Category Archives: Journal

remembering Big Sandy Lake


Big Sandy Lake is the site of one of the unforgivable events in US-Native American relations. The DNR map chooses to ignore the event altogether, which really disturbs me. In 1850, the US government decided it wanted the Ojibwe bands that were spread over the upper Midwest east of the river all to move up here to Big Sandy Lake. So they told them all to gather there in order to receive money and food from the government. In good faith, about 4000 people gathered in late October, the government’s deadline, and waited. No money was forthcoming, and the food the US gave the Ojibwe was spoiled and killed about 150 people from dysentery. In early December, the Ojibwe finally decided to give up waiting, and on the trip home another 250 died from exposure and starvation.

Somehow this story embodies for me all the greed and bad faith and yes, pure evil, that our government has manifested in relation to the Native peoples. I mean, come on, you want to trick these people into relocating, fucked up in the first place. And then you give them spoiled food and renege on the promised funds? The people in charge cannot even pretend to justify themselves: it’s genocide, pure and simple.

And I was terrified that I would show up at Big Sandy Lake Recreation Area, which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and be confronted with a nice campsite full of RVs and overweight vacationers, and this appalling history would be conveniently invisible. And in fact, the campsite is exactly as I’ve described it. As I sit here looking out at the Lake, a powerboat full of folks is going by blasting 80’s classic rock, but there is also a memorial set up by the Ojibwe right in the middle of the campground, and at the overlook up on the road, there is another marker placed by the Minnesota Historical Society. I burst into tears at the overlook: the marker starts with a quote from an Ojibwe leader, Flat Mouth, saying “I hold the US government responsible for the children we have lost.”

I don’t know why this particular atrocity gets to me so badly. (After all, there is no shortage of terrible stories about the US government’s dealings with the Native peoples, including the government of our very favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.) Perhaps it’s because there are echoes of the Turks’ forced displacement of the Armenians from their ancestral lands in what is now eastern Turkey, another mostly ignored genocide, which is excused in sort of similar ways. The Native peoples (and the Armenians) were simply in the way, they needed to be moved so the new state could take root, we didn’t really mean to kill them off, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of nation-building.

And I end up getting very very interested in people like Henry Schoolcraft, and Archdeacon Gilfillan, [8/22/09: or maybe not Gilfillan; as Richard is reading further, he’s not such a sympathetic character] the white men who repeatedly argued for the rights of Native Americans at a time when everyone else seemed just as happy to kill them off or push them far enough away that they couldn’t make trouble. The analogous people in the Armenian genocide are Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and the American doctor Clarence Douglas Ussher, who wrote impassioned letters and articles documenting the genocide as it was unfolding, but sadly not successfully enough either to prevent a million deaths or to force an acknowledgment of what happened.

So what is the point of all this, really? The point, I think, is that we should remember the dead of Big Sandy Lake and Lake Van the way we remember the dead of Dachau and Auschwitz. We should remember Schoolcraft and Morganthau the way we remember Schindler and Bonhöffer. Attention must be paid. It must.

a song and a dance


I had a marathon paddling day today (thirty miles!!!) because there aren’t many choices for pulling out along this stretch of the river. So one choice was to do two days on the river, camping overnight at one of the sites available only from the river. I considered doing that, because a river-access-only campsite sounds really cool to me, but then I realized I would have to forego coffee the second day, because I’m not really set up for coffee in the wild, so I decided I’d rather do a long day of paddling. I put in at Jacobson campsite, which we had happily lived in completely alone for two days: it’s a “primitive” site, meaning pit toilets, no shower, but a really excellent source of very cold, very clean water, so we were totally happy there. Mac and Richard had kayaking days when we were at that site, which had absolutely no cell service, so I did a lot of reading, about which more later, and tried a run one morning, but the mosquitos on the ATV trail were brutal, so I gave up after about a half hour.

