My grandfather and grandmother, Jack and Marie Kobe, shared a vision. Jack, a Slovenian immigrant, and Marie, a schoolteacher born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., somehow managed to find each other.
Jack grew up the son of an immigrant miner and a miner himself. When Jack wasn’t working (he was first employed in a local open-pit mine at age 14), his loves were hunting and fishing. With Grandpa’s connections to the railroads, he’d hop an ore train, jump off at a favorite lake or hunting spot, and catch a train back to Aurora at days’ end. In his early 20s, Jack and his brothers built a hunting shack on the shoreline of Wynne Lake near present-day Giant’s Ridge, proving Grandpa also knew how to swing a hammer.
Grandma Marie taught school in Aurora. She had been lured to Northeastern Minnesota by its lakes and beauty, her romantic poet’s heart steeped in Service and Longfellow and summers spent with her family at resorts in northern Wisconsin. As a girl and a young woman, she dreamed of a camp surrounded by birches and pines.
She met Jack on a tour of his mine. Sparks flew, and they were married. Work required that the Kobes resettle in Duluth, but Marie’s dream of having a place in the woods never abated.
In 1939, after giving birth to daughters Barbara and Susanne, Marie found her Shangri-La. She and Jack purchased 160 acres of cutover land on Bear Island Lake near Ely and set about building a resort. It was to be a working man’s place: affordable, rustic, tidy, and clean. Because Jack worked as a salesman for Berwind Coal, he hired Finnish carpenters to build cabins, a fish-cleaning house, an icehouse, and a small store. By the summer of 1940, the place was open for business. Marie originally wanted to name the resort Back of Beyond but settled on Buena Vista (“beautiful view”) as more appropriate.
My mom and aunt grew up working the resort. They’d leave school in Duluth in April, finish the grade in Ely, begin the next grade in Ely, close up the resort in October, and enroll in the Duluth schools until the following April. Then the cycle would repeat itself. All of the antics and heartaches and stories from the girls’ time at Buena Vista are chronicled by my Aunt Susanne in her memoir, “Back of Beyond.”
By the early 1950s, with Barbara’s marriage looming and Susanne entering the College of St. Scholastica, my grandparents decided to sell the resort to pay for a wedding and college.
Over the years, the resort — known also as The Escape and Timberwolf Lodge — managed to stay afloat as a no-nonsense, family-oriented place. The simple cabins built by hardworking Finns formed the cornerstone of a legacy. While working as an arbitrator in Winton, I stayed at Timberwolf Lodge with my three oldest sons and my wife Rene’. When my eldest boy wanted to take a vacation with his family, he chose to stay in one of the original cabins at the resort.
But times have been hard on small, family-operated resorts. So, when I received an email from my daughter-in-law that the resort had been sold again, the news wasn’t earth-shattering. What was surprising — and uplifting and completely in keeping with my grandparents’ vision for Buena Vista — was the new owner’s intention for the place.
It was a YMCA in the Twin Cities that purchased Timberwolf Lodge with the adjacent Northern Lights Resort to create a family camp. The Y needed another facility in northern Minnesota to accommodate families yearning for a connection to wilderness. When I learned about the transition being planned for Buena Vista, it brought tears to my eyes. Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie are smiling! What better use of the original cabins, forested land, and sandy beaches of the old resort than a place for parents and kids to bond with nature? I shot an email to the Y. Niki Geisler emailed me back. She had read “Back of Beyond” and was excited to make contact with the Kobe family.
Niki invited the family to the dedication of the revamped facility, dubbed Camp Northern Lights. It was heartwarming to find out that the camp’s main road is now known as “Kobe Drive,” that the cabins built for my grandparents are now demarcated “Buena Vista,” and that new cabins built by the Y — in a style reminiscent of those built in the ’30s — bear the label “Back of Beyond.”
On May 30, my 90-year-old mother, my 86-year-old aunt, other family members, and I — four generations of Kobes — were guests of honor at the dedication of Camp Northern Lights. As we toured the new facility with Y staff, Mom had tears in her eyes. My aunt, confined to a wheelchair by age and unable to take the tour, smiled broadly when asked to sign copies of “Back of Beyond” for folks visiting with her at the Sisu Lodge.
And as my 7-year-old grandson Adrien stood on a dock, the blue, crystalline, and clear waters of a border-country lake rippling behind him, I knew Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie were happy with the way things turned out.
Mark Munger is an author, a retired district court judge, and the owner of Cloquet River Press (cloquetriverpress.com)