I NEVEREXPECTED to be one of those Minnesotans who would, each summer, go Up North to the cabin. But, thanks to the generosity of in-laws with lake property including a guest cabin, that is now part of my experience.
Thrice since May, Randy and I have headed Up North to the cabin, most recently in mid-September. Each visit leaves me feeling at peace. Relaxed. Content. Refreshed. Thankful for this place of solitude and natural northwoods beauty.
As soon as the van swings onto the jackpine-edged drive leading to the cabin, I feel like I’m entering another world. Those slim, tightly-packed evergreens set the scene, defining for me the essence of Up North. I especially delight in walking the lane at sunset, golden light filtering through the stand of pines.
And then there’s the lake. Horseshoe Lake. Water mesmerizes me. The stillness. Or the lap of gentle waves against shoreline.
While I don’t like being on water and will only enter to shoulder depth, I like being near water. Lounging on the beach, the sun heating the sand and warming my skin. Book in hand. Beverage nearby.
It’s as if time ceases here. Here, where the sky and the water meet and loons cry and an eagle traces the shoreline.
Here, where only months earlier I gathered shells with my 5-year-old granddaughter and waded into the lake and lay on a hammock with my two grandchildren cozied beside me.
This lake place holds memories now of half-moons and pink skies and star-filled darkness. Of campfires and s’mores. Of little feet pounding the dock and sandy toes. Of waking up to a sunrise that writes poetry across the water, into the day, into Up North at the cabin.
TELL ME: Do you have cabin memories? I’d like to hear.
From mid-May fishing opener well into autumn, until the first hard freeze, vacationers and seasonal cabin owners travel into and through Crow Wing County to reach their personal and resort destinations. And now Randy and I, too, are living the Minnesota Up North experience thanks to family who are sharing their lake property. Thrice this year we’ve spent time at the cabin, each visit heading to nearby Mission Park.
The close-to-the-cabin proximity of the park and its 3/4-mile paved hiking trail draw us to this quiet spot in the woods. During our most recent stay in mid-September, we twice hiked in the park. Here leaves are already turning color and I paused often to photograph the autumn hues.
Once, while detouring along a mowed grass path to a pollinator garden, I also stopped to examine a pile of dung. It glistened in the sun, indicating freshness to my untrained non-expert eyes. The sheer volume of excrement led me to wonder…bear? Later, when I shared this with my brother-in-law who is especially knowledgeable about the outdoors, I determined this likely was not bear scat given the lack of acorns and other such matter in the pile. That said, bears (yes, plural) have been sighted in the area, according to the brother-in-law and a park worker who advised to “Make yourself as big as possible and don’t run” if you encounter a black bear. Alright then. Thank you.
As long as he was parceling out advice, I asked about the many wild mushrooms growing in the park. That, he said, was not within his realm of knowledge. Nor is it in mine. So I admired the fungi, in varieties and hues I’ve never seen. Ever. Anywhere. Bold yellow and orange. Stunning. Still life art.
If quick research is correct, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it’s poisonous. Deadly. Nope, you’re not going to catch me picking mushrooms in the woods. I’ll settle for photographing them, as much as I like the taste of (store-bought) portabella mushrooms.
The park employee noted, however, that a guy knowledgeable about mushrooms forages for them here.
If you’re not into mushroom hunting or photography or hiking, Mission Park offers plenty of other options—tennis and pickleball courts, a disc golf course, ball fields, horseshoe pits, playground, picnic shelter and much more.
Every single time we’ve hiked through this park, the motto, A QUIET PLACE TO BE, holds true. Here you can hear the quiet, even as you listen for bears.
PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Mission Park and a post on the area’s connection to my Faribault church.
If you are familiar with mushrooms, feel free to educate me on those I photographed.
During a recent cabin stay in the Brainerd lakes region, Randy and I routed through Cuyuna on our way to Crosby some four miles to the south. We often follow the road less traveled because doing so can lead to fascinating finds.
And for us on this day, it was the woodtick-dubbed bar and grill and, of all things, Woodtick Races. The Inn hosts the races annually on the second Saturday of June.
But let’s back up a minute. What, exactly, is a woodtick? It’s a parasitic arachnid. Yup, a nasty bug that will latch into your skin and suck your blood. Many varieties of woodticks exist. But those raced in Cuyuna are the common American Dog Tick. And, yes, these ticks will find a host in a dog.
Many years have passed since a woodtick determined I would be a good feeding source. But, as a child, I often found ticks stuck to my skin after playing outdoors. And, yes, they can spread diseases. And, no, I don’t like them. Not one bit.
And I expect the annual Woodtick Races also draw plenty of participants and curious observers. This year, the 42nd annual event, the top three cash prizes ranged from $224-$560. That’s a good chunk of change for a race with a $5 entry fee and an additional $1 if you buy a “caught” tick rather than bring your own.