This part of the river feels very different from the headwaters section before all the lakes. By now the volume of water has about doubled, the DNR maps tell us, and the municipal boat ramps are mostly located at late 19th century ferry crossings, each of which has the requisite steamboat wreck lying in the bottom of the river. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is pretty difficult to imagine passenger boats steaming up this part of the river: it has reverted to something closer perhaps to what it looked like in the early 19th century, when the French were trading with the Ojibwe, and logging and settlement had not yet begun.

In the course of an entire day of paddling: 8 am to 6 pm, I saw precisely one other person: a guy fishing from the side of the bank. I heard plenty of people though: most of this area is farmland, and behind the layer of trees lining the bank, you can hear the sounds of farm machinery and glimpse farmhouses and even a vacation home now and again. But the river itself is too low for powerboats: only the most knowledgeable or foolhardy would risk running an engine through these waters, and fellow self-powered boaters are few and far between. Kayaks and canoes are a real rarity, strangely enough, given that they are the ideal way to travel on the river up here.

I got out and took a lunch break at Ms. Keto campsite (get it?!) where the banks were a clay-mud that was so dense and thick, it actually brought back my childhood fear of quicksand. One step in that mud takes you down about a foot, and you feel like your feet will never emerge with your shoes still on them, and trying to get into the kayak while extricating from that muck is really a trick!

We had planned to stay at Big Sandy Lake, but the campground was full, so Mac and Richard set us up at the town park in Palisade, which is this great little town. I can’t explain it, exactly, but Palisade feels like what one dreams a small town would be like. After dinner in camp, I proposed we get some ice cream (it’s finally really hot summer weather) and as we walked up to the gas station/general store, a woman outside greeted us and said “Are you here for some ice cream?” and proceeded to serve us with some amazing quality of shared pleasure in the treat. I don’t know how she did that exactly, but I want what she’s having. Her co-worker at the register said something about the kids dancing in the parking lot, and I said, “Well, you have to dance somewhere.” and the ice-cream lady said, ”Yes, my youngest daughter is all about a song and a dance, that’s all there’d be if it was up to her. It’s great to be around her.“ I’m not making this up, people. Here we are in this tiny town (population 118), the sort of place my urban prejudice imagines is rife with gun-toting meth-heads looking for trouble to stave off meaninglessness, and instead, the gas station is the locus of a kind of magical quotidian joy that treasures serving ice-cream as much as eating it, and dancing in the parking lot on a summer’s evening as the perfect entertainment.

charged again


kayaking day today on a real summer day — the river through this area was straightened by the loggers so it’s practically a canal, no trouble to find the channel. and on some turns you can see the Blandin Paper Company smokestacks ahead in Grand Rapids, sort of a weird and unexpected sight in this waterway that’s nearly completely empty of people. two powerboats passed me, heading up to the lakes, but other than that, my company is birds and insects, and no doubt lots of fish as well.

when the wind was with me, I would stop paddling and just feel the current and the wind easing me downstream. when it was against me, if I stopped paddling, I would end up at a complete stop in an excellent equilibrium of upstream wind and downstream current.

I’m getting comfortable enough with this kayaking business that I begin to be able to just ease into thinking in that nice, loose, relaxed way that I so enjoy on a long car trip, with the added pleasure of the mild physical exertion of paddling. I could definitely get used to this life! a good thing, since I’m going to be doing this for a while!

one of the things I was thinking about was the whitman poem, and corey and steve and yvan’s comments on it, which I really love. I’m thinking that perhaps by “charged with”, Whitman didn’t mean that contentment and triumph are demanded of him, but more that the energy of contentment and triumph fill him, like an electrical charge. I like thinking of contentment and triumph as a continuum, and that they are visited upon me, not as an act of will, but by my learning to be conductive..


Today was my first biking day; Richard took the kayak across Cass Lake and Mac scoped out an excellent new (free) campsite for us SE of Winniebegoshish that can be headquarters for a few days…

I decided to backtrack to the town of Cass Lake before heading on, and I am so very glad I went there.

