Photographs by David Bowman
Burntside Lodge cabins perched on the shore of Burntside Lake.
Burntside Lodge cabins perched on the shore of Burntside Lake.
To reach the wilds of northeast Minnesota, you must first pass through the Iron Range. Which means you must consider the industries that threatened said backcountry and ultimately led to its preservation. Some are ghosts off the highway—shuttered paper mills and tapped iron ore fields—others holdouts from more prosperous times: taconite plants, open-pit mines, freight ships hauling the fruits of all that digging and refining. Why the reality check in a story about escape? Because nowhere in our state is the man-nature Venn diagram more nakedly complex than on the Range. Also, I’m Minnesotan: I believe all enjoyment comes at a cost.
Sigurd “Sig” Olson knew of this cost. The late writer and environmentalist spent much of his life in the northern outpost of Ely, teaching biology at the local community college and writing about the region. Ever the pragmatist, he once remarked that were it not for the towns that followed the iron ore boom on the Vermillion Range, he wouldn’t have moved to the region or pushed to preserve the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (he helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, which gave federal protection to the BWCA and other wild swaths of North America).
Olson died in 1982, but his cabin still stands outside of Ely, and on a warm offseason Friday, my wife, two kids, and I head up to tour his property and to explore the deep north he so eloquently rhapsodized. But first we check into our own cabin, a two-bedroom stone cottage at Burntside Lodge, a few miles northwest of downtown Ely. The resort looks out on 7,000 acres of clean, cold water and an array of glacial remnants: pine-covered islands, boulders the size of hippos, miles of craggy shoreline.
Like the lake it’s named for, Burntside is “Northwoods” in the most classical sense. There’s a pristine half-moon beach, a main lodge adorned with trophy fish, and 23 standalone cabins, many of which were built from local pine by Finnish craftsmen. Its refusal to draw a line between down-home and upscale sets it apart from most resorts up here—the lodging equivalent of a lumberjack who traveled the world and returned knowing how to make a great Manhattan (really, Burntside is legit).
Sure, we have to wiggle the key to open our cottage, but once inside we marvel at amenities like the slate-tile shower. This seesaw between primitive charm and modern comfort continues throughout the weekend. After foraging for snail shells on the beach, we sit at the lodge’s coffee shop. With its fancy espresso maker, pastry case, and copy of The New York Times, it’d fit in fine in the cities. Its lattes rival those in the cities, too, as do the crunchy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside blueberry scones. Enjoying such well-made treats on the edge of the grid elicits a pleasant dissonance. My 3-year-old son seems to agree. He sips his hot chocolate, closes his eyes, and nearly falls off his stool.
On our first morning in the north, we eat breakfast at the lodge. Halfway through the meal—duck hash and walleye for the adults, Belgian waffles for the kids—the sun burns the fog off the lake. We finish up and rent a pontoon from Lou LaMontagne, who owns Burntside with his delightful wife, Lonnie, and their two grown children, Jacques and Nicole. Lou, for his part, is wiry and quiet, and he seems intense—exactly the type you’d expect to retreat to the solitude of the woods. In the early 1980s, he left a cushy executive gig in Arizona to take over Burntside from his parents, who had owned the place since 1941.
The austere main entrance to Burntside.
Lou leads us down a gentle slope to a small cove that acts as the marina. As we step onto the pontoon, he hands me the key and notes the depth finder—“keep an eye on it, lots of rocks out there.” With that we’re off, cruising east, doing our best to avoid the shallows while gawking at vintage northern architecture (immaculately restored boathouses! Gorgeous A-frame lake homes! I wanna move here!). At one point, my 7-year-old daughter alerts us to a bald eagle overhead, and I half expect Ron Schara and Raven to boat up in an old Lund to complete our lake-country leisure fantasy.
Eventually, I loop west and tuck into the Dead River, a narrow, winding waterway flanked by reeds and lilies and stands of red pine. Rumor has it that a teenaged Lou took a teenaged Lonnie up this river on their first date, which ended with a storm blowing in and a rescue mission by some none-too-thrilled parents. Today, though, the weather is calm, the late-season sun is flickering off the water, and the kids, it seems, are all right.
