The Boat House

When I began visiting a family resort near Cross River on the North Shore, a world of hidden structures and values opened up to me. Sure, I knew about the appeal of water from summers on the beaches near Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the little cabins on the pebble beach beside huge Lake Superior reminded me a bit of the sand-burr cottages near the ocean. But discounting the wide sky and expanse of waves, the comparisons stopped.

For one thing, there were huge rocks along the lake shore. Some of these boulders loomed taller than I was. Others were flat and pocked with pools. Tiny tufts of blue hare-bells, lobelia and prostrate yellow potentilla grew out of the cracks. Water-striders and even tiny minnows got trapped in the pools. One summer, making my slow way climbing rock to rock up the shore, I surprised several great blue heron fishing in a cove. This was a summer of drought–I suspected they were having trouble finding eatables elsewhere. It was the first and only time I ever saw these big birds this far north.

Beside the streams which cascaded into the lake, I’d occasionally come across concrete walls which I’d have to approach from land–they were too high to climb at the water’s edge. So overgrown with small trees and mouldered by freezing and cracking weather, these walls seemed to belong to the natural landscape. But they were remnants of boathouses. The early Norwegian fishermen docked their deep-hulled, planked fishing boats in these houses. Some, I later learned, even had little rooms built above the cavities for the boats. A fancy friend of mine made one into a writer’s studio, but the only plumbing was the water sloshing below.

In the early days–shall we say the late 1890s–mail was delivered by dogsled after being brought north to Two Harbors by schooner. Finally when a hard-surface road was being constructed all the way to Canada in the 1950s, some families, always hard-up and ready to turn their hand to anything honest and lucrative, built little cabins down by the shore for the highway workmen. This was the origin of many small resorts along the North Shore. The first time my husband and I drove north along highway 61, the road was so narrow, that the branches of spruce reached across and almost touched the car. We felt we were entering an enchanted forest where the people lived in miniature dwellings and all the animals could talk.

The resort where I used to stay had an office right by the road. No more than a cabin itself, it allowed the wife to make arrangements with renters without having to bring strangers into her own house. At the back was another small room filled with shelves of linen, pillows, and spreads. There, if you needed a roll of toilet paper, for instance, you could stand and read lovely cards from appreciative renters. It was a good corrective to discover that friends who used to come to the resort had written such flowery thank you notes that your brief scrawls looked like chicken scratches. This was when you recognized that the owners could be made into friends one kept in touch with throughout the year, even during the winter.

Running these little resorts was definitely a family business–the wives took care of money transactions and daily cleaned vacated cabins, while the husbands mowed lawns, repaired roofs and, that worst of all possible jobs, cleaned out septic tanks. A lot of beer was consumed in the doing of that last job.

Once in late October, I reserved for a few days, the last week “my resort” was open. When I arrived, I discovered that the plumbing in every cabin by the shore had frozen. There’d even been snow. But my hosts, two agreeable friends by this time, insisted that I could stay in the “mother’s house” across the driveway from their own much more modern rambler. No one lived in “mother’s house” anymore, but it was filled with old-fashioned stuffed armchairs, a huge dining room table covered with a lacy tablecloth, and an array of etched glassware that rattled in the china cupboard as you walked past.

I chose to sleep upstairs at the back of the house, under a slanting roof, in a room with windows on three sides. This gave me an entirely different perspective on the lake. My eyes skimmed the tops of trees, I could look far out across the huge lake, never spying an opposite shore, of course, but feeling that if I only stepped off the roof, I could soar over the water.

Behind this very sunny and starry room, were other tiny bedrooms, the smallest of which, under the opposite eaves, had been the children’s bedroom. I could no more stand up straight in this long narrow cubbyhole than I could climb the boat house walls down by the shore. But the tiny beds arranged in the cubby were still covered with patchwork quilts, and expectant teddy bears or dolls still waited for someone to touch them into life. Yet the whole cubby had a forlorn look, as if it had been years since anyone rested there. Which might have been the case, as the two daughters whom I knew were in their 50s. Yet, I bet their grandchildren visited occasionally and slept here, wanting to take home Grandma’s teddy bear when they left, sensing how lonesome it would be for the bear, waiting out an entire season of snow until they came back again. Is it possible I left something of myself there too, never to be retrieved again?

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