger units being visible from our windows and a few hikers passing by on the road, there was ample privacy in our unit, especially with the blinds drawn.
Our tiny home didn't have Wi-Fi, but there was cable on two flat-screen TVs, so we spent a lazy morning watching HGTV, drinking coffee and reading.
But the beauty of tiny homes is the subtle push they give you to get out of them. You can sit and watch the outside world through the giant windows, or you can walk a few steps and breathe in the crisp winter air, smell the pines and feel the soft powder beneath your feet.
So we ventured down two metal steps outside the front door into the snowy landscape. The new ESCAPE Village has only a few tiny homes now in a cluster along Mallard Lake, but more homes are in the works for a handful of clusters around two lakes on 100 wooded acres. The units are available for individual ownership and can then be rented out through Canoe Bay.
We hiked down the snow-covered road past Mallard and Lost lakes, pausing to locate a woodpecker whose telltale drumroll rang out from above. Along Dead Goose Lake we passed behind some of Canoe Bay's original cabins, their Prairie-style architecture in harmony with the surrounding landscape. We waved to a pair of couples sitting on their cabin's back patio in the mild January weather, covered in blankets, sipping wine before noon and obviously living their best lives.
It's quiet at Canoe Bay, and not just because of the remote wooded location (Chetek, with a population of just over 2,000, is 10 miles west). Kids and pets are not allowed. While I love hearing kids enjoying the outdoors when I'm at state parks and other outdoor spots, a weekend free of the stunning lung capacity of youth is a welcome respite. There's a reason the resort has earned a reputation as a romantic getaway.
The quiet enveloped us as we sat on an oversize Adirondack chair overlooking the lake. Later, inspired by the cabin couples, we opened our own bottle of wine at the table in our tiny house, soaking in the views through the big windows that dominated the room.
For two days, we lived big — nearly as well as we would have in a larger home or cabin. While we couldn't use the stove, we did make use of the refrigerator and microwave to store and reheat meals we had brought. We also took advantage of the full-size shower/tub to wash off a full day of hiking. None of it felt cramped or inferior to a regular home.
"What Frank Lloyd Wright got right is he didn’t forget that people move in space, and that's what we always try to remember," Dobrowolski said. "It's not what we design. How is someone going to live in it?"
On Sunday, before we began the four-hour drive back to Milwaukee, we both wished we had at least one more day to live in the tiny house bubble.
But could we do it full-time? In something that beautifully designed and well-built, there was a tiny chance.
If you go
Canoe Bay offers three tiny-home models available for rent: Traveler XL, Premiere One Bedroom and Premiere Two Bedroom. Rates vary, but our Traveler XL cost $195 per night for a winter weekend, plus taxes and a one-time cleaning fee. Kids under 18 are not permitted in the ESCAPE Village, nor are pets and smoking. See escapevillages.com.
Homes in the ESCAPE Village are available for individual ownership, with rental possibilities through Canoe Bay. The Traveler XL unit we stayed in costs $91,350, plus a lot rental fee. ESCAPE also sells its units for personal use outside the resort, and has its own trucking firm to deliver them.
In the area, the Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area is great spot for hiking and snowshoeing about 20 miles south of the resort. The Blue Hills trails about 20 miles to the north are great for cross-country skiing, and nearby Christie Mountain has no-wait downhill skiing.
Bloomer Brewing Co. reopened in Bloomer in 2013, but the brewery dates back to before prohibition and brews a range of solid offerings from Back Porch, a lemon-raspberry ale, to the seasonal Winter Bock, a bock made with Wisconsin syrup.
In Chetek, Caddy Shack Bar & Grill lives up to its reputation of having the best pizza in the area.
Follow Chelsey Lewis on Twitter: @chelseylew