The End of an Era

It sat in the empty lot adjacent to the bait shop.  Nothing fancy, but in excellent shape and with plenty of good years left in its life.  The humble pontoon boat spoke to us.  Well, most of us anyway.

We’ve never had a new boat.  In the 29 years we’ve owned our modest cabin, our boats have matched the aura of this unassuming haven in the forest perched on a pristine lake.

The first was a 12′ row boat, which we proudly outfitted with a 1.5 hp motor.  We still own that boat.  We next became proud owners of a 16′ open boat with a steering wheel.  With 25 hp we could even pull lightweight water-skiers.  We called it the Silver Bomb, and it was Rich’s beloved fishing rig.  That was succeeded by the Green Boat. It was heavy and leaked below the floor, but it had cool seating up front and went fast when we upgraded to 50 hp.

In each of these boats we could bank and turn, roar across the lake.  As the boats grew in size we could twirl kids and grandkids on wild tube rides, entice water-skiers out of the wake.  We’d pile in wearing our bulky life jackets, holding wiggly little ones on our laps, keeping an eye out for those who insisted on leaning out over the edge of the boat.  We baited many hooks and caught fewer fish.  Three generations of memories were compiled in those motorboats.

But all that’s about to change.

In an age when pontoon boats dominate the boat lifts around the lake, the idea of having a safe platform for little ones and oodles of space for family boat rides was appealing.  And that simple tan and green used pontoon sitting on the pavement wearing a For Sale sign was the perfect solution.  Or so I thought. And so did the kids.  And grandkids.  “I don’t want a pontoon boat,” Rich stated firmly.  The patriarch had spoken.

I had to admit, I wondered if our age was showing.  If I was falling for something too tame.  But returning to our collective visions of family outings, I hardened my resolve. And we won him over.  Or at least got him to relent.

Rich and I took it out for its inaugural voyage.  When three loons surfaced and began fishing nearby, Rich’s camera came out and his shutter flew in rapid bursts as we drifted.  He even admitted the pontoon was a much more stable platform for photography.  Whew!

That simple pontoon now occupies our lift next to the dock.  It sits in readiness for our annual family and friends gathering over Labor Day.  In place of zooming and swishing, we’ll cruise and relax, drinks and snacks at the ready.  We’ll anchor and jump into the lake, exploring new swimming spots around the lake.  We think we can even give tame tube rides.

Not such bad tradeoffs, as we enter this new era.

Feuding with a Loon

Disputed watersIt’s all out war. A territory dispute between me and a loon. The area in conflict is the patch of water between the reeds in front of our cabin. I claim it’s my swimming hole. The loon insists it’s his fishing ground, and perhaps his young family’s hangout. I have history on my side. Twenty six years of morning swims. He has fright tactics on his. And they are terrifyingly effective.

I’m not sure who was more surprised. Me or the loon. As I turned away from the reeds to swim another lap across the opening, the water suddenly exploded. To my immediate right the loon launched into his ritual warning dance. His eerie cries pierced the air and his displeasure was highly evident. The normally enthralling display took on a whole new perspective at close range. Far too close for comfort.

Molly chased by loonSeeking to quell the nascent fury I quietly turned away, breast stroking back toward the cabin. Attempting invisibility. Looking to put distance between me and the frantic bird. But he wasn’t so easily appeased. While his antics ceased his mission persisted, and he followed me in toward shore while continuing to holler. It wasn’t until I fully conceded defeat, nearly reaching the dock that he relented. Round one to the loon.

His behavior implied a baby loon in proximity. And I assumed my timing was particularly poor. So I thought little of taking a refreshing dip later in the hot afternoon. I will admit to scanning the waters for said loon or his family prior to immersing myself in the lake, but the coast was clear. The only loon in sight was well out in the middle of the lake. My laps proceeded and I regained my confidence only to have it shattered once again. Catching me on the opposite side of the channel, the loon repeated his performance. This time I knew I was a direct target, to have drawn him from such a distance. Forget the breast stroke, I made a hasty front crawl retreat with the loon in hot pursuit. Round two to the loon.

