Our family's search for the perfect mom-and-pop resort began 33 summers ago at Ossawinnamakee, a small, unpronounceable lake north of Brainerd, Minn.
Technically, the search had begun a few years earlier, at Clearwater Lake near Annandale. But I was barely out of diapers then and recall only that a small dog chained behind a neighboring cabin bit me in the face.
Plenty of excitement for my poor mom, with all the screaming and the blood, but no permanent damage aside from a tiny scar on my right eyelid. (One of my 10 siblings still maintains there'd be no scar if only I'd let her rip loose the nub of torn skin before it healed.)
The trip to Ossawinnamakee (AW-suh-WIN-uh-muh-KEE; "Long Waters," in Ojibwe) is perhaps the most memorable example of my dad's occasional spontaneity. One Saturday morning in July 1967, he hooked a rented trailer to the back of our station wagon, loaded it with gear, strapped a half-dozen bamboo fishing poles to the car's roof rack and packed the family inside. Nine of us cozied up in that Country Squire: Mom and Dad in the front, three teens in the middle and four mites in the wayback.
At age 8, one of the youngest, I was crammed in the back with my older sister and younger brothers, our knees interlocked between the facing jump seats.
Dad had no reservation, only a broad mission to drive to the Brainerd area and find a resort with a couple of cabins available for a week. I recall only the last hour of the long drive and lake-to-lake search. After several "sorry, we're booked" encounters, Mom's chewing gum began to take a real beating.
The sun was below the trees in the western sky when our tired, hot and hungry family pulled up the dirt driveway to Highview Resort on Ossawinnamakee. Dad consulted with the owner, who said he'd have to check his reservations book in the office. He emerged with good news. Yes, two small cabins were available for the week for $40 apiece. We spilled out of the car. Hooray for Dad!
To find a decent resort in the 1960s, you could rely on word of mouth, brochures gathered at sports shows or even classified ads. At Highview, we soon learned why you should not rely on random selection: Except for nine Welters and scores of mice, Highview's dozen or so sagging, pre-World War II cabins were empty.
The swimming area was sand-free and weed-choked. The fish wouldn't bite. The oversized deerflies wouldn't stop biting. And virtually all the activities listed in Highview's dull-orange brochure -- volleyball, horseback riding, teeter-totter -- had been crossed out with a black felt marker.
But what fun we had! Mom and Dad had one cabin to themselves. We kids ran wild in the other, staying up late, telling stories and chasing mice. The swimming area was fine as long as you wore tennis shoes and splashed around a lot to keep the flies at bay. We picked blackberries in the morning, drank cherry Kool-Aid instead of milk at dinner and ate raw Chef Boy-R-Dee pizza dough at night.
Most important, I learned the magic words that unlocked the freezer full of Fudgsicles and Popsicles in the resort office, words that still unlock resort snack counters from Osakis to Ely: "Charge it to Cabin 3."
Three good things
Highview (long since reborn as a well-maintained RV park and campground) was the worst resort I've ever stayed at. But something about our two-week vacation there -- yes, we decided to stay an extra week at that rundown place -- fixed in me a love of the modern housekeeping cabin.
Nearly every summer since, I've spent a week "at the lake" -- 15 lakes, in fact, as close as Long Lake near Willmar and as far away as Pelican Lake near the Canadian border.
Ossawinnamakee, for all its shortcomings, had three things going for it: lush woods, clear water and an outstanding name, mysterious and unpronounceable to the uninitiated. Other great lake names in our past include Mantrap, Eleventh Crow Wing, Osakis, Little Bemidji and Upper Bottle.
The less-satisfying names we've endured barely stick in the memory for more than a season or two: Round, Long, Cedar ... zzzzzzzz. The DNR's Web site (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us) lists more than 40 Round Lakes and more than 90 Longs. I'm sure those lakes are home to some outstanding resorts, but I never could work up much enthusiasm for a lake named with so little enthusiasm.
Over the years, I've grown partial to clear, midsize lakes surrounded by deep woods. The perfect lake has interesting contours, plenty of fish, small islands to camp on and a navigable outlet. Boys in search of adventure need an escape route. We called it sploring, our shorthand for exploring.
As a 12-year-old staying at a resort on Little Bemidji northwest of Park Rapids, I was fascinated by the idea that my two younger brothers and I could hop in a 14-foot fishing boat, fire up its 6-horse outboard and, with enough money and time, motor all the way to New Orleans.