We only have one full day here, so after the pleasure cruise we visit Sigurd Olson’s 27-acre property on the west end of Burntside Lake. Olson bought the parcel in 1956 and named it Listening Point for its ability to attune visitors to nature’s sermons—“bird songs in the mornings and at dusk,” he wrote in his 1958 book Listening Point. “The Aspen leaves would whisper and the pines as well, and in the sound of water and wind I would hear all that was worth listening for.”
Sigurd Olson's understated cabin at Listening Point.
A white-haired gent named Phil, a volunteer from the nonprofit that manages the property, leads our group through a wooded trail toward the lake. Along the path, we stop at Olson’s log sauna, which the writer rescued from a farmstead and reassembled here, old stove and all. “On cold nights, Sig and his family used to heat up, then run down to the lake and jump in,” says Phil, grinning.
The trail kicks us out onto a 10-by-16-foot cedar dock overlooking the bay. Phil quiets us so we can listen with purpose, the way Olson did. I pick up the slightest sigh of a breeze, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, and the occasional splash of lake water.
The tour ends at a one-room cabin set back in the woods—another salvaged pine structure. The interior remains much as it was when the Olsons used it: an austere space with two beds, a small propane fridge, a wood stove, Sig’s old tackle box, and various Native American artifacts unearthed on the property. Most impressive, though, is the cedar strip and canvas canoe hanging from the ceiling.
My kids listen dutifully to Phil’s stories, but I can tell they’re eager to get back to the beach. In Phil’s defense, kids aren’t really Listening Point’s demo. This place is a pilgrimage site for boomers who grew up reading John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold. Though not as well known, Olson is as important, an eco-rebel once hanged in effigy for his role in securing the BWCA for future generations (his opponents in the logging and mining industries worried about the park’s impact on the northern economy). In 2007, the National Register of Historic Places thanked Olson for his preservation work by adding Listening Point to its hallowed list.
Also on that list: the entire 20-acre Burntside property, from the massive stone fireplace in the lodge to the iconic Cabin 26 and its surprising perch on a rocky outcropping. Opened as an outfitter in 1911, Burntside is the oldest full-scale resort in the area, and its charm creates regulars. (Earlier that day, while checking out, I overheard an older couple booking the same weekend next year.)
That evening, after unwinding in the library (“Take a book home if you’d like,” says Lonnie. “Just mail it back to us”), we grab a table in the dining hall. Everyone’s in a good mood, and why not? The beaverboard ceiling and windows trimmed in white give it a cozy vibe, and outside the sun performs a live postcard as it sets over the lake. The food, by the way, is aces—a north-country riff on seasonal fine dining, prepared with finesse by chef Nicole LaMontagne. Highlights include a delicate cioppino and a plate of local cheeses. “I never want to leave,” says my wife, who jokingly asks if Burntside is hiring.
Scallops at Burntside's restaurant.
Later, we walk back to our cabin under the glow of a million stars. The kids run ahead, yelping and spinning in circles—and for a moment, the man-nature Venn diagram doesn’t seem so complicated.
When To Go
Spring is the ideal time for newbies, as off-season bookings are cheaper and easier to snag than high season.
How To Get There
MN-61 north to MN-1 west.
Where To Stay
- Burntside Lodge: Off-season begins in May and runs through June 24. 2755 Burntside Lodge Rd., Ely, 218-365-3894, burntside.com
Where To Eat
- Ely Steak House: Down-home with a supper-club vibe, vinyl booths, and a glorious burger ground with bacon and topped with a special sauce. 216 E. Sheridan St., Ely, 218-365-7412, elysteakhouse.com
What To Do
- Downtown: Composed of old brick buildings, BWCA outfitters, and the odd car dealership, it brings to mind the Alaska outpost in Northern Exposure.
- Steger Mukluks and Moccasins: Global retail HQ of the brand prized by hardcore outdoors folk and Edina hockey moms alike. 33 E. Sheridan St., Ely, 218-365-6634, mukluks.com
- International Wolf Center: Just outside town, it’s a hybrid research institution and museum that uses rescue wolves to teach the public about the issues facing northern wildlife. 1396 MN-169, Ely, 218-365-4695, wolf.org
- Listening Point: Naturalist Sigurd Olson’s longtime homestead preserved as a museum. 218-365-8889, listeningpointfoundation.org