Dennis Anderson
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Craig Brown wears many hats, and on a recent day, one suggested he was a plumber, another designated him as a fishing guide, and still another labeled him as a dock boy at the resort that has been in his family 42 years.

The hats are figurative, of course. But the reference underscores the many and varied duties and challenges that confront Brown every day as a northern Minnesota resort owner, especially now that the state's walleye and northern pike seasons have opened.

Brown and his wife, Paige, along with their son, Nathan, and his wife, Tessa (the Browns also have an older son, Matt, a mechanical engineer living in Duluth), operate McArdle's Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish, a major year-round destination for walleye, northern pike, crappie and perch anglers.

With 23 cabins, eight seasonal RV sites, a guest swimming pool and Wi-Fi available throughout the resort's campus, McArdle's is also visited by non-angling vacationers.

"Fishermen make up most of our guests on opening walleye weekend and the days thereafter," Paige Brown said. "But summer vacationers include the whole family. That's why we have a swimming pool and other things for kids to do."

Part of a declining industry in Minnesota — family-owned resorts — McArdle's and other tourist destinations are breathing easier this spring than they were a year ago when the COVID scare gathered steam.

Afraid to leave their homes, many would-be guests at Minnesota's 700-odd resorts canceled their reservations.

"The last time we saw anything like that was 2008," Paige said. "Before then, many of our guests would stay for a week. Then, with the economic troubles, they cut down to long weekends of three or four days."

Anglers and others who prefer Minnesota resort vacations have fewer destinations to choose from than they did a half-century ago.

Minnesota's first resorts were located along early rail lines and later dispersed as the state's road system evolved. Rising incomes after World War II, along with workers' longer vacations, helped fuel a boom among state resorts and related businesses.

But in the past 30 years — roughly the same period Craig and Paige have owned their resort, after buying it from his parents — Minnesota resorts have declined by about 50%.

Some resort owners have sold their property to developers, realizing they could make more money that way than by catering to guests. Others have peddled their resorts cabin by cabin, again realizing significant profits, while seeking less-work-intensive lifestyles.

The resort falloff puts at risk choices Minnesotans and others nationwide have to experience "North Woods" vacations. Also threatened is the family-centered way of life resort owners enjoy — despite the many hats they sometimes wear.

"The average resort owner in Minnesota keeps their business for three years," Paige said. "I grew up cleaning cabins at a resort, so I knew the work involved. And Craig grew up on the resort, with his parents, and he always wanted to get back into it. We had moved out of Minnesota for five years after getting married, but came back to work at and then buy the resort."

Last weekend, with the fishing opener and McArdle's at full capacity, Paige was busy tending to guests' needs, including pizza baking, ice-cream-cone dipping and sore-back massaging.

"When we first bought the business, our dining room was busy, we rented a lot of boats and we ran two launches onto the lake," Paige said. "When guests came in for lunch, they'd make reservations for dinner. Now we don't rent near as many boats as we used to because most people have their own, the launch business is down to one boat, and with more men cooking, most guests prepare their own dinners."

As did many Minnesota vacation businesses, McArdle's actually benefited from the pandemic.

Many people were tired of being cooped up in their homes by midsummer a year ago and wanted to get away. The closing of the Canadian border also drove people to Minnesota campgrounds and resorts.

With Canadian resorts still off-limits to Americans, Minnesota resorts and other vacation destinations are again booking reservations at record or near-record paces.

Which for Craig and Nathan will mean still more hats to wear — in addition to resort maintenance, they both guide anglers onto the 67,000-acre Lake Winnibigoshish — while Paige will be baking more pizzas, dipping more ice cream, cleaning more cabins and massaging more sore backs.

"This is not a job where you punch out at 5 in the afternoon and you're done for the day," Paige said. "Sometimes we go to bed just exhausted, especially now, when it's hard to get help.

"When the boys went to high school in Cass Lake, 18 miles away, they'd get on the bus in the dark and come home in the dark.

"But Craig and I could make time to go to their games and other school activities. We got to raise our own kids, and now we get to watch our granddaughter, Lily — Nathan and Tessa's little girl — grow up.

"I'd do it all over again."