by David Mather
Small waves lap at my toes as I gaze out onto an inland ocean. The panorama of water before me is the Big Traverse, a vast expanse that is just one part of Lake of the Woods. I'm looking north toward the Northwest Angle, the familiar peak on top of Minnesota's outline. I know from maps that the lake extends far beyond my sight, east and north toward Ontario's twisting channels, islands, and cliffs, and west into Manitoba's large, open bay.
A living remnant of Glacial Lake Agassiz and nearly a million acres in size, Lake of the Woods is larger than Vermilion, Kabetogama, Winnibigoshish, Minnetonka, Mille Lacs, Red, Rainy, Cass, and Leech lakes combined.
This peaceful shore is just a minute's walk from my campsite in Zippel Bay State Park. Purple spreads across the sky and lake, west to north to east, as the sun sinks below the horizon. From a perch down the shore, a bald eagle also looks out to the water. I'm barefoot on a warm September evening, standing on a sugar sand beach. Birds make the only sounds. Other than mine, the only footprints are webbed.
At 2,900 acres, Zippel Bay is a relatively small park between Warroad and Baudette on the southernmost shore of Lake of the Woods. Most park visitors come to fish (about 85 percent, according to assistant park manager Susan Olin). This makes sense, since the park's marina and fishing pier provide public access to a world-famous angling destination. That's why the park was established in 1959.
I'm here on a weekend camping trip to explore this gateway to Lake of the Woods. By boat—or even without, just standing on the beach—Zippel Bay lets me experience a mysterious and historic mighty lake on Minnesota's northern border.
In his 1830 narrative, John Tanner said that the Ojibwe called this place the Lake of the Sand Hills:
"Why it is called 'Lake of the Woods' by the whites I do not know, as there is not much wood about it. Here we were much endangered by high winds, the waves dashing into our canoe so fast that I was scarcely able, with a large kettle, to throw out the water as fast as it came in."
The Ojibwe name aptly describes the lake along the fur trade route of the Rainy River. The river's mouth is flanked by long sand islands and spits that encompass Four Mile Bay and extend farther west past Zippel Bay. The storm Tanner described is not unusual for the Big Traverse, with large waves that pile and move sand along the southern shores. Before the park's stone jetty was built in the 1980s to create a permanent channel, the mouth of Zippel Bay literally moved over time as the beach sands shifted.
The sand hills are still there, along the southern shore. They are a clear contrast with the other wooded shores of the big lake. With nearly 15,000 islands and more than 60,000 miles of shoreline, Lake of the Woods is a mosaic, a dizzying juxtaposition of water and land.
Small congregations of yellow-shafted flickers flush into the trees as I drive along the park road. The flickers flash their white rumps as they fly. I'm looking for a new hiking trail that Olin recommended, one that's not yet shown on the park map. Late afternoon light slants through the birch treetops, speckled green and gold. The trunks are blazing white, often grown up in clumps of six or more trees.
I arrive at the trailhead near the group campground and head off through the trees toward the road to the swimming beach. This grove seems endless, with legions of white trunks continuing past the limits of my view. The bark of some trees is milky and smooth nearly from the base to the crown. On some, gnarled and peeling bark makes me think of a book's tattered pages.
The sound of waves reaches me shortly after leaving the forest. I emerge onto a large beach. Children build sand castles and splash in the water with their parents. The water is inviting on this warm day, and I am glad that the trail follows the beach from here. I wade along the lakeshore, which is now flanked by a sand ridge leading west to the entrance of the bay. The damp sand is marked with the footprints of birds and small animals. Shells are scattered along the waveline and ridge. Some are the discarded meals of shorebirds, with round holes pecked through the center.
Near the jetty, I come to a stone outcrop where Wilhelm Zippel established his commercial fishing station in 1885. A stone foundation marks the former location of the house that doubled as a post office and tripled as a general store. The warehouse and other buildings were in ruins by the 1920s. Zippel left his name for the bay—and a fine spot for a picnic lunch by the channel.
The park marina is getting crowded today. Boats full of fishing tourists from the local resorts line up to dock for shore lunches. Curious anglers pause outside the fish-cleaning house to watch DNR biologists pull fish from gill nets as they work on a long-term study monitoring the health of the Lake of the Woods fishery. Their findings are the basis for fishing regulations in the area.
I work my way through the crowd as fishing guides and their clients prepare for lunch. Like a symphony conductor in a red baseball cap and polarized sunglasses, Tim Lyon sets huge black skillets on propane burners to heat, while his clients chop potatoes, bread gorgeous walleye fillets, open cans of baked beans, and set the table. Lyon doesn't tell me that he's a famous fishing guide who hosted Gov. Pawlenty for the 2004 fishing opener. He just notices me nearby and invites me to lunch. Surprised, I say I'd be an idiot to turn down an offer like that.
