Just before sunset, we reached vacation nirvana. It was just us and the loons. Minnesota's Lake Vermillion was smooth, our canoe paddles hitting the water the only sound.
Too bad we could stay for only a minute and a half.
"I'm hungry," said one child who had eaten dinner less than an hour before.
"I've got to go to the bathroom now," insisted another.
Reluctantly, we turned our canoe back toward shore and our cabin at Ludlow's Island Resort. (Families routinely book a year in advance for one of the resort's 18 lakefront cabins. Call  537-5308.)
The next day, our kids, who were just starting elementary school then, couldn't get back to the lake fast enough. They fished and caught frogs, maneuvered small kayaks and raced down the water slide. They learned to water ski (the sport was invented here in 1922) and helped steer the motorboat. At night, exhausted from the water and the sun, they curled up on the cabin porch, trying in vain to stay awake long enough to see the northern lights. (They never could make it.)
Minnesota is called Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it really has some 15,000, plus thousands of miles of rivers. To my mind, almost any of them can provide a first-rate family getaway.
The state's name means "sky-tinted water" because it's so blue. All the flat water makes this region particularly suited to boating with children, allowing them -- and their parents -- to canoe or kayak without fear of drifting into white water. (Don't forget Coast-Guard-approved life jackets for everyone.)
In northern Minnesota, the kids probably can't tune into 86 cable TV channels. There aren't 25 organized activities every hour. This isn't a place with theme parks, mini-golf courses or souvenir shops nearby.
If the kids are lucky, though, they can see a beaver, a bald eagle or a river otter. They might get to eat the walleye pike they caught for dinner. Maybe it's time to teach them to play poker or see if they can beat you at Monopoly or Scrabble.
Midwesterners have long known the quiet pleasures northern Minnesota holds, but more families from elsewhere are discovering them, too. (Call the Minnesota Office of Tourism at  657-3700 and ask for a directory of resorts and canoe trip outfitters. Visit Minnesota's Web site at http: //tccn.com/mn.tourism/mnhome.html.)
For an offbeat trip, consider the weekend offerings from the International Wolf Center in Ely. Learn how the wolf family is similar to our own, complete with a twilight howling expedition. Look for animal tracks in the fall; snowshoe or dog-sled in the winter. (Call the Wolf Center at  365-4695.)
Boating and fishing enthusiasts who have children not yet in school might want to consider an autumn trip. "The fall colors are stupendous, and there are no mosquitoes," says Sue Kerfoot, whose family has been running Gunflint Lodge in northeastern Minnesota on Gunflint Lake since 1928.
Gunflint Lodge offers adventurous families the option to explore the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, the largest waterways wilderness in North America. The lodge will outfit travelers for camping trips with canoes, maps, food and gear for roughly $60 a day per person. Guides are available.
"A canoe trip can be an experience where a family learns to work together, and each member can contribute," says Kerfoot, who has sent hundreds of family groups on such adventures. Perhaps this is just the ticket to get Dad and his 14-year-old talking again. Maybe Mom wants to prove to her daughters that she's no wimp. (Call Gunflint Lodge at  328-3325 and ask about dog-sledding and cross-country skiing opportunities as well as summer packages.)
A visit to Voyageurs National Park is an option for those who don't want to leave civilization too far behind. It is accessible only by water, but motorboats and houseboats are permitted on its more than 30 lakes. (Call  283-9821 and ask about the ranger-led children's activities in the summer and the canoes and rowboats available for use free of charge.)
Pub Date: 9/08/99