Any time I start a creative project, no matter how insignificant, a part of me can’t help but imagine that this is the thing that will make me wildly famous. A literary agent will catch wind of it, a movie director, and pretty soon, there I am, crunching crostini and sipping champagne on Rodeo Drive, walking the red carpet, my long name up in lights.
Not that I even want this kind of life. Me? Rodeo Drive? I don’t even know what crostini are.
Nonetheless, when we started this blog and told everyone it was just for fun—it was!—a part of me couldn’t help but imagine book deals, interviews, an article or two, at least, in the New York Times.
None of this happened, obviously.
And yet, for one brief moment, down in the southeast corner of Minnesota’s bluff lands, on the second day of our Driftless Region trip, one wholesome looking park ranger working the desk at the Beaver Creek Valley State Park visitor center made it all worth while.
"Hi" I said, greeting her as she stepped out of the station. "We’re here to…"
"Oh, I know who you are," the ranger said. "Don’t you have a blog?"
Bright lights. Flashbulbs. Cocktails. It turns out she used to work at Rice Lake and had heard about us from her boss. She’d been following the blog, waiting for us to arrive.
Beaver Creek Valley State Park was nice, if treacherous with ice. It has bluffs, a stream—in summer filled with trout. Really, though, we were too busy basking in the limelight to pay too much attention.
Evidence of a Creature
NEXT UP: Great River Bluffs and John. A. Latsch State Parks.
Lac qui Parle and Big Stone Lake State Parks 3-17-13
A Death in the Woods
When we get to the western side of Lac qui Parle State Park, following a harrowing but ultimately restful night in our little camper cabin, we head out on a well trod cross-country ski path. It is mid March, but the world is still swaddled in snow. The trees are dead and creaking, some mummied up in spiky gray vines, and by the time we come across the body of the doe (head tucked in against the tree, a gash torn into her side bright hemoglobin red and covered in ice like a hole cut into a meat freezer) the wind has already chilled us to the bone.
Lac qui Parle—“The Lake that Speaks”—French for the original Dakota. Once, there was a protestant mission here, and a fur trading post run by metis trader Joseph Renville. In the mission, Stephen R. Riggs, worked with Renville and Thomas S. Williamson to complete a Dakota bible. Renville is also credited with writing “Many and Great,” the only Native American Christian Hymn frequently heard in non-Native churches. The words are adapted from scripture, while the tune was likely lifted from an earlier Dakota song. It is said that this was the melody sung by the 38 condemned Dakota as they stood on the gallows in Mankato.
[Reconstruction of the Lac qui Parle Mission.]
Today, the trading post is gone, what remains of the mission only a reconstruction. Instead we have the park, a picnic shelter, the cross country ski trail and, here, before us, the body of the deer. Mandy takes out the camera, and we stand around, something rising up between us and the half-devoured doe—a kind of sad communion. I could almost say a prayer, if I knew any.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I think. And then, instructing Mandy: “Don’t forget to get a close-up of the hole.”
From Lac qui Parle we head west and north to Big Stone Lake, headwaters of the Minnesota. Most years, the snow would have begun to recede by now, the sun hanging higher on the horizon. This year winter clings on tenaciously however, never mind the global warming. As we drive, the fields are ribbed and mottled white beneath a bleary sky. Big Stone Lake straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border, so that we stare across into another state. My aunt and uncle used to live here, and I associate this place with paddle boats and the fourth of July.
When we get to the park, snow banks have spread over the road and the wind snaps like a whip. It is very cold, and when the path runs out we have to make our own way over the re-frozen snow. We skate along on a crust of ice—two steps, three, tiptoeing like thieves in our boots. It’s no use, however, and inevitably we go plunging through, up to our knees or higher. The rock hard crust of ice cuts at our legs as we yank them out, struggling on just to fall again.
It’s so unpleasant and exhausting that eventually we can’t help but laugh hysterically, plunging in farther and farther, up to our thighs and our waists. Finally, we give up and lay down on our backs. Buoyed by surface tension, Mandy finds she can slide across the icy surface like a skiff, pushing with her feet.
Eventually, we make it back to the car, warming our hands and our faces. In places, the snow has blotted out the road and I have to maneuver carefully, backing out the entrance as the wind assaults the car.
On the way back into Big Stone, where two hills rise up, I see a shape out of the corner of my eye. It is a deer, bowing her pretty head between the trees, shadowed by another. I drive slowly, winding down the snowy road as Mandy and I point excitedly and call them out. We count as high as 37 deer, four pheasants, two turkeys.
