When your 88-year-old friend and his youthful 81-year-old wife reach out to tell you that they’ve been cooped up in their tiny apartment for seven months, and furthermore there is a decent amount of failing health to contend with and worry over, and that really, all said friend would like is one last hurrah up on the Gunflint, where he spent some of the finest days of his youth, and ‘do you think maybe you would want to sweep us off to a cabin in the woods?’ well… you figure it out.
Our wise and lovely friends Alexsi and Anastasia made just such a proposal recently.
We figured it out.
COVID and all, we figured it out.
And this is where our story begins…
There are a few things you need to know right out of the gate, if we’re ever going to get through this:
- There is no cell service up the Gunflint Trail. She’s 57 miles, from her origins in Grand Marais to her terminus up at Saganaga. Most of those miles reach into the heart of the Boundary Waters. Cell towers are not a thing in the Boundary Waters.
- Alexsi is regularly asked what kind of accent, exactly, he is saddled with. His answer, and if there were an ‘r’ to roll in there, he would roll it hard, is, with a glint in his eye, ‘Affected.’ Our man has done so much traveling in his time that he is a living amalgamation of language. A linguist’s nightmare, as it were.
- The forecast for our cabin-stay was 38-43°, with a chance for a passing shower. We would be spending three nights tucked into a cabin, affording us young whipper-snappers two full days to hike and fart about while Ma and Pa nurtured their souls alongside the home fires.
- Yes, this is indeed the same Gunflint Trail where the Gunflint Kid has been residing. The same Gunflint Trail where a different Gunflint Kid resided some 3 years back. Yes, the same Gunflint Trail that lures us into the BW year after year, and eventually lures some of our kids there to find themselves as well.
- Our tires–the ones on our van, not the spares around our middles–are rat’s-arse bald. Our first big snow a week or so back found us taking about 35 goes at the hill leading up to our house, only to lose a fair bit of purely cosmetic undercarriage molding (let’s not talk about it) and park the blasted thing at the neighbors for the night anyway.
- We did not stay at Clearwater Lodge, where the Kid works. We stayed in a cabin at Gunflint Lodge, where the old man has the memories to cozy up with. For the nostalgia was a critical component here. While Clearwater is 27 miles up the Trail, Gunflint is about halfway between there and Trail’s End up at Sag. A map might be a helpful visual here, but you’re going to have to use your imagination.
OK. I think that’s enough. Of the things you need to know. I’m sure there will be more. But that’s it for now.
Now for a thing you don’t need to know:
Two days before liftoff, I was informed that a fellow library board member was COVID-positivo, right on the heels of the in-person meeting we’d just had. Mostly I’m just throwing this one in here for spice. So you know how things have been rolling in our little corner of the globe. Wisconsin is indeed the current laughing stock. It’s nice that we’re all taking turns like good kindergarteners.
Thank you for your concern on the COVID. We are fine.
We, the board, were masked and distanced, and let me tell you I ran that meeting like the stacks were on fire. We were in and out in 30 minutes, quite possibly a record of some sort that should be reported to the proper authorities somewhere.
Now technically, I didn’t meet the testing criteria, nor the quarantine criteria, because of the responsible actions of we, the board. But when you’re caring for compromised family members, you test anyway. And when you’re about to merge bubbles with innocent and elderly, and also compromised, bystanders, you test anyway.
We were negative, all three of the residents of the Ottinger Ranch, thanks for asking.
Good to go. Again.
Alrighty. Now you’re all caught up…
So we check into the cabin without incident, and the cabin is lovely, and despite it’s being stocked with rather (read: entirely) wet firewood, and equipped with one extra small and furthermore sawn off fire grate and one entirely ventless (yet charming) fireplace lacking all ability to drum up a lick of draw, the hubs perseveres and prevails in his war with the wood, and there is a fire on the hearth. Alexsi and Anastasia are happy.
Also we are happy. Because we are in a cabin in the woods, on the Gunflint, with the lake out the window, and a fire on the hearth, and good friends on the couch opposite us.
