Crackling campfires, Technicolor leaves, colossal orange moons, and the heady essence of pine give Labor Day in the north woods its dramatic sensory appeal. On the practical side, crowds are long gone, lakes are the warmest they've been all year, and cooler breezes have sent the mosquitoes to that great picnic in the sky. But the best reason for stealing away to a northern retreat in the waning days of summer is the satisfaction of milking this region's tragically short season for everything it's worth.
ACCESS & RESOURCES
SPIDER LAKE LODGE BED & BREAKFAST INN: doubles, 99;
GET IT WHILE YOU CAN: the season's final flare at Ely, Minnesota's Burntside Lodge
DEERWOOD LODGE, the Midwest's newest rustic-chic retreat, is an ideal place to escape into autumn. The six-suite deluxe log cabin, which opened in July 2003, on northern Lake Michigan's Beaver Island, is 32 miles west of Charlevoix and is accessible only by boat or plane. Expect hand-stitched bed linens, in-room hot tubs with lake views, and fresh whitefish grilled to perfection by a Culinary Institute of Americatrained chef. Beyond the lodge, the 13-by-eight-mile island is thick with white cedar forests where wild turkeys roam and bald eagles roost. It's also pleasantly lacking in paved roads and anybody else.
"Our version of road rage is when someone doesn't wave back when they drive by," says Ken Bruland, a.k.a. Kayak Ken, the island's sea-kayaking guide, who can take you paddling around one of seven islands or snorkeling through shipwrecks off Garden Island, a few miles to the northwest. Drier island pursuits include horseback-riding or mountain-biking a 20-mile trail system, hiking on the lodge's abandoned four-mile rail trail, or playing Scrabble in front of the massive stone fireplace.
If the fly- or ferry-in logistics of Beaver Island sound daunting, BURNTSIDE LODGE, in Ely, Minnesota, offers the classic Boundary Waters experience for fishermen and paddlers. But instead of taking in the shimmering northern lights from a Therm-a-Restenhanced rock, they can watch the show from the veranda of one of 20 impeccably restored 1914-era cottages. There's also a cedar sauna, cappuccino bar, and dining room with an award-winning wine list.
In the self-proclaimed "Musky Capital of the World," Hayward, Wisconsin, three hours northeast of Minneapolis, you'll find SPIDER LAKE LODGE BED & BREAKFAST INN, an 81-year-old resort outfitted with seven guest rooms. A close second to fishing is mountain biking along the nearby wooded Birkebeiner Trail, which hosts the Chequamegon Fat Tire mountain-bike festival the third weekend in September, as well as the famous Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in February.
CANOE BAY is the only development on private, 50-acre Lake Wahdoon near Chetek, Wisconsin, two hours east of Minneapolis. The posh, secluded resort accommodates 19 couplesin four lodge rooms, two inn rooms, and 13 cottages. Take one of the resort's rowboats, kayaks, or canoes out to catch and release largemouth bass and perch, or hike the 280-acre grounds or the nearby 20-mile Chippewa Moraine Ice Age Trail. Back at the resort, there's a fitness facility, in-room massages, and a restaurant with a chef's tasting menu that changes nightly.