It’s quite a standoff. While I refuse to admit defeat, I confess to curtailing my swimming activities. No sauna for me last night, or swim under the prolific stars. I did boldly reclaim my ground for my morning swim, but only under the watchful eyes of a dock full of family members scanning for loons. As soon as one began motoring it’s way over from a distance, they sounded the alarm. I didn’t hesitate before returning to the safety of the dock. Round three, a draw.

It isn’t over yet. Swimming is my greatest love at the cabin. And I do so love the loons. Just not at the same time. My hope is that by our next visit the baby loons will have a greater range, and they will have moved on from my swimming hole.  I’m not particularly fond of feuding with a loon.

Loon Family

Loon family, taken by Rich Hoeg

(Click here to visit Rich’s blog for more photos of the loons.)



Dock Time

The old wooden dock I’ve waited 25 years for this. When we first bought the cabin, it came with an ordinary but serviceable dock. Hand made of wooden planks and supported by metal poles, it mimicked all the other docks on the lake at the time. With only two 8-foot sections extending out from shore and another 8-foot L across the end, calling it small was an understatement. After many years, Rich added another eight feet to its length, which seemed a major addition, but has since been taken for granted.

Despite its diminutive stature, our wooden platform has served us well. Many a boat ride has initiated from that dock, kayaks and canoes launched, sailboats docked and fishing lines cast. Of equal importance, it has been the focal point for swimmers with its L delineating the wading area for the youngest in the family. The opposite side became the shoving off point for those seeking deeper water. And of course, it has been the launching point for sauna lovers to throw themselves into the cool refreshing lake. It has also served as a viewing point for star gazing and Northern Lights displays.

For me, the dock is far more than the center of water activity. It’s a place. A feeling. An attitude. It is the epitome of cabin life. I haven’t been to the cabin unless I’ve had my Dock Time. Positioned in my beach chair at the end of the dock, coffee and hearty homemade toast at my side, a few select magazines handy – following an energetic run through the North woods and capped with a brisk swim, of course – I’m in my element. It’s my relaxing place. My need to accomplish and be productive falls away, as I lose myself creating dreams from the magazine stories and absorb the water and nature sounds around me. The afternoon equivalent is a similar perch with a good book and a cold drink under my chair. Sporting my swim suit, I’m ready for a dip when the urge strikes.

For all its qualities, I couldn’t help but aspire to an enhanced dock. The appearance of modern, sliverless docks sure turned my head. The idea of a surface devoid of nails that poked up each spring before I attacked them with a hammer was appealing. But what I most lusted after was having a true deck at the end of the runway. A spot where I could sit with a friend, and still allow others to pass by would be ideal. A place where wiggly grandkids could maneuver past my chair without threat of falling in the water would be heavenly. Room for family to gather and share my favorite spot was only a dream.The dock graveyard

The new dockUntil today. After all these years, the old dock was hoisted out of the water for the very last time. It was none too soon. As luck would have it, just this past weekend (with the dock already on order) the end section collapsed while unloading the boat. It was a sign. Its demise was near. In its place now stands a sleek new dock, of the slick roll-in variety with a light gridded top that allows water to drain off rapidly. There is even a ladder for swimmers, perhaps a nod to my declining agility in hoisting myself out onto the dock after I swim. I prefer to focus on how it will benefit the grandkids.

Apart from the practical nature of this upgrade, I finally got my wish. Although this dock is no longer than the previous version, it has one key feature. Despite Rich’s protests that it was too large, I stood my ground and insisted on the 8×12-foot deck. Everything is relative so in comparison to the old, this new space feels expansive and decadent. My little beach chair is swamped by its size, and I have the option of infinite positions for my sitting spot depending on whether I am seeking or avoiding the sun.

A happy Molly on the dockIt didn’t take me long to put the dock through its paces. Reading on the dock came first, followed by a kayak trip then the post-sauna jump and swim. It performed admirably. Despite its 25 year history, I lack any nostalgia for the old dock. I am already anticipating an enhanced Dock Time in the morning.

The Rainy Lake Experience

When friends invited us to visit their cabin on Rainy Lake, we jumped at the chance to see their place and the famed lake on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  Like us, they have a “true cabin,” with just the basic amenities and lots of character.  But the similarities end at the shoreline.

