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Image of Tettagouche State Park.

Backwoods Manor

Once the private rustic estate of a mining magnate,
this cluster of cabins in Tettegouche State Park
now serves as a retreat for backcountry travelers.

by Gustave Axelson

If there is such a thing as ghosts, there might have been one standing behind me on the porch of the Tettegouche Camp dining lodge, looking over my shoulder at a pair of loons bobbing on the sun-glistened waters of Mic Mac Lake—the spirit of Clement Quinn, clad in a dinner jacket, holding a martini in a small silver chalice, and smiling.

Backwoods Caretaker

image of Maria Ostman

Watch video clips of Tettegouch Camp's last caretaker speaking about her life on the land that is now Tettegouch State Park.


Mic Mac Pike

image of walleye

Mic Mac Lake is full of big pike, thanks to Maria Ostman. She helped stock them in milk cans in the 1950s. "There were bass in there before, but they got too wormy," she said. "Mr. Quinn, he knew somebody who get us pike. So we put them in the lake."

The lake was very lightly fished during Quinn's years from the 1920s to 1970s. Since it's a walk-in lake, it's lightly fished today. The result is a fishery with good-sized pike—commonly around 4 pounds, occasionally as big as 20 pounds.

"There are no small pike in that lake," says Tettegouche assistant park manager Gary Hoeft. "It's a fun lake."

Quinn was a mining magnate who owned this lakeshore deep in the woods near Finland from the 1920s to the '70s. His cluster of log buildings—a dining lodge and cabins for guests and caretakers—are today a backcountry camp for visitors to the interior of Tettegouche State Park. I was one such visitor last June, a simple hiker who stayed for two nights at the summer residence of a baron of industry, albeit a baron who chose rusticity over opulence.

After checking in and paying my fees at the state park visitor center down by Lake Superior, I drove inland to the trailhead for Tettegouche Camp, stopping off at a cabin outside the park to visit with 84-year-old Maria Ostman, the last of Quinn's caretakers. She appeared at her front stoop as I turned off my car, waving me into her home with a cigarette in her hand. We sat down for a cup of afternoon coffee in her kitchen.

"You good boy. You don't mind if I smoke," she said in the thick accent of her native Croatia. I thought of afternoons as a little boy in my grandma's smoky kitchen 30 years ago.

"My best time in my whole life, I spend it there," she said wistfully. "Mr. Quinn, he was good to me, just like a father to me. … I was free. I used to paddle out in the middle of that lake and just sit there and be happy."

Making Camp.

I bade Ostman adieu after an hourlong coffee break and pulled into the gravel parking lot at the trailhead to Tettegouche Camp. The 1.7-mile trail is nonmotorized, which means visitors must schlep their stuff back to their cabin. In winter, people snowshoe or ski pulling sleds. In warmer months, they backpack, or bike with trailers, or even pull modified golf-bag carts that can haul a cooler. As of 2011, the park rents out two-wheeled carts for hauling gear back to camp.

I brought my own innovation—a bike trailer (usually used for hauling my kids) attached to a broomstick. I reckoned a load weighing as much as my two boys could be easily hauled, so I packed a cooler. I reckoned wrong. As I sweated and strained behind the trailer, pushing it up the initial 300-foot climb, I longed for a backpack and a lighter load.

The sight of camp was as welcome as land to a mariner. I straightened up as I walked into this little community, which looked something like a frontier settlement in the woods. Kids played tag, running circles around log cabins. Two little girls squealed as they reeled in perch on the dock. I chatted with a man and his pregnant wife, a couple getting away before the arrival of their third baby.

In the middle of camp stood a towering old white pine, as tall as a church steeple, a gift left by the lumberjacks two centuries ago. An Alger-Smith Co. logging camp cut this area in the late 1800s (Tettegouche is said to mean retreat in the Algonquin Indian language, a name given by the Alger-Smith loggers who came from Canada's Maritime Provinces). In 1910 a group of 15 Duluth businessmen bought the cutover land and organized the Tettegouche Club "to promote conservation of (the area's) scenic beauty and inherent wilderness qualities while allowing recreational fishing." The club built a small, private resort of log buildings. When it disbanded in 1921, land ownership transferred to one member—Clement K. Quinn.

Quinn owned Tettegouche Camp until 1971, when he sold it to a Duluth family. In 1978 The Nature Conservancy purchased the camp and the surrounding 3,400 acres. A year later the property became Tettegouche State Park. Today about 3,000 people hike back to the camp every year to stay at one of the four semi-rustic cabins. There's no running water, but water can be pumped from a well, and there's a modern shower building nearby. Cabins are equipped with electricity and a woodstove. Kitchens are stocked with stove, fridge, and cookware.

After getting settled in my cabin, which was Maria Ostman's home for 20 years, I rustled up a snack of caraway-seeded cheese and knäckebröd crackers. Thunderclaps rumbled and shook the dishes in the cabinet. A thrashing summer storm was on the approach. I quickly packed up my snack and ran over to the vaulted dining lodge for some company while the storm passed. The lodge is a communal gathering area in today's camp. But there was no community gathering here now, just me, sitting alone at Quinn's massive 16-foot-long, varnished half-log dinner table.

I took a thermos of coffee out to the lodge's screened porch and looked out at the lake. Thunderbolts streaked above the forest ridge to the east across Mic Mac. The air was electric.

Baron's Retreat.

