The Fieldstone Review

Clearwater Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, a Trip Journal

by Wendy Lane

“...once upon a time the Gunflint Trail was a primitive trail used primarily by foot or dogsled to move goods down to the port of Grand Marais on Lake Superior for trade.”

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Monday, August 10 Clearwater Lodge, 2020

My spouse Judy and I, with our scotty Gus, arrived late afternoon at historic log cabin number 3 in a misting rain. Turning our green Forester into the driveway, I parked the car and we began to unload. Judy took charge of bags of food, dog kibble and cleaning supplies, while I carried duffels of clothes, toilet paper and art supplies. Lighter, bulkier items were packed in a soft plastic topper on the roof. Shuffling quickly back and forth between the car and a screened-in porch entrance to the cabin, I dropped bags on the porch picnic table, trying not to get the gear or me wet.

A growling rumble and then loud whip crack, sent a rolling thunderstorm over us dumping pelting rain. Unfortunately, I hadn’t begun to unpack the topper yet. Placing a portable stool next to the car, I stepped up, and reached overhead to unzip a corner. Cold water had pooled on top and began to pour over my fingers, inside the sleeves of my jacket, and down the side of the vehicle. I pulled out one bag of bedding and then quickly zipped the topper back up. Running from car to cabin, my clothes were drenched in a matter of minutes. Between repeated dashes, I took short breaks, listening for the thunder that predicted vivid lightning strikes. Unconsciously I hoped the storm wasn’t a bad omen.

Turning our attention to the interior of the small log cabin, we opened all the windows. The rectangular central room housed an open layout of kitchen, dining and living room. At each end were doorways covered by a hanging curtain for privacy. One led to the master bedroom, the other to a smaller bedroom and bathroom.

The cabin was clean and tidy, except for a window screen in the kitchen that looked as if it hadn’t been washed in a season. The pandemic gave both of us an obsessive cleaning disorder. I used Clorox wipes to rub down the door and faucet handles, light switches, and toilet seat. Judy sprayed disinfectant on table, counter and cupboard surfaces as well as refrigerator shelves before putting groceries away. I cleaned dresser handles and drawers, then began unpacking our clothes.

When I covered the futon couch with a sheet, Gus jumped up and made himself at home. He watched while Judy and I pulled off Northwoods-themed resort bed covers, replacing them with our own sheets topped by sleeping bags for extra warmth. Stuffing the resort linens in plastic bags, we stashed them on the floor in a corner of the larger bedroom.

While cleaning and unpacking, we kept our face masks on. No, we didn’t have allergies, nor were we germaphobes. But travelling in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t know if the cleaning staff or renters in the cabin before us had the virus. We weren’t taking any chances. There were still a lot of unknowns about how the coronavirus was transmitted. Before we left home that morning, we noted 618 new cases in Minnesota.

During the six-hour, 318-mile drive, we made only two rest stops using our porta potty inside a pop-up tent in parking lots. After reaching the town of Grand Marais, we picked up fresh meat, produce, eggs and dairy items at the food coop. There was a line of people wearing face masks outside because of the limit on shoppers inside. Finally, turning onto County Road 12, also known as the Gunflint Trail, we drove the last 31.4 miles to our two-week vacation home, Clearwater Lodge resort. After a long drive and a couple hours of cleaning, we were beat. By 5:30 in the evening it was time for supper and a break.

Judy said, “You’re still wet. Take a hot shower, and I’ll pull together some dinner.” She made hamburgers on romaine lettuce with cucumbers and onions, and defrosted the frozen tomatoes stuffed with wild rice she had prepared ahead of the trip. We sipped on glasses of chilled prosecco. A dessert of cherries with a cookie topped it off. The celebratory supper revived us. Our vacation had begun.

After sunset, I stepped out on the porch to look at Clearwater Lake, pleasantly surprised that the water’s edge was only a few feet from the cabin. It was calm and quiet. Sky and water mirrored one another in midnight blue. In between, a strip of forested land was a silhouette in black. No stars were visible in the cloudy night sky after the storm. A couple of distant night lights from cabins across the water provided soft illumination. I let out a slow breath. It seemed we had managed to arrive safely.

I thought about getting sick with Covid while here. We were one hour away from North Shore Health, the nearest hospital in Grand Marais. I said a silent prayer, “Please don’t let us get sick. I just want us to enjoy our time here.” Then I tried to set the worry aside.

Back inside the cabin, I opened a window next to the bed, so I could listen to the lapping of water against the dock and the new animal sounds of our surroundings. Dropping backwards on the firm mattress, I got a whiff of fresh clean air that blew across the lake and encircled the room, infusing it with the scent of pine needles from trees around the cabin. I fell asleep quickly.

