Filling every nook and cranny: family vacations at the lake


A pile is forming on the kitchen table. Foil, Ziploc bags, chip clips, and dishcloths. Bug spray, sunblock, camera, and binoculars. Next to the pile lies the “Lake List,” with its checkmarks and highlights. Though the list changes each year to fit our changing family, the annual ritual of packing remains. 

Our family tradition of vacationing at a lake in Minnesota goes back to the 1940s. My mom was a young girl when, at the lake, Grandpa and Grandma taught her the love of fishing and the importance of family. 

If Mom had a “Checklist for the Ideal Husband,” I’m guessing “loves to fish or is willing to learn” was on it. Dad had never fished before he met Mom, but since he had decided he wanted to marry her, he gave fishing a try and was “hooked!” (Ba-dum-bump.) And so the tradition began. 

Every July, my siblings and I filled our bags with all the clothes we needed and belongings we couldn’t live without for two weeks. I’d throw in my Teen Magazines, a cross-stitch project, my autograph book (for the new friends I’d meet), and money for candy, ice cream, and souvenirs.  

It still amazes me that Dad could fit everything for our family of seven into the old canvas car-top carrier and the trunk of our Mercury Marquis. One year, he went ballistic when he discovered my oldest sister had packed her whole collection of 45s, which took up the space of (and probably weighed as much as) a bowling ball. 

“We don’t have room for those! For cryin’ out loud!” This was about as close as Dad came to swearing so we knew to stay out of his way.

“You can’t make me leave them home! My friends will disown me!” My sister clung to her collection, tears streaming down her face.

They yelled back and forth until somehow she convinced him. Since a collection of 45s in the ’70s is akin to the Pokemon card collection of the ’90s and the app collection on the smartphones of today...I guess it’s understandable that she couldn’t possibly leave them behind.

Dad filled every nook and cranny. If there was an empty space, he would stuff it with a shoe or flip-flop. Some years we had to help him by sitting on the trunk lid while he pushed everything in and out of the way, and then with a final “click”, it shut!

Upon arriving at the lake, we quickly unpacked so we could get to some serious playing. For two weeks we filled every spare moment with recreation. We’d fish, swim, ski, paddleboat, and have a blast with our cousins and newfound friends. We’d walk uptown for ice cream, postcards, turtle races, or the bead store. We’d make “Indian bracelets,” buy authentic Minnetonka moccasins, and take our picture next to big Chief Wenonga’s statue. In the evenings, we’d meet up for a raucous game of “Spoons” or “Spit,” and then find the grownups drinking coffee and sharing the day’s fish stories, each one ending in uproarious laughter. 

Chief Wenonga, Battle Lake, MN

Chief Wenonga, Battle Lake, MN

After fourteen glorious days, our minds and hearts were filled to capacity with new memories of our days at the lake. We helped Dad pack the car to the gills again. “Get in the car, kids! It’s time to hit the road!” Dad jingled his keys in his pocket, as I yelled, “Be right back!” I had one more thing to do.

I’m not sure how old I was when I started the ritual, but I couldn't leave without it. I walked to the end of the dock, and gazed out at the blue water. “Goodbye, Lake. See you next year.” 

It was the saddest day of the whole year. I tucked the memory of that moment into the one remaining empty corner of my mind, so I could have it with me always. 


After leaving home and going to college, I still returned to the lake every year if I could. When I was 24, I invited my boyfriend to join us. On my “Ideal Husband” list was: “loves to fish or is willing to learn.” Since he hadn’t really fished before, Tom agreed to come along and try it. I wouldn’t say he was enamored with it that first year, but he was enamored with me, and I with him. And so, when he proposed to me on the shores of a nearby lake, I said “yes!” 

We announced it to the whole gang over coffee, between fish stories, while wearing matching Minnesota sweatshirts. (Those photos look pretty corny now, but hey, we were young and in love!)

