Ely, MN: August, 2021
The northern triangle of Minnesota, the pine and birch covered part that juts out over Lake Superior, is so sparsely populated that they didn’t need to put too much thought into naming the county roads. To get to Ely from Duluth, you can either take Route 1, which arrives from the west, or Route 2, from the south. Most of the time, we go with one, but this time we continued along the north coast of Lake Superior before veering away from it and following number two. Immediately it was a more scenic drive, a lonely stretch of thin two lane road with conifer branches reaching over like tunnel eaves and practically hugging the roof of my small sedan.
Derek was driving – why I don’t know. We had stayed the previous night in Chicago on our way up here and spent the night beer garden hopping, ending at Navy Pier where Derek had discovered a way to outwit the absurdly long drink lines by purchasing two cocktails each time we reached the front. He was fine when we awoke at dawn to finish the drive to Ely but a late-onset hangover seemed to manifest itself somewhere around Eau Claire. Still, as always, Derek and his family are the reason I semi-regularly visit northern Minnesota, and his childhood summers happened here, so he knew the way without needing directions and thus was the one behind the wheel.
After a couple of hours on this undulating pine-thronged road, we arrived in town and Derek pulled into the Grand Ely lodge. It was a long, two story building of the kind seen anywhere in the American wilderness: The outside looks like it was built with Lincoln Logs, the inside had a grand lobby with an antler chandelier. I appreciated it without a hint of irony.
Surprisingly, Derek had never stayed here himself, despite several dozen visits to the area throughout his life. His grandparents and aunt/uncle each owned a cabin along Lake Burntside and when those places were unavailable, they would stay at Camp Van Vac, also right on the lake. I had done both as well, staying with his family one summer and at the camp in the autumn when we traveled here with Lauren and Derek’s sister Carly. I was perfectly content on this trip, however, to forego camping in favor of a lodge, even one that was basically a timberpunk version of a highway hotel, because of the little frigid boxes beneath the window.
The air was scorching. And not just for Minnesota. Opening the car door was like walking past a stone oven, hot air blowing without a drop of moisture. It was no surprise there were reported wildfires just across the Canadian border from the Boundary Waters. The cool air of the lobby was an immediate contrast, and Derek checked in while I looked around the gift shop at all the stuff with prints of moose on them. That done, we immediately set our stuff in the room and drove over to his aunt and uncle’s cabin.
Uncle Dave and Aunt Ada were out and his cousin Amanda was in the lake swimming, so Derek said we should go for a run despite the heat and his hangover. We made it about a mile up the hilly pine-flanked road before returning back and admitting this was a terrible idea. Derek finished what had become a walk by continuing down the dock and allowing gravity to take him into the lake. His feet hit bottom before he expected them to and he let out an expletive in the form of a question.
Amanda swam over and said ‘Yeah, it’s really shallow this year.’
‘Also really warm’ I said, climbing in more slowly than Derek did, expecting but not receiving the typical gripping chill of an initial Burntside Lake jump even in summer. The lake was several feet lower than normal and looked like photos of western reservoirs where you can see a ring of what used to be water. Dave and Ada’s dock appeared comically raised, as if on stilts, and I could stand on the mucky bottom with plenty of room to breathe.
‘How are you standing right now?’ Amanda asked.
‘It’s only four feet or so.’ I kept kicking up mud while paddling so it was just easier to stand.
‘No, I mean the ground is so gross.’
‘Eh, it’s not so bad.’
It was weird though, that this magnificent glacial lake felt, in both temperature and depth, like a manmade one in Ohio. Summer 2021 had been stifling here, as at home, but without the constant rainstorms and botanical garden humidity. We swam or waded for a bit, as the hazy sun made its way toward the tops of the highest pines on the far side of the lake. Dave and Ada arrived home at some point and so we dried and dressed for dinner.
I call the place that they live for the summer a cabin, and so does Derek, but really it’s a large house. It has three stories with twenty-foot tall windows that open toward the lake, with as many bedrooms as my house and Derek’s apartment put together, as well as a mezzanine with a bannister of carved wood and a basement where I used to lose at ping pong. Also, air conditioning. It was only a decade old and was far different from the two roomer without running water that Derek and his family dwelled in for a month each year when he was growing up. It’s not a cabin if I feel I should take my shoes and hat off upon entry.
‘So why do you call yourself Commie Hater 9 something something?’ Dave said when we were situating ourselves in the great room that smelled of fir. He was a relatively tall man who looked like he just finished a successful trip to an LL Bean outlet.
Derek, confused and trying to hide is delirium, looked over at his uncle and said ‘What?’
Dave smiled and continued. ‘I mean, so you hate commies, that’s fine. In fact, I agree. But it seems an odd thing to make your identity, don’t you think?’
We still had no idea what he was talking about until he turned his phone to us. Derek had shared our directions on maps and hadn’t yet turned it off, but instead of showing his name or contact info, the little blue dot showed our location as CommieHater1989.
‘How in the hell?’ Derek said. ‘I haven’t used that email address in like 15 years. It was for video games and such.’
