The late Charles Kuralt wrote from Ely, Minnesota: “You could paddle a canoe to the end of Moose Lake and camp overnight and put the canoe in another lake the next morning. You could cross that lake, and camp for the night, and paddle across another lake the third day. You could keep this up, visiting a different lake every day for 100 years, and you still wouldn’t get to all the lakes.”
He was writing about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — “a million acres of wilderness with no roads, no buildings, no sign that human beings have ever been there, except for some Indian pictographs and maybe ashes from an old campfire.” All motors are banned — outboards, airplanes, generators. It’s even against the law to cut a branch off a tree or bring bottles or cans into the area. Groups of more than 10 canoeists must split up and go in different directions; same deal if the group has more than four boats.
Established by Congress in 1964, the Boundary Waters run north from Ely well into Canada. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages our part of it, says that more people visit this wilderness than any other in the country, about 200,000 annually. (There are 662 wilderness areas in the United States.) While some regions draw hikers in the summer, skiers and dogsledders in winter, at least 75 percent of the visitors here come to paddle canoes.
Kuralt’s assertion of a lake-a-day for 100 years may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Looking beyond the Boundary Waters, Minnesota claims 10,000 lakes, but it’s more like 15,000. Throw in the lakes of Ontario and Northern Wisconsin, and there are certainly more lakes up here than I want to count or will ever see.
Highway 1 runs from the shore of Lake Superior up to Ely, then on west across the state. Twenty miles west of Ely, it passes through Tower-Soudan: two towns that grew up on opposite sides of the tracks, but today accept living together, yet hyphenated.
Tower was an end-of-the-road railroad town, populated in its early days by miners, loggers and explorers. Main Street was mostly boarding houses and saloons. With two miles of woods between them, Soudan was a company town, owned by the Oliver Mining Company, of U.S. Steel. If you lived in Soudan, you lived in a company house, shopped in the company store, and the man of the house worked in the company mine.
Tower has less than 500 people, and its Main Street today is as it once was. There is still life behind the storefronts — not yet sucked out by the event-driven draw of urban shopping malls. Still, it’s happening — the Iron Range city of Virginia, population 10,000, is just 25 miles away. And once in the car with kids strapped in, what’s 25 miles?
The mom-and-pop bakeries, cafes, souvenir shops and outfitters seem to be hanging on. And when considering that tourism is the only game in town, with a season of four months at best, it’s a tribute to the tenacity — they call it stubbornness — of northern Minnesotans.
The senior business on Main Street is The Tower News. Founded in 1900, it’s the oldest newspaper in Saint Louis County, a huge county that stretches from Duluth all the way to the Canadian boarder. I visited Tony Sikora at the paper, a short time before he retired. Since 1985, he had been the publisher. When I asked why he came to Tower, he said, “Because I was born in Gary, Indiana.”
Along with putting out the weekly paper, Tony rented out movies. And his backroom had the basics of an Internet Cafe, without the croissants and coffee.
With a beard and short hair that doesn’t require combing to be in place, Tony is the free-spirited, stress-free sort found more often probably in Tower than Gary.
Raising two kids, now in their teens, he told me that he has pulled the Internet and cable TV out of his house. “We just get local TV now. No need for the other stuff. I didn’t move here to be urban. I know what McDonald’s looks like.”
I sat on a tall stool while Tony stood by his worktable stripping address labels off a sheet and sticking them on the front of that week’s edition. Some labels covered the logo, “A Century of Service,” others hid the headline, “Hunting Seasons Announced.”
He continued: “I avoid the super highways when I can. I go to Duluth all the time now, as I am working on a teaching degree at UMD. I can go from here to there on county roads (about 125 miles) and only hit two stoplights. And I can do it without hitting any deer, if I don’t doze off.”
Tony explained that Ely has a “Greenpeace economy. Up there, they are all canoe people. Here we are into serving fisherman and boaters in the summer and a few snowmobilers in the winter.”
Tower is on Lake Vermillion, a purely recreational lake with 365 islands and 1,200 miles of shoreline. The National Geographic Society declared it one of the top 10 most scenic lakes in the United States. Owners of summer homes here live as far away as Des Moines and Kansas City.
On my way out to the HooDoo Point Campground, I stopped at the unmanned outlet of the Tower-Soudan LP Gas Company. It works on the honor system: Leave your empty tank on the platform. Come back later, it’s filled. Take it and drop your money in the box. Honesty makes life so simple.
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]