Out Of The Bubble On A Northern Minnesota Tour

Aug 29, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

We finally did it. We packed our stuff, loaded up on masks, sanitizer, and anti-bacterial wipes, and hit the road. That would be the first time we’ve left the Twin Cities since March and one of the few times we’ve even ventured out of Woodbury. And it was good for the soul.

The idyllic view from the deck of our condo, on Leech Lake. (Click on any image to enlarge)

This is the view from our rented condo at the Chase On The Lake Resort on Leech Lake. The lake itself has an unfortunate name, but it’s magnificent and huge. It’s the third-largest lake in the state, of those that are completely within Minnesota borders, and it’s a mecca for Walleye and Muskie fishing. At 112,000 acres, there’s plenty of room for everyone. The resort is in the small quaint town of Walker (population about 965) just about 45 minutes north of Brainerd (so you NHRA fans can get a handle on its location.)

It’s not over-the-top crazy luxurious, but it’s really very nice and just like in the real estate business, it’s all about location, location, location. We loved it, and felt very relaxed and at home there. We reserved a two-bedroom, two-bath, condo on the lakefront and invited our friends Mary Beth and Joe, from the old neighborhood, to share it with us. Then Barbara blasted out another text message to the rest of the gang to see if anyone else could meet us up there. Mitch and Kristy, who both love to have fun, laugh, and enjoy friends just like the rest of the Woodbury group, opted in.

Each couple then brought enough food and drink for 12 people (or so it seemed) so it was a challenge for the six of us to consume everything we had. We got close, but there was more than we could handle in terms of main meals, snacks, fruit, and other goodies. We may or may not have demolished all the wine and Prosecco. I’ll let you speculate on that.

Friends, food, drinks, and camaraderie. Priceless.

We all arrived on Sunday evening and convened in our condo. Lots of merriment would be a great way to describe it. Dinner that first night featured an incredible chicken and veggie orzo salad that Barbara whipped up ahead of time (I helped a little with knife and grilling work) plus all the sides you could want and then some. We ended up out on the deck to see the sunset illustrated above, and after a few hours of laughing and storytelling we mutually agreed it must be getting late, like maybe 10:30, so we should think about heading in and eventually going to bed. It was 12:30! This is another prime example of time flying when you’re having fun.

Monday morning featured a bit of sleeping in (“older” folks will do that from time to time) and then a scrumptious full breakfast by Mary Beth and Joe, featuring an incredible egg bake casserole as the main course. We should just open a restaurant. Between all of us, we can crank out some good stuff.

We had a grand plan for Monday, and in the big picture it worked out very well. In the smaller picture, there were some hiccups that drove us nuts. The hiccups were related to GPS.

Mitch is halfway across the Mississippi River!!!

Our plan was to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Lake Itasca is just to the north and west of Walker, an easy enough drive of what should be about 45 minutes. On the north end of the lake, it spills over some rocks and a beautiful clear stream forms. That little stream, which you can easily walk across, is the actual Mississippi River. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the “Muddy Mississippi” that flows by my home town of St. Louis. Every trip north when we were racing in Brainerd, I’d always be amazed at how narrow and clear the Mississippi is up there. After visiting the headwaters, that version of the Muddy Miss in Brainerd seems like a real river.

But before that in-person adventure could happen, we had to get there. We’d mapped out a pretty simple route on GPS and took off in two cars, with Mitch and Kristy leading the way while Barbara, Joe, Mary Beth, and I followed. Oh, by the way, it should be duly noted that early in the trip Barbara accidentally refereed to Mitch and Kristy as Kritch and Misty. We called them that for the rest of the trip. It was a rule.

We were getting close to the state park on Route 200. GPS had no warnings or mentions of any detours. Yeah, we passed a couple of signs that said “Road Closed Ahead” but they were pushed well off the side of the road. We figured, collectively, that if the signs were true there must be a detour when we’d get to the blockage. Such fools we were.

A few miles later, BAM. Road closed. Do not enter. So sorry. We pulled over and almost all of us were busily looking at phones to try to figure out our work-around. The consensus was we’d have to double back and find a small side road that only popped up on the screen some of the time. If it was there, it would be an adventure but it would get us to the park.

At the Mississippi headwaters with friends, all in funny hats.

