The Wilderness At Fortune Bay

By E. Nolan

Every time I look at the Minnesota state quarter I think of The Wilderness at Fortune Bay. Not sure if that’s odd or not. A glance at the loon, fishing boat and tree lined lake (on the “tails” side) takes me to the Lake Vermilion coastline of hole 13 where every year I’ve seen a loon, (the same loon the quarter designer saw I’m sure) there are always a few fishing boats, and the tall pines beautifully define the property lines and many a magnificent golf hole.

On the flip side of the coin there’s a new “head” at The Wilderness this year, but the traditions of excellence have generally managed to stay the same as they were under the distinguished tenure of his predecessor, Tom Beaudry. In all likelihood that’s because the new General Manager, Gabe Cessna, was as pivotal to the success of his former home at Voyager Village, and equally as admired there. Long and short, they employ great, and highly motivated, people at Fortune Bay. And why wouldn’t they? Who wouldn’t want to work up here or, for that matter, live up here? When you can pick and choose from a pot of leadership excellence, as the ownership at Fortune Bay could, you’re going to get what you’re looking for. And when you get to pick and choose as a golfer, from a deep pot of perennial Minnesota diamonds, as each of you reading this article can/does, there’s no doubt you’ll find everything you’re looking for (and typically more than you’d ever expect) at The Wilderness in Tower.

On my first visit to The Wilderness at Fortune Bay I remember approaching the course (on a road with three names) and being wowed by the distant chiseled wall of golf features I saw out my driver-side window. Having just come from the twin Giants in Biwabik, and honestly expecting a letdown, I truthfully (from that point) received anything but. “There’s no way this could be better… could it?” Well, it absolutely wasn’t worse.

To a person, golfers who play all three of the courses up here, at the Wilderness and Giants Ridge, differ on their preferential order. While I would contend that Giants Ridge (at Legend #17) has the prettiest golf hole in the entire state, (and one of the classiest golf professionals in John Kendall) I’d equally contend that the Wilderness, hole-for-hole, is the prettiest round of golf in the state, and in a survey of hundreds over the past three years or so, I have found few that argue. So, if you’ve been to The Classic at Madden’s or Deacon’s Lodge, The Pines and/or The Legacy Courses at Cragun’s and were as impressed with those as I always am, think of what that’s saying about the golf even further north. I’d say “I rest my case” but I’ve got so much more to say.

Fortune Bay has a lot more to offer the visitor than superior golf. The casino provides two floors of gaming with close to a thousand activity options in slot machines, blackjack, poker and more. Self-described as the “Land of 10,000 Winners,” there is something for anyone with a passion for gambling and fun. A formidable host for concerts and other acts, Fortune Bay has featured performances on their indoor and outdoor stages by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Montgomery Gentry, Larry the Cable Guy and many, many more. (Check their website for upcoming acts.)

The luxurious hotel is ideal for a quick weekend escape (or lengthy stay), with everything in high-definition from the lighting to the TV’s to the incredible views of the lake and course off your private patio and/or room windows. The lodge also has an indoor pool, an arcade, fitness room and a gift shop prepared to meet most travellers’ needs. And for the “outdoorsy,” there’s an RV park (moments away) and nearby access to boating, fishing, running and biking activity options.

Should you happen to bring your appetite, there is always a wide variety of dining options available on site, ranging from quick sandwiches and salads at the Bay Street Grill, to a sports bar scene at the North Star, great nightly buffets at the Tamarack, the finest of dining at the Sunset Steakhouse (with killer perfectly aged steaks) and (in my opinion) always some of the best tasting, best serviced (and most scenic) golf course dining in the state at the extraordinary Wilderness Bar & Grill. It is definitely an idyllic getaway in that it’s not too far away from the Twin Cities and/or Duluth yet seems to be so amazingly close to heaven.

And then there’s the golf. The Jeffrey Brauer design could fill a page of its own with all its merits and accolades. Here goes: GolfWeek’s #1 public course in the state (2013) and Golf Digest’s 59th best public course in the entire country (2013) very nearly goes beyond description. The course weaves perfectly through the picturesque pines and ponds, climbing over and crawling through incredible rock outcroppings, and here and there touching the shores of both marsh and Lake Vermilion.

An extremely natural setting, with plenty of dramatic elevation changes (no housing obstructions) and minimal views of any other golfing groups during your round, you genuinely get the serene feeling of isolation and private ownership of the grounds around you and beneath your feet. To walk or to ride, is up to you to decide, but riders get the added benefit of their great GPS system. It’s a beautiful walk, on the other hand, with opportunities to encounter all kinds of wildlife, from deer to osprey and eagles, to even the occasional friendly fox or bear.

The front nine offers stunning views from each of the first three tees. On a course full of signatures, perhaps none is more memorable than the downhill par-3 third, with a dramatic carry over water to a steep shelf green. The front also offers a Biarritz swale green on #5, insane panoramic views on the #7 tee, and the most scenic par-5 on the course (with a paw print bunker) at #8.

The back nine takes off essentially from the patio of the Wilderness Grill, with #11 bringing you steeply back up to the hotel and casino. From there you’ll play a trio of breathtaking holes adjacent Lake Vermilion including the aforementioned “quarter hole” at #13, that will (if you’re like me) forever mint a new image in your Minnesota’s 25 cent piece. The back closes fantastically with a downhill return to the clubhouse and perhaps the toughest green approach on the course, with a hungry pond on the left. There’s beauty… and then there’s the Wilderness. Incredible.

I’ve always wondered if there was really a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I have yet to make it in time to find out. On the other hand, I am certain there is a wealth of incredible golf at the base of the Northern Lights; here in Tower (not far from the town of Aurora) and it will be here (as advertised) whenever you follow your good fortunes to The Wilderness.

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