A pair of boaters arrive at the Burditt (Clearwater) Lake north portage. Rick and Melanie Barboni’s enormous seven-month-old husky/Bernese mountain dog, aptly named “Bear,” calmly lies with his head a few inches from the rails as Rick sends the cart down.
Once in position, the boat driver waves, and Rick pulls the lever, hauling the vacationing couple up the hill. He and Mel visit with the pair for a while, laughing and chatting about how the lift has been so far.
“We love it,” says Melanie. “It’s been busy, but we love it.”
The Barbonis took over the north portage in February, and have been operating it since mid-May. They estimate an average of 10-15 boats come through each day.
“Some days we’ll have 30, other days we’ll have six,” says Melanie.
They say the highest traffic comes on weekends with Saturday being the busiest. But Mel says this job doesn’t feel like work.
“What we’re doing right now is like what we’d be doing on holiday if we still lived in town,” she says. “So now we get paid to be on permanent vacation.”
Those riding the rail lift have good reason to smile as well.
“Everyone that comes through is either going to a camp or going fishing, so who’s not happy?” she says. “There’s no stress of town, or work, or running around. Everybody’s laid back.”
Rick echoed appreciation for the boaters.
“The people are so nice,” he says. “I talk to everybody, just to catch up on where they’re going, what they’re doing … everybody’s awesome.”
Both Rick and Melanie say they feel the north portage is a great fit for them.
“We knew we wanted to retire in the bush,” says Melanie. “This came up and I was like, ‘how could you not?’ — there’s two beautiful lakes to live on. It’s perfect for us.”
The portage takes passengers from Burditt Lake — locally known as Clearwater — to Quill Lake, which connects by water to Weld, and then Pipestone. The northern group of lakes were flooded many years ago to allow for boat transportation between them.
Mel says a big part of opening early this year was to help Pipestone camps, lodges, and cabin owners.
“It’s nice to see that they’re able to do stuff now. We’re willing to do what we can to help,” she says. “It’s good to see the camps starting to thrive again.”
Camps are a part of how the Barbonis discovered this opportunity in the first place. Melanie says their daughter and son-in-law visited Cedar Island Lodge, joined the Clearwater North Portage Facebook group, saw that it was for sale, and then sent it to them as a joke.
“It became really serious really fast,” says Melanie.
The Barbonis were originally planning to retire at their cabin on Lake Despair, but this was too good to pass up. Rick says they sold their house in Dryden and moved here within a year.
Rick was a mechanic there for 30 years, and Mel worked in a tree nursery for a decade. Rick says he was planning to retire at 60, but this came up, and it became 55.
“We had to come here and retire early. What a shame, eh?” laughs Melanie.
The Clearwater North Portage Facebook group has been a helpful part of their business so far. There, people can view hours, and contact the Barbonis to make arrangements outside of usual operations if need be.
“We’re flexible,” says Melanie. “We’re willing to do that kind of stuff. ”
Rick says they want to keep the lift open until at least the start of November — the best time to fish muskellunge.
Once the lake does start to freeze, the couple will head back to Dryden, and work their jobs for just one more winter. Then they’ll come back before the ice is out, and stay for good; year round.
Though likely out of the picture for this year, Mel says one hope they have for the future is to have certain special days where people can dock, enjoy a burger, and continue on their journey.
When indoors, the Barbonis have live camera feeds to watch for anyone wanting a lift. And when there’s no one to haul across, they maintain the property — clearing brush and making various improvements. Melanie will do day trips to town for errands, usually to Emo for groceries, but sometimes as far as Fort Frances for banking. Or if things aren’t pressing, they can just take it easy.
“Who wouldn’t?” says Rick. “You just sit here, and if you want to have a cocktail, you have a cocktail.”
Their puppy, Bear will also take it slow sometimes. Before he hit 85 lb., he would lie beneath the cable as it pulled boats across.
“He wouldn’t even move when it ran, it scared the crap out of me,” says Melanie. “Now he’s getting too big for it. But he’d just look up at the boats as they went by overtop him.”
Bear seems to be a popular topic of conversation for passengers, along with water levels, fishing, and other general lake discourse.