I’ve been lucky enough to take a couple of 2-day canoe trips on the Mississippi River this year. In April, I paddled with the Quapaw Canoe Company and River Sage John Ruskey near Baton Rouge. In August I paddled solo for 39 miles in the Headwaters Region in northern Minnesota. I figure this pretty much makes me an expert paddler now. Look out, Ruskey!
For the August trip, I started some 16 miles downriver from where the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, at Coffee Pot Landing, finishing up at Lake Irving in Bemidji. Interesting side note: the Headwaters are apparently nine miles closer to Bemidji than they were a few years earlier when my older Mississippi River Trail map was printed. I don’t know who shaved off those miles (I’d put my money on Paul Bunyan), but it sure saved me some time.
I felt good about how I did on my first solo canoe trip. I kept up a good pace, never felt lost, and figured out how to pee while standing up in the canoe (it isn’t as easy as it sounds). While I never felt lost, there was the part where I somehow missed the Pine Point campsite that was supposed to be my home for the first night. (There are no mile markers tacked on to the cattails!) Paddling on and trying to figure out exactly where I was, I had a few anxious moments, about 63 of them, as I made my way through the third marsh of the day. The sun was getting low in the sky, and I was trying to figure out if I had enough light to get to the next campsite or if I should be figuring out how to sleep in the canoe.
The river wouldn’t let me get too bent out of shape, though. The marsh glowed from the golden late-day light, the breeze disappeared, and I began to feel as calm as the world around me. I saw more wildlife in those late evening hours than I saw the whole rest of the day: beavers, kingfishers, a trumpeter swan, lots of ducks, turtles, and more.
I got to the campsite at Iron Bridge at sunset with just enough light remaining to set up my tent and get my gear inside before the mosquitoes carried me away. I was pretty beat, 11 hours of paddling to cover 25 miles will do that (31 miles according to the old map!), so it didn’t really matter when I discovered that the batteries were dead on both of my lights. I just went to sleep.
Spending hour after hour alone in the canoe, I began to realize that solo paddling on a river offers many valuable life lessons. For example, a lake looks much bigger when you are paddling on it into a headwind than when you’re standing on a boat ramp admiring its beauty.
I also learned that the sight of a guy in a canoe with camping gear doesn’t inspire everyone to great acts of generosity. As soon as I hit the open water of Lake Irving at Bemidji, I ran into that headwind and a houseboat full of people who had been drinking for a while. Not only were they clueless about the location of the boat ramp on the south end of the lake (“Good luck!”), but they didn’t even offer me a beer. Here’s a few more life lessons from the river:
• Around every bend in the river, there’s another bend in the river.
• You will get dirty and wet; embrace it.
• Still water doesn’t always run deep.
• No matter how mad your skills and how well you prepare, sometimes the wind and the current will force you into a bank anyway.
• The moment you stop paying attention is when you miss the trumpeter swan or you end up on a rock;
• It’s impossible to always pay attention.
• Whether you drift or paddle hard, you end up in the same place.
After all the hard work of the last several hours—of the last two days—navigating around obstructions, battling the wind and the big water of Lake Irving, I managed to find the boat ramp without the help of those houseboaters: two little dirt tracks at the end of a subdivision. I had imagined that I’d feel like celebrating when I got to this point; instead, I was content to sit down and enjoy a little snack. Sometimes the act of mastering a few challenges is reward enough.
The Mississippi River flows mostly north and northeast from Lake Itasca, reaching its most northerly point just 3 miles east of Bemidji. This photo was taken after most of the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves but before ice set in. (photo taken Oct 2013)
The Mississippi River passes through Lake Bemidji, entering at the lake’s southern end and exiting near the northeast tip. This picture shows the highway bridge over the river channel at the point where it emerges from Lake Bemidji. (taken August 2011)
Bemidji, the First City on the Mississippi (the official slogan!), is a small but vibrant city with an active arts scene and enough outdoors activities to get a couch potato outside any time of year.
The city takes its name from the Ojibwe word for the lake: Bay-me-ji-ga (where the current cuts across, named as such because of the way the Mississippi River passes through). The first settler in the area was Shay-Now-Ish-Kung (Rattler, later also known as Chief Bemidji) who arrived in 1882 after traveling up the Mississippi by canoe. He lived on the south shore of Lake Bemidji with his wife Kah-ge-gay-ah-nah-quod-oke (Eternal Cloud Woman) and family and was leader of a small community of some fifty people.
In 1890, Merian Ellsworth Carson established a trading post on the Mississippi River between Lakes Irving and Bemidji, running it with his brother George Earl. They offered overnight lodging in the room upstairs and ran the first post office beginning in 1894 when the town was known as “Bermidji.” The “r” was officially dropped in 1898.
Bemidji is one of the few towns along the Mississippi that doesn’t owe its origins directly to the river. Even though Carlson set up a trading post on the Mississippi between the lakes, the primary reasons the town took off were logging and the Great Northern Railroad. The railroad chose to built through here largely because its president (James Hill) and the leading town proprietor (Tams Bixby) were buddies. The arrival of the railroad also triggered a logging boom. Even though logging surveys began in the 1870s, few trees were cut before the railroad arrived because the rivers in this part of the state were not a reliable means of transporting cut timber.
