To Minnesota, then Up North


On the North Shore of Lake Superior, near Grand Portage, Minnesota

Four nights at home was pretty nice (the dogs especially liked it).  On Wednesday, August 22, I flew home to Minnesota.  It was, once again, State Fair time, and your scribe has not missed the fair since the mid-1980s – more than three decades.  Landed at noon, picked up a swell little Toyota rental car, and headed to the nearby Fort Snelling National Cemetery and my dad’s grave.  Thanks given then, and every single day.


Along the way to Minnesota: dunes on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, and some of the last farmland in rapidly suburbanizing Washington County, east of St. Paul


Next stop was lunch with the Honorable Michael J. Davis, Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court, and a friend for 45 years (back then, Linda was an intern in the poverty-defense law firm where Mike worked after graduating from law school).  It had been too long, three years, and we got caught up on family, jobs, health, and a little dab of the current and grim national situation.  But only a little, and in the parking lot as we departed.  I used the men’s room in the restaurant to change into shorts and a T-shirt, then walked 100 feet to a station of Nice Ride, the local bikeshare system.  Earlier in the day I bought a $6 day pass online, and off I went, west to bike paths on Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun (renamed Bde Maka Ska, because Calhoun was an icky fellow), and Lake Harriet, then east along Minnehaha Creek – all familiar from more than 50 years of riding through Minneapolis’ splendid parkland.  It was a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, nice breeze, and I covered 23 miles.


On the Minnehaha Creek bike path, and the venerable #1300 streetcar, restored and still rolling after more than a century

Was back at the restaurant at about 4:45, headed into the bar for an iced tea and Wi-Fi connection to do some work, then motored a couple of miles east to the Black Forest Inn, a German fave since 1971, and dinner with Jinny Jensen, recent widow of my 12th grade English teacher, and my pals Bob and Paula Woehrle.  We had a good yak about recent travels, books, and more, then headed to the Woehrles for a good sleep in their guest room.


After the ride: Minnesota wheat beer from Schell’s

Bob and I were up the next morning before six, and out the door to opening day at the fair.  Arriving that early, we parked on the street close to the fairgrounds, and headed into the action.  It was a cool morning, tonic, and I was pumped.  First stop was the animal barns – more precisely sheep, rabbits, and poultry.  We walked back across the fairgrounds and lined up for breakfast at the “dining hall” of the Salem Lutheran Church.  It was a long queue.  Pals Rick Dow and Steve Schlachter texted that they would be late because of traffic and bus woes.  Rick found us as we were finishing breakfast, and we then walked into the traditional first stop, the juried art show.  This year’s show was substantially better than previous years, and we really enjoyed it.  Steve and his longtime pal Skip found us just as we were entering stop two, the Creative Activities show, a showcase of all sorts of domestic talents, from needlepoint to woodworking to baking and canning.  Hewing to the proven formula, stop three was the Horticulture building for a look at crop art (only in Minnesota), award-winning vegetables, flowers, Christmas trees, and lots more – plus the increasingly large set-up of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Association.  It was 10:30, but time for a cold one, or more accurately samples of four cold ones.


At left, a man committed to his flock



Works from the juried art show


Left, Tim Walz, candidate for governor; at right, a weaver demonstrating both her skills and some true wisdom (atttributed to Albert Einstein)


In the Creative Activities exhibits


You can win a ribbon for all sorts of stuff!


“Crop art” is a distinctly Minnesota genre; lots of entries depicted contemporary events and themes


Next time you sit down to a meal, think of these hardworking farmers


Marching animals (equine and human) are a big part of the fair

Bob and Rick peeled off, and Steve, Skip, and I headed to the animal barns, back to the poultry, sheep, and rabbits, plus the much larger displays of 4-H cattle and hogs.  And goats.  Always good, at least once a year, to think about from where our food comes, and who works hard to produce it.  As I have written many times, domestic animals are truly a wonderful gift.  We three sat for a half hour to relax and yak a bit more, then I walked briskly back to the car and pointed it north toward Duluth, at the far west end of the enormous Lake Superior.

I wisely paused at Hinckley for mid-afternoon refreshment at Tobie’s, a place I’ve known for almost 60 years.   Sitting down at the counter, my friendly greeting to Teri the waitress seemed to confuse her.  “I like to be civil,” I explained.  “Bless your heart,” she said, “I could use a little civility today,” then itemized three or four unpleasant encounters she had with rude tourists.  When I left, she patted my arm and said “thank you for making my day.”


