Minnesota is famous for its North Woods, a biome that it shares with no other state. It's also a midwestern agricultural powerhouse—a less distinctive quality it shares with Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
But between these two zones there's a region that's not much good for farming, has no valuable mineral deposits, and also lacks the exposed bedrock and countless pristine lakes that make the border country so appealing. It tends to be boggy or sandy, and if there were any marketable trees in the vicinity, they're long gone.
Places like Meadowlands.
But perhaps I'm only thinking of Meadowlands because I like the name, and I went there yesterday.
Meadowlands (population 143) lies south of Hibbing (but not on the Iron Range) east of Grand Rapids (though it's not a big lumbering center), and west of Duluth (but without a hint of Lake Superior glamour). It was once the headquarters of the Schniedermann Furniture company, but no longer. It's not on any major highway, and although there's a sign pointing the way at the turnoff from Highway 73, just north of Floodwood, the next two or three intersections aren't marked, so if you're heading that way, I strongly recommend bringing along a good map.
You might also want to bring some snacks. The town's only restaurant, the Trailside Bar and Grill, looks a little shaky to me. (Though it gets a few good reviews on Yelp!)
Nowadays Meadowlands is famous largely as the conurbation closer than any other to the Sax-Zim Bog.
The Sax-Zim Bog is well-known in birding circles are the best place in the lower 48 states to see boreal species such as the great grey owl, the boreal chickadee, the spruce grouse, and the hawk owl, and also such elusive species as the le Conte sparrow and the Connecticut warbler. Every winter people show up from Florida, California, and Texas hoping to add to their life lists. Sometimes they hire a guide from Duluth to make sure they do.
We had no intention of going to Meadowlands when we left the house. Our chosen destination was Savannah Portage State Park, which is located nearby in a hardly less obscure part of the state.
Two hundred and fifty years ago Savannah Portage was a six-mile slog through a swamp from a pathetic tributary of the St. Louis River to a feeble tributary of the Mississippi. It was used by the voyageurs to move trade goods and furs back and forth from the Great Lakes into the watershed of the Mississippi. Researchers today have trouble determining exactly where it went, which isn't that surprising: a muddy trail through the reeds can vanish almost overnight, and in this part of the world the fur trade was largely over by 1820. All the same, the upland sections have been charted and turned into a hiking trail.
The park is sort of like the portage—remote, obscure, under-appreciated. But there are four or five lakes within its border and many miles of hiking trails across eskers, moraines, and other hilly glacial debris.
Before leaving the house I checked to park's website. At that time there were four campsites open along the lakefront, and I reserved the one that, judging from the rudimentary map, was near the lake and had a lot of unoccupied real estate on its northern flank. What I imagined would be a thick privacy belt turned out to be an open, grassy sward leading down to the fishing dock. Oops!
Yet the site turned out to be wonderful. A few people passed by with fishing poles in the course of the afternoon. And two young girls (age 12, Hilary took a guess) came and went several times, playing some plasticized ball game in the field sloping down toward the lake. We were also out and about ourselves, circumnavigating the lake in a canoe, and later swimming at another of the park's several lakes, where we met a young couple and their adopted son. The day was very hot, and the water was pleasantly cold.
After dinner we sat on the bench looking out past the dock toward the opposite shore. The girls were goofing around on the dock, and they squealed with delight when they spotted a large snapping turtle swimming around in the shadows underfoot.
Then a man from Brainerd showed up with his granddaughter, and gave us the low-down of what had been going on in the campground in the last few days.
"You should go down and see the snapping turtle," I said. "We haven't seen it, but we've heard several reports."
The mother of the two girls crossed the field in front of us, heading for the dock. All three of them said hi as they made their way back to their campsite across the grass. The two girls reappeared ten minutes later and came over to our bench. One of them said, "I took a video of the turtle. Do you want to see it?"
That was sweet. Of course we did.
As dusk descended, we went out onto the dock ourselves, where a couple we hadn't seen before was standing around.
"You aren't the people we saw fishing this afternoon when we were out in the canoe?" I asked.
"No. We're from Pipestone," the woman said. She was pregnant. He was standing a good ways off, leaning on the rail, smoking a thin cigar.
"People were seeing a big snapper under the dock," I said. "But it's too dark to see much now."
"Is the water clear here?" she asked." Where we come from, all the lakes are green."
To make them feel more at home, I said, "We were in Pipestone just a month ago. We went to the Monument. Ate lunch at Leng's."
"And what's that sound?" the man asked, smiling but unsure of himself, as a big belch spread over the lake.
"That's a frog," Hilary said.
"Have you ever heard a loon?" I asked.
"No," the woman said.
"Well, you'll hear one tonight. It sounds like this." And I gave my best fluttering cupped-hand loon call. (Quite good, though it doesn't really sound like a loon.)
"We're camping here 'til Sunday," the woman said. That struck me as a long time to spend at one little state park.
"Then you should go to Duluth!" I practically exclaimed. "It's only an hour away. Have you ever seen Lake Superior?"
"I haven't. He has."
With all the coming and going, it was like a little lo-key party down on the fishing dock. I wanted to point out a few more bird calls, to make them feel more at home in the woods, but at that late hour nothing was singing.
We climbed the little hill back to our campsite, and when we crawled into the tent the sky was clear and the lake was calm. The thunderstorm arrived about three a.m.
The roiling thunder was loud, hissing and grumbling its fierce and bizarre locutions. Flashes of lightning illuminated the tent, though it seemed few bolts of lightning were hitting the ground—it was mostly cloud to cloud. I counted the seconds between lightning and thunder. Five. The raind started to come harder but the center of the storm was probably miles away.
We weren't exactly scared, but during our time in the park we'd seen many trees that had been mercilessly twisted and snapped or ripped up root and branch during a more severe storm that passed through a week ago. My thought was that considering the severity of that event, all the trees still standing were probably pretty sturdy. Hilary reasoned that some of them might have been sorely weakened by the last assault and were now of the verge of toppling. (We discussed this only the next morning.)
It was a hot night, no need to climb into our sleeping bags. That being the case, we decided to sleep with our shoes on, in case we had to make a dash for the shower building at the top of the hill. As the storm moved in, you could feel the waves of cooler air drift into the tent.
The day dawned bright and clear. I built a fire to heat water for the coffee (I'd forgotten to pack the stove!) and we were soon wending our way north on Aitkin County 56 and other obscure byways, past Ball Bluff and the quint, immaculate crossroads village of Jacobson, heading towards Meadowlands.