Down a narrow driveway, simple cabins cluster beneath stately evergreens. Snow weighs down the tree boughs and makes a bright backdrop to the cabins’ hewn log siding. At the National Forest Lodge, a rustic getaway in the Superior National Forest, a white world prevails.
Because the resort lies north and in the highlands west of Lake Superior, snow often comes early and stays well into March. That makes this hidden gem a reliable playground for folks like me who crave winter fun.
On a recent January weekend, I unloaded my cross-country skis and snowshoes from the car and joyfully tromped through a good foot of the fluffy stuff, then settled into the bunkhouse I shared with other adventurers and the lodge’s cook. My weekend in the woods coincided with an annual gathering of the Minnesota Rovers, an outdoors club that travels the state and world in search of adventures, and I slipped right into their festivities.
On the first night, Regina Aufderheide set a celebratory tone when she laid out a spread of champagne, goat cheese, pickled herring and fancy crackers in the pine-paneled communal dining hall. Soon about three dozen of us were toasting her birthday from our perch overlooking Lake Gegoka, as fresh snow fell outside.
Such gatherings are a trademark of the lodge, but the main attraction is the ski-in access to about 18 miles of groomed Nordic-style ski trails. In loops that wind past lakes and over wooden bridges, there’s enough variety for beginners to gain confidence and experts to train for the Birkebeiner.
Twin Citians Andy Fisher and his wife, Lura Wilson, bought the storied 20-acre property in a remote area just northwest of Isabella, Minn., in the summer of 2008.
“It was impetuous,” Fisher confessed to me as we warmed our feet by the wood-burning stove one afternoon. “I fell in love with the idea of the trails and of the little cabins.”
The couple and their four children ditched their home and city lives in 2000 and spent four years building the Baptism River Inn Bed and Breakfast near the North Shore of Lake Superior. Adding the National Forest Lodge to their mix of properties fed into Fisher’s craving for romance and adventure.
It was hard to argue with him.
I set out on skis after a hearty buffet-style breakfast one morning, and landed squarely in wintry North Woods beauty.
I made my way along the Flathorn-Gegoka trail, which was established by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s and is one of the oldest dedicated to cross-country skiing in Minnesota. From the lodge, it follows the lake and cuts through a swampy area before turning onto an old forest service road.
At the first junction, I peeled off onto a narrow trail bounded by white pines and birch, where coyote, deer and wolf tracks often are spotted. The thick, snow-covered branches offered a break from the wind and an inviting archway into the wilderness. Just me, my ancient cross-country skis (of the three-pin binding type) and the swish of snow underfoot as I stretched out on the flatlands and into the gentle hills.
Lodge’s long history
Early photos of the property, established in the early 1920s and known for a time as Crawford Lodge, show the effects of logging on an area now surrounded by imposing conifers. As word of the camp grew, guests from across the Midwest arrived by car, bus or train, and stayed weeks at a time. In the summer, they fished for giant northern pike in the 145-acre Lake Gegoka and in the fall hunted deer in the surrounding forestland.
Brochures described a rustic log lodge with low-beamed ceilings as the “center of social life.” Visitors gathered around a great stone fireplace, completed in 1930, and were invited to “relax and loaf” on the porch overlooking Lake Gegoka.
But those good times didn’t last. In the meager years of World War II, the National Forest Lodge closed. In the early 1960s, it was temporarily used as a youth camp, known as “Gee-Go-Ka,” after the lake. The historic log lodge burned down in the 1960s. It was rebuilt in the 1970s, but without the distinctive fireplace.
A more recent owner, who hoped to promote the camp as a steppingstone to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, built a four-bedroom log cabin with modern amenities and lived on-site year-round.
When Fisher took over, the place needed work, but retained its charm.
Eight of the original 13 cabins are still in use. All are heated with propane, but only one has running water.
“I feel like an archaeologist every time I do repairs,” Fisher said, explaining that he could see layers of upgrades in the rustic cabins.
The gathering place
In 2013, Fisher bought a second modern woodsy retreat across the lake, which has its own wood-fired sauna and other outbuildings. While it doesn’t sit on National Forest Lodge property, it’s a short ski away and Fisher includes it in his winter weekend ski packages.
I stayed in the bunkhouse, one of the original structures, with four private rooms and a common area big enough for a dining room table and large sofa. Toilets and showers were a short walk away.
The main lodge and dining hall, with a wood-burning stove and comfortable seating, remains the central gathering place.
Chef August Cedergren rolled out three square meals a day — breakfasts of French toast and sausage, lunches of hearty soup and sandwiches and dinners loaded with meat and vegetables.
We ate family style, at long tables or side booths underneath birch-wrapped lampshades. Ruddy-cheeked skiers lingered in the dining hall and played card games, cribbage or a Scrabble-like game called Bananagrams, often with a beer, glass of wine or cocktail in hand. Others sat in oversized chairs by the wood stove, reading or knitting.
On Saturday nights, Fisher hires local musicians to liven up the dining hall. Though the lodge is a half-hour from the nearest town, the live entertainment sometimes draws a crowd beyond the paying guests. As a guitar-fiddle duo played, the Rovers sang along to “Elvira” and jumped up to line dance on a rousing encore of a tune from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Groups such as the Rovers are the lifeblood of the lodge. It is popular with singles groups, ski teams, women’s getaway weekends, the Sierra Club and, recently, an “Outdoor Snow Lovers” meetup group, Fisher said.
Though it has been described as a 5-star wilderness area with an aging 3-star lodge, adventure reigns at the National Forest Lodge. The hot tub was always bubbling in the evening, and the wood-fired sauna became a must-do activity apres-ski.
One afternoon, a dozen of us filled up the worn benches of the piping hot sauna room. With bodies dripping with sweat and steam, we relied on a mixture of communal spirit and peer pressure to summon the nerve to dash down the snowy path and plunge into the lake.
Regina, a first timer, led the charge. She took six — six!— dips into Gegoka, claiming she felt the years peel away with each additional dousing.
We believed it, even in the wake of her 58th birthday. On her final sprint toward the icy drink, we watched her leap for joy.