Our vacations at the lake continued on and off over the next few years and we introduced our own children, one by one, to life at the lake. We were married for 15 years when the tradition underwent some major changes. A failing resort and neglected accommodations prompted us to look around until we found a new resort on a different lake. We said goodbye to Chief Wenonga, but said hello to Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox. We bid farewell to several old traditions like walks uptown for ice cream and the bead store; but found new ones, like kayaks, sand volleyball, and bike trails to take their place. And of course, the fishing was still good.

Paul Bunyan, Bemidji, MN

Paul Bunyan, Bemidji, MN

“So are we going to make this an annual tradition?” I asked Tom as we packed up the car to head home one year. The kids had all loved everything about the trip, and we knew we might lose our cabin if we didn’t book it for the next year. 

“I think we should try,” he said as he disassembled his fishing rod and reel. “Our sight-seeing trips with the kids have been amazing, but this is more relaxing. I actually don’t feel like I need a vacation from my vacation!” 

In 2005, we made it an annual tradition. Our kids' were 14, 12, 8 and 6. 

As soon as school was out, the countdown to the Lake began. The kids would pack their Pokemon cards, Gameboys, Polly Pockets, dominoes, and other treasures they couldn’t part with for two weeks. Tom would mumble and grumble about how it wasn’t all going to fit. He filled every nook and cranny of the van; flip-flops and shoes in every corner. Somehow, he always finagled a way to shut the liftgate. 


We’ve kept the tradition going along with several other family members. Although it’s relaxing at the lake, we fill every spare moment. We spend our days swimming, tubing, biking, shopping, crafting, and reading. There are no walks uptown, but there’s still ice cream. And usually, there are plenty of fish to catch. At night the kids get a raucous game of Spoons going while the adults drink wine and trade fish stories by the campfire.  

On the final morning of the trip, shortly after the sun rises with its pink and orange hues reflected in the water’s still surface, I walk to the shore. If Tom has gotten everything in the car, he joins me. As we stand hand-in-hand, I say, “Goodbye, Lake. Until we meet again.” It leaves me feeling melancholy, but thankful for the new memories I now carry with me. 



This will be our 15th year at Cass Lake. If you add up all the weeks I’ve spent on summer vacations in Minnesota, it would be almost two years over my lifetime! 

So many traditions remain, while others evolve as our families and the world around us changes. The hardest change is the absence of loved ones who are no longer with us. But we feel blessed as new little ones are added to the family. We watch the “cousin jump” line-up get taller and taller each year, only to start over again with young kids and toddlers with the new crop of cousins. 


When it comes to change, this year is no exception. 

For the first time, none of our kids will be joining us. The oldest is in Texas. The youngest is working for the summer in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. The married one and his wife are having their own “couple vacation.” And the only one that’s left has a summer theater role she can’t get away from. 

On the other hand, my parents can’t make the trip on their own anymore. They need assistance with driving, cooking, keeping an eye on Mom with her memory lapses, and Dad with his balance and walking. And so the four of us will pack our things. Plenty of coloring books and colored pencils for Mom. A new walker and fishing gear for Dad. Books, bikes, and bike gear for Tom and me. I’m hoping it will all fit in the car. 

I look forward to spending time with my sister and two cousins and their families, my parents and my husband; this year’s representation of the bigger, extended family. We’ll bike, kayak, swim, chat, and play games. I guarantee there will be some fishing as well.

It will be different. My heart breaks just a little whenever I think of our kids not being there. It breaks a little more when I realize it may be my parents’ last year at the lake. 

But it will also be the same. We’ll stuff our cars, making sure we have filled every nook and cranny. 

We will lounge and laugh and linger in the sun. We will love the family that’s with us, but not forget those that aren’t. We’ll recall the good times of the past. 

And when I say “goodbye” to the lake, a sense of peace will come alongside my sadness. Peace in knowing I’ve made plenty of new memories, of recollections I’ll never leave behind. 

My heart will be full.