The dining lodge is where Quinn entertained Hollywood stars and business titans for dinner. Maria Ostman heard stories of Gatsbyesque parties in Quinn's youth, but he was a mellow 70-year-old by the time she arrived in spring 1955. Ostman was then a young, single mother who spoke very little English. She had married an American serviceman in Italy, coming to the United States with him for a honeymoon fishing trip in the Boundary Waters. But the honeymoon didn't go well, and she walked out on him—through the woods and into the town of Beaver Bay, where Quinn heard about a Yugoslavian woman looking for work. He hired her over the phone.

While Quinn was at the camp in spring through fall (he wintered at a California ranch), he and Ostman lived by a daily routine. Around 3 p.m. he would stroll down to the dock to wash up at the lake. Ostman would drive into Finland to pick up the mail, the Wall Street Journal, and maybe grab a few groceries. By 4:30, Quinn was ready for his canap?s. She diced up fresh cucumbers and other vegetables from the garden with cheese and arranged them on small slices of bread. She also made him a martini.

"No refrigerator ice for his martini," Ostman had recalled at our coffee conversation. "Only lake ice." She stayed at camp through the winter, so she harvested blocks of ice from Mic Mac. "He would sit out there on that wooden porch with his martini and not say nothing. Just watch his loons."

Around 7 p.m. Quinn put on a dinner jacket and sat down at the big log table. Ostman arrived, wearing her white servant's uniform, to serve supper—perhaps steak or wild game, procured surreptitiously from the woods. Quinn didn't allow hunting in Tettegouche Camp.

"I no supposed to hunt in there," Ostman said, "so on Monday morning when Mr. Quinn going to Duluth (for a weekly trip to his office), Maria took the .410 (shotgun) and went down to the garden and get some partridge."

Sometimes, if Quinn was on the premises and she needed grouse for dinner, she snuck down to the garden to silently pick them off with a slingshot, using taconite pellets he brought back from his mines. "If Mr. Quinn ask me, I say I got partridge down at the Cramer Road."

An observant Catholic, Quinn required fish for Friday dinner, which required Ostman to go fishing. She would troll a Dardevle lure along her secret spot on Mic Mac Lake until a pike bent her pole. Baked pike fillets were commonly on the Friday dinner menu at Tettegouche Camp, but on special nights Ostman made Quinn's favorite meal—fish cakes.

Day Hike.

I boarded one of the aluminum canoes at the Tettegouche Camp boathouse the next morning and trolled a crankbait across Mic Mac, but my pole did not bend. Back in my cabin, I cooked up the kind of breakfast I can only have when I'm alone: scrambled eggs topped with warm sauerkraut and hot mustard and a side of dark-rye toast.

Fueled up and desiring someplace to go, I decided on a hike around the lake. I set off through a dark chute of balsam firs for a couple of miles before ascending to a place called Conservancy Pines on the park map, a stand of old-growth red pines atop the eastern ridge overlooking Mic Mac Lake. According to assistant park manager Gary Hoeft, 19th-century loggers spared the pines because somebody thought this was a special place.

This place was special to Maria Ostman. "I end up by those pines. I clear my thinking. I clear everything," she told me. "You think you're alone in the whole, wide world. … You hear nothing, just the trees and the wind and the pine needles."

The pines were whispering today, weatherworn elders with broken branches and spindly tops. I could see Tettegouche Camp down through the trees. Little people scurried about their business. I closed my eyes and let my ears float up to the swaying boughs.

Another half-mile down the trail and I reached Raven Rock ridge, a rocky terrace with an all-encompassing view of the Baptism River valley and Lake Superior. On the fringe of the rocks, tiny green, three-leaved plants looked like elfin umbrellas. I pulled back one of the leaves and plucked a wild strawberry.

Farther along, the path wrapped around Nipisiquit Lake, where Ostman had a secret walleye hole. On a barren rock, accessed after arduous bushwhacking through a jungle gym of fallen timber, I invested four hours in watching a slip bobber, with only a hammer-handle pike caught and released. Fishless, I trudged up Papasay Ridge in the early evening, the last summit on my way back to camp. The scenic overlook sign didn't interest me at first. But I paused and then turned back. Who knows when I'll be at Papasay Ridge again?

Through my binoculars, in the wetlands below, a cow moose was feeding. At first I wished I were closer, then I appreciated the distance—the opportunity to watch as long as I liked without disturbing her. The moose dipped her mouth into the water, twitched her ears to shoo a cloud of bugs, then raised her bulbous nose and chewed.

I walked back into Tettegouche Camp after nightfall, with no fish on my stringer, but pines, strawberries, and moose in my head.

Last Try for Fish.

I woke up at dawn my last morning to try again for a Mic Mac pike. Digging through my tackle box, I rustled up a red-and-white Dardevle. My canoe glided by Mr. Quinn's loons on the way to Maria's fishing spot. When I reached it, I cast and let the wind and waves be my trolling motor and uncapped a thermos of coffee. On my third cup, the pole bent, and the reel sang that delightful screaming tune of a fish on. A 22-inch pike landed in my net.

For my last camp chore, I cleaned the fish. On my drive out, I pulled into Ostman's driveway again. She appeared at her front stoop as before and excitedly clasped her hands together when I held up my catch. Then I offered it to her.

"Oh boy, Maria have fish for dinner tonight!" she exclaimed. "I think I'll make fish cakes."

  Image of recipe card.

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