Photos by David Bowman
Docks at Gunflint Lodge
Gunflint Lodge sits on a half-mile of lake shoreline near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The 43 miles north from Grand Marais to Gunflint Lodge take a little more than an hour to drive, but the distance it puts between the norms of city life and a nature-lover’s dream seems immeasurable. Towering pines hug the meandering road up through the boreal forest as your cares and worries fade as quickly as your cell signal. During the summer, the drive is painted with yellow black-eyed Susan, purple aster, pink lupine, and other wildflowers that are bright bursts of color amid the evergreens. Add to this the sky-blue lake water and the occasional moose or wolf sighting and you get why this Northwoods wilderness has long inspired work by writers, artists, musicians, not to mention those Hamm’s beer ads from the mid ’70s, which were filmed in the area.
A sharp right turn at Highway 50 leads into Gunflint Lodge, which is situated on 1,500 feet of shoreline along the southern side of Gunflint Lake. Former longtime owner Bruce Kerfoot describes the lodge as celebrating environmental recreation as opposed to other state resorts known for social activities. The water is clear, clean, and calm. Jet skis are permitted on the lake, which borders Ontario to the north, but no one uses them. Instead, guests paddle kayaks or canoes to secluded getaways like Bridal Veil Falls, where water pours from a 10-foot shoot. Or they join one of the resort’s fishing guides on a day-long excursion with a shore lunch of buttermilk-breaded fish and fried potatoes cooked with bacon over an open fire. Back at the lodge, kids splash on the sandy swimming beach and toss corn kernels to the ducks. Their parents sip a cold IPA or wine while sitting in Adirondack chairs. Days begin with an early morning low fog that hovers above the lake and often end with an Instagram-worthy sunset. It’s easy to romanticize this remote getaway, which is a popular year-round destination for vacations, weddings, and honeymoons.
Last year, the lodge made news when it changed hands for the first time in 80 years, shifting from the Kerfoot family to its new owners, John and Mindy Fredrikson. Like Bruce and his wife Sue before them, the Fredriksons are friendly hosts who have maintained the same staff, many of whom have been working here for decades. The Fredriksons are quick to share the lodge’s storied history, beginning in the late ’20s when Bruce’s mother, Justine Kerfoot, bought what was then a fishing camp with her mother. Justine became an early pioneer of the Gunflint Trail. She learned from the Canadian Indians who lived across the lake how to survive in 40-below winters, drive a dog team, and hunt moose, and she built and engineered most of the lodge herself. When the lodge burned to the ground in 1953, Justine rebuilt it, right down to the main dining hall’s tables and chairs made from red birch (a few of her pieces are inside guest cabins today).
Justine was a passionate environmental advocate for the area and wrote extensively about it in a regular newspaper column and in a few books. In Woman of the Boundary Waters, Justine challenges the notion that one shouldn’t disturb the silence of the woods.
Can you really imagine a silent forest?
. . . We would hear no lapping of the waves along the lake shore. . . . Silent would be the songbirds who welcome the daylight and put evening to bed. Lost would be the haunting night call of the loon . . .
Gunflint Lodge in 1928 and today
Gunflint Lodge circa 1928 and today.
Archival Gunflint photograph courtesy of The Early Resorts of Minnesota, by Ren Holland.
Although Justine passed away in 2001, her lyrical descriptions of this Northwoods version of Walden still ring true. In another passage, she recalls a humorous exchange with a returning guest in 1966.
There are those who look and enjoy all of these intricacies of nature, and then there are those, like a lady who swooped into our lodge recently, who remarked, “My—I was here 25 years ago, and it is still the same God-forsaken place it was then.”
I remarked, “Thank heavens.”
Guest books inside each of the lodge’s 24 cabins also recount stories. Many ruminate on weeklong activities, ranging from a two-hour zipline tour through canopies of white pines to horseback riding and nature crafts and moonlit hikes led by the full-time naturalist.
In addition to the 20-plus summer activities offered weekly, there’s also plenty to accommodate vacationers wanting to take it easy. The cabins are nestled in the woods, sited to maximize privacy and natural views. Many have fireplaces and saunas, and there’s a spa located in Justine’s former cabin. Here you can be as social or as secluded as you like.
Visitors often walk to the main lodge in the morning to pick up the newspaper and check out the day’s activities. Freshly made cookies and coffee, tea, and cocoa are self-serve in a tall wooden hutch just off the main dining room. The lodge houses a restaurant and full bar centered around a cozy rock fireplace, and the outfitters and gift shops onsite make this remote location a non-issue for necessities.
Guests are advised when they book their stay to get gas and groceries before heading up the trail from Grand Marais. The line of vacationers who did just that back in 1966 was a familiar scene that Justine wrote about often. She called it “The Surge.”
This Memorial Day weekend delivered the year’s first release of people en masse. . . . Late into the night the procession plied the Gunflint Trail—fishermen and families, house trailers and travel trailers, U-Hauls and camping gear, car-top boats and canoes, trailers with launches, little boats and super cruisers.
The scene repeats year after year as people seek a dream as elusive as the unpredictable Northern Lights.
At a Glance: Gunflint Lodge
143 S. Gunflint Lake, Grand Marais, 218-388-2296, gunflint.com
- Owners: John and Mindy Fredrikson
- Activities: Seasonally based, year-round. Zipline tour, hikes led by naturalists, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, boating, nature crafts. Full dining room and bar, spa, and outfitters shop.
- Don’t miss: Justine’s Fine Dining. Have at least one meal in the lodge’s dining room, and make sure to try the walleye and the wildrice chowder.
- Pricing: Seasonally based, summer season starts in May and cabins range from $229/night to $759/night, depending on the size of the cabin.