And… umm… ice cream in the freezer. Alexsi takes Maple Nut if you must know. Anastasia, Mint Chip. Scott and I are not so steeped in ritual as to narrow the playing field so drastically, but we mostly subsist on vanilla with a cupboardful of oddments sprinkled under and over and beside. For this trip, Double Fudge Moose Tracks and Butter Pecan have made the cut. We’re talking high brow, here, folks.
Living. The. Life.
So we chat the evening away, forcing ice cream into the man who just this morning was given orders from his doc to go cold turkey with the sugar. This sounds to me like an order to be hearkened to AFTER cabin-time. To Alexsi and Anastasia, it also seemed prudent to postpone total medical advice-adherence until their return home. Spoons tinkle in our bowls. Fire crackles in the fireplace. Voices chitter and chatter.
And as the fire dwindles, Ma and Pa head off to their room, and the Ottingers are left with embers and the printed word for a few minutes before the lids get heavy.
Damn and blast. Let’s back up a moment. Or a few hours.
So we’re driving up the Gunflint, on the way to the cabin by the lodge by the lake with the fire, my old friend is burbling with delight as the Trail narrows and the trees close in and we rise up off of Superior and his memories are flooding in, and on the next rise, there is clearly something upright in our lane of traffic.
What IS it?!? you say?
It’s a fox. Sitting in the middle of our lane like a dog. I’d just seen a fox about 3 miles back, but that one was acting like a fox, skittering off the road, watching us from the snowy berms. This one just sat there waiting for us to wallop him. Which we didn’t of course. We slowed down. Because fox, and also maybe a little because we don’t carry anything more than liability on the van. That part didn’t really come into play, but with enough time to think about it, it might have. Anyway, FOX.
So we slow to a stop a few feet from this gorgeous specimen, and only when we’ve rolled back on our tires does he deign to rise to his feet. He struts around the van slowly, Passes by Scott in the driver’s seat and regards him, passes by me, around the back, past Anastasia, and stops outside Alexsi’s window, just to stare at him. And then he sits down, so they might regard one another without hurry or strain.
Well, there was strain, but that was a few moment’s in when Alexsi, the only one of us with any presence of mind, realizes that someone should be getting a portrait of our new friend. There was a scramble, but our fox wasn’t about to rush anyone.
Alexsi gets approximately 19 photos, and eventually, we realize that if ever this stand-off is to end, we’ll have to be the ones to move. Scott pulls ahead slowly, and that fox, he follows us. It wasn’t until we finally hit the gas and found cruising speed that the little guy finally peeled off and went back into the woods from whence he (presumably) came.
Now I’m not necessarily a believer in spirit animals, but our little Gunflint Gatekeeper that day had me wondering about his invisible ties with our friend Alexsi.
So now back to the cabin, and there is the fire, and then lights-out…
Morning comes, and Scott and I decide to wander a bit. Drive the Trail some, maybe hike a bit, maybe go on down and surprise Emily at Clearwater. She was coming up to sup with us at dinnertime, but a drop-in might be fun.
We make sure the fire is well and truly going before turning over the fire gloves to the reminiscents on the sofa, we pack a lunch, and we hit the road.
On our way up to the van, I remark, “Boy, I hope it snows today.” There is that strange crystalline thing already happening in the atmosphere, sparkly air, not quite snow, but somehow a bit solid anyway. By the time the gravel hits the Gunflint, the skies are darkened with snow, and tiny glittering flakes sparkle all around us. We turn NW, towards Trail’s End, to wander the snowy campground that has only held us in the heat of summer, on our way into the Boundary Waters.
The microscopic flakes grow exponentially into behemoth slow-drifters as we drive the last 13 miles up the Trail. Like a COVID curve. It happens fast.
Up there at Trail’s End, we’ve entered a full-blown flurry. 38-43° and a chance of a passing shower? Hmm… Not so much.
They’ve had their share of snow already this season, so there is a foundation upon which the massive flakes might build, and the whole thing is magical. A wilderness snow globe.
We all know that pictures can’t capture weather, because there is something beyond static there, something more alive, but here are a few anyway. Please employ your imagination once again:
So we’ve visited our oft-used entry point, and we head back down, past Seagull, where the one-time Gunflint Kid resided a million years ago. We stop and snap a few pics of her old living quarters in the snow, just to say we were here, and we continue on down-trail.
