As we stared at the roaring fire, sharing international travel adventures, the darkness of the evening crept around the edges of our circle of lawn chairs. The dog chased the fire’s sparks as the last pinks of the sunset lingered over Tofte Lake, the trees on the far shore silhouetted in near-white. As we swapped travel stories, David, an artist, declared, “I love being lost!” Chris, a guitarist, chimed in, “I love being lost, too!”
I was not lost six days earlier on a sunny June afternoon when I drove slowly down Fernberg Road. The dense forest and the fresh, pine-scented air signaled that I was nearing Tofte Lake Center, an artists’ retreat outside of Ely, Minn. I’d been awarded a weeklong residency to escape the confines of daily life and follow the paths of creativity in a beautiful North Woods setting.
My excitement grew as the colorful sign for the center appeared, featuring a relaxing Adirondack chair. I was greeted by executive director Liz Engelman and Jai, her goldendoodle. We hauled my bags and cooler into Frog Cabin, a cozy one-bedroom cottage with a large deck, full kitchen, a firm bed and a generous bathroom. Liz told me about the week’s array of retreat participants: novelist Pete Hautman; writer, poet and illustrator Mary Logue; guitarist Chris Cunningham; cellists Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan of the band Jelloslave; dancer Anne Kuite; opera director Alan Johnson, and visual artist David Bartley.
I took an evening stroll around the grounds and checked out the paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, rowboat and sailboat awaiting use. There was a sauna near the water, and comfortable loaner bikes in the garage. I chatted with the others watching the sunset while swatting a few mosquitoes. David was fishing with wide casts into the designated trout lake. Back in Frog Cabin, I heated up my pasta dinner, then jumped into bed for a long sleep.
Retreat for artists
In 2006, Engelman, a drama professor, had a vision of a vibrant arts center in the North Woods and purchased Norm’s Fish Camp from Norm Saari, who’d run the resort on Tofte Lake since the 1960s. Surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land, the rustic fish camp had welcomed generations of anglers. Ojibwe painter Carl Gawboy was a frequent visitor, and the center’s “Roadhouse” was built in part as a gallery for his paintings of the lake.
After years of hard work and trips to Ikea, Engelman fashioned the old fishing camp into an elegant and relaxing retreat for artists, writers, musicians, composers, scholars, dancers, actors and playwrights. There are four cabins of various sizes, all facing west for stunning lake views. Besides the welcoming fire pit, there are two docks, a well-stocked library, a screened porch overlooking the lake, a “theater garage,” a unique performance space called the Aerie, and the Roadhouse, a rec room equipped with a bar and full kitchen that can be used for classes, gatherings and workshops.
The next morning brought a warmer day; sunny and moist air made me open my windows as I had tea and worked on a manuscript in the cabin. Later, I hiked across Fernberg Road to two sparkling glacial ponds and to a campsite deep in the woods for some stunning lake views and a few blueberries. When everyone else sat on the dock taking in the evening air, I swam out to the point, the water cool but so much clearer than the urban lakes in the Twin Cities.
We spent our days pleasantly working — the cellists rehearsing, David making an art installation of fishing line, Mary laying out her children’s picture book in fabric scraps. I often sat on my cabin’s deck, laptop and teacup propped on my deck’s table. I’d nod at the others who walked past. Sometimes we’d take breaks to paddle and fish, make dining and shopping excursions into Ely, or watch the glorious two-hour sunsets, but much of the week was spent working in companionable solitude, each focused on her own creative project.
Even the loons are friendly
One evening we planned a dinner party. We scavenged ingredients for pizza, salad and hors d’oeuvres from our cabins, and the outdoor pizza oven was stoked hot with burning wood. But a powerful storm blew in, so we ran our bowls and plates into the Roadhouse. While Pete masterfully constructed and baked our pizzas, we shared salad and conversation around the warming fireplace.
The sky cleared, and we dispersed to watch another magnificent sunset. I jumped in a kayak and paddled across the lake to an osprey nest high in a barren tree. I did not hear babies chirping, but instead a loud splash behind me. A fish? Another splash, and there was a large male loon. He called, took a sip of water, and called again. Clearly playing with me, he bobbed under the water, then re-emerged as the western sky became rimmed with orange. The others were on paddleboards and kayaks and greeted me with waving paddles as the blue water reflected the red sky. I crossed the lake to the darkening shore; there in the shallows was the female loon, quieter but just as companionable.
The next day was cloudy and cooler. I joined the morning yoga class held in the Aerie. The room was packed with a mixture of Ely area residents. Led through gentle exercises by a local teacher, we did tree poses while listening to birds calling from the shimmering birches. The windy day was perfect for reading. Afternoon brought a new arrival — a dramaturg who’d flown in from Los Angeles to take respite in the woods for the weekend.
The highlight of the week was a soaring performance by Jelloslave, joined by Chris on guitar. Almost 60 people from the surrounding community brought their lawn chairs to the Aerie to listen to enchanting classical and peppy folk music interspersed with poetry, a performance they would repeat later in the summer in the Twin Cities with writer Kevin Kling. The air was cooling, but the music was warm and inviting.
We ended the evening sitting in our plastic lawn chairs sharing our stories of getting lost. It had been a thrilling week full of curious creative adventures, but we were not lost at all. We’d found beauty, community, focus and productivity at Tofte Lake Center.
Scholars, artists, leaders and arts organizations can apply individually or as groups for summer residencies at Tofte Lake Center. Three weeks a year are sponsored by the Jerome Foundation for individual artists from Minnesota and New York. Check out toftelake.com for events and application information.
Kathryn Kysar is a writer and traveler who teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.