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.
An impractical dream, yes, but how far could we go in a day?
One morning, we decided to find out. With only a little money and a cooler full of Cokes, Baggies of bologna sandwiches and Oreos, we buzzed across Little Bemidji and paddled and poled through long shallow stretches of reedy Johnny Cake, the next lake down.
With the aid of our hydrological map, we located an outlet creek and putt-putted downstream until we reached a small dam. Only by removing the engine and gas tank were we able to lift the heavy craft out of the water and carry it around the obstruction.
By noon we had reached distant and pristine Many Point Lake, two lakes closer to the Gulf of Mexico. We felt the brief exhilaration that must have swept over 18th-century explorers when they happened upon a particularly beautiful sylvan lake deep in the great unmapped north country.
Then we spotted our mom and dad speeding by. With little effort or sense of adventure, they had hauled their boat over to Many Point on a trailer to try their luck in the sunfish holes near the big Boy Scout camp on the lake. The sight jerked us back into the 20th century. We munched our sandwiches and headed back to Little Bemidji.
An Indiana boy from Cabin 8 was waiting for us when we pulled up to the dock a few hours later. "What'd ya catch? What'd ya catch?" he shouted, bristling with curiosity. He was about 10 years old, already an expert in landing homely, bottom-feeding bullheads by the dozen.
I shut off the engine and began unfastening my life vest. "We didn't fish," I said. "Just sploring. We got all the way to Many Point." Our fish basket lay dry and empty in the bottom of the boat.
He was truly mystified. "You were gone all day in a boat, and you didn't go fishin'?"
My brothers and I looked at each other and smiled. The Indiana boy would never grasp our love of sploring, and we'd never grasp his love of bullheads.
Bullheads aside, fishing has always been an important part of going to the lake. Dad taught us how to bait hooks and unhook fish before we could read or ride a bike.
With up to four kids in a boat, he had to keep it simple. Until we reached our teens, we used bamboo poles, 6 feet long, with 12 feet of heavy-duty line, a red-and-white bobber, a split-shot lead weight, a small barbed hook and nightcrawlers for bait.
Our prey, the willing and tasty sunfish, was equally modest. Also known as pumpkinseeds and bluegill, sunnies are small, round, iridescent brown-gray-yellow-blue-green fish that congregate on weed beds and bite with enough frequency to keep small children entertained.
On good days, our bobbers bobbed almost continuously, and we'd catch the scores of sunnies needed for a meal. Cleaning them was a chore, but Dad simplified that for us, as well. Instead of filleting the small fish, a skill beyond that of most 8-year-olds, we learned to scale them with a spoon, the first stage in this daily disassembly line. With his sharp knife and special chain-mail half-glove, Dad handled the rest.
The fishing was slow during our week at Round Lake north of Park Rapids in the early 1970s. The older kids, approaching or entering their surly years, hung out in the cabin much of the time, reading Mad magazine and Franz Kafka while Mom and Dad found peace on the lake.
One hot day, my 17-year-old brother, Vincent, decided he needed a beer. He persuaded my sister and me, age 12 and 11, to attempt to buy a six-pack of Hamm's at the Liar's Den, the lakeside lodge 200 feet downhill from our cabin. Inside the lodge, Paula and I nervously approached the counter. Paula said to the owner: "My dad wants a six-pack of Hamm's. Please charge it to Cabin 3." He looked down at us sternly. "Your dad needs to come down here for that," the owner said.
"He's . . . he's not feeling well today," Paula said, looking at the floor through her blue cat-eye glasses.
"Fine. Just go down and tell him to wave at me, and I'll give it to you." As he stood outside the lodge, we hiked up the hill to our cabin, silently pondering our next move.
Vincent was nonplussed when we explained the situation. He stuck his skinny, 17-year-old arm out the cabin door and waved hopefully as Paula and I peered out the window, hidden behind the curtains. The owner smiled, shook his head and went back inside. He never told our parents.
Now, more than 25 years later, I'm the parent, trying to keep my kids safe and entertained at the lake without the aid of No Pest strips, Noxzema, bright-orange life jackets or cane poles.
Resorts are more comfortable and more complicated, with microwave ovens, fish locaters, electronic games, boom boxes, fiberglass kayaks. Two-person paddleboats are rare; instead Jet Skis buzz the docks. We go inline skating on smooth ribbons of asphalt, browse antique stores, read Harry Potter, sip juice boxes, apply SPF 30 on the beach during the day and luxuriate in a sauna at night.
We have yet to find the perfect resort. But we still fish, still swim, still enjoy each other's company in wooded retreats far from home and work. Whatever the accommodations, it's all about family and, as my dad says, "at-ee-tude."
On Pelican Lake several summers ago, my parents got stuck with a bad cabin. The converted tool shed was so close to the main dock that gasoline fumes filled the air, and so small that an opening had been cut in the bedroom wall to accommodate the backside of the refrigerator in the adjoining kitchen. My wife and I felt guilty about ending up with the better cabin on that trip, even though we needed the extra room for our toddler and infant. My parents, nearing their 70s, waved off any suggestion of switching and, as always, made the best of the trip.
They caught their share of sunnies and played cribbage with us at their kitchen table long after the ululating loons had quieted down. They had fun in that little cabin. I think it reminded them of Ossawinnamakee.
Ben Welter is a producer for startribune.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.