The Great Outdoors
I am sitting here on a picnic table outside of our cabin just north of Ely, Minnesota. The sun is shining warmly, the waterfall is loudly pushing water down the hill into the lake, the white-throated sparrow is singing “Oh, Sweet Canada” amidst the other birds singing their morning song, and I am watching as a ground squirrel sneaks the peanuts we left him. He stealthily takes them off of a rock, running away as if there won’t be another handful waiting for him when he gets back. It may be cliche to say, but life is good – so good.
We arrived Monday afternoon after Andrew and I drove all night, switching off drivers so the other could nap before the next shift. The girls traveled well, and they, too, slept in shifts happily keeping us company through the long drive.
The girls have heard plenty about past adventures to Minnesota and were excited to start a new adventure, adding a new state to their (and Andrew’s) repertoire. I came here with my parents every summer, my mom came with hers, and her dad came with his. Several generations of our family have been to some of the exact spots we have visited since our arrival.
We are staying at the Northwind Lodge on Jasper Lake. Previously, my family frequented the North Country Lodge, just one lake over on Moose Lake. For nostalgic purposes, we drove down to the lodge my family used to stay in – which has since been broken down into personal properties. Seeing the old lodge and its new life was an emotional endeavor. Luckily, we are here to make new memories and start new traditions.
Our cabin came with a boat, which we took out an hour after we settled in. Five minutes on the lake and we saw a bald eagle swoop down to catch a fish right in front of us. Nearby, an otter playfully popped his head in and out of the water. Loons calling from across the lake completed our first boat outing.
We played in the lake, starting a rock collection of our favorite striped and speckled stones. Due to the high iron content here, it is not unusual to find Jasper in bright red hues. Quartz crystals are always a favorite and each collection gathered is guaranteed to have several.
When I was little and would come with my parents, we would fish…and fish…and fish…frequenting our personal fishing spots known to produce an abundant supply of walleye. As you can imagine, my mom had to come up with lots of creative ways to entertain a young girl in a canoe for hours every day. Inevitably, there would be a day that would rain and on those days (the best fishing days, but the worst to keep a little girl happy in a boat), my dad would fish and my mom would drive me to town to go shopping. Rain days were my favorite.
Tuesday, we took the girls to town to shop, in the same stores that brought me such joy when I was little. I was thrilled to see they are all still thriving – so many years later. We ate lunch outside on the patio of the Chocolate Moose, a restaurant I’ve eaten in countless times before. The girls picked out souvenir shirts and purses, binoculars, and a net to catch minnows.
Before we made it back to our cabin, we made another nostalgic and educational stop at the International Wolf Center. The girls were able to learn all about wolves, but unfortunately were unable to see one – maybe the next time we come to Minnesota.
Coming back to the cabin, we took a paddle boat out on the lake before grilling blueberry brats for dinner and s’mores for dessert. The girls and I fell asleep early, but Andrew had stayed up to watch for the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) that we heard might make an appearance. Thankfully, Andrew woke Kendall up and was able to take her to see the green lights of the Aurora Borealis dance across the sky, before she fell peacefully back to sleep.
The Northern Lights have not been visible here for weeks and are not a nightly occurrence. We are very lucky that this trip provided the opportunity to witness such a phenomenal light show. My heart couldn’t be happier that Andrew and Kendall were able to witness them together.
There is a smell here, one that can only be described as the northwoods of Minnesota. It smells fresh and crisp, a mixture of birch bark and juniper. I have traveled enough places to know that I’ve never smelled it anywhere else. It comes in waves while I am here and when it hits me, I can’t help but smile, knowing exactly where I am and what it means.
Our third day in Minnesota was our most eventful. Hearing a commotion early in the morning, Delilah, the 9 pound lodge dog, chased off a 350 pound black bear just 50 feet from our cabin. Unfortunately, we were not privileged enough to witness that spectacle, but I’m sure it was a sight to see.
After breakfast, we headed down to the lake where we spent most of our day. We swam in the lake, both Andrew and I taking a turn at jumping off the end of the dock. Kendall caught a small bass with her minnow net and a frog that she carried around with her until he had enough and jumped back into the water.
We had one of those cheap kiddie fishing poles so the girls could fish off of the dock. Somehow Kendall managed to break the line inside of the reel before we even had a chance to try it out. Heartbroken, we went to the lodge to see if we could purchase another one.
Due to the quality of those fishing poles, they are not stocked. However, the lodge owner, Joe, made Kendall her very own pole out of a stick, some fishing line, and a chartreuse fishing jig. Wouldn’t you know that we caught at least 50 fish off the end of the dock with that pole. None of them were big enough to supply us with dinner, but the girls were thrilled, giggling and squealing with delight each time there was a fish on the end of the “pole.”
Andrew and I each took a ride on a paddle board (side note: if you haven’t tried one of those, you should). Andrew took each of the girls on their own special ride with him, and each of us took a solo ride as well.
As I got out on the lake, I sat silent in a little cove filled with lily pads and their colorful blooms. I felt the breeze wrap around me, as if it were giving me a gentle hug. I was at peace, the landscape serene. That is why people come here, and if you don’t, or haven’t – you should.
We chatted with many families that come here annually, as mine once did. One couple has been coming here for 47 years, another for 60, and all have continued to bring their families, who now bring their families, who will hopefully some day bring their families, too. It is probably unnecessary to say that we already have reservations to come back next year as well.
On Wednesday nights, the guests from the lodge all come together for s’mores and to converse around the fire. We roasted toasted coconut marshmallows to put on cinnamon graham crackers with just the right amount of chocolate, and Kendall played with her newfound friend, Grace.
Thursday we went back to town and ate, again at the Chocolate Moose, saving room for their signature cake for dessert. We sat next to an older couple who played peek-a-boo with Collins, sharing memories of their family with ours. We shopped for souvenirs, remembering to grab a case of Dorothy Molter Rootbeer, made right in Ely (this has a fun, and “Google-able” back story).
Our lodge (The Northwind Lodge) offered a painting class “Into the Brush,” taught by Joe himself. Thankfully, Andrew surprised me by signing me up, and I enjoyed an afternoon of painting (one of my all time favorite things to do).
I was privy to participating in the very first class offered through this program. Eventually, Joe plans to expand “Into the Brush,” utilizing his resources and knowledge for a mixture of indoor and outdoor painting classes (with discounted cabin stays and guided trips through the wilderness), teaching techniques for painting landscapes.
Friday was our final day. We woke up early, visiting the lake one last time before our return next year, wishing we had just one more day. I remember when I was little, we would pack up all of our things and about the time we should be leaving, mom could be found on a rock in the woods, writing in her notebook. I could never figure out what she was doing, but now I understand, she just wasn’t ready to leave.
written by Lauren Thompson