Lake Okoboji

I like to tell people grandly, “I used to summer in Iowa.” Iowa may not have the cachet of Nantucket or the Hamptons, but Lake Okoboji is a little heaven.

We had a cabin on the lake from 1985-2005. Twenty years of summers and occasional weekends in the off-season. Being a resort lake, most of the businesses are only open Memorial Day through Labor Day. We had a modest place we affectionately called "The Villa." The four of us kids slept in bunk beds, pullouts or the very best spot: on the sleeping porch.

We had a Cobalt ski boat named the Afternoon Recess, a word play on my dad’s job as a lawyer and my mom’s job as a teacher. We would have boat picnics with sandwiches, chips and lemonade in the middle of the lake, when we’d cut the motor, eat and jump off the boat to swim. As a kid, I loved to ride the tube behind the boat, and then I learned to water ski on two skis and then one. In the evenings my parents would fix Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics and we’d take sunset “booze cruises” and wave to friends on their docks.

I taught myself how to do a back dive by slowly climbing higher and higher on the dock ladder to launch myself.

There is a fictitious University of Okoboji, "where fun in life is your degree."

When I was little I swam, built forts, hunted for toads and read piles of books on the beach. 

When I was a little older, I swam, water skied, daydreamed about boys and read piles of books on the beach.

If I woke up early enough on the weekends, I might get to join my Dad for a boat ride over to the O’Farrell Sisters for pancakes and coffee.

The best thing was a clean dive into the smooth bright lake first thing in the morning. 

The other best thing was driving the boat fast across a smooth, dark lake under the stars.

My maternal grandparents, Chuck and Delores, lived behind us and I would run up to their house to play pinochle, cribbage or dominoes. It was a big deal if I beat them as they never let me win, or at least, I don’t think they did. My grandmother always had cookies or pie waiting. 

Fourth of July was a big deal with a huge fireworks display over the lake. Everyone would go out on their boats to watch the fireworks exploding overhead and boat horns would go crazy with applause. After all, this is the heartland of America. We called it God’s Country.

We lived next to the Yacht Club and I learned to sail the little lasers and then the X-boats. I crewed in some weekend races but I didn’t like the competitions, I just wanted to play on the water. The Yacht Club threw great cocktail parties and I had one of my first underage drinks, a whiskey sour, on the lawn. I had crushes on all the sailors.

I had a fake ID from the time I was 17. It helped that my older brother worked at Murphy’s Bar and everyone knew me as his little sister. People all knew I was underage so they looked out for me.

One summer I drove our boat onto a sandbar coming home late for curfew with a few friends. One summer I was in a motorcycle accident. One summer I was arrested by the lake patrol while driving the boat home a bit intoxicated from the bar at 5 miles an hour with a shoe over the stern light – we were trying to look at the stars. Innocent shenanigans, mostly, with lucky outcomes.

The amusement park on the water, called Arnold’s Park, has an old wooden roller coaster. As you go slowly up the big incline you approach a sign that reads, “The Point of No Return” and then you plummet down the chute, screaming with your hands in the air. There is the fun house with the wooden carpet slides and the fat and thin mirrors and the turning barrel tunnels you have to stumble through. And during the summer concerts at the Roof Garden where my dad would dance with me.

Goodies Chocolates makes the best Black Silk truffles and caramel logs. My mother would cut each piece into tiny slivers to ration them.

When I was old enough to move on from babysitting to a real job, I was lucky to land a spot at Maxwell’s on the Lake, the fine dining restaurant in the Emporium. I started out as a busser and hostess and then worked my way up to serving lunches and then dinner. I worked there seven summers in a row, with a small crew of devoted staff who also returned every summer from school. The staff was loyal because the tips were good and the owners, Lewis and Julie, treated everyone like family. The favorites on the menu were the steaks, lobster tails, prime rib and sautéed walleye. We had lots of local regulars as well as weekend tourists. The best part was, I could drive our boat to work and tie up on the dock. After our shift, we would often change out of our uniforms into our bathing suits to rinse off in the lake and then change into summer dresses to walk over to Murphy’s Bar, Captain’s Getaway or the Ritz to sit on the deck.

Come Sunday nights, my father would inevitably say, “Oh let’s just stay one more night and drive back early in the morning.” He hated to leave.

We don’t have our cabin anymore. It has been 12 years or maybe more since I’ve been back, the last time to be a bridesmaid in my friend Gigi’s wedding. All around the world I've run into people wearing University of Okoboji tee-shirts or baseball hats. Someday soon, I’ll go back and teach my kids how to execute a back dives off the dock.

Sarah Burns