Home on the Key

The Cabin at Lake of the Woods


I had almost forgotten about my first trip to the Key Peninsula until 2002 when I was driving my stepdaughter to a friend’s place in Lake of the Woods. Hearing the name of the neighborhood brought back the memory of a weekend in August 1977.

I was a sophomore at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines. I headed south with Lee, Scott and Gordon. Lee was actually named Gordon as well but had the good sense to go by his middle name, and had the spare key to his family’s cabin in Lake of the Woods.

We packed a case of Rainier beer in bottles, 100 firecrackers, and two pairs of boxing gloves. We no sooner unloaded Lee’s Firebird into his family’s immaculate one-room cabin before realizing we were hungry and needed something in our stomachs before we started pounding beers.

Back home, it would’ve been no problem. Highway 99 offered a good selection of fast food. Gordon even worked at KFC. Once I traded him a fake joint (tobacco) for a bucket of chicken. Somehow, he remained my friend anyway.

Lee explained our only option was to go to the little country store and buy some sandwich fixings. It was in a place called Key Center, and I joked that must be where the locals got their keys made. The country store, Walt’s, was nothing like I imagined. Instead of being Sam Drucker’s general store lined with canned vegetables, Walt’s was a small but bustling grocery. The aisles were crowded with vacationers buying supplies for the weekend.

After eating, we started drinking. Our rule was that nobody could open their next beer until everybody had finished their bottle, ensuring we got our six beers each. Lee asked that all bottles and caps be returned to the box, leaving no evidence for his parents.

After we opened our fourth beer, it was time to box. I knew I didn’t want to fight Gordon. He was tall and thin but deceptively strong. The previous summer, at 15, he had carried his father’s body for miles on a trail in the Idaho mountains after he’d suffered a fatal heart attack. Scott was stronger still, a weight lifter. However, he was nearly blind without his glasses, and I knew he’d have to take them off. I chose to box Scott. Just as I thought, I was able to dance close enough to Scott to give him several light punches to the face, and then jump out of his reach. After swatting a lot of air, Scott gave up in frustration, unable to lay a glove on me. In some kind of all-Gordon pact, the other two friends decided not to box each other.

So, we loaded our pockets with firecrackers and headed to the lake. By this time, it was very dark, especially for suburbanites who played under the streetlight, and, of course, we had no flashlights. The night was so quiet we had to whisper for fear of being heard all the way down to Key Center. Lee quickly nixed the idea of firecrackers.

“You don’t understand about these full-timers,” he explained about the residents in the cabins surrounding the lake. “They’re crazy, like crazy yokels. They’ll come out with guns.”

“Like ‘Deliverance,’ ” Scott said.

“More like ‘The Hills Have Eyes,’ ” said Lee. “For sure they’ll tell my parents.”

After finishing the beer we all found a place to sleep. Lee slept on the only small bed in the cabin, but he did not get under the covers because he didn’t want to have to make the bed in the morning. The rest of us found a spot on the floor. No pillows, no sleeping bag, no problem. We woke up early with the sun blasting through the cabin’s dainty floral curtains on the windows.

It was then Lee informed us that he had told his parents he was staying at Scott’s house, and they had no idea he’d snatched the spare key from the kitchen junk drawer to host our party. We returned the cabin to pre-party condition when Lee announced that there was one Rainier bottle cap missing and that we couldn’t leave until it was found. I pretended to look for it, but all I could think about was my mom’s cooking and how hungry I was. Eventually, we discovered that one beer bottle was topped with two caps stuck together.

We mostly stuck to the southeast part of King County for our outdoor recreation after that. Shortly after high school, Gordon met an older woman with kids, got married, and went to work for UPS, leaving us behind. Not long after, Scott died by suicide, leaving a note saying he felt terribly lonely.

I have no idea what became of Lee, and I would really like to know. I also don’t know where that cabin once stood, or if Lee’s family still owns the property.

It is a full-circle irony that I have now become one of those crazy full-timers Lee warned us about on the KP — shirtless in the yard, yelling at cars to slow down, waving my rake for attention like some yokel, at home at last.

John Pat Kelly lives in Wauna.