Posting may be a bit sparse this month. My book is due at the end of the month, and I just finished up the major travel portion--oh, I have lots to tell you! But first I have to put it on paper. Oh--but you can go here to see some of my North Shore travels, including seeing the tall ships come into the Duluth harbor.
I'll leave you today with this. In tiny "downtown" Lutsen, there's a general store that really strives to accommodate any customer. So you have this:
You can get milk, toilet paper, fish bait, and -- yarn. In the back room, by the bathrooms.
Gotta love it.
Last fall I talked about Split Rock Lighthouse and how it came to be built after the dreadful winter storms of Nov. 28, 1905, which caused damage and destruction to 29 ships. Recently Voyageur Press, which publishes many wonderful Minnesota-related books, released this account of the deadly storm:
So Terrible a Storm by Star-Tribune reporter Curt Brown. The book opens with a brief explanation of the geology of the area and its history before diving into the real story: the enormous role played by shipping through the Great Lakes at the early part of the 20th century, and the development of the massive storm that had such a devastating effect on the final shipping runs of the year.
Today's weather forecasting is certainly far advanced from 100+ years ago, and yet even now it's far from an exact science. It's not surprising, then, that even though Duluth's weather forecaster, Herbert Richardson, was a diligent and painstaking forecaster (not to mention recordkeeper--years later, his meticulous records were studied for the clues they gave to the storm that emerged), still could not fully predict how punishing the storm would be.
With winds over 60 mph and rapidly falling temperatures, the ships caught at sea--many of them knowing they were taking a risk, making a last run so late in the season--had little way of defending themselves against the wintry onslaught. Some ships washed ashore, crashing into rocky cliffs; others split apart in the icy waters of Lake Superior. The most visible case was the barge Mataafa, which attempted to dock in Duluth, but crashed into the dock and split in half. The waves rolled over the barge as the crew frantically tried to save themselves; waves dashed the lifeboats against the ship, causing them to splinter into useless pieces. Lifesaving crews from shore were reluctant to take their flimsy boats out on the massive waves. A crowd of 10,000 people braved the weather to watch the drama unfold in front of them.
Brown's telling of the tragic story is lively and well-documented. He not only covers the ships, but the people who were in charge of them, as well as the executives of the shipping companies who, perhaps, did not always put safety first. Particularly appealing is his portrayal of reporter Mary McFadden, a female journalist ahead of her time, who was able to get the tough crewmen to break down and tell her the emotional side of the story.
The book is also lavishly illustrated with period photos. Brown really did his homework--he's combed historical archives all over the state and come up with some amazing pictures, including several of the stranded Mataafa. My one quibble with the book is Brown's periodic "novelization"--at times, he gives the people trains of thought that he can't possibly know is true.
But at the same time, that's what gives the book its high level of readability. And compared with the newspaper writing of the time, one can hardly accuse Brown of being overly dramatic, especially compared with Mary McFadden's writing about the crowd of onlookers watching the Mataafa flail:
"A noble lake leviathan, the Mataafa, is lying just off the canal pier with the fate of her crew unknown, while watchers are pacing up and down besides the bonfires on shore and waiting for daylight.
"Another boat is being broken to pieces by the angry seas near Lakewood, but her crew is safe and sound. Still another is beached above the canal, her crew is safe with friends. What more despoliation and tragedy awaits this morning's knowledge cannot not be guessed. Science and human endeavor and the mighty work of human hands were flouted all day and all night by the elements gone mad."
Interested in ships, storms, the North Shore, history, or how people react under severe circumstances? This book's for you.
If the name rings a bell but you can't recall why, it's likely you've heard of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, held annually in January and covering 400 miles of rugged terrain along the North Shore, one of the longest sled dog races outside of Alaska. It's named after Beargrease, a prominent Anishinabe Indian, who helped develop and for years ran the mail route between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, back in the late 1800's. In winter, he frequently used dogsleds; in summer, he would tackle Lake Superior in a rowboat.
In Daniel Lancaster's biography, reminiscences of Beargrease are interspersed with general historical accounts of the place and time, as well as several newspaper items. In doing so, Lancaster provides a lively tale of pioneer life of the times, as well as sometimes surprising insights into the relationships between the white settlers and the Native Americans.
Beargrease was the son of an Anishinabe chief, and his name represented his importance. Bear grease was a valued commodity back then, as it was a versatile household tool: cooking, conditioning animal hides, hair care, lotion, protection from frostbite, even as insect repellent (when rancid or mixed with skunk-oil--if I was an insect, I'd be repelled by that).