"Wakantanka taku nitawa tankaya qaota…"
"Many and great, O God, are Thy things, Maker of earth and sky…"
As we drive, the sky unravels gray as slate, the world still cloaked and shrouded. Somewhere, though, a message has gotten through, rising up out of the frozen ground, or filtering down from above. No winter lasts forever. And soon it will be spring.
When last we met, Mandy and I were tromping through Monson Lake State Park, playing tic-tac-toe in the snow. That day we had started out early, leaving Minneapolis and heading due west. We stopped in the tiny town of Darwin just long enough to snap this shot of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine* (*by weight, rolled by a single person.)
Mandy claimed there had been a popular song written about the ball while we were growing up, and while I did not recall said song, the internet proved her right.
From Darwin, we hit Sibley and Monson Lake, heading as west as west would go. If you look at a map of Minnesota, you will see a little lump on its left hand side. That was our eventual destination.
On day one, after the twine ball and the first two parks, we pulled into Glacial Lakes State Park, a little gem hidden away amongst many cornfields. Here, rounded hills rise up for no obvious reason. In summer they are covered in colorful prairie grasses, while winter cloaks them in snow. When we got there they looked fanciful and windswept, as white as boiled eggs.
Glacial Lakes State Park park is only 2,466 acres, with a little lake in the middle. Once Mandy and I had laced up our boots, we hiked up a hill and down to the lake. It was cold but beautiful, and there were a couple of very cute camper cabins that people could stay in.
[The road into the park.]
The lake, we were told, has its entire watershed inside the park. This means the water is clean and clear—especially rare for a lake this far south. At the time this was hard to confirm, however, as the surface was still covered with snow and ice.
After Glacial Lakes, our last stop for the day was Lac qui Parle State Park, located at the southern end of a widening of the Minnesota River. Before we got there, however, we had a detour to make, driving a few miles further south to the small town of Montevideo and a coffee shop named Java River.
We weren’t there for the coffee, but because of a guy named Patrick Moore. Patrick is an organizer and environmentalist who started the coffee shop in 1998 as a community meeting place for the small rural town. I found out about Patrick via a blurb he wrote for Waziyatawin’s book What Does Justice Looks Like? and, seized in a moment of mania, wrote him to see if we could meet. Later, regaining my sanity—along with my usual fear of strangers—I was hugely relieved to learn that he would be out of town. Still, he encouraged us to drive down and check out the shop, which now has new owners and a liquor license.
When Mandy and I pulled into Montevideo, main street was empty and the coffee shop was locked. A few minutes later, however, cars started pulling into the parallel parking spots and sitting silently with their engines running. Soon all the spots were full. Slowly, people started emerging from their vehicles and standing around in the cold, and we realized that we’d arrived just in time for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. As we stood—strangers in a crowd of people who (I imagined) all knew each other—the parade passed slowly by: teachers in bright green sweaters marching in formation, a firetruck blowing its horn, a girl dragging a donkey on a leash. Everyone clapped and stomped their feet in the cold. Across the street, a child hovered in a goat mask—not part of the parade but sticking to the sidelines—the lifeless eye holes of its animal head boring straight into me.
[Can you spot the Goat Boy?]
When the parade was over, Mandy and I marched, a little sheepishly, over to the coffee shop. It was quickly filling up with people. It turned out that this was the first night of beer and wine sales—a grand opening of sorts. There was live music, a fire in the stove, lots of happy people chatting away in sweaters. It was very cozy and comfortable, which filled me with mounting terror. I felt sure that everyone was staring at us, that they knew we weren’t from around here. Far from fearing that they all might don paper mache animal masks and burn us alive in some giant wicker effigy to their pagan god, I was mostly worried that they might talk to us. Ashamed and shaken, I fled without seeking out any of the people Patrick had suggested we meet.
Afterward, back in the car, we drove to Laq Qui Parle and the little cabin we had rented for the night. It was adorable, bright and warm, and once the sun had dropped behind the horizon Mandy started worrying that there might be a serial killer lurking somewhere in the bushes. Eventually she calmed down and we both took a walk to the outhouse. The moon was out, shining down on the crust of thawed and refrozen snow, hard as a sheet of glass.
Someday, Mandy and I would like to live in a small town not unlike Montevideo, out in the country, in a little cabin not unlike the one we slept in that night. It was warm in there, and we felt snug as the wind blew at the windows. We slept side by side, both of us wrapped up tight in blankets—trapped in the terror of our imagined perfect life.
