Cabin Life in Brainerd Lakes


Brainerd Lakes, photo by Kevin White

Show of hands: who’s having a really busy year?

You’re not alone. My Google calendar looks like a hyperactive ticker-tape parade. Most days are a jumble of errands, the multiple schedules I’m (badly) juggling, and the priorities I’m trying to balance. I’d like to escape for a week or two, but it’s just not in the cards right now.

It’s time, then, for that most quintessential of Minnesotan summertime getaways: a weekend at the cabin in Brainerd Lakes, a quick escape just a couple hours north of the Cities. But those of you who own a lakeside retreat know that it comes with its own set of downsides—maintenance, cleanup, fending off relatives and friends who invite themselves over to freeload on the burger-and-margarita express. One friend of mine opened up his cabin after the winter only to discover that some band of scoundrels had ransacked the place, allowing scavenging squirrels to crawl in the open window and help themselves to the pantry.

But how about a weekend with all the upsides of a cabin and none of the hassle? The kind of vacation where you sip coffee on a screened-in porch while listening to the birds’ morning songs, then jump in the lake for a quick dip. After that, you eat a huge lunch, take a little hike to convince yourself you’re burning off some calories, then have an equally indulgent dinner to remind yourself: This is me time.


Boomer Pizza, photo courtesy of Boomer Pizza

Fortunately my partner and I are very simpatico on these matters, so the first order of business on our cabin weekend is to stop for pizza and beer on our way to our final destination. The new Boomer Pizza (boomerpizza.com) in Baxter (the younger, rapidly growing town adjacent to Brainerd) is a wood-fired pie joint with Minnesota craft brews on tap. We order the appropriately tagged Pig Heaven (cheese, garlic, herbs, house-cured bacon, and olive oil in lieu of sauce), a gem so tasty it’s well worth overlooking its innocuous strip-mall locale.

Already this beats stopping off at the Super One for buns and trying to remember what Uncle Charlie likes on his burger. We pass through Brainerd proper, founded in 1870 as a stop for the Northern Pacific Railway (taking the company president’s wife’s maiden name), and drift through the increasingly watery lake country until we hit McCabes Pub in Merrifield. My partner shows off her tendency to make pool shots with the strategic approach of a riverboat gambler as we settle into this friendly roadside hangout. During football season, the bar hands out a free shot of something strong every time the Vikings score a touchdown—which must have made for some relatively teetotal afternoons in recent seasons.

Going past Pelican Lake, one of the largest in the area along with Gull and Whitefish, you can see the thumbprint of Minnesota’s geological history with your own eyes. It’s like some cosmic vision. Millions of years ago, this land was lapped by encroaching and receding shallow seawaters. More recently, but still so long ago as to be almost beyond our comprehension, the weight of huge ice glaciers pressed and eroded sedimentary rocks, gouging out the valleys that became the lakes and rivers of the state. Look at the map. It’s possible to imagine the vast ice sheets melting and vanishing, leaving all these lakes behind like puddles after a springtime rainfall.


Gull Lake, courtesy of Cragun’s Conference and Golf Resort

Up in Crosslake, half an hour north, we check into Whitefish Lodge (whitefish-lodge.com) for our first night at the “cabin.” We’re pretty jazzed because we ordered a room with a spa tub (and we won’t have to share it with Uncle Charlie). Still, when we let ourselves in, it seems positively weird to find that it’s in the corner of our suite’s living room—like the time I took a bath in the kitchen in a friend’s apartment in New York City.

We’re in a prime location for golfing, boating, and fishing—the main warm-weather attractions in these parts. You could spend a whole afternoon on a rented double kayak, enjoying a cool breeze rising over the lake waters carrying the smell of wildflowers. The décor at Whitefish certainly satisfies the aesthetic we’re looking for (rough-hewn logs,stone, the odd mounted animal head) and it’s perfectly cozy (a little nook off the lobby, with a fireplace for winter, turns out to be perfect for holing up with a book).

It could pass for a family cabin, but with maid service and a front desk staff who share with us our shopping options. Turns out we don’t have far to go. Across the street is Crosslake Town Square. We’re drawn to a waterside idyll in oil at the Lakes Area Gallery (lakesareagallery.com), a pair of fancy Woolrich boots or a Pendleton shirt at Lundrigans Clothing (lundrigansclothing.com), or some fancy moccasins at Itasca Leathergoods (itascaleathergoods.com). We decide we already sufficiently look the part, though—hiking shorts and weekender
t-shirts—and check out the Chocolate Ox (thechocolateox.com) candy shop, one of three in the area. We have another full day ahead, and don’t want to be operating under a calorie deficit.

For dinner, we consider the tony waterside Bar Harbor Supper Club (barharborsupperclub.com) in Lake Shore but decide to save the northern preppie experience for next time up. Instead we head just north of Brainerd for the (relatively) newer Iven’s on the Bay (ivensonthebay.com). It’s got a white-tablecloth ambience that belies picnic-table cabin weekend expectations, and we’re going with it. We feast on a coconut shrimp appetizer with hints of orange marmalade, a succulent almond-crusted walleye, and grilled tenderloin with lobster potato cake. There’s no reason to subsist on hot dogs and Lay’s potato chips.  

