A Sailing Cabin on the Lake
by Carolyn Hauser Corbett

Choice waterfront property in the heart of Minnesota’s lake country. Excellent location with easy access to lake. Rustic wooded acreage. Spacious, yet affordable. Perfect for retirement or first time buyers.

Each Friday, from Memorial Day through the end of September, Lori Paris throws whatever looks good from the refrigerator in a cooler, along with deli meats, fresh bagels, and a few spirits. John grabs the duffel bag, eight-year-old Danielle buckles her seat belt, and by six p.m. they’re headed for their cabin on the lake. Thirty-five minutes later the family is dockside at the Shores of Leech Lake Campground and Marina. Their cabin on the lake is a sailboat.

Ellise Loomis, whose full-time home is Shores, enjoys day sailing with her Harbor Buddies.

No property taxes to pay, no lawn to mow, no windows to wash, no shingles to repair. “When we get there, we begin relaxing right away,” Lori says. John and Lori anchor out as much as possible, changing their backyard with the hoist of a sail. Their liquid assets include 640 miles of shoreline surrounded by low rolling hills blanketed with pine, birch, and maple trees.

Nestled deep in the Chippewa National Forest, Leech Lake is the third largest lake within the borders of Minnesota. Vast stretches of virgin shoreline are protected from development, for they lie within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. This neck of the woods is a bit too far for most Twin City folks to drive, keeping the pressure off this 20-mile wide, 23-mile long body of water.

Mid-week sailors often have this pristine paradise to themselves. Almost. Eagles, mosquitoes, deer, bear, and fireflies share this unspoiled wilderness. Northern lights provide nighttime entertainment and the Cass County Sheriff monitors VHF channel 16.

The Shores of Leech Lake Yacht Club (SoLLYC) is an unpretentious group. They pay no dues, embrace no bylaws, and conduct one official meeting per year ~ and that’s primarily an excuse to have a potluck! The organizational meeting for the twenty-sixth annual Leech Lake Regatta had to be rescheduled this past summer when people protested the Saturday morning timetable. Saturdays are for sailing.

Couples who do too much gadgetry upgrading or wear fancy matching outfits are considered a bit suspect in this waterfront community. Most couples own small keelboats in the $8,000 to $28,000 range. Plenty of these 20-30' beach bungalows have homesteaded this harbor for more than ten years.
Lakeside living at its best. Three-season porch with wrap around deck. Open floor plan features family room on the lower level. Loft with cathedral ceiling overlooks superb landscaping and fabulous sunsets. Amenities include skylights, central air, and built-in sprinkler system.

Lakeside living at its best. Fabulous sunrises, breathtaking views, quiet neighborhood. Affordable waterfront property priced below appraised value. No property tax to pay, no lawn to mow, no windows to wash, no shingles to repair.

Helen Dexter’s husband, Harpo, was the first commodore. Back then, there were only eight sailboats at Shores. Today there are nearly fifty. In her 70’s now, Helen has a camper, a Westerly 24, and a golden retriever named Sam. Helen singlehands these days. Well, Sam’s aboard, but he mostly sunbathes. Rumor has it that no one on the lake handles a boat better than this lady.

According to Helen, rapport among this group of sailors is something special indeed. An extra set of hands or an ear can always be found. “They were vitally important to me when the time came to start being my own skipper,” said this matriarch of the SoLLYC. “I couldn't have done it without them.”
Mark DeSchane agrees. At the Labor Day Pig Roast, while Helen roamed the docks collecting hugs from every man with empty arms, Mark unveiled a wooden plaque engraved “One Particular Harbor.” Jimmy Buffett might think the tune originates in Cook’s Bay, Tahiti. Leech Lake sailors know he’s singing about a heaven hidden in northern Minnesota.

Experience levels vary widely among this close-knit family of friends. Kim and Brad Hayes are the proud young owners of their first boat, while Ronald Vroom has crossed the Atlantic. Ralph Solhjem found Bellwether III in Boston and brought her up the Erie Canal, through the Great Lakes, to Duluth. From there she was trailered 150 miles to Leech Lake.