His tenacity at running the mail route through all kinds of weather earned him praise and respect from most quarters, but that didn't mean he was guaranteed a job. Periodically over the years, someone would underbid him, then realize they couldn't do the job as efficiently as Beargrease did--sometimes rowing 24 hours straight to make his delivery deadlines. The arrival of the steamer boat Dixon, able to use the Lake in summer and increase the number of deliveries each week for the season, reduced Beargrease's employment to winter only.
Throughout the years, Beargrease married, raised a family, struggled to manage financially, and became well known as "old John" up and down the North Shore. By the time of his death in 1910, he was helping others on the mail route on an occasional basis, something he was doing on a cold spring day that nearly turned deadly. He survived that run, but contracted pneumonia, among other illnesses, which killed him that summer.
Part of the charm of Lancaster's book are the glimpses of a life long gone. Who knew that Two Harbors was, at one time, as full of sin and sinners as any Wild West town, complete with 22 saloons and dance halls? Or that the Ojibwe regarded dogs as behing halfway between the animal and spiritual worlds?
Sometimes it wasn't the weather that slowed Beargrease down, but his fondness for alcohol. He raised the ire of North Shore residents when, after a bit too much, he found himself unable to carry the full load of mail, so left a bag of newspapers hanging in a tree. Unfortunately, those newspapers were reporting on the shocking destruction of the battleship Maine in the Spanish-American War, and residents were appalled to learn this when their papers were delivered two weeks later.
Newspapers themselves were at times tart about Beargrease's service, once noting, "It has been suggested that the carriers at the west end of the route lubricate their 'wheels' with something more reliable."
As a portrait of Beargrease himself, this would be a slim book; but Lancaster's use of news accounts, diaries, and personal interviews livens the book and gives the reader an insightful look into North Shore life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My one quibble would be that the book itself could use a thorough proofreading; there are several typos throughout. But the story is engaging and thought-provoking. After reading it, it's completely fitting to know that each year when the Beargrease Race is run, the spot for team number one is always held by the ghost of John Beargrease.
One of the joys of having spent time on the road doing research for the book was to visit places I'd seen as a child, but not since then. One of these tourist spots marks a somber anniversary today.
Split Rock Lighthouse, located north of Duluth in Two Harbors, was the result of public outcry after a fierce storm on Nov. 28, 1905, led to the damage of 29 ships. By 1910, Split Rock was up and running on the rugged North Shore coast of Lake Superior. Until advances in modern navigation systems rendered the lighthouse obsolete in 1969, Split Rock operated as a safety beacon, but it also became (and still is) a major tourist attraction, located on a beautiful and remote stretch of shoreline.
Certainly those cliffs could cause some wayward ships some problems.
Not to mention the not exactly sandy shoreline.
Visitor today can explore the cliffs and shore from the lighthouse by way of a steep, lengthy staircase:
The Minnesota Historical Society took over ownership in 1976 and has operated the lighthouse as a tourist and historic site since then. The lighthouse is located in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, run by the Minnesota DNR and open year-round. The lighthouse itself is open for visitors from May 15-October 15 each year, but the Visitor Center and gift shop are open year-round.
So why am I talking about a site that's not even fully open for six more months? Because today is the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (yes, the one memorialized by Gordon Lightfoot). Thirty-three years ago today, the Edmund Fitzgerald, a bulk freighter carrying taconite pellets to Detroit, encountered extreme weather and abruptly sank without even issuing a distress call, killing all 29 crew aboard. To this day, the cause for the disaster is still under dispute, with various theories proposed but none completely proven. Navy submersibles eventually found the wreckage in two pieces at the bottom of the lake.
Whatever the cause, it's not hard to imagine how terrifying the last minutes on the Edmund Fitzgerald must have been. The tragedy is marked every year at Split Rock Lighthouse, which opens one last time before spring. A film about the Fitzgerald is shown at the Visitor Center, and at 4:30 p.m. the names of the lost crew members will be announced while ship bells toll. Then the beacon will be lit, and guests will be able to see the lit beacon from the inside of the lighthouse--the only time each year this view is offered.
Someday I'd very much like to be there for the beacon lighting, and to see how Lake Superior's wintry views differ from the summer view I enjoyed:
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.
Last summer, while researching the book, I spent a great deal of time alone in my car. That's not a bad thing. I like to drive, listen to music, think. One particularly notable day started in Cook, MN, bright and early; the day's route edged eastward around the Boundary Waters area, past the Soudan Underground Mine, and through Ely. At that point, I turned south on Highway 1, planning to follow that until I reached Scenic Highway 61, then head north to Grand Marais. I had a room booked at a B&B on the Gunflint Trail. It was an ambitious plan, but through Ely, it was going very well.
