‘Being surrounded by nature has been really great, especially in the pandemic,’ Lim says

Xiuhui Lim ’05 and Jenna Hartom at their cabin in Michigan’s north woods.
Mike Roemer/AP Images
Singapore native Xiuhui Lim ’05 never thought she’d live in a forest, wielding power tools and sawing logs to burn for heat.

Her journey to the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula began when she met Jenna Hartom while studying philosophy at NYU in 2011. The two were married in 2016 at Hartom’s family cabin and then returned to their jobs in New York City. 

Lim, a consultant with Bennett Midland, says Hartom had long wanted to try to spend a full year at the cabin built in 1910 on 40 acres of land. In 2019 they went for it. The couple had planned on staying until this fall, but because of the pandemic, they will remain at least until Lim’s job requires her to be in the office. 

Lim spoke to PAW in August about the adventure.   

What is daily life like for you? Do spend the warmer months making preparations for winters? 

In the summer and fall we had to gather enough wood for the winter. We were lucky that Jenna’s dad was able to come and cut down dead trees with a chainsaw. He sawed the logs into 2-foot-long pieces so they would fit in our stove; Jenna and I stacked the pieces in our woodshed, which we helped to build. 

What is life like during winter?

Daily life revolved around the wood stove. We would need to keep it going at just the right level, to stay warm without burning up too much wood. 

We would also need to bring in wood from the shed about once or twice a week. The first few times we used a cart, but when the path got covered in snow, we used a toboggan. 

To keep the roof from caving in, and to prevent ice dams from forming — which we learned the hard way would cause melting snow to leak into the house — we shoveled snow from the roof with a roof rake. And of course we’d have to shovel the porch and around our car. Jenna’s biggest job was to keep our quarter-mile driveway clear of snow using a tractor with a back blade and end loader. Our total snowfall for the season was around 200 inches.

What sort of amenities does the cabin have?

We get our water from a well, and our cooking and water-heater gas comes from a propane tank. We get our electricity from the grid and have internet access through DSL. The primary source of heat in the winter is our wood stove. We used about five cords of wood this past winter (October through April).

When Jenna’s dad bought the cabin in 1976, it had no electricity or plumbing and had a wood-burning cookstove, so things are cushy here compared to then!

What was the hardest thing to get used to?

We’ve lost power about five times because of snowstorms. When the power goes out during snowstorms, we don’t have any running water because our well runs on electricity, so we use the outhouse; and if a major storm is coming, we fill containers of water for cooking and washing. 

The hard thing about the spring and summer (and really the hardest thing overall for me, personally) is the bugs. I really hate mosquitoes and any biting insects, but they seem to like me. When the bugs are bad I am afraid to step outside — I have to suit up and wear a bug net over my head! It can be pretty miserable. 

What is the easiest thing about living there?

Being surrounded by nature has been really great, especially in the pandemic. We have a trail right behind our property where we can walk or cross-country ski or bike. 

I have learned many practical skills I never expected to learn, including how to use various kinds of power tools, how to empty and reset a mousetrap, how to unfreeze pipes with a hairdryer, how to terminate phone wire, etc.

I’ve also learned to go with the flow of not knowing what might go wrong and feeling like we can overcome any challenges. All the little mishaps — water-pump pipe freezing, bathtub drainpipe freezing, an ice block falling and crushing our dryer vent, the roof leaking, the car getting stuck multiple times in the snow — were stressful but good learning experiences.

The short winter days didn’t bother me nearly as much as I expected; the snow reflects so much light, even on the cloudiest of days. I really liked seeing snow-capped forest all around me, and, oddly, I really enjoyed shoveling snow! It was good exercise and it felt good to be able to make visible progress on something so concrete. A lot of people love the U.P. for the summers, but I actually think I like the winter better.