My grandfather and grandmother, Jack and Marie Kobe, shared a vision. Jack, a Slovenian immigrant, and Marie, a school teacher born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, somehow managed to find each other. Jack grew up the son of an immigrant miner and a miner himself. When Jack wasn’t working (he was employed in a local open-pit mine at age 14), his loves were hunting and fishing. With Grandpa’s connections to the railroads, he’d hop an ore train, jump off at a favorite lake or hunting spot, and catch a train back to Aurora at days’ end. In his early twenties, Jack and his brothers built a hunting shack on the shoreline of Wynne Lake (near present-day Giant’s Ridge) proving Grandpa also knew how to swing a hammer.

Susanne Kobe Schuler, author of Back of Beyond

            Grandma Marie taught school in Aurora. She’d been lured to northeastern Minnesota by its lakes and beauty—her romantic, poet’s heart having been steeped in Service and Longfellow and summers spent with her family at resorts in northern Wisconsin. As a girl and a young woman, she dreamed of a camp surrounded by birches and pines. She met Jack on a tour of his mine. Sparks flew and they were married. Work required that the Kobe’s resettle in Duluth but Marie’s dream of having a place in the woods never abated. In 1939, after giving birth to daughters Barbara and Susanne, Marie found her Shangri-La. She and Jack purchased 160 acres of cutover land on Bear Island Lake near Ely and set about building a resort. It was to be a working man’s place: affordable, rustic, tidy, and clean. Because Jack worked as a salesman for Berwind Coal, he hired Finnish carpenters to build cabins, a fish-cleaning house, an ice house, and a small store. By the summer of 1940, the place was open for business. Marie originally wanted to name the resort “Back of Beyond” but settled on “Buena Vista” (Beautiful View) as being more appropriate.

From Left to Right: Unknown girl, Susanne, Barb, and Lizette Barber

            My mom and aunt grew up working the resort. They’d leave school in Duluth in April, finish the grade in Ely, begin the next grade in Ely, close up the resort in October, and enroll in the Duluth schools until the following April, when the cycle would repeat itself. All of the antics and heartaches and stories from the girls’ time at Buena Vista are chronicled by my Aunt Susanne in her memoir Back of Beyond. By the early ‘50s, with Barbara’s marriage looming and Susanne entering St. Scholastica, my grandparents decided to sell the resort to pay for a wedding and college.

            Over the years the resort, known as The Escape, and Timberwolf Lodge, managed to stay afloat as a no nonsense, family-oriented place.  The simple cabins built by hard-working Finns formed the cornerstone of a legacy. While working as an arbitrator in Winton, I stayed at Timberwolf Lodge with my three oldest sons and my wife, Rene’. When my eldest boy wanted to take a vacation with his family, he chose to stay in one of the original cabins at the resort. But times have been hard on small, family operated resorts. So, when I received an email from my daughter-in-law that the resort had been sold again, the news wasn’t earth shattering. What was surprising, and uplifting, and completely in keeping with my grandparents’ vision for Buena Vista is the new owner’s intentions for the place.

            The Twin Cities YMCA purchased Timberwolf Lodge (and the adjacent Northern Lights Resort) to create a family camp. The Y needed another facility in northern Minnesota to accommodate families yearning for a connection to wilderness. When I learned about the transition being planned for Buena Vista, it brought tears to my eyes. Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie are smiling! What better use of the original cabins, forested land, and sandy beaches of the old resort than a place for parents and kids to bond with nature? I shot an email to the Y. Niki Geisler emailed me back. She’d read Back of Beyond and was excited to make contact with the Kobe family. Niki invited the family to the dedication of the revamped facility, dubbed Camp Northern Lights. It was heartwarming to find out that the camp’s main road is now known as “Kobe Drive”, that the cabins built for my grandparents are now demarcated “Buena Vista”, and that new cabins built by the Y—in a style reminiscent of those built in the ‘30’s—bear the label “Back of Beyond”.

            On May 30th, my 90-year-old-mother, my 86 -year-old-aunt, myself, and other family members—four generations of Kobe’s—were guests of honor at the dedication of Camp Northern Lights. As we toured the new facility with Y staff, Mom had tears in her eyes. My aunt, confined to a wheelchair by age and unable to take the tour, smiled broadly when asked to sign copies of Back of Beyond for folks visiting with her at the Sisu Lodge.

And as my seven-year-old grandson, Adrien, stood on a dock, the blue, crystalline, and clear waters of a border country lake rippling behind him, I knew Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie were happy with the way things turned out.

(c) Mark Munger, 2019

An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

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