Long ago, an Ojibwa prophecy said to “follow the sacred megis shell until it leads to a place where food grows on water.” As the Ojibwa tribe migrated from the eastern seaboard, each stopping point was marked by shells pointing in the next direction. Finally, they settled in northeastern Minnesota—where wild rice grows on water.
This triangular section of northeastern Minnesota, bounded by Canada and Lake Superior, is known as the Arrowhead Region. The heavily wooded terrain is interspersed with lakes and streams—typical of Northwoods country. The Bois Forte band of Ojibwa still resides here, growing rice among the towering white pines, wolves, and whitetail deer.
Tower is a tiny town on the southeastern shore of massive Lake Vermillion, with friendly folks who still live in harmony with the land. At roughly 40,000 acres, the lake is the focal point of the community. You’ll find world-class fishing, pleasure boating, and swimming beaches. Museums celebrate the area’s history with Native American exhibits at the Bois Forte Heritage Center, logging displays at the Train Depot, and a unique tour of the Soudan Underground Mine.
Tower Municipal airport (12D) is 59 nm north of Duluth, Minn., and less than a mile north of the town of Tower. The flight in is breathtaking with Lake Vermilion directly north. Farther north is the Boundary Waters Wilderness area. No motorboats are allowed in this pristine area, and P-204 and P-205 prohibit flight below 4,000 feet MSL there, although it should not be a problem unless you are arriving from Canada. Tower is at the northwest corner of the Snoopy MOA that is in effect intermittently above 6,000 feet MSL. Contact Minneapolis Center for status.
Arriving from the south, you’ll see iron-ore mines and vast cedar and black-spruce swamps to the west. Fly traffic patterns to the north, over Lake Vermilion away from town (right traffic for Runway 26). There is little traffic and the atmosphere is informal. There is no charge for tiedowns. Hangar space is limited, but inquire if needed. The unattended “terminal” building is locked, but a small sign with instructions any pilot who just landed can decipher will allow the door to be opened. Inside you’ll find a weather terminal, flight planning facilities, lounge area, and bathroom with shower.
A seaplane base with docking facilities for six floatplanes is off the northwest end of Runway 8 in Hoodoo Bay, within walking distance of the terminal building. The city of Tower owns the airport; call 218-753-4070 in advance for a courtesy car or other questions.
The Ojibwa marveled at the beauty of their big lake and called it “Lake of the Sunset Glow.” When the French arrived in the mid-1600s, they translated that name into Lake Vermilion, a Latin term for reddish-yellow color. By 1670, a French fur-trading port was established on Lake Vermilion. Rivers flowing into and out of the lake, such as Mud Creek and Vermilion River, linked Lake Vermilion to Lake Superior and ultimately to the Hudson Bay (via the Great Lakes and their tributaries). This water route, used extensively by fur traders and other voyagers, outlined the Canadian border.
By the early 1800s, the area of present-day Tower was considered Canadian Territory, while the area of present-day Cook, to the west, on the southwestern shore of Lake Vermilion, was American. But in 1842, after years of arguing about the vague border definitions, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty finally defined the border and the entire Arrowhead region became American. Twenty years later, gold deposits were found along the lake, leading to the first attempts at crude roads into the area. Mining began, but after limited success, prospectors abandoned their efforts.
By this time, iron-ore was also discovered. Minnesota’s famous “Iron Range” started in nearby Soudan’s iron mine. It opened in 1884, making it the oldest mine in the state. As a direct result of the mining industry, the village of Tower was incorporated the same year. It was named after mining and railroad magnate Charlemagne Tower, and immigrants from all over the world settled there to make their fortunes. Tower’s main street flourished with patrons visiting rowdy saloons and busy stores.
The booming mining industry continued until the early 1960s. During its operation, the Soudan mine produced over 17.9 million tons of ore. But, larger overseas operations led to its closing in 1962. A state park was created on-site, and today, visitors enjoy the park, along with numerous other recreational opportunities. A variety of lodges, restaurants, marinas, and other services support the tourism industry. The Ojibwa still play a prominent role, too. They own a resort, casino and golf course, as well as harvesting rice from area waters and selling it nationwide.
As the gateway to gorgeous Lake Vermilion, Tower attracts large numbers of visitors. Highways 1 and 169 run east-west through town, and most businesses are either there or on the shores of the lake. Public transportation options are limited (see Transportation) but many resorts are “all-inclusive,” with meals, boat rental, and shuttle service. Since most activities are on the water, renting a boat is more important than an automobile.
Late spring through autumn are lovely seasons. Mid-summer highs hold in the low 80s, and there is always a lake breeze. Winters are nice, too, if you like cold temperatures. On Feb. 2, 1996, Tower set the Minnesota record for coldest temperature when the mercury plunged to -60° F.
