Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Up North, without a Cabin

My family had a cabin when I was growing up. Hilary’s family had a cabin in Wisconsin until relatively recently. I know what it’s like to “go to the cabin.”

It’s nice.

Then there are those with a trailer parked near a lake somewhere all summer. The view ain’t great, but it’s easy to leave town in a hurry and get the boat into the water before dark.

Others visit a favorite resort with the kids, year in and year out.

All well and good.

Every time we go up north, it’s something different.

Take last weekend. I had plotted out a vacation with two fixed points: the Rodeway Inn in Pine River and Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles east of Grand Rapids.

Why? Because that motel was the only one on Highway 371 with an online reservation system and an  available room on Friday night; and the campsites at the park were similarly available at short notice.

 We strapped our bikes to the back of the car, intending to do a few new segments of the several trails that crisscross the north woods during our weekend getaway. And we also planned to stop in at the McRostie Gallery in Grand Rapids, where our niece Liza’s artwork was on exhibit. We’d agreed to pick up some pasties for friends at Pasties Plus while we were in Grand Rapids.  The rest would be ad lib (as the Romans used to say).

Surprise number one: we stopped in at Crow Wing State Park on our way north to stretch our legs and discovered they’d just completed a bike path extending from the park eight miles into Brainerd, where it connects with the Paul Bunyan Trail. The grand opening was set for Sunday.

Naturally we took it.

It’s a beautiful trail, weaving up and down modest hills high above the banks of the Mississippi, sometimes running through copses of oak trees with agricultural fields opening to the east, at other times meandering through stands of jack pine and aspen. The river itself comes into view intermittently, close at hand but far below to the west. There is almost no development until you reach the Highway 371 bridge over the Mississippi. We heard an occasional boom or rumble from Camp Ripley, the National Guard training center just across the river, but otherwise the chickadee, the flicker, and the red-eyed vireo were our only companions.

The trail passes under the highway bridge, and then crosses over it before continuing through the suburbs of Baxter and Brainerd, but you might as well turn back at that point unless you’ve got a very ambitious itinerary. 

Following a fine lunch at the Taco Bell drive-thru, still crowded at 2:30 p.m., we continued north along the Baxter Strip, which runs for miles along Highway 371. You can order every kind of hamburger and pizza known to man along the way, and buy recreational devices ranging from snowmobiles, ATVs, and jet-skis, to glamorous runabouts and ingenious docks and hoists, not to mention cars and trucks, “rustic” home furnishings, deer rifles, lakefront property—and live bait. 

Beyond Nisswa the countryside imposes itself once again, though most of the surrounding lakes—Gull Lake, Cross Lake, the Whitefish Chain, and many more—are largely out of sight down country roads. The towns you pass all have touches of character, whether it’s a fishing-bobber water tower, an attractive town square, or an oversized wooden carving of some hokey mythological figure.

The Paul Bunyan Bike Trail parallels the highway all the way to Walker. We were headed for a gravel parking lot north of Ten Mile Lake, where the trail leaves both the highway and the railroad bed behind, cutting a hilly course through the deep woods of the Shingobee River Valley toward the Heartland Trail coming in from the west.

It was a nice ride, during which we passed flowering fireweed and hemlock everywhere; a family of loons in a pond; large numbers of mosquitoes and triangular yellow deer flies; and perhaps the most impressive display of roving dragonflies I’d ever seen. Many of them were dark blue!

Along this trail we encountered our second big surprise—an isolated feller-buncher cutting down trees in the heart of the forest.

A conventional orange highway sign had given us some warning: CAUTION, LOGGING AHEAD. Coming around a bend we met up with a heavy-duty wooden pathway that had been laid across the asphalt bike trail like a xylophone made of railroad ties. 

We could see the feller-buncher off in the woods, a hundred yards away, grabbing large aspen trees with its mighty talons, then lifting and shaking them until they came crashing to earth, one after another. The process seemed more like the irrational thrashing of an angry child with a big toy than an extraordinary feat of technological prowess. A patch of woods maybe fifty yards across had been destroyed already, and the path taken by the machine to get there was no less severely beaten down.

We all need wood, of course. And most forest animals like clearings. So do I.

On our way back to the car we passed the operation again, by which time the machine had made its way much closer to the trail. It was easier to see the studded grippers on the arm, though I never did see a saw blade or the operator inside the cab. I was hoping to get a good photo of a towering aspen in freefall, halfway to the ground, but things happen too fast. And I was also uncomfortably aware of how hard it is to gauge exactly where a tree will land if it’s coming right at you.

I had done some research on the local restaurants but we ended up having a picnic supper at the city park in Bachus—another pleasant surprise—a few feet from the shores of Pine Mountain Lake. 

Fifty yards to the north of where we sat, fishing boats passed in and out occasionally through a narrow channel connecting the tiny municipal landing with the big lake. 

The lake itself was quiet. The sky was gray but not really threatening. Someone had piled a bunch of snail shells onto the picnic table. A young, shirtless man walked past us carrying a fishing rod on his way out in the reedy point beyond. Later he walked back to his car and had a long discussion with his girlfriend before they both came out to fish.

We wandered Bachus’s main street—not a soul in sight—observing the well-carved corn-man statue and reading the signs about the upcoming rodeo in Effie. Biggest in Minnesota. It’s been held annually for sixty-odd years. The sun had dropped below the clouds and everything carried a golden glow of childhood summer nights.

We got an additional flash of nostalgia back in Pine River, as we drove past the volleyball courts next to the Dairy Queen, both of which were full of people: an adult game and a kids game, or so it appeared. Turning east down Main Street, we came to the dam and the beautiful swimming beach on the reservoir just upstream, with its tall white pines and rustic CCC-era buildings.

Our motel was just south of town, but it didn’t have much atmosphere. In fact, the proprietress was the opposite of welcoming as she checked us in, as if she were doing us a favor after a long, hard, thankless day of changing sheets. She had a stud in her tongue, which made it a little hard to understand what she was saying.

The lone window in our room looked out on a shadowy hallway. (Well, I had asked for an upstairs room at the back.) The people next door talked all night, but the conversation was fairly subdued, and with the air-conditioning fan turned on, it sounded like a murmuring brook--sort of.

The breakfast was minimal. Hot coffee, but no tops for the cups! (Heaven forbid that anyone would take a cup of coffee back to the room!) Yogurt? No. Fruit? No. Hard boiled eggs? No. Pastries dripping with sugar, of the kind you buy in a six-pack from Hostess, if you’re twelve years old and really desperate. (I only ate two.) Two kinds of breakfast cereal—Fruit Loops and Cap’n Crunch—as if the motel patrons were all under five years old. Yet the parking lot was full of expensive vehicles, boats, and trailers loaded with ATVs.
Real orange juice? Dream on.

Yet the sky was cloudless and the air was cool. After greeting one fisherman in the parking lot, I looked up at the sky and said exuberantly: “I feel like I’m in Colorado!” There was no response.

The drive north through the shadowy woods and open fields along Highway 84 was simply spectacular. And the breakfast burrito we bought in Longevlle was far better than average.

We were on our way to Grand Rapids to bike the Mesabi Trail and see some art…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved the travelogue but as I neared the end it was sad... I feel as though there is opportunity here - could envision offering improvment via an espresso machine, some fruit, and a few homemade muffins or bread. Wow, your breakfast (or lack thereof) at the (not so charming) motel makes me want to go high end on future travel ventures... your cousin, Pat