Our trip north from St. Cloud was along US 10 and then MN 371 before we turned off on MN 84. The first part of the trip was good straight roads and very scenic as we finally left the farmlands in the prairie and entered the Big Woods of northern Minnesota. However, once we turned onto MN 84 the trip got a lot slower as the road wound between one small lake after another. The terrain was still flat with lots of pine and spruce, however, it became obvious why Minnesota is known for its lakes. After over an hour of slow moving with 25-30 mph turns, we finally got to the shores of Leech Lake Recreation Area, which is a COE campground. We were reminded again why we prefer COE and state parks for camping as the sites were very spacious and full of trees. However, this did pose its own challenges such as no water hookups. We came prepared with full fresh water tanks, so this was no problem. It also meant there were going to be trees in the way of backing the RV into its site. The trees made the entry very narrow and my first attempt was too tight to the driver side. There was no way to move the RV over with the limited room I had in front of the truck, so I had to pull out and try again. The second attempt was perfect and I got the RV backed into the site with no problem. At first I was disappointed in the campground as a whole. It is on the shore of Leech Lake, however, you cannot even see the lake from the campgrounds as there is 1.5 miles of marsh between you and the open water. I was also concerned that this was going to increase dramatically the mosquitoes, however, this proved not to be the case. The other campers were complaining about the mosquitoes and they were bad if you spent a lot of time outdoors around a fire. However, I did not find them to be too bad while we were there. By the end of the week I had fallen in love with the site being surrounded by the spruce, red pine, basswood, and green ash trees. After spending the past months in the hardwood forests, this was a great change.
On Tuesday we headed west to Itasca State Park to explore a site that I had been looking forward to for years: The Headwaters of the Mississippi River. At the time of the Revolutionary War it was believed that the Mississippi River flowed out of the Lake of the Woods to the north and thus was used to define the western boundary of the new nation. However, the Mississippi River does not flow out of the Lake of the Woods and it was a long time before the actual beginning point was found. In 1832, an Anishinabe guide led explorer Henry Schoolcraft to the true headwaters as it flowed out of a lake he called Itasca from Latin words meaning truth and head. Actually, his discovery was off by a little bit as there is a small stream that connect Itasca with Elk Lake making it the true headwaters. In any case, the small stream flowing out of Lake Itasca has been declared the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River as it begins its 1200 mile trip to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a common practice to wade in this stream, as evidenced by the large number of people doing just that, but we declined after taking numerous pictures of the event. Instead we explored the Schoolcraft Trail that travels a mile down the west side of the lake to an overlook of Schoolcraft Island where he planted a flag declaring his discovery.
After our hike we continued on around Itasca Lake on the Wilderness Road to check out some of the virgin trees in the park. Itasca State Park is the oldest state park in Minnesota since it was established in 1891 through the efforts of historian Jacob Brower who wanted to preserve the land for future generations from the timber companies that were clearcutting the area. The results are that you can see some of the largest and oldest red and white pine in the state along with virgin forest habitat. The park has continued to grow over the years to over 32,000 acres including over 100 lakes, much of which was cut. For example, there is a short loop trail through a red pine plantation established by the CCC in 1932. I attempted to take this trail, however, turned back when the deer flies became too bad. This was unfortunate as there were interpretive signs along the trail about past and current forestry practices. I did get far enough to get a sense of a mature second growth red pine plantation. The highlights, however, was the largest white pine in the park which was 120 inches in circumference and over 300 years old. They have erected a boardwalk to protect the roots, however, still the tree did not appear to be healthy and may not survive the next storm. There was also a stop at an ancient bison kill located where prehistoric Indians killed a number of ancient giant bison. Except for the interpretive sign at the location, there was not much to be seen today. A short walk from there entered into the fringes of an old-growth red pine stand with some of the largest red pines I have ever seen. For the most part, the stand still looked healthy, although none of the trees were state champions. Once again the deer flies made the trip to and from the stand faster than I would have liked. It was a great day in the Deep Woods of Minnesota and I can finally mark this off my bucket list of things to see.
Wednesday was another day when Kal gave in to my interests when we traveled east to Grand Rapids and the Forest History Center. This is a Minnesota Historic Site that celebrates the history of forestry, especially forest industry, in the state. They have a great museum with numerous exhibits about the lumber companies, loggers, and sawmills that drove the white pine boom from 1839 to around 1920. The boom started along river, primarily the St. Croix and Rum Rivers, with logging during the winter and using the spring thaw to float the logs downstream to the sawmills which concentrated at Minneapolis. Steam power was introduced in the 1870s which allowed sawmills to be located closer to the harvesting. By the 1880s railroad spurs were being build to extend the reach away from the rivers and deep into the woods. Logging peaked in 1905 when 2.3 billion board feet of lumber was extracted from the forests. It was believed that this logging would open up the land for farming, but the frequent devastating fires and short growing season made this impractical on a large scale. Slowly the forests reclaimed much of the land supplemented by massive plantings by the CCC in the 1930s. Today the forests are still maturing, but there are vast acreages of commercial birch, aspen, and red pine that support a sustainable harvest at nearly the same level as the peak in 1905. This history is told through a series of hands-on exhibits in the museum. However, the highlight of the Forest History Center is the reconstructed logging camp. They have built a logging camp as it would have looked at the turn of the century with barracks, store, mess hall, horse barn, blacksmith/carpenter, and outhouse. There are three period actors that provide a tour of the camp as if you are new recruits that have made the two day trip from town in the dead of winter. They introduce how the camp functions and your responsibilities in a very enjoyable presentation through each of the buildings. The tour ends with a reading of a letter describing life in the camp along with music and a demonstration of how logs are loaded onto the sleigh with a team of horses. The most interesting display was the two huge sleighs used to create and maintain the ice roads. The first sleigh would dig ruts into the soil about 2 feet deep. After the ground freezes, the second sleigh would deliver water the road to fill the ruts with ice to create 6 inch deep ruts for the sleighs to slide on. They would load the sleighs with up to 20 tons of logs that could then be pulled by a team of only two horses along these roads!! This is easily 10 times what you could haul on wagons with wheels. This was one main reason harvesting was done in the winter. The other main reason was to use the spring thaw to float all of these logs downstream to the sawmills creating huge log runs every spring. This all ended in the 1890s with the use of railroads to transport the logs. This was truly an amazing place and a lot of fun! I also took a short hike through some examples of current forest practices that included pine, oak, and birch management practices. Very interesting.
On Thursday, Kal had developed a head cold and was not feeling very well. So we just took it easy around the campground and I worked some on this blog. By Friday, she was still not felling very good, but felt good enough to travel to the White Oak Casino we had seen on the way to Grand Rapids on Wednesday. We had a reasonably good time at the casino which started out as a bust. About half way through our money, I finally hit a minor bonus on a slot machine that brought me to about even. A couple of machines later I got really lucky hitting a bonus that just went crazy. It was a set of free spins and the first one hit for $18. Three spins later and it hit for another $40. In total I ended up covering all of our losses and we ended the day a few dollars ahead. While this is nothing to get too excited about, it still represents an unusual experience in a casino where we generally lose $20-$30. Bottom line is that I ended up having a good time and Kal ended up feeling worse for the experience.
Kal’s cold was not getting better, so we just spent the weekend relaxing in the campground.