In the dark, the temperature dropped, and a chill woke me and I got up to shut the window, afraid cold air blowing on top of my head would give me a cold. I reached down to Gus’ dog bed on the floor. He wasn’t in it. When we went to bed, he was laying on the couch and must have spent the night there. I figured he was okay and fell back asleep.

It seemed only moments later when my eyes opened sleepily, and I smiled to hear the laughing echo of loons. Checking my cell phone, the time was 4:00 a.m. Then I heard Gus shaking his collar, followed by a dull thump as he jumped off the couch, then clip-clopped his nails across the floor. He settled into his dog bed stuffed between the narrow walls of the bedroom closet. I began to fall asleep only to be woken again a short time later as Gus emitted a sort of grouchy old man grumble. It occurred to me that he might be cold. I got up and put a wool blanket over him. That seemed to settle him. Judy mumbled, “What’s going on?” “Nothing, Gus was just cold, go back to sleep.” We all snoozed, cozy under our blankets.

I had barely closed my eyes when Gus shook his collar again around 8 a.m. to demand breakfast. I immediately did a mental check on my physical state. Could I smell? Any chills, aches or pains besides muscle soreness and stiffness? All was well. I needed to let go and relax.

“How did you sleep?” I asked Judy. She stretched and said, “It took me a while to fall asleep because of the scratching sounds of mice in the wall. We’re going to have to make sure all the food is put away, and the garbage is in the covered trash can outside every night.” “Oh! I didn’t hear them,” I replied, feeling repulsed.

After breakfast, I walked Gus down the gravel road to look at cabins 4, 5 and 6. Mosquitos swarmed. They seemed at least three times the size of those at our home in the city. Luckily my natural bug spray worked well so they were only mildly irritating. I was just grateful we didn’t have biting black flies to contend with.

Back at the cabin, Judy declared, “I want to unpack a bit more and still have to take a shower before I can hike.” “Sounds good. I’ll go to the lodge to check my email.” Grabbing a face mask, I left Gus with her, and walked the trail through the woods to the main lodge.

A short walk uphill and then a turn on the path revealed a beautiful old two story, hand hewn log building. The lodge was wrapped on two sides by an attached covered porch overlooking a sloping lawn to the lake. The craftsmanship of the historic building was evident. I learned it was built in 1913, and made without nails. The covered porch was added in 1927. Windows and doors were trimmed in blue and green paint, and all had been lovingly maintained over the years.

The lodge porch was the only place to get internet at the resort. The interior wasn’t open to the public because of the pandemic. Several guests sat on the porch, checking their cell phones, chatting, or gazing at the waterfront. I downloaded the next mystery book in the series I was reading on Kindle, posted a few pictures on Facebook signifying our arrival, and checked email. Relaxing in my wood Adirondack chair, I gazed at the lake shimmering under the warm sunny day.

A rowboat floating in water was tied to the side of a metal dock, from where a man stood throwing a ball into the water for his excited chocolate lab. The dog charged down the dock, sprang into the air and jumped with legs splayed. With a loud splash the lab joyfully fetched the ball, swam back and jumped up on the dock, dropping his prize at the feet of his owner. The man repeated the throw, the dog took off running and flew into the air to once again jump in the lake. Soon the dog emerged from underwater shaking his head side to side, while gripping the ball in his grinning mouth. On the third throw, the dog ran swiftly after the ball, leapt from the dock, and slammed his chest straight into the inside of the parked rowboat. THWACK!

I gasped. The lab dropped onto the boat bottom stunned. Either the dog misjudged the distance and thought he could leap over the boat, or in his joy of retrieval, he hadn’t realized the boat was tied there. He just focused on the trajectory of the ball and leapt. I found myself praying the dog wasn’t seriously hurt, just as I had prayed for us the night before. If he was hurt, I wasn’t sure he could receive help in time, with the closest vet in Grand Marais.

The dog’s owner walked slowly toward the boat, speaking gently to the dog. The dog turned toward his owner’s voice, and tried to step up onto the dock but couldn’t manage it. He just rested his front paws on the seat and sat on the boat bottom, not moving. The man knelt and gently picked up the big dog, setting him softly on the dock. The minute the dog was safely out of the boat, he ran the length of the dock, past the end of the tied boat, leapt in the water, and promptly came up, swimming with the ball in his mouth again. I exhaled. Until then I had not realized I was holding my breath. I suspected the dog could have internal injuries, but if not, at the very least he would be sore and bruised. The owner smiled then, in relief, or the belief that his dog would be fine. I hoped this was an isolated incident, not another omen of bad things to come. When did I get so superstitious?