The snow is gorgeous. It’s not even noon. I pull out the cooler full of snackies as we trundle on down, past the road to our cabin, on to the road to Emily’s.
Here’s another thing you need to know. Clearwater Road is a winding, hilly beast of a road. It’s 4 miles back to Emily, and this summer I more than once slid my little hiney sideways on the gravel of Clearwater Road. The curves are sneaky, and like to lie on downhill slopes.
More about Clearwater Road: it’s windy and hilly, yes, but also there is no shoulder, because it’s a gravel road, and there are no guardrails, because we’re in the sticks here folks, and there are about twelve-teen places where a little jolt of your steering wheel would careen you not only off the road, but also directly into one drink or another, with no buffer whatsoever between gravel and water. Generally these opportunities are along curves. At the bottom of hills.
Now you probably know where I’m going with this.
Here’s the first picture I took along Clearwater Road:
You’ll note the distinct lack of wheels, and presence of disturbing footprints. This would be because it was taken on the 3-mile hike in to the Lodge, after the van–the one with the rat’s-arse bald tires–was rather unceremoniously ditched along one of those curvy spots and the bottom of a hill.
If you recall, there is no cell service on the Gunflint.
Here she is–Minerva–in her resting spot. The ditch drops off maybe 4-5 feet from the road. We avoided all but the smallest of trees. We did, however, squarely come upon a few North Shore boulders and land upon one particularly ornery stump. Also, about 25 yards further along with our exit from the road and we would have made more of a splash than a thunk. Yes, that is a lake back there in the picture.
One has to be grateful.
If you notice here, while Minerva is decently buried, her front tires are wholly off of the ground. Spinnable. Both of ’em.
How we perched her quite so perfectly atop that stump, I do not know. Nonetheless, there we were.
I must say, without the smeary tension swirling about, it would have been a truly glorious 3-mile hike. Huge flakes of steady and heavy snow. No wind to speak of except when passing the vast expanses of water on either side. Narnia.
Well, different shoes would have been preferable as well. For my shoes are trail runners (you know me and my trail running), and to say that 1% of the sole makes contact with a flat surface would be generous. I learned quickly that while they are my favorite shoes, they are also my favorite ice skates. So the traction situation wasn’t ideal.
Also, while we’re on the shoes… Hang on… lemme find a pic…
There… See ’em? Ain’t they beauts? Well, they’re beauts in THAT environment, on the trail, or the rocks, or about anywhere but the ice and snow. As previously discussed, the underbelly leaves something to be desired upon the winter terrain.
But also, while we’re on the shoes… take a close look. You see those uppers? Those uppers, or the vamps for those shoe anatomy connoisseurs, are featherlight. Because of all the running I do on the trails. I wouldn’t want my dogs to sweat. So I bought the ultra-light trail runners (for all the trail running). Basically they’re spandex for my feet.
If it weren’t for the Smartwool under that spandex, I don’t know that I would have made it all the way down snowy Clearwater Road to our very specific destination of Clearwater Lodge, where the kid, and the phone, were. I was a little wet, and testing the wool’s claim on warmth through wetness.
I don’t have any pictures of the husband, which is good, because he was chagrined at best. I’ll leave you to your overactive imaginations once again.
So we arrive at Clearwater, somewhat soaked with snow, and find the kid doing inventory in the cozy gift shop. She is humored. Of course she is. Her boss hands us a phone and heads back out into the winter wonderland.
We raise a tow truck in Grand Marais and call him into action, then proceed to call all the mechanics in a 50 mile radius, so there is a plan in the event that the van is not drivable. Which it will be. Because it was a gentle thunk into that ditch.
Funny thing about the great white north up there. Apparently there is a severe shortage of barbers and mechanics. Every danged one of them is booked solid for at least a few weeks. Sorry. Also, one of the nicer of them informed me, we should be prepared for the cost of a tow home. “You’re looking at $11-1200. It ain’t pretty.”
Ah, well. We’ll be able to drive it home anyway.
You can sense the direction we’re headed again, can’t you?
Here’s a little shot of the action:
You see, kind of, the substantial hill, and the curve in question, and right off the nose of the van, if it weren’t so weedy, you’d see the lake there drawing us like a magnet.
