Camping in the North Woods of Minnesota

Following the closing of my most recent show here in Minneapolis and after getting the summer off from work, I bolted as fast as I could to the most foreign and distant land I could get to (within a 5-6 hour drive, of course). Where did I set my sights? After weeks of deliberation and scouring the maps for suitable campgrounds, I found one way up north in Minnesota, about an hour from the Canadian border. The spot was on a lake called Echo Lake, located in the Superior National Forest, 18 miles from the nearest town, called Orr.

I departed the city at 5:15 AM and due to some recent rain, the air had cooled significantly. Here at the end of June, the temperature that morning was 55 degrees. So would be the case for the next couple of days. I made my way out of the metro and finally after about an hour, said good bye to frequent traffic lights and hit the accelerator, averaging about 60-65. Due to the age of my car, Betsy Ross, I have no interest in setting new land speed records! The morning temperature continued to hover around 60 and I was greeted to a couple of familiar white-tails who also happened to be up early that morning.   

Now part of the reason for this destination was the fact that it would take me further north on the globe than I’ve ever been before. Previously I had been to the Duluth area, but I was determined to shatter that record. Not only would Echo Lake accomplish the task, but I was eager to jump across the border and put my new passport to good use. My brief excursion across the border would come the following day – for now, I wanted to get to my campsite and wallow in a splendidly torpid state.

Why would that be easier said than done?

When I arrived at the campground after a long stretch on pot-hole ridden dirt roads, I was amazed. I had never camped in a terrain such as this, surrounded by trees of the north woods that included conifers such as spruces and firs as well as deciduous trees like maples and birch. Even some of the animals were new to me! No raccoons to be seen, but plenty of noisy red squirrels and chipmunks.

Oh, chipmunks. Not that they are new to me, I’ve lived up north long enough now, but there was one particular chipmunk who quickly made his presence known as I was setting up camp. Spunky, as I’ll call him, managed to gobble up a tortilla chip that had fallen off my plate onto the ground. At first I watched this with bemusement but as soon as Spunky was finished, he began to hop along looking for another bite. Inevitably this led him to my foot and despite being shooed away several times, wouldn’t give up the chance to snag more of my snacks. What could I do? I wanted peace in nature for so long that I wasn’t going to camp for two days, harassed by a chipmunk. We soon fell into a predictable pattern of my shooing him away into the bushes, only for him to reemerge elsewhere and make a suicidal dash for the picnic table. Yes, suicidal, as I resolved to end the madness with a well-thrown can opener… or rock… whatever I could get my hands on! Well, for Spunky’s sake, I’ll never make the big leagues as a pitcher. He was never harmed and I decided to find victory in retreat. I packed up the food in the car and took a long walk. When I returned, the ‘munk was gone and I breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Not long after my return, the blue sky clouded over and a light rain began to fall on the forest. This was about two o’clock now and I huddled in my tent, which apparently still bore the wounds of last summer’s thunderstorm in Iowa. Sure, it leaked a little, but not enough to keep my from soon falling into a deep sleep… When I awoke a couple hours later, the rain had abated and I proceeded to the next order of business, which was the building of a fire upon which to cook my dinner. This actually went more smoothly than I thought, and considering I once successfully started a fire in the rain, with matches and Doritos, I would have been disappointed in myself had I been unsuccessful.

I had picked up the dry cuts of fire wood at the general store in Orr, where I also supplied myself with mosquito-repellent (much needed) and some extra water (came in handy for washing the dishes). As for Orr, it is a small town of about 200 people that seemed to be tailor-made for the fisherman and campers who converge on the lakes every summer. The people were polite enough, but did not betray any sense of friendliness. Hey, that’s OK with me, I respect a no-nonsense-sense of living.

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Good one, Orr.

Anyways, back to the fire, which was soon a-roarin’ and boiling my water with which I made myself some macaroni mixed with a can of chili. Mmmm. Chili macaroni. Then realizing I had failed to pack any Tupperware or containers (you always forget something), I had to eat the whole pot. Sufficiently stuffed and sipping my Buffalo Trace from a flask, I settled into my chair and cracked open one of several books I had brought along – Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. After reading the intro to that, I read a short story entitled, “The Round Up”, by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is an author whose style I like, practical yet full of imagery. Much like Hemingway in that sense. In regards to Emerson, I had only found the tip of the iceberg on the one. When the sun had retreated enough to render my page-turning inconvenient, I stoked the flames and set about waiting for the daylight to retreat enough for the stars to come out. This far away from major population centers, I had to see those glowing dots in the sky. Well, being the height of summer and being so far up north, there were still traces of light going on eleven o’clock! Frustrated by this (a man’s gotta sleep after all) and the clouds that had smothered those glowing dots, I called it a night and said hasta manana to the Big Dipper.

