INDIAN HILLS RESORT: ROLLING WITH THE SEASONS
“If I change an ice cream flavor, I’ll hear about it!” Kelly Sorge says with a laugh.
That’s because the ice cream is almost as famous as the fishing at Indian Hills Resort.
Sorge and her husband, Dale, have owned Indian Hills Resort since 2003, when they purchased the property from her parents, Byron and Tolly Holtan. The resort overlooks Good Bear Bay on Lake Sakakawea, 30 miles west of Garrison and 30 miles south of Parshall, and is served by McLean Electric Cooperative.
With world-class fishing, upgraded camping and lodging facilities, 6 miles of bike trails, eight Blue Bunny® ice cream flavors, spectacular views and long North Dakota summer days, it’s no surprise that multiple generations of customers have made Indian Hills Resort a family tradition.
“Hands down, I always say we’ve got the best customers,” Kelly says. “We’ve got a lot of repeat people that have been coming forever, since we’ve began, and new families. It’s fun to watch all the kids grow up, and all you can hope is they come back with their kids and their families. It’s a tradition. To watch those families have those traditions, and know that we’re part of that, that’s what I like.”
After all, it was family that started Indian Hills Resort – and sustains it today.
THE RIGHT PLACE
In the 1980s, N.D. Parks and Recreation, N.D. Game and Fish and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to add a public access point to the section of the lake where the Holtans lived and ranched. The outdoorswoman in Tolly, Kelly’s mom, knew it was the right place. And she had a vision for what it could be.
“My folks started (Indian Hills Resort) in ‘84,” Kelly says. “I grew up here. It started as basically a boat ramp, a small concessions store, about 13 sites with electrical and a bunch of primitive sites, and they built a lodging facility. Ever since then, it’s just grown.”
The Sorges have made updates and changes along the way. About five years ago, Dale left his Bismarck job to ranch full time, tending over 300 head of cattle near their resort property.
“That really changed things for us, and we’ve been able to do some pretty cool things,” Kelly says of the career move.
In addition to his role as on-call resort handyman, Dale oversaw the 2019 completion of Elbowoods Lodge, which replaced the original lodging facility. It includes four condos with full kitchens, living rooms and modern amenities.
And as boats and campers evolve, so, too, does Indian Hills Resort.
“We pretty much have power and water to every nook and cranny we can get it to,” Kelly says.
That effort has involved their local power provider, McLean Electric Cooperative, and can prove challenging, Kelly says, especially in some of the older campsites designed for pickup box campers in the 1980s. Customers are now charging trolling motors for their boats overnight and pulling in with 40-foot toy haulers featuring slide-out decks.
“That’s a big, big deal to have the amount of power that goes through here,” Kelly says. “It’s amazing, (the electric cooperative is) a big part of it.”
A LONG DAY!
From Wahpeton to Williston, many North Dakotans flock to the shores of Lake Sakakawea for summer fun. Out-of-staters visit, too, with walleye dreams. What’s a day at Indian Hills Resort like?
“It’s a long day!” Kelly says. “There’s a lot of daylight. What’s funny is when people come from out-of-state, they don’t realize how long the sun stays up in North Dakota.”
Anglers rise to fish in the morning hours, and depending on the bite, they might finish before noon or reel up toward late afternoon. Even for those slow getting on the water, fishing opportunities exist until late evening.
“We’re on the edge of the timeline, so I know in June, you can literally be on the water until 10 o’clock at night and it’s still light out,” Kelly says.
Back in the campground, families and kids start to emerge by mid-to-late morning.
“As soon as Mom or Grandma will allow ice cream, the kids hit us up for the Blue Bunny ice cream!” she says, which is available at the onsite convenience store and bait shop.
Families also take advantage of the miles of bike trails, whether biking or walking.
“The trails get you right out into the heart of the prairie, overlooking the lake,” Kelly says. “It’s pretty unique views that you won’t see anywhere else.”
No great day is complete without the nightly cookout, campfire and camaraderie.
As spring turns to summer, calving season will slow and camping season will take over for the Sorges. The Indian Hills Resort campgrounds and lodging facilities will welcome guests May 15 through October, and the convenience store will open its doors Memorial Day to Labor Day. This pattern cycles through year after year, but 2020 may be a little different.
“Frankly, I’m scared,” Kelly says, acknowledging the uncertainty in the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think it’s more important than ever to support your local area. As a small-business person in a seasonal situation, we’ve got three months to make it. Every year counts.”
But in business, she’s learned a few key things – how to be flexible, go with the flow and “roll with the seasons.”
“I watched my folks start to where we are now. We didn’t come from business backgrounds. We learned the hard way,” she says.
AN OLD FRIEND
Kelly talks like an old friend. She is warmly familiar – a trait her mom must have also had that has served this family business well.
“I think (my mom would) be very happy to know the place has grown and the same customers are still coming back, and the new ones are here,” Kelly says. “She’s kind of the one that made me realize how awesome the customers really are and how important they are to the business. They are the business.”
The fishing and ice cream are good, but those things matter far less than family and tradition.
After all, it was family that started Indian Hills Resort – and sustains it today. Tomorrow, too.
Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.