Gunflint Trail—Mink Lake is familiar to many—a haven for trout fishing, or as a favorite swimming hole and canoeing spot just far enough out of town; a small taste of the Boundary Waters and gem of the Superior National Forest. It is also home to Mink Lake Wilderness Camp, Coldwater Foundation’s new center for leadership development.
A year ago, Coldwater was planning and facilitating remote wilderness experiences from a repurposed fish house on director Kevin Sutton’s property and a church basement.
“We knew we needed to move from only doing isolated experiences to having a school for leadership and outdoor ministry,” executive director of Coldwater Kevin Sutton said. “We had this relationship with Mink Lake. We had been invited to use it, helped in the caretaking of it. At the same time we realized it was a good fit for us and Trout Lake Camp was realizing that it was no longer a good fit for them.”
Eventually, the preservation of the camp and Coldwater’s need for a more permanent place to grow a wilderness ministry spurred on conversations. Trout Lake Camp invited Coldwater to purchase the camp, and the lease transfer was official in May 2015.
Mink Lake Wilderness Camp is nestled among a vibrant forest variety—maple, black and mountain ash, cedar, birch, poplar, white and red pine trees. The lodge, trip locker, office cabin and prayer chapel are still in solid standing since they were first built in the 1970s. Five 12-bunk cabins, a classroom, sauna, wash and shower houses and ropes course have been added over the years. The camp was established by the Baptist General Conference under the ownership and management of Trout Lake Camps.
With a superior location and well-maintained facilities, the Camp provides rich ground for Coldwater to cultivate their vision.
“Mink Lake Wilderness Camp was given as a true place apart, and our ministry depends on that kind of place,” Sutton said. “If one of our values is reflection and part of reflection is stillness and silence and solitude, we need a wilderness base camp that invites students to take a break from all the voices and noises of contemporary culture.”
Coldwater Foundation for Leadership and Community Development exists to empower young leaders, to instill in its participants a leadership for life. Coldwater is founded on the principles of Christian faith and believes in the intrinsic value of experiential education and the power of the wilderness to transform people.
“I’m always quoting T.S. Eliot,” Sutton said, “’We had the experience but missed the meaning.’ The importance of not just what we know but what we do with what we know, how it ripples and has an impact.” Coldwater’s educational philosophy is rooted in four core values—challenge, reflection, community and transfer of learning.
“At every level of involvement with Coldwater, a young person will be asked to provide input,” Sutton said, “to be involved and participate in the solving of a problem or improving our situation. At every stage there is an opportunity to lead.”
The organization’s hope is for their students to leave an experience transformed, to understand the importance of virtue and good moral character.
“What does the world need from young people?” Sutton said. “We know that there is a high expectation to have knowledge, but because everything is changing so fast, there has to be some kind of equipping of young people to grow in their self-efficacy and confidence to learn new things. All of that knowledge base is subject to virtue.”
Coldwater has found the wilderness to be a suitable classroom for this teaching and training.
“There is a sense of accomplishment when you have completed a portage that was really challenging and you didn’t think you could do it,” Sutton said, “or carried a canoe by yourself.”
Grand Marais resident and Coldwater board member Glenn Larsen has experienced the formative power of the wilderness and recalls his time at Mink Lake Wilderness Camp as a young boy in the 1950s.
“It was a transformative period of my life,” Larsen said, “and I fell in love with the outdoors, the wilderness, the vigorous lifestyle. It was a catalyst for me.”
For Jody Nonnemacher, Grand Marais resident and Coldwater affiliate, remembering her time at Mink Lake as a camp counselor in the 1970s is nostalgic.
“We pulled into Mink Lake on this beautiful fall day in 2014,” Nonnemacher said, “and I was really surprised by how emotional it was for me. There’s something so powerful in the peace of the place and the history of it, as well as knowing that there’s been care and looking toward the future of it.”
Care and stewardship of wilderness spaces are driving factors in Coldwater’s curriculum.
From Coldwater’s and Mink Lake Wilderness Camp’s beginnings, the wilderness has been sacred ground. Whether a tool for teaching and growing or a retreat for rest and reflection, the baton of intentional preservation of this special, wild place has been firmly passed and received.—Linden Figgie