Call of the Wild
When the snow flies, some people head south. For everyone else, nothing but the knotty pine and stone fireplace of a North Woods lodge will do.
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There will be a fire that never goes out. There will be walleye on the menu, a CD of loon calls in the gift shop, and a couple in Scandinavian sweaters holding down the Adirondack chairs. ¶ I know this even before arriving at Lutsen Lodge, neatly tucked between Lake Superior and Highway 61 in northern Minnesota, because I’ve been to lodges before. I’ve been to lodges like most people have been to hotels. I’ve been to lodges in the mountains and lodges in the desert, lodges with spas and lodges with snakes coiled in the ceiling. And despite all their differences, these places have a certain shared aesthetic. ¶ But I’ve never asked myself why. Why is staying in a lodge, essentially a cozy cabin, that different from sleeping anywhere else—in a hotel, a motel, a yurt? How much could pine walls and taxidermy matter? To find out, my girlfriend and I have driven more than four hours north from Minneapolis to hit three woodsy oases in five wintry days—a full immersion in lodge life.
Breakfast at Lutsen is all protein and calories, lumberjack fare on nicer plates. “I’ll have the shot of syrup,” I tell the server. My girlfriend rolls her eyes. But it’s right there on the menu—a two-ounce glass of locally produced grade-A syrup, $2.50—alongside Norwegian eggs Benedict (cured salmon, poached eggs, capers), a Breakfast Sundae (granola, yogurt, fruit, honey, whipped cream), and something called a Norwegian BLT (lutefisk in lieu of bacon?). We’ve died and gone to an Oslo co-op. Just reading the menu, I feel I could ski the 90 miles from here to Duluth.
The first guests at Lutsen probably did. That was back in 1885, when this was just Charles Axel Nelson’s homestead—the only house around—and Nelson would boot his kids from their beds to accommodate folks passing through. There were no highways here until the 1920s; mail was delivered by dog sled. If you really needed to get to Duluth, you took your own sled team across the icy lake. In the summer, you rowed.
Everything changed after World War II, when veterans of the Army ski divisions famously founded just about every downhill ski facility in America—including one at Lutsen, which today operates the region’s most extensive ski area: 92 runs, 10,000 lift riders an hour, many of whom stay in Lutsen’s newer motels and condos, where you can practically ski out your back door.
The original lodge, where we’re staying, is away from the hubbub. Rebuilt in 1952, it looks like a Scandinavian chalet, with hand-hewn beams and an enormous chimney that towers over the lake like a lighthouse. All the walls and ceilings are paneled with pine, as though we’re sleeping inside a log. The rooms are as cozy as ski boots, with pegs on the walls for snowpants and sweaty socks—a lodge, for the action-oriented, being one big changing room. The effect is homey: Kids come down for breakfast in pajamas, as they never would in hotels, and sometimes so do the adults.
As fog rolls in from the lake, we suit up for a hike with Carin Gulstrand, who works in the lodge’s activities department. She tells us she only occasionally gets down to the Twin Cities with her young daughter. “City camp,” she calls such trips, “so my daughter isn’t an idiot in the city.” When I ask her what guests do for fun around the lodge, she says, “Depends what they need,” then recites the three R’s of lodge life: romance, recreation, and relaxation. She hands us crampons to strap to our boots and we tromp around nearby Oberg Mountain—a steep cliff, really—then follow the frothy Cascade River. We watch a guy take his time photographing the river with an old-fashioned box camera, and I think of another R: rapture.
Hotels can be anywhere, but lodges are largely about location. And in northern Minnesota, it’s easy to forget how rare lodges are. Their natural habitat is wilderness, of which there is precious little left. There are no lodges in the suburbs or South Beach or, for that matter, Albert Lea. There are no lodges where there are Econolodges. Not that most lodge guests are wilderness types. Bob McCloughan, the owner of Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, puts it this way: “They’re people with nature-deficit disorder.”
Of the many lodges strung out along the Gunflint, north of Grand Marais, Bearskin most elegantly combines the pleasures of wilderness and luxury, creatures and comfort. There are four units in the main lodge and 11 cabins set well apart from each other around Bearskin Lake, like outposts. In the main lodge, there is indeed a bearskin stretched behind the reception desk and a massive moose head above the stone fireplace—perhaps the largest of all the moose heads above all the mantels on the Gunflint. “There is a lot of moose envy on the trail,” Bob says.
Bearskin dates to 1925, putting it solidly in the first wave of log-cabin-style lodges in America. Cars were becoming commonplace, more people were traveling farther from home—even into the wilderness—and lodges sprung up to accommodate them. But the classic lodge look, inspired by the 19th-century logging camps of the Adirondacks, was old-fashioned even in the 1920s. Citified Americans were already nostalgic for the frontier and, several generations later, they still are.
Since Bob and his wife, Sue, bought the venerable lodge in 2007, they’ve spiffed things up, contracting the chef at Grand Marais’s gourmet Chez Jude to serve dinner on weekends. But mostly they’ve encouraged guests to leave—to get out into the surrounding forest by any means necessary: dog sled, snowshoes, skis. Especially skis. A previous owner tirelessly promoted cross-country skiing, becoming president of the national association and developing trails that run from Bearskin to nearby ridges and lakes and connecting to even longer trails, such that you could spend an entire winter week here gliding around like some well-adapted woodland creature. There are no televisions or phones in the cabins, no game room in the lodge. The place is nearly as quiet by day as the woods around it.