Would we get our feet knocked out from under us by the virus? If so, could we recover? Judy was 66, and I 64. I had underlying health issues. The days we experienced pure uncomplicated joy weren’t as frequent as they used to be before Covid-19 exploded in the United States. This trip was meant to bring a little of that simplicity to us. We were among the privileged retirees who didn’t have to work and could afford to travel. Webster’s dictionary defines a retreat as, “an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable.” We hoped staying isolated in a remote cabin close to the Canadian border would give us a haven from fear. It was only the morning of our first full day here, and already the virus invaded my mind.

As I walked the path back to our cabin, I bumped into Judy leading Gus. She wanted to visit the lodge too. I took Gus’s leash from her and said I would take him back to the cabin. The loose lab at the resort could be a recipe for disaster. Gus fights when approached by strange dogs off leash. I returned to the cabin and sat on the porch with him, writing in my journal until Judy returned. After lunch and then a nap, Judy suggested, “Let’s go for a hike.” Loading our daypacks with water, bug spray, and dried fruit and nut snacks, we drove to the lodge, stopping to ask for recommendations. A staff member suggested Honeymoon Bluff trail, only a few miles down the road on Cook County 66.

The trailhead began off a small circular gravel parking area. A steep ascent led up multiple wood steps to a hilltop overlooking Hungry Jack Lake. Our reward for the heart pumping climb was a tiered rock overlook with wood railings, allowing a safe and unimpeded view. Miles of blue and brown lakes surrounded by tree-covered green rolling hills and mineral streaked rock walls stretched into a boreal forest. A fierce wind whipped our hair and we had to yell to hear each other. Welcome to the heart of the Gunflint.

On our way up, we passed four hikers coming down the path, two men and two women. None were wearing masks. In our excitement to hike, we forgot ours in the car. Stepping off the path, we turned away to let them pass. Gus’ leash was a bit too long, and he lunged at the first woman as she went by. Judy yelled, “GUS! Get back.” He seemed as shocked as we were after the incident. We had to watch his aggressive response with strange people and dogs.

Not a long walk, but hiking up steep steps and then walking back downhill challenged our knees. A good mile workout. By the time we returned to the cabin, it was mid-afternoon hot, and we were both sweaty. I suggested, “How about a swim in the lake?” “Perfect.”

A few yards from our cabin was a sandy bottomed swim beach. The water in Clearwater Lake is just what it says. Clean and clear. That is how we found the resort initially. A 2017 article from The Loon 103.7 online titled "Minnesota’s Top Pristine and Stunning Clear Lakes" rated Clearwater third out of the top five.

Judy ran straight into the icy cold water and dove head first with no hesitation. Not me. I took a couple steps, let my feet get numb, then a couple more steps until I couldn’t feel my calves, etc. In the end I could only manage waist-deep. But it felt good to cool down.

At three years old, Gus had never been swimming. We had a green canvas life jacket for him that clipped around his chest and belly. Attaching his walking leash to the jacket, we beckoned him to follow us into the water. He liked the cool temperature, but stayed on the shallow edge of the shore where he could walk with his feet touching instead of swimming. Judy threw some pine cones out to entice him. He ran excitedly toward the deeper water, only to stop short the minute he hit swimmable depth. We let him proceed at his own comfort level.

Judy grilled steak for our dinner, served with salad and baked potato. I did the dishes. We carried lawn chairs to the end of the dock, to sit and watch the changing red and yellow sunset sky reflected in the water. It was the first time since arriving that I felt fully in the present moment. No conflicting thoughts worried my mind.

When the night sky emerged from the sunset, we stashed the day’s trash bag in the covered metal bin outside, then settled in bed to read. A distant quiet motor got louder as it moved closer to the cabin. Peeking out the window, I saw a staff member driving a golf cart. He pulled up to our trash can, removed our garbage bag, and drove off. We learned this was a nightly routine at all the cabins. A precaution against easy temptation for hungry bears or other night scavengers.

At 10:45 pm. Judy remembered a Perseid meteor shower was expected that evening and suggested we go back on the dock to check it out. We didn’t see the shower, but in the clear night sky, a sprinkling of stars spoke of hope. Children’s laughing voices echoed across the lake in the dark. I wondered aloud how many others before us had taken retreat in this cabin. We were too tired to stay awake any longer and said goodnight, sleeping peacefully.