Group coupon sites turned a first-time trip to the Boundary Waters (plus a relaxing pause at Lutsen Resort) into a half-price but wholehearted family getaway.
'Oops," my husband called from the back of the canoe, as we set off after our picnic lunch. The sky was blue. The water clear. The boys not fighting. I couldn't imagine the problem.
"I think we just ate in Canada."
"Is that even legal?" asked my 9-year-old son, perched in the middle of the canoe next to his brother, 7.
"Probably not," I answered. "But it was an honest mistake."
And, I thought to myself, scanning the wide, empty Saganaga Lake -- one of the largest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- nobody was around to catch us.
I had no maps, no fishing lines. I didn't need to steer. After all the stress of getting here -- and worrying what could go wrong (bears, thunderstorms, an overturned canoe) -- I had fully succumbed to this vacation.
Normally do-it-yourselfers, my husband and I had paid an outfitter for our first trip to the Boundary Waters. They provided the tent, sleeping bags and meals -- even a first aid kit. And I didn't feel like I was being gouged.
Our fully outfitted Boundary Waters vacation was half-price, courtesy of an online group coupon site: $616 for the four of us for three days and two nights, plus a night at the outfitter before venturing off.
Since Groupon and the like have taken over the coupon world, I've found great deals on restaurants, golf courses, water parks and massages. But I've also been stuck trying to get into a full restaurant on the day a coupon expired, begging with staffers exhausted by procrastinators.
Could I really use a coupon for a family vacation?
Would we be relegated to days we couldn't use, treated like second-class citizens by those who were supposed to teach us how to keep the bears at bay and survive in the wilderness for two nights?
It was early March -- still snowy and cold with no big plans for summer taking shape yet -- but the lure of an area I knew only by name and photos outweighed my concerns.
I checked with my husband, Eric, who had grown slightly fed up with my coupon habit but had wanted to take a Boundary Waters trip for years. We'd been waiting for the boys to get a little older, letting summers fill themselves up, and just never got around to it. There would be no backing out of this.
His reply: "Go for it."
The next day another deal crossed my in-box. This was for a two-night, half-price stay at Lutsen Resort's Sea Villas. I gave pause at the June 30 expiration date, but figured we could make it work. I bought that, too.
I now had a five-night, half-price North Shore vacation to plan.
That got a little complicated. With school, camps and two work schedules, we couldn't leave the Twin Cities until about 6 p.m. on a Thursday, arriving at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail sometime after midnight.
"That's fine," the woman from Voyageur assured me on the phone.
She walked me through a few decisions: which lake (Saganaga), portage or base camp (base camp), one or two canoes (one). She checked on our permit for us and we were set.
A quick call to Lutsen, and our North Shore trip was a go.
Leave the wallet behind
My vacation that began with saving cash turned out to need none.
As I gave my purse a final scouring before leaving it in the car at the outfitters, I grabbed my bulky wallet, did a double take, and realized I didn't need it. Not a single credit card. Not cash. I took my driver's license, locked the car and walked toward the dock, shaking my head. There would be no place to spend money, I realized.
Here all the pleasures were free, or already included. The solitude. Morning coffee on the rocks of as the world wakes up around us. Exploring islands that were otherwise deserted. Playing Connect Four, travel edition, in the tent, on the rocks, by the campfire, over and over again. Wondering where the boys had gone, only to find them fishing together off a rock, the sky turning pink as the sun set behind them. The sound of silence as we all read along the rocks in the late afternoon sun, separate but together.
"What is everyone most looking forward to when we get back to civilization?" I asked as we made s'mores over the roaring campfire on our last night. I was expecting answers of Wii and Nintendo DS games.
"Cold water that doesn't taste like smoke," said my youngest, Ryan.
"A cold glass of milk," said Jordan.
"A bed, and a gin and tonic," my husband answered.
My back was ready for a chair with a back.
The next afternoon, with everything packed, we took one last swim off the rocks of Loon Island. The water was freezing, but too pure to resist. The kids, who normally jump in any pool without hesitating, tiptoed their way in.
I'm the one who typically wades in, but I took a few long strides and kept going -- diving past the shallower rocks lurking beneath the surface, out where it was deep enough to be safe.
I surfaced quickly to cheers.
"Who's No. 2?" I yelled, treading water. My husband, usually well behind the kids, did a jackknife. The kids stared at us from the rocks, not quite believing the role reversal. This -- doing the unexpected -- is what a vacation is all about.
Paddling back to Voyageur, I felt guilty that our trip had been half-price. Everyone had been so warm and helpful: The woman who taught us how to hang up our food and start the camp stove and gave us extra ketchup because she worried that 16 packets wouldn't be enough for the boys. The guide measuring them for paddles. The cook making sure we had enough pancakes and sausage before we left that first day, which 48 hours later, felt like a different time.
Far from resenting the coupon vacationers, the one woman I asked about it said it had opened up the Boundary Waters to a whole new group of people.
I loitered in the gift shop looking for ways to spend money -- buying T-shirts, postcards, drinks for the car, cold beer for Lutsen.
Relieved not to be driving back to the Twin Cities, I began making mental plans for Lutsen Resort. A walleye dinner at the lodge overlooking Lake Superior. A massage at the spa.
I did none of it.
By the time we settled into our Sea Villa, just steps from Lake Superior, and had appetizers and went swimming, nobody was hungry for a big dinner. The kids settled into a movie, while my husband and I, sprawled at opposite ends of the couch, read books -- not reports, not newspapers -- a sure sign of relaxation for us.
The next day quickly filled up with things we all wanted to do, things that, surprisingly, cost nothing.
We hiked up nearby Oberg Mountain to vista after vista. We played the resort's pitch-and-putt golf course, with its shoddy greens but breathtaking views of Lake Superior. We checked out Frisbees to try the disc golf course and lost one over the cliff on the first hole. We played shuffleboard on the patio, making up rules as we went.
After that, no one wanted to go anywhere except the pool. Perhaps build a fire for s'mores, the makings for which they'd generously supplied when we checked in.
Massages and fancy dinners could wait for another vacation. I had more valuable things to do.
Karen Lundegaard • 612-673-4151