Why Leech Lake? Lake Superior is too far away, with sailing conditions that are frequently unacceptable. Leech is closer to home. Folks come for an afternoon or a weekend, sometimes longer. Within a few hours of leaving the dock, they arrive at their favorite anchorage to swim, read, fish, or just raft up and socialize. Leech offers large expanses of open water, exciting sailing, secure anchoring, excellent water quality, and few navigational hazards. And then there’s Shores.

Dock space in Shores’ protected harbor includes water, electricity, pumpout facilities, and winter storage. Cost: $900 a year. Pets are allowed, picnic tables sport plastic table cloths, and electric poles are ringed with marigolds. When a horn sounds to alert other traffic that a sailboat is entering the harbor, ducks and paddleboats glide to the sides of the narrow channel. Wood smoke wafts across the water as campfires are stoked. The evening breeze echoes with the call of loons and the twilight serenade of frogs. Not exactly your typical cement and steel marina environment.

Sailors gather in Shores’ lodge, where there’s free coffee till noon and folks run a tab for pizza, beer, and sandwiches. Lori Paris believes it’s a great atmosphere for children. Her daughter, Danielle, romps with Harbor Buddies at the beach or playground when she’s not sailing. Mike Kelsey says simply, “Many of us have raised our kids here.”

Shores is a Ma & Pa operation. Mitch and Mara Loomis moved “up north” from the Twin Cities several years ago to take over the business Mitch’s parents had run for 18 years. Some regulars were concerned that this young couple might be planning to rest on their laurels. No one worries any more. Mitch and Mara haven’t got enough spare time to look up “laurels” in the dictionary. From May 1 to October 15, their work day runs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. But they don’t forget their fair weather friends once Shores closes for the season.

Last January, over 40 sailors battled icy roads to attend a winter reunion Mara organized to honor two sailors who were turning 50. Gary and Rose Spielman missed the birthday celebration when the Highway Patrol closed roads out of East Grand Forks due to blizzard conditions. Despite the weather, Ralph and Carol waited at road blocks in Fargo, slipping through when they opened temporarily.
Dock mates accustomed to sharing raft-ups, campfires, and pig roasts, gathered during a weekend of unseasonably cold temperatures. Outside the lodge lay waist-high whiteness, frozen water, and forlorn masts. Inside, camaraderie and kinship warmed summer friends as they winterized their systems. Rural Minnesota sailors are a hearty bunch. Maybe it has something to do with the short season. Some years they start in snowmobile suits and end in snowmobile suits. Mitch explains, “People want their boats in as early as possible. If there’s water on the lake, these sailors are on the water.” But there’s a catch.... Normal ice-out on the “Big Lake” usually occurs around April twenty-sixth. The ice in Shores’ harbor typically melts a week earlier. In the past, the boats have been in the water, but had nowhere to go. Nineteen ninety-six was a good year for ice. On May first, nearly six inches still covered the harbor. Divine connections weren't a prerequisite to walking on water. With crane-in scheduled for May 4, the determined group ran a small, aluminum fishing boat almost continuously, trying to clear the bay. The boats were craned in on schedule, though Leech Lake remained 60% ice covered when walleye fishing season opened a week later.

The SoLLYC traditionally hires a crane to arrive the first Saturday in May and again on Columbus Day weekend. Every non-trailerable boat that is going in or coming out of the water goes in or comes out on those days. Of the forty-eight boats that call Shores home, thirty-two require the lift.

Each couple helps launch several boats. With two sets of straps for the crane, one boat is being prepared as another is dropped in the water. After the crane is sent on its way, these nautical neighbors stand the rigs, toast the season, and head to town for dinner.

From crane-in to crane-out, Mark and Vicki DeSchane, often make the 40 minute drive from Park Rapids to go for evening sails during the week. Mark has no interest in owning a traditional cabin. Why would he? His prime parcel of property encompasses more than 150 feet of real estate. He’s got a lake home with 360 degrees of beach.

Carolyn Corbett is a freelance writer from Brainerd, MN.

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