The year was 1985. It was our first year back in Minnesota, and with one child in tow we eagerly headed Up North for our first family vacation on Lake Wabana. We rented the same little cabin Rich had frequented as a little boy, and I instantly fell in love with it as well. It became our summer getaway for the next five years.
The cabin came with a small rowboat, and we brought our prized motor to power it – a full 1.5 hp, with a rope on top that Rich would wind around and around then pull to start the motor. It was our locomotion for the week.
That year we took our first long boat excursion. Wabana is part of a chain of lakes, and our goal was to reach the Joyce Estate on Trout Lake, two lakes and two streams away. It required starting early in the morning on a day with little wind and no chance of rain. At our speed, it was an all-day adventure.
We pulled off the trip successfully, and it became an annual pilgrimage. Even when we bought our own cabin where we had a much bigger boat and motor and a family of five, we would trailer our boat over to Wabana and repeat the trip. Still a favorite cabin activity.
Today Rich and I rise with the sun and set out to relive history. The big boat has been replaced by a grandchild friendly pontoon boat, so we hitch up our little 12’ boat and a 3 hp motor. Arriving at the boat launch on Wabana, I strain to find the lake. The lingering overnight chill is robbing the lake of its warmth, and a thick fog lies over the still water. I am bundled in three layers and a jacket and I pull up my hood to ward off the light wind. This is not how I remember setting out.
As we motor away from the landing, a tall figure materializes in the mist. A lone paddle boarder is plying the waters, ghost-like as he crosses the bay then silently disappears. We struggle to find the opening to the first stream. Not daring to lose sight of the shoreline, we cling to the water’s edge until a bright sign jumps out at us. “Slow No Wake” it warns. That wasn’t there before, but we are thankful for the gaudy entry post.
Motoring up the narrow stream is easy with our tiny boat and motor. A merganser mom approaches with her brood of five chicks. Rich, ever the bird photographer pulls over and stops. Only when she is opposite us does mom see us, and she quickly prods her family into a frenzied sprint to get by. We laugh as we watch their heads wobble with the rhythm of their rapid strokes. No time to get that photo. The mental image was enough.
Little Trout Lake is shrouded in fog. Despite its small size, we cannot see across. But we’re not looking there yet – a mama loon with her well grown chick distract us and we follow. Just beyond, a splash reveals three otters. That mama hisses as us and leads her two young away. They dunk and reappear trying to get away. The little ones imitate mom with baby hisses. Always looking behind, swimming to safety.
Despite grousing about the fog, and how we could have had a nice sunny day if we’d waited a few hours before setting out, I had to admit these were special moments we would have missed.
Another No Wake sign leads us to the next stream and on into Trout Lake. The fog refuses to lift, and the Joyce Estate lies on the far shore – somewhere out there. Relying on distant memories and dead reckoning, Rich leaves the comfort of the barely visible coastline and strikes out across the lake. One small boat plowing through deep mist. When a small point with tall pines gradually emerges from the fog Rich exclaims, “That’s it! It’s the peninsula with the sauna!” Sure enough, it’s where we were meant to be. Finding the beach where we used to swim with the kids, we secure the boat and start down the trail. Hiking back in time.
Back in 1915 David Gage Joyce gained ownership of 4,500 acres of land, almost completely surrounding Trout Lake. He began construction of the Joyce Estate on this spot two years later – a large private family resort with an expansive lodge, a number of guest cabins, butler and maid cabins, a two-story sauna, a 9-hole golf course, seaplane hangar, boat house and other amenities surrounded by beautiful gardens. In 1973, at the end of an era, the Joyce Estate was acquired by the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service a year later.
On our first visit in 1985, nearly all the original buildings were still standing. Some were in disrepair, others still in quite good condition. The grounds were covered in brush and raspberry bushes, and we had to bushwhack our way into the old cabins to peer inside. It felt like a secret find, our own private fantasyland to explore.
Today, the Forest Service has torn down the crumbling buildings, stabilized the lodge, one guest cabin and the sauna, cleared out all the brush and mowed the grounds. It is preserved for visitors, accessibly only by hiking trail or boat, and includes a rustic campsite.
Once again, we peer into the buildings, walk gingerly inside where it looks safe and try to imagine the lifestyle of those who spent their summers here. I also see my children poking around, exclaiming over their finds, eager for a picnic on the beach. Waves of memories.
By the time we make our rounds and launch the little boat, the fog has finally lifted. As we reach the opposite shore, the clouds see fit to part and the sun comes out. It has turned into the warm sunny day that was promised. The return trip reveals all the sights we missed on the way over, and we putter along digging up visions of how it used to be 35 years ago.
Today, we’re back to just the two of us. And we have twice the horsepower. Times have changed. But not that much. We’re already planning to do this again next year.