Minnesota Redux: The Run and the Flames

Ely, MN: August, 2021

Continued from Minnesota Redux: The Sunset and the Shallows

The activities in far north Minnesota in the summer revolve around either woods or water, and given the temperature, we spent the afternoons with the latter. The lodge fee includes rentals on non-motorized watercraft: paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, and something called an aqua-cycle. When I read aqua-cycle on the brochure, I pictured one of those things that looks like a penny farthing/bigwheel hybrid, sort of like a front-heavy paddleboat, but that’s not at all what was sitting on the shores of Shagawa when Derek and I walked down the ramp to the rental place. Next to the canoes was a Frankenboat that looked to be a former bicycle that somebody took the wheels off of and then bolted the frame to a pair of water skis. This I had to try. Derek said absolutely not and nestled himself into the nicest looking kayak.

The guy at the rental shed wore board shorts and a dusty tank top and looked like he was part of the lake. He handed me a life jacket. ‘Two things with the bike’ he said. ‘One, if you stop peddling, it’s really tough to get going again. Two, turn into any waves bigger than a foot or so. It doesn’t tip often but it happens.’

I clipped my jacket tight and climbed up onto the seat, my bare feet on the pedals. My earlier description of this being a bike frame attached to skis was essentially correct except that it did have a paddling mechanism and a rudder, so when I turned the handlebars or pedals, the cycle ostensibly listened. It was difficult to get going as the guy said it would be, like moving on lower than the lowest gear but once I got moving it was decent. Derek was already out in the middle of the lake, paddling around an island. It took me forever to slowly pedal to him, and as the waves picked up on the open water, the rudder would rise above the surface at each trough and make sloshy noises, and I was unable to control or propel forward until it submerged again. I tried to turn towards Derek but this put me perpendicular to the waves, which made for easier pedaling but the thing got very wobbly and I soon felt like I would be one of the rare cases who managed to flip the aqua-cycle. Also, it was exhausting. Even so, when I would catch a wave and ride it for a while without the rudder coming up high and dry, it was a fun experience to feel like I was riding a bike across the lake. Eventually, though, I turned around and exchanged my rig for a kayak.

Free of the contraption that looked like it was built by the mean kid from Toy Story, I met up with Derek on the far side of the lake and we had a pleasant paddle around the piney islands. Some were so small they looked like a single tree growing out of the water, others had proper fleets of boats tucked beneath palatial cabins with 360 degree views of the lake. With the lodge on one shore and high end homes dotted throughout, Shagawa isn’t as idyllic paddling as the more remote lakes in the area but it was still a spectacular afternoon. We finished by swimming a bit after returning the kayaks and then called it a day.

I don’t remember where we ate dinner but afterward we returned to the lodge and sat out on the large back deck overlooking the lake and had a beer. The pale ale I ordered was served in a dimpled seidel glass like an Oktoberfest. I suppose this was apt, as it was mid-August, and summer 2021 was quickly running out of time, but it would not leave before going out with a strong final number.

‘Really, another one?’ said an older man who was sitting at the adjacent table. At first I though he could read my mind and was judging me for thinking about ordering a second ale, but then I saw he was pointing at the horizon beyond the lake. The woman he was with sighed.

‘Jesus, that’s the third different one this week’ said the server, his tray full of what looked like glasses of whiskey.

Smoke billowed over the forest in the middle distance, stark against the periwinkle sky, in a spot that was definitely not burning the evening before when we sat in these exact chairs. The massive Canadian fires that Uncle Dan and Aunt Linda were talking about seemed to have abated, as the air was much less hazy today than it was last night, but they were too far away to really be sure. But this one was much closer. It appeared to be just beyond Shagawa Lake but that was clearly an illusion.

Derek was again disheartened. It was enough to see Burntside looking like a half-drawn bath and hear about the cabin he practically grew up in being sold but watching his favorite place in the world turn to kindling was too much. He finished his beer in one fell quaff and announced that he was going inside.

