Day 32 – Prairie Traveler’s Companion

Minnesota is a state that bills itself as the land of 10,000 lakes—and then wishes it could move south, so that all those lakes could be used for something other than ice fishing.

There are problems with having that many lakes in one place, though. Namely: it is dang near impossible to have that many lakes in a state the size of Minnesota. If they approached having that number of real lakes in the state, the lakes would start to run into each other and merge. When that happens, you don’t have more lakes. You just have one really, really large lake, and Minnesota would be known not as a state but as a cold inland sea.

I’m not calling anyone a liar; I’m just saying that they are a bit more liberal in regards to what constitutes a “lake” than how the general public would usually define the term. Ask people in Oklahoma, for instance, about what a lake looks like, and they will tell stories about Lake Texoma and Keystone Lake and Grand Lake and Broken Bow Lake. Each of these lakes cover between 14,000 and 89,000 acres, and the smallest one occupies a spot of land about 15 miles long and 5 miles wide—75 square miles. For Minnesota to have 10,000 lakes, they would have to average more than one every 8 square miles, or, specifically, one lake in every 5,095 acres.

Impossible? Well, no, because Minnesota is counting every body of water at least 2 acres in sizeas a lake. That might be the scientific definition, but that also means that a state like Oklahoma has several thousand ponds that they could include in their own lake count.

In terms of lakes big enough to show up on a map, Minnesota has a few hundred. Even this number creates a problem, though, because lakes are expected to have names. The original European explorers and settlers had to come up with names for all the lakes they found. At first, I am sure this was not too difficult. But after your 30th or 40th lake of the week, it starts to become tiresome to come up with different names for each of them, and hard to keep from repeating names. That is why there are at least 7 Long Lakes on my Minnesota map, along with 4 Round Lakes, 2 Elbow Lakes, and 3 Silver Lakes. There are 4 Rice Lakes in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area alone. Island names are popular, as I counted 4 Island Lakes, plus Birch Island Lake, Cedar Island Lake, Farm Island Lake, High Island Lake, and Long Island Lake.

There are some lake names that seem to be French, such as Lac qui Parle, Pomme de Terre Lake, Lake de Montreville, and (of course) French Lake. Others are probably Native American, such as Big Kandiyohi Lake, Kekekabic Lake, Lake Minnewaska, and Lake Mennewawaw. For you Dances With Wolves fans, there is a Tetonka Lake, while those who prefer the English version can head north to Buffalo Lake instead.

You can almost picture the process of naming these lakes, and even figure out some of the different explorers, by looking at the way the lakes are named. Someone in the west-central part of the state decided to name the lakes after people he knew, and especially the ladies: Lake Emily, Lake Hattie, Lake Johanna, Lake Mary, Lake Ida, and Lake Christina are all in fairly close proximity. Another area west of Minneapolis seems to be heavy on last names, with Schmidt Lake, Gleason Lake, Parkers Lake, Hadley Lake, Sweeney Lake, Mitchell Lake, the Anderson Lakes, and so forth. Other explorers, especially in the north, went with animal names, possibly based on the first animal they saw upon finding the lake. So, you have Bear Lake, Beaver Lake, Seven Beaver Lake, Caribou Lake, Coon Lake, Deer Lake, Moose Lake (at least 3 times over), Turtle Lake (3 times), Otter Lake, Skunk Lake, Snail Lake, Spider Lake, and Wolf Lake. For the anglers, we have the Bass (3), Pike, Sturgeon (2), Sunfish, and Trout (2) Lakes, as well as at least 4 general Fish Lakes. Among birds, you can find Bald Eagle, Black Duck (not to be confused with Blackduck, which is not to be confused with Blackhawk), Crane, Duck, Eagle (3), Goose (3), Gull (2), Heron, Pelican (2), and Sea Gull Lakes. Of course, there is also a Swan Lake (2 times over), and one plain Egg Lake.

Besides repeating names, the explorers also could not always keep in mind the future tourism potential the lakes presented. I’m not sure that they did tourism officials any favors when they named Leech Lake. I mean, my first thought is that they probably had a good reason for naming it Leech Lake, and that good reason probably had something to do with leeches in the lake. They also struck out in the marketing department with Stalker Lake, Sucker Lake, Dead Lake (twice), and with the no fewer than 6 lakes they named Mud.

