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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.

Call of the Wild
Photo by Kevin White

(page 2 of 3)

My girlfriend and I strap on our skis and follow a path through pines to a fog-socked lake, where we imagine a moose or five emerging from the mist. Do they have anything better to do than impress us? Northeastern Minnesota, and the Gunflint Trail in particular, is the last real refuge of moose in the state, the high ridges and cold, deep lakes creating a near-boreal microclimate. Last year, a moose set up house about 10 feet from the lodge; he might have looked in at the moose above the mantel in wonder.

But to weekend in the wilderness is to join a game already long in progress—what do my girlfriend and I know of its rules and idiosyncrasies? We cruise around on the paths created for us convinced that beautiful creatures have leaped out of sight just ahead. Occasionally, I turn around to see if they haven’t closed back in behind us. When no animals show themselves by dusk, we glide back to the cabin, the path thoughtfully illuminated, like a runway. There are 44 pegs on the cabin walls, enough that we could practically swing from the bedroom to the living room without touching the ground, and we hang our gear from them like good humans.

In the evening, guests tend to come in from the cabins to the main lodge, like moths to light. In the wilderness, after all, we are alone; in a lodge, we are alone together. Mostly, we’re thawing out, with some couples sipping wine by the fire and others, like my girlfriend and I, hitting the sauna. Saunas in hotels tend to be found in Eastern Europe, bunkers in Bucharest or Belgrade where oligarchs swap stories about their mistresses. They are not like this place, a neat cedar box where we pour water on hot rocks until we seem to melt into liquid ourselves and then step out into the snow to watch the stars, the steam rising off our bodies like smoke signals. 

Back at the cabin, we can scarcely muster the energy to leaf through the guest book—the ultimate silent sport. There are the usual unintentional amusements: “Went to the hot tub and fished,” reads one entry. “Wonder what he caught,” my girlfriend muses. “A blonde?” Another entry quiets us: a three-page reflection from a shaky-handed gentleman who, despite recently losing his wife and father-in-law, returned to Bearskin to extend a family tradition begun in the 1940s.

I’d always considered it a lack of imagination to vacation in the same place year after year. But Bob knows a lot of guests like this man. When he and Sue bought the place, they moved in upstairs and quickly connected with longtime visitors. “You have your guests and you have your friends, and the line kind of blurs,” he says. People may come here for nature, but they come back, well, for the people.

Our last stop is Naniboujou Lodge, located on the northern shore of Lake Superior, between Grand Marais and Grand Portage. The place takes it name (pronounced Nani—like Annie—boo-zhoo) from an Ojibwe spirit, a trickster who, not unlike modern travelers to the North Shore, is said to gambol in the wilderness here. The Bouj, as locals call the lodge, was founded in 1927 with frolicking foremost in mind. It was a club, with membership extended only to the country’s most prominent poobahs. Babe Ruth, Ring Lardner, and Jack Dempsey all joined “to live and learn why the raspberry follows the fireweed…the ways of the kingbird and the home life of the beaver,” according to the club pledge. To judge from the size of the bar, however, the real goal was almost certainly colossal partying. Where else could men with such outsized egos go to let off steam but to the edge of the largest freshwater lake in the world?

The club might have been the ultimate symbol of Jazz Age exuberance, including a 150-room lodge, a golf course, tennis courts, and a bathing house—if the Great Depression hadn’t crashed the party. Only the lodge was ever built. Though to say that only a scaled-back, 22-room lodge remains is to say that only the Acropolis remains of the temple in Athens: The fireplace is among the largest in the country—200 tons of smooth stones and a hearth you could sleep in. The Art Deco chandeliers hang like upside-down Chrysler buildings. The walls and ceiling of the dining room are completely painted in an almost psychedelic take on Native American symbolism—F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Daniel Boone for a cocktail.

Of course, all lodges are like this in some way, outposts of civilization amid the wilderness. The moose heads, the bearskins, and the white tablecloths all imply that we’ve conquered this frontier, even as we marvel at its majesty. If these days we’re less likely to shoot moose than sit and stare at the water, just knowing that we’re surrounded by the unknown is enough to rouse our senses. If a hotel is merely a place to sleep, a lodge is a place to awaken.

At the Bouj, awakening is a collective experience. All the rooms are under one roof and the lodge is only open on weekends in winter, offering full room and board. A half hour before every meal, music is piped from the dining room—“As Time Goes By,” “What A Wonderful World”—and drifts up to the rooms like the ding of a dinner bell. My girlfriend and I head down to dinner that first night as though to a charter flight: Everyone we see will be joining us for the next 48 hours.

“I feel like we should all introduce ourselves,” my girlfriend whispers as we tuck into plates of stuffed ricotta. Who’s the woman dining in Sock Monkey slippers? Or the young fellow bragging, “When you’re a firemaster, as I am…”? Indeed, I can’t think of a single person with whom I’ve exchanged names in a hotel. But many of the Bouj guests already know each other: They met here long ago. And now, though they never coordinate—never see each other outside the lodge—they try to come on the same weekend every year. They’ll share a table at dinner, maybe play Bananagrams in the solarium.

They come back because this is where their memories live. They come back because they’ve always come back. I look at my girlfriend, slicing into the Danish crème dessert as “The Girl From Ipanema” plays on the stereo, and wonder what memories, just now forming between us, may compel us to return.

 Tim Gihring is senior editor with Minnesota Monthly.

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