‘I get it. Do you want company?’ I said.

‘I think I’m just going to read in the lobby. But yeah, definitely join if you’d like.’

We sat on opposite couches in the grand room, away from the now-crowded bar and beneath the antler chandelier. 

‘Sorry, man’ I said.

‘Wait what do you have to be sorry for?’

‘This trip was kinda my idea.’

Derek thought for a moment and then said ‘Look, if we didn’t come here this week, I would have never got to see the cabin again. This is just the way it is.’

I’ve learned through a decade and a half of friendship with Derek when he’s upset about something he either gets incredibly quiet or ultra-rational. With politics or sports he’s as loose a cannon as online comment section but if something is affecting his personal life there is nobody more stoic.

‘Just let me know what I can do’ I said.

Derek looked up from what he was reading. ‘Run Bass Lake tomorrow?’

It’s in Derek’s family lore that one time his late father had run the Bass Lake Trail without stopping to walk. Everyone swore it was impossible but apparently he had done it. This was before Garmin or Strava could provide receipts to that effect, but Derek had no reason to think the claim wasn’t true. I had hiked the trail many times and knew the distance and elevation gain and for sure knew that for anyone in decent running shape it was more than doable, so I told him we could give it a go.

The morning was much cooler than the one previously, and this and the prospect of matching his dad’s accomplishment seemed to be an upper for Derek’s mood. The Bass Lake Trail, a circumnavigation of the eponymous water body, is a hike I’ve written about before. It is craggy and full of waterfalls, switching between pine covered former lakebed, black rocks, and white birch. It’s a true pleasure of a trail, and I have walked it at least twice on every visit north. But I have yet to run it.

The beginning is easy enough, a slightly sloping gravel path, and then the real trail begins. As far as hiking goes, it is not tough when placed next to classic National Park routes or sections of the Long Trail, but it’s not exactly meant to be run. I kept one eye on my watch and the other on the ankle-altering stones that protruded from most of the trail, making sure that we kept ahead of Derek’s dad’s pace and also on two feet. We reached a promontory and took a short break, taking a drink of water in silence. Even from several hundred feet above the lake, we could normally hear kayakers and loons below, each paddle or wing flap resonating in the calm woods, but these sounds were absent today.

We resumed running, the second section being predominantly downhill and with the wind toward the far end of the lake, where the trail briefly becomes a beach. Here we stopped again to cool off slightly with the lake water, having made up time on the descent. The last bit followed the long shore and wavers in elevation, but is not as rocky as the beginning.

‘How are we looking?’ Derek asked my right wrist.

‘About a minute per mile ahead.’ I answered by proxy.

We were onto the last mile and would easily top his dad’s time provided neither of us came up with a backwards foot during the last section of jagged rocks. The heat had finally won battle with the morning breeze, and we had been slowing down a bit recently, but had banked more than enough seconds to succeed. When we made it to where we began, the gravel path, we picked up the pace to the trailhead and then doubled over, about ten minutes ahead of goal.

‘Nice’ said Derek, subtly but with obvious pride. ‘We’ll tell Uncle Dave later.’

This we did, when we met he and Ada at the old cabin, the one at which Derek spent the most time as a kid, to clean it out before selling. 

‘Nice’ said Uncle Dave, subtly but with obvious pride. ‘We’ll tell Amanda later.’

What we stood beside this time was for sure a cabin, about twenty feet by twenty, with a stump for a step and a slightly warped roof. A wooden outhouse sat several yards away next to a flipped over canoe, rusty with years of the Minnesota freeze-thaw. The canopy covered the entire clearing and the sun was kept at bay, except in the late afternoon when it would shine off the lake, about a hundred feet below. 

‘Take anything you want’ said Dave as he unlocked the door for Derek and I.

