Lodge Life, Minnesota-Style
Published: May 2009
By Meg Wolitzer
Novelist Meg Wolitzer and family head north to the land of weenie roasts, canoe trips, and something called muckwomping.
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
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
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
"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 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
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.
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
across a startled young fox in the woods; eat until we're as bloated as the
greedy, ever-present ducks; soak in our big outdoor hot tub; and watch a bad
movie starring Emilio Estevez on our VCR. We don't get the chance to hike the
South Rim Trail, take an early-morning bird walk, or gather ingredients for
wilderness teas. I also never find the time to read Boldness Be My Friend.
as Charlie wistfully reminds me on our last night as we walk to the cabin of a
family from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who have invited us over, we haven't seen a
moose. "Next time," I find myself saying, and the answer seems to satisfy him.
Inside the cabin, the children immediately decide they're going to put on a show
for the adults. While they plan and rehearse, the adults sit around the living
room, with its own touching assortment of books—I catch sight of The Hidden
Staircase, a Nancy Drew mystery—eating microwaved popcorn and listening to
classical music. I'll probably never see these people again, I think as I drink a
glass of the good Chardonnay our hosts have lugged with them in their van. After
a while, the adult calm is interrupted by the children, who burst into the room
declaring that their show is ready. But then there are arguments about who's
going to be the announcer, and eventually it's clear that there won't be a show
after all. It's very late, and my family has to get up at dawn, when Harriet will
arrive with her van and her silent elderly mother in the back seat. We say our
good-nights, and the older kids exchange E-mail addresses.
On the way back to our
cabin we stop by the lake. As the kids play one last time on the tire swing, the
ducks peck around for stray seeds, and Canada appears as a vague, spread-out
shadow in the distance. Under the scatter of stars, I'm reminded again of summer
camp, and of missing my family even as I was thrilled by the new surroundings.
Though my family is with me now, I get that oddly familiar sentimental feeling.
It occurs to me that what I thought of as homesickness all those years ago might
have been something else entirely: a sense of awe.
Gunflint Lake, Grand Marais, Minn.; 800/328-3325 or 218/388-2296; cabins for two
from $165 ($47 for each additional person), including breakfast.
Meg Wolitzer's latest novel, Surrender, Dorothy, is out this
April from Scribner.
More Camps for the Family
Strathcona Park Lodge and Outdoor Education Centre Campbell River, British Columbia; 250/286-3122; family of four, $315 a night.
This gorgeous resort on Vancouver Island focuses on both alpine and ocean
adventures. Accommodations are in a 12-room log- and timber-framed chalet or in
one of eight waterfront cabins. On the activity sheet: canoeing, kayaking, rock
climbing, and hiking.
Orcas Landing, Orcas Island, Wash.; 800/956-6722 or 360/376-6720; 3-night package, $585 per adult, $429 per child.
Guests at the Island Institute, 45 minutes by seaplane from Seattle, study the
marine ecology and wildlife of the San Juan archipelago. Families stay on the
waterfront in the 12-room, turn-of-the-century Orcas Hotel and eat meals on its
wraparound porch. Days are spent watching whales and seals, kayaking, and taking
in the views from Mount Constitution.
8205 Glen Haven Rd., Soquel, Calif.; 408/479-6714; four-night package, $395 per adult, $235 per child ages
35, $298 ages 612.
A California sleep-away camp, 80 miles south of San
Francisco, Kennolyn opens its doors to families on Labor Day weekend. Parents and
children bunk in log cabins or in more rustic cabins without bathrooms, and take
part in camp recreation: swimming lessons, Western-style trail riding, riflery,
arts and crafts, and fireside sing-alongs.
Great Camp Sagamore
Sagamore Rd., Raquette Lake, N.Y.; 315/354-5311; Family Week package, $525 per adult, $290 per
child; Grands package, $675 per adult, $390 per child.
Former summer retreat of
Alfred Vanderbilt and family, this classic Adirondacks camp is open for tours and
residential programs. Guests stay in cabins and three century-old lodges.
(Warning: Only three rooms have private baths; most accommodations are simple but
pleasingly old-fashioned.) Summer Family Weeks (July 2530 and Aug. 1520) are
devoted to games of capture-the-flag and croquet, arts and crafts, and outings to
Sagamore Lake. Grands (July 1116 and 1823), a similar program, is for
grandparents and grandchildren only.