In considering lyrics for the song cycle, I’ve been wanting to use words from the people of this north shore area of Minnesota… conversations with folks I meet along the way, fragments of writing from old newspapers, excerpts from recorded oral Ojibwe histories, and writing taken from letters postmarked around the time John Beargrease was delivering the mail, 1880 to 1900. So this morning I met with Cook County Historical Society Museum Director, Carrie McHugh, and she set me up with boxes full of all sorts of old documents and photographs. Amazing, after digging around for a few hours, I finally found a local letter postmarked 1892. I was so excited I could barely ease the letter from the plastic sleeve with my cotton gloves… and what did the letter say?
What??? Are you kidding me? Can any of you read this?
Does this suggest percussion, some scratching on the drum head?
My most lovely surprise today was that I got to meet Alta McQuatters, great-great-granddaughter of Shingibis – the Anishinabe Chief who was the father of J.B. Carrie had invited Alta to stop by! Fantastic, this opportunity to sit and talk face to face with Alta, and to then visit the Chippewa City Church with her and hear stories about her ongoing work documenting the many unmarked graves in the area.
Thank you Carrie and Alta! And, McKnight and ACF!
A funny letter I found in one of the boxes:
This time of year the mushers are beginning to ramp-up their training efforts for the January Beargrease. Yesterday evening the temperatures dropped down toward 50º and Colleen Wallin invited me to follow her from Silver Bay to Two Harbors at the end of her workday to meet her dogs and go out on a run. You know how some people just seem to have light shining out into the world from every bit of their being? That’s Colleen. We sat at the kitchen table waiting for the temperature to drop a bit and swapped stories while Colleen used a dry-erase board to work out the team she wanted to run.
Then she looked at me, said – “well, let’s do it!” – handed me some thick overalls and out we went. Colleen and her husband Ward are both mushers and have 34 dogs right now, including some puppies. As we walked out to the dog area, the level of noise and excitement built to a sort of frenzy and then Colleen was laying out lines and harnesses, gathering up dogs and showing me how to hook them up. She asked me to hold the two dogs up front for a bit while she readied the rest of the team. She likes to pair a male with a female and let’s just say I had a bit of a dance with the guy I was holding. It was clear to him I was fair game of sorts and pretty quickly he was standing on his hind legs, looking me in the eye and – let’s just say – wrapping himself around my leg until I could figure out a polite exit maneuver. I’m pretty sure Colleen was letting me figure that one out on my own. Then suddenly everyone was ready and we were up on the ATV and heading out through the woods.
The trail was sometimes a jolting raucous plunge into huge dips and around rocks and through mud, over raised roots of trees, and then would smooth out to softer grasses. This eventually opened up onto a huge meadow-like open space surrounded by the hills in the full glory of classic fall colors. Colleen said she was pretty sure this was Heaven. For me – this experience was such a gift. Inspiring and humbling to see the level of devotion,the amount of love and grit and daily work that goes into the life of having sled dogs on this kind of scale. Colleen – thank you, you rock!
The first musher to start off the John Beargrease Marathon every year is listed as John Beargrease, musher #1.
Beaver Bay is the third checkpoint of the marathon and John Beargrease is buried here in an unmarked cemetery at the edge of town. When the mushers reach this point they stop to gather for a brief ceremony and to pay their respects before continuing the 52 miles through the town of Finland and on up to the Sawbill checkpoint. On Monday I too stopped to pay my respects at the gravesite of John Beargrease. In 1932 the local historical society placed this tablet along the path.
The next photo shows the area I visited yesterday in Finland – where mid-distance mushers stop – and where the full Marathon mushers stop on the return loop. A woman named Honor who works at the Community Center (the stopping place) showed me an opening in the brush where the mushers come in off the trail. She spoke of the temperatures at 30º below, of the big fires kept burning through the night, and of the enormity of the spirit and enthusiasm of mushers, the dogs, and of the many volunteers.
A good image for this first day of autumn!
For those of you who have asked – apologies that I can’t do these every day. I sometimes have internet service and sometimes have cell phone reception. Rarely do I have both, so it’s a bit of a trick to get these posted!
This is taken from Knife River looking out toward Two Harbors. John Beargrease–during warmer months from April to December–navigated these waters in a sort of sailable rowboat, carrying the mail to Grand Marais from the adjacent Burlington Bay side of Two Harbors. A 150-mile round trip. This effort is incredibly hard to imagine even on a day like the one you see here. Add the sort of wicked cold and stormy conditions common in this area and then multiply the effort by years.
In his book “John Beargrease, Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore,” author Daniel Lancaster beautifully and thoroughly describes the life of JB, recounting many fantastic John Beargrease stories while speaking of his journey as being one that simultaneously spans physical and cultural distances. The book is a great read! Holy Cow Press.
Meanwhile – this is the gift someone handed my waitress the other night at the local café. ?
Heading up to Beaver Bay today.
Got into The Cities (I’m learning!) Tuesday night and hate to admit that right off the bat I started getting lost. So I am now, somehow, sitting in the Thirsty Pagan bar in Wisconsin where, when I asked for a coke, the bartender looked at me and said “are you sure you don’t want something stronger?” I’m staying up around Two Harbors for the first few days… heading back up there tonight after I visit the John Beargrease Board meeting! Looking at my new map now. The old fashioned kind that you can hold on to…
Two Harbors • Thursday morning • 9-18-2014
…where Agate Bay was the site of the first Minnesota shipment of iron ore from these docks in 1884. John Beargrease picked the mail up around here and then began his trek north to Grand Marais.
I will be arriving in Minnesota one week from now. Hope to begin this blog from Knife River on Wednesday, September 17. See you real soon.