11/08/2013 05:33 pm ET

How to Close the Cabin: An Instruction Manual

Do this in October, the later the better, or in early November if you dare risk first freeze. None of this traditional, wimpy closing on Labor Day, for you know the lake saves its treasures for late fall, when the mosquitoes are absent and other lake people have gone back to town. No Bass Trackers roar around Big Island Lake. No rock music bounces over the water from the cabin across the bay. The leaves will have dropped from the trees--the orange of the maples, the gold of the basswoods, the magenta of the oaks--but the sky will be crisp and azure, and the scent of wood smoke will warm your soul against the chill.

Savor each frosty breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly, for winter is long in the North Country, and no one has promised you spring.

If you're wise, you won't do this alone. If you're lucky, you'll close the cabin with your partner. You'll work together but with few words, for well do you know the routine.

So get to work: Vacuum the rugs. Mouse-proof the cupboards: Remove the flour, the crackers, the four boxes of Shore Lunch, the dog food, the lentils. Clean out the freezer and wonder why it contains four bags of hot dog buns, with three buns in each. Ditto the refrigerator; wonder, but just for a moment, how long the plastic cup of wax worms has been at the back of the second shelf. Do not open its cover.

Hear the loons keen from the back bay. Ignore the lump in your throat.

Unplug the TV. Hear the loons again. Only two remain on the lake, the now-adolescent loons born sometime in early July, gangly and fuzzy gray. They are busy practicing the survival skills--fishing, running take-offs and wobbly landings--that their parents taught them before leaving for their winter homes on the Gulf. Wonder if the parent loons ever worry about their young. Wonder if the parent loons will return in the spring. Worry that the newbie loons won't make it to winter habitat, that somewhere between Minnesota and Florida they will mistake a wet road for a lake and, unable to take off from land, perish. Wonder why you ever thought you'd stop worrying about your children when they turned 21.

Dust the shelves. Dust the frames of all the family photos on the wall: Three generations of kids and grandkids, all standing on the same spot on the same old dock, all hoisting strings of little fish, all wearing huge grins. Sit down a minute. Exhale. Look at the photo of your father by the dock, taken just weeks before he died.

Remember what happened that evening? How the bald eagle circled right above you, then swooped as in salute, its head glowing gold in the gloaming? Remember how your father looked up, and what he said, so quietly you couldn't quite hear it: One more time, he said. Thank you, Lord. One more time.

Now comes the heavy lifting--the lifting that gets heavier each year. Together, take up the old wooden dock. Stand in the water and feel the ice of coming winter. Feel every one of your sixty years in your back, your knees. Vow to get a new dock. Haul the boat to storage. Wheel the grill to the shed. Install the storm windows. Close the flue on the stove.

Empty the liquor cabinet. Pour yourself the last glass of Malbec. Take it to the old lichen-covered swing. Take a sip. Hear the creak of the swing: Back. Forth. Back. Forth. Take a sip. Try not to look at the corner of the steps, where your father lost his footing that beautiful July day, his last day, a day in which, after dialysis, he enjoyed lunch in Grand Rapids, stopped for ice cream and told your mother what a glorious day it had been and that he rejoiced for being once more at the lake.

Get back to work. Drain the water heater. Force air through the pipes. Pour antifreeze down the drains and into the toilet. Close the deck umbrella and store it in the boat house. Wipe the Adirondack chairs. Deflate the grandkids' floaties.

You're almost done. Turn off the water pump. Turn off the juice.

You're ready now. Lock the door. Jiggle the handle.

Walk to the car. Turn around. Look one more time. Then square your shoulders. Get on with it. Return, now, to your winter world. Think about returning in spring.

Hope that you will.