Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Report from "Up North" Minnesota

Sunday, August 10, 2008 – A looooong drive up from St. Louis Park to Thunder Lake, and we’re in Cass County, named after a pre-Civil War general who explored this area and made treaties (later broken, of course) with the Indians. The area is heavily forested, some oak but mostly birch and white pine – lots and lots of pine. Weather spectacular, sunny and not quite cool. Rita’s cabin is up a winding gravel road closely set with big trees. As advertised, it is elderly, made of logs, set in a clearing it shares with a much lower-class cabin of broad boards (with an outhouse!), which also belongs to her, and a higher-class log cabin with a stone chimney of the sort that means a fireplace. The higher-class one is not made of real logs but that siding designed to look like logs.

Rita’s cabin is small but not tiny, a cozy place with an efficient kitchen, dining area and living room, bedroom, bath. The windows are horizontally rectangular and open like French doors – they’re original to the house, though work has been done on them to make them fit tightly again. There is an enclosed back porch with big screen windows that faces the lake. It might once have been a front porch, and there was a door leading out of it that wasn’t properly braced and so it was pulling the whole cabin down. And once started, the cabin might well have ended up in the lake, because there is a very steep slope of about seventy yards down to the water’s edge. The old logs of the cabin are a dark red-brown and some are fissured or split. I wish I’d brought my bird book along because there are all kinds of birds up here, some I don’t recognize. Rita reports there are bears and otters, kingfishers and loons. She has a canoe we can use. Thunder Lake is beautiful, of an odd, oblong shape. It makes me think of a plucked duck. There are other cabins and several resorts.

There is a very tall, ancient pine near the lake on her land with a huge bald eagle’s nest in its top branches. There is a single baby eagle in the nest, who shrieks a lot because his parents are not feeding him right now. They want him to find the courage to fly to a nearby tree, where they sit calling and waving fish at him. So far he’s refusing, he sits in the nest fat, angry and complaining (typical adolescent?) and calls for them to bring the fish over.

Ellen and I went to Remer for supper. It’s about ten miles up highway 6 from here. It’s a very small town, one of those "wide places in the road." We went into The Woodsman, a country café sort of place, with fake knotty pine paneling and faded pictures of local wildlife. But the food was pretty good – real mashed potatoes and home-made gravy, fat breadsticks with just a hint of sweetness, flavorful "chopped steak" (hamburger) with mushrooms and onions. The owner said an elderly woman named Lou has lived here all her life and could tell me about the German POW camp right outside of town. She comes in every morning early for coffee.

Back at the cabin darkness drew in and there came the odd, sad "yodel" of a loon out on the lake, followed by three or four loons having fits of nervous giggles. The song of the northwoods, absolutely. I am looking forward to writing this novel!

I spent a certain amount of time wide awake that night. I find I have turned into a city girl. We left the windows open to the delicious, chilly night air, and I was sure a bear or a cougar was going to break the screen and come in after us. It was incredibly dark and very quiet out there, with occasional rustles or faint whuffling noises ("Oh, my God! A bear!") or rumbles ("Oh, my God, a cougar!"). In the daylight next day, I was ashamed. But later, while I was driving out the gravel road to Highway 6, something loped across the road in front of me. It was much bigger than a cat, but it didn’t look like a dog. Too small to be a bear. It was medium brown, furry, thick-legged, tailess. It didn’t move like a bear cub and anyway they are black. "Oh, my God, a bobcat!" And in fact, it might have been, they are rare but present up here.

We did go to talk with Lou, who is a very spry and youthful 80. She is, in fact, Lucille Anderson, who was 15 when the German POWs came to Remer. Her grandfather worked at the camp, which was converted from what they call "the CC Camp" – Civilian Conservation Corps, an FDR remedy for the Depression. She remembers army trucks hauling them around, they standing in the back, and how they would call out and wave to her grandfather if they saw him on the street. She told me where the Remer camp was located. (Go out the graveled Highway 4 past a cemetery to a "tar road" that curves to the right, go past a house and look for a very tall stand of pines: "you can’t miss it.")

