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Seeking the old North Shore

On Minnesota's beloved vacation spot, change is coming fast.

For sale signs in Grand Marais, MN

© Beth Gauper

On the northeast tip of Minnesota is a coastline of uncommon beauty, lined by sheer basalt cliffs, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers rushing into Lake Superior through narrow, winding gorges.

This is where Minnesotans go to breathe.

Since 1924, when the first highway opened, the North Shore has been a refuge for city folk tired of congestion, for farmers tired of flat fields, for blue-collar workers tired of the grind.

It didn't cost much to come up for a week, rent a little cabin and breathe deeply of air laced with the fragrance of cedar, pine and freshwater waves.

Today, the air is just the same. It's everything else that's different.

Money has found the North Shore, the kind of money that isn't happy with a small resort cabin. The people with money want a big house or a condo on land of their own.

It's a natural impulse if you love something, buy it.

Unfortunately, there's a lot more money than there is North Shore, and luxurious new condos and villas are using land where mom-and-pop resorts and motels once provided vacations for hundreds of middle-class families.

It makes me wonder: If the wealthy buy up the North Shore for themselves, where will the rest of us go?

For sale

It's hard to know what to think, driving up the North Shore. It's for sale, that's for sure. There are signs everywhere, using the language of suburbia: For Sale Prime Lake Superior Lot. Distinctive Golf Course Homes. Spectacular Lakeshore View.

Other than that, it looks about the same the more expensive the house, the more likely it is to be tucked into the trees, unseen by anyone except kayakers on the Lake Superior Water Trail.

But hundreds of new units are planned, and now they're moving across the highway and up the hillside.

The housing crash of 2008 quashed much of the development.  But by the end of 2012, building activity was on the upswing again.

On Memorial Day weekend, at the height of the boom, we went up to stay at one of the last family resorts and see what was left of the old shore.

The 1927 Cascade Lodge sits alongside the Cascade River.

© Beth Gauper

The 1927 Cascade Lodge is a North Shore landmark.

Thanks to long-ago donor Chester Congdon, the first 11 miles of shoreline out of Duluth remain undeveloped, though the city finally managed to put in a marina that Congdon's heirs fought.

Big Blaze campground is now the Larsmont Cottages, a 40-unit vacation condo development. But Tom's Logging Camp and Russ Kendall's Fish House, longtime purveyors of souvenirs and smoked salmon, still were there.

You never know. In Two Harbors, we stopped by Lighthouse Point to check the gorgeous Sonju Trail.

In 2002, after the city failed to buy the Agate Bay waterfront from the railroad, Roseville developer Sam Cave bought everything, except the land on which the 1891 working lighthouse and 1910 depot sit.

The trail is still there. The deflated market for housing slowed Cave's plans; to settle his many lawsuits, the city agreed to let him build four condominiums and five condo-hotels.

As we walked past the lighthouse, now surrounded by chain-link fence, we wondered why this beautiful point wasn't preserved.

"We still get calls from citizens asking us to help," said Bob McGillivray of the Trust for Public Land, who said the trust raised money to help the city buy the land back in 2003 but then was told it wasn't needed.

Six miles east of Two Harbors, we passed the old Halcyon Harbor Resort, which was sold in 2004 and subdivided.

It had a swinging staircase down to a pebble beach, and its 1930s Cliff House, which hung partly over the lake and entertained such guests as Sinclair Lewis and Milton Berle, was a North Shore landmark.

As we passed Gooseberry Falls, we saw new sections of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail; eventually, the paved trail will be 86 miles, between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. Not only will it be a lot of fun for bicyclists, but it also may ease a bit of highway congestion.

But amid construction to widen the highway past Silver Bay, we saw the empty site of Northern Exposure, my husband's favorite campground.

"It was fairly inexpensive, and the guy was really cool," he said. "It had a nice cove and a little cliff, and he had a hiking path so people could walk down and watch the moon rise."

In Little Marais, we passed Fenstad's, one of the great old family-owned resorts. When we saw the sign for Surfside Resort near Tofte, we pulled in to look at the property, which was beautiful, with tall firs, wildflowers in the grass and a lichen-covered rock shoreline.

Mark and Beth Petrowske of Cottage Grove were there at the 1928 log cabin they'd bought for $4,500, getting it ready to move 11 miles to a lot across from Sugarloaf Cove scientific and natural area.

The Sonju Trail in Two Harbors.

© Beth Gauper

In Two Harbors, the Sonju Trail crosses Lighthouse Point.

"These historic cabins are going by the wayside; it's sad," said Beth Petrowske. "It's heartbreaking, really."

Now it's the Surfside on Superior spa resort, part of the Bluefin Bay resort family. Bluefin Bay bought the resort from its retired owner so it could build 26 units, sold in quarter-shares, says general manager Dennis Rysdahl.

