Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (Headwaters Guide Excerpt)

To mark the recent release of my fourth Mississippi Valley Traveler guide–the Headwaters Region Guide–here’s an excerpt about one of the region’s larger-than-life characters, Paul Bunyan. You might be surprised by a few things. And don’t forget to check out the photos of Paul and Babe at the end of the post. They get around.

To buy a copy of the book, head here.

Headwaters Guide excerpt:

I didn’t know this until I visited northern Minnesota, but we have Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox to thank for creating the Mississippi River. I used to think that the river came to be because of things like melting glaciers, easily eroded sandstone, and Mark Twain, but, no; it was Bunyan.

We all know, of course, that Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes were created when Bunyan and Babe hiked around the state, leaving huge footprints in the ground that eventually filled with water. One winter when they were logging trees, Babe was towing a giant water wagon. The road monkeys would coat the roads with water to create an icy surface for those felled logs to slide across. Well, the wagon sprung a leak, as water wagons sometimes do, but this wagon had so much water in it that the flow spilled into a basin that created Lake Itasca, then continued flowing all the way to New Orleans, although obviously not in a direct line.

So who exactly was this Paul Bunyan, creator of rivers and lakes? Folks in Bemidji, Minnesota claim their city as his birthplace, but it seems neighboring Akeley has the stronger claim. “Paul was born here, I’m pretty darn sure of that,” long-time Akeley resident Steve Lindhorst told me in 2011. One thing is clear: he was a freakishly large child from the beginning. “Five giant storks delivered him to us, and boy were they tired when they dropped him off,” his mother told the Bemidji Pioneer. “Within a week he was wearin’ his father’s clothes.” He soon outgrew them. Mrs. Bunyan improvised by “…sewing together some sheets and using wagon wheels as buttons.”

As young Bunyan outgrew the lumber wagon that served as his baby carriage, his parents built a large raft and floated it in the ocean, which is quite a distance from Akeley. Every time young Bunyan rocked back or forth, he sent waves cascading across the ocean, which probably didn’t please many ship captains. Bunyan needed closer and closer supervision as he grew older and bigger. “This one time Paul emptied our fishin’ pond with a single deep breath. We was pickin’ frogs out of his teeth for days,” his mother said.

Bunyan also had a gargantuan appetite; as a child, he could put down 40 bowls of porridge before breakfast. As an adult working in the logging camps, his appetite required special accommodation. The resident blacksmith, Ole, told me that he forged a griddle as large as a Minnesota lake so Sourdough Sam could grill up a heaping stack of pancakes. “We had 50 men skating around that thing with slices of bacon strapped to their feet to keep it greased,” he told me.

Living with Bunyan presented other challenges, too. His voice was so loud that lumberjacks had to wear earplugs or risk going deaf. A single sneeze from Bunyan could blow the roof off a building. One season Bunyan got the flu and sneezed the roofs off of 29 buildings in a single day.

When Bunyan first met Babe the Blue Ox is a matter of contention. The most credible story is that Bunyan found Babe in a snowbank the day the blue snow fell. Bunyan was in such a mighty funk that his melancholy turned the snow blue. (Too bad he wasn’t angry; Babe the Red Ox would be pretty cool!) Most people and critters knew to run and hide, but Babe, who had been a bull of normal hue, was oblivious; when the blue snow fell on Babe, it turned him blue, too. Bunyan felt responsible and took care of Babe from that point on.

Babe’s size eventually rivaled that of Bunyan himself. He grew as tall as 11 pine trees (although we don’t know if he was measured with red, white, or jack pines) and as wide as the Missouri River (again, there is some imprecision here, as the Missouri River is wider near it mouth than at its source). The distance between the tips of Babe’s horns was so remarkable, that “a crow leaving the tip of one horn on a winter’s morning would reach the other tip on a summer’s day.” Given the way crows fly, that’s a heck of a distance.

Yes, Paul Bunyan and Babe lived supersized lives, which is why as you travel around the northern parts of the state, you’ll find so many statues dedicated to them. So when you stand at the northern tip of Lake Itasca, make sure to thank them for all their contributions, including the Mississippi River.

