Vets on Lake works “magic”

by Tom Coombe
A Tuesday briefing about the impact of recent improvements at Veterans on the Lake Resort quickly evolved when Lonn Cunningham entered the room.
Bound to a wheelchair and living with just one arm, Cunningham told an audience, one that included State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke, just what his annual trip to the resort on Fall Lake means to him.
“This place is magical,” said Cunningham, who came to Ely from Texas to spend time fishing and enjoying the serenity of the veterans retreat. “I would drive to hell and back to come here. You’ve got something super special going up here.”
But along with that, Cunningham told the group, Veterans on the Lake offers him something even more uplifting - a sense of place that is often lacking elsewhere.
“A lot of us, where we go, people look at us and wonder ‘what happened to them?’” said Cunningham. “I’ve been stared holes through sitting in a restaurant. Here we’re the normal ones. I can not express what it means to me, what it means to the thousands of people who have come up here through the years.”
That was the emotional backdrop Tuesday during a session geared at bringing officials up to date about how funding initiatives for Veterans on the Lake have made a difference.
Herke, State Rep. Rob Ecklund (D-International Falls) St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald, and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board representatives Jason Metsa and Chris Ismil were among those who were there for the event.
Ely native Jeff Anderson, who lobbies for Veterans on the Lake in St. Paul, helped convene the meeting and said of Veterans on the Lake: “It’s the easiest entity I’ve ever worked for in telling the story and having individuals want to help and want to roll their sleeves up and give back to this organization.”
Anderson said that over the last two years, entities ranging from the IRRRB and St. Louis County to the state of Minnesota via the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources have made investments in the facility.
Ecklund helped secure over $550,000 in LCCMR funds for paving, trail work, cabin renovation and construction of new cabins at the facility. The IRRRB and St. Louis County also aided in that project, combining to contribute another $225,000.
“These funds have been primarily used for accessible upgrades,” said Anderson. “We’ve also had support of the state of Minnesota in providing scholarships for veterans, disabled veterans and their families to come to this resort and have an experience in Minnesota.”
That was through a $50,000 scholarship award through the state, and both Eric Mayranen, who chairs the board at Veterans on the Lake, and resort manager Andy Berkenpas described the scholarship program as a big hit, with demand exceeding the supply of available dollars to the point where the resort subsidized the initiative to allow more applicants the resort experience.
“This funding you have provided us has made a lot happen,” said Mayranen, a Vietnam veteran.
McDonald, who has lived in the Ely area for over 30 years told the group “I know how valuable this place is. I’ve seen this place blossom.”
Ecklund agreed and said “Seven years ago I got my first tour of Veterans on the Lake and the progress has been truly amazing, especially the last three years.”
Resort officials said the paving project was long overdue and Cunningham agreed.
“That road out there has been in need of repairs ever since I’ve been coming here and you guys got it done,” he said.
Mayranen briefly outlined the history of the resort, which came into being roughly 40 years ago, combining a pair of previously commercial resorts that were bought out by the federal government following 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness legislation.
Veterans on the Lake is a non-profit that leases the space from the U.S. Forest Service, and it was formed to provide disabled veterans a wilderness experience.
That scope has expanded through its history, with the resort made available to veterans, military personnel and the general public. It has also been home to community events, church services and other functions, including serving as a home for Ely’s VFW post.
It has one of two heated pools in the area, one that was once used by the high school swimming team for practices when the pool in Babbitt was under maintenance.
“We’re trying to do a service to the community also, in addition to our general mission,” said Mayranen.
While the focus has expanded, Veterans on the Lake remains a haven for disabled veterans who come to Ely from around the nation for fishing and wilderness experiences.
Lara Berkenpas, who operates the resort with her husband, helped coordinate the scholarship program and described the impact it had on those who were able to take advantage.
“Those vets have never experienced anything like this in their lives,” she said. “They were grateful. They were humbled and they’re still talking about it.”
Scholarship participants utilized the resort’s offerings both during the summer and winter. Many came not knowing anyone else in their respective group but built lasting relationships while they were here.
“You’d have somebody from Brainerd, somebody from the Cities, somebody from southern Minnesota,” said Lara Berkenpas. “By the end of their retreat they were exchanging phone numbers, they were out there cheering each other on, playing card games until two o’clock in the morning.”
Herke, a veteran of conflicts in Iraq, said he was impressed by the stories.
“This is the greatest job to be in,” he said. “To help 304,000 veterans in the state of Minnesota. I can tell you I’ve heard very good things about what’s going on here.”
That could extend to the future and additional improvements at the resort.
While no specifics were addressed Tuesday, Anderson hinted that the resort would likely seek additional support.
That could include an extension of the scholarship program or efforts that would help the resort make more of its cabins fully handicap and wheel chair accessible.
“We’ve done a lot of good things and we’re going to do a lot more going forward,” said Ecklund.