As soon as we arrived, we were recruited to outfit the boat for an afternoon on the lake.  With respectable waves and the sheer size of the lake, a good sized boat and motor are a necessity.  Theirs is an old workhorse of a boat, but stable and large enough to take us across the expansive open waters.  And hold all the fixings for our adventure.  We soon began to learn what Rainy Lake was all about.

Rainy Lake Map 2Lesson number 1.  A boat ride on Rainy Lake can take all afternoon and still cover only a tiny fraction of the lake.  With 360 square miles of water, almost 1,000 miles of shoreline and about 2,500 islands, there are endless areas to explore.  Our friends took us to their favorite spots, starting with the dam and waterfall.  There we clambered down to the base of the falls to see the thundering rush of the water from the recent flooding.


IMG_1100Lesson number 2.  It’s like being in the Boundary Waters.  The tall pines, rocky outcroppings and lack of population all reminded me of the solitary feeling one gets in the Boundary Waters.  In all of our wanderings we spotted only two other boats.  We saw plenty of scenery, fascinating birds and natural beauty instead.  And there was always something new around the next bend.

IMG_1098 trimmed

Lesson number 3.  Shore lunch doesn’t necessarily mean fish.  The first step was selecting an appealing island.  We then built a rock fire scar (that was a new term to me), hunted down dry wood and started up a fire to cook our lunch – brats.  They were mighty tasty cooked in the open air with a beautiful view of the lake from our perch on a huge rock.

Rainy Lake Pelicans

Lesson number 4.  Bring along a photographer husband to catch the magical moments.  Rich was in his element with birds in abundance, and we all got a kick out of “bird island” with its population of pelicans.  The best part was watching their comical take-off as we approached.

Lesson number 5.  The lake is best appreciated when seen through the eyes of those who love it.  Our friends have gotten to know Rainy Lake through four generations of cabin life.  Our tour narrative was rich in stories woven with family history.

The only fitting end to this day on an amazing lake was a sauna.  In this case, a wood-fired sauna which proved to be blistering hot.  That was enough to get me into the lake.  Jumping off the dock into chilling water over my head was both a shock and relief.  All part of the Rainy Lake experience.

Tri Training – Open Water Swim

It’s been hanging over my head all week. Ever since getting to the cabin I’ve been peering out at the lake knowing I was going to have to tackle it. I needed to do an open water swim. But I was also nervous. It didn’t help that my son, Erik, and his girlfriend, Katie, who I consider to be hardy youth, reported that the lake was “really cold” and declined to swim.

wpid-Photo-20140706181238.jpgFirst the wind and the waves provided an excuse. Too wavy to swim. Too cold. Too cloudy. (Too scared, really.) But then came a relatively calm and sunny afternoon. I knew my options were dwindling, screwed up my courage and recruited Rich to come out in the kayak as my safety boat. Too late to back out now – I had to do it.wpid-Photo-20140706181239.jpg

Surprisingly, the water was quite swimmable. It was brisk to be sure, but I’ve suffered worse in that lake. It felt strange to be wearing a swim cap and goggles – something I never do in the lake – and I tried to ignore the now-visible weeds as I passed over them. It’s really better not knowing.

At first it seemed like the distance was insurmountable. I needed to do .93 miles to mimic the triathlon distance. I had thought that swimming to the campground beach and back would be enough, but it turned out I needed to swim even beyond that. Not a good feeling. But as I fell into the rhythm of my strokes and relied on my long distance lap swimming, I felt as though I could manage it.

161-D5-TriAtheleteStaying on course was tricky, and I had to figure out how to lift my head to peer out and spot my destination up ahead. It definitely was a disruption to the cadences of my swimming. I’m sure there are tricks to doing it more efficiently. In addition, I already knew that I had a tendency to drift left when I swim. Rich tried to counter that by yelling “Point!” to try and curb my corkscrew curves. I do so hope they have some bright bouys in the race to help keep me in line.

The waves proved to be a challenge, as I expected. I was swimming into a mild quartering headwind on the way out, with the waves hitting my breathing side. I know I should be able to breath equally well on both sides, but I’ve never pursued that. Now I get why it’s important. But I survived. And turning around to swim with the waves was sweet!

My biggest fear was succumbing to the cold of the water, getting too chilled to swim effectively. But even with my skinny body, I was able to retain enough body heat to swim comfortably. The whole way. Yea! If I could handle North Star Lake’s cold, I should have no problem in Lake Nokomis.

