BY CLAIRE CUDAHY
The year was 1963 and Mary Spenceley was on a plane from Chicago headed for her first visit to Red Lake.
Spenceley was travelling with NBC radio and TV announcer Gregg Donovan and his friend Wed Howard, the original Marlboro man; both of who had fallen for the fishing and way of life found way up north.
“I never fished, but I really loved it. It was beautiful up here,” recalled Spenceley over 40 years later, sitting on the deck of the house that she and Donovan—known to her by his non-stage name Grant Hopperstad—built together.
Spenceley fell in love with Hopperstad, and together they took a leap and began applying for land on the shores of Red Lake.
“He loved the outdoors, and I loved him and sort of loved the outdoors. So we started applying for land and kept getting turned down,” explained Spenceley.
Finally after six years the couple was able to lease 600 feet on the shore of Gull Rock for their future fishing camp and RV park.
Together Spenceley and Hopperstad cleared trees; built a road, garage, home, office, and fish cleaning building; filled in swamps; put in culverts and a septic system; and brought in a power line.
“You have to appreciate that none of this was cleared. Grant and I had to cut down every blooming tree. I had to learn how to run a chainsaw,” said Spenceley, laughing.
Though the transition from a career in the film industry to hard manual labor might have seemed difficult, Spenceley said it didn’t faze her.
“You never give it a thought. You just do it.”
In 1975, South Bay on Gull Rock had its first guests at its eight-site camp.
A year later, Grant passed away.
“The loss of this wonderful man—my husband, advisor, friend—was overwhelming,” said Spenceley. “Our dreams together were gone, and I had nowhere to go.”
But Spenceley pushed on, relying on the support of family and friends in the community.
“Business increased every year and I loved what I was doing—hearts do heal when one is surrounded with people who enjoyed the South Bay as much as I did. My guests became loving and lifelong friends.”
In 1980, a forest fire forced the evacuation of 4,000 people for eight days, destroying 136,000 acres of land—including much of South Bay on Gull Rock.
The spring of 1981 was about rebuilding, and once again Spenceley was cutting, burning, and clearing. She and her guests’ kids planted 1,000 red pine seedlings, and 33 years later these trees are a reminder of the history of Gull Rock.
“Love did enter my life again,” said Spenceley, and that came in the form of an English musician named Harry Spenceley who came to Red Lake to set up a music program.
Together they made their mark on South Bay on Gull Rock with the addition of cabins to the camp, began travelling to sports shows, and spent their winters in Florida.
In 2003, Harry was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.
“It is genetic but by playing a double reed instrument—bassoon—through his teens and adulthood, it made him an abdominal breather not a lung breather, which, according to the neurosurgeon, was why he lived a normal life for so long,” explained Spenceley. “He said we had three to five years so we kept on with camp and Florida. My wonderfully funny and heroic husband died in August 2008.”
Again, Spenceley turned to South Bay on Gull Rock for solace.
“The only part of my life where I felt secure and comforted was South Bay,” said Spenceley. “I live in the beautiful home that Grant and I built, and Harry and I remodeled to accommodate his wheel chair. I look out on a beautiful view that I share with beautiful folks all summer.”
Spenceley threw herself into projects, and in six years redid a cabin and three septic systems; replaced the marina, 42 windows, nine doors, six roofs, and all cabin appliances; and cut down and trimmed hundreds of trees.
Forty years later, South Bay on Gull Rock is still going strong with Spenceley at the helm. Spenceley has watched generation after generation return to the camp that she has poured herself into, and in return, found friends that she now considers family.
“Watching young ones learn to fish and then 25-30 years later, they’re teaching their kids…it is quite awesome,” said Spenceley.
With the help of her neighbour Maureen St. Vincent, seasonal Red Laker Belinda Rulon, and a pint-sized Shih Tzu named Gabriel, Spenceley runs South Bay on Gull Rock in the summer before heading down to Florida—and she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
“People are happy here. The fishing is great and the camp is beautiful. Happy people make me happy.”