One of Tobie’s celebrated caramel rolls. Yum!

I drove on, cresting the hill above Duluth for the first views of the magnificent Lake Superior.  That sight always makes me smile, and feel truly Minnesotan.  Headed through town to the far east end, the Lester Park neighborhood, and an Airbnb hosted by Julie, a young athletic trainer at the College of St. Scholastica, a small liberal arts college.  Washed my face, worked a bit, and at 6:45 drove a few miles west to Tavern on the Hill and a splendid catch-up dinner with Bob Ryan.  Bob and my Cousin Jim were roommates at the University of Notre Dame, and I’ve known him for more than 25 years – back in the late 1990s, Linda and I bought a vacation rental property, a splendid log house right on Superior, from Bob’s resort development company.  Bob is a quality person, a true citizen, and we talked a lot about his community service, among other topics.

Slept hard that night, through thunderstorms, and woke Friday morning to pelting rain.  The day held a clear mission: before my brother Jim’s memorial service seven weeks earlier, I asked Pam if she would set aside some of Jim’s ashes for me to take back to the North Shore of Lake Superior, to the special landscapes we first saw in 1957 and enjoyed almost every year for a decade.  She agreed, and had part of Jim neatly packaged in two Ziploc bags, which went into my backpack.  As in Oregon, I wanted to deliver him to the wind, the water, and the earth, and thought hard about the three best places.  I had a plan.   Jim went to the winds at the scenic overlook off Highway 61 at Good Harbor Bay, five miles west of Grand Marais.  We stopped there on our first trip up the North Shore in August 1957, and I remember the scene like it was yesterday.  As I did on the 50th anniversary of the stop in 2007, I cued a wonderful, soulful tune, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko’s “Heart of the Heartland.”  I spoke a few words of prayer, and scattered him into rainy skies.


Good Harbor Bay

Drove into Grand Marais, to the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op for a picnic breakfast, which I gobbled quickly on the front steps of the store.  It was time for stop two, sending Jim to the waters.  Back in the day, the family vacationed at Greenwood Lake Lodge, a simple resort on that large lake, up the Gunflint Trail, a paved county road.  I drove up the highway, and turned east onto a Forest Service road; it was way better than the rutted track that once connected the highway to the resort (the one that tore the transmission of our 1959 Mercury!), and in no time I was on a small bay at the south end of the lake, not far from the portage we used to Sunfish Lake (more a pond) that was our go-to place for walleye fishing.  It was still raining steadily.  I walked out on a small dock and said another goodbye and prayer as Jim entered the cold water.


Greenwood Lake

Drove back to Grand Marais for stop three, the pebbled beach on the east end of town.  On Sundays, the day after we arrived at the resort, the family would drive into town to mass at St. John’s Catholic Church (it’s still there), then down the hill for a big breakfast at the East Bay Hotel (also still there, though modernized).  After gobbling our pancakes, Jim and I would head down to the beach to look for agates and skip stones into the big lake.  At the south end of the beach, I returned Jim to the earth.  My three-part memorial was done.  Amen.  And tears.


East Bay Beach


Jim’s return to the earth (left), and good things from it — flowers outside the café


Grand Marais harbor from the Angry Trout


Though it no longer stands tall  on the roof, I remember this sign from the 1950s

My picnic breakfast was a bit thin, so I headed to a fave place, the Angry Trout Café, for a fresh whitefish sandwich (assuredly fresh, because fisherman Harley Tofte’s boat and dock are right next door!).  Back in the car, north and east on Highway 61 to the Grand Portage National Monument, almost at the Canadian border.  “Grand Portage” was the 8.5 mile trail from the Pigeon River to Lake Superior that had been walked for centuries, a detour around a series of waterfalls.

In the mid- to late-18th Century, England’s North West Company set up a trading post there: Indians and French trappers would bring pelts, mostly beaver, from as far as Alberta and Saskatchewan to Grand Portage, where they were sold and loaded onto lake canoes (see photos for more detail).  At the new and well-done Heritage Center, I watched an excellent 20-minute movie that told the story, then walked a few hundred yards to a recreated trading depot, with interpreters dressed in period costume explaining tipi and canoe building, fur trading, and the annual cycle at the outpost.  It was fascinating, very well done, a credit to the National Park Service (currently undergoing a budget slash from the Trump Administration) and cooperation from the Grand Portage Ojibwe people, who own the land.