"Anything else new up here is half a million, which prices the vast majority out of the market," he says. "This allows people of more modest means to buy in."

Along with Lutsen's Sea Villas, Bluefin Bay was one of the first condo resorts on the North Shore when it opened in 1984.

When I'd pass it on my way to my own little rented cabin amid the trees, I would look at its treeless rows of identical units squeezed between the highway and the lake and wonder, "Why would anyone want to stay there?"

But Rysdahl and his partner were onto something. It turned out that quite a few people valued such amenities as hot tubs and fireplaces more than the space and trees around an old resort cabin.

As the world became more "wound-up and crazy," Rysdahl says, a lot of people just wanted to sit indoors and look at the lake.

It's still not my cup of tea, but now I look at Bluefin Bay in a kindlier way. It gives its guests a lot to do if they want, and an average person still can afford to stay there, even if it's midweek in a studio unit.

And it leaves a small footprint, unlike a single vacation home that takes up two acres of lakefront and is used for three weeks a year by owners who pay taxes but put nothing else into the local economy.

The good old days

There aren't many traditional resorts left, but one of them is only three miles away.

"I don't know how many times last year I was asked, 'When are you guys going to cash in?'" said Jan Horak, who bought Cobblestone Cabins for $53,000 in 1973 and assumes he could get something close to the $3 million his neighbor got for the Surfside site.

But Horak, a retired teacher who runs the 1926 resort with his wife, Kathy, says he's keeping it and expects to pass it on to one of their three children.

"I'm going to hang onto the property and see what happens, so you can come back here in 30 years and still put up your feet in front of the fire and read a book," Horak said. "We should be here, with a little luck. I'm never gonna get rich, but, by God, I'm going into the woods today, and then I'm going fishing."

In Tofte, Bluefin Bay sits right on Lake Superior.

© Beth Gauper

Bluefin Bay was the first condo-style resort when it opened in 1984.

His eight pine-paneled cabins don't have phones or TVs, and he doesn't plan to install any, though the resort association to which he belongs keeps harping that he should, warning he'll be "obsolete like the dinosaurs."

Instead, his guests hike, canoe, fish, make campfires, play on the cobblestone beach and relax in the big, wood-fired sauna that sits next to the lake on a picturesque cove.

Business is good "There are still a lot of people who want a resort like it was 40, 50, 60, even 70 years ago," he says but he and Kathy have their worries, like everyone else on the shore.

The highway is becoming congested, and developers had planned 32 homes on the bedrock hillside across from his resort, using septic mounds that he fears will fail and pollute his well, not to mention the lake.

"You wonder what's happening," he says. "The developers are moving in like vultures. It's so sad; we're just losing the old quaintness."

Up the road at Cascade Lodge, Michael O'Phelan feels much the same way. Until 2003, the St. Paul engineer worked at Guidant, helping develop its defibrillator.

Then, he decided he couldn't sit at a desk one day longer and bought the 1927 landmark that adjoins Cascade River State Park.

With his wife, Maureen, and their four children, he's now putting in 14-hour days running the resort and restaurant. And when the owners of a nearby resort retired, he bought that, too.

"I've been coming up all my life, and the North Shore always has been important to me," O'Phelan said. "We're watching these resorts disappear, and we just love the shore and these old cabins.

"We're getting more and more customers coming in saying, 'Geez, I hope you don't sell this place.' I don't see why we would; I consider it a privilege."

A cabin of the old Surf Side Resort.

© Beth Gauper

Cabins of the old Surf Side Resort were typical of the North Shore simple, but right on the lake.

Still, it's not easy pleasing today's tourist, though his rooms do have phones and TVs.

"It's a mixed bag," he said. "Some people just don't want that and want them removed, and other people call at 10:30 p.m. and want me to come immediately with batteries for their remote," he said.

Many of the lodge rooms and cabins also have whirlpools and fireplaces, but there's no pool, so some people think it's rustic.

"People come in and say, 'This is not what we expected,' " O'Phelan says. "But maybe they'll hike the quarter mile to the Cascade River that's a big hike these days and they'll come back and say, 'Wow, this is beautiful.'

"Once they get outside and see everything, they're old North Shore people again. It's fun."

We stayed in Cabin 1, one of the original 1923 log cabins, which was charming and had a wood-burning fireplace. But next time, we'll stay across the path at Cabin 11. If people are looking for romance, they should try staying in a log cabin reached by its own wooden bridge high above a waterfall.

"We rent a lot to honeymooners, and they keep coming back," O'Phelan says.

We spent half a day hiking the eight miles up one side of the Cascade River and down the other, a rugged but lovely up-and-down trek that took us through magnificent stands of old cedar and past abundant wildflowers.

Then, we went into Grand Marais to see what was new there.

Jan Horak of Cobblestone Cabins.

© Beth Gauper

Jan Horak's Cobblestone Cabins are for "characters and common folk.''