When we found it, we realized it was a backwoods gravel road, but not too bad. Certainly dusty and we had to keep a decent distance behind Mitch’s car (I mean Kritch’s car) to keep stones from dinging us (we were in Barb’s new car, basically giving it a maiden voyage) but after many turns, many clouds of dust, and no landmarks, we popped out on a real road close to the park.

Lesson? Don’t trust GPS to get you exactly where you want to go. It isn’t as smart as it’s made out to be. In effect, GPS has an inflated ego and sometimes has a hard time delivering what you need. GPS must have a great PR rep.

We found the entrance, paid our nominal one-day entrance fee, and then found the headwaters visitors center. There’s still a short walk to the actual place from there, but when you lay your eyes upon it (see photo above) it’s pretty priceless. For a St. Louis boy like me, it’s really hard to wrap your head around it.

For the record, if you try to walk across the large rocks to get to the other side, be careful. They are very slippery. You can easily just walk through the knee-high water at the very origin of the mighty river. I have no idea what would happen if you dropped a rubber ducky into the water here. Would it make it to the Gulf of Mexico? Just assure yourself it would. The story is better that way.

After a bit of frolicking and being mesmerized, we went for a nice walk around the side of Lake Itasca, which is also huge, and then headed back to the cars. But before I get to that, here’s the massive fun fact about the headwaters…

The Mississippi flows out of Lake Itasca TO THE NORTH! Yes it does. The Mississippi flows north for a while, before it makes the turn to head south. It stays on that southern flow all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. I bet you didn’t know that. There’s a bit of a mini continental divide up there in northern Minnesota, and most rivers flow north, at least for a while. Trust me.

When we left, it was decided by acclamation that I would lead and Kritch and Misty (see, I’ve got it now) would follow. Joe dialed up the directions knowing that we couldn’t trust GPS to get us back to Walker, and we headed out. There were some questionable moments, and a detour or two, but we finally got back to Chase On The Lake without further maddening issues.

Should you visit the Mississippi headwaters? Yes. Is it easy to get to? No. It’s not really on the way to anything, but if you want to see it and experience it, you certainly should. Another box checked for Barbara and me. We’ve now seen it, touched it, and won’t ever forget it.

For dinner that night we went to the restaurant at the resort, called The 502 (I should know why it’s called that but I don’t.) It was great. There were Walleye cakes and onion rings flying around out there on the scenic patio overlooking the lake, and that was just the warmup. For the record, I had the Prime Rib French Dip sandwich and it was perfect.

Also for the record, we didn’t seem to have as much post-dinner energy as the night before. When it felt like 10:30, it actually was 10:30. And we had a big day ahead of us on Tuesday.

Originally, Barbara had called the resort and reserved a pontoon boat for us. We’d have it for five hours on Tuesday, starting at 9:00 in the morning. Seemed a little early, but who cares? Then, just a few days before we left Woodbury, the manager called and said “I’m really sorry, but both of our two pontoons crashed into each other and they are out of commission.” They gave us some recommendations on how to rent another one, and Barbara got through to one company and got us a boat. The timing was a little better, too, since we couldn’t pick it up before 10:30 but could keep it all day if we wanted. Joe had the most experience with this sort of thing, so he was officially designated as our Skipper. Skipper Joe!

The funny thing was, Barbara, Mitch, and Joe had to go to the local NAPA Auto Parts store in Walker to sign the papers (yes, Ron Capps, Barbara did have her photo taken in front of the life-size cardboard cut-out of you!) and then the guys there would haul the boat down to the city boat ramp to put it in the water. Joe then piloted it back to the docks at the resort.

A Mary Beth selfie entitled “Friends On A Boat”

Much like the cast of Gilligan’s Island, we then loaded aboard what seemed to be enough food and beverage to last a week, as opposed to an afternoon. We would not go hungry, and it was doubtful we’d be parched.

We all climbed aboard (somewhat gracefully) and within minutes realized we were accidentally cross-pollinating. We weren’t strictly split up with a “Guys Section” and a “Girls Section.” Silly us! As you can see, we rectified that in a hurry. I have no idea what the girls in front talked and laughed about for six hours, but in the back it was mostly sports. And music. And sports. Lots of sports. Basically what all guys live for.

