Thursday, November 11, 2010

To the end of a road

I can recall three times I have driven to the end of a road.  That seems very un-American.  You get there, then you have to turn back and retrace your steps.  Roads are via, ways to places.  The end of a road isn’t exactly no place.  It is no place important.  If it were important, there would be additional roads to it and out of it.  If it is important, it is a place you can pass through.  Two of the ends-of-the-road I have been to are ones that probably not more than a couple hundred different folks go to in a year.  Perhaps a few of them, and certainly billions of others, should they arrive there would think “that is it?”

The one that is less like that is the end of the Gunflint Trail.  Officially it is Cook County Road 12, beginning a few blocks north out of “downtown” Grand Marias, Minnesota, ending 57 miles later at Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  The stunning image of that trip, especially after the Ham Lake fire in the Spring of 2007, is the moonscape appearance suddenly after you pass by the west end of Gunflint Lake.  Many people travel that road for fishing, camping, backpacking canoe expeditions, and hunting.  An odd story is from a family that lives near the end of the Gunflint Trail, 57 miles into wilderness.  A public school bus driver has her route to drive the trail morning and night during the school year to take kids to and from school in Grand Marais.  A young mother who lives at the end of the trail, half a step from wilderness, drives once a month the nearly 170 mile trip (one way!) to Duluth to get her hair done.  You live where the wolves howl, bears bang your trash cans, you see moose on the highway, you don’t see many other folks except your family and a few neighbors, and you have to burn a tank of gas to get your hair done.

I have been to the end of the Gunflint trail only once.  But my two other ends of road I’ve been to numerous times.  I don’t want others to go there, so I won’t reveal their exact location.  Like a good fisherman, I cannot reveal my good locations.  These roads are short, perhaps two miles long, one on the north and one on the south side of what I’ll call Beaver Creek.  I’ve never seen a beaver there, but I’ve seen evidence of beaver around there.  So close enough.

Back in the 1970s, those roads, two-tracks actually, took me back to within 50 yards of a river, not too bad for fishing in.  The last quarter mile or so led down a hill steep enough to get badly rutted with rain and snow melt.  Sometimes it was not worth the risk trying to get my 1967 Pontiac Tempest Custom (two-door coupe with a 326 V-8 and a two-speed automatic transmission) down there.  Getting down would not have been the issue; getting up would be the challenge.  Sometime in the 1980s, state officials determined that vehicular traffic was too destructive of the ecosystem near the river.  A gate was put up a half mile from the river.  Now you can drive back that far, park, and hike the remainder of the way to the river.  Good decision.  Nobody thought of such measures in the 1800s when that area was logged for its white pine, with logs rolled down the hills into the river and down the river to the sawmills on the Lake Michigan coast.  What might the river banks, and river itself, look like had there been a quarter mile boundary on the river back then?

The trail along the sound side of Beaver Creek was always in better shape than the one on the north side.  The north side trail cut through some swampy areas.  Depending on the rainfall or snowfall that year, the trail might be impassible for my Tempest.  That Tempest rode low.  If the crown between the two-tracks was a bit too high, I risked ripping off the exhaust system.  Big four-wheel drive pick-up trucks could get down the road.  But they tended to put the road in worse shape.  There were some years I could not get down the north side at all.

One of my best experiences being down the north side was with my son, when he was just an adult.  We were back there to go fishing and camp.  After fishing in the evening with a small campfire, we enjoyed some good Scotch.  Sipping Scotch that might cost as much or more than new fly line.  It was peaceful.  The fishing had been fine, but nothing great.  It was very typical of my visits to the north end.  The worst experience was the time we were up there just before a July 4th weekend.  As we had our camp set up, the little fire going after dark, three loud pick-up trucks showed up with at least eight people.  They got out battery powered flood lights to light the area.  The doors of a truck were open with loud music playing.  Had it been Wagner, or Mozart, or Rachmaninov, or even Billy Holiday, John Coltrane, Patsy Cline, or Hank Williams, the music might have been suitable for the setting.  At a lower volume.  But the not-very-talented early 1990s popular rock surely desecrated the area and sent the sprites and other faeries to the next county.

I had no bad experiences on the end of the south side.  I would often head there as close to summer solstice as I could.  On a clear evening, I had enough light to see for fishing until 10:30 or 11 pm.  One of those evenings I was in the river casting.  A raccoon was on the opposite bank digging for larvae and crayfish.  A large dark object swam under water from downstream up just past the end of my rod.  I thought it was a salmon, except salmon aren’t in the river late June.  Then it surfaced, a beaver, about 15 feet upstream from me.  It was all peaceful.  I belonged there.  I didn’t see another person the day before or the next day.  I could fish in the morning until it got warm, take off my fishing get-up and clothes and take a swim and clean off in the river, lie in the grass to dry off.  After a lunch of some fresh fruit and a peanut butter sandwich, I’d read a few chapters, then nap until 6 pm.  On my way back to the river, I’d sequester a bottle of cheap but tasty wine in a spring to chill, fish until I couldn’t see to cast, return to my tent collecting the chilled wine along the way, fix an almost mid-night meal, and get six good hours of sleep before dawn was calling me to return to the river.

Some people find their home at the end of a road.

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