Unsettling time

First, we stopped at Joynes Ben Franklin so I could buy warm slippers for my husband, a belated birthday present I couldn't find in Twin Cities stores. Joynes has a full selection of slippers in fleece, leather, suede and sheepskin year-round.

"This is the North Pole," joked salesman Bill Wissman. "Just last week, I sold a pair of kids' Sorels."

The store, open since 1941, is one of my favorite places in the whole state; you can find almost anything you need in the overstuffed but tidy aisles. But Wissman and fellow worker Elaine Bly worry it's too down-home for the increasingly affluent tourists.

"You hate to see these condos going in," Bly said. "They're not the kind of people who are going to come into Joynes Ben Franklin Department Store."

They shop, though. Sivertson Gallery, whose store has an affluent vibe, was packed. Of course, so was Sven and Ole's pizza joint, now flanked by four T-shirt and gift shops, and the World's Best Donuts was doing a brisk business, too.

For locals, it's an unsettling time. The luxury Cobblestone Cove Villas went up next to the Lake Superior Trading Post on the harbor before many residents knew they were coming.

The beloved white-frame East Bay Hotel has become the East Bay Suites, a box sheathed in synthetic orange siding and blue molding. Once, backpackers and BWCA paddlers crashed there after their trips; now, its sleek two-bedroom condos are out of reach for people on a budget.

And across from the new Harbor Park, the old Sea Wall Motel was slated to become the Harbor House, another vacation condo with units starting at $400,000.

These are big numbers for Grand Marais, founded by trappers, loggers and fishermen.

Cobblestone Cove villas on the Grand Marais beach.

© Beth Gauper

In Grand Marais, Cobblestone Cove Villas were built on the stretch of beach between downtown and Artists Point.

Next to the old Sea Wall, Carol and Ted Backlund were living behind a giant sign that read "This View for Sale." They were asking $525,000 for their two-level home overlooking the harbor, and they say they don't care if it's torn down and made into condos.

"Why can't we upgrade a little?" said Carol Backlund, a third-generation Grand Marais resident like her husband. "It could be nice and quiet and still be a little more futuristic."

She was against change, she said, until she lived in Burnsville for a while.

"I liked Burnsville," Backlund said. "It had parks, trees, everything you want. Everyone's going to Lutsen, where they have condos. People like condos."

And people who can't afford to buy or rent one, she says, can get the same view in the municipal campground.

On the way home, we stopped at the tourism desk inside the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte. As we were chatting with Bill Wehseler, his father, Henry, brought him lunch.

The elder Wehseler, who ran the North Shore Market across the highway, said it did not bother him that family resorts are disappearing.

"When the old people die, it's gone," he said. "It doesn't bother me, because the world is full of change. The world is so big, you can always find what you need."

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if, like the proverbial frog sitting in slowly boiled water, the North Shore won't know enough to jump out before developers strip away all its charm.

I wondered if, in 30 years, people who live in quieter parts of the state will worry about becoming "just like the North Shore" as they now worry about becoming "just like Brainerd."

But on that early-summer day, everything looked glorious on the North Shore. The waves were crashing, the cobblestone beaches were glistening and the air smelled of cedar bark and pine needles, that powerful eau de outdoors that pulls city folk so irresistibly northward.

Still, I'm glad I knew it back when.

The new Surfside resort near Tofte.

© Beth Gauper

Modern townhomes face the lake at the new Surfside on Superior resort near Tofte.

Trip Tips: The old North Shore

Planning a trip: For an overview, see Escape to Minnesota's North Shore.

For a mile-by-mile guide to the highlights, from Duluth's Canal Park at 0.0 to the Canadian border at 151.5, see North Shore by the mile.

Traditional resorts: There are still small family resorts on the North Shore that have clean, tidy and updated cabins on lovely shorelines.

For more, see Where to stay on Minnesota's North Shore.

Among the traditional resorts:

Cobblestone Cabins in Tofte has eight cabins.

Lutsen Resort has a lovely 1952 lodge plus villas, cabins and townhomes.

Koeneke Shoredge in Lutsen has three cabins, plus a small cabin without hot running water.

Cascade Lodge, between Lutsen and Grand Marais, has cabins, lodge rooms, motel units and a house. The resort faces the lake, but it's on the other side of the highway. 

Grand Marais has many mom-and-pop motels.

Naniboujou, 14 miles east of Grand Marais, is a striking 1929 lakeshore lodge across from Judge C.R. Magney State Park, with simple but attractive rooms.

More on the North Shore

For more about Duluth, see Duluth 101.

For more about Two Harbors, see Discovering Two Harbors.

For more about the area around Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse, see The near North Shore.

For more about Grand Marais, see Four seasons of Grand Marais.

For more about Grand Portage, see Life on the Grand Portage.

Last updated on December 8, 2015