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In the woods, a quiet oasis

Visitors have said words can't really describe what it's like to camp at Allure of the Woods Rustic Retreat in Carlton, but they use the guestbook to try their best:

"A cozy, peaceful getaway."

"We made memories here."

"(It) made me feel like a kid in a really sweet way."

"You have sparked our love for nature."

For proprietor Denise Coleman Lyng, the words fill her with joy.

"My heart's desire is to have a place people can come to feel like it's private, feel like it's safe, and embrace what's around them," said the 62-year-old. She led a tour of the special campsite earlier this month.

Located on 56 acres bordering Jay Cooke State Park, Allure of the Woods offers a single-site, two-person wall tent that is thoughtfully outfitted.

She and a friend built the picnic table she tops with a fresh wildflower bouquet every weekend. It's built on a wooden platform and features a proper bed. The outhouse features a clear plastic roof to let the light in. A porch is also covered with a see-through canopy to allow for stargazing and enjoying rainfalls.

"I call it a rustic retreat," she said. "It's something in between glamping and camping."

Open since last summer, visitors can register for the site via the Hipcamp or Airbnb websites, which both offer unique overnight experiences all over the country.

Birdsong surrounded her as Coleman Lyng described the wild encounters she's had - shooing away a large racoon from the porch, communing with passive, wandering deer, flinging a crawling spider from her face which left her with a leg looking like an eyelash on her cheek.

"What's really fun is when the coyotes start howling," she said. "Some people like to sit out on the porch and wait for it."

By weekday, Coleman Lyng is a full-time massage therapist, contracting with Essentia Health-Center for Personal Fitness in the Duluth mall. She and her husband bought the unique, wooded property from a distant relative several years ago, after they moved to the area for her husband's then-job with Northwest Airlines. They were experienced visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Camping, for Coleman Lyng, resides in her soul.

"I was probably 11, 12, 13 years old when I got my first tent at the Holiday gas station," she said. "I saved up and got my first canvas tent and absolutely fell in love with camping. Some of my first cooked meals were beanie weenies over a Sterno (canned stove). I just like tents."

Open Friday through Monday, Allure of the Woods saw 22 weekends' worth of visitors last year, with 19 weekends scheduled so far for this summer. Most of the visitors have been from the Twin Cities area. For some, it's their first experience in the woods.

"I get a lot of people dipping their toe," she said, estimating 80 to 90 percent of her guests are first-time campers. "This is a great way to get people outdoors. You still feel protected. You're not bending over to get in. You're not sleeping on the ground."

When the leaves start to fall, Jay Cooke trail hikers can be seen from the tent, which Coleman Lyng has dubbed "Chasah," a Hebrew word meaning "to seek refuge."

"That's what I'm hoping for people when they come out here, and that's the feedback I've been getting," she said.

Modestly priced at $70 per night, the first stack of firewood comes free. It hasn't happened yet, but should a storm whip up and threaten the tent, Coleman Lyng owns a nearby wooden she-shed that could offer overnight protection.

"I'm available and I'm here on weekends when I have guests, so if they need anything I can respond to it," she said.

Coleman Lyng's husband helps when he's asked, but Allure of the Woods Rustic Retreat is all hers. She's been developing a trail network on their expansive property for several years, but, for now, she encourages visitors to stay on a short loop throughout the site.

"I've been doing trails out here since we first moved out here," Coleman Lyng said. "They are a challenge to keep up with."

Hikers are directed to the Jay Cooke trails.

"We had a couple last weekend who walked to Swinging Bridge and came back," she said.

Another couple took full advantage of everything the area has to offer - whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing, biking the Munger Trail.

Others simply brew coffee on the woodstove that pipes out of the tent and kick back, absorbing the tall trees and nature swaying all around them.

"It's an extension of the way I grew up to appreciate nature," she said of Allure.

On a wall inside the tent is the city's first camping permit. The city of Carlton adopted a formal camping ordinance earlier this year.

Coleman Lyng was a former councilor with the City of Thomson before it was annexed by Carlton following the 2012 flood. She was proud to help work on the new camping ordinance.

"I'm fine with it," she said. "It's a nice partnership between the city and community. I'm a firm believer in working with my community."

She plans to add another site, possibly a solo stargazer, she said, and she's in the process of having landscapers corduroy a road across a pair of ravines that will allow access to 30 wild acres on the property.

"I always knew this property wasn't just for my husband and I," she said. "I always wanted to share it."

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