The first time I saw northern Minnesota was from the remote dock of my friend's cabin. I was 14, and my friend and I had just graduated from the ninth grade. His parents bought a simple two-room cabin with a one-room guesthouse, some lakeshore lots, and a broken-down boat that resembled the African Queen.
We drove eight hours from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to a Lake Vermilion marina and crossed to their wilderness dock in darkness. Loon calls quavered in the cool night air. I had never heard anything like them. I had never seen so many stars, and I knew damn well I had never felt anything like crossing mirror flat water to an island cabin in the middle of a northern Minnesota night.
Morning comes early to Lake Vermilion in June. While my buddy slept, I got out of bed, dressed, and took that first step into something big and profound.
The bay on which the cabin resides is about the size of lakes Calhoun or Harriet. It is carved out of a 9-mile long island. The island is at the east end of a 40-mile long lake containing nearly 40,000 acres of water and 365 islands. When I went down to the dock and looked out into Vermilion's Big Bay, I could see a calm surface that stretched to a barely perceptible lakeshore more than 4 miles away. A blue heron loped across the water, moving down the shoreline toward a dense weave of Norway red pines. Ducks skirted the nearby shore and further out a pair of loons took turns diving and disappearing. Eventually they bobbed to the surface half a football field away. The place was huge and wild.
And then a fish jumped.
Vermilion's water has a red hue, but it was clear enough to see the white flash of a northern pike's underbelly when it hit my spoon. And a few casts later, a smallmouth bass.
On more than one occasion, I have been awe-struck by a natural landscape. My friend's cabin on Lake Vermilion in the middle of the wellspring of the North American continent was like that: A spiritual territory that struck me like a shotgun blast to the heart.
Eleven years after my first visit, they sold their original cabin, moving down the shoreline and building a much nicer place in that thick stand of Norway reds. Almost every year for more than four decades, I have visited the place. About a year ago, he and his wife became the sole owners of his family's cabin. This year they added on, making room for their two daughters' families and three young grandsons to forge their own Vermilion traditions and lives.
For many it is preferable to have a cabin of your own. But if you cannot, it is good to have generous friends who are willing to share their place on the water, where you can sip good wine as you watch the sun settle into the distant trees.
cary j. griffith, Rosemount