I wondered aloud how event organizers gather woodticks for the races. “Send a kid into the woods,” Randy joked.
However those ticks are gathered, the rules call for racers to place their woodticks in the middle of a circle on a table. Whichever tick reaches the outside of the circle first wins. And, yes, referees oversee the races.
Some day I hope to witness these races at the Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna. And I need to further explore the spread-out town named after surveyor Cuyler Adams and his Saint Bernard, Una. The Cuyuna I saw is vastly different from a boom town that once housed a hospital, high school, theater, hotels, saloons, grocery stores and much more. A town once teeming with iron ore miners and their families. And today, woodticks.
THROUGH THE SCRUB GRASS and pines we hurried. Me leading.
“You go first, Grandma,” 5-year-old Isabelle urged on our mission to corral the dragons. I’d heard them earlier, their breathy, fiery voices coming from near the cabin. Just down the lane, I noted the broken fence and the missing dragons.
There were no dragons, of course, except in our imaginations. But the sound of the blower vent on the water heater prompted the dragon round-up. We four—the two grandchildren and Grandpa and I—chased the creatures back to their enclosure.
This dragon tale is among the memories I hold from our recent stay at a central Minnesota lakes region cabin. Time with Izzy and Isaac, 2 ½, and their parents is precious family time. Days of loving and bonding and building memories.
As in previous visits, Randy and I took the kids on numerous nature walks down the pine tree-lined driveway. And when we returned to the cabin, we dropped our finds in a tub of water. To see what would float—acorns, leaves, pinecones, twigs, birch bark… And what wouldn’t—stones. And that offered an opportunity to educate about Native Americans who crafted canoes from birch bark.
Staying at a lakeside cabin immerses us in nature without the distractions of technology and life in general. Izzy collected a mound of shells, five of which she was allowed to keep. I brought the rest home for Randy to bleach, dry and then deposit in a pint jar, a visual reminder of our time at the lake. Memories in a jar.
The water and beach drew us. To dip in the clear water, where schools of fish swarmed our feet.
Fishing, though, proved futile. While Randy, with the “help” of the grandkids, hooked some fish from the dock, all were too small to keep. Yet, the experience of fishing, of attempting to teach Izzy and Isaac how to reel in a line, bonds Grandpa and grandchildren. I loved watching the trio.
On one particularly windy day, Randy grabbed two kites from our van and headed to the end of the dock. The kids showed minimal interest, probably because they couldn’t run with the kite lakeside. We mostly watched from the beach as Randy patiently retrieved fallen kites from the water and then attempted relaunch. Repeatedly. His determination impressed me.
Like our last stay, Izzy opened her Sand Pie Bakery and we adults (role-playing vacationers) ordered pies in non-Minnesotan accents. Son-in-law Marc had us nearly rolling on the beach after he asked for a Mississippi Mud Pie in the thickest of Southern drawls. It was good fun, especially when Izzy claimed unfamiliarity with that particular pie while she stood with mud (sand) pie in hand.
But the grandkids are enthusiastically familiar with s’mores, a campfire treat prepared each evening, except on the day strong winds warranted fire safety first due to tinder dry drought conditions. This visit Isaac joined his sister as a s’more making apprentice. I tasked him with spreading peanut butter on graham cracker halves, then adding Hershey pieces. Doing this myself would have proven easier, quicker. But easy and quick are not necessary on lake time.
I loved the lazy time of lying in the hammock strung between pines and with a lake view. Izzy and I lay there late one afternoon while I shared about my growing up on a farm. I’m not sure how the topic drifted to that. But my memories interested her…until she brought up bears. “What if there really was a bear here, Grandma?” She asked. We’d shared bear stories around the campfire during our last cabin stay. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth, that a bear had been sighted in the neighborhood. I didn’t want to scare her.
“We would just scare it away,” I said, as the hammock gently swayed. That proved good enough for her.
She snuggled up to me. “I love you, Grandma.” In that moment, my heart overflowed with love for this precious little girl. This 5-year-old who wears tulle skirts on nature walks, who collects shells, who bakes pies from beach sand. Who, like me, didn’t want to leave the lake cabin…
ONLY RECENTLY HAVE I begun to explore the central Minnesota lakes region and small towns therein. Thanks to the generosity of a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who are sharing their guest lake cabin with extended family, going Up North to the cabin is now a reality rather than a life-long dream. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to experience what, for many Minnesotans, is a multi-generational part of their summers.
This is Paul Bunyan land. The place of lumberjack lore. So different from my home in southeastern Minnesota. Paul and his side kick, Babe the Blue Ox, are universally appealing, creating a strong tourism branding identity for this region.
And the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, a 54-mile route along county roads in scenic northern Crow Wing County and a portion of Cass County, also passes through Pequot Lakes.
To visit this region is to appreciate and embrace the stories and character of Northwoods strong Paul Bunyan. And his sweetheart Lucette Diana Kensack (seen in Hackensack, a bit farther to the north).
I appreciate how hard the good folks of this area work to brand this region and to create events that entertain and also provide visitors with unique experiences. Bean Hole Days, for example, rates as unlike anything I’ve ever attended. I loved everything about it from the people to the phenomenal homemade beans baked underground in Paul Bunyan-sized kettles.
In about 10 more days, on Saturday, August 7, Pequot Lakes hosts another celebration—a Chokecherry Festival. Chokecherries are a tiny stone fruit often used in making jellies and jams. Pequot Lakes calls itself the Chokecherry Capital of Minnesota. I’m quite familiar with these berries, having picked more pails full than I care to remember while growing up on a southwestern Minnesota farm.
That aside, it doesn’t appear the Pequot Lakes celebration includes any chokecherry harvesting. But it does feature a Pit Spitting Contest and a Chokecherry Culinary Contest with four categories. Jams/jellies/preserves, pastries, wine and originality.
And just like at Bean Hole Days, the 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. event in Trailside Park includes an Arts-Crafts Fair, food vendors, kids’ activities and more.
I encourage you to take in small town celebrations like those offered in Pequot Lakes and neighboring communities in Paul Bunyan land. To do so is to experience the Northwoods culture, at least the side that draws tourists to town.
This marks the third, and final, in a series of posts on Pequot Lakes.
WHEN MY GIRLS, now in their early 30s, were growing up, sticker books were all the rage. They filled mini books with stickers. Peel stickers from sheets of glossy paper and adhere them to blank pages. Horses. Kitties. And much more. Cute and bold Lisa Frank designs mostly in a vivid rainbow of hues, strong on pinks and purples.
My daughters loved paging through their sticker books. Stickers still hold universal appeal. For all ages. (The stickers of my era were lick-and-stick to scenes printed on pages of a sticker book.)
That segues to Minnesota Nice Enough, a Nisswa-based company that crafts weatherproof vinyl stickers that are not your kids’ mass-produced outsourced stickers. These are promoted as “made by real people who care about quality, art, beer, bicycles & dogs.” Now that appeals to me.
I first learned about this company during a September visit to Nisswa, a small tourist town located in Minnesota’s central lakes region. Randy and I were in the area, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin. One day, we ventured into nearby Nisswa to check out the many shops that define this town. Those businesses include Zaiser’s Gift Shop, billing itself as “serving the Nisswa lakes area since 1947 with the most kick-ass products this side of the Milky Way!”
Many stickers feature a decidedly northwoods Minnesota theme with buffalo plaid, Paul Bunyan, moose, pines, loons, canoes… Others highlight Minnesotans’ idiosyncrasies like calling pop “pop,” not soda. And calling hotdish “hotdish,” not casserole. And, as promised, beer gets some love in several stickers, including Minnesota and Wisconsin-shaped beer mugs. Yes, Wisconsin also gets lots of love from Minnesota Nice Enough. And, yes, you can purchase a Minnesota Nice Enough sticker, too.
But it was the oversized ALL WELCOME sticker in the front window of Zaiser’s that first grabbed my attention and led me to learn more about Minnesota Nice Enough (which also features products for adult, not kids’, eyes). That spotlight sticker proclaims that all are welcome. All cultures, beliefs, colors, sizes, ages and identities. And at a time when our nation is so divided, so filled with animosity toward one another, I appreciate this message. It gives me hope, uplifts and encourages me. Thank you, Minnesota Nice Enough.
Signage directs trail users to Nisswa, via the tunnel.
The city’s newest park is all about nature; featuring walking paths, water garden, pavilion, picnic tables, benches and garbage cans, along with breathtaking views of Nisswa Lake.
Randy finishes his picnic lunch.
That description of Nisswa Lake Park in a printed travel guide drew my interest as I researched for a recent lake cabin get-away to the central Minnesota lakes region. Randy and I planned a day trip into the small tourist town of Nisswa. That included a picnic lunch since we are not comfortable dining out at a restaurant, even if outdoors. The community’s newest park seemed an ideal place, especially with those noted garbage cans. That notation caused us to laugh. But, hey, trash cans are vital if you’re dining outdoors in a park.
Tunnel graffiti with an encouraging message.
A simple, but powerful, word especially during these trying times in our nation.
Another timely message on the tunnel wall.
After some time browsing the many shops, we stopped at the local tourism office for directions to the lakeside park. We drove to the south end of town, parked the van and headed down flights of stairs toward a tunnel leading into Nisswa Lake Park. As we walked through the short tunnel under busy Minnesota State Highway 371, I noted the graffiti already written on the walls.
The tunnel to the park and trails passes under the highway. On the other side, you can see the stairway leading up to downtown Nisswa. This photo was taken from the park side.
