GRAND MARAIS, Minn. – Lake Superior, propelled by a spring nor’easter, throws waves and aquamarine shards of ice onto the rocky shore a dozen yards from a modest shake-sided house.
Two years ago, after decades of living on a tree-lined avenue in Falcon Heights, Duane Hasegawa and Barb Heideman moved here for good.
Heideman’s North Shore roots go deep. Her great-grandfather cobbled shoes in Duluth. An old photo shows her mother by a tar-papered tourist cabin in Silver Bay. “I have the old enamel coffeepot they always used, so it’s come full circle,” said Heideman, 60, a retired chemical engineer.
“You get drawn to the lake,” she said. “For me, it’s the rocks, and the further up the shore you go, the rocks get bigger. The cliffs get bigger. Planting a tree is pretty hard.”
Planting anything, for that matter. Hasegawa, 66, a Denver native who spent 39 years as a pediatrician specializing in oncology and hematology, studied to become a master gardener when he retired. He’s ready to go.
“But what we really need is dirt,” he said, illustrating a cautionary tale about the North Woods dream: You need to think about things you never imagined having to think about.
The rich, black dirt of their old neighborhood is a daydream here. “Pretty much the only garden tool up here is a pickax,” Heideman said.
But when one of the things you most miss about the Twin Cities is garden tomatoes, you keep trying.
Winter, however, was what kept drawing the couple to the North Shore.
“For 18 years, we were ‘same time, next year’ visitors at Bearskin Lodge,” on the Gunflint Trail, she said. “When most of our friends were heading south, we were heading north.”
They’d casually searched for property, but then a real estate agent showed them a shoreline lot. Heideman, whose exuberant demeanor complements her husband’s reserve, whipped out her checkbook on the spot, joking that it took the whole trip home to bring him on board.
That was in 1997. Seven years later, they built a house that they used seasonally before moving permanently in 2012.
Retired? Look at the calendar
They’re retired, yet are as busy as they let themselves be.
“Retirees keep the home fires burning for the young families who need three jobs to make a living here,” she said, recalling how they made ends meet when they were young. With just over 100 nonprofit organizations in Cook County, volunteers are practically stalked. You can hide from society up here — and many do — but it’s not easy.
“Small community actions are visible,” she said. “It’s not like when you do something in some neighborhood in the Twin Cities and only that neighborhood sees it. We are the neighborhood up here.”
Such work may be part of what separates those who dream of Up North vs. Sun City.
“I think people who retire here seek some kind of involvement,” Hasegawa said, then, with a slight smile, described a recent morning.
It began with a drill with the county’s volunteer emergency response team. “I was just handling the paperwork, really, but there were 50 firefighters and I knew all their names.”
Then it was up to the new YMCA to ponder landscaping that he’s coordinating, which led to a chance meeting with a library board member who wanted to talk about a plan to sell used books on Amazon.
Up walked the fifth-grade math teacher whose students Hasegawa had coached for a math competition in Duluth. A spring blizzard thwarted their trip, though, disappointing the kids. So Hasegawa suggested staging their own event, which led to walking to the food co-op to reserve its community room.
“That’s how business gets done up here,” he said. “And there’s something kind of cool about it. I feel like I know more people socially here than I ever did at home.”
Still, Heideman allowed as how “I’m not sure we’re ready to go to the VFW on Friday night. But as a result of our activities, we work with a lot of the locals. You get to know everyone.”
Aging in place, with support
Medical care is a special concern in small towns, and especially among retirees conscious of emergency needs. That’s one reason to keep an eye on the health of the North Shore Hospital and Care Center, the most remote critical care hospital in Minnesota. (The next nearest is 80 miles away in Two Harbors.)
Hasegawa noted that the hospital’s role goes beyond residents’ needs. “As a tourist, if you get a fishhook in your eye, you want care right now. Would you go out in the desert with no canteen?”
Still, Heideman feels good enough about the health care here to move her 91-year-old father into the care center this winter. (Hasegawa’s mother, also 91, remains in Roseville.)
Clearly, they spring from good genes. Yet aging is inevitable and their graveled drive can have its challenges, especially in winter.
Would anything cause them to rethink their dream?
“Infirmity,” Heideman said simply.
“It’s hard work to live here,” Hasegawa added.
For now, they keep fit with daily hikes with their two dogs through the forest and across vast whales of exposed rock to Sweetheart’s Bluff overlooking the harbor. The hikes also fuel their love of the lake.
“Every day, I get up here and still say, ‘Oh!’ ’’ Heideman said. “The lake is always different.”