LAKE LIDA -- When Alayne Gorton was a girl, she and friends would rent paddleboats for 50 cents per half-hour at Solinger's Resort on the east shore of Lake Lida.
Their destination: the thickly wooded wedge of land, known to some as Gooseberry Island, at the center of the lake.
They never made it. The trip felt like a transatlantic quest in their kid-powered crafts. But years later, Gorton shared the memory with her fiancé, Dan Kelly. The next time they visited her hometown of Pelican Rapids, her parents, George and Sharon Gorton, took them by boat to the island.
Everyone else saw a splotch of land overtaken by nearly impenetrable tangles of thistles and burning weed. Visitors needed a machete to get anywhere beyond the narrow strip of beach.
But Dan saw potential - the ideal spot for a retreat from their busy life in the Twin Cities, where he works as an attorney.
That was 11 years ago. Thanks to the couple's tenacity, a small army of building experts and a series of logistical maneuvers that would impress a four-star general, Dan's vision has become reality.
Completed in 2006, their 3,100-square-foot island home boasts huge windows overlooking the front lawn, a wood-burning fireplace, a fully appointed kitchen and a dramatic, two-story room.
The structure boasts woodsy cabin touches like rough-hewn wood deck railings, cement-board siding that looks like cedar, and knotty pine paneling inside.
"I'm very happy how it worked out," says Dan. He sits with Alayne at their dining room table, which overlooks the green lawn, blue water and tree fort where their kids - Maddie, 9, Emma, 7, and John, 3 - play and turn cartwheels.
"I think it worked out better than most people anticipated."
Complex island complex
A home on an island is sort of like a tiny, intricately built ship in a bottle: At first, you're just content to admire the finished product, without thinking much about how it got there.
But no phase of this construction job was simple. Even purchasing the 8-acre island was complex.
In 1999, the couple searched county records to find the property's absentee owner, a "Dr. Brown" from the Twin Cities.
It took Dan five years of phone conversations and relationship-building until the doctor finally conceded that his wife thought they should sell to the "nice young man" who kept calling them.
In 2004, the couple entered into a purchase agreement with contingencies. They had to find out if the island was even buildable within county codes, whether a well could be drilled and how electricity could be brought to the island.
They also needed a contractor willing to embrace the challenges of building in the middle of a lake.
They hired Kevin Soberg of Soberg Construction in Pelican Rapids.
Even with expert help on board, the Kellys found the most basic protocols snowballed into complex processes.
In order to get insurance, they had to install an indoor sprinkler system with a special jumbo well pump to provide adequate pressure. An excavator had to design a special plastic septic tank because a concrete one would be too heavy.
"There were a lot of things that came up that we didn't anticipate," Dan says. "Some were pleasant, like telling my wife we would have to buy a Bobcat."
After all, Dan reasoned, the Bobcat would be needed throughout the two-year construction, and could be sold when done.
Bringing light to island
The machine was driven across the ice in January 2005, then used to move snow, clear dead trees and brush, and later excavate for sewer and basement.
The heavy building materials would have to be hauled to the island when the lake was frozen, so Soberg mapped out a detailed time line for 2004 through 2006.
During the first winter, they drilled the well and trucked in materials for the home's treated wood basement (chosen because it was lighter).
But the most elaborate operation involved bringing electricity to the island. As the sole users, they had to foot the entire bill of installation. Even so, Dan didn't think the $12-a-foot charge sounded too steep.
Of course, once you factored in the 2,500 feet from the nearest shore to the island, it added up quickly. The Kellys recall sitting outside Lake Region Electric Co-op holding a $31,000 check and saying to each other: "This is it. Now there's no backing out."
The installation convoy consisted of subcontractor Dave Ripley and his crew driving across the ice in a D-5 Caterpillar dozer followed by a trenching machine and a large truck holding reels of the submersible, self-burying utility cable that would house the electric and phone lines.
While Riley was confident they'd taken every precaution to ensure a safe operation, one driver wasn't taking any chances, Dan said. He made quite a sight driving a bulldozer across the ice while wearing a life vest.
Warm winter woes
The next winter was even more dramatic. Every element of the house had to be moved over the ice. The home's shell needed to be erected and enclosed so the interior materials could be stored inside for springtime completion.
But the winter was unseasonably warm, which narrowed the window of thick, stable ice. At the same time, the Kellys' 24-month construction loan period was scheduled to end that fall, which meant the materials had to get there before winter's end.
Soberg tossed and turned at night, wondering what to do. Then, at 2 a.m. one morning, inspiration hit.
He would build a 20-foot-long sled and pull it by four-wheel ATV, which could better navigate the thinner ice. The homemade sled worked so well that all the materials made it to the island in a day and a half.
By July of 2006, the house was move-in ready.
Idle time on the isle
The family now spends most summer weekends traveling from their Maple Grove home to their own private island, complete with sandy swimming beach, fire pit and boat dock.
They share their property with osprey, loons, geese and even an occasional eagle. For some reason, they don't have as many mosquitoes as people on the mainland.
The property also boasts plenty of ash, hackberry and boxelder trees. In fact, one of their kids' favorite features is an incongruously horizontal tree, which must have tipped over long ago but continues growing. They've turned it into their own playhouse.
"What I always liked about this spot is you can see the hustle and bustle of the lake, but it also has privacy," says Alayne.
Inside the home, the first floor showcases a sun porch, dining area, kitchen/great room, laundry room, bathroom and two bedrooms.
Thanks to input from Dan's architect cousin, their upstairs boasts a wood-railed catwalk that leads from a TV/office area and bath to the Kellys' master suite.
There isn't much clutter. It's hard to be a hoarder on an island, as every stick of furniture and article of clothing needs to be transported by boat. Garbage is either burned on site or toted out by boat. And Dan has discovered the joys of island home improvement.
"Projects are all more complicated here," Dan says. "We're happy when a project only takes two boat trips to the hardware store."
And, because there's water everywhere, Alayne won't let 3-year-old John out of the house unless he's wearing a life vest.
The Kellys' place has also become a favorite hangout for family and friends. "We become popular in the summer," jokes Alayne.
Fortunately, she has island-hosting down to a science, and usually can bring all groceries for the weekend in a couple of coolers without needing to boat to the store.
Dan also uses the cabin in the fall for hunting. And they've even spent a few winter weekends here. During the cold months they'll park on the shore and snowshoe in, with Dan carrying a backpack and pulling the kids on a sled.
"We look like (Arctic explorer) Will Steger, and my brother Dave will roar by us in his truck," he says, laughing.
The tranquility of their new island haven became especially apparent when Alayne's mom, Sharon, first visited the island.
As they sat in the sun, watching the boats zip by on the blue water, Sharon said, without thinking: "It's like you have your own private island."
To which Alayne replied: "Well, we do."