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…
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.
This scene is familiar to those who spend weekends or vacation along lakes in central and northern Minnesota. “Up North,” as we say.
UP NORTH AT THE LAKE CABIN evokes, for many Minnesotans, memories of lazy summer days on the water, on the beach, on the dock. Fishing. Swimming. Boating.
Nearly in the top center of this photo, high in the treetop, sits one of the young eagles.
A sign posted on a pine identifies this as an eagle zone.
This juvenile perched here for the longest time.
But, for my family, which is just now making such memories thanks to a generous sister-in-law and brother-in-law who recently purchased lake land with a guest cabin and are welcoming extended family, Up North also means eagle watching. The lakeside property south of Cross Lake, came with resident bald eagles.
An eagle (s) flies along the lake.
And last week, while staying at the cabin, I spent plenty of time watching eagles. As did the husband, eldest daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and, occasionally, the son. One evening, just as we sat down to our lakeside dinner, an eagle flew directly over us. Other times, we watched it from afar, circling around the lake, along the treeline.
One of the eagles spreads its wings in the treetop nesting area.
Sure, I’ve previously seen bald eagles. Soaring. Perched over roadkill. Flying just inches from the windshield of our van. In captivity at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. Huddled among tree branches. But this was different. This time I was in their habitat with the eagles’ nest high in a pine just outside the guest cabin.
The eagles’ nest is well-hidden in the tall pine tree.
It amazes me that these majestic and massive birds can stay so well hidden. If my brother-in-law, Jon, had not pointed out the nest in the top of the pine in the fork of the driveway, I doubt I would have spotted it, home to two adult and two juvenile eagles.
A view of the less visible young eagle.
I certainly heard them, though. At feeding time. Jon occasionally needs to clean up fish remains under the pine.
The only photo I got of a parent eagle. This one was sitting in a tree next to the lake, a favorite perch, Jon said.
It became somewhat of a joke during our cabin stay that, every time I wasn’t carrying my camera or had my short lens (rather than my telephoto) attached, the eagles would show up or fly away. I don’t possess the instincts or patience of a wildlife photographer, something I’ve long known.
The massive nest, spacious enough for four eagles.
But I’m learning. And it was a joy to take my four-year-old granddaughter by the hand and race to the pine tree when we heard the screeching of eagles. I would point and Izzy would follow my finger to the nest. Sometimes we would see an eagle. Mostly not.
The two juvenile bald eagles, one born last year, the other this year. One is clearly visible to the left. The other is higher in the tree to the right.
Days after our departure, my sister-in-law texted with the news that one of the juvenile eagles had either fallen or been shoved from the nest, landing on bottom boughs of the pine tree. The young eagle freed itself, seemingly unscathed.
The statue still juvenile eagle.
These eagles are part of the story of this land, of this place by the lake, of our memories of Up North at the lake cabin.
This concludes my three-part series on my northwoods cabin stay. Please feel free to share your cabin memories.
A view of Horseshoe Lake on a weather-perfect July day in Minnesota.
FOR MANY MINNESOTANS, summers at an Up North family lake cabin span generations. Not so for me.
The guest cabin sits just around the corner from this, the main year-round house. Both are northwoods Minnesota style.
But now, into my sixties, I am finally enjoying that quintessential summer experience thanks to the generosity of extended family who recently purchased lake property with a roomy guest cabin. They intentionally chose a place they could share with family. And I am grateful.
Isaac loved splashing in the lake. The water was clear, vastly different from the murky lakes of southern Minnesota.
For five days last week into this, Randy and I were joined by our eldest daughter and her family and our son at the cabin near Cross Lake in central Minnesota. To have that family time together in such an incredibly beautiful natural setting was a gift. A joy. A much-needed respite from reality.
The neighbors’ dock, a visual of relaxation.
Randy and I never left the lake place together until we left. No trips into town, mostly because of COVID-19 concerns. But Randy did surprise us with an unexpected Monday morning run to Valeri Ann’s Family Foods in Ossipee for her heavenly homemade caramel rolls. He got the last two.
We saw loons every single day of our stay.
Relaxing in the hammock strung lakeside in the pine trees.
Randy and Isabelle watch as the sun set reflects on the treeline across the lake.
We found plenty to do at the lake cabin. Time in and on the water. Time watching eagles and loons. Time fishing. Time dining lakeside. Time in the hammock. Time around the campfire. Time with the grandkids, ages four and 18 months.
A beached kayak awaits its passenger.
Our son, back in Minnesota for our family vacation, paddles into the lake.
The grandkids (and adults) loved the inflatable floaties.
There is nothing quite like immersing one’s self in the northwoods lake experience.
Grandpa and grandson lakeside.
I will always treasure hearing Isaac giggle at the fish wiggling on the end of Grandpa’s fishing line. I will always delight in watching Isabelle wiggle to her made-up “I Got the Wiggles” song on the lakeside deck. I will always cherish memories of walking outside at night with Randy and Izzy to show our granddaughter the stars. I will always remember seeing my eldest glide across the water on a paddleboard, her daughter sitting on the front.
One of the adult resident eagles in a lakeside treetop.
I will remember, too, walks down the long evergreen-lined driveway, the many minutes standing at the fork in the drive, neck craned to watch the resident eagles.
Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway.
So many memories. So much happiness. So much peace.
Kid-sized chairs used by the grandkids.
And, for my grandchildren, the beginning of summers Up North at the lake cabin.
Please check back for more posts in this “Up North at the Cabin” series.
An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.
“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.
I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.
Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.
For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.
I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.
On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.
I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.
Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.
Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.
There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.
My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.
But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.
Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.
I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.
Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.
As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.
Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.
Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.
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.