Buy copies of the Headwaters Guide here.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2016


Remembering Bill Marshall

Bill Marshall outside his home in 2011
Bill Marshall outside his home in 2011

In 2011, I got to spend most of the summer getting to know northern Minnesota. I spent a month of that time based in Grand Rapids, thanks to a generous offer from a friend who set me up in her house. She also gave me the names of several people to contact to ease my transition into life as a temporary Grand Rapidian. One of those people was Bill Marshall.

Bill was Land Commissioner for Itasca County for about 20 years and seemed to know just about everything about the forest and everyone in town. He introduced me to a lot of people and regularly invited me to events, including his morning coffee rounds. He was as warm and welcoming a person as I have ever met, and it was all genuine.

Bill passed away in April at the age of 91. I was lucky enough to enjoy several conversations with him, including a lengthy interview in 2011 through which I learned quite a bit about his life, the forest, and northern Minnesota. After those conversations, I wrote a profile of Bill for a book project that hasn’t yet seen the light of day, so I’m posting a copy now to share a few things about the man I got to know and admire.

The Dean of the Forest

I met Bill Marshall at the Arby’s on Pokegama Avenue in Grand Rapids. He invited me to join his coffee clutch—a small group of retired men that included a former newspaper editor, the president of the local college, a law enforcement veteran, and a bunch of guys who worked together at the phone company who all preferred cheap coffee (a quarter a cup) over good coffee. A few days later I was joining Bill and his family for their weekly Saturday morning coffee at Bixby’s. Bill was as genuinely welcoming a person as I have ever met.

He was born and raised in a northeast Minneapolis neighborhood where the streets were filled with golf ball-sized chunks of limestone, which just happened to be the perfect size and weight for a kid to throw at street lights. He and his friends would sometimes compete to see how many chunks it would take for them to knock out a light altogether.

His father was an engineer with Northern States Power Company, a native of Duluth and a Navy veteran of World War I. His mother grew up in rural Iowa but her family later moved to Minneapolis. When Bill was a child, the family would vacation at a cabin on Pokegama Lake that had been built by Bill’s aunt in 1935. It was a rustic place, with no plumbing and lit only by kerosene lamps.

“To a kid it was ideal,” Bill told me. “We had this whole world to ourselves. Across the lake there wasn’t one habitation of any kind, it was all wild; you could hear coyotes howling. My brother and I wore a pair of pants and ran around all summer bare feet, bare-chested.”

Bill served in the Navy Air Corps near the end of World War II where he learned to fly. The Navy, though, decided they had enough pilots already, so he was reassigned to air gunnery. Lucky for him, the war ended before he saw combat. After the war, he used the GI Bill to get a degree in forestry, determined to get back to those woods of his childhood.

After he graduated, he went to the St. Paul office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and met with the director. He asked if the DNR had any open positions.

“I remember him sitting back in his chair, feet on the desk and smoking a cigarette.

‘You want a job?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I just graduated from Forestry school, and I’d like a job.’

‘We got two of ‘em, one open at Big Falls and one at Effie. You want one of those?’

‘Yea, I’d like the one at Effie.’

‘Be up there a week from Monday; we’ll send the papers up. You can sign ‘em up there.’

It was that easy. And it was a good job.”

Bill was hired as a forester and one of his first tasks was to figure out how to make use of a brand new technology called aerial photography. That technology enabled foresters to map remote tracts and catalog its trees far more accurately than had been possible before.

After six years as a state forester, though, he heard some news that bothered him. “The word was out that guys that had gone to school for forestry, they hoped to get them to the main office in St. Paul because a lot of guys were going to be retiring. Well that

[the city] was the last place I wanted to go.”

The Itasca County Land Department had an opening at that time, so he left the state DNR for a job helping to manage the county’s 400,000 acres of public land. There were just three people in the department to keep an eye all that land. “We were planting trees all over the place and putting in public accesses. My boss was an old lumberjack; he’d grown up around Reads Landing down at Lake Pepin…He was one tough old dude. When he retired I got his job.” Bill worked as the county’s Land Commissioner from 1961 to 1982.

One of the programs he managed was a summer tree planting project that employed a lot of area youth; each year they planted over a million trees! Many of the youth were Ojibwe Indians, and, over time, he got to know them and their extended families. He was eventually given an Ojibwe name that meant Great Thunderbird (which I think would be chi-binesi in Ojibwemowin) and was included in some family rituals.