Joe did a fine job being Skipper Joe. He might have earned a new stripe, actually. We even docked back at the resort after the first few hours, to refresh a little, and then found a restaurant and convenience store after another couple of hours and docked there for the use of restrooms and to purchase more ice. That Sangria isn’t going to keep itself cold!

Initially, none of us could fathom being out on the lake in a pontoon for five hours, as was originally scheduled with the resort. In the end, we were out there for six hours and it flew by so fast we couldn’t believe it. Huge fun. And we had plenty of sliced meats, summer sausage, cheese, and other appetizers to get us through the long voyage. Much fun was had by all.

Oh, but the fun wasn’t over. Mary Beth and Joe know a caterer who makes lasagna that is to die for (TDF in online parlance.) They brought a huge tray of it with them and we dined like champions that night. Incredible dinner, and the company was still superb. We had a long talk around the table after we ate, just filling each other in on details we didn’t know about each other’s lives, or how we grew up, or how we all ended up in this place as dear friends. It was great.

Early the next morning, we all headed out. Mitch and Kristy (I’m sorry, I forgot. It was Kritch and Misty) in their car going back to Woodbury and Mary Beth and Joe in their vehicle. Barbara and I checked out, loaded her new ride, and headed out ourselves, but we were going in the opposite direction. We were headed north.

When we discussed the trip originally I said “Well, if we’re going up to Walker for a few days, do you want to then keep going and head up to Roseau for a couple more?” I really wanted her to see this hockey mecca I’ve been writing about. She eagerly agreed.

Just hanging out with Paul and Babe in Bemidji

On the way from Walker to Roseau, one will pass through Bemidji. It’s a nice little town, and home to Bemidji State University, but it also lays claim to being the real home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. So, of course we had no choice but to leave the highway we were on and find those two characters. Photographic evidence is provided.

From there, it was going to be about 90-minutes to get up to Roseau. According the GPS, all was good. How silly we were to believe that?

As we approached a big turn we’d have to take, to get around a couple of massive lakes, there was a road block set up by the local Native Americans who live there and control the roads. The roads were closed to through traffic. The guy was really polite, but said, “Because of Covid. No outside traffic is allowed on the reservation.” He gave us some directions as a  work-around, which sounded simple enough. But, GPS to the non-rescue once again. The system refused to re-route us. It kept sending us on roads that would turn us around because it wanted us to go back to the original route. We finally figured it out and found our way, but GPS seriously needs to deflate its ego. It’s not the brightest bulb in the technology chandelier.

At some point, I think it was at least 4:00, we arrived in Roseau from the south. Had we kept going, we would have been in Canada in about nine more miles, but actually that wouldn’t have happened because the border is closed.

One of my usual contacts for info all about Roseau and Roseau Rams High School hockey is a guy named Tracy Ostby, but everyone (and I mean everyone) calls him Bobcat. He happens to have been the team manager for the hockey team exactly when my fictional character would have played there, and to this day he’s kind of the king of Roseau hockey history. I told him we’d get there in time for dinner and asked for advice regarding the best pizza in town. He did not steer us wrong. The carry-out pizza from Legends was terrific, and we enjoyed it in our nice suite at the AmericInn Motel, the finest lodging establishment in Roseau.

The stout requirements for being enshrined in the Roseau Rams Wall of Fame, inside the Memorial Arena. The wall is covered with inductee photos. Wall to wall.

We had much of the morning free the next day (that would be Thursday for those keeping score at home) and were scheduled to meet Bobcat and Sara Vatnsdal the new Director of Parks and Rec for the city of Roseau, at 1:00. We would meet at the legendary Roseau Memorial Arena. The two of them gave us the full VIP tour of the arena, the locker rooms, the refrigeration room (can’t have ice without that!) and the North Rink which is adjacent to the Arena. The ice hasn’t been installed at the Arena yet, but it’s already in at the North Rink. The two of them were gracious and patient, and Barbara’s eyes were wide most of the time. They couldn’t have been better tour guides.

When I visited Roseau a couple of years ago, before I finished the concept for the book in outline form or wrote the first words, I told Barbara all about it. She seemed interested and amused, but I knew she really couldn’t get a flavor for it without being there. Without a doubt, this short trip up there was enlightening, and I enjoyed every minute of it, as well.