During the open water season, boating and fishing are high on everyone’s list. With 1,200 miles of shoreline, there are a lot of spots to hit. How do you know where the fish are? Hire a guide on your first day to make the rest of your trip successful. A complete listing can be found online. Most guides furnish equipment and instruction, so reservations are highly recommended. To chase the king of freshwater fish, the muskellunge (musky), give Northland Muskie Adventures a call. With four of the area’s top muskie guides, they’ll take you out on the lake and get you on a monster muskie. To protect this important fishery, it’s all catch and release, but the huge fish fight all the way to the boat and offer big thrills to the fisherman. These guides are very patient with beginners and have decades of experience in professional guiding, seminars, and tournaments. All equipment is provided if you need it; bring fishing license, polarized sunglasses, and lunch, half-day $250, full day $400 (one or two people). Bob Benson (715-642-2607) lives in Tower year-round; his partners Pete Brzezinski (715-574-1813) and Adam LaPorte and Dustin Carlson (218-464-2379) guide at lakes all around the area.
If walleye is your game, try Terry Sjoberg. He’s affable, has fished these waters for many years, and can put your family onto some rod-bending action. He’s also one of the few guides that still offers a traditional shore lunch on a nearby island ($100 extra). If you’ve never eaten freshly caught walleye, you are truly missing out. For two people, half-day trips are $275, six hours $325, full-day $375, equipment provided if needed, 218-753-2612.
There are large, rock reefs just below the surface, so Lake Vermilion must be navigated carefully. Purchase a lake map, fishing license, or tackle at the Shamrock Marina. Shamrock Marina Rentals also has rental powerboats rigged up with trolling motors, sonar, and GPS. You’ll be able to cruise the water enjoying the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and trying to find the lake’s 365 islands. The boats are powerful enough for skiing or tubing. The 17-foot Crestliner Fish Hawk, outfitted with a 75-hp Mercury Optimax engine, rents for $200 per day or $1,000 per week. The 18-foot Skeeter has a 175-hp Yamaha and runs $300 per day or $1,500 per week. Open daily 7 a.m.–9 p.m. (May–Labor Day), hours vary the rest of the year, 4553 Bradley Rd., 218-753-8001.
Vermilion Boat Rentals also rents pontoon or motorboats. But if silent sports are more your thing, they’ll rent you a canoe or kayak instead so you can explore the numerous back country creeks scattered around the lake. Bring your camera; some of the best wildlife viewing is in these marshy areas. Enjoy watching mergansers guarding their brood and herons stalking their next meal. Call ahead to arrange pick-up; canoes or kayaks $20 per day, $100 per week, pontoon boats $175–$250 per day or $800–$1,050 per week, powerboats 60–115 hp $100–$250 per day or $400–$1,050 per week, open May 15–Oct 1, Birch Point, 218-410-0025. Fortune Bay’s marina in Everett Bay, Aronson Boat Works in Pike Bay, and Shamrock Marina in Blackduck Bay all offer gas. A list of places that rent watercraft can be found online.
Neither rain, sleet, snow, nor waves keeps the mailboat from making the rounds on the lake. Patrons are welcome to join the daily mailboat excursions that have operated since the 1920s. Listen as current captains tell tales of years gone by, when they also delivered lumber, livestock, and groceries. It really is delightful distributing the mail at island homes. During the 1940s, a fellow had a pet woodchuck that would jump into the boat; now you’ll be greeted by the wagging tails of golden retrievers. The 80-mile boat ride takes around three hours in the modern, 21-foot motorboat, departures from the dock at Aronson’s Marina around 9 a.m., $10–$18, Mon–Sat. (Jun–Labor Day), 6143 Pike Bay Drive, 218-753-4190.
If golf is more to your liking, you’re in luck. Open since 2004, The Wilderness Golf Course in the Fortune Bay Resort complex has already received numerous awards for outstanding service and design. Each hole is isolated; you don’t see the other holes or other golfers. The tree-lined, signature hole No. 13 is challenging with a narrow fairway. Many golfers find out just how cold the water is. The hole is on the lakeshore, and ospreys diving after their piscine prey are a common sight.
Owned by the Bois Forte Heritage Center, the emphasis on living in harmony with nature is evident. Outstanding vistas of granite ridges, ledge rocks, and dense woodlands surround the grounds. Audubon International has certified the area as a cooperative sanctuary with its water conservation and chemical reducing features. The on-site Wilderness Grill is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (see Where to Eat). Greens fees are $71–$99 for 18 holes, open end of May–Oct, 1450 Bois Forte Rd., 218-753-8917.
