More Than 10,000 Lakes - It's a Lifetime of Memories!

It 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 downtime.

Ready to head out

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.

Bagley, 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 ...

Large snapper in the Northwoods

There 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 wanted to see. We spent the evening at a hotel 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.

Headwaters of the Mississippi

Walker, Minnesota 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.

Itasca 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!

Itasca State Park

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 in 1958.

Of 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.

Three generations at Itasca State Park

The 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.

A very young R. Karl and his older sister

Interestingly, 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!

Boulders at Itasca State Park

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 park.

We had checked out the new Visitor Center, driven around the road that circles Lake Itasca, stood where I had stood years ago 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.

Visitor's Center

As an interesting footnote, we had been to the mouth of the 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!

Paul Bunyan and Babe

A 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!

Hampton Inn & Suites in Bemidji

We 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.

Leech Lake walleye

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 many years (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!

All 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.

Leech Lake sunset

Minnesota 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!

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