I had a bottle of Moose Drool with Dave, but Derek didn’t really feel like one, his head still on spin cycle from Chicago spirits and a 90 degree run. He had his phone out and was trying to change his maps app nom de guerre but eventually relegated it to a problem even a senior web developer such as himself could not solve. We all talked about boats and travel and the like before the conversation turned to how awful the weather has been.
‘I didn’t even bother taking the boat out this year’ Dave said. ‘Too dangerous with the water level and all the rocks in the lake. Lot of unmarked snags.’
‘What about these fires?’ Derek asked.
‘Yeah, those aren’t great either. It’s been a week or so?’ He looked over at Ada who nodded while holding a colander of penne. ‘About a week the one’s been going over the border.’
The westerlies had brought seven days worth of smoke over the Boundary Waters, and some of the remote sections were under extreme fire risk, and were currently being closed off to all canoers and hikers.
‘Ely’s just about the end of the road right now. Can’t get anywhere north or west. Because of the closures. I can’t believe what we’re doing to the climate right now, honestly.’
Dave is extremely subtle by nature and not an exaggerator, Derek told me later. He’s also a Republican. Not normally one to wax alarmist about climate change, or anything, for that matter. Derek however, didn’t get this family trait, and his mood was already plunging when Dave dropped the bomb.
‘It’s a shame potential buyers are going to see the lake like this, the sale is really going to help your grandparents out.’
Derek stared blankly and said ‘Sale?’
‘You were on the family Zoom call, weren’t you? I could’ve swore…’
We had moved to the table at this point and were surrounded by several types of pasta, as well as crescent rolls and grilled chicken. Derek had piled his plate high but stopped when he heard the news.
‘Derek, we’re selling the grandparents’ old cabin’ Dave said softly. ‘It’s in rough shape, and they’re not going to be able to make the trip up here again. I’m sorry.’
My friend handled this news outwardly well, as he always does, but I could tell this was a shock.
‘Makes sense’ he said. ‘Better someone else can enjoy it than it sitting empty.’
‘We’re going to clean it out later in the week if you’d like to see it one more time.’
Derek checked with me and we of course said that we would help.
After the initial news, the dinner ended up being fantastic. I had a couple of plates of pasta and some salad, after a day with no real breakfast or lunch. Amanda had especially made a vegan mac and cheese for Derek, which was appreciated, but my friend outed himself when he added parmesan to his penne.
‘I thought you were vegan’ she said as Derek replaced the spoon.
‘Well I was, but I definitely started eating cheese during the pandemic and now I can’t kick the habit, so I guess I’m more of a vegetarian now.’ He turned to me and added ‘But don’t tell Carly.’
‘Tell her what?’ I said.
‘That I eat cheese.’
‘Ehh, Carly never reads what I write anyway.’
I tried the vegan mac though and it wasn’t bad. Cheese tends to be the one thing that the plant-based world has yet to find a replacement for but I’m sure they’ll get there. This was a good start.
We stayed later than we had planned at Dave and Ada’s, but it was enjoyable hearing about their family and all the goings on in Minnesota and elsewhere. The smoke from the Canadian fires contributed to a spectacular sunset as we had dessert, and outside the vaulted windows glowed a Crayola neon orange over the shallow lake. Derek and I left a few hours later in the deep northern night. I put my hat back on, and we drove to the lodge.
In the morning we hiked and then went to Front Room Coffee for breakfast, which became a recurring pattern over the course of the trip. I always got a coffee and Derek a five dollar smoothie of varying flavors since he and caffeine had recently severed their long friendship. The Coffeehouse was busy and the popular but tiny shop was cramped and thus we sat outside on the porch. Even at brunch time in the shade the heat was beginning to oppress. The forecast once again called for mid-nineties and dry, about twenty degrees above average for the month of August. This was precisely why we had hiked in the morning.
The walk back from coffee to the lodge was about a mile along a thin isthmus between two lakes. Miners Lake, the smaller one is best for swimming. Shagawa, at nearly ten times the size, is better for everything else. The heat prompted a jump in Miners, where we swam with a dog while the owner watched from the dock. The water was so clear that you could easily see a dozen feet down, which was beneficial, since to the right of the dock was a large stick protruded up from the bottom that would have instigated a bad afternoon had someone jumped in that spot without seeing it. The little retriever paddled around us as we swam, enjoying the cool water even more than Derek and I did. When we would get out, he would follow, and when we jumped back in off the dock, he would run to the edge, hesitate, then backtrack to the shore and wade in that way to join us. The depth in Miners Lake drops quickly and just several yards off of the rocky shore the ground slopes sharply and the water looks like a midnight blue abyss despite the clarity. We took turns trying to touch the bottom but neither of us could do so. Sufficiently cooled after an hour or so, we went back to the lodge.
‘So what are you reading?’ Derek asked after a long silence broken only by the constant hum of the air conditioner, enjoying the cool room in which we both lounged in our respective beds and stared at tablets.
‘I don’t really want to say’ I responded. The correct answer was The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen, a book about the six mass extinctions in Earth’s history written in entertaining story form. It’s not about climate change per se, but given his current mood I thought it best not to mention it.
‘Allright…’ he said, suspiciously, really drawing out the word. “Should Lauren or I be worried?”
I laughed. ‘Ha, no. It’s about dinosaurs. What are you reading?’
Continued -> Minnesota Redux: The Run and the Flames