Lake Vermilion - A Challenging Body of Water

By STEVEN MERRITT

Published: Friday, August 23, 2002 3:00 AM CDTMesabi Daily News

LAKE VERMILION -- The rocky shores of this sprawling lake have attracted families for generations. For some, the secluded bays and coves provided the ultimate retreat -- an escape that only a cabin could offer. For others, earning a living from the lake either as an area merchant or resort owner has been a source of family pride -- a tradition passed on to younger generations.Like the ebb and flow of a lake that is constantly changing, so too is the way of life for many who derive their livelihood from it. Fishing -- and fishermen -- have changed. So has the profile of the average resort guest.

And for two men who pay the bills on businesses tied to the lake and all it offers, life on Vermilion creates its own challenges. Being prepared -- and looking ahead -- is essential.

The Vermilion Dam Lodge is historically one of the lake's first resorts, originally called Hunter's Lodge in the early 1900s. Guests reached Tower by rail, boarded a boat that went as far as the Oak Narrows before finally taking a canoe to the lodge. In those days, creating a wilderness experience wasn't difficult. Today, new owner Ed Tausk said the lodge and its surroundings can offer a wilderness setting while also providing the amenities that most resort guests seek.

Tausk is living a dream that was well researched. A former Northwest Airlines manager, he and his wife Julie along with partner George Wronowski studied the resort market and wrote several business plans before buying the property three years ago. The main lodge structure itself was the old Buyck City Hall. It was quickly renovated, and upgrades to the lodge's 15 cabins are ongoing.

"I've wanted to do this all my life," Tausk said. "You have to enjoy the work and taking care of people. Plus, we have young kids and are happy with the school system. I want to raise my kids in a setting like this."

Unlike many lodges that run on a May through September schedule, Tausk said to make his business viable, Vermilion Lodge has to be marketed as a four-season destination.

"You have to go after four seasons worth of business," Tausk said. "We can't rely on the traditional summer business -- we have to change hats every season."

He said the bulk of his summer guests are families, with more than half coming from the Twin Cities. He added that around 40 percent come from the Chicago area. In the fall, the lodge sees more hunters and fishermen while the winter brings in traditional winter enthusiasts like snowmobilers and skiers.

Tausk said the typical profile of his summer clients are families "who want the wilderness experience," but also involve "moms that want the dishwashers and microwaves."

"Twenty years ago you went two hours from The Cities to Brainerd -- there was more wilderness there," Tausk said. "That is changing. There are more manicured lawns now. Vermilion is different. We still have wilderness and people say they don't mind the drive. Now we are even getting people from Brainerd."

Tausk added the lodge also tries to offer daily activities like canoe trips, naturalist programs and movie nights to involve all family members.

The formula seems to be working. Tausk said the lodge had a 100 percent occupancy rate last summer and this year doubled its business in May.

"We have a lot of repeat customers," he said. "People are happy with the service."

Vermilion's popularity as a premier destination for walleye and musky fishing hasn't hurt business either.

"The variety of this lake is such an asset," Tausk said. "You truly have everything here, the beauty of a Canadian Shield lake along with strong fish populations. The lake is also being managed well."

Down a dusty county road a few miles away, Rocky Gillson sank back onto a well-worn couch and reflected on his life in the resort business. Gillson, who has owned the Life of Riley Resort for 21 years, said the best change that he has seen has been in the fishing.

"The number and size of the walleye, the growing musky population and bigger and more numbers of northerns all have made this a great lake," Gillson said. "They (the fisheries managers) do a tremendous job."

Gillson also pointed to generational changes in fishermen.

"Sure there's more catch and release now, but 20 years ago, we usually saw three generations of male fishermen -- grandpa, dad and son," Gillson said. "Grandpa wanted to catch everything to eat it. Son wanted to enjoy the trip and show his son what grandpa had taught him. And son usually played with the bait and wondered where the water skis were."

Gillson said Life of Riley has always been a summer fishing resort and camp, but he added that today he is seeing more fishing families.

"It's not just gas, bait and ice for the beer anymore," Gillson said. "You have to provide other means of entertainment. Today we have canoes, paddleboats, sailboats and all the things that go with it."

Gillson said other amenities like microwaves were added to cabins over time, but added that he has drawn the line on televisions as well as telephones.

"There are no TVs and no telephones in our cabins because there is no need to have them here," Gillson said. "It has gone very well and people are appreciative. They listen to the radio, play board games and cards and just spend time together. I'm not about to hook up cable."

Gillson said running a resort is not the glamorous life some outside the business paint it to be, but after 20 years, he still looks forward to each new day.

"I still enjoy it," he said. "It has been a great 20 years. But it seemed to be easier back then. Maybe we were young and dumb, but if you had fresh bait, gas, ice, good food and a place to sleep, you were in the resort business. Now we are more of a full-service operation."

And what about all that fishing he gets to do as a resort owner?

"I haven't been on the water in two years," Gillson said. "But I get the opportunity to like my job and to work outdoors. I get to stick my hand down a toilet and pull dirty diapers from underneath a bed. But I get to do all those nasty things in the forest."