Completing that swim was a huge boost to my confidence. I now know I can do it. I was even more pleased to learn that it was only 5 minutes over my pace in the pool – not bad for all the extra obstacles I figure. Of course, I was all alone out there. No other swimming bodies to dodge or churning water to navigate. I will leave that for race day. At least I’ve conquered the open water.

A Visiting Loon

It's one of my favorite things at the cabin – seeing loons and hearing their plaintive cry. Sometimes I can get fairly close to them when out in the kayak. But ultimately they always dive and swim away, surfacing far off in any direction. So imagine my surprise this morning when we saw a loon paddling languidly at the end of our dock.

Knowing how skittish they are, I set up my camera and monopod on the deck of the cabin. I was afraid that getting any closer was likely to drive him away. But after snapping a multitude of photos, I ventured halfway down to the lake, and eventually right onto the dock. Still Mr. Loon lingered. Swimming slowly back and forth, he seemed to accept our presence, even when Katie and Erik joined me. He wasn't fazed by us in the slightest.

Eventually the loon swam away. But he left us knowing we'd seen something special. Thanks for the visit, Mr. Loon!


Cabin Seasons

It’s the end of cabin season. That’s how most folks look at it. True, we needed to shut down the water system, defrost the refrigerator and clear the perishables out of the cupboards. But to us, those are just fall chores.  We’re not closing down the cabin.  We consider it preparing for winter.

And so we headed off to the cabin for a brisk fall stay. With the string of cold days the weather has delivered lately, the cabin had taken on a definite chill. In fact, it was colder inside than out. Before we could fire up the wood stove to begin the warming process, Rich needed to complete his first maintenance and safety task. Donning his chimney sweep persona, he climbed up on the roof with what looked like oversized bottle brushes. Once the chimneys were clean and the fire was crackling, we headed outside to stack firewood.  First rule of cabin visits in cold weather – stay active keep warm while the cabin heats up. With a new delivery of wood piled in the yard, we generated plenty of energy and warmth stowing it in the woodshed.

With our initial burst of chores completed, we settled inside to read. Each season of cabin life has its own personality, and fall is perfectly suited for snuggling up with a good book, hunkering down on the couch, and sitting by the warmth of the fire. It’s a more relaxed season than summer. The lake no longer calls to us. The boat is not beckoning. The fish are not waiting to be caught. There are fewer options and more relaxation time.

The short days of fall invite plenty ofPhoto Oct 25, 6 31 47 AM good sleep. The nights are so dark and silent, it’s easy to hit they hay early and sleep in the next morning. We did just that, and still had plenty of time to get outside by the first signs of sunrise. The early colors were vivid and soon delivered on the promise of a spectacular show. Each moment brought a new configuration of pinks and then reds, with the hues shifting Photo Oct 25, 6 42 09 AMand reflecting off the clouds above the horizon. Armed with our cameras and tripods, we each sought the ideal vantage point  Photo Oct 25, 6 45 32 AM to catch the best view, staying out until our fingers were numb and the colors faded back to pastels. Retreating to the cabin I felt I’d earned my breakfast.  Hot coffee and crispy toast never tasted so good.

Weaving our tasks in between cabin time, we were able to strike a nice balance between work and relaxation. The longer we stayed, the more it felt right to “do nothing.”

Soon winter will be upon us, and the cabin is now ready. Shovels are placed outside the door, firewood and kindling are in abundant supply, the ice auger has been retrieved from storage, the outhouse and sauna are accessible, extra blankets await. Winter is a wonderful season at the cabin. Let the snow fly – we’re looking forward to it!IMG_2853

Of Bug Bites and Army Worms

We all returned home from the cabin with tangible reminders of our stay in the North Woods. The itchy red welts dotting our arms, legs and faces are testimony to the many hours we spent outdoors. Or the nights we spent fending off the persistent buzzing mosquitoes that found their way inside. It wouldn’t be the cabin if it were a pristine environment. And we wouldn’t keep going if we didn’t love it there.

The notoriously late spring and summer this year brought a new attraction at the end of our dock. Odd round divots appeared on the murky bottom, each continuously guarded by a small fish. They only abandoned their posts when a huge Leopard Muskie came into the shallows to lurk. It would appear we had spawning grounds still active in July! When I stood too close to their territory, the fish aggressively bumped my ankles. It seemed a small price to pay to watch nature at work.

