Artificial Turf

Minnesota’s traditional cabin culture is vanishing. But are laments of Paradise Lost overblown?

THE MASCOT KEEPING watch over the kiddie pool at the Paul Bunyan Water Park is a fiberglass lumberjack. He’s got a full beard and a plaid cap and he’s gazing across a wobbling, bobbing bridge of fake logs at Babe the Blue Ox, his watery domain attached to a hotel just outside Brainerd.

For some reason, however, the masterminds behind this indoor theme park didn’t commission the whole lumberjack, just Bunyan’s disembodied head, which is mounted atop a faux wood post. His grin readable as a grimace, he looks less like a folk hero than a gladiator who just lost a match.

No matter. If the other kids here are anything like mine, they wouldn’t know Paul Bunyan from Vlad the Impaler, and it’s clear my desire to teach them the difference is, well, my issue. Similarly, most Good Modern Parents lament their children’s lack of a relationship to nature. But I think we romanticize this, imagining that each overturned rock instills a sense of wonder in those developing psyches.

My oldest son, who is 8, loves nature—as long as it’s boxed up in dioramas and aquariums. He has an impressive collection of bug-catchers and a history of both success and tragedy befriending inchworms and mail-order butterflies. But bugs doing actual bug things—probing an ear or squatting in his Orange Crush—propel him, screaming, indoors.

For all we fantasize about taking kids to the lake, my experience is that their glee in getting wet often depends on a host of factors: Are there weeds? Leeches? Seagull guano? We may rhapsodize about nature’s glories, but, in truth, we often prefer places like Paul Bunyan’s big pool, where all that wildness can’t sneak up on us.

The hazards at this watery playground are cartoonishly reassuring: Geysers spray from an old-fashioned kettle, an ax handle, a beehive, a tree house, a moose head, and other oversized logging-camp props. A mosquito the size of a vulture hovers over the lazy river. At regular intervals, a pail suspended over the toddler play area tips, dousing everyone below.

The adjacent hotel is just as contrived as the tea-kettle geysers, decorated with enough creels, lures, and other hunting and fishing tchotchkes to choke Ron Schara. It’s as garish as a casino, but my two little urbanites swallow the whole aesthetic package and reach out to touch every surface, enchanted.

In recent years, a great deal has been written about the demise of traditional cabin culture. In the 1990s, demand for land in Minnesota’s resort districts drove prices so high that mom-and-pop resorts could make more money by shutting down and selling off than staying open. Since 1970, the number of resorts in Minnesota has been cut in half. The holdouts must now compete with chain hotels that keep the games going year-round, and nothing epitomizes that evolution more than the water park. Half a dozen are open in Minnesota, and more than 200 are planned for sites throughout the United States and Canada. It’s now possible to spend an action-packed, water-soaked family weekend in one of the state’s fabled resort areas without so much as glimpsing a lake, a fact evidenced by the soulless expanse of concrete and chain stores surrounding the Paul Bunyan Water Park.

But here’s the thing: In some ways, Minnesota’s traditional cabin culture has always been as much imagined as lived. For more than a century, we’ve nursed a collective fantasy that it’s better out there, purer. We dream that listening to the call of a loon will make us better and purer, too. But we’re pining for an ethos that never really existed. “The rustic quality of a simpler life has been re-created, preserved, and perpetuated in a fascinating way,” says Clifford Clark, a professor of American Studies at Carleton College. “It’s seen as more real, more authentic, more down-to-earth—even though it’s been created.”

Clark traces the birth of this nostalgia to the 1880s and 1890s, when a trip to the country wasn’t so much about enjoying an idyllic setting as it was about escaping the soot, sewage, and summer heat in newly industrialized cities. The cabin was an antidote. “Health has a new meaning at Pine Shores!” enthused a 1928 pamphlet for plots. “Instead of hot pavements, blistering sidewalks, fagged brains and body, you’ll be enjoying every hour of the day at Pine Shores in recuperative comfort.” 

To reinforce the recuperative feeling, lake houses were designed to look different than the ones back home. But the serenity evoked by such places has never been any more authentic than a fiberglass lumberjack. Even in the days before BlackBerry and Wi-Fi, it turns out a lot of us got bored at the lake after a while. Rusticity started to feel like deprivation. In many families, Mom would take the brood to the cabin for the entire summer. By the time Dad joined them on weekends, everyone needed a break.  “We mythologize the solitude part of it,” says Twin Cities architect Dale Mulfinger, who has written two books about cabin design. “There’s always been the place by the lake where we go for the solitary experience, and there’s always been the more energetic place nearby.”

Grownups found entertainment at supper clubs and dance halls, kids at roller rinks and amusement parks. In the 1930s, Fairie-Bow Water Sport Devices (based in Faribault, if you didn’t get it) sold elaborate coaster-like water slides and spring-loaded catapults to resorts, according to Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky’s excellent illustrated history, Minnesota Vacation Days. The attractions were rickety and dangerous: Some hurled bathers into the water on wooden toboggans, and, not surprisingly, they were gone by the 1950s.

Fast forward 60 years and the engineers and liability lawyers have given us back the water park, extending its season nine months by enclosing it. Before the first indoor park opened in 1994, most resorts in Wisconsin Dells operated at half capacity most of the season and shut down after Labor Day. But the parks are now full year-round, and miles of bigger and ever-wilder versions march along Interstate 94. You can surf on five-foot waves in February, and if you like, buy a condo right there in the resort.

The World Waterpark Association credits this kudzu-like conquest to the demise of the traditional family vacation. Hardly anybody loads the kids in the Gran Torino to visit national monuments anymore, much less spend an entire summer at the lake. Now we shoot for a couple of days together within driving distance. The quest for unstructured time together just might be the most solid of our wistful notions about cabin culture, and I’d wager this hunger is stronger today than it was in the misty past. Parents are more likely to plan trips around kids’ schedules and tastes, in part because families feel fragile and besieged—by divorce, isolation, the ugly forces pulling at teens—and we see time together as the glue that binds us. Those inner-tube flotillas circling Bunyan’s lazy river are, in fact, life rafts of a sort.

This is probably the secret value of this ersatz rustic world. “You leave your house and your job and you go someplace different and it doesn’t have quite the same pressures and anxieties that you have in your everyday world,” says Clark. It’s not splendid isolation, listening for the call of the loon, but there’s nothing to distract us from one another.

That’s the impulse that fueled my family’s assault on the Paul Bunyan Water Park. There are similar parks in the Twin Cities within a 15-minute drive of our house, but visiting them wouldn’t mean setting aside two days to do nothing but hang out together. Kitschy as it is, the hotel’s effort to create a sense of place reminds us where we’re not: home, focusing on each other only in nuggets.

If you go, you should know that the best dousing is delivered by Babe’s long, skinny horns. The eponymous blue ox is painted onto the back wall, and his horns jut over a little moat at the bottom of twin slides. Riders climb into the tubes four stories above the pool, shoot through a series of hairpin turns, and emerge under the spray.  

This time last year, my oldest son was terrified by a much smaller slide at the YWCA. Here, at the Babe-themed slide, he’s still a little hesitant, and he makes me sit in the raft’s front seat during our first trip down. But the next time, he scrambles past me. On the ride’s second twist, he perches as far forward as he can and spreads his arms as if he were flying. The sight startles me. His back is no longer that of a little boy. His rib cage has lost its bird-shape, and his shoulders for the first time form the top of a masculine V. I’m seized by the sense that he’s rocketing forward in time, away from me. And then we’re out, coming to rest under Babe’s left horn. MM

Beth Hawkins is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.