Though much of the country is still trapped in winter's deep freeze, with a pandemic threatening, scores of vacationers from Minnesota and beyond have already booked summer getaways.
Last year at this time, because of the emerging pandemic, many Minnesota resort owners worried their next phone call would be from their banker, not prospective customers.
The concern was warranted. Canada had closed its borders, which restricted travel through Minnesota, and Tim Walz, among other governors, was urging people to stay in or near their homes.
"For us, the bottom fell out in April last year," said Katy Ebel, owner of Ebel's Voyageur Houseboats on Lake Kabetogama, along the Minnesota-Ontario border. "We took 65 cancellations that month."
But business turned around for Ebel and many other state tourist operators, some of whom had their best summer ever in 2020.
About June 1, Ebel said, prospective clients began calling. The adventure of piloting a houseboat in Voyageurs National Park was a primary attraction, Ebel said, as was the social distancing that naturally accompanies houseboat travel by families or other small groups.
"By July 4 I had booked 150 new customers," she said.
Dougherty's Rainy Lake Houseboats and Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats on Rainy Lake also had banner summers last year and are expecting even more bookings this summer.
"Last weekend alone we took 22 reservations," Billy Dougherty said, and Justin Odle, manager of Voyagaire, said customers from as far away as Alaska rented houseboats last summer.
Many land-based Minnesota tourist operators also had great summers in 2020. Most still have openings for this summer. But based on early bookings, they expect record or near-record years. Here's a sampling:
• Little Boy Resort and Campground on Little Boy Lake near Longville: "We had our best summer ever last year," said Nancy Loren, who with her husband, Troy, owns the resort. "We opened May 1 last year. We were totally full for the fishing opener and by June 1 were full for the summer."
Most years, Nancy said, the resort has 83% rebookings. For this summer, it's 90%.
• Lost Acres Resort and Campground on the Cass Lake chain: With nine cabins, six overnight camping sites and 41 seasonal campsites, owner Zack Mahaffey said 2020 was a good summer for his resort.
"This summer looks even better," he said. "Canada being closed definitely helped us. Also, a lot of people who came to our resort who otherwise would have gone to Canada rebooked this year. They were worried Canada might not open up this year, either.''
• Appeldoorn's Sunset Bay Resort, Mille Lacs: "Last summer was shocking," said General Manager Ethan Rogers. "It was far busier than we anticipated. We're not far from the Twin Cities and it seemed many people were looking for a place to go that wasn't too far away."
Appeldoorn's has 47 rental units, split between cabins and lodge rooms, virtually all of which were booked last summer. Its customers fish, golf or both. A significant part of the operation is built around its restaurant and events, such as weddings, and those parts of the business took a hit, Rogers said.
"In a typical year we'll do about 20 weddings," he said. "Last year with the restraints on group sizes and so forth, we did maybe seven, and they were downsized. We hope that portion of the business comes back. There's been some good news regarding capacity limits. Time will tell."
• Paradise Resort on Moose Lake near Bemidji: "This summer, from the week of June 5 through Aug. 14 I have no openings," said Mary Smerling, who owns the resort with her husband, Wade.
With eight cabins and a handful of seasonal RV sites, Paradise has been in operation 27 years under the Smerlings' ownership. They instituted special cleaning protocols last summer to assure guests that renting a cabin on a North Woods lake was a safe vacation option.
"In March we weren't sure what was going to happen with our summer bookings," Mary said. "In the end, we just had six parties cancel because they had older people in their groups and didn't want to travel. But we filled those spots, and this summer is looking very good.
"Part of it, I think, is that Canada is closed. But part also is that people can't go on cruises, and they don't want to travel to Mexico or Hawaii. But they want to get out of their homes, and coming to a lake Up North is a great option."
• Island View Resort on Nest Lake near Spicer: Darin and Jessica Zanke are new owners here, as of December, and Jessica said they were a little worried about purchasing the business during the pandemic.
"But at the same time we didn't have a lot of concern," she said. "We've been customers here for about five years, and people who come here feel safe. They're able to get away, but they don't have to fly anywhere and they're comfortable with that."
Island View has 13 cabins and 23 seasonal RV sites. "We're not full yet for the summer, but reservations are coming in," Jessica said.
• Sage's Angle West Resort on Minnesota's Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods: The news isn't so good here. The problem: The "Angle" can't be reached by anglers and other vacationers who travel by vehicle, as virtually all do, because they have to pass through Canada. As a consequence, Brian Sage said, his business was down about 85% last summer.
"You can get here by boat or by floatplane, but most people drive, and that's a problem right now,'' Sage said. Efforts are being made on the federal level to negotiate a solution "But it's a very difficult problem,'' Sage said. "Canadian resorts on Lake of the Woods are probably hurting worse than we are. The best solution is to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible.''
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Hoping to camp at a Minnesota state park this summer? Plan ahead.
State park campsite occupancy rates set records July through October in 2020, the months the system was in full operation. The reservation system has been changed somewhat this year, so year-to-year comparisons aren't exact. Still, as of Feb. 15, 12,781 campsite reservations were made for April 1 to mid-June 2021, nearly twice as many as the next-highest recent year.