By this point, day one feels like a success, even without owning any outstate real estate. We head back to our room, which is when the wisdom of the spa-pool-in-the-living-room suddenly makes perfect sense. We run the water nice and hot and melt into it, hotel cable TV blaring away. Paradise.


Grand View Lodge, photo courtesy of Grand View Lodge

If we’re going to be perfectly honest, we tell each other, it’s going to take more than a couple of nights away from the hurly-burly in order to properly relax. We need to jump-start the process. So the next morning we head to Grand View Lodge (grandviewlodge.com)—several hundred acres of rooms and cabins, eateries, Gull Lake shoreline, and golf—for the onsite Glacial Waters Spa.

We feel like lowering our voices to a mellow whisper just coming up to the place. It’s tucked into the forest like a hideaway from Lord of the Rings, ringed in tall trees, enveloped in hushed silence, and glowing with tasteful luxury. The list of services is like a menu of ways that you can have your body manipulated and improved: skin care, manicures, and pedicures.

My partner opts for the Glacial Rain treatment: sea-salt exfoliation, full-body hydrotherapy massage, and a seven-headed Vichy shower that’s supposed to “open up the chakra energy centers and cleanse stagnant energy from the body.” It does the trick. Meanwhile, I’m getting a 90-minute deep-tissue massage that is easily one of the best experiences of my decade. We meet up afterward in a plush sitting room with a fireplace and oversize chairs, sipping chilled spring water and wondering what sort of life plan would make it possible for us to do this every day.


A-Pine Restaurant, photo by Quinton Skinner

Maybe it’s the post-spa-treatment clarity, but we find ourselves talking about memory. For Marcel Proust, a Madeleine cookie could evoke the entire world of his childhood. My partner’s time-machine equivalent is the A-Pine Restaurant (apineplaza.com) in Pequot Lakes. Turns out her family used to stop there every time they came up this way on road trips. We share a solid, if not actually particularly memorable, plate of chicken and fries, and soak up the small-town ambiance. Turns out she remembered it a little more magical, the way we go back to our childhood school and the desks seem miniature. I add a whole Grandma Bettie Jane’s pecan pie to go to the tab—a delicious behemoth that ends up taking several days to vanquish and that will end up being my personal Madeleine from this trip.

Until now we’ve more or less neglected, I’m reminded, the part of the journey in which we at least make a stab at a pretense of getting some exercise. So it’s a short drive to the Veterans Memorial Walking Trail starting on the south end of Upper Hay Lake, a loop of a couple of miles skirting forest and plenty of photo opportunities for those of us who want to convince the folks back home that we’re more rugged than we really are. A little ways west is the Paul Bunyan Scenic Trail, which runs along Highway 371 past Jenkins and Pequot Lakes, a paved route ideal for biking in warm weather (and cross-country skiing when the freeze arrives).


Paul Bunyan, photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota Tourism

With virtue sufficiently nodded to, we remember that the taproom explosion, so ubiquitous in the Twin Cities, has made inroads in Brainerd Lakes, too. There are a couple small operations nearby, both around a year old: Gull Dam Brewing (gulldambrewing.com) in Nisswa and Jack Pine Brewery (jackpinebrewery.com) in Baxter. Today neither is open, though, so we head for bloody marys at Ye Old Pickle Factory (yeoldpicklefactory.com), an old-school bar in Nisswa.

Along Nisswa’s Main Street, there’s a good hour of walking and poking around. BluPaisley (blupaisley.com) is a small one-woman boutique, with hats and scarves in an eclectic, organic-fiber gypsy feel. Loide Oils and Vinegars (loideoilsandvinegars.com) offers generous samples, and the oils infused with garlic and cayenne are worth taking home.

But enough thinking about going home, and the Google calendar, and that bathroom remodel that needs to get finished. We have one more night, and we head to our little rented cabin back at Grand View. The lengthening shadows of afternoon lend the grounds a soft, cushiony look. Our bedroom is compact and tasteful (no knotty pine in sight), and includes a leather sofa on which to sprawl and a view out the kitchenette window of needled forest floor. Gull Lake is at the end of the path at the bottom of our steps, and a gentle breeze sighs over the water.


Ernie’s on Gull Lake, photo courtesy of Ernie’s on Gull Lake

Grand View has a lot of dining options, including the sumptuous, contemporary Cru downstairs at the Gull Lake Center—but on a whim, instead we get back in the car and head to the funkier and more traditional Ernie’s on Gull Lake (erniesongull.com) for pan-fried walleye and prime-rib stroganoff; while we’re by no means Lake Country locals, there has to be some cachet from dining at a place that offers icehouse rentals in the winter.

Back at “our” cabin, after the sun goes down, we turn on the gas fireplace and realize we’re happy not to even have to sweep out any ashes. There’s nothing to clean up here, no raccoons to fight with over the trash, no relatives to negotiate with. We open up the backgammon board and realize that we’ve done it: We’ve escaped and gotten away for our “weekend at the cabin” in Brainerd Lakes. We feel the heavy hand of the everyday lift from our shoulders, in a palpable rush of peace. I’d never say never to owning a cabin, but these couple of nights have make a pretty compelling argument for letting others manage the grounds and worry about the pipes when the freeze settles in

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