Interactive exhibits at the nearby Bois Forte Heritage Center on the grounds of the Fortune Bay Resort, relate the story of the Ojibwa tribe and how logging and mining have impacted the tribe over the years. A trading post displays Native American wares, such as animal pelts and things they were traded for, namely tobacco, knives, beads, and rick-rack (clothing ribbons and adornments). Elders were commissioned to build the birch-bark canoes and waaginogaans (lodges made out of bent-tree saplings, birch, and cedar bark) at the center. They invited young people to help so they could learn how to do it. Bois Forte tribe artists’ works adorn the walls, and the spirituality wall is a solemn reflection of how integral offering thanks and prayers to the Earth are. Their Anishinabe language and music is celebrated on CDs available at the gift shop. Admission is $3–$5, Mon–Fri 9 a.m.–5 p.m., 1500 Bois Forte Rd., 218-753-6017.
Old iron mines are rarely preserved, but the Soudan Underground Mine State Park is. The Historic Underground Mine Tour illustrates the days of small-scale mining when the surrounding Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges supported the area with high-grade iron-ore output. Participants journey 2,231 feet down in a “cage” (mining elevator). On the bottom level, transportation shifts to a rail car for a realistic view of the miners’ world. On the mile-long train ride, docents relay the stories of the old iron men. You’ll marvel at the work they achieved with primitive tools and old techniques. Check out the antique ironworks and machinery in the engine house upstairs, and outside, stroll the 0.3-mile looped boardwalk past the 300-foot-deep open mine pit. Another half-mile hiking trail, headquartered at the visitor’s center, leads to banded gray and red rock iron formations curving and twisting into highly unusual shapes. Keep your eyes open for birds, as up to 140 species have been noted here. At the mine’s entrance, it is not unusual to see a merlin grabbing bats in mid-air. The tour lasts 1.5 hours and is 50° F year round, so bring a jacket and sturdy shoes. You can also take the High Energy Physics Lab Tour and follow the path of physicists from around the world as you journey a half-mile underground. Discover how physicists are trying to find the elusive particles called dark matter, which may comprise most of the universe but hasn’t yet been verified. You’ll see their high-tech lab, tours $7–$12, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. (Memorial Day–September), 1379 Stuntz Bay Rd., Soudan (two miles east of Tower), (218) 753-2245, reservations 866-857-2757.
The Chamber of Commerce can suggest lodging from rustic cabins and campgrounds to luxurious vacation homes. Their office shares headquarters with Tower’s Train Depot; while there, check out the retired steam locomotive and exhibits. The chamber is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (Memorial Day–Labor Day), 404 Pine St., 218-753-8909.
The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa-owned Fortune Bay Resort has everything, including a convention center, several restaurants, lively casino, golf course, marina, and museum. No vehicle is needed here, since everything is within an easy five-minute walk from the main lodge. Basic deluxe rooms, as well as luxury suites with amenities like kitchenettes, fireplaces, and jacuzzis are available. Clean, simple lines decorate the entire complex, and the oversized windows exhibit grandiose views of the outdoors. Kids love the huge indoor swimming pool and game room. Fishing and pontoon boats rentals are $75–$250 per day, and a well-maintained marina provides docking, fuel, and electricity. Paddleboats are $40, hydro bikes and mountain bikes are $30, while canoes and boat launching are free to registered guests. Float planes are welcome to tie up to the dock. Arrange shuttle service when making reservations, rooms $69–$350, 1430 Bois Forte Rd., 218-753-6400 or 800-992-7529.
Floating homes from Vermilion Houseboats come with dishes, cooking utensils, and pillows/pillowcases. Linen packages are available, or bring your own. Some feature water slides, wet bars, and even hot tubs. The company is pilot-friendly and can provide airport shuttle service and powerboat rentals to tow behind and use for transportation on the lake. Food packages (where they do the shopping and you do the cooking) are also available. Breakfasts consist of eggs, sausage and bacon, pancake mix, and cereals. Lunch includes hamburgers, hotdogs, soup, and sandwiches. At dinner, you’ll be stocked with steak, chicken, pork chops, and all the side dishes; prices vary according to your food preferences. Houseboat rentals are $1,500–$6,200 weekly; discounts of 10%–20% apply on either side of peak season, which runs July through mid-August. Fishing boats rent for $60–$90 per night, fishing/ski boats rent for $150–$200 per night. Pets are welcome on some houseboats, open May–Sep, 9482 Angus Rd., 218-753-3548 or 800-262-8706.
