A flower pinned to her sweater, Justine Spunner’s eyes sparkle from the pages of the 1928 Northwestern University yearbook, the “Syllabus.” Her father was an attorney successful enough to own a home in Barrington, Ill., 30 miles west of Chicago and Justine’s campus.
Spunner majored in zoology, minored in chemistry and philosophy and, the yearbook says, played soccer and volleyball and joined something called the Outing Club at Northwestern. She was planning to go to medical school and become a doctor.
Then the Great Depression descended. Her parents lost their Illinois home — forcing the family to flee to the tiny resort they’d purchased in better times along Gunflint Lake, hugging the Canadian border in Minnesota’s North Woods.
That’s where Justine met Bill Kerfoot, the son of Hamline University’s president, whose foreign service dreams also went poof in the Depression. He was camping on a sandy beach, desperate for work, when Justine offered him room and board in exchange for resort scut work.
They were married in 1934, and Justine Kerfoot spent the next 60-plus years fixing plumbing, snowshoeing, welcoming visitors, servicing vehicles, guiding fishermen, building furniture, hunting moose, trapping mink, mushing sled dogs and writing about the woods and lakes in newspaper columns and books.
“She was definitely a city girl … a pre-med philosophy” student, said Eleanor Matsis in a 2001 interview. Matsis worked at the Kerfoots’ Gunflint Lodge in the 1950s. “She used to laugh about that when her hands were in grease.”
This time of year was among her favorites. In her first of two books, “Woman of the Boundary Waters” (1986), she pondered just when “this sometimes harsh and demanding land” stole her heart.
“Did I fall in love when the change from winter to spring begins, and one hears the sound of the first gentle rain on the roof, running off in rivulets?”
That first happened in 1927, when the city girl with the big education felt small — “An infinitesimal speck in the cosmos, I stood on the shore of Gunflint Lake beneath a great white pine … and I knew I was home. I was 21.”
She found neither electricity nor indoor plumbing when she first arrived at the end of the Gunflint Trail, which snakes through northeastern Minnesota from Lake Superior toward Canada. “A case of do or die,” she described her pioneer plumbing in a 1986 oral history interview.
“If you had half a brain, you know, you could sort stuff out,” she said. “It was a challenge, a definite challenge. … It was all iron pipes. You had to thread it. … It was something that you did, that you worked out.”
One neighbor described Kerfoot as “strong, independent and a little bit cantankerous,” but she also had a tender side. Like the time she was trapping mink, a story she recalled in one of her “On the Gunflint Trail” weekly columns that ran for 42 years in the Cook County News Herald.
Paddling her canoe to check traps along the lake, she discovered a live mink caught by its foot. “It was one thing to pick up a mink that had been drowned, but another to find one still fighting for its life,” Kerfoot wrote. “I covered its head, removed the trap and took it to an empty cabin to recuperate.”
She fed the mink daily as it recovered, only to find it had dug a hole in a mattress “much to the disgust of my mother.” When the critter was fully healed, she left the door ajar and he returned to nature.
“I didn’t trap much longer,” Kerfoot wrote. “I found it much more interesting to watch an otter run and slide on the lake, or watch an ermine, in its white winter coat, scurry in and out of a pile of logs.”
Among the most surprising developments she witnessed Up North was the cooperative spirit that arose among resort owners after cutthroat days during the Depression. “We were all so damn destitute that we were suckers for anybody who came in,” she said, explaining how cash-strapped fishermen would balk at $3-a-day boat rentals, saying they could get one for $2 down the trail. Resort owners would cave and undercut their competitors on lodging as well.
“We were all independent as hell,” Kerfoot said, telling her husband he was crazy when he suggested cooperation. “When we got to talking, we found out we’d all been suckers.”
So they set minimum prices for boats, beds and meals and formed the Gunflint Trail Association. They went on to work together, improving roads, telephone service and electricity in their remote corner.
Before their divorce, the Kerfoots raised three children, and friends recalled how Justine once led a winter hunting trip while eight months pregnant. The family rebuilt the lodge after a 1953 fire, with son Bruce eventually buying out his parents and running the resort until a 2016 sale to new owners.
Justine Kerfoot died in 2001 at 94, but not before visiting the Amazon and Antarctica. As waves lapped the rugged shore of Gunflint Lake at her memorial service, one of her eight grandchildren said: “She lived her life like age and gender didn’t matter. To her, there was no excuse for not doing what you truly want to do.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.