You see the trusty tow truck there, preparing the winch in the seventh setup, for nothing seems to be working to get us off that damned stump. In the blaze yellow we have the tow guy, Kevin. Down in the low we have the Sherriff’s deputy, Leif, coming on through to take my place on the hill and block traffic. Truly. Leif. Truly. Traffic. Because only in a snowstorm does every neighbor in the vicinity go for a drive.
And the other guy down there by Kevin? That’s Michael.
See, I’ve gone and forgotten about Michael.
Another rewind is in order, please…
So the tow truck is making its way up the Trail, and every mechanic in Minnesota is telling me to go suck an egg, and Michael, Emily’s coworker, is kind enough to offer us a ride back to the van to meet said tow. We hop in the company truck and set off for the scene of the crime. Michael had walked in 5 minutes after we got to Clearwater. He’d come from town. “Oh, was that you guys I saw in the ditch?” Yes. Yes it was.
Well, Michael and Scott and I make it back to the van, Scott is manually clearing snow out around the van, and someone has the hairbrained idea that a chainsaw might help. To clear the trees ahead of the van, in case it’s easier to get us out that way. Michael says there’s a chainsaw back at the lodge, we make a meet-up plan, in the event that we are extricated and fled of the scene when he returns, and he toolies’r back for the saw.
Michael is there in the picture just then because a few minutes after he left, he came sprinting back down the road on foot.
“Oh, no. Did you meet a similar demise?”
“Oh, so much worse. I found the biggest tree around.”
“Oh, NO! Are you OK???”
“Totally fine. My ego hurts a lot though.”
Yours ain’t the only one achin’ tonight, Michael.
The sprinting was to catch the tow driver before he left. Which was never going to be a problem, as it took and hour to winch that van off of that stump and inch it back onto the road, over all those boulders. But poor Michael didn’t know that.
So once Leif was in position at the top, I and Michael were free to watch helplessly as Kevin struggled with the van and Scott manned the wheel of the van, and mostly nothing happened, until once or twice it did, and we were on the road.
Well, most of us was on the road.
Remember that purely cosmetic undercarriage molding that we ripped off back home last week? I’m glad we hadn’t gotten around to fixing that. For its twin was now ripped off as well, along with several other, more inflexible hunks of van. The bumper was intact until that stump ripped it off on the way out. All in all, there were a few pieces that weren’t exactly on the road until they were reattached or deposited in the back hatch.
So Kevin, with Michael riding shotgun, fishtails off down the road to save the company truck from the tree. Michael is chagrined. “Boss’s always sayin’, ‘Michael, this is our best truck. Treat’r well.’ I didn’t treat’r well.”
But now Michael is bouncing down the road, and we are waiting for Kevin to return. The van runs, but he’ll have to pull us up the hills out of there, because rat’s-arse bald tires.
In the interim, we see that there is antifreeze on the road. Which isn’t especially comforting.
Alrighty, this is a long story, so let’s cut to the chase. As we all know, I am so good at cutting to the chase. So Kevin tows us all the way down to his shop, Scott and I sharing his tiny cab with him. He’s got an undercover mechanic sharing space with him that will take a peek to see if he can get us back on the road. By this time the antifreeze is completely gone, there is no heat, and I am beginning to worry.
There is a truck on the lift, so the guy will look in the morning. I call Emily and ask if she can navigate the now-plowed roads to come get us, then lend us her car. She is thrilled, and no longer so humored as before. I ask Kevin what the damages are so far. At least $400, for the winch from hell and the tow down. And yes, a further tow home would be exactly in that $11-1200 range.
I’m going to leave unimportant details out here, about familial woes and relations, unexpected AAA memberships, and also questionably ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ practices on both sides of the conversation, involving jury-rigged billing and hefty doses of friendly helpfulness, but by the end of the story, and we’re not there yet, we were out only $300, and $90 of that was for the diagnosis I’m about to tell you about. In a little bit. Because we can’t cut the chase too short.
Kevin goes home, and we climb in the cold van, still attached to the winch boom, to wait for the kid. We are, not unexpectedly, quite the spectacle.