It’s a very small town – the sign says pop. 170, so there are probably more people vacationing in the campsite a couple miles away than there are inhabiting the actual town. The main street has a municipal center with a cool mural, and a bunch of services: drop-in health center, senior center, daycare, library. at the end of the main street is a house with an array of handmade murals in front and the smell of sage wafting from the chimney. I stopped to read and take pictures of the signs, and a woman came from down the street to ask if I was a reporter, and she explained that a big oil company has paid the Ojibwe Nation $10 million to be allowed to run a pipeline through Ojibwe lands, and the signs are protesting this, asking for the deal not to happen.

The woman, Nancy, is a teacher in the public school at Cass Lake, where 85 percent of the students are Native, and they do teach Ojibwe in the school. There is also a BIA school, and a college as well. She told me something about the “boarding schools” where Native kids were sent well into the 50’s, which were more like re-education camps. You can learn more about this history here. With a history like this, it must be hard to regard education as the ticket to a better life, that’s for sure…

Nancy was really generous with her time and spirit, and I really enjoyed and learned from our time together. When I got back on the bike path, I noticed for the first time these posts, placed every 500 feet or so. clever, right? you do this nice environmentally sensitive thing of putting in a bike path, and you run your oil pipeline right underneath it.

”It’s so peaceful here. I just love it!“ said a woman heading into the showers at Cass Lake campground this morning, having driven there from her campsite a tiny walk away

the earth remains forever

While I was paddling from Bemidji to Cass Lake today, Richard spent some time in the library in Bemidji and found some microfilms of early nineteenth century local newspapers – a fascinating trove recording the lives and voices of lumberjacks, shopkeepers, etc. who were part of a temporarily flourishing economy in the area not unlike the gold rush farther west. It was a timber rush, and after the trees were downed and floated down the river, towns that had sprung up overnight to support the lumber trade disappeared nearly as quickly.

The first night of our travels, we stayed at Wanagan’s Landing, wanagan being not the name of a person, but of a traveling kitchen boat that moored along the river to feed the loggers. we learned this from Keith Butler, who lives just up the road from the campsite, and who came down to visit and tell us stories. He also told us about a ghost town called Mallard, a couple of miles away.

Here’s a picture of the town at its height (from an information board posted at the site):
Mallard Then
and here’s a picture I took of the same location on 2 August 09, after going to the church I told you about the other day:
Mallard Now

Makes me think of Ecclesiastes more than Jonah:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. [1:4]

It’s an interesting thing: we read each night about Schoolcraft, Tolliver, and Sibley, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day and Little Crow, but as I paddle along this river during the day, no matter how well I keep in mind the layers of human history this river has witnessed, there is very little in the way of actual markers or voices to embody that history. The Mississippi River is not the Parthenon or Stonehenge or Macchu Picchu. Quite the contrary: it obliterates human history, or is at least indifferent to it. The bones that the Ojibwe buried on the ithsmus between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake where I pulled out this afternoon have been washed into the river. And no traces of the mission the Episcopalians built there remain, either.

The birds remain, the reeds, and the new trees that have grown to replace the ones cut down in early nineteenth century. And the river itself: that definitely remains.

In a way, it’s all very melancholy to think about, but I find it oddly comforting. Walmart and the Super 8 and Applebee’s will also disappear sooner or later, and probably no one will lament their loss.

“I have charged myself with contentment and triumph.”

a difficult charge to live up to, from my man Walt Whitman, but if he managed to avoid despair and desolation in the face of the Civil War, I can certainly at least aspire to his mystical engagement with the wonders of this world, exactly as it is, rather than as I might wish it could be.

today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death, so along with the Whitman my brother so eloquently posted in the comments yesterday, I am posting a recording Joycie introduced me to in 1985 or 86, which I regret not playing at her funeral. full volume. I play it every year in her honor.