And my personal favorite: Big Rat Lake.

It was Sunday, so I decided I should try to visit a local church.

Based on anecdotes I had heard from my Wisconsin friends and A Prairie Home Companion, I was under the impression that this northern part of the country was dominated by denominations that are not all that popular in the Bible belt—lots of Lutherans and Episcopalians, as opposed to the Baptists and more Baptists you have in the South. While in Minnesota, I figured that I should do what the Minnesotans do and check out a church with local flavor.

I was in the town of Little Falls, on the Mississippi River, when I stopped at the first church building I came to. Baptist. Well, I know Baptist, and the goal was to see something different. I drove on down the street, and across the river, until I came to another church building. This one was much bigger and looked much more—orthodox, I guess, which in my mind made me think that it must be Episcopal or something European. It also appeared to be the place to be for the local folks, based on the number of cars parked around it.

I got just a glimpse of the sign as I drove by, and the one thing I was able to read was the service start time: 10:30 a.m. I looked at my watch: 10:30 a.m. Well, no time to think about whether I wanted to stop there or not. If I’m going in, I need to go in now.

By the time I found a parking spot and walked back to the front door, I was several minutes late. I went straight inside and was seated by an usher at one of the pews along the back wall. He seated me there not because I might cause a disturbance by finding a seat farther forward, but because every other seat was full. There did appear to be a single seat available at the end of one of the back rows, but it was occupied by a diaper bag.

That was the first thing I noticed about this church service: it was jam-packed with kids. My church in Dallas lets all the kids go to their own separate Sunday School service, and has only adults in the main sanctuary. Here, though, the kids possibly outnumbered the adults.

The inside of the building was ornately decorated, with stained-glass windows, paintings, columns, and statues. Statues? At the front of the sanctuary, where I am accustomed to seeing a cross, or an image of Jesus, or an image of Jesus on the cross, there instead was a large painting of a woman—a woman I assumed was supposed to represent the virgin Mary.

Mary, statues, and tons of kids? Wait, but that must mean…

Oops. In my haste, I hadn’t walked into church. I had walked into mass.

I had gone to Protestant churches all my life, and had never once been to a Catholic mass. I couldn’t even recall ever setting foot inside a Catholic church building. The whole thing had always remained a mystery to me. Do they even hold their services in English, or is it Latin? I really didn’t have a clue.

The priest spoke English, but it might as well have been Greek to me. The entire affair was one long ceremony of hymns and chants that everyone there had memorized after a lifetime of repetition—everyone, that is, but me.

Well, everyone but me, and the disheveled, scruffy man with whom I shared the back pew. He looked almost like the stereotype of a homeless man, with his old coat and unkempt beard, but something told me that he did not live on the streets. He was just having a very, very rough go at life. He also did not know the secret words, the correct times to stand up or sit down. His posture was bent, almost in the stance of a perpetual sob, and he appeared to me to be a broken man. We were the outcasts—he the hurting man with nowhere else to go, and I the closet Protestant who was unable to hide my true identity.

I followed along as best I could. The service was not set up to be visitor-friendly—they give birth to new Catholics here, not convert them—so there were no helpful instructions as to when you should sing, what words you should recite, or the like.

There was no sermon.

Toward the end, or what I later discovered was the end, they started to serve communion. Again, there were no instructions, so I wondered what their policy was on communion. I had always been to churches where they have open communion—if you are a believer and feel that you should take it, you were free to participate. I was under the impression that the Catholic church had a closed communion, though.

They started passing out the elements at the front, moving toward the back, so I would be the very last person they got to. That gave me precious seconds to decide. Since I know that I am free to take the communion, do I do so as an example of my freedom? Or is this what Paul talked about, when he said not to eat meat around believers who think it is wrong to do so?

I looked over toward the broken man, to see how he might handle the situation, but he was already gone. What a shame. I would have liked to have talked with him.

As the elements reached the last few rows of pews, I decided that I should take Paul’s advice and forego communion. My decision did not matter much, though, because the ushers never offered it to me. They could tell I was not Catholic, and they must have made the decision that I should not take communion. Well, that was nice of them.