Birch bark, essential material for the Ojibwe, for housing and transport (below), and more





The exhibits also told the story of how the furs were used in England — Brennan the furrier made things from ermine (left), and others made artists’ brushes from badger


But it was the beaver, or rather his or her pelt, that was the major driver of the North West fur trade


A lake canoe, and Lake Superior visible through the gate; these vessels were 36 feet long, 4 feet wide, and could carry up to 4 tons of cargo; the journey to or from Montreal took 6 to 8 weeks.

Drove a few miles north and joined the line to enter Canada, then continued north to Thunder Bay, an industrial and port city: they make things (forest products, railcars, other stuff) and move things (railways into the port carry grain and other exports from Western Canada for shipment through the Great Lakes and on to oceans).  Thunder Bay was formerly the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, and the urban form reflects that history.  Found the Airbnb on McGregor, a comfortable and eclectic older home in a prosperous neighborhood of the former Fort William.  My host, Anne-Marie, was out of town, too bad, because in correspondence she seemed like a way-interesting person.  Had a short chat with Brandon from Calgary, another Airbnb guest.  Washed my face and headed out, north a few miles to the Dawson Trail Craft Brewery, one of two micros in town.


You know you’re going to have a great Airbnb experience when the front door welcomes you!

With nearly a half-century of experience with drinking places, I can quickly size up the vibe, often right at the front door, and Dawson was immediately welcoming.  A small (maybe 15 feet by 30 feet) taproom was in front of the brewery.  People were smiling, laughing, enjoying the end of the week.  I sidled up to the bar and got a glass, then starting chatting with a fellow American.  Then I yakked with Wes and Murray, locals with lots of good stories about the outdoors (Wes told me he was going fishing the following Sunday morning: 3 hours each way to a river brimming with walleyes – he once caught (and released) 140 fish in 5 hours).   Murray was from Saskatchewan, and we talked a bit about Prairie agriculture.  The 2018 harvest was coming in, and it was big (not as large as in 2015, which they told me took two years to clear).


At Dawson Trail; right, Murray and Wes

Then I yakked with Kari, who worked at the brewery but was not on duty.  I told her about my mission that day, returning brother Jim north, and she started to cry.  “Not tears of sadness,” she said.  Also yakked with the Anderson brothers.  Kari offered the other American and me a Thunder Bay pastry specialty, the Persian, a hole-less doughnut topped with a lot of pink icing.  It went well with our ale!  It was a great couple of hours.


A Persian and a beer

Anne-Marie had recommended a simple restaurant on the Fort William First Nation, an Indian reservation south of the city.  Motored down to the Rez, but the place was closed “due to labor shortage,” so I headed to other Indian food, the Monsoon Indian Restaurant not far from the Airbnb.  Tucked into a huge and very spicy meal.  On the way out I had a nice T-t-S with the co-owner.  They came from the Punjab in 2007, originally to near Toronto, then moved to Thunder Bay in 2011.  “Did they tell you about winter?” I asked.  She laughed and said, “Yes, but we quickly got used to it!”  You have to admire the adaptability of immigrants.


Was up at 6:30 Saturday morning, out the door before daylight, for a look around Thunder Bay.  East to the port area of Fort William, then north to downtown Port Arthur, where the lakefront (south of its docks) had been substantially redeveloped with condos, a new hotel, marina, and parkland.  It looked really good.  Took a short walk and had a nice T-t-S with Margot, who answered a few questions about the place.  She was a local, and told me a lot of interesting things.


St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church


By the port; Canadian grain feeds a lot of people worldwide


The 1905 Canadian Pacific depot, Port Arthur, and the former logo of the Canadian National, on a restored caboose nearby


Thunder Bay factories: Resolute Forest Products (lumber, wood pellets, building materials) and Bombardier Transportation (passenger railcars and trams)


Breakfast time!  My Toyota rests beneath.

Back in the car, west to my fave Canadian breakfast venue, Tim Horton’s.  While waiting for my oatmeal and muffin, had another T-t-S with a teenager wearing a Westfort (short for West Fort William) Hockey hoodie:

Me (pointing at the team logo): Are you guys good?
Him: Nope.
Me: Okay, but are you having fun on the ice?
Him: Yup.
Me: Attaboy.  That’s really all that matters.