For the ultimate in “up North” pampering, book a cabin at Ludlow’s Island Resort on a private island on the west side of the lake. It has been family hosted for 75 years, and all cabins offer wood-burning fireplaces, decks, and screen porches. All are within 50 feet of the water. For the ultimate Northwoods fantasy, stay in the Dreamcatcher, a 4-story all-wood cabin with balconies and roof, surrounded by trees, that will make you think of a modern treehouse, $600 per night or $3,900 per week for two people, additional people $10–$60 per night. Check out the massive beams, cathedral ceilings, native stone fireplaces, and cedar woodwork interiors throughout the resort. Daily newspapers and firewood are delivered to your cabin. Children’s videos, Wi-Fi, and large screen TVs are in the lodge’s rec room. Your stay includes unlimited use of non-motorized boats, even a gorgeous cedar strip rowboat circa 1890! A short shuttle boat ride takes you to the mainland where you can play racquetball and tennis at the fitness center, and kids have their own playhouse. There are also a few cabins on the mainland (pets are only allowed there with an extra fee). Complimentary vehicles are offered to pilots needing to run into town for groceries or sightseeing. Just mention the need prior to your arrival, and they’ll have a vehicle waiting at the airport. Float planes may tie up directly to their dock. Power boats are also available for rent. Cabins run $200–$700, free airport shuttle (by car or boat), open May–Oct, 218-666-5407 or 877-583-5697.
The majority of dining options comprise homestyle comfort food. If you’re staying at a cabin, shop for groceries at Zup’s Food Market at 315 Main St., 218-753-2725.
Fortune Bay Resort complex offers six dining options, all accessible by car, boat, or floatplane. The Bay Street Grill in the casino offers basic sandwiches, pizza, and appetizers, open Mon–Thu 7 a.m.–2 a.m., Fri–Sat 24 hours, closing Sun at 2 a.m. Roomy booths add to the casual atmosphere at the Tamarack Buffet, directly behind the hotel lobby. Row after row of choices greet you for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner, with prime rib on Fridays and Saturdays. Breakfast is $7, served Mon–Fri 7–10:30 a.m. and Sat–Sun 7–9:30 a.m. Brunch is $12 and served Sat–Sun 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Lunch is $9 and served Mon–Fri 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Dinner is served 4–10 p.m. and costs $16 on Mon, Wed, Thu, and Sun. Tue seafood dinner is $24 and Fri–Sat is Prime Rib, $23, 218-753-6400. In the resort’s golf course clubhouse, the expansive Wilderness Grill allows you to watch the action on the 10th and 18th holes. Weather permitting, the outside patio is a great place for lunch. The steak sandwich topped with Swiss and onions is delicious, $14. Dinner entrées are as close to gourmet as you’ll find here: ribeye or filet, walleye, ribs, Japanese-style salmon or ahi tuna, $17–$32, open 7:30 a.m.–9 p.m. (Apr–Oct), 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m. (early Jun–early Sep), 1450 Bois Forte Rd., 218-753-8917.
You’ll rub elbows with the locals at Good Ol’ Days Bar and Grill downtown. Originally opened in 1893 as Skala’s Tavern, the present-day diner still salutes its heritage. Original, molded-tin ceilings, a 1934 back bar and cash register, and vintage signs crowd the joint. Breakfast is done up big with a half-pound rib eye, eggs, hash browns or American Fries, and toast. Or try some Midwest blueberries on top of fluffy pancakes, with choice of ham or bacon. Basic sandwiches, pizzas, and burgers are served at lunch and dinner. Fish Fry Fridays, Live Polka on the first Saturday of the month, live bands some weekends, and a jukebox and dart board all keep things lively. Entrées run $6–$14, open daily 6 a.m.–1 a.m., 314 Main St., 218-753-6097.
If you brought a float plane to Vermilion Lake, it’s a 10-minute flight to Crane Lake where you can dock at Nelson’s Resort. Otherwise, it’s a 45-minute drive, but it’s so scenic, it’s a popular option. Family operated since 1931, the resort is famous for its ambience and delicious food. A nightly fire and candlelight reflects off the antique copper kettles and teapots hanging everywhere. The soft glow, coupled with piano music, sets a romantic mood. Try the juicy rib eye steak complete with potato, soup and salad, veggies, and bread. The Nelsons offer harvests from their own garden—savoy cabbage, asparagus, kale, and other hearty, cold-weather vegetables. After dinner, head to the bar for a nightcap before the return flight home; Midwesterners pour the perfect Brandy Old-Fashioned high ball. Entrées range $14–$27, open 6:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. (May–Oct), 7632 Nelson Rd., Crane Lake, 218-993-2295 or 800-433-0743.
Tower is the proverbial one-horse town. Public transportation is virtually non-existent, but the airport does offer complimentary use of a courtesy van, three-day maximum, 218-753-4070. Most resorts also offer shuttle services. Renting a powerboat is probably your best bet (see What to Do). It will take you directly from your resort’s dock to many restaurants and the Fortune Bay complex.
Visiting Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region provides pilots with extraordinary memories of wetting fishing lines, cruising the waters, and listening to the serene sounds of wildlife. Savor home-cooked meals at local diners and kick back in cozy lodgings. Scenic waterscapes and warm, Midwestern hospitality abound. Experience the magnificence of the Ojibwa’s Lake of the Sunset Glow.