However, the old joke about road construction being Minnesota's fifth season soon reared its ugly head. Just a few miles from Highway 61, I ran into a road closed/detour scenario. The detour took traffic off Highway 1, which was paved, and onto a rutted gravel road.
Thirty-five miles of rutted gravel road, to be specific.
In my VW Beetle.
There was no speeding. There was no going fast. There was considerable longing for a bigger, sturdier vehicle, even if it did guzzle gas.
And there began to be considerable concern over how much longer the drive was taking than I'd planned. I don't have particularly good night vision, and it occurred to me that the Gunflint Trail was probably not a well-lit roadway.
I was more than right about that. The charm of the Gunflint Trail, of course, is its natural beauty, unmarred by things like unsightly streetlights.
I arrived in Grand Marais just as the sun was starting to set, and I still had 29 miles to go until I reached my evening's resting place. I hurried as quickly as I dared along the Trail, noticing only how quickly the sun seemed to be setting. Around one corner, an animal appeared and paused at the edge of the road. I slowed down--I'm not completely stupid, I know animals dart out in front of cars--and thought, wow, there's a dog that really needs a trip to the groomer. Then another animal appeared, and I realized my mistake. These weren't dogs, at least not the domesticated variety; these were wolves.
And just like that, they turned around and went back into the woods.
I did not want to get lost on the Gunflint Trail.
Just as the last bits of daylight faded completely, I found the turnoff for the B&B and hurried my exhausted, jangled-nerve self inside.
Lucky for me, there was a reward waiting at the end of this long day. I had a room at the Poplar Creek Guesthouse, owned and operated by Barbara and Ted Young. It didn't necessarily look like much on the outside (picture taken the next morning):
The Guesthouse is tucked deep into the woods, very peaceful. It has two guestrooms and a suite, and down the road there's a cabin; deeper into the Boundary Waters, the Youngs also have a yurt for rent.
That's all very interesting, but what I really wanted was a nice, quiet room to relax and unwind. The Guesthouse more than delivered.
Cozy indeed, and comfortable, and oh-so-relaxing. This room, Ollie's Room, also had a whirlpool bath, which you can bet I used.
The sitting area was simple, but attractive and comfortable.
The guest rooms are on the second floor, and they share a common area with a kitchenette.
Couldn't you just move in there and never leave? Especially with this view from the second-floor deck:
The first floor, where the suite is located, is also a commons area and where breakfast is served daily.
What a delightful way to start the next day. Certainly my three-course breakfast, served by the attentive and friendly hosts (and no, they didn't know at first that I was writing a book; I only told them that after I'd already availed myself of their exemplary service), got my day off to a wonderful start.
I would stay there again in a heartbeat.
The northern Minnesota area officially known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (now there's a mouthful--even the acronym is a tongue-tripping BWCAW) is well known for its pristine natural setting, a haven for peaceful canoeing and camping. What those of us who don't live in the area sometimes forget is that when that area was preserved as an official wilderness, back in 1978, not everyone was enthused. Even before 1978 (in fact, for much of the 20th century), environmentalists have been at odds with local residents, who have found the restrictions and laws infuriating and debilitating in their efforts to develop tourism and make a living. Leif Enger had a nice piece on MPR a few years back, looking at the area's political history and flaring tempers.
But even as residents, tourists, and environmentalists are learning to co-exist in what is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the state, now locals face a new annoyance: Homeland Security and the Border Patrol. This weekend's Star-Tribune profiled the problems residents face with border patrol agents who don't know the area, with sometimes annoying and even deadly results.
What I found interesting about the article is an interview with residents and business owners along the Gunflint Trail, who have approached the border patrol, wanting to meet with them, get to know them, and help the patrol understand the way of life in this part of the state--including not driving so fast down the Gunflint Trail that you're in danger of running into someone who's trying to clear a fallen tree off the road so other drivers don't hit it. The article says the local border patrol is greatly interested in working with the local community, but--big surprise--they have to go through official government channels to get approval to meet.
How sad is that? Here we have a group of residents and business people that are reaching out to the border patrol in order to find a way to co-exist peacefully and productively (as one resident noted, if the border patrol needs to look out for people who don't belong, who better to work with than long-time local residents?), and the project gets stalled, waiting for government approval.
Here's hoping approval is quick in arriving, so this worthwhile endeavor can begin.