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

 

Call us crazy, but we really do drive vehicles onto lakes in Minnesota February 4, 2013

HOW WOULD YOU REACT if you read this warning on a website:

Winsted Lake closed to motor vehicle traffic

Now, if you are a native of say California or Texas, Hawaii or Florida, you might react with an incredulous expression and/or a follow-up question:

What do you mean, motor vehicle traffic on a lake?

But, if you reside say in Wisconsin, the Dakotas or Minnesota, you’d understand motor vehicles on a lake and the ban issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on January 25:

Winsted Lake in McLeod County has been temporarily closed to motor vehicle traffic due to deteriorating ice conditions…

The DNR urges the public to exercise extreme caution if using the lake, especially in the area near the aeration system. Ice thicknesses in that area may be less predictable than in other parts of the lake.

This is expected to be a temporary closure. Once ice thicknesses have stabilized, the lake will be reopened to motor vehicle traffic.

A recent ice fishing scene from Lake Mazaska west of Faribault in Shieldsville.

A recent ice fishing scene from Lake Mazaska west of Faribault in Shieldsville shows a cluster of fish houses and vehicles on the lake.

Yes, in Minnesota we drive cars, trucks and other vehicles onto frozen lakes to access ice fishing houses or open-air fishing spots. Sounds crazy, I know. But ice fishing, in which a hole is drilled into the ice to fish, is a big sport here. For example, some 5,500 fish houses are set up each winter on Mille Lacs Lake, probably our state’s most popular winter fishing destination. Roads are even plowed, bridges placed, across Mille Lacs to allow easier access to houses outfitted with kitchens, beds and other comfy accommodations.

Decades have passed since I ice fished on Roberds and Cannon lakes near Faribault with my husband, in the days before children. We’d fish, drink a little beer, play cards and, maybe, catch a few fish. That was all good and fun, until the first time I heard the ice crack. Let me tell you, that sharp crack and the sudden realization that ice can give way (duh) unsettled me. Not that I stopped ice fishing. But I thought more about the vast cold lake beneath me and how I couldn’t swim, as if swimming would be of any value anyway in icy water.

Those long forgotten worries crossed my mind the other day when my husband and I drove through Shieldsville, past Mazaska Lake where nomad fishermen (and perhaps some women, too) have set up a temporary village on the ice. Randy asked if I wanted to go onto the lake, as in our car. My answer was an emphatic no.

Simply put, I put faith in the DNR’s warning:

There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice.

A slightly different version of the scene above. "What's that, a penguin walking across the lake?" my husband laughed.

A slightly different version of the scene above. “What’s that, a penguin waddling across the lake?” my husband laughed.

HAVE YOU EVER GONE ice fishing? What are your thoughts on the sport and/or driving onto a frozen lake?

FOR ANOTHER TAKE on ice fishing, check out Gretchen O’Donnell’s blog post, “Ice Fishing is for Real,” at A fine day for an epiphany by clicking here.

Or visit Gary Sankary’s humorous Old and in the Way blog to read about ice fishing in Wisconsin in “Blake Lake Report where I ask–What the hell?’ by clicking here. And then follow-up by clicking here to read his second post, “Ice Fishing–Answering the question “why?”, a persuasive “speech” on the merits of fishing on a frozen lake.

Did you know a production crew was in the Mille Lacs Lake area recently filming for a possible truTV show on ice fishing, according to the St. Cloud Times?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling