Turtles, Eagles & Bears - Oh My!

It all started the with a last-minute snafu that had the potential to cancel altogether a vacation that was a year in the making... Fortunately, there were other plans that were apparently in the cards for us and, with a bit of scrambling, an alternate destination was able to be input and we headed out of town on time and anticipating some well deserved downtime.

Chetak Lake

The first leg of our journey included a trip to a small lake just to the east and north of a city with which my wife and I are both familiar: Rice Lake, Wisconsin. A long weekend last fall included a "look-around" there -- just to see what was in the vicinity. We have on numerous occasions enjoyed dinner at several local restaurants but, except for a very nice golf course that we discovered (Butternut Hills, on Long Lake) three years ago, our familiarity with distances beyond five miles or so has been limited... at least until we checked out Big Lake Chetak. Often confused with Chetek -- spelled with an 'e' and located south of Rice Lake, Chetak -- spelled with an 'a' -- is located about 15-20 miles north and east of Rice Lake.

Fred Thomas Resort

We were looking that day for public water access and new lakes to try.  The bad news was that the one public launch on the east side of Chetak -- it was not easy to find -- was being reconstructed by the DNR; I was happy that I hadn't dragged my boat with me on that particular day!  The good news was that, in circling the rest of the lake, we happened upon a really nice resort about which I had been curious .  I had seen the name "Fred Thomas Resort" " pop up on several Google searches I had done, and now that we were right in front of the place, we decided to check it out.

Covered dock at Fred Thomas Resort

Long story short: we were very impressed (and you know what is said about first impressions...) by how well taken care of the grounds were.  And although we did not have an opportunity to look inside any of the cottages, an impromptu interview with a guest convinced us that the cottages were as well-maintained as everything else we saw. A launch area/ramp for resort guests, along with a covered dock area was an added bonus that I liked.  After returning home and discussing the possibilities, we decided to book a cottage for the next spring.

Loons on Lake Chetak

Bottom line?  It was an excellent vacation!  The owners were really great people, the cottages were extremely clean and well-maintained, we fished, we ate fish and we relaxed.  We enjoyed watching an abundance of wildlife: Great Blue and Little Green Herons, eagles -- lots of them, ospreys, loons, beavers, plenty of painted and snapping turtles -- huge snapping turtles -- and bears (I actually got an unintended close-up view of a mom and two cubs...). 

It was the first time on vacation that our car remained in the exact same spot for the entire week -- we never ventured out anywhere -- and that was good.  It was more fun on this particular occasion to just park ourselves in one spot.  We did, by the way, rebook for next year, and I am already looking forward to the trip!

The next leg of our journey took us north and west into Minnesota. Our destination was the town of Walker and Leech Lake; we had rented a house there that turned out to be less than fifty feet from the lake. The house was one of several units that were originally intended as a sort of private condominium complex. Located just a couple of miles north of Walker, and now privately owned, the "cottages" are part of Shores of Leech Lake marina, resort and RV park. It was definitely larger than we needed, but included was a covered boat slip and access to many other amenities. Lots of great dining was also available in and around Walker as well. (One great example was Chase on the Lake.)

Marina at Leech Lake

The lake itself is gigantic -- at 112, 835 acres, much bigger than I had realized -- and, if the wind is in the right direction, sometimes difficult to navigate...  On one of the windier days, we decided to do some exploring.  One of our discoveries was located about fifteen miles to the north and west of our cottage: Forestedge Winery.  It is a small, boutique winery that featured wines made from fruit like rhubarb that is grown onsite, as well as other fruit purchased from local growers, like chokecherries, apples, black currents, plums and white cranberries.

The owner was friendly and conversed easily, curious about our home state, itinerary and destinations. Proud of his wares, he allowed us to taste numerous wines; confident I'm sure, that we would end up buying some. We did. These were much less sweet -- and much better tasting -- than many of the fruit wines that we have sampled (the sweetest being from the Amana Colonies in Iowa). We ended up purchasing a bottle of rhubarb wine (dry and pleasant), one of white or "early" cranberry (semi-dry and easily drinkable) and one of black current (dry and akin to a cabernet... almost).

Forestedge Winery

Upon our return, we noticed that Leech Lake still displayed sizeable whitecaps and I was in no mood for battling the wind and waves.  Some tasty appetizers from Benson's Eating and Drinking Emporium the day before and friendly conversation with the bartender had also yielded the name of an entrepreneur: Greg Smith.  Like many who prefer a hand-crafted brew, Greg started his own brewing 17 years ago at home.  His passion became his obsession and, when the economy turned south, Greg cashed in his 401k and headed north -- so to speak.  He perfected his recipes and voila: Leech Lake Brewing Company was born.

Leech Lake Brewing Co.

We located the microbrewery (whose beer we had sampled at Benson's) at the edge of town and had a nice visit there, sampling the craft brews and enjoying some conversation with Greg.  My personal favorite was the Loon's Eye Red (an Irish-style ale), but there were a total of seven to sample; don't take my word for it, visit the brewery and see for yourself!  Unfortunately, you won't find the brews too far from Walker... at least for now.  But who knows?

Sampling beer at Leech Lake Brewing Co.

We had a lot of fun at Leech Lake; I liked being able to revisit Bemidji, Itasca State Park and see the things that had changed and those that hadn't. (Read more about our time at Itasca State Park) The side trips were interesting and fun; we took time to relax (and even dined out more than we usually do -- that added to the relaxation); we fished and we ate fish (a personal "must" for me...) We did not see as much wildlife as we did in Wisconsin, but then again we were closer to a large town.

There were still bald eagles and loons, herons and an occasional deer. It really didn't matter much, though. Both legs of the vacation were rewarding in their own ways and, if I had to choose between the Wisconsin and Minnesota portions, I don't think I could do it. Both destinations were great for different reasons; I'm just glad that everything worked out for the best and that we returned home safely and well-rested.