Cabin Two not only looks out over the lake, but hovers above it. The entrance to the cozy log house is off a dirt path, and if there were a door on the opposite side, it would lead to a splash into crystal clear waters. Directly below the picture window, a smattering of lime green plants shaped like skinny starfish sway with the waves.
That was my view -- and my cabin -- when I visited Burntside Lodge, a historic resort outside of Ely on richly wooded land beside Burntside Lake. Whenever I left my bedroom door ajar, it eventually, gently swung closed. I was bemused until the cause struck me: The floor slants slightly; it'd be unnoticeable except for the tip-off from gravity.
Turns out that Cabin Two -- like the entire resort -- tilts toward the water.
Burntside Lake is a spring-fed giant dotted with more than 120 islands, some large enough for names, others little more than boulders breaking the surface. It stretches about 12 haphazard miles west to east, with fingers reaching inland here and there and one long, thin arm jutting northward, where its waters lap along the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The lodge sits about midway on the south side of the lake, and takes full advantage of its location. There is swimming, canoeing and kayaking, fishing -- and the quiet that comes with wilderness. Loons nurture their young; a great blue heron flaps its prehistoric wings as it crosses the sky, its long neck pulled in to look like an oversized Adam's apple.
The squat peninsula that the resort occupies provides maximum lakefront so that nearly all 22 cabins, and the main lodge with its dining room and bar, offer water views. Bursts of colorful flowers dot the grounds wherever tree coverage gives way to sunshine. There are two small sand beaches, one with a swimming dock scattered with Adirondack chairs. A sauna hunkers down by the beach for easy post-sweat dips. At the marina, guests can rent hydrobikes, canoes, kayaks, fishing boats and pontoons -- but no water scooters.
"If people are looking for Jet Skis, they might want a different kind of place; we let them know that when they call, and try to guide them somewhere else," said Lonnie LaMontagne, who owns and runs the resort with her husband, Lou. A few simple rules reinforce the peacefulness of the environment: The sauna closes at 10 p.m.; smoking is prohibited in the cabins and lodge; bicycles are banned from the property's pathways. "We want this to be a restful place."
I can't say I helped the cause. My sister and I hopped on hydrobikes, tooled up to the swimming dock to talk to visitors and then made an ungraceful landing on the beach when we decided to run back to the cabin for our sunglasses and water bottles. That's when we saw the sign spelling out another rule: No boats on the beach.
Our brief breach of protocol paid off. Eyes shaded and thirsts quenched, we spent an hour on the waterborne bikes. After some hapless backwards pedaling to get us in water deep enough to maneuver forward, we aimed for Pattison Island, covered with towering trees, and its smaller neighbor, Indian Island, an Ojibwe burial ground.
Sometimes when we coasted, we were serenaded by unseen loons; Lou had told us earlier that a mother loon was caring for her fluffy baby nearby, and they often go for a swim.
The floating bicycles are not to be confused with paddleboats; hydrobikes are easy to maneuver and quick to propel you where you want to go. And where did we want to go after an hour of exercise? To dinner.
100 years of history
Lou helped us dock our hydrobikes, and we headed inside to the lodge's bar, where taxidermied moose, bass, mink and similar creatures stared from the pine walls with their glass eyes.
"I don't go for the stuffed animal thing," one young woman told her date. They seemed easy enough to ignore. Early evening light was flowing in through the paned windows, and her gaze turned toward the lake beyond.
The animals may be a throwback, but they are appropriate for the pine-paneled lodge, which got its start as a hunting camp in the early 1900s. In 1914, the lodge added a wing for hotel rooms; a boathouse was built in 1915.
By the 1920s, new cabins were springing up on the grounds, and many remain.
The lodge and cabins together are a remarkable collection of well-preserved log resort buildings, which is why Burntside Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places -- not just for any one building, but as a historic district.
Lonnie and Lou embrace the rich history of Burntside, the longest-running resort in the Ely area, especially because it is so much a part of their own.
Lou grew up there, helping out at the marina from the time he was old enough to clean boats. His father, Ray LaMontagne, worked as a bookkeeper there as a young man, though he returned to Duluth to start his family with wife Nancy. But he was always drawn to the resort and when it came up for sale in 1941, he and Nancy forged a new life in the woods.
Lou and Lonnie have been running the resort since 1983, and their children, Jacques, 35, and Nicole, 38, work at their sides today.
Dinner in the charming dining room -- where two walls are lined with screen windows overlooking the lake -- was a family affair.
We started in the bar, where Jacques pours drinks after days spent making repairs and upgrades around the resort. In the dining room, Lonnie seated us and extolled the virtues of the Tasmanian Leatherwood honey served as part of an appetizer plate with cheese, prosciutto, olives, olive oil and bread. Jacques' wife, Janine, served as our attentive waitress. The kitchen -- which turned out a delicious meal, including grass-fed beefsteak -- is overseen by Nicole.
The dining room has a well-deserved reputation for quality and has earned the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. Still, I was surprised to find such a luxurious perk on the edge of canoe country.
Coo of the wild
I was falling asleep one night to the trill and coo of the loons, until their songs were interrupted by a loud splash near my bedroom window. Was someone swimming in the late-night dark? I peered outside and heard the noise again, followed by silence. No one, but a fish.
The next morning, my sister and I made lunch of the salami and bread in the refrigerator and launched a canoe.
The lake cooperated; it was nearly still as we paddled away from the marina. And then we saw them: the mother loon and her black downy babe at her side.
Our canoe glided forward. We got so close that I could see the mother's striped necklace, her snow-white breast, her shining red eyes glaring -- a sign we should be moving on.
We made our way along the shore, past grand cabins with boathouses and tree-shrouded shacks with rusting folding chairs. Eventually we cut across the expansive lake and stopped at an uninhabited, rocky island.
Munching on an apple with feet dangling into the water, I lay back to absorb the day. Scrubby bushes rimmed the island; trees claimed the interior. I felt alone with the wilderness, until a speedboat swept by, threatening to dislodge our beached canoe with its wake.
We didn't have a map, though when I checked one later I learned we had stopped at Lost Girl Island. The long-ago story that I imagined had given the island its name would not be repeated that day.
My sister and I paddled toward the distant trees of what we hoped was our old landmark, Pattison Island. From the lake, Burntside seemed to have merged with the forested landscape, so we weren't sure of our direction. But then we saw them again and knew we hadn't gone astray. There in the distance, the loons were calling us home.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282