The venerable Duneswood resort, snuggled up against the towering majesty of the old Dune Climb on M-109, has taken on a new shine, as second-generation owner Debbie Rettke renovates and rejuvenates in time for high summer season.
“I’m trying to recreate the Up North experience, but with a ‘green’ theme,” Debbie explains, for both new visitors and returning guests. Although not certain of the exact age of the original Duneswood, she recently discovered a 1902 daybook signed by long-ago holiday makers, a testament to the getaway’s enduring appeal.
Light paint colors on the old motel’s exterior, trim and porch posts pop against the glossy greens of its woodland setting. What had formerly been concrete block units with drywall are now sheathed in soothing tongue-and-groove pine paneling, while earth-toned tile replaces vintage carpet in bathrooms and the original hardwood floors gleam in the main rooms. Low-flow toilets and showerheads conserve water, plump new mattresses beckon, and the long front porches of each wing of the resort invite both camaraderie and contemplation. A central, lodge-like “community room” includes a full kitchen where guests can either cook their own meals or pay $5 for a continental breakfast, and gather around comfortable sofas and chairs to lounge, read, surf the ‘net, or play board games.
In addition to single rooms (many feature a back entry, lending airiness to the intimate spaces), the resort has a two-bedroom cabin that sleeps up to five people, and Debbie is in the midst of renovating the owner’s quarters for overflow accommodations. Some pet-friendly rooms are also available. Outdoors, guests can gather for bonfires near the Peace Pole, hike on the property’s seven secluded acres, or access the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s miles of trails and beaches. Kayaks from Glen Arbor’s Putt’n’Paddle will be available for guests, as well as Duneswood’s “community bikes” to cruise the 10-mile loop around Little Glen Lake or create new destinations into the villages of Glen Arbor, Glen Haven, and Empire. (Read about biking opportunities that the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail will create in a future edition of the Glen Arbor Sun).
Memories and stories about her late mother, Joanne Rettke, come flooding back as she concludes the tour of the resort’s favorite and new amenities. Debbie has been a part owner since 1992, along with her mother (a former dean of older and returning students at Mohawk Valley College in upstate New York) and Marge Ives, Joanne’s life partner of 34 years.
The older couple had bought Mary Sutherland’s house in Glen Arbor, and Debbie recalls. “They asked themselves, ‘How can we retire up here?’ Being lesbians and feminists,” they bought Duneswood, offering it as a womyn-centered retreat, a place to “revitalize and relax” in a safe, beautiful, natural setting.
After Joanne suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack in late 2009, the remaining partners put the property up for sale.
“Marge didn’t want to run it anymore,” explains Debbie, whose own corporate career, philanthropic endeavors, and partner of 14 years, Dr. Linda Branstetter (a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories), have been based in Corrales, New Mexico. Eventually, she decided to buy out Marge (who still lives in Glen Arbor with her daughter), and to renovate the resort to embrace the changing societal mores of the past 30 years.
Whip smart, energetic, and like her parent, a creative problem-solver who welcomes challenges, she combines her training as a chemical engineer; experience as program manager for corporate affairs for Intel Corp., with diversity education and community inclusion; nonprofit educational support for children with Hearts 4 Mother Earth, which she and Joanne created; cross-cultural sharing with local Indian tribes; and her deep connection to the natural world (she is an accomplished horsewoman, ski patrol member, and National Park volunteer).
Despite the tragedy of losing her beloved mother, she took to heart Joanne’s lifelong lesson: “You don’t whine, you just make lemonade. You focus your thoughts … everything I needed, it appeared. When I needed a contractor, Mike Sutherland was sitting next to me at a bar. Stu Dana, who ran Melba Ann’s on the Narrows last summer, offered his help” in running a store. The Chambers of Commerce in Glen Arbor and Empire — In the past 30 years since I’ve been coming here, nobody’s giving me any weird looks — they’re fine, they don’t care,” about her sexual orientation.
“Duneswood has been a real institution in the womyn’s community. I’m so happy not to see a condominium in here! I really thought about what my mom and Marge were doing … I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” she explains of her decision to continue the womyn-oriented focus of Duneswood, while also expanding its amenities to include both genders, with separate accommodations on each wing of the site.
“We’re hosting a ‘straight’ wedding party, and other [mixed-gender] events, while on the other hand, some weeks will be special weeks,” for women, like the recent summer solstice celebration, or the Womyn’s Music History Week coming in September.
“A lot of young women don’t know so much about womyn’s music, how that empowered women, for example the song ‘Debutante’s Ball’ — like a cattle call! We’ll have ‘listen and share’ stories, we’re gonna open up to the larger women’s community to come for an evening.”
Although acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender members of society has increased since she came out in high school in the mid-1970s, she notes the continued need for a safe, welcoming environment for many who “don’t feel comfortable being out in their public lives,” for fear of violence, or losing their jobs or their children.
“Because of the influence of my mom coming out, that made it easier for me to come out. They used to take us [kids] to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival … they didn’t have to take us, it was a risk.”
She continues, “My mom taught herself to do a million things: she started out taking photographs and selling them. She made little carvings. I taught her how to do websites. We took a four-day workshop with [singer-songwriter] Holly Near on bridging the gap. I can’t think of anything we didn’t do or say to each other … I love, admire her [as] a role model — I’m still learning about her from people!” [See “Toasting Joanne Rettke,” which ran in the Glen Arbor Sun on Jan. 15, 2010]
She gestures around her at the trees, the North Wing of Duneswood, the lake glimmering across the road through full green leaves.
“This is where all the stuff she taught me comes together; it’s like a whole lifetime … My mom created the Duneswood logo, with the line, “So near, yet so far,’” — reflecting an era when lesbians needed an exclusive, secure getaway. Now, Debbie says, “We want to say: Duneswood — it’s not what you are, it’s who you are,” welcoming a bit more of the wider, inclusive community of Up North nature lovers.
Duneswood is now open through October 15. To make reservations or for more information, visit the website www.duneswood.org.