While Internet Mandy and Geordie languish in snowy March, here in the real world it is June, and flesh Mandy and Geordie are about to set off on the very last of their adventures. Those of you with exceedingly good memories may recall that we visited our first park on June 16th, 2012. That gives us four more days to finish the last ten.
Normally this would be a time for reflection and celebration. Instead we are suffering summer colds and slight bowel irregularities and can’t really be bothered.
Will flesh Mandy and Geordie complete the project?
Find below the conclusion to our travels through Mid-Minnesota. First up, Charles A. Lindbergh State Park.
Here in a little town is a little park built around a little house in which a little boy once grew up and then went on to fly his aeroplane over the ocean. His name was Charles A. Lindbergh and he was the most famous man in the world.
ABOVE: Charles Lindbergh, American Hero.
BELOW: Charles Lindbergh, getting a gift from the Nazis.
Besides being a great airplane flyer, Charles Lindbergh was also a bit of a fascist and an avowed eugenisist. Woody Guthrie really hated him, as you can hear in this song:
Not entirely fair, probably, but when reading about old Lindy he comes across as such a sanctimonious hypocrite that it’s hard to feel too sorry for him.
Charles A. Lindbergh State Park is located on the very northern edge of Little Falls, Minnesota. It was here that Lindbergh spent most of his youth, the son of Charles Lindbergh, Sr., a U.S. Congressman.
Supposedly you can get into the house for a tour during the summer, but in the dead of winter we couldn’t even get close enough to peek in the windows. Bastards.
According to Wikipedia, during his record setting 33 hour flight from New York to Paris, Charles Lindbergh
faced many challenges including skimming over both storm clouds at 10,000 feet and wave tops at as low at 10 feet, fighting icing, flying blind through fog for several hours, and navigating only by the stars (whenever visible), and “dead reckoning” before landing at Le Bourget Airport…
Once he had landed, a crowd of 150,000 people “stormed the field, dragged Lindbergh out of the cockpit, and literally carried him around above their heads for ‘nearly half an hour.’” Lindbergh became an instant celebrity throughout Europe, America, and around the world.
After returning home, Lindbergh toured the U.S. extensively along with his plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis. According to estimates, within a year of his flight 30 million people, or a quarter of the U.S. population, had seen Lindbergh in person.
ABOVE: The Spirit of Saint Louis, hanging in the National Air and Space Museum.
While we were at Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, however, there were no airplanes or ticker tape parades or screaming crowds of Frenchmen.
Just some woods.
And a stream.
And some WPA buildings.
Okay peeps, brace yourselves. This one is a beauty. Maplewood State Park is located in the leaf “mountain” area and is known for its stunning fall colors.
As you can probably tell we missed fall by a bit, but it was pretty nice in winter, too.
Pretty much we would have each given a kidney to live in this park .
I don’t know where that third one came from…..BeBe?
Geordie looks so svelte without his kidney. This park had it all, lakes, prairie, woods, beaver lodges…
Did you know that beaver’s get frozen into their lodges? They don’t hibernate, but they eat bark from their beaver pantry or cache which is attached to their lodge. Once the ice freezes there is no going out for more food, so hopefully the beavers have enough wood to feed their family the whole winter through. Good luck little buddies!
BELOW: Check out this deer picture I got. Pretty good, right?
This is a pelican, presumably because Maplewood is near Pelican Rapids MN.
Here I am riding said pelican. Apparently I have a bad habit of doing this.
And there you go: Maplewood State Park, people. We would have liked to have stayed longer, but even though we were missing kidneys and woozy from the anesthesia and also very slowly bleeding out, we still had one more park to visit, and so we pressed on, because we are kind of like heroes.
And so the heroes drove south, past field and lake, through Perham and New York Mills. The last stop on our trip was Lake Carlos State Park, northwest of Saint Cloud. It had been a three day rodeo, and we were ready to go home. When we got out of the car it was overcast and very cold and windy.
We hiked over these marshy bits just across the parking lot from the lake. It was beautiful but we weren’t really feeling it. There is a lot more to this park, including prairie and a tamarack bog, but those trails were closed for the winter.
ABOVE: There were lots of these weird bumpy bits in the bog. Any ideas, nature people? They seemed pretty solid.