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Walter Hawkins: I’m Goin’ Away on Love Alive II

I visited this high volume ritual on patient and hopefully not too long-suffering Richard and Mac in the midst of driving around Bemidji today doing various errands, which take on thrilling overtones when you’re camping out. Laundry! Groceries! Oil Change! we also had a few hours in a pleasant cafe in downtown Bemidji where I tried to get the bills organized, if not actually paid. we set up camp at Bemidji State Park, which is blessedly nearly empty midweek, and laid out all the clean laundry and organized it into little subsections, each going into its own plastic bag. and each category of food into its own bags as well. totally OCD. I feel like I’m re-inventing skills the army has been inculcating in recruits since forever: a place for everything, everything in its place. but with a small car and three people suiting up for three different kinds of activities, it can get crazy pretty quickly if we aren’t anal about it!

Richard made a fine dinner for us with the new groceries, and read to us as he has each night from Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out
by Annette Atkins, a really wonderful book about Minnesota history for the general reader. Totally recommended!

go with the flow

We woke up to the first sun we’ve had since arriving up north, a very welcome thing! packed up camp and headed to the next landing so as to avoid a small bit of the river that even the DNR warns is tricky to navigate, figuring it would be good to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s adventure. the idea was for Mac and I to split the day’s paddling, so Mac put in and had an untroubled run to the next landing, and then I suited up and put in for what we planned as a quick four mile stint to the next landing, Pine Point. we met Andy and Bettina, who were heading out for the same patch of river, and Andy warned us about the part after Pine Point landing, which he and the DNR agree is really tough to navigate. so the plan was that Mac and Richard and I would all meet at Pine Point landing, pull out, and head to Bemidji for internet and laundry and a night in a motel. cool.

so I get in and start paddling and pass Andy and Bettina and the man I assume was Andy’s dad (I didn’t meet him properly) and say goodbye, and it’s really great out, sunny and warm, and I strip down to my bathing suit and I’m happily paddling away, and I pass what I think might be Hennepin Creek, marked on the map, and I keep paddling, and I keep paddling, and I don’t see Pine Point. there IS no Pine Point. and I keep going and going, and the wind comes up and it gets overcast, and I put my shirt and lifejacket back on, and at one point I begin to think I am paddling around in circles, but I know that’s simply not possible, because I am always heading downstream, and at another point the wind is coming straight at me and the tops of the reeds are blowing upstream and the only way I can know I’m going downstream is by looking at the underwater reeds, which always do point in the direction of the current, and I keep paddling, and by now I’m sure I made a wrong turn and I’m on Hennepin Creek, and I look at the map and there is a bridge over Hennepin Creek about six miles down so I figure I’ll pull out there and flag down a car, and I’m working hard not to fret about how much the guys will be worrying about me not arriving at Pine Point, and I just keep paddling, keep losing and finding the channel in this reedy swamp, keep getting my hopes up when I get close to a stand of pines, and keep having my hopes dashed, and then suddenly there’s a campsite: Iron Bridge! not four miles, but twelve miles from where I put in! and I’ve made it through the un-navigable part of the river, the part that we had decided to skip! and I’ve done it basically without a map because I thought I was somewhere else entirely! and I feel TOTALLY proud and great about this and simultaneously really worried about Mac and Richard, who are probably completely freaking out that I haven’t yet arrived at Pine Point.

SO I flag down a car, and it’s Maureen, who calls the cops to have them go to Pine Point and tell Mac and Richard to come get me here, and she waits with me til we’re sure the guys are on their way, and she is totally kind and generous and interesting and fun and seems not to be in a rush at all. Maureen, if you read this, THANKS AGAIN for your kindness!!!

so the guys show up and we head into Bemidji for the fabulous Super 8, which feels like a totally luxury hotel: shower, internet, and bed. What more is there?!?

hotel Bibles and turtle muck

Today I was scheduled for a driving day, so Richard set off from Wanagan’s Landing in the kayak, Mac on the bike to meet him at the next overpass, and I headed out to the local church for morning service. Because I’m looking to meet people in the various communities we’re passing through, I thought going to whatever local church seems promising every Sunday might be a good way to enter in to a local experience. Jonathan Raban stopped at bars in the towns he passed through, and of course ended up with a pretty depressing view of American life. not being much of a bar type myself, I figure churches might serve a similar function in terms of allowing me to interact easily with strangers, but perhaps somewhat less depressing. we’ll see!

