Return from the Northwoods

Sunset on Thousand Island Lake


Yes, I decided to return afterall. Even after a week of sitting on the screen porch looking out over the lake and brainstorming ways I could make a living in the hinterlands of the U.P., I couldn’t find any other way. So I have returned to the clutches of my dark corporate overlords, and to my suburban enclave here in the Twin Cities.


One of these years I will find a way, and then there will be no coming back. Just a lifetime of solitude in the Northwoods, listening to the water lapping at the dock, and the call of the loons in the summer time. In the winter it will be the sound of the ice shifting out on the lake, as I watch the snow pile up.

The Lake that we have been staying at these past 3 years is a paradise. It has all that you could want in a lake. Big bays for waterskiing, and tubing. Little secluded inlets for fishing, and channels, and undeveloped portions for paddling and watching the wildlife. A guy could do worse than to live out his days along the shoreline.

Cisco Chain of Lakes

Across the road from our resort is the Sylvania Wilderness, and Ottawa National Forest, with stands of old growth white pine, and it’s own pack of timber wolves. The list of animals we saw in the past week reads like a trip to the zoo. Eagles, Otters, Loons, Deer, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Ducks, Geese, and every kind of fish but the elusive Musky. Alas, no bear or wolves though. Maybe next year.

It's an Eagle, trust me.

I biked, I kayaked, I swam, I waterskiied, I tubed, I boated, and I relaxed on the front porch drinking my coffee and reading a good book. Is there anything more to life than that? Aside from campfires, smores, and a cold beer at the end of a long ride? I didn’t think so.

The kids cried when it was time to leave this morning. They will miss their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and 2nd cousins. This is our 6th year of spending a week together in the woods, and they have come to love these trips more than any others. They look forward to them all year. They were the whole reason for starting them in the first place. These vacations were meant to be a gift to them. A way for them to come to know their family, insanity and all. Mrs. 20 Prospect and I did not want them to be “orphans of success” as Jason Peters has so eloquently written.

In Mrs. 20 P.’s family, these summer vacations to a lake in the woods, were a family tradition. When her Dad was growing up, his father ran a resort on Oak Lake, near Webster, Wisconsin, and he’d spend the summer there helping out. Then, when Mrs. 20 P. was little her family would spend 2 weeks renting a cabin on a lake in Northern Wisconsin, along with her Mom’s whole extended family. She told me the stories of those vacations when we met, and I always envied her for them.

The lake at the golden hour

Vacations like that were pretty rare in Western New York. Sure, some folks would spend time on the shore of a Finger Lake, but the little Mom & Pop resort cabins were few and far between. Instead it was private cottages crammed shoulder to shoulder all the way ’round. And being working class schleps from North Buffalo, just a little removed from Wetsern PA trailer trash, our clan never considered such trips. Instead our money was spent on gas for the family car, and motel rooms in far flung states. That’s just what we did, and we loved every minute of it. But faced with a choice between a car trip across the country and a week at a lake, well… there wasn’t really much choice. So we re-started the family tradition of weeks at the lake, and we haven’t regretted it once. Well, OK, there was that one year when… um, nevermind. (The in laws do read this blog.)

As much as we love these type of vacations, we seem to be among a dwlindling minority. Once upon a time the north woods were full of little resorts like the one we stay at, but over the years they have disappeared one by one, being sold off, and divided up for developers. Now the lakes are home to mansions more akin to Sagamore, than “Karl’s Kozy Kabins”. I understand the economics of it. As the American middle class came to discover living beyond their means, the lake front property soared in value. The tax burden became too much for many of these little resorts that scraped by. As the owners aged, and their families moved away it was far easier to sell out to a developer, and split the cash, than find someone willing to work the kind of hours needed to keep up a dozen cabins, and fishing boats.

Lots of homes, but only 3 resorts...

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something inside of us that has changed along the way. As the FPR article by Jason Peters points out, families are smaller these days, and more inward focused than ever before. Communal events like sharing a resort campfire with extended family and total strangers, don’t hold the same place in our imagination as a week at Disney World. And when we value these things less, economics takes care of the rest.

Another Million Dollar Cabin

I can’t help but wonder where it ends. Will Watersmeet resemble Aspen someday? A playground for the rich, with the “help” bussed in from the trailer parks a half hour down the valley. Or will the bubble finally burst? The baby boomers that have driven up these property values, and built these monstrously large 5 bedroom “cabins”, won’t live forever. What happens when the demographic bubble bursts? Will the northwoods actually become a sustainable local economy, where the locals can afford to live and work? Or when the collapse of the seasonal tourist business brings down the weak service economy that exists there today, will anything rise up to replace it? I can’t imagine what a post boomer economy would be.

The north woods has lived through the extractive economy of the 1800’s, and early 1900’s once already. The tourist economy of the post war years eventually blossomed into the seasonal home, summer resident economy they have today. The schools, and services are only supported by the property tax base. When that base collapses, the infrastructure, and government services will not be able to subsist on the locals alone. Perhaps it will be like the depression years were. Years of scrabbling to get by, shooting deer to put food on the table. Or maybe it will be something else entirely. Lord knows the lumberjacks, miners, and fur trappers, that lived there 100 years ago never could have imagined the playground that we have today.

Too many questions. Too few answers. Time to sit on the front porch and ponder some more. Back home in the Twin Cities, the locusts are in full summer buzz. Time to crack open the last of the vacation beers, and watch the sun set on suburbia.



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