Afterwards, as some people filed out past me and others congregated in the aisle to talk, I gave myself a tour of the sanctuary. It was beautiful: the stained-glass windows alternated with relief paintings, and the walls and ceilings were covered with carved panels, painted in different shades of yellow. The confessionals along the wall on each side had some very fancy altars next to them, though I did not know why. At the front of the room was a velvet banner titled “Eternal Life”, with a couple dozen names listed underneath.

My name was not included. Minor oversight.

In the back corner, near where I had sat, was a metal container labeled “Holy Water”. I’m not sure why that water should be considered holy, when other water was not. Near that, one of the relief paintings, numbered “VI”, showed Jesus carrying the cross and a woman holding out a handkerchief. The painting was labeled, “Veronica wipes Jesus’ face.”

Veronica? I knew that the Catholic Bible had some additional books thrown in, but—Veronica? That just doesn’t sound like a Biblical name to me.

That painting was labeled in English, but much of the artwork, including the stained-glass windows, had writing that was in a language very unfamiliar to me. It was not Latin—not that I can read Latin, but I know enough Spanish and French and lorem ipsum to know that this looked nothing like a Romance language. It looked like—I don’t know—Eastern European or Russian or something.

I approached the usher who had seated me earlier, to ask him about the building. I told him that I had some questions, since I was “just visiting.”

He smiled. “I could tell that you—I hadn’t seen you here before”, he quickly corrected himself.

I asked him if he might know what language was written on the windows. “Polish”, he answered. “This place was built by the Poles.”

Interesting. People here used to speak Polish. I wonder if that has any relation to the famous Minnesota accent?

The building, he went on to say, was built in the 1920s. It had been kept in amazing shape since then. I complimented him on the beautiful building, and asked if it would be all right if I took some photographs. Sure, he said, as soon as the crowd gets out of the way.

On my final circuit of the building, I observed some young boys playing “tea” with the holy water. I tried not to laugh.

As I drove north on Sunday afternoon, I flipped through the radio stations until I came upon a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion.

Occasionally I do listen to the old-fashioned variety show on NPR, but it was a bit different actually listening to it in Minnesota, on Minnesota Public Radio. I realized that many of my opinions of the state had been influenced by Garrison Keillor and his tales of the fictitious Lake Woebegone.

As I drove along and listened to the show, I was able to get a real look at the northern prairie. Considering Keillor’s blue-state political jokes, I was surprised at the almost militant pro-gun stance I saw displayed. Several old election signs touted so-and-so candidate as the one protecting the right to bear arms, and at least one homemade sign suggested that you could gladly have the owner’s guns if you made it through the hail of bullets first. You could get convenience guns at convenience stores, and signs at every third gas station, restaurant, or rest area in Wisconsin and Minnesota had some kind of good luck message for hunters.

Perhaps it is part of a frontier mentality. In the famous Minnesota winters, many of the houses I saw in the middle of nowhere are probably snowed in for occasionally long stretches of time. On one lonely, flat highway, I saw the flashing lights of an oncoming fire truck a full 10 minutes before we passed each other, and I could still see its receding lights in the rear-view 5 miles later when I encountered the second fire truck. If you get into some kind of trouble out on the prairie, help may eventually arrive, but you’ll be on your own for a while.

Paul Bunyan is also big in Minnesota. I was surprised to learn that Babe the Blue Ox liked to eat bowling pins. I could see how rough-and-tumble lumberjacks would fit in well in the state, even if large portions I drove through resembled tundra more than forests.

Oh, and of course it was cold. Ever since upstate New York, I had not bothered to put any ice in my ice chest. After one night in Minnesota, though, I woke up to find that the water bottles in my iceless ice chest had frozen nearly solid. And, supposedly, the ice chest should have insulated them somewhat from the cold. I now had to keep food and drinks warm.

A stream flows out of the northern end of Lake Itasca, perpetually draining the always-full lake.

The name of the stream is the Mississippi River.

The river flows north for a bit, before asking for directions and making a big U-turn south on its way across the country. As anyone south of Minnesota can tell you, rivers are not supposed to flow north.

