The first time I went away to summer camp, I missed my family so much that I joined the Homesick Club. A bunch of weepy girls sitting by the side of a lake eating Mallomars, we were encouraged by a sympathetic counselor to "let it all out." Almost 30 years later I have returned to camp, but now I'm not the least bit homesick. This time I've brought my family with me. We've come to Gunflint Lodge in the north woods of Minnesota, intrigued by its promise of a "family camp" experience. This area is lodge central, but most establishments that cater to parents and children have a bring-your-own-bedrolls-and-fishing-gear policy. Gunflint, from all I've heard, is of a different mind-set.
We leave New York City in the morning and fly to toronto, then take a smaller plane to Thunder Bay, Ontario. It's a grueling day for all of us—my husband, Richard Panek, a writer; me (especially me); and our kids, three-year-old Charlie and seven-year-old Gabriel. Harriet Quarles, the driver we've hired for the three-hour trip ahead, is a middle-aged, talkative woman with a gray braid who has been a trucker for Allied Van Lines and a limo driver in Miami (Barry Manilow, she says, is a very down-to-earth guy). She loads us all into her big gray van. In the back seat, silent and unobtrusive, sits Harriet's tiny 86-year-old mother, who's "just along for the ride."
We follow Highway 61 beside the shore of gleaming, formidable Lake Superior, then travel along a narrow uphill road—one of the few paved roads in the county—called the Gunflint Trail. Harriet takes a shortcut across some dirt roads, calling out that she hopes we've left our cell phones behind. "We're out of range," she says with a dark laugh.
We've been traveling for so long in this bright, hilly mining country, past stands of enormously tall trees and a lumber mill with stacks of enormously tall horizontal trees. We also pass signs warning us to be on the lookout for moose (my kids press their faces to the windows, scouting for antlers), and at the end of this exhausting journey, I almost expect to arrive somewhere totally unfamiliar and foreign, like Reykjavík.
But when we reach the lodge, I'm struck by how familiar it all is: 25 pretty gray cabins without locks on the doors, paper birch trees with curlicues of bark peeling off them, bluffs and humplike glacial formations visible across Gunflint Lake, and the smell in the air of something frying. The land behind the main lodge slopes right down to the sandy southern shore of the lake, where a tire swing has been set up. I wonder when a counselor with a whistle around her neck will come to greet us.
Instead, we're welcomed by a white-haired woman at the front desk who is appropriately named Bunny. She hands us the schedule of the week's activities and shows my kids the jar of free homemade cookies available all day. She also points out the big bins marked SEEDS and CORN from which the kids can feed the ducks that loiter by the shore. There's a comfy, vaguely kitschy quality to the lodge—a pine-paneled, oak-floored place that houses the dining room and a lounge overlooking the lake.
All around us are things for sale: Native American carvings, peppermint foot lotion, alphabet beads. And it's hard to miss the various animal pelts—they are strewn about the gift shop and lounge, making Gabriel uncomfortable.
"They care more about killing than they do about nature!" he declares hotly only moments after we've arrived. I nervously look over at Bunny, who doesn't appear to have heard.
"Now, that's not true," I murmur in the robotic tone I've somehow learned to use since becoming a mother. But the notion of hunting, and guns in general, usually makes me uneasy, too. (At summer camp, while all the other kids practiced riflery, I sat with the arts-and-crafts counselor, listening to Joni Mitchell tapes and stringing lanyards.) But at Gunflint, I find myself getting into the Teddy RooseveltLittle House on the Prairie spirit of the place; I grow used to all the animals on the walls, including the moose head over the entrance to the dining room, which, according to Charlie, has "the biggest nostrils."
Exhausted, we retreat to our cabin, a two-minute walk away. It has three bedrooms, a full kitchen, a washer-dryer (which we will use repeatedly), a combination VCR and CD player, a fireplace, two whirlpool baths, an indoor sauna, and an outdoor hot tub. There's also a sweet, motley assortment of books—the kind you find on a floor-sample shelf in a furniture department. There are some kids' titles, a few mysteries, and a novel that I have the perverse urge to read called Boldness Be My Friend.
My sons, who share a bedroom in our crowded apartment, are thrilled to claim separate rooms for themselves. As for me, I crank up the sauna, and lie down naked inside on a wooden bench. I remotely hear Gabriel and Charlie, who both know the story of Hansel and Gretel, worriedly discussing me: "What's she doing in there?" "Isn't it like an oven?" "What if she gets trapped inside?" It's hard to relax under these circumstances, so I emerge sooner than I would like, bright pink and, to their relief, still alive.
Despite what all the ads for resorts and airlines and amusement parks say, vacations with kids are rarely relaxing. The sheer act of being with small children requires a certain combination of vigilance and ingenuity—unless, of course, you go to one of those places where the 16-and-unders are herded off all day and delivered back only in time to drop off to sleep in front of the TV.
