T006 Minnesota


Unexpected history lessons showed up at Grand Portage. We’d never known that the fur trappers brought all their furs to Grand Portage in the summer to meet canoes carrying supplies from Montreal. They’d all meet; have a huge party while swapping furs for supplies and return back to their respective territories. We struck up conservation with one of the re-enactors. He builds birch bark canoes at the site, but also goes out to collect his birch bark from stands of birch being lumbered. He lives what he acts, living in a home he built using 1700 and 1800’s tools and travels the country in the off season giving talks about skills from history. Interesting guy.

Click here to view the photo gallery for this post

We’ve seen so many devils—kitchens, rapids, potholes; etc. that we didn’t give Devil’s Kettle much thought until we’d hiked up and noticed that one arm of the waterfall disappeared down a hole and seemed not to come out down below.

Grand Marais slowly pulled us in. Its a small town in the middle of nowhere along Lake Superior’s awesome western shore. Breakfast at The Pie Place (we didn’t sample the pies, but breakfast was great) started it off. The campground sits at the edge of town so we could easily walk in to enjoy the town’s offerings. We snuggled in with a view out the windshield of the town harbor with its mix of pleasure and commercial fishing boats. We settled in for what became a three-day stay. As we explored we found a funky old time department store that became the source of new hiking shoes for each of us and a new Carhart winter jacket for me. It was apparent that Grand Marais had been discovered by city folk up to see fall colors. It was a most enjoyable stop.

We started to wonder if there might not be a restriction regarding kayaks. Grand Marais was alive with vehicles with canoes on their roofs, on top of trailers they were towing, or on canoe trailers. We’d yet to see a kayak being hauled. It turned out that as we traveled through northern Minnesota we saw hundreds of canoes but hardly a kayak being transported.

Wind blowing at 20 mph was on the nose as we headed out of our sheltered anchorage against the shore in Bob’s Bay into the full force of the front that had rolled in overnight. Curious to experience what it was like to be out in the wind in our boxy houseboat we headed out across the lake. Birch Lake, created by damming a river, runs a winding 20 miles or so in an east to west direction but is barely a mile wide. It borders Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Park and Voyagers National Park and has very little civilization along its shores. The gusty wind kicked up waves of a foot or so giving us a feel for how the 40 hp outboard held our pontoon-based home in windy conditions. We held course, riding well into the wind with a bit of rocking as we turned to take the wind on the beam. The ride wasn’t bad but we did feel naked with just a compass as our only navigation instrument. We missed Odyssey’s depth sounder, GPS, VHF, knot meter and radar.

Running along the lee shore we found a sheltered spot and followed Timber Bay Lodge’s recommended anchoring method. Heading into shore we grounded the bow, extended the heavy plank to reach shore with dry shoes and then ran lines out at an angle from each stern corner out to trees to hold us firmly against the shore and to hold the stern firm from swinging. Then from the cozy cabin, or from the top lounge chairs we could sit, relax, read, watch the clouds race by and just enjoy being on the water.

Our last morning was a bit of a challenge. The main outboard decided not to work in reverse. The spare, get home outboard, wouldn’t start. Pushing off with the pike pole resulted in pivoting us parallel to the shore while the rock, grounding the starboard pontoon, continued to hold us secure. Attempting to use the heavy gangplank as a pry bar got us wet but didn’t budge the heavy houseboat. Finally I stripped, got in the water, which was barely up to my knees, and by lifting a bit and shoving freed the pontoon. A bit of work with the pike pole and we were positioned so we could start the main outboard and return to the Lodge with a new boating bar story. Did I mention the air temperature was only 32 degrees?

The cage rattled, bumped, jerked and shook as it dropped us at a 78 degree angle down a half-mile below the surface to the bottom of Soudan Mine. Randy, our tour guide then piled us into a mine train for a ride to the working surface three quarters of a mile away where iron ore was once extracted. It was an awesome tour, so much so that we went down a second time, this time to tour the massive physics detector (it weights about 6,000 sedans) looking at neutrinos. The understandable part was that everything we were looking at had been broken down to fit in the same cage we had descended. The rest was all nuclear physics stuff and barely understandable.