Now we’ve stolen the kid’s car and returned to our cabin. No worries, we’d gotten hold of a nice young gentleman at the Gunflint Lodge front desk, and asked him to trot on over to cabin 16 to inform our friends of our plight, assure them that we were OK, bring in some more wood for them, and take their dinner order, should they want dinner delivered, which was, as I told him, the ONLY option. He was in no way to allow them to walk to the Lodge for pickup, across the snow and ice. Evan even got invited in for a trip down memory lane and an old school printed paper slideshow of his current residence seven decades ago. Anyway, now we’ve stolen the kid’s car and returned to our cabin, with just enough time for ice cream and some festive stories before bed.
Alexsi inquires, in his inarticulate and sodden accent, “What I want to know, is did you make it through your experience without a domestic?”
“So far, so good, Alexsi. Better talk to us tomorrow.”
So morning comes, we are still upright, no one has completely melted down, and we are pretty much sitting tight, because chagrined. The primary objective for the day is reacquiring our beloved van, and there is a great deal of emailing back and forth, because we are in Amish country, where they only have email and no phones. I eventually raise Kevin and his man and the news is that they don’t really know what the hell’s going on. She’s leaking somewhere bad, but they can’t figure out where without pulling off the whole side. It’ll be a while before they can do that. Presumably weeks.
Long story short, once again–don’t you love how I say that and really don’t mean it at all?–when I call Kevin that afternoon, from the Lodge, to pay the man for the 250-mile tow home–home to Nate the Great, our trusty mechanic–at some nebulous time in the future, like a few weeks later–he is already on the road with Minerva.
Email at 8:15pm: “Van is at Nate’s.”
Holy cats, man. So $90 for his guy, to tell us nothing more than we already knew, and $195 to Kevin, and Minerva beats us home.
Some sitting tight pics:
What does the shirt say, I hear the hordes shouting? Lemme just show ya, as a special gift for this election eve:
Besides the sitting tight, and the emailing with the tow guy, we take our friends on a short walk over to the Lodge (with help, don’t get excited), and out to the beach in the 7° sun, but mostly we sit tight.
OK folks… dinner is done, and a movie is nearing full que, and this election day is drawing to a close, and me, I’m still rambling.
What you need to know for me to stop writing:
- We had to drive the kid’s car home. Or stay up there forever. We opted for larceny.
- Minerva made it home before us, only to receive a prompt and not-so-subtle death sentence from Nate the Great. I drove out there to deliver that other purely cosmetic underbelly molding, to get reattached with the rest, and I was met with, “Umm… yer van’s junk.” Apparently our little stump cracked out little motor. Big sad.
- The day after we got home and read the coroner’s report, we did that mad dash vehicle shopping that I love so much and secured a van nearly identical to ours, one year older, and 20,000 miles younger. Her catalytic converter was cut out in her own driveway. Sad tale. Luckily, we happen to still have that part on the deceased Minerva. The new beast roared home, and Nate the Great preformed the transplant yesterday. Whew. Now we just have to get used to the cold leather seats.
- Some of us in the house are further chagrined, and default to ‘Just when you start to get a little ahead…” Some others of us who take care of the finances–also who weren’t at the wheel when all hell broke loose–prefer to take a different angle. “Thank God this didn’t hit us six months ago when we didn’t even have enough credit left in the HELOC to cover it, much less cover it in the black.” Dual perspectives, but it’s all the same in the end. Only my way is happier.
- Back to driving the kid’s car home… since she was planning a trip home for a few weeks for appointments and restocking and such, I may have had to do a turn-around trip a day-and-a-half later to go up and get her. Sigh. But she is here now!
- Just a few pics from that whirlwind to show you how much I love Lake Superior:
And one of Clearwater Lodge, home of the Gunflint Kid:
So the Ottinger fleet has undergone a little transformation, the Ottinger pocketbook is a little lighter, and the Ottinger humility runs just the tiniest bit deeper.
Also, the Christmas cactus in my office is in a rage, and I feel you should see it:
And also, the GoFundMe for the Gunflint Kid, aka The Concussion Kid, is going well! Many thanks to those of you who have donated and helped to spread the word. Don’t stop now!
