News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Liz Ciancone

June 14, 2011

LIZ CIANCONE: Thinking of happy times and summer vacations

TERRE HAUTE — School is out. The weather is getting warm. Conditions are like they were planning family vacations of my childhood. I find myself wondering whether the wilderness I remember is still wilderness.

Dad was an avid fisherman. Our vacations meant heading north to find a lake suitable for what he called “drowning worms.” For some years we went to a camp near Minacqua, Wisconsin. We bumped over corduroy roads to get far enough into the boondocks to find a lake to suit Dad. We had no electricity, no indoor plumbing and we ate a lot of fish.

One memorable year Dad decided that Minacqua had become too crowded, or too “fished out” or something. So we loaded supplies into the car, put me and Ed and the dog into the back seat and took off for Burntside Lake near Ely, Minnesota — miles from any obvious civilization.

I remember Ely and Burntside Lake with fondness, so one year, when our sons were potty-trained but too young to object to a family vacation, we looked around for a Minnesota camp. Camp Van Vac on Burntside Lake was still there, but we opted for a cabin — with electricity AND indoor plumbing — on Lake Vermilion near Cook, Minnesota.

Given Number One son’s tendency to wander off, we picked a camp on an island. We figured the woods were deep enough for privacy, the lake was near for swimming and there was no chance whatever that the boys would get lost.

Number One and Number Two began wandering off in the early morning to pick wild blueberries from a patch on the west end of the island. They would fetch them back to the cabin and suggest that blueberry pancakes would taste awfully good for breakfast. They certainly did.

We were allowed to use the library in town where the most enormous moose head I have every seen took up most of one wall over the stacks.  My Best Friend is no fisherman (that was a condition of our marriage!), but Number One likes to fish. He could do that from the pier so I was never stranded for hours in a boat as I had been with Dad.

We were close to the Canadian border, so we planned one day to dash over the border to Fort Francis. This involved driving through International Falls. Number Two son learned that former Chicago Bears great, Bronco Nagurski, had a gas station there, so he plotted to have us need fuel so he could get Bronco’s autograph.

We filled our vacation days quietly and happily — and memorably. I’ve wondered whether that island camp is still there and whether the wilderness is still wild — even whether that moose is still in the town library.

I guess it’s the time of year.

Liz Ciancone is a retired Tribune-Star education reporter.  Her columns have appeared on this page for more than 20 years. Send e-mail to

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