Gunflint Lodge, with all its planned activities, seems to strike the right balance between kid-centered adventure and grown-up downtime. In the morning, Gabriel and Charlie wake up before we do and leap around, spotting chipmunks on our porch and a hummingbird on a bush. In the dining room, over delicious wild-rice pancakes and fried walleyed pike (the ubiquitous local fish that makes a sneaky appearance on most menus), we plot our day. To my relief, all activities here, unlike at summer camp, are optional. Do we want to go "muckwomping" (lodge-speak for mud-wading) at a beaver dam, or maybe canoe to Granite River?Or hike to Magnetic Rock?I picture us wading through sludge and being mysteriously impelled toward a boulder with magnetic properties. But I'm secretly intrigued by an activity called Massages by Geri. (Unfortunately, Geri won't be heading down the Gunflint Trail until the day after we leave.)
We chat with a couple from Minneapolis at the next table, whose two children instantly hit it off with ours. The mother tells me they're planning to forgo the schedule entirely today and go exploring on their own. And why not? They're a strapping brood of Midwesterners who are used to camping and hiking and, for all I know, muckwomping. Characteristically, we opt for the safer route: a pontoon ride on the lake, followed by a hike to Bridal Falls. (Question: Who was that bride, and how did she fall?)
My family and two others board a big white pontoon captained by Joe, a grandfatherly guide whose wife, Norma, is Gunflint's baker. After a while Gabriel is allowed to steer and he can't believe his good fortune. Joe points out the old railroad beds on the Canadian side of the lake, a beaver dam, and an eagle guarding its nest. When we spy a loon, Joe cuts the engine, cups his hands around his mouth, and makes loon calls, trying unsuccessfully to get the bird to respond.
"See, they do care about nature here," I whisper to Gabriel, who by now has completely warmed to the place. He and Charlie take turns looking through binoculars in search of elusive moose: still no antlers. When we drift into alarmingly shallow water filled with pointy rocks, we all peer over the sides of the boat, helping Joe navigate. After tying up on the eastern shore, we hike. The sturdy boots I'd insisted we all buy at a Bass outlet before our trip prove to be unnecessary. (In my fantasies, I'd imagined reliving a less tragic version of Into Thin Air, with the four of us being led to Bridal Falls by a sherpa with a Minnesota accent.)
The hike reminds me of others I've taken: slightly sweaty, manageable, agreeable, clear-skied, comradely. I'm grateful for this, because Charlie, the youngest in our group, needs help picking his way across fallen logs and roots. At one point he trips over a branch and cries dramatically for a bit. (I could swear I hear the loon finally respond.) Eventually, Charlie insists on being carried on Richard's shoulders, thus slowing the pace of the entire line, but no one's in a hurry. When we reach the falls, we sit awhile on the rocks, chat about upcoming activities and where we're from (Dallas, Denver, New York). Then Joe snaps our pictures with the cameras we've all unfailingly brought.
Back at the lodge, the boys and I explore the wooded grounds; shoot some hoops on the scraggly, overgrown dirt court behind our cabin; and buy cans of soda. (I'm thrilled to find a machine that carries my favorite, Mr. Pibb, a Midwestern Dr Pepper knockoff.) Then we convene to go orienteering, an activity in which we try—maddeningly—to learn about compasses and figure out, if we were lost in the woods, whether we'd be able to find our way out. (Answer: No.) Our instructor gives us several written challenges. The first reads, "Your compass bearing is 160 degrees. Distance is 44 paces. Find the multicolored pole."
The four of us, each with a bright red compass looped around the neck, gamely march into the woods, counting our paces and checking degrees. We stumble upon the Minneapolis family, who look equally tentative. We do eventually find the pole (it turns out to be the totem pole in the parking lot), but orienteering makes us feel slightly stupid and vulnerable.
Fortunately, the food here is good and restores us—the lodge has published a cookbook with 14 recipes for walleye. But I skip the beer-batter fried walleye with mango sweet-and-sour sauce and order pistachio-crusted chicken. Richard has the hickory-grilled tenderloin, and our kids, like most of those in the dining room, eat hot dogs. Beneath the blank stares of long-ago-bagged animals, families take it easy. Waitresses—several of them college students from the United Kingdom— shyly hand out menus and describe entrées in accents that are the exact opposite of the Midwestern twang heard in much of the conversation at Gunflint. Black flies circle: they are a constant, unavoidable summer presence that everyone has learned to live with. A couple of kids shriek and one toddler has a meltdown, but everyone here has learned to live with this sort of thing too.
During the rest of our stay, we hike along the shaded trail at the edge of Gunflint Lake; visit the horses, chickens, and pig at the new stables a quarter-mile down the road; and row to the Canadian side of the lake. Our kids go on a "hobo hike," carrying bandannas tied to sticks, have a weenie roast in a trappers' shack, and learn to fish, returning with certificates for their efforts. Gabriel swims in the lake and emerges carrying a "cute sea worm," which promptly attaches itself to the tender skin of his forearm: a leech! We also come