Water and rodents can devastate summer cabins

Unpleasant surprises may await those with cabins that closed up in the fall

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Jack Wawro slowly turns on water in a cabin on Upper Roy Lake on Saturday, April 29, 2023, so he can check for any water leaks in the summer getaway.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Sure, cabin ownership can be nice, but nobody said it was cheap.

There's always some kind of project or maintenance to keep a home away from home feeling homey. A surprising amount of damage can happen when the owners aren't even around to make a mess.

In northern Minnesota, it is no secret that the season that sees the fewest tourists is also one of the harshest with freezing temperatures, heavy snow and strong wind often at the top of the list of threats to a property, not to mention rodents seeking a warm place to weather the outside.

That's why a lot of cabin owners hire a service to watch over their property over the winter, like Jack's Cabin Watch at

Owner Jack Wawro has been in the business of checking and opening cabins for just under 20 years.


"I'm based out of Lake Shore, Minnesota. We basically operate from the Gull Lake Chain all the way up to the Whitefish Chain and everything in between," Wawro said.

Wawro is in the business of making sure nothing happens while cabin owners are away.

"So we do a complete walk through of the entire cabin, obviously looking for problems, but also making sure everything's normal," Wawro said. "If something's wrong, we report it back the customer, and obviously call a contractor trying to get that fixed and keep in the loop with the customer until we get everything back to square."

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Furnace filters are one of the items that must be checked when opening cabins. Here, Jack Wawro checks one at a cabin on Upper Roy Lake on April 29, 2023.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Water damage is one of the biggest issues to be on the look out for, and a leak that isn't ongoing might be hard to spot. So Wawro looks for dried water spots, paint under windows that has been bubbled by moisture, dark spots on ceilings and more.

He also looks for droppings that can indicate the presence of rodents.

There are some less familiar signs of trouble as well.

"One of the biggest problems we saw this year was was filter problems," Wawro said. "Everyone thinks of their furnace filter. Yeah, obviously, we want to get that replaced once a month or depending on how much use it gets, but the other part of it too is a humidifier filter. Those were a really big problem this year.

"When they get gummed up, they start leaking, and then also gums up the drain as well," he said. "So literally, you can flood your entire basement in less than two weeks. Your air exchanger has filters as well. All those need to be replaced regularly. I think that's a really big deal that people kind of miss."


While Wawro always encourages cabin owners to turn off their water, some choose to keep their cabins heated and their water on. In those cases, he has to keep an eye out for signs of possible leaks or frozen pipes.

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Hardwood floors tend to buckle and curl when exposed to flooding, such as this instance found in the spring of 2023.
Contributed / Jack Wawro

Not all cabin owners choose to allow Wawro or other industry professionals to enter the cabin over the winter. In some cases, his inspections are limited to the exterior, at least until spring when it comes time for him to open cabins and get them ready for the owners to visit in the summer.

"The number one thing I would do is look for damage, or anything that's happened over the course of the winter," Wawro said. "This year, we had a lot of tree damage. And to be honest, if you see a big limb sitting on the side of your house, you should look up and see if there's any damage anywhere. You take a look at your downspouts, your gutters, your roof, any kind of damage. Damage from that big branch could be causing something on the inside."

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The space under the cabin sink can hide water leaks or even rodent signs and is therefore an important place to check when opening cabins. Here, Jack Wawro is doing just that on April 29, 2023.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

To the north, Cody Wills runs a crew of three to four people who close, open and clean cabins from Jenkins to Cass Lake called Northern Cabin Care. For clients who opt for winter checkups, Wills and his crew check cabins every two weeks. In the spring, like Wawro, they check for damage and reopen cabins.

"We go through and we slowly turn turn on water," Wills said. "We make sure there's no cracks, no leaks anywhere and make sure no water got left on anywhere. You find that out really quick when you turn the water on. We've had them where we've turned water on in a cabin where the owners closed them down and water comes running down the walls or ceilings."

Wawro said heavy snow years often bring ice dams. Even after the snow is melted in the spring, these can leave signs, like shingles that are askew or visible abnormal water stains on the roof.

"It's going to be hard to see but you'll see water spots that are kind of dried up on the house," Wawro said. "Also the other part of it, it could happen on the roof and it could end up in the basement. The problem will go right through the walls all the way down to the basement. So you have to look everywhere."

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Exterior damage can often lead to interior water damage at cabins, such as this damaged gutter, found in winter of 2023. Gutter damage can cause water to run into basements.
Contributed / Jack Wawro

There are additional signs of trouble that may occur on the interior of a building. Signs of water damage might be visible in bubbled paint under windows, dusty water spots on countertops and floors or dark stains on ceilings.


In some cabins, plumbing leaks won't be obvious until the water is turned back on.

"Once you turn the water on for the season you have to make sure you see if there's any kind of leaks anywhere," Wawro said.

This year, Wills encountered a problem when an owner chose to shut down their own cabin in the fall, and opted not to have check-ins throughout the winter.

"One of the windows got left open and the upstairs pipe froze and burst and filled up the upstairs bathroom, which then re-froze and thawed," Wills said. "I want to say it was $180,000 in damage to the cupboards and flooring and household appliances and everything. It flooded the house. That was probably one of the worst ones."

These leaks are often caused by frozen pipes. It is especially important to look for this type of damage in pipes that run through outside walls, especially in utility rooms and sometimes kitchens.

Other than water, rodents can pose a problem. Feces and shredded paper or fabrics can give away the presence of mice inside. Rodents especially frequent cabins where owners keep a cabinet full of food over the winter, though mice often like to get into storage for bed sheets and furniture.

They may be small, but mice can cause a lot of damage.

"There was a cabin we walked into and saw extreme mice damage," Wawro said. "It was overwhelming. It's overwhelming what a mouse or a lot of mice can do to a cabin. Just walking in it is almost like they overtook the entire building. I think there was more than mice involved. I think there were squirrels or chipmunks, but they ate out a little piece of every single screen in the cabin to get to the insects that were stuck in dead on the other side of the screen. So every screen was completely ruined. Obviously, at this point, we're talking to insurance claim, but just kind of crazy what they can do in a short amount of time."


By the time a cabin is opened it can be too late, as damage may already be done. There are steps toward prevention. There are many local services that offer cabin watching during the off-season, but sometimes it's all about prevention when it comes time to close a cabin in the fall.

"I think number one is turn your water off for the season," Wawro said. "There's a lot of people that like to keep their water on for various reasons. I just don't think it's worth the risk. When I say turn the water off, it's not only turn the actual valve off, it's turn the pump off as well. That completely takes away the problem of water."

"We go through, we shut all water down and drain all the water, drain water heaters, drain everything that we go through," Wills said. "We typically do a cleanup around the house and shut propane down. We pull in boats docks. Anything that helps the customer feel free to leave in the fall time. When the fall comes, it's nice for them to be able to just pack up and go and not have to worry about anything."

Wills' wife, Amanda Wills, cleans the cabins in the fall and again in the spring. They fold and put away fabrics and spread deterrents like dryer sheets throughout the cabins to keep rodents away.

Keeping a clean, well maintained house is a big step toward preventing a rodent infestation. Rodents are looking for a warm place to live for the winter, so ensuring there are no easy points of entry can limit the risk of mouse damage.

In addition, food that is left in a cupboard or not cleaned up can attract rodents due to the enticing smell of food during the cold winter months.

"It's basically a buffet that's heated," Wawro said.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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