Labor Day at the Lake

In Minnesota, “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes” as my license plate boasts, a long weekend means a lot of people will be at “the lake”. Or in the woods. At the cabin or at the farm or in one of our 75 state parks. We Minnesotans have an inside joke that everyone in MN goes “Up North” on a long weekend, “Up North” being two thirds of the state. This weekend is special in particular, because in Minnesota, school doesn’t start until after Labor Day. It’s the last hurrah for the Summer, and since Summer is really only three months of the year, we take it very seriously. During my daughter’s school years, the state decided one year to change the first day of school to one week before Labor Day. The result was that the majority of students missed the first week of school because of a family vacation, a tradition, and the next year they switched it back. Don’t mess with our Summers, man.

We’re going to the lake. “The Lake” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some it’s a second house, a beautiful log cabin with all the amenities or a rustic shack. An old farmhouse, a quant cottage, a camper. For us, it’s camping. We own a tiny slice of lake property that we keep a camper on. We pump our water from a well with a hand pump and boil it for baths and dishes. Our camper is attached to a septic tank- so we don’t need an outhouse, but all of our neighbors have them.

We have a bright yellow raft that floats out in the lake, and a small wooden dock with a fishing boat tied to it. We put a swing in down by the lake and a firepit, and it’s perfect in the summer time when you don’t really need the heat of the fire. We have another fire pit up by the camper, which sits about 100 feet back from the lake. A rocky path through the woods gets you to the lake.

We keep it simple on purpose. We could have a bigger dock, and a bigger boat, and a fancy cabin- but we’re pretty content with minimal maintenance required. We like to spend our time at the lake fishing, swimming, kayaking, ATVing, hiking, etc and keeping it simple keeps the fun vs work ratio on the fun side.

When we vacation for longer than a weekend at the lake, we plan carefully, so that we will be there when minimal neighbors are there. When it’s just us we’ve seen bears and grouse and skunks and fox, right up close. But this weekend is the last hurrah, and it’s a community event. Everyone will be there except the school teachers, of which there are two sets, who usually pull their docks out in August, one couple to return to Alaska and the other because they are too busy with their kids in the Fall to come back before the ice forms.

Having a lake place is like living in a small town. Everyone is always passing around the updates on everyone else- “Ray had another stroke” or “Eric and Carol are retiring” or “Did you see that cabin they built on the hill?” And like a small town, there’s a certain amount of gossip. There has been a divorce or two. Someone’s ex filed a false restraining order, someone saw someone in the woods with another woman and someone said so and so’s marriage is in trouble. Someone’s ex is running around telling lies about him, here’s what I heard…you get the point.

We’re a part time community, but we’re also kind of like family. We look out for each other. Those of us that are there more often, keep an eye on the place for those who aren’t. When Jimmy’s TV antenna got ripped off the side of his cabin because the snow slid off his new steel roof, we called him in Illinois and let him know. When a giant tree fell on our previous camper, the neighbor down the road from us called to tell us. When Bill got trapped by downed trees across his driveway from a very bad storm, another neighbor came over with a chain saw and cut him out. And when multiple break ins happened, there was a community meeting, and even though someone had information about who it might have been- they didn’t say it in the meeting because it’s some teenagers from a family who recently lost their grandpa and grandma, the original owners of the cabin, and we don’t start trouble if we don’t have to. We’re family.

We also share a common love of the lake. We are lucky to be in a bay, the other side designated a National Forest so we have a beautiful view and, when no one else is there, it’s amazingly quiet. I sometimes spend a disproportionate amount of time being amazed by nature.

This weekend, our neighbor on the left, Jimmy, will be up from Illinois, and he’ll probably have his friend Cheesy with him. I think Cheesy might be named John but for as long as I’ve known him he’s been Cheesy, and I have no idea why. Jimmy used to come up with his parents, and then after his dad passed away tragically during a surgery, he’d bring his mom up for one week every month. Sweetest son, ever, he took care of her for as long as he could. He took all the appliances out of her house when she couldn’t remember enough to be safe anymore, and he personally brought her breakfast lunch and dinner every day. Jimmy’s mom passed away last year, and we were all sad. Jimmy has a very nice wife named Sue, and a grand-daughter named Mattie who comes the lake with them often and calls Jimmy “Papa”. Jimmy calls me “Baby girl”, in his Illinois accent that is surprisingly Southern. He calls himself a redneck. He recently retired after spending his entire career working for the city, hard labor and snow plowing until the last years when he was a supervisor. He appreciates Labor Day for it’s original intention.

Jimmy always comes to the lake on Labor Day, and he always stays through the week of 9/11, a timeframe that also includes the anniversary of his father’s death. He comes with Cheesy the first week, and they do a lot work like grading the road, putting up flags, frying five pounds of bacon and drinking a lot of beer and whiskey.

The second week the rest of Jimmy’s friends come. They fish, they drink, they eat, they bullshit, they laugh, they do whatever work Jimmy has lined up for them, and I think they might sleep a little here and there but I’m not positive about that. They catch and clean A LOT of fish. We call them the “Boyz from Illnoyz” and I am the only girl that’s ever been allowed at “Guys Week”. No wives or girlfriends are allowed, but since we live right next door they can’t really ban me and it turns out I’m not so bad to hang around. I am a good beer fetcher and generally in a good mood and I don’t keep them from being guys like guys will be when it’s just guys, although they do apologize for a crude joke from time to time.

Jimmy has some good friends, and though a new guy might come here and there, it’s been the same core guys for a long time. There will be pellet guns and dead squirrels (they are not allowed to shoot in my yard) there will be fish guts burning in the fire non stop, there will be loud snoring that I can hear from my place, and there will be lots of shit-giving and laughter. You can’t help but be a good mood when it’s a non-stop party next door.

On the other side of us are Ray and Kathy. They are retired and their kids are the same age as J and me. Ray likes to sneak over and have a cup of coffee when his wife’s not looking- he’s had heart surgery and a couple of strokes and last year he had pancreatic pre-cancer and surgery and I worry about him a lot and send him get well cards when I know he’s down and out. Ray and Kathy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this past summer. Ray comes over to visit a lot, usually at a terrible time when we’re trying to pack up or go swimming or take a nap, but no matter what we stop what we’re doing and spend time with him. Every winter when we say good bye, I hope we see him again in the Spring. I hug him goodbye almost every time, I can’t help myself. Kathy is very active, very talkative, and we secretly think that’s what keep Ray going after all the medical problems he’s had. She gets after him when he’s supposed to be doing something else and he comes over to our place instead, but she also fusses over him- fixing hair out of place or rubbing his shoulders. They make me smile just to watch them.

We feel pretty lucky to have such fabulous neighbors, because we’re so close to each other in physical location that when we’re all there, it feels like we’re there together. As a result, we know a lot about each other. We know our sleeping habits and favorite meals and fishing spots. We know who fishes where and for what, and when they leave and come back. We know who gets up early and who sleeps in. Jimmy says when I fry bacon on the porch it makes him hungry and he has to go inside and eat, and I know when we sleep in too late, Ray’s waiting patiently for us to wake up so he can mow. (and maybe also for that coffee)

There is the feeling of community, of belonging, of humanity and the goodness in it. We’re a bushel of people in the middle of the woods, and there’s a certain amount of relying on each other that automatically comes with that. There is constant gratitude, to be at the lake and in the beautiful woods. I wake up at the lake feeling lucky, something that doesn’t happen as much when I’m slogging through a work week at home.

And this weekend, we celebrate. Another Summer has come and gone and we were lucky enough to have enjoyed it at the lake.

Hope you’re having a great weekend, also.


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