As the vintage wooden Chris-Craft shaved a path into the still lake, shades of coral, cherry and lime rippled in the trailing wake.
The florid shoreline, replicated in those blurred patches of water, seemed to be preening.
“The colors are just really getting going,” said Michael Andrews, our captain. “By the end of the day, you’ll see — it’s going to get even better.”
We were at Ludlow’s Island Resort, a cluster of charming cabins sprinkled across a patch of Lake Vermilion’s shore, on the mainland and a tiny island just off it. In the summer, the haven outside of Cook, Minn., bustles with families playing on the island’s beach or afloat in watercraft.
But come autumn, the retreat takes on a different tone. Visitors were few even on a feverishly warm October weekend last year. Dinners were grilled to the soundtrack of a loon’s echoing call rather than that of children’s laughter. Warm nights were replaced by crisp breezes, paddleboards were replaced by canoes. And the verdant green backdrop of trees had blossomed into a dazzling show of colors, blazing a path southward.
For the previous two days, we had witnessed the drama — crimsons and golds climbing to a peak — on Ludlow’s 360-degree stage, both on the island itself and on the mainland’s serpentine shoreline. The best part of attending this show was the ability to take it in from so many perspectives.
From the water, the spectacle was one orchestrated display. But tuck into the many coves of Lake Vermilion’s weaving perimeter, and the picture became pieces. Walking in the woods, my parents and I were amid the actors themselves, reveling in a different, more distinct beauty.
Andrews, who works for the resort, put it simpler with a grin: “It’s God’s country up here,” he said.
A Chris-Craft welcome
About 45 hours earlier, we had arrived at Vermilion’s edge via a wooden dock structure bearing a sign for Ludlow’s resort and an old magneto phone.
I cranked the phone and held up the earpiece to hear a voice crackling on the other end. Soon, Andrews had come to whisk away our bags while owner Paul Ludlow and his “first mate” Kirby, an aging yellow Lab, welcomed us onto the Chris-Craft for a slow, luxurious journey to the patch of land beaming just beyond.
Already, the show had begun.
Green pines stretched to the sky, acting as a canvas for nature’s fall palette. Orange sugar maples and yellow aspens formed a cascade of colors on all sides.
As Andrews brought our luggage to the cabin, we disembarked on the dock. We checked in at the main lodge and stopped by the little store with items like maple syrup and hot dogs, where the honor system prevails (you jot down your purchases on a pad). Then we wove down a path to our cabin, named Stardust, which was renovated in 2015 but retains its woodsy charm, with wood paneling, a fireplace and a deck and two screened-in porches overlooking the lake.
That evening, we hopped in a canoe and a kayak. The sun sat low across the glassy surface as we peered into Indian Bay and wrapped around to Muskego Point. Later, the painting dimmed into a shadowy silhouette as we grilled burgers on the deck and chatted around the dinner table with a gaping, lakeside window offering up the dusty view.
“The Boundary Waters without the work,” Ludlow called it, aptly.
On the water
The next afternoon we piled onto one of the pontoon rentals and whipped across the lake, whizzing past bleeding streaks of color, stopping at The Landing for a walleye lunch and then navigating the labyrinthine bays as we searched for a good fishing hole.
The day was feeling promising, but alas — as bountiful as the woods were with color, the lake proved to be not nearly as fertile.
“It’s really a guide’s lake this time of year,” Ludlow had told us earlier, while filling our boat’s livewell with minnows.
The afternoon yielded only a pair of 6-inch yellow perches, several reels of rod-bending seaweed and a stunning 360-degree tableau that at one point included a bald eagle, skirting the rust-hued tree line.
Earlier in the day, before letting the hot, Indian summer sun beat onto our shoulders from the lake’s center, we tapped Andrews for a lift to Ludlow’s NorShor peninsula for what was meant to be a short hike as the morning fog wore off.
A dock provided entry to a hilly path marked by rocky overhangs that peered through evergreens out onto the shimmering expanse. Soon, we were under tree cover, dodging puddles along the mile-plus loop through a forest alive with new hues. From below, the underbellies of the tall aspen and birch canopies contrasted with the stark blue sky and danced with the gentle breeze. Cranberry-shaded bunch berry plants and deep-green running cedar crawled along patches of lime-green moss. Blooming pale purple aster flowers grew in clusters. What in the summer was a pasture of strawberries was now an aging, rust-tinged clearing that we passed as the sun pierced the yellow ceiling overhead and sent daggers toward the browning carpet below.
The sights were more insular here, to be sure, but every bit as vibrant and often more surprising.
When evening arrived back at the resort, I poured a glass of red wine and walked to the pair of wooden swings perched on long smooth rocks on the island’s western outcroppings.
Just as Andrews had promised, the colors seemed a little bolder and a little more vibrant.
But now the sun, like the treetops, was dying a brilliant death and melting into the multicolored mainland.
A motorboat zipped past and oranges and pinks and golds from above the horizon and below melded into the ensuing waves as they rolled away, and painted the sky and shore as one.