The Shore Thing: Relaxing at a Resort
By Jennifer Vogel
We’re sitting on a broad wooden patio at Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake, north of Brainerd, waiting for burgers. It is indeed breezy here next to the beach, to the point where I don’t dare let go of anything lighter than a peppershaker. My husband, Mike, has given up trying to control the newspaper.
Breezy Point was built almost a century ago by wealthy publisher Wilfred Hamilton Fawcett, who founded a magazine called Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. Breezy Point’s interior is festooned with framed Whiz Bang covers and full-page cartoons. One shows a dancer who’s fallen in a nightclub, her skirt up over her knees. The caption reads, “A good floor show.”
The original lodge, which burned down in 1959, featured an enormous dining room and dance hall with two towering rock fireplaces and a stage for the in-house orchestra. Back then, the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Jack Dempsey stayed here. Vacationers can rent Captain Billy’s 10-bedroom log home, which has been preserved in all its rustic glory, otherwise there isn’t a lot the stars of yore would recognize about present-day Breezy Point.
Like many anchors of the Brainerd lakes area, the resort has super-sized and modernized, expanding both its physical footprint and its appeal to a wide swath of Minnesotans: golfers, business people, families, partiers. With two golf courses, four tennis courts, a convention center, three restaurants, a marina, an ice arena, and an Elvis impersonator on Saturday nights, today’s Breezy Point is less a debouched hideaway than an up-north Disneyland.
Brainerd’s iconic resorts, owned by dynastic families like the Kavanaughs, the Ruttgers, the Cotes, and the Craguns, have grown into self-contained small towns, often with their own real-estate offices. Privately-owned cabins have swelled right along with them, so that most built after 1980 resemble suburban homes or country estates. Yet even the biggest abodes tend to sport the requisite Brainerd touches: handmade signs bearing family names, decorative canoe paddles, and great expanses of what Mike calls “O.P.”— ostentatious pine.
In the 1970s, my father—who wore Wrangler cutoffs and Holiday Station tennis shoes even as he listened to Chopin and sipped Liebfraumilch—owned a cabin on Round Lake, part of the Gull Lake chain. He himself was a force for modernization. He bought a quaint log cabin, intentionally burned it down, and built a much larger place with a Mansard roof and wall-to-wall carpeting.
As a kid, I spent most summers with Dad at the cabin. We canoed and swam in our shallow lake and frequented every amusement park, petting zoo, and miniature golf course within a 50-mile radius. We took long walks in the Pillsbury State Forest and feasted on prime rib and au gratin potatoes at the area’s best supper clubs. On the way home, Dad would race his Cadillac DeVille over a series of paved bumps on County Road 77, trying to lift me out of my seat. Such is what passed for entertainment in Brainerd in the 1970s. It’s no secret that the Brainerd lakes area has seen massive changes in recent decades.
Now here we are, munching on giant hamburgers at Breezy Point. As I finish my last French fry, I wonder, is the summer escape of my youth still around here somewhere? Does a semblance of Brainerd’s old charm remain?
My questions are answered in the affirmative the moment we arrive at Samara Point Resort on Gull Lake. A peaceful throwback, the resort consists of eight cabins—most built of pine in the late 1950s—strung lightly along a forested stretch of sandy beach.
This may be Gull’s last holdout. There is no golf course or spa here, and wireless Internet is available only at the office. We’re greeted by fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and a hand-drawn chalkboard sign that reads, “Welcome home, Jennifer and Mike.” The attention to detail is impressive. It seems there isn’t much Bud can’t cobble from a coffee can or a hunk of wood, including several tables, a barbecue grill, and wall lamps in the living room and bedrooms.
Mike and I unpack into the cabin, which has a wood-burning fireplace and a screened porch facing the lake. Immediately, time loses speed and we are overcome by the desire to lounge. We empty our bags of books and magazines and settle in. Before long, I’m so relaxed, I’m nearly asleep. So I pull myself up like a good city person and set out to find one of my favorite summer spots of old: Ski Gull, near the Pillsbury Forest.
I haven’t been here for decades, but the terrain hasn’t changed. I walk a narrow gravel road, absolutely alone, the wind shushing through stands of paper birch, sugar maple, and red pine. That holy trinity, I realize, is the image that comes to my mind whenever someone utters “forest” or “woods.”