so I arrived at the sort of Lutheran church just in time for the service: a congregation of about 25, all the men wearing checked shirts, seems to be a uniform, the women wearing hopeful summer sandals (it’s about 60 and raining.) the pastor is a supply priest (probably there’s a different name for it) from the local non-denominational evangelical college, and there is a guest speaker/guitar-player, Tim, a Gideon volunteer. Tim looks like a middle-aged version of the young Elvis (i.e. not like the actual middle-aged Elvis) and has brought his wife and two tow-headed children. he plays a song about how God made the tree that got turned into the cross, and the hill that was Calvary, and then he does a spiel about the importance of placing Bibles in hotel rooms, and tells a story about the daughter of a Hindu priest secretly converting due to a Gideon Bible, then being swept away in a flood, having left a note in her Bible that causes her parents, including her Hindu priest father to convert to Christianity. trouble is, this same story slightly transposed to Japan, where the young girl dies in a plane wreck, is printed in the pamphlet he hands out to all of us. did this same story coincidentally happen to both the Indian and the Japanese teenage girls? are all foreign heathens the same and the details unimportant? it is not clear to me.

the text was Jonah 2, and that was kind of great: the shroud of seaweed is instantly recognizable to me as the turtle muck that I just paddled through yesterday. and the organist was utterly dear, she must have been eighty, with a fabulously idiosyncratic sense of rhythm that was almost a species of swing, and Thelonious Monk-ish clusters to go along with it, and thrilling control of the volume pedal on her electronic organ.

at coffee hour the people were friendly if a bit wary. I don’t think they get visitors very often, and it took them a bit to warm up, they were far more NewEnglandish than my Vermont church congregation had been the first time I went there.

I headed out to the highway bridge to meet up with Mac and wait for Richard, who we soon realized was quite overdue. eventually a guy drove up to tell us Richard had gotten balled up in the swamp and turned around and was back at the previous bridge. so Mac and I headed there to find a pretty bedraggled Richard, and Mac decided to try the same patch of swamp, and eventually he got through, pretty bedraggled as well, and I felt really bad that both of them had a kind of rough start to their river kayaking. Mac continued on to the next campsite, Coffee Pot Landing it’s called, and I set up the tent in the rain, and we decided to head to Bemidji for dinner instead of cooking in camp, ’cause everyone was tired and wet and cold. Applebee’s never tasted so good!

got back to camp in time for a really gorgeous sunset: a red molten sun collapsing into the clouds. really hoping that red sun at night is indeed the sailor’s delight!

scary, but not dangerous

well, after all these weeks of departures, the trip has actually begun for real! we got up to a very cold morning, got suited up, and Richard left on the bike for the headwaters, while Mac and I drove to the boat ramp we’ve been using for our practice runs and I put in to Lake Itasca and paddled about a mile over to the headwaters. There was a pair of loons this time: couldn’t get a picture because it was too windy and I was too excited and the combination made me sure I would capsize the boat if I tried to turn it broadside to get a shot. Mac and Richard were waiting at the tourist spot: we did the standard photos, and then carried the boat down a few yards and I put in again. it was so shallow and narrow, and there were a few downed trees, so I had to get out a few times to pull the boat. then there’s a culvert that I’m not skilled enough to paddle through, so we portaged around that, and then I was finally on my way.

