It’s pouring rain outside, a comforting sound as a sit snuggled on the couch. Every so often a clap of lighting sounds, causing Daisy to jump up and shakily reposition herself against me after a quick turn. I always feel guilty when she doesn’t get her quota of outdoor time on days like this, though she did spend yesterday herding me in a golf cart. Let me explain.
Mary is 80 years young and wears bright turquoise eye shadow and pink lipstick with her sweatshirt and jeans. She and her shih tzu Gabriel greet me in a golf cart in front of her house.
We’re at South Bay on Gull Rock, a camp that Mary and her first husband built from the ground up 40 years ago. He was a TV and radio personality for NBC, and she worked for a film company in Chicago. His professional name was Gregg Donovan, but to her he was Grant Hopperstad.
The year was 1963, and Mary was in Grant’s plane flying to Red Lake for a fishing trip with Wed Howard, the original Marlboro man. Her future-husband frequently flew his plane up to Red Lake for fishing trips until he got it in his mind to quit the bizz and start up a camp on the lake he loved so dearly.
After six years of applying for land, the couple finally secured 600 feet on the shore of Red Lake. Together Mary and Grant cleared trees; built a road, garage, home, office, and fish cleaning building; filled in swamps; put in culverts and a septic system; and brought in a power line.
"Grant and I had to cut down every blooming tree. I had to learn how to run a chainsaw,” said Mary as we buzzed around the camp in her golf cart, dogs running behind us.
Though the transition from a career in the film industry to hard manual labor might have seemed difficult, Mary said it didn’t faze her. I tried to picture myself learning how to cut down giant pine trees and construct cabins.
“You never give it a thought. You just do it,” she said, matter-of-factly.
In 1975, South Bay on Gull Rock had its first guests, but just one year later Grant passed away.
“The loss of this wonderful man—my husband, advisor, friend—was overwhelming,” she said. “Our dreams together were gone, and I had nowhere to go.”
I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed hearing this. I focused on petting Gabriel who was now sitting between my feet in the golf cart. In those years when she was alone, Mary threw herself into the camp trying to make ends meet, relying on businesses in town for credit when things got tight.
But disaster struck again.
A forest fire started in the dry summer heat by a cigarette decimated the region, forcing the evacuation of 4,000 people for eight days and destroying 136,000 acres of land—including much of South Bay on Gull Rock. Once again Mary picked up the pieces and started anew. Cutting, burning, clearing, rebuilding, planting; she did it all.
“Love did enter my life again,” she told me, before stopping to point out the pink and purple lupins growing freely on the hill down to the lake.
It came in the form on an English musician named Harry who came to Red Lake to set up a music program. Together they built cabins on the camp and travelled during the off-season. They enjoyed 25 happy years together.
In 2003, Harry was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and given three to five years to live. The doctor told them that it was the abdominal breathing he learned from playing the bassoon that allowed him to live a normal life for so long. Harry passed away in 2008.
“The only part of my life where I felt secure and comforted was South Bay,” said Mary. “I live in the beautiful home that Grant and I built, and Harry and I remodeled to accommodate his wheel chair. I look out on a beautiful view that I share with beautiful folks all summer.”
This year South Bay on Gull Rock celebrated 40 years of business. Forty years filled with highs and lows, fresh starts and devastating setbacks. Mary took me into her house and showed me a scrapbook that her guests—ones who came here as children and now bring their own children—created for her.
“People are happy here,” she said, flipping through the pages. “The fishing is great and the camp is beautiful. Happy people make me happy.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.