Archive for the ‘Minnesota’ Category

A Valentine to Home: Minnesota

Monday, February 14th, 2011

I’m not a native of Minnesota. I moved here when I was thirty years old so that my wife could attend law school at the U of M. Before that I’d been a gypsy kid, living in a lot of places over the years, never really able to call any of them home. I tell a lot of tall tales about my life, but here’s something that is the absolute truth: The moment I stepped foot in Minnesota I felt as if I’d finally found home. I fell in love with this state in a way I’d never fallen for any place before.

The why of it something I’m not sure I understand completely. I’ve lived in other areas that, on the surface, seem more dramatically beautiful. Hood River, Oregon, for example, on the banks of the Columbia River and in one of the most stunning geologic formations in North America—the Columbia River Gorge. The building where I went to high school sits on a hill with a grand view of both the river and the white crown of the volcanic Mount Adams, which looms in the distance. I loved growing up there, but it never really felt like home.

So what is home? The place where you’ve sent down roots? I had no roots when I moved here, no family, no history, and still I felt profoundly drawn. Is it the place where you feel most welcomed and comfortable? For me, that’s certainly Minnesota, but this seems too easy an answer. I’ve begun to think it’s something in my blood, some elemental part of me that resonates with the Midwest and with the North Country, something that goes back in my lineage, my genes, and that I may never fully understand. If I had a good grasp of my ancestry, maybe I’d find the explanation there.

As it stands, this is what I know: When I find myself in the middle of a rare section of wild prairie in southern Minnesota and the wind is blowing in from South Dakota and the tall grass moves in swells like the sea, I know I’m home. When I’m on a country road that drops into a sudden hollow where the branches of the cottonwoods meet above the pavement like the arch of a cathedral, I know I’m home. When I walk a trail through a forest of evergreen and the ground is a soft bed of fallen needles and the scent of pine resin is a pungent perfume, I know I’m home. And when I dive into a lake that’s liquid crystal and it washes me clean of summer sweat, I know I’m home.

I’m happy to have been a bit of a gypsy when I was young. But as I’ve grown grayer, I thank God every day for leading me to Minnesota, for guiding me home.

Exploring Lake of the Woods

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Tim O’Brien, one of my favorite authors, published a marvelous book several years ago titled Into the Lake of the Woods.  It is, in many ways, a mystery, one that frustrates a lot of readers because at the end, the protagonist heads off into the labyrinthine archipelago of Lake of the Woods and is never seen again.

When you experience this lake, the 14th largest freshwater lake in the world, with its 14,000 islands, you can see clearly how easy it would be to lose your way.  These days, most boats are outfitted with GPS that tell you not only where you are but also where the reefs and hidden rocks lie.  But in the old days, I’ve been told, it wasn’t at all uncommon to have to organize a search for a boat full of fishermen who’d gone off without a guide.

Our second day on the Angle, one of the guides for the Angle Inn Lodge, a terrific guy named Tony Ebnet, offered to squire us around Lake of the Woods.  We leaped at the offer.  Tony’s been coming to Oak Island for a lot of years, and has been guiding for the folks at Angle Inn Lodge for the last five.  He knows the lake pretty well and has a great repertoire of stories.

We headed off about nine in the morning, on a day that we were told was unusually calm.  The lake water surprised me.  It wasn’t crystal clear, as are so many of the lakes I know in the Arrowhead region.  It was the color of strong tea.  Tony told us this is from the algae that grows naturally in the lake, a phenomenon noted by the voyageurs over 200 years ago.  In Tony’s comfortable launch, we zipped first to Cyclone Island where there’s an unmanned custom station, and we checked in with Canadian officials.  Then we began a full day on the lake.

We visited Massacre Island, and Tony told us the grisly story behind its well-earned moniker.  We cut up narrow passages between islands, veered into picturesque inlets, motored along steep cliff faces, and hit the broad and unusually smooth water of some huge bays.

