Beach to beech
When I arrived in Minnesota as an east coast transplant in the late 1980s, my summer visions were of expanses of New Jersey beaches rather than expansive views of blue beeches, the understory tree of northern pine forests. Finding summer pleasure in a tiny lakeshore cabin nestled in any forest was an entirely alien concept.
East coast childhood summers had been two-month long versions of the Minnesota State Fair wrapped in a sea breeze. There were bustling boardwalks, vast horizons of deep blue wave-tossed waters, and fine sand strands as far as the eye could see, dotted with colorful beach chairs and umbrellas. Summer sounds were chants of, “Getchyur ice-cold fudgy wudgy ice cream,” belted out by a phalanx of dudes dressed in white, heavy mini freezers strapped to their shoulders, not the haunting call of a lone loon. Coppertone, hot dogs and pizza were my summer scents, not the clean prick of pungent pine.
But that has changed.
After 34 summers far removed from the throngs of vacationers packing the boardwalks and beaches, I’ve come to savor the tranquility of the north woods.
From the ‘hood to the woods
It’s a privilege to be able to access the wilderness. Unlike the seashores in easy reach for most east coast urbanites, finding a way to the immense nature of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin requires ample resources. Generational ownership of private cabins is typical, severely limiting access. And while resorts and small inns dot the northern landscapes, many are inaccessible for numerous metro residents.
This year in late July, our little group of four women hailing from all corners of the metro area, planned a mid-week stay in a private cabin on Lake Nancy, a pristine northern location belonging to a dear, longtime friend.
Key to any cabin trip is good preparation, so ahead of our adventure we met on a sunny café patio for the requisite kickoff strategic meeting. With no supermarkets or restaurants near our destination, we planned our communal meals. All groceries would be hauled in from our respective urban grocery stores. Joint activities, games and puzzles were also coordinated. All aspects of our stay easily came together.
Of course, a trip up north also requires having reliable transportation, which was not a problem for four solidly middle-class women. In fact, we took two cars – the right choice given the hilarious amount of cargo we schlepped. Our mini-SUVs seemed packed for a two-month rather than mid-week stay. Laden with our urban amenities, we headed out at the appointed time.
GPS won’t get you to the door
Unlike some of the longer “Up North” trips, Lake Nancy is a comfortable two-and-a-half-hour commute from the metro. Turning off I35 at the landmark “caloric” café known as Tobies, my companion, Kathy, and I munched donuts and cinnamon buns as we continued along a two-laned local highway. It wasn’t long until we left the paved main road onto its graveled country cousin, driving into the deep, silent woods, simultaneously exchanging delighted glances and exhaling an identical sigh as our city concerns melted away under the green canopy. Our pleasure on entering untouched nature soared like the first eagles we soon spotted above.
Little cabin in the woods
Although I had been a regular Lake Nancy guest frequently in the early 1990s, the nearly 20 years since my last visit erased any directional memory. Fortunately, our host had provided a detailed, hand-drawn map for the last part of our journey. Well off the beaten path where our GPS failed us, our only wayfinding devices were the map and modest country-style address placards. After a few wrong turns, we found the golden knotty pine cabin with its signature red garage and reassuring “Lake Nancy Rd” sign.
Like many an original hunting or fishing shack, the cabin has been adoringly renovated, featuring a well-stocked kitchen with the necessary appliances. Although the sole bathroom is small (and the shower smaller), everything is updated and practical. The living room with its woodburning stove, two tiny bedrooms and small porch, harkens back to the cabin’s 1800s provenance. There is something primal and satisfying about being in such a space.
We enjoyed our meals and each other’s company primarily in the cabin’s centerpiece, a modern, vaulted-ceiling great room, surrounded by picture windows that bring the pine forest indoors. This room opens onto a large deck with views of the lake, festooned with bird feeders that host a constant show of pileated woodpeckers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, blue jays and more. Gathering here was the heart of our stay, filled with the sounds of book pages turning and the welcome conversation of wise women.
The benefits of nature
Whether taking little hikes around the area, lounging in the great room or on the spacious pontoon or deck, or splashing in the lake, the absolute break from city sounds and distractions is healing balm for body, soul and mind. It is a privilege and a pleasure.
Regardless of age or culture, all humans find nature pleasing. Being in, or even viewing scenes of nature, is proven to reduce anger, fear, and stress – feelings that can elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension and suppress our immune systems. Research from the Earl E. Bakken Center Spirituality & Healing, a part of the University of Minnesota, offers evidence about how our environments increase or reduce stress.
We are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing, increasing our pleasurable feelings. When we are absorbed by nature scenes, we become distracted from our pain and discomfort. Because humans find nature inherently interesting, time in nature also increases our ability to pay attention, providing a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks.
It is a scientific fact that being in nature contributes to a virtuous cycle of healing and restoration.
What about access?
Sadly, research also confirms that underserved and communities of color are far less likely to engage in nature-based outdoor recreation activities, with historic discrimination being a large underlying factor.
Our local Twin Cities PBS station (TPT) in conjunction with parent company, PBS, has responded to this situation by launching a six-part primetime series, “America Outdoors With Baratunde Thurston,” an outdoor enthusiast and New York Times bestselling author of “How to Be Black.”
Thurston is the real deal – witty, authentic and charming. His personality is infectious. The series follows him on adventure-filled journeys exploring a diverse array of natural regions across the U.S. It focuses on how those landscapes shape the way Americans work, play and interact with the outdoors. The segment on Minnesota’s north woods will resonate with local audiences.
The show is for everyone, but there’s little doubt that PBS and TPT are wisely responding to the problem of access to natural settings for certain populations. This inaccessibility is as much a central theme of the series as is the twinned message for intensified environmental stewardship.
In a similar vein, at the beginning of August the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured Laura Yuen’s illuminating article about the 100-year history of Black families getting away to a certain Minnesota lake. Yuen’s article reinforces the necessity for nature retreats for everyone. Black families, she writes, “went to the lake to get away from the city, find solace in nature, hear the call of the loon, sip cocktails and play cards, teach their kids how to anchor the boat, pick wild berries, walk the woods under the stars, and tell stories about the colossal fish they almost caught.”
My friends and I could do these things without any roadblocks. Shouldn’t everyone be able to access our wild and wonderful nature?
It is in our best interest as a society to do a better job providing equal access to our northern woods and lakes. A website called Wilderness Inquiry features several options: https://www.wildernessinquiry.org/about-wilderness-inquiry_old/partner-organizations/
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