Sunday, November 21, 2010

North of Grand Rapids

Gray, leafless November. It’s a time of year to stay home in front of the fire and leave the woods and lakes to the hunters. But it’s also a beautiful time to be out (ask a hunter), when the snow arrives as flecks of soft white dust and the ice is just forming on the lakes. The bogs take on new prominence, now that the leaves are gone from the trees and bushes and the branches show red or orange at the tips. The snow brings light to the scene, one element among many, but it has not yet obliterated all the subtlety in the details.

We spent the weekend in a lakeside cabin at a resort on Woman Lake, at the north end of that fifty-mile welter known collectively as the Brainerd Lakes. It’s hilly around Woman Lake, and perhaps a little wilder than down in the flatter land among the mansions on Crosslake and Gull and Whitefish. In fact, driving east from Woman Lake through Longville toward Remer, you pass nothing but bogs and woods for a good twenty miles. At one point Hilary spotted a large bird flying up from the ditch as we passed. We did a u-turn. It was a great gray owl. (People come from all over the United States to see them.)

Our route took us north from Remer to Deer River and on to Big Fork, where logging isn’t just a matter of rustic deck furniture and Paul Bunyan statues. We bought some wild rice sausage at the local supermarket but couldn’t bring ourselves to check out the Loggers Food and Drink south of town.

Seven miles east of town we paid a visit to Scenic State Park, which has several pristine lakes lined with old growth white pines (preserved due to the efforts of some prescient local residents back in the 1920s) and some of the finest log CCC buildings in the north country. The ice was just beginning to form on the lakes, there was a hint of blue coming through the clouds, and the dusting of snow on the ice sheet, with dark water beyond and dark pines in the background, made for an arresting scene.

We would have hiked out along the esker between the lakes but the ranger advised us that if we did, we might get shot. Our bright orange stocking hats JUST might not be enough of an indication that we were NOT six-foot two-legged deer.

On a gravel backroad north of Marcel we came upon some logging operations that bore the marks of having just been completed. Huge, beautiful trees lying on their sides in a pile, all in a row. Slag carefully scraped into piles near the road, and some of the pines left standing, whether because it kept the forest looking respectable, or because it was required by law, or because they’d be worth more later, I don’t know.

I love seeing cut forests. Why? Because I love things that are made out of wood. And wood comes from trees. But it’s especially nice to see an intelligent, tasteful cut, out in the middle of nowhere. But what do I know about cutting trees?

I love piles of logs sitting by the side of the road. And I love lumber yards, though I have not developed any skill at making things from wood myself, and I’m sure I never will. In fact, I’ve never tried. I also love paper. And I have made more than a few books.

Our drive south on Highway 38 toward Grand Rapids took us through some of the hilliest country Minnesota has to offer, past the Suomi Hills and other intriguing areas of low-impact recreational development. There were swans drifting on several of the austere gray lakes.

Back at our cozy cabin, we cooked up a butternut squash stew with corn and jalapeños, and then settled into the evening reading. The sky outside the window was a deadly gray. The lake was grayer still. The wind was from the southeast, which at this time of the year usually means snow.

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