Spinning rod in hand and rain dripping from his nose, Robert Ross stood on the dock and cast yet another leech into Clearwater Lake, hoping for a northern.

"It's a great vacation," he said with a grin, despite two hours of fruitless fishing. "The weather? I'm almost 82. I may be drying up but I won't melt."

Last November, Camden Care Center in Minneapolis became the nation's first nursing home to offer its residents a free cruise to the Bahamas, and 24 went aboard.

On Tuesday, 28 of the home's 86 residents boarded buses for the 60-mile trip to Camp Friendship, a rustic getaway for people with disabilities. Another 24 came up Wednesday for the day.

"Nursing homes are supposed to be about making life as normal as possible, and what's more normal than a few days at the lake?" said owner and administrator Robert Letich.

The vacation ended Thursday after three days of fishing, hay rides, campfires, pontoon boat rides, polka dancing and tossing the director of nursing (fully clothed) into the lake -- activities planned by the residents over months of weekly meetings.

"Who'd have ever thought that I would be standing here at a resort on a lake with the wind blowing through my hair?" said resident Gail Lundquist, 78. "But then, whoever thought I [would] ever get to go on a cruise?"

Some prefer dry land

Nursing homes typically try to give residents as much autonomy as they can, but until Camden's adventures, it was unheard of for residents to help choose a vacation destination -- or take a vacation at all.

The cruise idea came up early last year after Letich returned from a Florida vacation and a resident asked jokingly when residents got a holiday.

"The more we thought about that, the better it sounded," Letich said. "Who deserves a vacation more than someone who lives in a nursing home?"

Most residents are on Medicaid because their care costs have impoverished them. They could not afford the $700 for the four-day cruise or the $100 for Camp Friendship. The costs have been covered largely by donations from the home's vendors and others.

For its cruise adventure, Camden will receive the Dare to Be Great award this fall from its trade association, Care Providers of Minnesota.

Not all residents liked the idea of going to sea, and weekly meetings to start planning a summer trip began soon after the cruise ended.

"I won't have nothing to do with the ocean," said resident Timothy Texier, 50, a fan of Camden after living in five homes the past few years.

"And it's not just because I'm in a wheelchair," he said. "Ships and airplanes, those are scary ways to travel. I like this lake vacation where you can stay on solid ground."

Camden is embarking on other ways to enhance life at the home. With a state grant, it is starting a pilot project to see if anxiety, confusion, depression and other health risks -- and costs -- can be reduced with massages, pets, aromatherapy, playing musical instruments and other techniques.

"No matter how hard we try, life in a nursing home still is communal living, and there's a lot that's very predictable," Letich said. "The cruise and lake experiences are really different, and being able to plan for the future energizes all of us, resident and staff."

He said he has received calls from other nursing homes congratulating him for the innovative vacations, and might try to find five or six other homes to join in a cruise next year.

A celebration at sea?

Letich and the residents already are planning that cruise for November 2012 -- this time probably seven days -- perhaps to Cozumel, Mexico.

Preparing for vacations has helped some residents become stronger and take up activities they thought were behind them -- for instance dancing a waltz on the ship, or the polka at the lake.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with residents Randy Allen, 57, and Lorre Lewis, 55. They were engaged in June and plan to be married at sea by the cruise captain.

"I've had two strokes and I'm working real hard at walking again," Allen said. "I'm up to 20 steps, but I'll do better. Lorre wants me to walk down the aisle."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253