The Finest of Times
The Life and Times of Mr.
Turtles, Eagles &
Bears... Oh My!
Hall of Fame
all started the with a last-minute snafu that had the potential to cancel
altogether a vacation that was a year in the making... Fortunately,
there were other plans that were apparently in the cards for us and,
with a bit of scrambling, an alternate destination was able to be input
and we headed out of town on time and anticipating some well deserved
I have always been a big believer
in the power of fate -- that all things happen for a reason. The actual
reason for the fouled-up itinerary is something of which I will never
be even remotely sure; something more powerful than me and my ability
to control my destiny was at work, and I shall not question the whys
or the wherefores. All I know is that our new destination was very near
to the place where I had spent many a summer vacation as a young boy.
Minnesota is a very small town located approximately 150 miles west
of Duluth, and I have memories from there that reach far beyond what
I can actually recall on a moment's notice; they are locked in my brain
and only occasionally come flooding back, tripped by a sight, sound
or smell that just happens innocently along. The memories are incredibly
powerful and filled with the joyous emotions that only young boys can
comprehend: picnicking (with the Neujahrs and Krauses); swimming underneath
and sitting on the submerged timbers of the diving platform at the local
beach at Lake Lamond, watching various fish cruise past; taking a ride
in Hank Krause's jeep and waiting while Hank stopped to shoot a giant
snapping turtle, prepared later in a huge batch of strange and wonderfully-tasting
soup; picking bing cherries with my mother and grandparents alongside
a gravel road; catching northern pike with my father; watching my sister
discover her first tick and trying to decide what to do next ...
are thousands more, and they all now moisten my eyes with little difficulty
when I recall them. So when our altered destination became
Walker, and Minnesota's Leech Lake
-- only about 35 miles from Bagley -- the floodgates of memory lake
suddenly opened wide. Fishing for walleye (or any other species for
that matter) suddenly took a back seat to a few other sights that I
was want to see. We spent the evening at the Americinn in Walker and
planned our agenda for the following day: a visit to the source of the
Mississippi River and to Bemidji,
home of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox.
is a scant twenty-nine miles from
Itasca State Park, a place that my father had decided the family
should visit, back in (circa) 1958. He was always trying to take us
to some place or another -- a state or national park or historical place
of significance -- we (my sister and I) were never interested in acquiring
historical or any other type of additional information. After all, we
were on vacation! Patti was interested in swimming and tanning; I was
interested only in things like fish and frogs and skipping stones across
the nearest puddle, pond or lake.
was different. It had a teepee, an Indian Chief and large stones stretching
across a small stream at the end of the lake, trickling away... to where
I did not know. My father told us that this was the very beginning of
the Mississippi River. At that point in my life, I knew next to nothing
about the great river, except perhaps, how to spell it. I did manage
to coerce my parents into buying me a peace-pipe from the chief (the
chief had a small store of souvenirs for sale) but, other than standing
on those rocks in the middle of the infant Mississippi, I remembered
little, not even the pictures taken of our family and of my sister and
me. Until, of course, I discovered how close I would once again be to
Itasca State Park. The memories of course came flooding back once again...
and the water was just fine!
Sunday morning dawned a beautiful day. The only potential
fly in the ointment was the threat of thunderstorms for later in the
day. The drive to Itasca was interesting; the highway was almost void
of automobiles, and the distinct lack of buildings made it seem almost
as if I had been transported back to 1958. Of course I remember little
of the park from the last time I saw it, especially how incredibly huge
it was: Minnesota's oldest state park (established in 1891), Itasca
has more than 100 lakes and is just shy of 33,000 acres in size! And
things are now likely much different from the way they would have appeared
course, my underlying motive was that I wanted to see the spot and the
rocks on which I stood so many years ago. I also wanted to find the
teepee (would an Indian Chief still be there as he was so many years
ago?) and the sign in front of which I posed with my sister, parents
and grandmother. It said: "In baseball, as in life, it's the number
of times you reach home safely that counts." To my chagrin, the
teepee was long gone, the original gift shop was but a pile of decaying
logs and the Indian Chief was nowhere to be found. Disappointingly,
the sign was gone as well, and a very old photograph documenting that
day is all that remains now.
stones across the Mississippi were however, still in place. I stood
upon them once again, trying to remember that long-ago day with my sister
standing next to me. I was indifferent as to whether or not they were
the exact same stones but somehow I felt they had to be... Heidi snapped
numerous photos to record the event and we headed back to the car, past
increasing throngs of families headed to the same spot for what I hoped
were similar reasons that my father had brought us there so long ago.
