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
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
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
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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