Photo: Courtesy Vermilion Barge & Gravel
“The low water levels from the drought made it hard to get into some places,” Olson said, explaining how he will winch down a couple of 16-foot ramps from the barge to the shoreline. “But I only need two feet of water to float, so basically I can land it anywhere.”
“I’m a service provider,” Olson said, sharing that his first year on the lake as a barger has been off to a strong start. “You can haul so much at one time. It’s just more effective than taking your own boat back and forth with timbers. Or if you were moving, you could just drive the loaded truck right onto the boat. It’s cost effective.”
Welcome to Lake Vermilion, in northern Minnesota, where almost half of the 40,000-acre lake is a wilderness area. The other half is speckled with beautiful and functional year round homes, many of which are not accessible but by water. It’s a dreamy place, with walleye, muskie and pike, tremendous white pine, and sheets of black Canadian shield rock. Much of the lake is inaccessible by car, which has made Vermilion a wilderness area by proxy. In fact, you can leave Lake Vermilion in your canoe, portage your way into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area via the foot trail to Trout Lake, and keep paddling into Canada.
When barges arrived on Vermilion around 25 years ago, remote lakeshore and island cabins (there are 365 islands on the lake) suddenly became more of a reality. Instead of simple hunting shacks made of materials that could reasonably be hauled in by pontoon or driven over winter ice roads, property owners built cozy wilderness homes with flush toilets.
“Vermilion has a unique micro-economy built around supporting the island and water-access only folks,” said Lisa Jancish, a realtor who works out of Tower, MN, a small community on the eastern side of Lake Vermilion. “The big barges make living out there a reality–it really opens up the possibilities.”
Ludlow’s 23-cabin resort is entirely water-access only, meaning he needs multiple septic tanks emptied and demolition bags filled with roofing material transferred to the dump. Ice near his place can be unpredictable, as it is in many parts of the lake.
“There’s a complex of ice roads, but we get this work done between the busy season and ice-up." Ludlow said. "I’m happy not to use my own boats. This is cold water.”