Ely Resort Impacts Veterans, People Living with Disabilities

Veterans on the Lake Resort is Located at 161 Fernberg Road; The Resort is Open Year-Round

ELY, Minn. – Recent studies show up to 20 percent of military veterans will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after returning home from war.

While these numbers may seem small, the grim reality shows nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

One secluded resort in Northeastern Minnesota is looking to shed positive light on the reality, one visit at a time.

“Me personally, I catch the small eaters,” said Michael Marro, a U.S. Army veteran.

Many of us have a special place where we can sit back, relax and toss in a line.

“The biggest fish out of here was caught by Bob, a 28 inch walleye, the biggest crappie was by a friend named Dan Perish, that was a two pounder,” said Marro.

Marro resides in Superior, but his peace of mind is resting just north of Ely.

“My buddy James Hanson, he’s been coming up here for more than 20 years. He invited me and a couple others up one year and it turned out we caught some fish that year, and seemed like a nice place to do an opener,” said Marro.

For the past six years, Marro and his buddies have retuned to the resort.

“There doesn’t seem to be any harm or foul to be here, no dangers,” said Marro. “I feel this every day, but I feel like this is the last day of my life so this is a good last day.”

This motto from Marro is practiced by many who meet at the resort located on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Veterans on the Lake dates back 37 years. On March 4, 1982, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) approved a grant to help the non-profit take off.

“Everybody reacts different. They come with smiles on their faces and if they don’t have a smile on their face when they arrive, they leave with one,” said Dick Zahn, a retired U.S. Navy Chief.

The inspiration for Veterans on the Lake came nearly four decades ago when a local real estate agent reached out to Zahn.

“He asked how I felt about having a place where disabled veterans could go and he said, “Wonderful! I think we have just the spot,” said Zahn.

The current location of Veterans on the Lake is the exact spot that previously housed two resorts which were purchased by the Government in the early 1980s. Zahn remembers when bulldozers were waiting at the location, ready to tear down the 26 cabins that still stand today.

“In spring of 1983, it was fishing opener, we had a big ceremony here. We had a group of disabled veterans from various hospitals come up here and we took them out fishing,” said Zahn.

You could say the rest is history, but the 24.99 acres of land the resort sits on contains stories that’ll last a lifetime.

“We had one veteran come, he was so disgruntled with himself; he tried to commit suicide and blew half of his face off. He came up here fishing all the time,” said Zahn.

Throughout the years, Zahn and countless volunteers have helped with and witnessed many emotional moments at Veterans on the Lake.

“These things will bring tears to your eyes,” said Zahn.

Through thick and thin, every tear keeps him coming back to lend a helping hand.

“I’ve been involved with this resort since 1982, expect for the six years I moved to Texas and came back. The only thing I missed was the fishing trips and helping the vets out up here,” said Zahn.

Click here if you’d like to book a trip, donate, or learn more about Veterans on the Lake.

Veterans and folks living with disabilities meet at the resort from all across the country.

In the summer of 2019, two groups from the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior and one group from the Silver Bay Veterans Home are set to check in.

“We have handicap accessible cabins and to see veterans that sometimes are spending most of their time in a hospital; to see them come up here and get out in the north woods,” said Neil Olson, Chairman of the Board and retired U.S. Army veteran.

Olson spends countless hours making improvements to the year-round resort, while also looking to spread the word about the impression it makes in people’s lives.

“We have lifts to put the veterans in the boats and pontoons if possible,” said Olson. “We keep making improvements to all the cabins.”

The non-profit survives strictly on user fees, donations and the occasional grant.

“We are definitely growing every year,” said Olson.

Current General Manager Neil Weisinger once worked as the maintenance man at Veterans on the Lake.

“It’s like a special feeling,” said Weisinger. “If you ever came here and seen what it does for all the disabled that come here, you’d understand. It’s really hard to put into words.”

While it’s not always words that speak loudly, actions seem to illuminate the memories made at the only veterans retreat in Northern Minnesota.

“What better vacation could you have as going out in the wilderness to a fishing camp, fishing and eating your catch? All of our groups have a fish fry before their vacation ends here,” said Weisinger. “It’s a big thing for them.”

“I know they can have anybody in here besides veterans but it seems to me like a little mini post up in Ely without a fence,” said Marro.

For just a weekend, or maybe even a week at a time, it’s a place on the globe where barriers are broken down, the mind is cleared, and folks who served to help keep us safe, can be free.

“I’ve watched the ups and downs; sometimes we didn’t know how we were going to make it. Maybe have to borrow a few bucks here and there and we get through,” said Zahn.

“If you know another veteran, invite them up and start a new tradition,” said Marro.

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