DULUTH, Minn. — Here’s how it begins: I leave home with a notebook in my pocket and camera gear in my backpack. I drive for two or three hours and hop in a boat or climb into a deer stand. Or I strap on skis or snowshoes. Or I hop in a bush plane bound for the wilderness. And off I go, sometimes with folks I might barely know, to some pretty amazing places.
I fill my notebook with scratchings that only I can read. I shoot plenty of photos, hoping for five good ones. Then I come back and start writing. Or file a story from someplace far from the office.
What you come to learn over the years, is that most of us are after the same things. We want to spend time in places of profound beauty and healthy landscapes. We want to occasionally push ourselves to our physical limits. As much as possible, we want to do these things with our best friends and people we love.
And sometimes, chasing these stories, I stumbled upon some powerful moments.
Classic characters of the North
This part of the country, especially up near the Canadian border, has either spawned or attracted some unique characters. I’ve tried to track them down and tell their stories — Dorothy Molter on Knife Lake near Ely, Benny Ambrose up on Ottertrack Lake, and several others on Saganaga Lake, such as Art and Dinna Madsen, Betsy Powell, Irv Benson, Tempest Powell Benson and Dicky Powell. Most of them lived in a time when the country seemed — well, a bit wilder and more remote. They offered a glimpse into what seemed a simpler and slower life.
Ambrose was a prospector and trapper. I visited him at his remote cabin on the Canadian border in 1981 during my first year on the job. I went in with Benny’s closest friend Bob “Jake” Jacobsen. Jacobsen had encountered Ambrose one evening on a portage from Saganaga Lake to Ottertrack.
“He said, ‘I got a couple packsacks on the other side of Monument Portage. Can you give me hand with them?’ ” Jacobsen said. “So, we go over there, and, my God, there were all kinds of packsacks full of rocks he’d gotten over on Big Sag.
“‘I said, ‘Are you crazy, Ben? Why are you haulin’ rocks from Sag when you got all kinds where you are?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘They’re the wrong shade.’ ”
Clark brothers’ deer camp, 2004
So many hunters have welcomed me into their camps. Deer hunting is an intensely personal experience, and I’ve always appreciated those who were willing to share their experiences with us.
None was more memorable than the camp of Mike Clark of Knife River and his brothers, who paddled down the Vermilion River to a piece of wild country east of Cook. The day that a photographer and I arrived, they had a 10-point buck down, and they hauled it back to camp in a canoe.
Here’s how that story began:
“This is the way Mike Clark taught his boys to hunt. Taught them to track and trail deer. To move slowly and quietly through the forest. To carry the little brush guns.
“Taught them to live simply, close to the land, while they hunted. He’d have liked their tarp shelter here on the river. He’d have liked everything about the place on this first Sunday in Minnesota’s firearms deer season — the sourdough biscuits baking on the woodstove, the buffalo-plaid shirts hanging from rafters, the Winchester .30-30s leaning in the corner. He’d have liked the butterscotch glow of the three lanterns, the plank bunks along the walls, the floor tiled with discs cut from popple trunks.
“The old Irishman would have liked the way the boys had to paddle canoes down the river and across to the side where nobody else hunts. He told his boys, when he was dying, not to give this up.”
Bull caribou, Nigu River, Alaska’s Brooks Range, 2003
Five of us paddled the remote Nigu River in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska’s Brooks Range. On layover days, we would take off and hike miles from camp in the low tundra cover, up glaciated peaks that afforded us long views of the country.
On one of those hikes, we surprised two caribou bulls from their resting places on a high plateau. They ran down the slope behind us, then turned and thundered right past us again. I managed to make a couple of quick exposures despite low-light conditions.
I never could figure why they circled back past us and gave me a second chance.
Polar bear surprise, Hudson Bay, 1998
Six of us had finished a 10-day whitewater paddling trip down Manitoba’s Seal River to Hudson Bay. We were awaiting a boat pickup by Jack, a man from Churchill, and we were staying in a plywood shack he had built on the shore. It was the only structure for miles in either direction along a shoreline that polar bears were known to frequent in summer months.
Dan Theis of Duluth awoke about 4 a.m. and said, “Something’s thumping around on the canoes.” In the subarctic light, we could see that a polar bear had come to visit. We watched as the bear lumbered along the shore in our direction. When the bear got downwind from us, it began walking directly toward the cabin.
Dave Baumgarten of Duluth had the shotgun ready, and when the bear drew within 30 yards, he fired a shot over its head. That elicited the desired reaction: The bear whirled around and took off up the shore. We never saw it again.
I don’t recall whether I slept any more that night.
Sommers Canoe Base, Ely, 1964
Quite simply, I would never have found my way to northern Minnesota had it not been for Doc Stone and Don Wenger. They were the two men from my little hometown in Kansas who hauled a rammy bunch of teenagers north to the Charles L. Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base near Ely in the summer of 1964. I was 15.
We spent 10 days paddling and portaging more than 100 miles in the border country. We drank water straight from the lake. We caught fish. We stood under a waterfall.
They didn’t make that kind of country in Kansas — all of those lakes and rivers, those pines reaching for the sky, those sheer rock cliffs. I learned I could paddle and portage to exhaustion, then get up and do it again the next day. It was like nothing any of us farm-country kids had ever done before.
I didn’t know it then, but a seed had been planted. It would take several years, but I would be back, first to Ely, eventually to Duluth and the News Tribune. With Phyllis.
Once we got here, we knew enough not to leave.