Gliding across northern Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion on a sleek, deluxe racing sailboat known as an A-scow is like any other lake-sailing experience — only with the adrenaline cranked up to 10.
My group of four friends, along with 4-year-old twin girls, were seated on the starboard deck of Pehrson Lodge Resort’s fearsome 38-foot flagship, dubbed the Sabre Jet. Resort co-owner Eric Hanson was our captain, manning the double tiller near the stern.
“Let’s get ready to tack,” Hanson ordered.
“Ready!” we responded in unison, as the big scow turned through the west wind. I was in the front of the shallow cockpit, on bilgeboard duty. I uncleated one rope, ducked low under the swinging boom and furiously yanked on another rope to control the lifting foils. Beside me, my friend Peter did a similar dance with the headsail.
There had been a mild offshore breeze when I’d stepped out on Pehrson’s quiet dock that day, but the Sabre Jet really ripped. Then came the big moment: The scow began to heel to one side, its mainsail dipping toward the water. We secured our feet and hiked our upper bodies out over the lake. I felt the burn in my abs. My college friend Liz expertly hung onto both of her and Peter’s twins, Opal and Liesl, their legs dangling in the wind.
I wanted to gaze at all the rocky islands whipping by in Vermilion’s Head of the Lakes Bay, but I had to mind my ropes. I glanced back at my girlfriend, Sabrina, who wore a wide-eyed “What have I gotten myself into?” expression. The life-jacketed twins, already seasoned sailors, seemed nonplused.
For a classic late-summer getaway Up North, I had wanted a little extra: to take sailing to the next level beyond my two years of learning on the 16-foot “MC” scows on Lake Harriet with the Twin Cities Sailing Club. But first, I needed to enlist friends as cabinmates and crewmates. Conveniently, Peter, a veteran racer with the Twin Cities club, already had crewing an A-scow on his bucket list. When I told him the A-scow is the largest of Pehrson Lodge’s fleet of sailing vessels that guests can enjoy — perhaps a unique amenity among Minnesota lake resorts — his whole family was in.
The “A” is also a uniquely Upper Midwestern phenomenon. The model was invented in White Bear Lake in 1900 for inland lake racing and is almost exclusively found on big lakes from Minnetonka to Winnebago. Under optimal conditions, it can hit 25 or 30 knots or even more. It’s even the subject of an online documentary called “The Ultimate Ride.”
Hanson told us he grew up sailing in Wisconsin and went on to a career with summer camps in Maine. When he and spouse Mary Hanson went looking to purchase a camp closer to home, the century-old Pehrson Lodge, near tiny Cook, Minn., became available in 1997. Their family has grown up there ever since — as has their family-friendly resort, with 28 cabins and townhouses and a new waterfront lodge opening this summer, with a library, exercise room and expansive game room.
The Hansons clearly bring their summer-camp philosophy to their resort, with organized daily “Camp Twain” activities for kids, a sandy beach and swimming area, water-skiing lessons and a motley assortment of kayaks, paddleboats and sailboards. With some experience or a lesson, you might also sail a smaller MC scow, or a catamaran, or a pint-size Sunfish. For the water-averse, hiking trails reach into the woods, where berry-picking and bird-watching are encouraged.
It helps that Pehrson Lodge is in the western corner of mysterious Lake Vermilion near Minnesota’s Iron Range — the fifth-largest lake within the state, but so full of inlets, straits, bays, 365 islands and islets and a state-topping approximately 300 miles of shoreline that it could take weeks or years to explore it all.
Unfortunately, our short stay was subject to the all-too-frequent heartbreaks of sailing: Day 2 was too wet, and Day 3 was actually too windy. The good news was that the resort has plenty to offer for friends and families, even on off days.
Our cabin, Chickadee, was a two-story, two-bedroom sanctuary, with wood-paneled everything and the requisite North Woods log furniture. (Next time I’ll try to nab one of the “point cabins,” perched directly above the water on a secluded peninsula.) One evening, Peter grilled steaks on the patio. On another, we borrowed board games and magazines from the lodge. The twins’ favorite amenity was the alcove under the stairs, which served as a perfect hiding place for reading.
I was banned from the hiding place, but during the girls’ bedtime on Sunday, my girlfriend and I sneaked out and headed down a county road to the Crescent Bar & Grill, a quintessential country bar with pool tables, onion rings, a couple of craft beers on tap and the late Packers game on TV. We followed that up with stargazing under the inky night sky.
Pontoon to ‘Canada’
Skunked by the weather on our last full day, we decided to make up for it with a more traditional resort activity: renting a pontoon boat. This gave me the chance to see Lake Vermilion’s features at a slower pace. Up on the Range, labyrinthine Vermilion is more jagged and rocky than the sandy-bottomed Minnesota lakes I’m used to, with countless cul de sacs to discover.
At Eric Hanson’s suggestion, we puttered through a long set of narrows toward a hard-to-find picnic site on the remote, northern Black Bay. “We’ve discovered Canada!” I announced, although we were still 40 miles south of the border. The cold wind tore across the point, so we roasted our marshmallows quickly and took shelter on the leeward side of the piney woods. The twins took off on spongy ground in search of red-topped mushrooms and “fairy houses” hidden among the roots of trees.
On the way back, I took the helm and circled several large and small islands, gawking at ones that appeared to be dream private isles with little hermit cabins. That’s when I steered into a potential hazard that I wasn’t accustomed to with southern lakes: a narrow channel with giant boulders visible in the water. After one or two close calls, we made it back to the resort, pontoons intact.
As we left for home the next morning, I felt invigorated by the short trip, but most of my Lake Vermilion to-do list remained. That’s why Vermilion — and Pehrson’s — may very well become a new personal tradition.