During our chats, I asked Bill about some of the creatures that can make life in the northern forests uncomfortable, which led to a story about leeches. He was exploring the site of an old logging camp and decided to swim out into a lake to look for relics. “Well, I swam out into this thing…and when I came back to shore, I bet I had 500 little dang leeches on me. They were so small they were transparent, but they all grabbed ahold and starting sucking, so they all had a little red spot where the blood was coming in. Well, I scrape off these things and it looks like I’m bleeding to death,” he said, laughing.

He retired at age 58. Like everyone else, Bill had his moments where office politics had clashed with common sense, which caused the typical frustrations. He had a pretty good attitude about it, though.

“Life is full of that kind of stuff. You don’t want to take that too seriously or you won’t sleep at night. You do what you can and forget the rest.”

Bill never stopped enjoying time in that old cabin on Pokegama Lake, which has electricity now but is otherwise just as rustic as the cabin of his youth. He also didn’t seem to have much trouble transitioning from full-time work to retirement.

“That’s the nice thing about getting older, you have time to sit and watch that stuff [like a spider in his garage or the clouds passing over head]. When you’re young, you don’t think of it, you don’t have time to look at it. It’s fun to sit in the yard and just look at all the different things and listen to the different birds singing. Some poor guy’s caught up in everyday life and you ask that guy, Did you hear that bird? What bird? Do you know what kind it is? No, no idea. It’s kinda too bad to be so oblivious to your surroundings.”

Growing older also made him more sensitive to the plight of a variety of creatures, of their right to exist. “You tend to become sympathetic to all forms of life. Geez, I’m getting so bad, I get a beetle in the house I make sure to get him outside and give him his freedom. I don’t want to flush him down the toilet. It seems kinda inhumane.”

Bill had the forest in his blood and probably understood it better than most people do. He also had a gift for describing the moments that made the forest so special to him. As you may know, winter in Minnesota can be harsh and unforgiving, but Bill could find joy on the coldest of winter days. He told me a story about one day in particular, although I suspect this was something of a regular event for him.

“I stopped in the forest for lunch. I got a fire started and scooped some snow into a tin cup and let it melt over the fire. I’d pick a few leaves of Labrador tea and add them to the water. I’d pull a sandwich out of my backpack and put it over the fire to thaw it out (it had frozen on the hike in). I might have a chickadee for company—they might fly over and sit on my shoulder—but otherwise I’d just sit there and listen to the quiet.”

Of the many admirable qualities Bill possessed, perhaps the one that was most remarkable, one that seems increasingly in short supply, is that Bill knew that he was part of a bigger world, part of the natural world, but not its master. I doubt if there’s any other way for a person to appreciate the stillness of a winter day or the song of a bird ten feet away or the right of a beetle to be.

©Dean Klinkenberg, 2016

Recycling Hope

It feels like the world has been full of nothing but bad news lately, but, as often happens around the Mississippi, just wait a bit and something will come along to lift your spirits. That was the case this week, when a crew of six explorers/activists floated into Alton on some trash from New York.

One of the hulls
One of the hulls

That trash has been repurposed into a raft built from hundreds of discarded plastic bottles held together by wood, most of which was salvaged from old docks. The crew, called Recycled Mississippi, is on a mission to remind us to treat our rivers better—which is a great cause but kinda sad that we need to be reminded to do it—as well as to nudge us to reduce the amount of crap we throw away.

The boat, a catamaran, took over two months to build. The twin hulls are filled with hundreds of plastic bottles to provide buoyancy. Prepping the bottles for repurposing was a labor-intensive act. Each bottle had to be cleaned and checked for leaks and was then filled with about a tablespoon of dry ice and sealed. As the dry ice turned to gas, it expanded, filling the bottle and turning it rock hard.

The hulls are connected with an open deck outfitted with a mast and sail, although that sail probably won’t get a lot of use on the river. The skipper controls the outboard motor from a command podium that is decorated with a map of the Mississippi where they mark their progress on the trip.

They are taking their message to the Mississippi Valley and beyond by traveling the river from St. Paul to the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of some 2,000 miles. Because floating on a boat made of trash isn’t difficult enough, they are trying to do the entire journey without creating any new waste themselves. These are folks who are familiar with taking on big challenges, though.

