Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Leaf Hills

Remark overheard at the Traveler’s Café in Alexandria, Minnesota, two days after Thanksgiving:”We didn’t do any shopping. We stayed home all day yesterday and watched movies.”

We, too, avoided the malls on Black Friday, a day that would seem less black if it weren’t so heavily advertised. Inspired by an email ad from the Country Inn motel chain, we booked a room in Alexandria, hopped in the car, and headed northwest toward the Leaf Hills. This little-known (and easy to overlook) geographic feature consists of a range of hills running in an arc from Detroit Lakes to Sibley State Park north of Willmar—a stretch of more than a hundred miles. It’s also referred to as the Alexandria Moraine.

The name of this range of hills is a rough translation of an Ojibwe word for the region, Gaaskibag-wajiwan, which means something on the order of “Rustling Leaf Mountains.”

The Leaf  Hills, on the left, in red
We didn’t hear much rustling ourselves—most of the leaves have long since fallen. But we made an interesting day of it all the same. Though the sun was bright the temperature continued to drop throughout the day and the wind was bitter, blowing around the buildings in downtown St. Cloud. We got a taste of Black Friday as we stepped into Herbergers to find a bathroom—families were rushing this way and that, clutching down comforters and bright pink iPad covers. We spent a few minutes in the used bookstore across the street and wandered into a coffee-shop on another corner that turned out to be a bank. I believe the saleswoman was truly shocked when I told her we got 2.5 percent interest on our checking account.
“I think you mean .25 percent.”

“No, 2.5 percent.”

Well, no free coffee for us.

Our one purchase of the morning was in the ’Lectric Fetus, where I nabbed a 2-CD set of a Stan Getz Quartet live performance, circa 1981, for $3.25. As we continued northwest along the freeway to Sauk Centre we listened to inspired (yet mellow) interpretations of  “My Old Flame,” “Easy Living,” and “Sweet Lorraine.”

At Sauk Centre we left the freeway, heading north and west to Lake Osakis and on to Lake Carlos State Park, just north of Alexandria. The blanket of gray clouds had caught up with us by that time. We spotted five swans cruising majestically on the lake just as we arrived at the park entrance. The park itself was deserted.

A Few Muskrats on the Ice
Ice had formed on the west side of the lake, and the drifting snow was collecting at the base of the reeds near shore. We watched five muskrats eat their Thanksgiving dinner on the ice—the young’ens clearly smaller and lighter in color than their parents. But it was only after we left the park heading north and west that the countryside became hilly.   

This part of Minnesota is dotted with lakes, but they’re often surrounded by farms, which undercuts the “woodsy” feel to some degree. The farms themselves are often attractive, and the dusting of snow in the furrows made them more so. The sun broke through the clouds again as we proceeded north on Douglas County 8 north of Leaf Valley, and the distant farms to the west looked spectacular in the glinting brightness. We pulled over at one point to study a large flock of birds flitting through the bushes near the road. Snow buntings? Horned larks? No, they were redpolls!

The hike through the woods to the top of Inspiration Peak, which rises 400 feet above the surrounding countryside, was easier than I remembered it, and the view from the top was better, no doubt because we could see more, now that the aspens have lost their leaves. Gray hills and lakes spread away to the horizon in every direction, with the green-white trunks of aspen and tiny daubs of red sumac berries brightening the scene.

Sinclair Lewis is responsible for giving the hill its current name. The Ojibwe, who also recognized its prominence amid the surrounding countryside, called it Gaaskibag-wajiw, which I would imagine means “Rustling Leaf Mountain.”

Our return to Alexandria took us past some very fine country—the heart of the Leaf Hills, as it were—past Lake Christina, through Evansville, and down into flat country again alongside the railroad tracks. It was dark by the time we got back to town.

The next morning we headed out to the farmsite where, in 1898,  Olaf Ohman allegedly unearthed the Kensington Runestone. I’m a believer myself, though I’m not an expert in medieval runic symbols. I can’t go into the details of the controversy here, though I think at the very least Mr. Ohman, an immigrant from Sweden, ought to be given credit for devising a runic artifact that included a number of symbols that the scholars in Scandinavia had never seen before—though they were later found to be current during the fourteenth century. That’s quite a trick.

In any case, the park is a lovely place; the farmhouse still stands, there are trails through the woods, and for what it’s worth, the first jail and  railroad depot building from nearby Kensington have also been moved to the site.

From there it was on to Starbuck, Glacial Lakes State Park, Terrance Mill, and Ordway Prairie—all situated in the midst of sandy, rolling hills that were fun to wander through. We followed the signs for Glacial Ridge Trail down some fairly obscure gravel roads before finally jumping onto Highway 55 and drifting back to town.

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