The Hull Rust mine, the largest open pit iron mine in the US, spread itself to the horizon. It was hard to comprehend the scale of mining until we stood up against one of the retired dump trucks capable of hauling 240 tons per load. Seeing one way off down in the mine pit made its scale seem normal, but standing staring up at one and realizing that it would take 480 half ton pick up truck loads to fill it put everything into a very large perspective. Ruth calls it the Tonka truck I always wanted.

A unique piece of topography, a triple point is within the Hull Rust Mine property so it can’t be visited. It’s at the triple point where waters flow to the Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes and then the Atlantic, or to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Our fall travels touched all three watersheds.

Hull Rust Mine is in the town of Hibbings. At one point in its history the mine moved the whole town because it was in the way of mining operations. (No, we didn’t see Bob Dylan’s childhood home.)

Scenic State Park lived up to its name. We found a nicely wooded site and from there enjoyed a beautiful hike out a narrow peninsula created with the retreat of the last glacier. Early the next morning we walked another park trail before heading off looking for more fall color.

We couldn’t resist stopping to do the classic tourist pose with Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji. Practical considerations then took over, and we poked around town a bit to locate a laundromat. This one was especially nice since it offered free Wi-Fi so we could do some research while washing.

After about six crossings of the Mississippi we closed in on its headwaters in Itasca State Park. The Mississippi starts its long journey at Lake Itasca by flowing north a bit before turning south. We debated about removing shoes and wading across, but settled for the easy footbridge on the sunny but cool day we explored the park. It was especially fun for us to see the headwaters after being on the “Mighty Mississippi” in both Tranquility and Odyssey. Fall colors showed up in the park glowing with that special autumn glow we can only seem to find in northern woods. A vantage point from a fire tower spread a tree canopy carpet of pastel reds, oranges and yellows out under the moisture laden fall sky.

Minnesota’s forest gave way to bits of farmland and woods that rapidly changed to prairie covered farmlands. Rolling fields of soybeans, corn, and wheat lined the roads. Railroad tracks snaked their way to silos; and town edges featured large lots filled with John Deere and Caterpillar equipment.

Ruth and the mouse surprised one another. She’d looked down from reading just as the mouse had ventured out from under the sofa. Now we were positive of the sound we’d heard the night before. It was time to become the great small game hunter, which necessitated a stop for hunting equipment. We found the perfect outfitter in Fergus Falls. The hardware store where we’d stopped for mousetraps specialized in buying up inventory from stores going out of business. We poked around and walked out with a couple of bags of odd items in addition to the seventy-five cents worth of traps we’d stopped for.

The mouse almost bested the hunter. Morning one found two traps still set but totally clean of the peanut butter bait. The cheese was gone but the traps were still set on morning two. Ruth started wondering if I’d taken up mouse feeding. A bit of creative work with peanut butter placed under the release finally got results. The Trek now has a set baited trap just in case we get another visitor.

We ate quietly, not talking to each other but instead listening to the snippets of conservation coming from surrounding tables: …out in the field till midnight…, …soybeans dropped two cents…, …be a week before we can get to the corn with all this wet…, …I’ll take a piece of the lemon meringue pie…, drifted by as we worked our way through farmer sized dinner portions at Lange’s Café. Lange’s is now famous because of a write up in the travel book, Road Food. Our huge dinners left us stuffed. We spotted breakfast carmel rolls, a specialty of the area, and added them to the bill which came to just over $21 with a tip. We ate early and were a bit disappointed that Lange’s was out of their raisin sour cream pie, the prized Road Food entry. We visited early the next day and scored our pie, a unique taste sensation.

NOAA was forecasting a foot of snow in North Dakota. We decided to drop south and stop in Pipestone, MN to wait out the cold weather. Bundled up we explored the Pipestone National Monument which protects lands considered sacred by Indians because of the pipestone (Catlinate) quarries. For centuries natives have removed the overburden to get at the thin seam of red sediment clays turned to stone by time, heat and pressure. The red rock is easily worked with primitive instruments and turned into pipe bowls. Tiny quarries dot the monument land and many are still worked by Native Americans using traditional methods just as their ancestors. Artisans turn out beautiful peace pipes valued as works of art instead of a smoking instrument. A tiny pipestone turtle, symbolic of the mother earth, caught Ruth’s eye. It now stands beside our troll adding a bit of whimsy and character to the Trek.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: