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.
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…
Isabelle by the beach. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
SHE RACED BACK AND FORTH along the beach, arms outstretched.
“I’m flying,” she said. “To the moon and into the pink sky.”
My heart brimmed with infinite love as I watched, the moon a pale orb in a sunset sky tinged with streaks of pink. On the far earth below, my 5-year-old granddaughter ran, her imagination flying.
This singular scene defined a recent stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the central Minnesota lakes region. For Randy and me, it’s all about enjoying time with those we love most. Connecting. Building memories and bonds that we hope will last a life-time.
Shortly after that stay, Isabelle mailed a picture she’d drawn. It included a rainbow and characters from Frozen inside a pink shape. I thought it was the pink sky of Horseshoe Lake. She clarified that it was simply a pink path. But in my eyes, I see the pink sky.
Horseshoe Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
Memories of days at the lake with our eldest daughter, our son-in-law and our two grandchildren continue to bring me joy. This stay I recruited Izzy to dry dishes while I washed. I also taught her to make s’mores. She counted and cracked graham crackers, then broke Hershey bars to fit. I expect she will assist me again next time we’re at the cabin.
We all sat around the campfire, Randy and Amber roasting marshmallows for s’mores. Sticky faces and fingers added to the memories.
One evening we shared bear stories, starting with Marc’s experience from a childhood camping trip. I added mine. And then Amber brought humor into the mix with her version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Randy tossed in bits about Smokey the Bear and the Hamm’s beer bear. At least the bear tales didn’t scare the grandkids.
A trail winds through Mission Park near the cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
But masses of dragonflies bothered Izzy. Our cabin stay coincided with dragonflies and mayflies invading like a biblical plague. Isaac just walked right through them and didn’t notice when I plucked several dragonflies off him. Yellow jackpine pollen also clouded the air. Because of that, I kept my Canon 20-D mostly tucked inside my camera bag.
The lake temp at the time of our late May visit was still too cold for swimming. So we waded only. Randy fished, hooking a few fish too small to keep. Two warm and sunny days allowed for sunning on the beach for the adults and playing for the kids. Izzy opened Sand Pie Bakery on the afternoon her parents left for a brief jaunt into town. Oh, what fun to order an assortment of fruit pies crafted by Izzy and her brother.
Isaac and I grew closer as we interacted. He now clearly calls me Grandma in the strong voice of a 2 ½-year-old. He also learned to love sliding after we went to a playground in town. I felt exhausted just watching him run up steps, slide and repeat.
Izzy plays with figurines one morning at the cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.
All of these family moments I hold precious. Time on the beach. Time inside the cabin—dining together, doing dishes, playing “school” with the kids. Time outside the cabin on nature walks—gathering treasures of stones, shells, pine cones. Watching loons near the dock. There’s nothing quite like viewing the natural world through the eyes of a child. Time outside the local ice cream shop, eating our treats as the afternoon sun and strong wind dripped ice cream onto our hands and the ground.
I cherish these memories. Every. Single. One. Some day perhaps my grown grandchildren will sit around a campfire and reminisce about cabin stays with Grandma and Grandpa. Stories of mayflies and dragonflies, of ice cream and sand pies, and of pink streaking the sky over Horseshoe Lake.
TOMY BROTHER-IN-LAW Jon and to my sister-in-law Rosie, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for opening your guest lake cabin to extended family. We feel incredibly blessed by your generosity, by our time at the lake and by the family moments we are sharing and the memories we are building.
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.
THROUGH THE PLEATED SHADES, lightning flashed like a strobe light outside the cabin. Soon thunder rumbled, not loud and crashing, but slow and ramping in volume. I willed myself to shut out the light, the sound, to fall asleep here in this place nestled in jackpines along the shore of a lengthy lake four hours from my southeastern Minnesota home.
Downtown Park Rapids features two rows of parallel parking down the middle of the street and diagonal parking curbside on both sides.
Randy and I arrived in a flush of rain after an afternoon in Park Rapids, a resort town abundant in shops and quirky in its center of the street parking. Already I loved this place, despite the grey skies and near constant rain.
Yet, this was not my vision of our first-ever stay at a Minnesota northwoods cabin. But when you can’t control the weather, you can either choose disappointment or embrace the situation. And I was determined to make the best of our visit with friends Jackie and Rick.
Jackie, right, took this selfie of the two of us. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.
When Jackie invited us to their cabin, I accepted with the enthusiasm of someone who has always wanted to experience this quintessential Minnesota activity of “going Up North to the cabin.” Our friends made us feel as comfortable as if we were family and long-time friends. We are neither. I met Jackie several years ago after connecting with her via blogging. She and Rick live some 40 miles from us in Rochester. Jackie is a nurse by profession and a blogger with strong photography skills.
Randy and I, left, with Jackie and Rick. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.
We joke that we could be sisters given our shared interests in photography, barns, cemeteries, country churches, small towns, gravel roads and much more. We are women of faith, mothers of three, grandmothers and wives who are grateful for loving and supportive husbands of 35 years. We each birthed sons who weighed nearly 11 pounds. Jackie beat me by two ounces.
Mostly, though, we have that natural connection of conversing with ease, of laughing and enjoying each others’ company in a developing friendship. Previously, the four of us had gotten together briefly several times. This weekend at the cabin would forge our evolving friendship.
With Rick at the wheel, we head across the lake. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.
Given the weather, we mostly sheltered inside the cabin peering through spacious windows toward the grey lake and rainy skies. We laughed and talked with barely a lull in the conversation. When the weather broke for a bit Saturday morning, I suggested a boat ride. I surprised all of them. I had to overcome a general uncomfortableness on water to board a boat.
As the boat picks up speed, waves trail behind.
I appreciate that Jackie and Rick honored my request that we not venture too far from shore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ask Rick to increase the boat speed. The distractions of my camera and Rick’s history tour of the lake along with Jackie’s encouragement made for a pleasant ride. There’s something to be said for friends who are supportive and loving.
Watching Randy relax and unwind from work gave me much joy. We needed this vacation.
That evening, after dining on grilled steak, we clustered around the dining room table for a game of Outburst. Boys against girls. We laughed and talked and laughed some more between munching on caramel corn from Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks in Park Rapids. Before 11, we were off to bed and I slept well without rumbling thunderstorms.
Only a few boats were on the lake Saturday morning.
As wonderful as the cabin experience was, I had hoped to spot a loon. Sunday morning while looking across the lake, I noticed a black floating shape with the seeming distinctive curve of a loon. Jackie handed me binoculars while she fetched her glasses. Through the lenses, we confirmed a loon sighting. It would have to do—this lone loon in the distance. I was thrilled.
A grouping of loons. Photo by Jackie Hemmer.
That evening, hours after our mid-morning departure, Jackie texted a photo of seven loons with this message: Saw about 15 loons on the lake tonight just beautiful!
Just beautiful. That summarizes, too, our weekend stay with friends who blessed us with a delightful time at their Up North cabin.
I am home now six days later, my suitcase emptied, tucked back in the closet.
But now the words and images of those days mingle memories of small towns explored, of laughter and good conversations shared, of a boat trailing waves and a loon on a lake, of wild rice hotdish and Gull Dam good beer.
Stories. There are so many stories waiting to be written.
Just like The Beverly Hillbillies, a rocking chair is secured atop this van.
MOVING WEST or heading west and north up to the lake cabin? I’m not sure given the cargo and the Maine license plate on the boat trailer.
But the fictional Clampett family of the 1962-1971 comedic television series, The Beverly Hillbillies, has nothing on these travelers spotted along Interstate 94 about five miles east of Alexandria Thursday afternoon.