oh my god. it’s just amazing. starts as this creek almost, not much bigger than sugar hollow brook, the stream that runs through my land in VT, but it’s totally overrun with reeds to the point that you are completely surrounded by reeds with no visibility and just paddling downstream and hoping for the best. it’s a little scary, but it’s not really dangerous: the perfect combination, in other words. the kayak is really too big for a river this size: it sort of like trying to maneuver an american car through the streets of say, siena or something. but it is very maneuverable, and as I begin to understand how to control it with just shift of weight and stuff, I manage better and better with the turns in the river. and there are amazing amounts of wildlife: birds, turtles, levolulia (dragonflies: there are 30 different species of dragonfly here), and even a river otter or a beaver or a muskrat or some such (a swimming furry mammal: I am too ignorant to know which) and it is much more wilderness than I was expecting: no mile markers, no signage, no sign of human habitation AT ALL until you suddenly come to a bridge and the county road and there’s Mac standing there to make sure I’m good, and I take a bit of a water break and then start again and go maybe another three miles to this absolutely beautiful campsite, Wanagan’s Landing, which has water and a shelter with a picnic table, and the guys have set up the tents and are reading away and I festoon the car with all the wet stuff I can find, eat some lunch, and now have set up a beach chair right at the river’s edge where I am writing this.

The idea is to start with half days at first, until we can get acclimated, and I am very glad to have done an easy day like this: not more than six or seven miles. I would be happy to hang out at this campsite for the next month, to tell you the truth, it’s really just a magical place. The access from the road is over about two miles of rutted two-track, so while it is possible to drive the car in and we don’t have to pack in tents and food and stuff, it’s remote enough that I don’t expect we’ll see anyone else at all until we leave here.

I wish we had thought of staying here rather than at Itasca State Park, which is sort of like tenement life transposed to the outdoors, PLUS they charge you for the opportunity to camp cheek by jowl. if you are going to do this trip, forget about the State Park campsites and stay in these great free sites instead!

at the headwaters

yesterday each of us took a turn on Lake Itasca in the new kayak: wow, a totally different experience than the recreational kayaks I’ve used in the past. sort of like how a powerful sportscar is different from my beloved father’s honda accord: it responds to every move you make, so you better decide the moves you want to make! the paddle is really great, too: light and sized for my hands. I’m amazed at how much easier it is to move through the water: ninety minutes of paddling felt nearly effortless and I’m not at all sore today. I paddled up to the actual headwaters and then drifted among the grasses and lilypads to see if I could feel a perceptible pull to transform lake into river. It’s a funny thing: Lake Itasca is just a northern lake like a thousand other northern lakes: for the duck family or the loon I passed as I paddled to the headwaters, this lake probably doesn’t seem charged in any particular way: but we have a whole story, we ALWAYS have stories, and I really enjoy picturing this circle of lake focussing into a line, a directed stream that will grow and amass into this incredible, powerful river. And I think of my friend RIck in Pittsburgh, and how “his” water will join this water here, and I realize it’s just simply impossible for humans NOT to lay our own narratives on nature. it’s just what we DO. to whatever degree I can, I will avoid sentimentalizing this journey, romanticizing it; but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid humanizing it, and I wouldn’t want to if I could.

I have to tell you I was really moved by that loon. my mother joycie’s favorite bird. very very excellent to see her as I start out.


there was an article in the NYTimes the other day about hammocks as an alternative to tents, so at REI the other day, I picked up a “Brazilian” hammock with a mosquito cover, and I have been sleeping in it every night, with a tarp over the bottom half so I can look at the trees and stars when it’s clear but scrunch down a bit and get out of the rain whenever I need to without getting out and adjusting the tarp. It rains on and off all day and night here in Itasca: Mac pointed out that 20% precipitation means just that: not 20% chance of rain, but it’s gonna rain 20% of the time.

I LOVE this hammock and totally recommend it to any of you campers out there: forget the tent and the sleeping pads and all that! A little hammock that fits in a stuff sack the size of a softball along with a sleeping bag and a tarp for rain are all you need!


Watching the woman filling water jugs at the campsite this morning I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of years women have been carrying water. (why women, I wonder? water is seriously heavy!) but anyway, there she was like the model of the type, leaned over the source (a faucet, not a stream, but still), willowy, her hair shadowing her face, and the water so fresh and clean and new. she turned and I could see her, and she was younger than I had placed her, she had seemed so calm and implacable filling her jugs, I had figured her for a woman who had finished raising her children.


Because I have VT plates, people of course assume I am from VT. I have mixed feelings about this.