Once we’d come through the woods, we walked across the lake back to our car. Out on the ice the wind was really whipping. One of us fell on our butt though now we can’t remember which. Mandy insists it was me. Probably it was me. In any event, it was cold enough that we didn’t bother to take any pictures. And then we drove ourselves home.
COMING UP NEXT on A State of Nature: 37 deer. A killing in the woods. And the creepy small town St. Patrick’s day parade interview that wasn’t.
Welcome to mid-Minnesota. This is the place where the hardwood forest meets pine forest and where most of the movie Fargo took place. (If you remember, a lot of the movie actually takes place in a town called Brainerd, which is where Geordie’s sister lives, or at least near there, though it’s not really like the movie—at least she’s never put anybody through a wood chipper, that we know of).
But anyway, here are some parks.
Father Hennepin State Park is on Mille Lacs lake, which is a really big shallow lake, kind of like a giant puddle. It’s cool to drive around because it’s kind of like the ocean, except totally not. The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation (Anishinabe) borders the lake, and for about 20 miles Highway 169 curves along its shore. This is probably bad for the lake, but it cuts down on property values, giving Mille Lacs a refreshingly blue collar feel.
Ice fishing is a really big deal on Mille Lacs. People set up mini fishin’ towns, with roads and bathrooms on the lake. They bring their generators and sleep in their fish houses. Some people have satellite television. You can even call and order pizza and it will be delivered to your ice house a half mile out on the lake.
Father Louis Hennepin, for whom the park was named, was a French explorer in the late 1600’s. While on an expedition he was taken captive by a band of Dakota warriors. During his captivity he was treated very harshly. He was given a special robe of beaver skins dressed with porcupine quills, soaked in a steam bath, and “rubbed with wild cat oil.” Then he was adopted by the chief and offered a wife.
Later, Hennepin was rescued by a fellow named Du Luth (yup, Duluth). In said rescue the hero, Du Luth, gave the Dakota warriors a “tongue lashing” and sent them back to lake Mille Lacs, but not before the Dakota helped him and his company prepare for their journey, provided them with a map, and asked them to “come again and trade.” Just another sad tale of Indian savagery.
Hennepin ran home to France and wrote a fanciful version of his adventures, which quickly became a best seller. And now, my dear friends, I must return my overdue books to the Hennepin County Public Library.
OK, so. An hour+ later we were ready to leave the park. Please note where the sun is in this photo. It’s maybe two hours from setting.
Geordie and I hopped in the car and drove across the southern end of the lake to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. When we got there it was starting to look like this:
Mille Lacs Kathio is the 4th largest state park in Minnesota, over 10,000 acres in size. A great place to get lost, dontchya think?
It took us awhile, but Geordie and I finally found a snowy path and started out on what was supposed to be a two mile trek.
We were following a snowshoe trail. What this means is that some sadistic park ranger had spent an afternoon tying ribbons to trees in no apparent order.
Pretty soon it got so dark that it was hard to see the ribbons at all. Also we didn’t have a flashlight and the cell phone didn’t work and it would have been a good cue for some wolves to start howling, though they didn’t. We decided to turn back the way we had come and ran back to the car. I though it was kind of fun, like a game of capture the flag or something, but of course Geordie thought we were going to die.
We spent the night at Geordie’s sister’s house (not quite) in Brainerd. She made us some tasty Tachos (tater-tot nachos) with roasted potatoes instead of tots, and in the morning we were off to see two more state parks.
Crow Wing State Park is 9 miles south of Brainerd and runs along the Mississippi River.
In the 1860’s this was the site of one of Minnesota’s largest settlements, Old Crow Wing. It was the northernmost settlement along the Mississippi at the time, but because the railroad went to Brainerd instead and because the state was relocating all of the Indians that had lived there to reservations it became a ghost…settlement.
When we got to Crow Wing it was cold and super windy, but the sky was beautiful. Anyway, BRAG ALERT, we took a handful of award winning photos. Please vote on your favorite,
While we walked through the park we were followed by fast moving snow devils.
I think if we had come in the summer there would have been a nice wide path with lots of signs recording the history of the settlement. It would probably be a fairly busy park with campers and day visitors, but for Geordie and I in the bitter winter Crow Wing was an empty, abandoned tundra. That also had some lovely pines.
We hope you all have enjoyed this rapid fire week of parks. We are heading out this weekend for another set of parks to the west and need to go pack now so we can get an early start tomorrow. We’ll finish telling you about the rest of these mid-Minnesota parks—Lindbergh, Maplewood, and Lake Carlos—next week.