I crossed the Mississippi a few times on my way north to Lake Itasca. For the most part, it was still a respectable river, even that close to its source. At Itasca, though, it is just a small little creek.

I entered into Itasca State Park—the day-use fee was something like $7—and drove to the start of the headwaters trail. The trail stretches only a few hundred feet to where the river bubbles out of the lake through a row of smooth rocks.

I took off my shoes for the ever-popular wade across the Mississippi. Of course, the water was cold. Thin ice had already formed out over the lake. But, you don’t drive all the way to the start of the Mississippi and then not wade across it simply because the water is cold. You grin, and you bear it.

Halfway across, I stopped and filled up an empty bottle with water from the river. Right at the very inch where it starts flowing downhill, I captured a quart of the Mississippi to take with me. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it; it just seemed like the right thing to do. Sort of my own personal holy water, perhaps.

As I walked a log bridge back across the river, and followed it for the first hundred yards of its 2,500-mile journey, something struck me as being out of place. Namely, the rocks I had walked across at the start of the river. There weren’t any other visible rocks along the river or the lake; it just wasn’t a rocky area. Yet, the few rocks that did exist just happened to line up exactly where the river comes out of the lake? That’s just not how rivers and rocks tend to work. Water takes the path of least resistance, and if there were one place along the flat shoreline where there happened to be a pile of rocks, I would expect the river to just take a path around that. The whole thing smelled fishy, even though the river didn’t smell like fish.

At an informational sign farther down the stream, I found the story behind the rocks. They had been placed there by workers as part of a Depression-era improvement project. Someone decided that the headwaters would be more scenic if they rippled over some river rocks, so they sought to improve on nature.

That’s the story of America, I suppose: we can always do it better. Or, perhaps, the story is this: the government will always find a way to spend more money and screw things up.

As I exited the park and drove over the Mississippi a couple more times, I saw a parking area next to the highway bridge, with a sign announcing canoeing access to the Mississippi River.

I made a U-turn, crossed back over the river, and unloaded my kayak.

Sure, the water would be cold, but the afternoon air had warmed up to a passable temperature. And I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.

Though the flowing current kept the middle of the stream from freezing, there was a bit of ice along the shore in the tiny bay where canoes are launched. The ice stretched from the shoreline to the center channel, about 12 feet out from the shore. It was thin ice, though. I fully expected it to shatter when I put my kayak out on top of it.

I laid my kayak out on the ice. Not even a single crack appeared.

Well, it’s thicker than it had looked, but the kayak doesn’t weigh much, either. As soon as I add my weight to it, it is sure to shatter into a thousand pieces.

I sat down in my kayak. Nothing. The ice crackled a bit, but seemed nowhere close to breaking. I was sitting, in a boat, on top of a sheet of ice.


I looked at the flowing water, only a boat’s length away. It’s not that far, if I could just slide out to it…

I couldn’t very well paddle against ice, so I used my oar to shove myself away from the shoreline. As soon as I reached the middle of the ice sheet, it shattered underneath the weight of the boat, sending my kayak sliding out into the water.

Well, that wasn’t so hard.

I paddled upstream through the narrow channel. The ice along each shore crackled angrily at the disturbance my small wake made. The river here was kind of marshy, with quite a bit of grass growing in the shallow water. Only the main channel remained relatively clear, though I still found myself paddling through grass a time or two.

I was rapidly losing light, so I turned back around after only 15 or 20 minutes. Now I was moving with the mighty Mississippi, its current helping carry me along. I was soon back to my starting point, where I had fun trying to get back up on the foot or two of ice that still clung to the shore.

I can’t tell you how tempted I was to keep going; to follow the river from its source to its ending point, past New Orleans. Well, I can tell you how tempted I was: pretty tempted. Not to do it right then, of course; it was not the best time of year for such a trip, and I was far from being prepared. Still, what a story that would make. I know I can average almost 4 mph for long distances with no current; with the river helping me along, I could surely manage at least 50 miles every day. That would still take me 50 days, so I don’t truly think that is something I am going to be doing, at least not without a dang good reason.

I’m sure it would make a good story, though.

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