Nor'Wester Lodge is a family tradition on the Gunflint Trail
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- She came to the north woods in 1965 from a little farm town on the prairies of western Minnesota. She was a college kid, and she had taken a job at a resort on Hungry Jack Lake north of Grand Marais.
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL - She came to the north woods in 1965 from a little farm town on the prairies of western Minnesota. She was a college kid, and she had taken a job at a resort on Hungry Jack Lake north of Grand Marais.
Luana Brandt remembers the lanky Swede, Carl Brandt, who came by that summer from his parents' resort on nearby Poplar Lake.
"I think Carl came over to check out the summer help," Luana Brandt said with a grin.
Carl didn't deny that.
"That's what you gotta do up here," he said.
Carl's parents owned a lodge up the Gunflint Trail a few miles. The romance blossomed quickly. Carl and Luana were married on a Saturday in June of 1966.
"By the following Wednesday, I was cooking breakfast for 26," Luana Brandt said. "It was a little crazy."
She and Carl have operated Nor'Wester Lodge and Canoe Outfitters on Poplar Lake since that summer of 1966, taking over for Carl's parents, Carl Sr. and Alis Brandt, who had run the resort since the early 1930s.
On a recent morning, Carl, 78, and Luana, 72, sat in their lodge and reflected on their lives at the resort 30 miles up the Gunflint Trail. Carl's dad and Alis had come up in 1931, during the Great Depression. Carl Sr. had hoped to open a sawmill on Poplar Lake, but that didn't work out. He built a small cabin on his Poplar Lake property. An angler came by one day, looking for a place to stay. He offered Carl Sr. $5 to rent the cabin for a week, Luana said.
"He was in business," she said.
Carl Sr. built more cabins on their land and called their new resort Balsam Grove. Carl and Luana changed the name to Nor'Wester Lodge in 1968. Now it offers 10 cabins, a villa, canoe outfitting and camping.
The property lies on a strip of classic north woods landscape among mature white pines and cedars along the Gunflint Trail. Poplar Lake, chiseled by the glaciers, stretches for three miles, full of arms and islands.
Born in the corner
The Brandts are fixtures on the Trail, among the last of the original families to have operated resorts there. Carl and Luana's personalities complement each other, said Mike Prehatney of Brooklyn Park, Minn., who comes up to the Gunflint several times a winter.
"Carl is a sweetheart of a guy. He'd do anything for you," Prehatney said. "Luana can be a little firecracker. Luana says it like it is. But they get along."
"Both of them are incredibly humble," said Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County. "And Luana is one of the most happy, uplifting people."
Bonnie Schudy, site director of the Chik-Wauk Museum on the Gunflint Trail, has helped clean cabins at Nor'Wester for Luana and Carl.
"They'd insist you have a cup of coffee with them first," Schudy said. "When I first met Carl, he was very quiet. But once you get that coffee going... And his smile is just amazing."
Carl gestured over his shoulder toward the kitchen.
"I was born in the other corner," he said with that smile. "I didn't get far in life."
Keeping the resort humming was hard work. Carl built more cabins, a shop - five buildings in all. Luana is not nostalgic for that first summer, when she did laundry by hand, drawing water from the lake and heating it in a trough over an open fire. She would transfer the water to a washer and two rinse tubs. After washing and rinsing, she'd hang the linens on the line and hope skies remained clear. By the end of summer, she was doing laundry in town.
Guests love Nor'Wester. Years ago, fishing was the big draw, on lakes up and down the Gunflint Trail. Dave Pletscher, 66, of Lake Elmo, Minn., was a teenager when his family first began visiting Nor'Wester in 1968. The extended family - 20 to 25 in all - still comes for a week every summer, 50 years later. Carl, a strapping 6-feet-8, would take the Pletschers on fishing adventures to lakes along the Gunflint Trail, often by canoe and portage trails, Pletscher said.
"We thought of him as a giant," Pletscher said. "We thought of him as super strong. He could bushwhack a canoe and carry it as far as you needed to go, trail or no trail."
Each year, he said, Carl would introduce the Pletscher clan to a new lake.
"It was always kind of an adventure just finding the lake," Pletscher said. "We'd ask him how far it was, and he'd always talk about 'two city blocks.' The problem was, I don't think he'd ever lived in the city. The city blocks on the Gunflint Trail were pretty long."
Though Nor'Wester quit serving meals to guests many years ago, the resort makes an exception for one family each summer - the Pletschers.
The main lodge at Nor'Wester, a log building, remains much as it was when guests gathered there to eat. Windows on the south afford a sweeping view of the lake and its islands. Around the room and adjoining den are taxidermy mounts of deer, elk, pine marten and otters. Old hunting rifles are mounted on the log beams.
Coming north to the boreal forest was a tough transition for Luana, who grew up near Raymond, Minn., where the only tall thing around was the grain elevator. She missed the big sky.
"I'd take a boat out to the middle of the lake and just sit," she said. "I'd get to the point I had to see the horizon."
In more than 50 years at the resort, she and Carl have taken just four summer vacations. One year, they drove down the Gunflint Trail to town, where Luana asked Carl, "Which way?"
"Left," he said, and they drove to Thunder Bay.
"Right," he said, and they drove all the way to Prince Edward Island. To help make ends meet through the years, Luana would teach school in Grand Marais.
The resort business was challenging enough in the good years, but natural events like the 1999 blowdown in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and subsequent major fires along the Gunflint Trail took a toll on tourism. Then the Great Recession hit in 2008.
"It took another eight years before things started to come back," Luana said. "Some places sold out. We struggled."
Tourism along the Trail has rebounded, though, the Brandts said, thanks in part to improved regional tourism marketing efforts.
Tourists used to come mainly for the fishing. But in recent years, the more typical Nor'Wester guests have changed, Luana said.
"The wilderness and the woods have become irrelevant to a portion of the population," Luana said. "In fact, they're almost afraid of it."
Not as many guests fish anymore, she said, and many don't know how.
"People are so used to looking at scenery, they just physically don't do," she said. "They don't walk. They don't paddle. They don't fish. They don't hunt. They're content just to watch the world go by."
Fortunately for the Brandts, Nor'Wester remains a good place to do just that.
While retirement isn't imminent, Carl does plan to spend three months in Alaska this summer, and Luana will go up to be with him for a couple of weeks. One of Carl and Luana's daughters and a grandson will help run the resort this summer.
But retirement, per se, is not in the plan, Luana said.
She looked across the table at her husband.
"Where would he retire to?" Luana said with a nod toward her husband. "I can't imagine him anywhere but here. This is home."
For more information on Nor'Wester Lodge, go to norwesterlodge.com.