And then we emerged on the other side, wondering exactly which direction to head with multiple trail options. We chose what seemed the most obvious route and soon found ourselves in a clearing, surrounded by woods.
This pavilion sits atop a hill, complete with the advertised garbage cans.
We also found the promised picnic tables, benches, pavilion and garbage cans. Along with porta potties.
The public dock at Nisswa Lake Park.
After lunch, we followed a trail leading to the public landing and dock along Nisswa Lake.
Leaves were already turning color during our visit nearly two weeks ago.
A simple, but powerful, word imprinted on the back of a bench.
The last of summer’s flowers, black-eyed susans, linger.
If there was a water garden, I missed it. But I didn’t miss the leaves, messages, flowers.
I found this kindness rock lying on the ground in Nisswa Lake Park.
The flip side of the kindness rock.
And I didn’t miss the painted heart-shaped stone with the printed message: Have a great Day. Whenever I discover such an unexpected “Kindness Rock,” as these are technically termed, I feel uplifted. Joyful. And, most of all, thankful for those creative and caring people who paint and print and place these inspirational gems in public places.
A plaque atop a picnic table inside the pavilion expresses gratitude.
So while the garbage can rated important, and the lake view proved lovely and the bathrooms necessary, it was this single small item which meant the most to me upon my first visit to Nisswa’s newest park.
The residuals of sunset tint the sky and the water on Horseshoe Lake.
JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law purchased a lakeside property in central Minnesota with a guest cabin. That bonus cabin, located a short walk from the year-round lake home, was among the main reasons they chose to buy this place. They wanted to invite family and friends to stay.
We fished from the dock while others fished from boats. Randy caught three fish. My solo catch got away after it flipped out of Randy’s hand on the dock. I then found a net.
What an incredible blessing the cabin has already proven to be to many in the family, especially during a global pandemic. Randy and I recently spent several days at the cabin, our third stay there in a year, and our first time without any other family. It was exactly what I needed. A respite. A break from reality while immersed in nature.
Signs like this mark lake properties in the central Minnesota lakes region. I find these collections, and signature art at the ends of driveways, to be visually, artistically and historically fascinating.
A speed boat flies across the water on the opposite side of the lake.
On the weekend of our September visit, neighboring lake properties remained unused. Nice and quiet, just how we like it.
Unlike many Minnesotans, I did not grow up with trips Up North to the cabin. I didn’t even grow up with vacations, except two—one to Duluth at age four and the other to the Black Hills of South Dakota around age ten. Such is the reality of a childhood on a crop and dairy farm, where the cows don’t allow for vacations. Randy grew up the same way.
Skies opened to beautiful blue reflecting on the water. We lounged lakeside for awhile.
Because of that and because, even as adults, we’ve vacationed minimally (due to cost and few vacation days until recently), we deeply appreciate, enjoy and delight in this time at the family lake cabin. We are experiencing something—time off and time at the lake—that many take for granted.
Pines border the driveway into the lake property. This scene is so Minnesota northwoods.
The central lakes region of Minnesota feels vastly different from life in Faribault south of the metro. And that’s exactly the point of getting away to the cabin. There I feel much more connected to the natural world. By the lake. By the family of resident eagles. By the crowded woods of thin pines that stretch tall and lean along the driveway into the lake property. By the rush of wind through those pines.
Chairs on a neighboring dock…
Combined, all of those differences create a sense of peace that only nature can deliver.
Randy cooks an evening meal of buffalo burgers, bacon and vegetables over a lakeside campfire.
Our brother-in-law has chopped plenty of wood for campfires and fireplace fires.
Even though the weather during our most recent visit was sometimes cool and exceptionally windy, Randy and I spent most of our times outdoors. Fishing. Hiking. And, in the evenings, pulled up to the warmth of a campfire. Oak chunks flamed before burning to red hot coals and embers. We talked. And sometimes just sat, lost in our thoughts. One evening we listened to band music carrying across the landscape from a nearby bar and grill.
A daytime view looking to the pine tops.
After our campfire time, before heading indoors, we paused to look skyward. To the stars filling the night sky. Beautiful in the lack of light pollution. Bright points in the inky darkness. Earlier in the summer, we showed those same stars to our four-year-old granddaughter, who was staying with us at the cabin along with her family. Isabelle was “too excited to sleep,” she told us. So outside we went to view the stars. Not that that helped settle her excitement. But why not take our granddaughter outside in her pajamas to see the stars?
Randy takes a quiet walk along the beach.
Such moments are part of a cabin vacation. Or any vacation. As Randy and I stood under the starry sky in September, we remembered that moment with Izzy and how we look forward to future stays at the lake cabin with our family. Building memories. Memories we never had, but which are now making. Because Randy’s youngest sister and her husband are sharing their piece/peace of heaven with us, their family. We are grateful.