Although I fell asleep pretty quickly, my night wasn’t exactly comfortable. I was warm enough in my clothes and sleeping bag (the temperature that day never did get above 65), but there’s only so much comfort one can find on a hard ground. I tossed and turned and woke up rather sore. Nonetheless, I stretched my bones and hopped in the car around 9 AM. My destination? Voyageurs National Park.

The park sits right on the border of the US and Canada and while I was able to visit a visitor center and walk along a couple of short trails, Voyageurs is a “water park” in that most of it is only accessible via water craft. All the islands, inlets and hide-aways kept their mysteries to me. Still, however, I was happy getting to know a new national park and stamp my national park passport.

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Old beaver dam

From there, I headed even more north to the border town of International Falls, Minnesota, nicknamed the “Icebox of the Nation”. Well, fortunately the thermostat read a wonderful 72, as I explored the little downtown district and caught up on emails at a McDonald’s. (I had brought along my coffee and pot, but when I can just get a big McDonald’s coffee for a buck… well, the choice was evident). I mosied around the typical souvenir shops, a place called Border Bob’s stood out, and got some cash at the Well’s Fargo so I could pay the toll-bridge that would take me into….. CANADA.

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Fort Frances, to be exact. This was sort of momentous for me, as a traveler, since I have never been able to cross the border on foot before. I remember woefully being unable to cross the line when I visited Niagara Falls back in 2012. This time, the world was literally mine. First, of course, I had to get past the Canadian border agent. He asked me the standard questions and I was in! Not really knowing what to do, I chatted with a tourist info person, which didn’t really help, so I just drove to a park on the river and walked along for a half hour or so. It may sound silly, but I was genuinely awed by the fact that I was no longer in the United States of America. Sure, I see new places all time, but they are still within the same country. This time, though, the dirt and trees and birds were not American. Cool! Content with my time north of the border and unwillingly to purchase trinkets or Cuban cigars, I got in my car to pay my respects to the American border agent. This fella was a little less congenial and was apparently unsatisfied with the fact that I only went to Canada to “walk along the river”. He searched my trunk and poked around my back seat until he was satisfied that I really am just a kid with wanderlust. So I returned and just like that my international travels were over. Of course, I will return and hope to truly explore the wonders of America’s hat. And buy some Cubans.

By the time I got back to camp, it was about 5 PM and definitely time to rekindle the fire and have some food. Just as before, with my belly full and the fire cracklin’ I opened up Emerson and dived into his essay, “Nature”, which was completely new to me.

WOW! “Nature” is a masterpiece of philosophy that made me laugh and cry with exaltation. I had been exposed to the beliefs of Transcendentalism and I was hooked. I won’t go into it in depth here, but do yourself a favor and open your eyes to the mystical links that bind us, as people, to the natural world. Here’s my favorite passage of the writing:

Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

By the time I finished it was dark and this time the clouds stayed away and I was treated to a night sky full of stars. Lightning bugs joined in the fun and I thought about how poetic it was to have the stars, lightning bugs and fire all glowing light in their own special ways. With those thoughts, I turned in for the night, and hope that my tarp would hold up against storm that was predicted to roll through that evening. As luck would have it, I woke up to a world completely rain-free! Having learned my lesson last summer, I made quick work breaking down camp and in thirty minutes I was exiting the forest before the rain would come and turn those dirt roads into something more impassible.

Heading south again, I soon struck east and back into the Superior National Forest. This was the part of the sojourn where I was meander the back roads of the country and just enjoy the scenic route. Indeed, I did. I was exposed to the mining and lumber industries still present in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. That and how every town seemed to exist to cater to those fisherman and outdoors-men. Yes, the drive was nice, but the heavens did open up at one point and never stopped. Driving towards the North Shore and down from Duluth, I was suddenly on a mission to get home as I had an audition and interview later that afternoon.

I was able to get to both all right and rolled into Minneapolis at the peak of rush hour. Suddenly I was very much NOT in the secluded rural countryside, but the hustle and bustle of the city. Which, to be sure, has it’s own beauty and I was happy to be back in my studio and listen to the whirring fire trucks and screaming crazies. Still, though, I can’t wait to get back to those woods.

CRITTER COUNT

  • Two snowshoe hares, including this one that lunged for me
  • Red squirrels
  • Chipmunks
  • White-tail deers
  • Bald eagles
  • Turkey vultures

 

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