Up North at the Cabin

Jenn Radtke, along with her daughter Linnea and husband Ross.

I’m a recent transplant to Minnesota, and I’ve heard that folks around here really love going “up north to the cabin.” This past weekend, we were invited up to my Dad’s cousin’s cabin on Crooked Lake near Brainerd, and I finally got to experience what going “up north to the cabin” is all about.

On Friday morning, my husband and I packed up our car and our one-year-old to make the pilgrimage ourselves for the first time. During the two hour drive along farm fields and then winding along Lake Mille Lacs, I wondered what I would find when we arrived since I teach people about shoreline plantings and their benefit to water quality for a living. Would their property have turf mown to the edge and an eroding shoreline? Or would it be more natural, preventing erosion and eliminating the need for mowing and fertilizer? Would there be green algae forming along the docks from this hot, July weather?

After two hours of driving, we found ourselves on a short, dirt road in a heavily wooded area. We pulled up to the cabin, which didn’t look all that different from any other house, and took in the greenery and cooler, fresh air. I first noticed rocks instead of a paved driveway, which allow water to soak into the ground right where it falls, and instead of turf there was moss and an almost whimsical forest of ferns which reminded me fondly of my previous home in Western Washington.

A native shoreline planting installed with help from the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District.

As we were welcomed inside, I saw trees on all sides with deeply-rooted native grasses helping to stabilize the steep slope down to the water. As we changed into our swim suits and walked down the wooden platform to the dock, I was pleasantly surprised to see only a small area cleared for a hammock, bench and a fire pit, all just behind a shoreline planting of Minnesota hardy native plants, which act as a filter for whatever the rain water and snowmelt carry down the hill and into the lake. As I stepped on the dock, I saw no algae whatsoever. Instead, there was just clear, beautiful water, which I did not hesitate at all to jump into with my daughter. She loved splashing in the water and squishing the sand in between her toes and watching the minnows dart in between our legs.

Later, we took the pontoon out to the middle of the lake so that we could swim in a deeper part free of the natural, lake vegetation and I was amazed to see my feet easily as I treaded water. Apparently the water was clear to a depth of nearly 16 feet! From the middle of this lake, I could see that many folks, like our cousins, had taken advantage of shoreline restoration grants from Crow Wing County because half of the lakefront properties had shoreline plantings. The properties with just turf and rip rap were the exception, and the quality of the water in this lake made evident the benefit that the natural shoreline plantings provide. Cousin Bonnie even showed me the willow wattles they made to prevent erosion from wave action, and talked about how they want to do more to protect the lake.

Moonrise over Crooked Lake

As the day turned to evening, a nearly full moon rose over the lake. I heard a loon sing her beautiful Minnesota song, which was immeasurably more pleasant than the honks and squawks of Canada geese, and something clicked in my mind. This is why Minnesotans love going to their cabins.

A little closer to home, here in Washington County, many folks love the lakes they live and play on. You too can create a beautiful, natural shoreline planting at your home or cabin that requires no mowing, watering or fertilizer and protects the water quality in the lake where you call home. The Washington Conservation District offers free site visits and design advice, and our local watershed management organizations have cost-share grants for shoreline projects as well. To learn more, call 651-275-1136 x35 or visit www.mnwcd.org/cleanwater.

Jenn Radtke is an educator for East Metro Water. Contact her at 651-275-1136 x.44 or jradtke@mnwcd.org.