Brainerd began as a railroad town, founded around 1870 by Northern Pacific Railway president John Gregory Smith, who named the city after his wife, Ann Eliza Brainerd Smith. At one time, Brainerd was home to a station that serviced trains for the whole Northern Pacific line. The railroad helped forward the local lumber industry and cleared the way for iron-ore mining.
If jobs first brought people here, the terrain and cool northern climate made them stay, especially in the days before air conditioning. Within 25 miles of Brainerd, once dubbed “the city of the pines,” there are more than 460 lakes. Crow Wing County’s tourism business brings in nearly $200 million annually.
This, spread before me, is the cradle of Minnesota’s cabin country.
Here’s something you can’t do just anywhere: boat to a restaurant. The Gull Lake chain is a series of eight connected lakes. Dip in any place on the chain, and you have water access to two counties and a host of restaurants and lounges.
Our cabin at Samara comes outfitted with a 14-foot aluminum Crestliner, built in the 1950s in Little Falls. It’s sans motor though, so Mike has brought one from home. In a great up-north moment, the resort staff doesn’t blink an eye when I reveal that we’ve lugged a 15-horsepower Johnson in the trunk of our Honda Civic.
At 7 p.m., we tie up at one of the best restaurants in the area, The Narrows at Lost Lake Lodge. We’re seated in the new dining room, which overlooks birch trees and the Gull Lake Narrows. The room is decorated in simple, north-woods style, featuring broad swathes of Sheetrock and pine. The menu is built around courses with inventive wine pairings. I can’t help but think how surprised Dad would be to see his beloved prime rib and carafes of “white” supplanted by sea scallops and Sbragia Chardonnay.
Outside, menacing clouds have gathered and the wind has picked up, so we race across Gull to our cabin, arriving just ahead of the storm. We finish the evening with a glass of wine in the screened porch, a stunning sunset off our private dock, and a fire in the fireplace. We’re asleep by 10 p.m.
The next morning, Mike heads out fishing, and I set off on a field trip of my own to the newly christened 5,000-acre Cuyuna Country Recreation Area near Crosby. What used to be a series of denuded iron-ore mines—more than 100 million tons were shipped from Cuyuna between 1904 and 1984—has been transformed into a wooded wonderland.
The 15 mine lakes, some with telltale square edges, are deep and clear and surrounded by hills of discarded rock now densely forested. The lakes are popular with paddlers, scuba divers, and fishermen, because they are stocked with trout. A 22-mile, single-track mountain biking trail is scheduled to open here soon. In some ways, Cuyuna looks more like the Boundary Waters than Brainerd, except that most of the puddles along my path are tinted burnt orange, a reminder of what lies beneath the pine needles. Walking through the park, I find myself thinking: This area is so much more beautiful than it used to be.
Later, Mike and I decide to take our boat over to Bar Harbor for pre-dinner drinks.
This is the third Bar Harbor to grace this spot. Originally opened in 1938, it once had a dance floor mounted on piers in the lake; Duke Ellington played here. Then, we set out for dinner at Sherwood Forest, on nearby Lake Margaret. The lodge, a national historic site, was built in the 1920s of logs originally scheduled to be pier pilings in Duluth. It looks virtually unchanged from when Dad and I used to come here for hot chocolate. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since it was constructed, when the two 50-foot center beams were placed by block and tackle.
Mike and I are seated next to a stone fireplace with built-in stairs that lead to a piano loft. It’s a romantic setting, if a bit quiet. These days Sherwood Forest is owned by Grand View, so it’s no surprise when our filet mignon with béarnaise sauce and battered halibut with dill remoulade arrive studiously prepared.
By the time we’re back in the boat, the wind has reached gale force, but we’ve got one more stop before heading back to Samara. As we float through the small channel that connects Gull Lake to Round Lake, the swimming pool of my youth, I’m thinking how nostalgia and reverie underpin most good cabin trips. We skirt the shore until finally we reach it: Dad’s old cabin, Mansard roof and all.
I take a long look. It appears much the same—same chimney, same deck—except it’s been painted tan. The lawn is mowed, and the day lilies are gone. I think I recognize the maple trees I planted as a kid. The cabin next door has been replaced by a suburban rambler that makes Dad’s stab at modernization appear old-fashioned.
And then I see it, a small red sign. The cabin is for sale. A new round of change is in store.
Like so much in Brainerd, the cabin represents both the past and the present—the embodiment of history and change. Just one more reason this place will forever be so special to me.