Thirty-five years ago, the gnash of engines and excavators ground across this land. Today, I hear a lone loon call across the water outside my cabin on Armour No. 2 Mine Lake. True North Basecamp’s six rental cabins flank the ridge above the water, with corrugated steel and roofs that resemble mine shafts. Otherwise, nature has reclaimed and reforested what is now the Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area, located 20 minutes northeast of Brainerd, Minnesota.
Photo: Eliesa Johnson
On a sticky summer day, I glide across nearby Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake on a paddleboard. Near the shore, sunfish swirl among submerged birch trees that reach upward like ghostly northern coral. The full protected area covers 25 miles of shoreline between six natural lakes and 15 retired mine pits. Spring water filled the massive dig sites to create blue and green lakes (some up to 450 feet deep) after iron ore mining shut down in the mid-1980s.
Divers, paddlers, anglers and other outdoors-lovers now flock to the water. Mountain bikers cross the country for premiere trails that weave through hardwoods carpeting 200-foot hills that were once barren piles of rock and soil. Cuyuna’s 30-some miles of singletrack loops earned a coveted silver-level Ride Center designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Volunteers groom them even in winter for fat-tire biking in the snow. And a plan is in place to expand the trail network to 60-plus miles.
True North is primed for the growth, adding five permanent canvas cabin tents with cots, bedside power stations and Internet this season. Its original minimalist cabins from 2015 still feel like a splash of luxury after my day on the water. Inside mine, I find crisp air conditioning, plus charging stations and Internet. A mural adds an urban touch. And a shared shower and bathroom building nearby lets me wash off the iron-red dirt speckling my legs and clothing.
The two rejuvenated mining towns of Crosby and Ironton beckon for dinner. Restaurants, bars and gear shops are within a short walk or bike ride via the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail or city streets. Just half a mile from my cabin, Red Raven bike and coffee shop in Crosby rents bikes and serves daily specials, such as deconstructed egg roll rice bowls and a grilled Cuban sandwich. A few blocks away, Cuyuna Brewing Company pours cold beer across the intersection from Iron Range Eatery, where you can get pizzas and lobster salad lettuce wraps.
Back at Truth North, sunset pinkens the silver siding of the cabins, and fires crackle to life. Campers trickle back outside to share the day’s adventures. “There are so many fish everywhere,” says my neighbor Kealy Olson, who spent the day snorkeling and convinces me to swap my paddle for a mask and fins on the next visit. Her scuba-certified husband, Zane, ventured into deeper (and much colder) water, best explored in a wet suit.
Our sore bodies bask in the modern comforts that help us recharge on the periphery of wilderness. Before turning in for the night, the loon calls out from across the now-darkened lake. It feels like a thank-you for letting nature reestablish itself where industry once ruled.
Photos: Eliesa Johnson
• There are plenty of good eats and drinks 5 blocks away in town, so save cooler space for drinks, snacks and maybe a pack of dogs for a fireside dinner.
• Starting at $79, True North’s techy cabins are modern but minimalist. BYO bedding and towels for the four bunked beds (twin- and full-size) and shared bathrooms with showers.