The crew
The crew

They come from around the world and each brings a lot of hands-on experience advocating for better human-environment relations, whether by building kayaks from plastic bottles or founding an organization to advocate for sustainable waste management or trekking across the Sahara or running ultramarathons or participating in cleanups in Serbia. They don’t mess around.

They are inspiring, for the effort they put into this cause, for their willingness to challenge themselves, and for their drive to make the world a better place.

You can follow their trip here and feel a little better about the world while you do.

©Dean Klinkenberg, 2016

Delayed Gratification

When I first started exploring the places along the Mississippi River, I did a lot of driving. When I’d get to a new community, I’d look for the good places to be near or on the river, so I could pass those tips along to other travelers, then I’d pack my car and drive to the next town.

I rarely got to take advantage of the tips I was giving to other travelers, except maybe for the occasional day trip on Steamboat Nostalgia, which wasn’t very satisfying. I’d drive by places where the backwaters were thick and might spot someone paddling through. I’d feel envious, but I had work to do, so I packed up the car and moved on.

One of those places that I’ve driven past and through many times is the Chippewa River Delta. For six years I’ve fantasized about having the time and a boat to paddle around so I could get lost in it for a while. The backwaters looked thick with tall trees and narrow channels. I imagined an area teeming with wildlife and chances to get lost.

Six years is a ridiculously long time to wait to do something that is so accessible, but, hey, I had to pack up my car and move on. Finally, though, after all that dreaming, I got a chance to get in there, to paddle around that delta, thanks to Michael and Broken Paddling Guiding Company.

I met Michael at a riverfront park in Wabasha, Minnesota on a Monday morning. The day started overcast and cool, unusually cool for August, even for Minnesota. After I changed shoes into something more suitable for a kayak, we drove about ten minutes to a boat ramp in the Nelson-Trevino Bottoms State Natural Area, deep in the Chippewa River Delta. I was excited.

Michael gave me a couple of quick tips on paddling and I boarded my kayak, the yellow one. We took our time paddling through the maze of narrow channels, relying on the map in Michael’s head that has taken shape after dozens of trips paddling through the sloughs at different water levels and different times of year. An occasional mist fell from the sky, but there was no wind to push it, or us, around. The air smelled fresh and clean, with just a hint of muskiness thrown in for depth.

We lazed our way through the dense wet woods, talking more vigorously than we paddled, but our low chatter didn’t seem to frighten off any fauna. A bald eagle, a juvenile, kept a close eye on us as we drifted twenty feet under and past it, but it lacked either the fear or the desire to take flight. A short time later, we spotted an adult eagle, probably mom or dad. Before the day was over, we counted ten bald eagles, including a pair standing watch atop a tree and a solo adult on a branch over the river that also let us pass by without leaving its branch. I’ve approached many eagles in the past and, invariably, they are quite shy, taking flight when I was much further away. To stare up at them as we floated by in a kayak felt special.

I expected to see critters as we paddled around, but I didn’t expect to hear the variety of sounds that we encountered. At one point, the resonant call of a sandhill crane boomed out of the thicket of the swamp, close enough for us to see it, were it not for the dense foliage that lined the shore. A little before that we had a crack, snap, and splash around a bend just ahead of us. We glanced at each other as if to ask “Did you hear that, too?” and joked about being the lucky ones to hear a rare Minnesota glacier calving. After we rounded the curve, we saw a tree bobbing in the water that had just minutes earlier been part of the canopy.

When we got to the main channel of the Mississippi, we had the river to ourselves, save for a couple of small motor boats. The sun had finally come out and the wind picked up—a cross wind, mostly—that challenged my ability to keep the kayak moving in a more or less straight line. For some reason I worked much harder at it than Michael; while I zigged and zagged, he stayed true with little effort.

We finished our paddle at the same park where we met, within walking distance of downtown Wabasha. For me, though, it felt a world away from where we started. I finally got to spend a few hours paddling through the Chippewa Delta and it exceeded my expectations. I got to see plenty of wildlife—we even paddled alongside a muskrat for a bit. I also found out that my legs will still work after a couple of hours sitting in a kayak, so that’s cool.

