Text and Photos by Julie Snyder
Since leavingWisconsin after college, I’ve lived in big cities and small towns, on the East Coast, West Coast and in between. My life’s landscapes have featured mountains, high desert, rivers and oceans. Yet no geography speaks to my soul more than the lakes and eclectic woodlands of the northernMidwest, where we vacationed as a family back in the “Ozzie and Harriet” years.
From our home in southern Wisconsin, we headed north, joining several other families in our respective “housekeeping cabins” at a rustic resort on a pine-fringed lake. Our days revolved around fishing, swimming, twilight diversions like “Kick the Can” and if it rained, board and card games.
Without fail we spent one evening safe in our cars, watching the bears ransack a local garbage dump. Amusement came easily back then, without electronics–except for a transistor radio. Life was carefree indeed for all except mom (housekeeping cabins did require a housekeeper and cook, after all).
Fast forward several decades when my four siblings and I acknowledged that we might not have too many more summers with our aging parents. We decided to go retro and once again rent housekeeping cabins at a lakeside resort. This time northern Minnesotawas the destination, and for five precious summers, three generations returned to Lodge of Whispering Pines on Big Lake, near Ely, Minnesota.
Getting to Ely—near the Minnesota-Canadian border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—was its own adventure. Family members living in Iowa and Minnesota would drive from home while the rest of us flew to Minneapolis, then drive 250 miles north, thrilled when the road narrowed and farmland gave way to fabulous forest, a blend of conifers—pines, spruces, firs and junipers—and deciduous favorites including aspen, oak, birch, mountain ash and maple.
Ely (pop: 3,460) is the quintessential Midwestern seasonal tourist town. If you’re in the area over the Fourth of July, the Main Street parade, followed by a carnival in Whiteside Park in the heart of town, is classic—brats, beer, corn-on-the-cob and if you’re lucky, polka dancing!
Our rendezvous site in Ely was the Chocolate Moose, where homemade fresh fruit pie is king (strawberry-rhubarb is a family favorite). The Moose is ideally situated next door to Piragis Northwoods Company, the stem-to-stern outfitter for any regional adventure on land and water.
The Lodge of Whispering Pines–a 30-minute drive north of Ely—features 11 cabins and a cozy lodge with massive stone fireplace, nestled among the pines around a pristine cove. We always chose White Pine, where the large screened-in porch overlooks the lake, and Timberwolf, designated as the site of activity for family night owls. With only one other resort and a handful of cabins dotting the lakeshore, we felt as if Big Lake was our own.
As when we were kids, days revolved around fishing, swimming and twilight games. This time, we divvyed up the cooking and household chores, ensuring that mom was free of household chores. My brothers, nephews and dad were fishing at dawn, seeking prime angling spots in a small motorboat. My sisters and I kayaked several times each day, watching eagles soar, beavers maintain their lodge, and water lilies, right out of a Monet painting, float lazily. Around the campfire after dark, we invented new versions of S’mores (the “Elvis” includes peanut butter) while warding off swarms of thirsty mosquitoes.
Though we didn’t venture beyond its craggy shoreline, Big Lakeis an entry point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), home to some of the finest wilderness canoeing opportunities in the world. The expansive region includes nearly 1.3 million acres of lakes and old-growth pine forests, and boasts 1,500 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 campsites.
The end of our week at Whispering Pines was always bittersweet. Tradition dictated that our last family meal included the fishermen’s catch for the week, more bountiful some years than others. At sunset, our family flotilla took to Big Lake one more time, absorbing its beauty and our shared adventure as an indelible memory. It was out there–waves gently lapping around my kayak, treetops silhouetted against the setting sun, and family laughter echoing across the lake–where I knew I was home.
Julie Snyder lives near Lake Tahoe, where her current pet project is Nevada Humane Society. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.