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.

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.


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.


10 Lodges We Love


1: Best Trip to the Old Country Without Leaving America: Lutsen Lodge

Skip the cruise this winter and look to Lutsen for vacation options instead. With its classic Scandinavian architecture, Lutsen exudes comfort, offering fine dining coupled with views of Lake Superior; plentiful seating around crackling fireplaces; a swimming pool, whirlpool, and sauna; free wireless Internet; and an assortment of massage treatments available at the on-site spa. Another advantage over that cruise? No need to worry about seasickness.

Contact Information: 5700 W. Hwy. 61, Lutsen . 218-663-7212 . . Operating dates: November–March . Rates: $69–$159


2: Best Blast to the Past Without a Time Machine: Naniboujou Lodge

The Naniboujou Lodge in Grand Marais provides guests with something that nowadays is rare: the chance to sit and do nothing. Although the lodge has undergone many ownership and logistical changes since its start in 1927, its peaceful atmosphere and vintage furnishings remain intact. Tuck into ample dinners, including the lodge’s signature Danish créme dessert, then mosey to the solarium to read, play games, or nap.

Contact Information: 20 Naniboujou, Grand Marais . 218-387-2688 . . Operating dates: January 14–March 12 (weekends only) . Rates: One person, $270–$335; two people, $400–$445


3: Best Excuse to be Out of Touch: Bearskin Lodge

Pocket the Bluetooth, turn off the cell phone, and shut down the laptop—it’s time to unplug. At Bearskin Lodge in Grand Marais, Mother Nature reigns, providing all the entertainment you’ll need. Whether you choose to enjoy the snow firsthand on one of the many groomed cross-country-ski trails or prefer to cozy up with a book before a roaring fire, Bearskin gives you a chance to put life on hold, even if it’s just for a weekend.

Contact Information:  124 E. Bearskin Rd., Grand Marais . 218-388-2292 . . Operating dates: November 14–March 31 . Rates: Per night, $137–$304; per week, $857–$1,988


4: Best Chance to Coo at Animals and Not Get Funny Looks For It: Gunflint Lodge

Winter in Minnesota sticks around far too long, so why not make the most of it? Options abound at Gunflint Lodge, from ice fishing and skating, to skiing and snowshoeing, or even getting pulled through the woods by a team of sled dogs. Animal lovers, you’re especially in luck: Every day, deer, squirrels, and other furry friends gather to feed in front of the lodge. Winter doesn’t seem quite as unbearable now, does it?

Contact Information: 143 S. Gunflint Lake, Grand Marais . 800-328-3325 . . Operating dates: December–March . Rates: One person, $39–$175; two people, $109–$299


5: Best place to Bathe in Glacial Water (Without Getting Frostbite): Grand View Lodge

We all know that glaciers gifted us with the Midwest’s distinctive landscape, but they left us another present, too: mineral-rich, restorative water (in other words, the ultimate bath). The Glacial Waters Spa, part of the Grand View Lodge, puts water to work with numerous hydrotherapy treatments. Said to help restore one’s body to state of calm and balance, the high-profile water makes all other baths seem second-rate.

Contact Information: 23521 Nokomis Ave., Nisswa . 866-801-2951 . . Operating dates: Year-round . Rates (for one bedroom): $155–$225


6: Best Romantic Rendezvous for Log-Cabin Lovers: Spider Lake Lodge

Started in 1923 as a fishing camp, Spider Lake Lodge now appeals to a distinctly different crowd. Designed by NorthPoint Design Studio (formerly Sticks & Stones of Minneapolis), every room at the lodge boasts aesthetically pleasing, rustic-yet-romantic characteristics. Quietly nestled in Wisconsin’s north woods, Spider Lake takes relaxation seriously. The only thing you’ll need to ponder at length is how to extend your stay.

Contact Information: 10472 W. Murphy Blvd., Hayward, Wis. . 715-462-3793 . . Operating dates: Year-round (but only on weekends during winter) . Rates: $159–$199


7: Best Way to Channel (and express) Your Inner-German: Garmisch Lodge

Alpine, Innsbruck, Rhinelander, Zugspitze—even the cabin names at Garmisch Lodge proclaim its Old World heritage. Named after a popular tourist destination in Germany, Garmisch is full of Bavarian charm. From the handcrafted architecture to the hearty cuisine (think Jaegerschnitzel and Kasslerripchen), after spending a couple of nights here, you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled all the way to Europe—minus the jet lag.

Contact Information: 23040 Garmisch Rd., Cable, Wis. . 715-794-2204 . . Operating dates: December–March  . Rates: $95–$195


8: Best Excuse to Yell, “Mush!”: Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge

Interested in dog sledding but not quite ready to start training for the Iditarod? Wintergreen Lodge in Ely has a compromise for you. Accompanied by one of their guide-naturalists, you can participate in customized trips ranging from half-day excursions to an eight-night camping adventure. The dogs love to pull; you get to sit on the sled—or give mushing a shot. So what are you waiting for? Go get
your mush on.

Contact Information: 1101 Ring Rock Rd., Ely . 218-365-6022 . . Operating dates: December–March . Rates: $175–$275


9: Best Bet for Absolute Bliss: Canoe Bay

No kids or pets allowed, breakfast and lunch delivered to your room, a concierge ready to meet your every request: Canoe Bay should really be named Complete Bliss. Created by a couple for couples, this Wisconsin resort takes relaxation and romance very seriously. Set amid 280 acres of hardwood forest, each of Canoe Bay’s 23 lodging options provides the optimum blend of elegance, privacy, and luxury. Can you say heaven?

Contact Informaiton: Chetek, Wis. . 715-924-4594 x3 . Operating dates: Year-round . Rates: $440–$1,800


10: Best place to flaunt your ’biling skills: Wild Eagle Lodge

If you rock the helmet-hair-and-goggle-tan look during the winter, Wild Eagle Lodge is your perfect fit. Located in the Snowmobile Capital of the World (Eagle River, Wisconsin), the lodge has more than 500 miles of groomed trails and offers customized packages for every Arctic Cat junkie out there. Once you’ve had your fill of cruising the open woods, explore winter in new ways: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating. Chances are slim that you’ll run out of outdoor fun here.

Contact Information: 4443 Chain O’ Lakes Rd., Eagle River, Wis. . 715-479-3151 . . Operating dates: Year-round . Rates: $109–339 per night; $1,299–$1,909 per week