Five minutes into breakfast, another T-t-S with a guy about my age, who appeared to be part Ojibwe:

Him: Can’t get today’s paper out of the machine by the door; it’s stuck.
Me: Well, it’s probably the same old news.
Him: Yeah, but I always like to look at the obituaries to make sure my name isn’t there.
Me: I hear you.  Being vertical is better than horizontal.
Him: For sure.

Back in the car, south on the highway, and across the border into the United States (where the officer asked rather a lot of questions, way different than entering at an airport).  Parked at the Visitor Center of the Grand Portage State Park, separate from the national monument (which is several miles south and west), and walked a half-mile up the Pigeon River to the High Falls, a drop of about 130 feet and the reason for the grand portage: you just wouldn’t want to be in a canoe at that point in the river, just upstream from Lake Superior!


The High Falls of the Pigeon River, the reason for the Grand Portage



The persistence of nature: a fir tree sprouts in rock on the river bank


One of many Ojibwe decorative works in the state park visitor center

The lake views were much better than the day before, some truly dramatic vistas.  Arrived back in Grand Marais about ten, bought a sandwich and banana for a drivetime lunch, and wandered around.  The parking lot of the coop was full of artists and craftspeople selling their wares (and some junk made in China), and the lineup of smaller chainsaw sculptures caught my eye, a bear in particular.  After texting the photo to Linda and calling, we agreed that Mr. Bear would look great on our front porch.  Done!  Ambled over to the town’s craft brewery, Voyageur, for the 11:00 tour hosted by Casey from Virginia.  She knew a ton, and it was easily the most thorough brewery tour I’ve ever done, and I’ve been touring them for almost 50 years.  (Two tidbits: their water comes from the municipal supply, which comes right out of the big lake, no chlorination or other treatment, just pure water; and they have begun to buy hops from a new farmer in Hovland, 17 miles northeast.)  There were samples along the way, some really fine brews.



Scenes from a thorough brewery tour

When I got to town an hour earlier, I called my long friend Tim McGlynn, who I knew might also in town, ready to head by seaplane to Isle Royale, a national park in Lake Superior, with two other long buddies.  The call rolled to voicemail, so I figured they had already departed.  But he called me back five minutes later and said he was in a chartered fishing boat two miles offshore.  I suggested lunch, and John Massopust, Tom Terry (who by another coincidence I saw at the State Fair art show two days earlier), and Tim joined me on the deck of the Voyageur for an hour of laughs and reminiscence.  It was travel serendipity on steroids!  Whew!


Friends since 1963: Tim McGlynn, John Massopust, and Tom Terry


Hopped in the car at two, pedal to the metal, and was back at the Woehrles by 6:10.  We had a couple more beers, and a delicious dinner of pork chops and vegetables.  So yummy, home cooking.  Was asleep just after nine.

Bob gets up early (way before six), and we headed out on bikes (I borrowed Paula’s) for a swell 14-mile ride, mostly on the bike paths that have spread all across the Twin Cities.   Great ride, yakking along the way.  Back home for a bowl of raisin bran and coffee, showered, hugs, out the door.  I had several hours, so I motored into downtown St. Paul for a look around (it had been a couple of years), and the center looked really good.  Lively, even on a Sunday morning, lots of people heading toward a Farmers’ Market in Lowertown.  Meandered back to the neighborhood where we lived from 1978 to 1987, past the bungalow that was our first house, and to a nearby coffee shop on Grand Avenue (sadly, my favorite bakery across the street, Wuollet’s, is closed Sundays).  Back to the airport, drop the car, Mr. Bear past the TSA screeners, and onto American Eagle nonstop back to Washington.  A splendid visit back to my roots.


Mr. Bear, riding south from the North Shore

1 Comment

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One response to “To Minnesota, then Up North

  1. That picture of Tobie’s caramel roll! What memories that brings and all because of you!

    On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 4:01 PM RobBrittonTheTraveler’s Blog wrote:

    > robbrittonthetraveler posted: ” Four nights at home was pretty nice (the > dogs especially liked it). On Wednesday, August 22, I flew home to > Minnesota. It was, once again, State Fair time, and your scribe has not > missed the fair since the mid-1980s – more than three decades. Landed ” >

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