If you need me, I’ll be planning our next misadventures,
Official 2am Addendum:
First of all, 2am is a standard wake time for moi these days. Generally I pee and go back to sleep. Sometimes I don’t. Today, I woke in a sweat with dreams of all the misdeeds I committed in this post. According to WordPress, 27 of you have already viewed, and you’ll never know better. This addendum is for the rest of you… Love, from my dark living room…
Alexsi likes to say that he suffers diarrhea (hear the roll?) of the mouth, with persistent constipation of the brain. Most of my readers would pin that one on me and my typing fingers. Regardless, Alexsi also likes to say that morning is wiser than the evening. Only he usually says it in another language. Anastasia translates for me. That one I can get on board with, even at 2:15 in the morning.
Last night, as the polls were closing in WI, and Top Gun was bearing down on me as a much finer way to wile away my evening than watching election results (I still haven’t looked; I’d like to get back to sleep peacefully), I got all in a twitter and finished up in haste. Here are the revisions I would make right now if I didn’t feel it would cause paranoid delusions in that one guy that re-reads my posts seven times, because he is the only one that truly recognizes my genius. For that guy, some end notes:
- First of all, I feel I should point out that young Evan, the desk attendant at Gunflint who delivered our message to A&A and was treated to a Gunflint history lesson? We got hold of him at 1:45. I kinda made it sound like A&A were sitting by the fire fretting over us all danged day and we thoughtfully brought them into the loop around 9pm as we rolled in for the evening. They were not. We’re not that irresponsible. Please hold your laughter. They were the phone call right after Kevin the tow truck guy.
- In regards to the borrowing of the kiddo’s car, it should be noted that I drove. Someone else in our party was relegated to the passenger’s seat for a while, particularly in the borrowed kid-car. Chagrined.
- I mentioned that Em was coming up for dinner that fateful night. That obviously didn’t happen, what with all the excitement. We did, however, in the midst of our sitting tight, run down to get her for dinner the next night. I also drove then.
- There where I talk about our sainted mechanic, Nate the Great, there is supposed to be a link to some post where I remember talking about how much smother our family trips would be if we toted Nate the Great the mechanic and Dr. John the chiropractor with us. They could bunk in together in the staff tent. Yah, well, I couldn’t find that post then, and I’m certainly not going to look for it now–are you nuts?–but know that it exists, minimally in my mind, and I stand by the brilliance of such a proposal. Nate and John have yet to accept our all-expenses-paid offers.
- There was a pic of Alexsi working on some drawings. I had a side-jog all planned out there, about who this guy is, actually, aside from the guy at the table. About him writing our favorite children’s book, writing and illustrating a bunch of our favorite children’s books, and how we met him years later and took an embarrassing amount of time connecting the dots. That dot-connecting was nearly 15 years ago, long before we found ourselves in a cabin with him and his amazing wife. I was going to link to his website, in case you wanted to own some of those favorite books as well. But I didn’t. So here is the link, and you should go grab yourself a copy of The Miraculous Child. I don’t think many of the links to purchase work anymore, but some of his books are still on Amazon, and with a little help from Google, you can probably find them all. In Grandpa’s Christmas, you might just see a shout out to my three girls on the inside cover.
- That walk we took arm in arm with A&A? It wasn’t in the 7-degree sun. That was the next morning when we hit the road. The day of the venturing out was more like 17. Mysteriously my little degree-symbol shortcut doesn’t work at 2:45 am. I trust you’ll manage.
- In the further-things-you-need-to-know-so-I-can-stop-writing section, I probs shoulda mentioned what a glorious good time we had, incidents and all. It was fantastic to spend time with A&A, and amazing to spend time on our blessed Gunflint in the winter. Scott remarked that morning, before the festivities began in earnest, that we’d already been snowed on in 3 states, and it was still October. Add that to the 2020 bizarro list. Anyway, we’d take that trip again in a heartbeat. We’d just maybe edit out the part where we turned our nose down Clearwater Road in a snowstorm with our rat’s-arse bald tires.
- And finally, the turn-around trip to pick up Em in her own car: Those pictures were unedited. That lake is awe-some. I just wanted to share a little of her grandeur, and couldn’t bring myself to tweak the colors, even though they needed a little tweaking to really show that blue. But for you, Unadulterated, my friend.
OK. I think I can sleep now. As long as I drop the lid on my laptop without a 3am navigation over to the election results…
Love and peace…