Bemidji benefited from being near a lot of logging camps (20,000 lumberjacks worked in the surrounding woods), but the city also had several mills. The largest was the Crookston Lumber Mill, which operated from 1903 until it burned down on November 8, 1924. At its peak, 2,000 men and boys worked there. When the mill was operating and the doors were opened, the noise was loud enough to make it hard for folks who lived in Bemidji to get a good night’s sleep. After the mills closed, a few lumber-related businesses survived, primarily those that manufactured wood products.
Bemidji also got a boost when it became the county seat, the result of intense lobbying in which the town proprietors donated land for a county courthouse, elementary and high schools, and set aside a square block to expand the courthouse to include a jail and sheriff’s office.
The Bemidji Woolen Mills have been a fixture in town since 1920, almost as long as Bemidji State University, which opened in 1919 as Bemidji Normal School. After World War II, the city became a regional retail center. The economy today is largely based on education, health care, and tourism.
Exploring the Area
For a city of 13,000 people, Bemidji has a lot to offer. Let’s start with that lake in the middle of town. Lake Bemidji was actually two separate bodies of water before a dam was built downstream; if you head out with a depth finder, around the middle of the lake you will find a ridge that is about two feet below the water line. In the winter, the lake is a popular place to establish a second home; the huts that pop up are for ice fishing, or at least that’s what they tell their spouses. If you’d like to get on the lake but didn’t bring a boat with you, you can rent a canoe or kayak through the Outdoor Program Center at Bemiji State University or at Lake Bemidji State Park.
Located on the north side of the lake, Lake Bemidji State Park has good hiking (check out the Bog Walk), a nice beach, and ranger-led activities, in addition to the boat rentals and camping mentioned elsewhere in this piece.
The Tourist Information Center is located along the lakefront near downtown. You’ll know you are there when you see the tall statues of Paul Bunyan (18 feet tall) and Babe the Blue Ox. They were built in 1937 as a tribute to local logging industry. There’s have a live webcam pointed at Paul and Babe, so you can text your family and friends that you’re here and let them watch you wave hello! Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a unique fireplace. It was built in 1933-34 using stones from each Minnesota county, all US states, all Canadian provinces, and each national park. Just north of the center, you’ll find a statue of Chief Bemidji (Shay-Now-Ish-Kung).
Scattered around the lively downtown area, you’ll find a number of sculptures from local artists, including the last remaining beaver from a series of artistic beavers. Gaea (by Blackduck, Minnesota artist Deborah Davis) aroused some controversy for what some folks believed was overtly sexual imagery; it was removed at one point but reinstalled after counter-protests.
The Beltrami County History Center has a number of displays highlighting the region’s characters and events from the past, as well as a good research library.
At Concordia Language Villages, you can immerse yourself in the traditions and language of another culture, just pick one of the 15 different language programs that interest you. While many of the programs are organized as summer camps for children and young adults, they offer programs for people of all ages.
Rabideau CCC Camp, near Blackduck (about 30 minutes northeast of Bemidji) is one of the few remaining camps from the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Fifteen buildings still stand; visitors can tour the education building, bunkhouses, and mess hall.
If you think summer is the only time of year to visit, you would be wrong. Winter has nearly as much going on, you just need more clothing. Bemidji is crazy for curling; if you drop in at the Bemidji Curling Club on a league night, like I did in 2011, you are welcome to watch and you may even get a lesson. What else can you do in winter? How about:
• Snowmobiling (500+ miles of trails in the area!)
• Cross-country skiing
• Buena Vista Ski Area (skiing, sleigh rides, snowboarding)
• Ice skating
• Ice fishing
The previously mentioned Bemidji Woolen Mills still manufactures many of its products in Bemidji. They can help outfit you for that winter visit I know you want to make.
If you forgot to buy a refrigerator magnet of California when you visited San Francisco that last time, you can probably buy one at Gifts O’ the Wild, an eclectic and eccentric gift shop a few miles south of Bemidji on US 71. If you’re looking for something with more of a Minnesota theme, you’re in luck for that, too, as the store has many varieties of wild rice, jams from local producers, art and crafts from local Native Americans, and shot glasses that say Minnesota. The store sells a lot of junk, but there’s plenty of good stuff at reasonable prices, too; definitely worth a stop.
If you’re in the area in August, don’t miss the Dragon Boat Festival. You might even be able to join a crew. In winter, Brrmidji Polar Daze is full of cold-weather fun, including an invigorating dip in Lake Bemidji.
Where to Stay
Bemidji has a shortage of budget accommodations, as well as locally-owned properties in the immediate area, but these places will take good care of you.
Camping. Lake Bemidji State Park has nearly 100 sites in a heavily wooded area on the north side of the lake. The sites are large and about half have access to electricity.
Resorts. Taber’s Historic Log Cabins (open May-Oct) is a traditional small resort with affordable, well-kept cabins originally built in the 1930s; it is near the university and the lake.
Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge is an appealing resort on the northern side of the lake. In summer, affordable rooms are available in a variety of forms, including the historic lodge (which also has a full-service restaurant), cabins, and suites. In winter, the lodge closes but many other types of rooms remain open, as does the indoor swimming pool.
Where to Eat and Drink
Bemidji has a good selection of places to eat and to enjoy an adult beverage. Most are quite affordable. Here are a few highlights.
Craft beer has arrived in Bemidji, thanks to Bemidji Brewing and the taproom that they opened in downtown Bemidji in summer 2013. They are off to a good start. The night I visited they had six beers on tap, and I enjoyed each one, in moderation, of course. They are currently open 3 evenings a week (Th-Sa 4-9) but they may increase their hours in the future, so check their website to confirm when they are open.
The Cabin Coffee House & Cafe is a relaxed and friendly place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a delicious and health-conscious meal.
Brigid’s Pub (317 Beltramia Ave.; 218.444.0567) is a popular Irish-themed bar with a lot going on, including live music and trivia nights; the Irish pub food is very good.
Minnesota Nice Café is a place that lives up to its name; they also serve delicious and hearty food, especially for breakfast; their location next to the Bemidji Woolen Mills is a lovely space with plenty of elbow room.
If you’re in the mood for Mexican food, Mi Rancho is a good choice for affordability and freshness.
Located on the narrow strip of land between the lakes, Sparking Waters serves up fine dining in a casual, but classy setting. Walleye is always a good choice.
I must have stood out, because less than a minute after entering the crowded lobby, someone asked me if I needed help. I explained that I wanted to learn about curling and might write about it. I was quickly connected to Kent Bahr, who teaches a curling class at a local community college, and without any prior notice or arrangement, he proceeded to spend the next two hours patiently teaching me the basics of the sport. Here’s what I learned.
Curling is an old sport, dating back to 16th century Scotland. The term used for curling tournaments—Bonspiel—is probably a Scottish word meaning “happy games” or “league game” although according to Wikipedia it is what Arnold Schwarzenegger yells when he spills milk.
Bemidji is a curling hotbed. Leagues run from November to March (with spilt milk on weekends). They attract a wide range of folks; you are likely to find a first grader teamed up with her grandparents on one team and a family of four on another. Bemidji has produced a number of champion curlers, including four of the six men on the 2006 Olympic team.
In a place where politeness isn’t just the social norm but an extreme sport, curling is the perfect sport. There is no referee. Players police themselves and proper etiquette is perhaps the most highly valued strategy. In New York, you need a mediator to order a bowl of soup, but in Minnesota folks play a sport without an unbiased observer and no one gets punched or cursed at.
A novice’s guide to the rules and terminology:
• The playing surface is called a sheet; it is 146 feet long and 14 feet wide.
• The ice has a mottled surface unlike the smooth surface required for ice skating or hockey.
• Each team has four players; the Skip is the general and strategist; players take turns being sweepers and throwing the rock (no, not The Rock).
[insert pic of The Rock and a rock]
• The rock is a 42 ½ pound piece of granite that was quarried in Scotland or Wales.
• Players from the two teams take turns throwing, using the Hack as a starting block.
• The lead throws first and the Skip throws last, so the person designated as Vice-Skip captains the ship for that turn.
• The sport gets its name from the way the rock is thrown or curled. Players release the rock with a gentle twisting motion that causes it to rotate slightly as it glides down the ice; the rotation imparts some control on the direction the rock goes; for an ideal throw, the rock curls 2-3 revolutions.
• Sweeping creates a smoother surface that impacts speed more than direction; players do two miles worth of sweeping during a game, which is two miles further than the average American could walk in a day.
• The house (target) has a 12 foot diameter with the “tee” in the center.
• The Skip can sweep an opponent’s rock after it passes the T-line (a line that dissects the center of the target) in an attempt to guide it off the target.
• The ice is marked with two black lines that cross it vertically in front of the house. These are “hog lines.” When players throw the rock, they must release it before crossing the hog line at their end. In order to remain in play, the rock must cross the hog line on the opposite end.
• Scoring is pretty simple. The rock closest to the tee (center) scores a point. Additional points can be scored if the team has other rocks that are closer to the center than any of their opponent’s rocks but most of the time, only one point is scored per end (round). In theory, it is possible to score eight points on one turn, but this is rarer than an accurate Wikipedia entry.
• Each round is called an end; it takes about 90 minutes to play a six-end game.
Those are the basic rules. It’s not really that complicated, at least not until you try to understand the scoreboard. But that’s for another day. One advantage of the sport is that you don’t need much equipment: just rubber sole shoes, a broom, warm socks, and good manners.
After this thorough overview of the sport’s rules and strategies, Kent took me down to the ice where I could watch the action up-close. We were running out of time (Kent needed to get ready to compete with his team), so I didn’t get to take the full plunge and send the rock floating to the other end. I did get to put my boot (awkwardly) in the hack and get the feel for sliding the rock across the ice, which, given my physical state, was a much better way to pass an evening than spending two hours sliding around an outdoor rink swatting at a soccer ball with a broom.