Monday, September 26, 2011

She terrified me, I admit it

In 1971, I was bit ... rootless, I guess you could say. I was in college, but I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a miserable fall semester, then I decided to drop out. I returned home to my parents house for three agonizing months, then I got a job for the summer at a remote resort in northern Minnesota. I was hired to start work before 'the season', so I got there in early April and it was expected I would stay through summer, leaving on Labor Day.

Let me hasten to say: I had worked at resorts before, every summer, so I had a sense of what to expect. However, a resort in Northern Minnesota is not like a resort in Michigan or Wisconsin, which cater to Chicago city folks. The Gunflint Lodge was far more rustic, far more remote, and far more ... fish-oriented than I was accustomed to. I had no idea what I was getting in for.

It was a long trek to get there: a bus to the Twin Cities, then another bus to Grand Marais, then I met a taciturn and grizzled lodge employee who drove me (and supplies) over the rutted 50 miles of road. Keep in mind: this was 40 years ago -- the lodge, the road, the entire area was not as civilized as it is today. Most resort-goers came in by plane, landing on the lake. And most resort-goers were fishermen, who came in for a week, went out with a guide, and came back to the lodge the night before they returned to 'civilization.'

There was a misunderstanding (maybe) about my job duties. I thought I'd been hired to work the front desk (a job I had done in other resorts). Instead I found out I was hired to be a maid, cook's helper, and all-around gopher. I did not pack clothes for such an adventure, so the one pair of jeans I brought (stylish jeans, I might add), quickly got 'broken in'. I was housed in a barracks (where other summer workers would stay, once they arrived) and I was told to be wary of bears if I went to the outhouse in the middle of the night.

I could roll with those punches. I could handle dark woods, no television, no radio. I even learned to gut a fish. I waited tables, slung supplies, learned to pack a knapsack, and cleaned cabins. But the owner of the resort, Justine Kerfoot, was someone who totally confused me. Why would someone spend their entire life in the wilderness? She was brusque, and curt, and rough. She was also absolute master of the lodge and her word was law. I didn't like her. I saw her hard-fisted ways as being dictatorial. She seemed to intimidate every woman there (all 5 of us) and most of the men.

I lasted 2 months then I quit, hitchhiking home after the ice went out on the lake in late May. I stayed until a regular crew came in to handle the summer crowd, and I split. It wasn't until years and years later that I realized why she bothered me so much. I had never been in a situation where one's life depends on quick thinking and hard choices. Justine had grown up with that -- life in the BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) was a matter of survival in the decades prior to the 1980s. They frequently were snowed in for months at a time, they had to rely on themselves for survival, and life was hard.

Now I go North every year for a vacation, not to Gunflint (that place does not hold fond memories for me), but to a spot nearby. In fact, as you read this, we are traveling to the resort for our annual getaway (so apologies if I don't reply to comments: there's spotty Internet access for me for the next few days).

I appreciate the solitude in the comfort of a nice cabin, provided for me by lodge owners (Ludlow's Resort). I appreciate the solitude and the wilderness and the work that goes into maintaining such a pristine environment. I didn't appreciate Justine then, but I think I do appreciate her now. She was a tough lady in a tough land during a tough time.

More power to her...


Barbara Edwards said...

What a lovely tribute to a tough lady. She sounds like one of our pioneer ancestors.
Thanks for sharing.

Jannine Gallant said...

Justine sounds like quite a character, and what a great setting for one of your books. How about "Backwoods, Big Bears, and Brusque Broads" for a title. LOL

Have a great vacation, JL.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Wouldn't it be great if she read your blog!

Vonnie Davis said...

My mother always scared me. That's why I never did anything wrong until I moved out and was on my own. Interesting blog. In all honesty, you probably lasted longer than I would have. Thanks for sharing.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great blog JL. The wildneress you speak of sounds awesome. Your boss does sound like a bit of a dictator, but like you say she had to be tough to survive in such a harsh environment.