Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time November 28, 2017

Near shore, a seagull wings across Mille Lacs Lake, water and sky melding in vastness.


AT MY REQUEST, Randy and I took an indirect route from Faribault to Brainerd on a mid-September Up North vacation. I wanted to see Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake covering some 200 square miles. It just didn’t seem right that, as a life-long Minnesotan, I’d never viewed this expansive body of water.

As a native of the landlocked prairie, my youthful exposure to Minnesota’s lakes included occasional fishing for bullheads, swimming in Cottonwood Lake once a year and a trip at age four to Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior. When you grow up on a dairy farm, there are few vacations; mine during childhood totaled two.


Tethered along Mille Lacs.


Without the typical Minnesota background of going up to the lake on weekends, of boating and swimming and fishing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I was eager to see Mille Lacs. I’ve heard so much about the lake, especially in recent years given the controversial restrictions on walleye fishing.


My first view of Mille Lacs Lake.


Our route took us along US Highway 169 along Mille Lacs and into Garrison.


I focused on a nearby shoreline until I mentally adjusted to the size of Mille Lacs Lake.


My first glimpse of Mille Lacs from U.S. Highway 169 presented no surprises. It was as I expected—a visual vastness of blue. As our van rounded into Garrison, the view opened and I anchored my eyes to the nearby shoreline. Until I adjust, I find the initial infinity of such large lakes a bit unsettling.


The concourse provides a lovely view of Mille Lacs. But there’s seagull poop everywhere.


Soon we pulled off Highway 169 and into the Garrison Concourse, a roadside scenic overlook built between 1936- 1939 by the then Minnesota Department of Highways and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On the National Register of Historic Places, this space features a rock retaining wall that, while impressive, was also unappealing for all the dried seagull poop streaking the wall, benches, sidewalk and pavement. I had no desire to sit here, linger and enjoy the view.



So I focused my attention on the 15-foot fiberglass walleye statue, built in 1980 for a local parade, and now a kitschy roadside attraction for a town that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World (along with Baudette and several out-of-state locations).





An oversized walleye couldn’t just land here on its own. A sign posted on the statue base, next to the one that warns to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE THANK YOU, credits legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan for the trophy catch. You gotta appreciate a good story.



Randy and I did the typical tourist thing and posed for selfies next to the mega walleye.



If not for my observant husband, I would have missed another attraction—a small stone marker honoring William A. Tauer, a local hotel owner who drowned while trying to save boaters during a June 10, 1927, storm on Mille Lacs Lake. Engraving credits THE PEOPLE OF MORGAN, MINN for the memorial marker. That drew my interest. Morgan sits some 175 miles away to the southwest in my home county of Redwood. Later online research revealed little more. I expect William grew up in Morgan, where the Tauer surname is still common. I’d like to know more.



All in all, the overwhelming size of Mille Lacs impressed me. But not enough that I need to return. My disappointment came in the sense of—there’s the lake, now what? Perhaps further exploration beyond just this area by Garrison would change my perspective. Or, as others suggested, a return in the winter to see the thousands of fish houses on the frozen lake would impress me.



I have no desire to board a boat in a body of water this large. Randy has done so and I’ve heard his seasick stories. Nor do I desire to fish here in the winter when the ice cracks and anglers have been stranded on ice floes.




Still, I enjoyed the view and the iconic walleye. I can now say, “I’ve been to Mille Lacs.” But I can’t say, “I’ve patronized the Blue Goose.” The iconic restaurant and bar, my husband noted and lamented, is gone.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


15 Responses to “When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Best picture —- the selfie! Love it! What a great trip for you and aside from the bird poo it is simply beautiful. Those wide expanses of blue pull me in. I am not necessarily an “on the water” kind of gal but I do love being by it. I have had my share of boat rides and now and then even go out in the canoe on our lake here but a seat by the water side is my favorite place. Chris and I sat out on the dock on Sunday afternoon reading and I told him this was my second favorite happy place with the first being any beach. 🙂 Glad that you enjoyed the big walleye —great photo opportunity there and I am glad you and Randy took it.

  2. Kiandra Judge Says:

    Our family cabin in on Mille Lacs and my husband, son and I actually lived there this whole past summer in Isle which is on the southeast corner of the lake. It has absolutely beautiful sunsets every clear evening and fun community events. There is a wonderful sandy beach on the north side that is shallow for about 50 feet, perfect for little ones to play in! By the casino is the Mille Lacs Indian Musuem and Trading Post which has a wonderful Pow-Wow every Memorial Day. Also an interesting history on the lake as gangsters during the 1920’s stayed at places like the Blue Goose, but also in other resorts including our cabin! Our cabin is a part of an association that was a resort from the 20’s to the 70’s and then was sold to individual owners. The “big” cabin in our association was the lodge at onr point and still has the original bar which, rumor has it, would lower into the lower level when the cops would come though during prohibition. It’s also a beloved lake for me as my grandmother, who passed away before I was born, stayed on Mille Lacs at the Rocky Reef which is still on operation on the west side. If you come up to Mille Lacs again, stop in to see us in cabin #3 in Wolf’s Isle Harbour Association!

  3. Littlesundog Says:

    I love the selfie! A second side selfie with your mouths agape, like that of the giant fish, would have been a great pose too! Ha ha! A good friend of mine in Nebraska fished Mille Lacs a couple of times a year (and fished for walleye in Nebraska too nearly every weekend except for winter months). He was such a fanatic about walleye fishing, that it was a big reason for his eventual divorce. I love to fish, but I cannot say I am ate up over any particular type of fish.

    What a great little trip for you and Randy. Forrest and I are daytrip (or weekend) people. There’s something to take in no matter what direction you head!

    • We are inexperienced with selfies, so didn’t even think of your mouth agape option. That would have been fun.

      I can see where a fishing obsession could lead to marital strife. There needs to be a balance.

      We’re all about affordable day trips and mini trips.

  4. Almost Iowa Says:

    The photos of the walleye were great. I don’t know what it is but every time my wife sees a big plastic sculpture, she makes me pose in front of it. 🙂

  5. Jackie Says:

    Well there you go, now you’ve seen it 🙂 I too enjoyed the selfie of you and Randy, now you’ll have to get yourself a “selfie stick”, much easier to take selfies, ha. I love the story of how Paul Bunyan and Babe caught that Walleye. Certainly big enough to believe!

  6. Rick S. Says:

    If you get there again, I recommend the Mille Lacs Museum – Trading Post.


  7. Beautiful pictures. 200 miles? It should be considered one of the Great Lakes

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