Everyone in Roseau is nice to a level the “Nice Gauge” doesn’t even reach. With 2,600 residents, it’s pretty easy for most locals to spot a visitor, and we lost track of how many said “What brings you up here?” after they met us. At first, I was just going to say “We just wanted to visit” or something generic like that, but the first time it happened (with the guy who checked us in at the motel) Barbara led the way and told him about the new book. That turned into a lengthy conversation and he was so interested it was hard to break away and actually move our stuff from the car to the room. They’re good people. They’re amazingly polite. And, at no time during our stay did we feel like outsiders. They treated us as if they’d always known us. It’s a special place. And it cranks out great hockey players as fast the Polaris factory cranks out snowmobiles. Yeah, it’s a huge factory in Roseau and a big reason why the town is so vibrant and full of life.

And about that hockey heritage. I’ve been there twice now, and I still don’t fully understand it, in terms of one small town on the northern edge of the country turning out so many great hockey players. The town of Warroad is just about 20 miles to the east, and between the two high schools they’ve won 11 Minnesota State Championships and sent an enormous number of players on to the college ranks, the minors, and the NHL. And I’m not talking about “a cup of coffee” in the NHL. I’m talking about star players. That’s Neal Broten in the photo atop the sign above. He played at the University of Minnesota and then in the NHL for 17 years. He’s not just on the Roseau Rams Wall of Fame, he’s in the US Hockey Hall of Fame. And he’s just one of the three Broten brothers who all played in the NHL. Neal Broten, Aaron Broten, Paul Broten, along with Dustin Byfuglien, are just a few of the guys who went on to pro greatness. And yes, Neal played on the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Olympic team. I think I picked the right town for my character to be from.

After the tour, Barbara and I walked around downtown Roseau, stopping in a number of places and buying some souvenirs, and then drove over to Warroad so I could show her that great little town. It’s about half the size of Roseau, but with it being the world headquarters of Marvin Windows and Doors it’s also very vibrant. These two neighboring towns are really fortunate to have two such amazingly great companies based there.

The Legion!

We were going to meet Bobcat at a place close to the motel, but when our tour was ending he pointed out the local American Legion Hall that sits on the same parking lot as the Memorial Arena. As you can imagine, the Rams hockey games keep a good flow of customers going through there during the season, and it’s the main gathering spot for a lot of locals all year ’round. We changed our plans and met there. There’s no better way to get a feel for a small town and its people that the local Legion. Plus, the food was great.

Typical of Roseau, nobody looked askance at the visitors from down south in the Twin Cities. They didn’t pry either. They just included us in all the conversations as if they knew us. And by the end of dinner, they did.

It was a short stay, but a great one. Really fantastic. So glad we went and equally glad that Barbara got to experience it. And after having been there, she’s all fired up about getting up there after the book is published, so we can do some signing events. My hope is that it’s out before hockey season is over, so we can combine any PR events we do with an actual visit to see the Rams play a home game. I need to write faster!

The trip home, which happened yesterday, was uneventful but long. We left the motel around 10:00 and pulled into the driveway around 5:30, I think. No major GPS screw ups but as we got close to home we did see a flashing sign warning us that I-694 around the east side of the Twin Cities was shut down due to an accident, and that’s the way we would get home. We deviated and instead just went straight to downtown St. Paul and then went east from there.

We’d been away for nearly a week, and despite the fact Boofus and Buster had their new friend Kelsey staying with them, we know the drill regarding how we’re going to be greeted after being gone so long. Usually, it involves them literally yelling at us for hours before they forgive us. So, I cut Buster off at the bend. I walked in the door and he stared at me. Then yelled at me. So I picked him up and just loved on him for a good five minutes, talking in soothing tones and calling him a “good boy” over and and over. It worked. I overpowered him with love.

Everything is good now. They slept with us and snuggled up, and today they are totally relaxed. They just get stressed when we’re not around. It feels good to be home, but it was a GREAT trip.

We’re so happy our friends came up to Walker to be there with us. And so thankful for all the hospitality and friendliness in Roseau. Special thanks to Bobcat and Sara for giving us the guided tour and then seeing us again at the Legion.

As usual, if this blog appealed to you, please take a sec and click on the “Like” button below. If we get enough “likes” we might get tickets to a Roseau Rams hockey game!

See you next week!  Hopefully on the normal day and not two days late like this one.

Bob Wilber, at your service and happy to be home. But also happy to have gotten out of the bubble for a road trip.

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