The Army Worms that infested the area on our last visit were still strongly in evidence. They continued to crawl up the outside logs of the cabin, swarm the branches of the birch trees and defoliate the impatiens I so carefully planted in pots. We learned to carefully inspect the towels hung out on the line to dry. The record population was 14. But by week’s end, they had finally started cocooning which reduced the population of wiggly caterpillars. Fortunately, not even the grandkids were squeamish about picking them off their clothes and toys, and took it right in stride.

We’ve never had a nice lake bottom for swimming. It’s a combination of squishy dirt, clay that pulverizes when stepped on, and pesky weeds. But the water is super clear and always “refreshing” due to being spring-fed. Three year old Ben came prepared with water shoes to shield his tender feet (or sensitivities) from the yucky bottom. But they mostly went unused. It’s a lake after all. We just deal with it. And in Ben’s words, “I love the lake.”

Every so often, a bat makes its way inside the cabin. We’ve found them hanging up-side-down on the fireplace screen. And we’ve chased them around the cabin in the wee hours of the morning with a butterfly net. Some family members are not at all pleased with these guests. But so far their infrequent appearances have only left us with some funny stories.

I could go on and include the baby mice that popped up through the burners of the stove one winter. The kids took great pride in capturing them under a glass. But perhaps that would be overdoing it. After all, it’s really a very cozy cabin. Complete with creature comforts. And we love it there.

Cabin Imagery

We have had an unbelievable string of perfect cabin days. And it’s the 4th of July week to boot, so untold numbers of cabin owners and renters are sure to be benefitting from this gift of beautiful weather. Warm days, bordering on hot, with constant sunshine and just enough breeze to discourage the mosquitos and flies (well, mostly). Nights that cool down for good sleeping. It’s the way we like to remember being at the cabin, despite being a rare phenomenon.

It’s been a week filled with favorite things. Sometimes pictures say it better than words.

Cabin images

Capturing the Northern Lights

When it comes to night time photography, I will readily admit that my husband, Rich, is far more invested in it than I am. He constantly tracks the solar activity with his tablet apps, reads what the local experts are saying, and gets alerts to tell him the likelihood of Northern Lights appearing. Most nights I let him get up while I roll over for more sleep.

Last night I agreed to doing some “star tracks” – photographing the stars with a long exposure to show their movement through the sky. It meant getting up at midnight and setting up our cameras for a 30 minute exposure. The benefit of being at the cabin was the short distance from our beds to the tripods down on the shore. We could easily retreat from the bugs and hang out in comfort while waiting for our photo shoot to finish. That worked for me.

Northern Lights over North Star Lake

Upon our return to the dock, the faint green glow we'd noticed earlier above the lake had intensified to a level of bona fide Northern Lights. We quickly turned our cameras toward the light activity, readjusted our settings and set out to capture the display. I found it to be a lot more rewarding than star tracks. With only 60 second exposures, we had rapid feedback for each photo, and plenty of time to shoot and reshoot. Good thing, as I still fumbled through the settings and made plenty of blunders along the way. But no matter, the lights obliged with changing shapes and degrees of brightness, providing plenty of material for practicing.

Northern Light with the Big Dipper

To be honest, it wasn't the most spectacular display of Northern Lights I've ever seen. But their reflection in the calm lake was a bonus. And seeing the results on my little camera screen was even more rewarding. In fact, they looked better there than in reality. I know I shouldn't admit that. Sometimes the camera can enhance nature, and it may be best to keep mum. But I'm still learning on all fronts.

In time I was able to tear my focus away from just the Northern Lights and consider other elements in my view. I was especially pleased with my attempt to get both the Lights and the Big Dipper in one photo.

Northern Lights through the trees

We were out on the dock for hours. It was past 3:00 am by the time we were ready to fold up our tripods and turn off the cameras. But I was no longer tired, and had learned to endure the biting mosquitos without flinching and jeopardizing my photos.

Our star track photos turned out to be duds, and we deleted them without hesitation. But they were well worth it for leading us to the Northern Lights display. Next time Rich's alerts go off, I think I'll crawl out of bed with him. I'd like to capture them again.