Inside was musty, but otherwise just as I remembered it from my first ever Ely trip, where Derek and I slept in parallel cots on the small back porch. The others in our group couldn’t believe their luck when we volunteered, until they realized how much cooler it was sleeping outside, as they tossed and turned in the unintentional sauna of the main cabin. Then the tides turned again one night when a bat pooped on Derek.

The cots were still there, but in worse shape than before, and there was a hole in the screen explained the bat a decade later. A stack of books and board games took up one wall and a fireplace the other. Derek looked through the dusty shelves and opened a book about the Titanic. 

‘He was obsessed with this stuff’ Derek said about his dad as he flipped open the front cover to reveal a signature by somebody – the author, one might guess. 

‘One year we all chipped in and got him a giant Lego Titanic set for Christmas and he built it in a couple days and kept it on his desk. I dunno what happened to it though.’

Derek took the Titanic book, and a couple National Geographics and went back out to the porch. I stepped out the front to give him a few minutes.

We spent the afternoon helping Dave and Ada clear out the other cabin on the property and then Derek and I went to get Sir G’s pizza for everyone.

‘Why don’t you buy it?’ I said to Derek as we were driving back from town with the food.

‘I looked into it, apparently the land is ridiculously valuable’ he said. ‘Someone’s going to buy it for the property and it’ll probably go for a half a million or more.’

‘Makes sense.’ And it did, with the location high above the lake, secluded but within ten minutes of Ely, I pictured one of those Shagawa style mansions being built there. Or even one like Dave and Ada’s. 

‘The taxes alone are ridiculous up here because of the price of land. I could maybe afford it but I’d have to live there year round. It’s fine.’

We got back and ate and, since dusk was arriving  suddenly, the way it does in late August, we got ready to head back to the lodge. Dave and Ada had already gone home.

‘You want me to take a picture of you in front of the cabin?’ I asked.

‘Eh. I’ve got plenty’ he said, getting into the passenger seat.

I drove a few feet down the gravel drive before Derek unbuckled his seatbelt, sighed, and said ‘screw it.’

He walked over to the front of the cabin, stood on the stump, and gave a thumbs up and an expression that said ‘my mom is making me take this photo.’ He was glad he did.

We spent some time in the lobby of the lodge before calling it an early night. We were leaving for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the following morning, and there were already alerts about more road closures and spreading wildfires.

As it turns out, the road we drove in on, route 2, was completely shut. A massive fire began overnight within a half mile of the road and so we had to settle for route 1, currently the only way in and out of Ely. The Boundary Waters as a whole were essentially shut, and tourists downtown was scarce despite it being peak season. We fueled up at Front Room one last time, and one man, seeing our out of state plates, asked if we were coming or going.

We said going and he nodded his approval, and said in the most melodic Minnesota accent ‘Ohh, good cause ya know they closed the whole park there, eh?’

We did know this, and we were hoping to get out of town before yet another fire closed our last remaining egress, and thus took the coffee to go. Derek was silent for the first hour of the ride, somber about the current state of his favorite place on earth. The dwindling lake, the smoke plumes, the cabin for sale – this was not the trip to Ely he had planned, even with finally running the Bass Lake Trail. It’s something that happens to everyone, their childhood memories becoming exactly that, but it usually doesn’t happen all at once. I don’t have anywhere near the connection to this place as Derek does, but even I was a bit glum at the situation. As we drove southward, the air became smoggy and the traffic snarled, a jam up filled with kayak racks and cancelled plans.

After a while, Derek turned to me and said, in his best Minnesotan impression ‘Ya know, a lot more cars than usual there, eh?’

He cracked his first smile of the day, so I responded in a similar voice.

’Ohh no, haven’t seen this much traffic since that moose lied down on route two.’

‘Where you from there, eh?’ He said.

‘Ohh, ya know, Cincinnati.’

‘Ohh, how nice. Do they talk like this there too?’

‘No, no. They say ‘who dey there, eh.’’

‘Ohh, so they think they’re better than those Vikings, eh?’

This went on for some time and soon we were past Duluth and crossing into Wisconsin.

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