And we didn’t. I sprayed myself heavily with Deet, took the camera, left Ellen in the car, and went into the woods via a faintly marked, grassy, weedy road that had been built up across a very deep ditch. The trail branched here and there, and I found smallish clearings marked with old trunks, but even the clearings had tall pines growing in them, and I couldn’t find any sign of any old buildings. I didn’t want to wander too far off the trails, first because I thought they might be the remnants of roads leading to the camp, second because I didn’t want to get lost. There was evidence of passage on the "roads" by vehicles not so long ago, probably checking the place out for logging.

Later I walked down to the lake in front of the cabin, trying not to break into a trot which could only have ended in a soaking. Coming back, I detoured to the big pine the eagles are nesting in. It is a very big pine, its trunk at least twice the diameter of the other pines around it. Suddenly I heard the peculiarly high-pitched squeal of the eagles coming in short, excited bursts and saw a dark shadow circle and land up out of my sight. Landed heavily, with a clap of wings. Then two more shadows circled in, also squealing. The eaglet is out of his nest! Well, he’s back again, but he’s taken his first flight.

There is Internet access in Longville! Checked e-mail there Tuesday. The librarian showed me some history books on the Land’o’Lakes area – one focusing on Longville – and we sat down to read and wait. One of the books said the POW camp was over by Little Boy Lake (perhaps in addition to the one at Remer – or is Remer near Little Boy Lake? Need to do more research!) and told a couple of brief anecdotes about the Germans. One said a prisoner ran off but stopped by a house (got lost?), where he was fed, comforted and returned to the camp the next day. Another recalled the Germans being brought along by American soldiers stopping off for beer – this is beginning to sound like "Hogan’s Heroes!" A POW was asked what he thought of young American women and he, an older officer, "indicated by gestures" that he would not allow his daughters to use lipstick or nail polish. (I wonder if they changed his mind after he’d been home a couple of years.) Just in passing, there was a story about a man who’d served time in prison during the 20s and, after another conviction, was "persuaded" to leave the Chicago area to live with relatives in Longville. His grandson didn’t know about this as a boy and was shocked to discover years later that his sweet old Gran’dad was setting up illegal slot machines in the backs of bars and going around weekly to collect the money. I think the word we want here is "incorrigible."

All this is, of course, gold to my research for Buttons and Bones, a future Betsy Devonshire novel.
The library opens at one on Wednesday, so this won’t get posted until then.


Camille Minichino said...

You are incredibly BOLD to do that kind of research. One look at anything furry and I'd be headed back to asphalt.

Monica Ferris said...

Camille, the one thing that has kept me from going out to visit what I am assurred is the real site of the POW camp is the fact that it is all overgrown with blueberries, which are ripening this time of year -- oh, and the fact that bears *love* blueberries!

Kathryn Lilley said...

Great post! The part about the baby eagle sent me searching for baby bird videos. Found a cute one about killdeer chicks (but I don't think the lady should have picked them up...)

Kathryn Lilley said...

Hah! That link is too long, sorry! Anyway, great post, Monica!

Anonymous said...

WOW Monica.
Thanks for sharing your adventures with us.
I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.
We want to hear more next week

Anonymous said...

I thought I knew most of the history of N. Minn. having lived there the first 30 yrs. of my life, but I didn't know about the POW camps. As for the animals, the only ones you need to be very afraid of are the moquitos!!!!


Betty Hechtman said...

Loved your post. It was like being in the woods with you.

Brittany said...

Sorry this is so random/late, but I had to reply-- I heard about the POW camp in Remer (I'm a writer from the Twin Cities with family up there) and was just searching for info about it online.... I came onto your blog and was surprised...because Lucille is my grandmother! I had no idea she knew about the camps. Guess I know who to talk to for more information! Just had to share :)