Around noon we stopped for lunch at Wiley Point Lodge, a remarkably modern enclave deep in the remote wilderness.  Finally we headed south, back toward the Angle.  Along the way, we visited Windigo Island, which is home to the Reserve 37 First Nations band of Ojibwe.  Our final stop was at Ft. Saint Charles, a reconstruction of the important fur trading center built in the early 1700’s.

I snapped photos like crazy and scribbled madly in the notebook I’d brought.  That day on the lake didn’t make me an expert, but it gave me an invaluable sense of the place where my next novel would be set.  By the time we returned to Angle Inn Lodge, Diane and I were sunburned, exhausted, and at the same time exhilarated.

I’ve talked with authors who use the Internet to research the locations for their novels.  I’m always more than a little skeptical about the quality of the job they do when creating a story’s sense of place.  Me, I have to go there.  And I’m always glad I did.

Northwest Angle

Friday, August 20th, 2010

The Northwest Angle:  A geographic anomaly, a small triangle of American territory completely isolated from the rest of Minnesota, cut off from the United States by sixty miles of Canadian wilderness and the vast, mysterious waters of Lake of the Woods.

Lake of the Woods: One of the largest bodies of water on the North American continent.  Straddling the U.S. Canadian border, it is eighty miles long, sixty miles wide, and contains more than 14,000 islands, mostly uninhabited.  This is the best walleye-fishing lake in the world.  It has also become a notorious avenue for international smuggling.

Like many Minnesotans, I’d heard of Lake of the Woods and the Northwest Angle, but I’d never paid much attention.  These were places so far north that not many people—except really rabid walleye fishermen—ever went there.  But nearly a year ago, while casting about for a good seed idea for the next Cork O’Connor novel, I happened to visit the Kitchigami library system (think Brainerd) in northwestern Minnesota.  After one of the events, I went out with the librarian and some other folks for a beer or two.  For reasons I can’t now recall, talk turned to the Northwest Angle.  When I heard, really heard, about this place, all my sensibilities as a mystery writer tingled.  Here was a remote, little known area surrounded by a vast body of water that contained a gazillion, mostly wild islands, with an international border running through it.  In addition, much of the land was held by the Ojibwe.  I thought to myself, All kinds of criminal activities could go on out there, hidden among those islands. Honest to god, by the time I’d returned to St. Paul, I had a rough outline of the story already in my head.

But I’d never been to the Angle, as it’s called by locals.  And because I write profoundly out of a sense of place, I knew I had to visit the area and spend time on the Lake of the Woods.  So in mid-July, that’s exactly what I did.

Internationally speaking, the Angle is problematic.  After driving almost eight hours north from the Twin Cities, you hit the border just outside Warroad, Minnesota.  You have to pass through customs where, because of the events of 9/11, passports have become necessary.  Then you drive another hour on mostly back road, some of it pretty rugged, and, in the middle of a great woodland, cross the border back into the United States.  There’s no customs office at that point, only a sign noting the shift of nationality.  A few miles farther, you come to a place called Jim’s Corner, where there’s a little, unmanned booth with a video phone and instructions (a little vague) on how to call into U.S. customs to report your entry.  Sometimes the videophone works and sometimes it doesn’t.  For me, it didn’t.  So I entered the U.S. technically illegally.  I would later learn the horrible potential in this action.

We drove, my wife and I, for several more miles along the dusty washboard road through thick forest until we finally came to the Angle.  I was surprised.  In a place so far removed, I’d expected primitive conditions.  The Angle is remarkably modern.  Electricity, land phones, even Internet.  The only thing you can’t count on is cell phone reception.  It’s pretty hit or miss (mostly miss) up there.

At Young’s Landing, we were picked up by Deb of the Island Passenger Service and ferried out to Oak Island, where we’d made arrangements to stay at the Angle Inn Lodge.  Our wonderful hosts, Debra Kellerman and Tony Wandersee, greeted us and our Lake of the Woods adventure began.

In my next posting, I’ll tell you all about our exploration of that incredible lake and the graciousness of the folks who call it home.