Now that I’ve had a taste, I’ll be back, and it won’t take another six years, either. After that morning paddle, though, it was time to move on, time to pack the car up and drive to the next place.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2015

Minnesota’s Iron Range Podcast

Hull Rust Mahoning Mine; Hibbing, Minnesota
Hull Rust Mahoning Mine; Hibbing, Minnesota

I was lucky enough to spend much of the summer of 2011 in northern Minnesota, getting to know the region where the Mississippi begins. Of all the places I went, there were few that grabbed my attention more so than the Iron Range. The unforgiving climate and diverse mix of people devoted to grueling work sure makes for some compelling stories.

Now you can learn more about this unique part of the country thanks to a Strong Towns podcast that features Iron Range native Aaron Brown, a writer, educator, radio guy, and Range advocate. It’s a fascinating hour-long peak into a world that most of us rarely get to experience.

After you’ve listened to the podcast, come back to the Mississippi Valley Traveler website and check out my guides to the Mesabi Iron Range and the Cuyuna Iron Range.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2015

A New Direction: Mississippi River Fiction

I began writing about the Mississippi Valley in January 2007. Since that time, I’ve worn out a car, hiked up a few dozen bluffs (and stumbled down a couple). I’ve canoed with the Quapaws into Baton Rouge and with Big Muddy Mike under a full moon. I’ve written three books and given a lot of talks at libraries and historical societies. Much of what I’ve done has been focused on encouraging people to travel along the Mississippi and give them some ideas of how to get to know the region better.

It’s been a great ride, and I have no plans to stop anytime soon. One thing, however, will be changing in a big way. I’ll be writing more fiction and less non-fiction from this point on. There are a lot of stories about the Mississippi Valley and many just aren’t well-suited for travel writing. Fiction not only gives me more creative space to tell the stories (i.e., I get to make shit up), but it might also be a better way to bring the stories of the Mississippi River to a wider audience.

I’ll be writing mysteries that put the people and places of the Mississippi Valley in starring roles. In some stories the Mississippi River will be front and center, while in others it will be a background character. It will always be present, though.

There are a few characters who will show up in each book, like Frank Dodge. You’ll get to know him pretty well. He’s a writer who travels along the Mississippi River in search of good stories (and who in no way resembles me). Dodge is a good guy, mostly. Sure, he’s cranky and cynical, and terminally restless; sometimes he’s a bit impulsive, too, but he has good intentions, mostly. He also has a knack for getting into trouble. Lucky for him, his childhood friend, Brian Jefferson, is much more level-headed and dependable. Unlike Dodge, Jefferson prefers a quiet orderliness to his life, even if he does sometimes get bored. Jefferson is a detective for the St. Louis Police Department, so that comes in handy when Frank gets into trouble, which he will, often.

In the first book, Rock Island Lines, Dodge, disgruntled and desperate for a story to write about, gets a hot tip: Miguel Ramirez could be one of the last surviving descendants of a brutal gangster named John Looney. Dodge sees this as a good story to sell, so he concocts a plan to meet the young man. When Ramirez is found floating in the Mississippi River, Dodge finds himself without a story and on the wrong side of a murder investigation. As Dodge and his buddy, homicide detective Brian Jefferson, go over the surprising events of the night Ramirez died, clues about the death of Ramirez will come from an unlikely source: the life of John Looney.

You can purchase Rock Island Lines through the usual retail outlets as either a soft cover book or an ebook. If you buy directly through my website, I’ll throw in a free copy of the Mississippi Valley Traveler’s Guide to the Quad Cities.

As I venture out in this new direction, I need your help. Would you consider posting a review of Rock Island Lines at on-line retailers like Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes and Noble? They don’t need to be flattering, but that would help. Tell your friends, too. I think a lot of people will be interested in Rock Island Lines: lovers of mysteries, organized crime fans, travel writers and other freelancers, and, of course, people interested in the Mississippi. I look forward to your comments and reviews.

In the second book, already in progress, a fire at a Dubuque convention exposes a bitter dispute between a local ice cream maker and a boutique chocolatier. Dodge and Jefferson manage to get in some trouble while partying on an excursion boat and paddling in the backwaters near Dubuque. In the middle of it all, Helen Kraft shows up, Dodge’s rival, who stirs up the waters with her take-no-prisoners approach to freelance writing. And there will be bodies, of course.

See you on the road.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2014