There was now a new and much larger gift shop chock full of souvenirs
and trinkets, but no peace-pipes were to be found. A helpful employee
who remembered well the "old" park, told me of the "improvements"
to the park and how the Chief (he now had a name: Ben Littlecreek) had
gone the way of the teepee, the sign and the old gift shop. The new
memories did not replace the old ones; they simply enhanced them.
I am now fascinated by things -- like the history and geology of the
park -- that I had little use for as a young boy; much more so than
my father would ever have believed. But after all, what eight-year-old
is interested in Geology, geography and history? I just wanted to go
swimming and fishing!
The history of the park is incredibly interesting:
landscaped by ancient glaciers that advanced into the area, dates back
some 8,000 years to the early Indian hunters there who counted on the
bison, deer and moose in the area as a source of food. The headwaters
of the Mississippi were discovered by an American explorer --
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft -- in 1832 when he was led there by an Anishinabe
Indian guide. You would have to see the area in person to get a sense
of how difficult the journey must have been, especially back then (it's
pretty remote, even today). In the late 1800s, it was the tireless efforts
of Jacob V. Brower to save the incredible pine forests from intensified
logging in the area that eventually led to the establishment of the
had checked out the new Visitor Center, driven around the road the circles
Lake Itasca, stood where I had stood and visited the gift shop. Somehow
I just could not bring myself to stay for lunch in the modern, new restaurant.
Don't get me wrong. Itasca is a beautiful resource and I highly recommend
a visit to it if you are anywhere in the vicinity. For some reason --
on this particular day anyway -- I just preferred to remember the park
as it appeared to me in 1958.
As an interesting footnote, we had been to the mouth
Mississippi in New Orleans in March (oddly, only a day after my
father's birthday), and now, less than three months later, I had stood
at the source of the very same river, some 2550 miles away!
trip back to Bemidji was also
a must, as it was there that I caught my first -- and never-to-be-forgotten
-- glimpse of a giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, both standing
watch on the shores of Bemidji Lake. They were beautifully painted with
what appeared to be a fresh coat of blue (for the ox and Paul's pants)
and red/black check for Paul's shirt. Even as a grown adult, the towering
statues were as big as I had remembered. This was also the lake over
which I took my first float-plane ride and on which I took a small paddle-boat
ride with my sister. She will never forgive me for allowing her to do
most of the work paddling the device... Great shopping, dining and lodging
abound; just don't forget about all of the excellent spots on the lake
to try for walleye, northern pike and musky!
enjoyed a night at the
Hampton Inn & Suites there and dinner at the Green Mill restaurant,
where I think I spent more time reminiscing about those early years
and adventures than anything else. The town, much like Itasca State
Park, was newer and bigger; the roads were wider and there were more
places to shop, stay and dine. The kid in me wanted things to be the
way they were... I fell asleep knowing that wasn't possible, my dreams
that night told me otherwise.
From there and back in Walker once again -- the weather
did not cooperate as fully as I had hoped, making fishing difficult.
But for the first time back on Leech Lake in
(I had actually been in a boat with my parents there when I was two
years old), we didn't do all that badly, able to catch some fish and
eat some for dinner, too. (The champ was a 25-inch walleye that was
just less than legal size and had to be released.) We definitely had
a lot of fun!
too soon, the trip was at its end; it was time to return home to where
numerous responsibilities were waiting. For many, six hundred miles
seems like a long way to go for a summer trip. My father drove it every
summer for many years -- until both my sister and I were at the point
where we had too many school activities in which we were involved and
those trips came to a screeching halt. Back then there were no Interstate
highways and the trip must have taken
way longer than
it does today. But I know that my parents always felt those trips were
worth the time and energy. And of course no matter we journeyed, my
father always wanted to add those extra and "educational"
side trips, the ones that finally -- many years later -- had their desired
impact on me.
does have its 10,000 lakes. They are all filled with various species
of fish, and the forests that surround the pristine waters are filled
with abundant and beautiful wildlife many who have never experienced
often take for granted. There are countless small towns with some of
the friendliest people I have met. But for me, Minnesota is so much
more than just 10,000 lakes. It is a
lifetime of memories
from both the past and the present. Likely there will be future
memories as well; Heidi and I make new ones every day. Thanks, Mom and
Dad, for providing those memories -- the ones that make me smile, love
and appreciate what you have done for me. Neither you nor I knew back
then what a great gift you would bestow upon me: curiosity and a desire
to learn more about, explore and enjoy the world in which I live. I
love you guys!