"I think so too," says Lyon. "If you said no, we'd have been talking about you all afternoon." This is the first visit to Lake of the Woods for some of Lyon's clients. Others have been fishing here for generations. Today they've been jigging over the reefs, with delicious results.
Walleye fishing on Lake of the Woods has been good lately, following new regulations introduced by the DNR in 2004.
Before that, the annual harvest was averaging about 650,000 pounds, a level which studies indicated was not sustainable. The new rules reduced the daily limit from six to four and created a protected size slot from 19.5 to 28 inches, allowing only one fish over 28 inches in possession. The changes reduced the walleye harvest while preserving the high-quality size structure.
Lyon seems pleased with the results. Nodding toward the biologists in the fish-cleaning house, he says, "I've got to hand it to those guys. The average size [of walleyes] is tremendous. It's just a miracle."
The Rainy River is the main tributary to Lake of the Woods. Zippel Bay sits at the mouth of another tributary farther west, Zippel Creek. Quieter than the Rainy, the bay provides a sheltered home for waterfowl and wild rice. From the confluence of the stream's west and south branches, the creek gently flows northeastward for about a mile into the big lake, with the park's marina near its widest point.
Another day dawns over this inland sea, and I amble over to a resort just south of the park on Zippel Creek to rent a kayak and do some exploring on the water. As I drift along the edge of cattails in the bay, the water appears to boil by a nearby mudflat. I freeze and make eye contact with an otter. Hundreds of coots are rafted on the bay. As I float closer to them, they rise up and run on the water in black, flapping formations, little pale legs sprinting behind little potbellies. They go just far enough for comfort (not far) and settle back to coot business.
The cattails are alive with birds. This part of the park, across the bay from the marina, is only accessible by water. It is mostly marsh, a nesting area for sandhill cranes. I paddle toward the jetty, starting out with swift strokes. I didn't know if I would venture out into the big water, but now that I'm here there's no question. I just have to go. The gallery of gulls, cormorants, and pelicans on the stone jetty is familiar with the regular passage of motorboats, but they don't know what to make of me. I paddle into the Big Traverse behind a squawking cloud and head northwest along the beach, until I reach the ruins of an old, wooden jetty. It's a vestige from Wilhelm Zippel's era and the bygone heyday of commercial fishing on Lake of the Woods 120 years ago.
Huge lake sturgeon were plentiful then. Most early commercial fishing stations had caviar factories, making use of the sturgeon eggs. Tragically, many of the giant fish themselves were discarded. Some were burned like cordwood to power steamboats.
If the commercial fishermen thought the sturgeon were inexhaustible, however, they were sadly mistaken. Lake of the Woods sturgeon were nearly extinct by 1910. A century later the population is much improved but has yet to fully recover. During the decades after sturgeon declined, the commercial catch shifted to whitefish, tullibee, and walleyes. Commercial fishing for sport fish in American waters ended in 1985, though commercial fishing remains legal for some fish such as sucker and burbot.
Today the big lake is still popular among anglers. Bobbing in the small waves, I look out toward a distant armada of fishing boats. I stop counting at 40.
Being out in the big water a bit makes me want to go out farther, and so I catch a boat ride with park manager Doug Easthouse. He's headed out to Garden Island State Recreation Area, a park unit 21 miles north out in the lake. Aboard his boat, we pass a great egret at the head of the channel, near the old town site. We enter the Big Traverse and set a course due north to Garden Island. Even on this bright, clear day, there's nothing visible out there but water.
Islands start to appear as we travel through the Northwest Angle, most of them to the east in Ontario. Garden Island is dead ahead. We circle around to the north shore and moor at one of the docks. John Tanner lived on this island for a time with his Ojibwe relatives. Lake of the Woods has had many chroniclers, but Tanner was perhaps the most unusual. Captured as a child by Shawnee Indians from his family's Kentucky farm, he was eventually adopted by an Odawa (Ottawa) woman near Lake Huron. During his adult life, he married into an Ojibwe family and lived in the Lake of the Woods region in the early 1800s. He rejoined white society for a brief period to be a translator at the Indian agency for the fur trade at Sault Ste. Marie, just long enough for his life story to be written, but he soon returned to the wilderness. His life after that is unknown, because he was never heard from again.
Tanner's Indian name was Shaw-Shaw-Wa Be-Na-Se, which translates as The Falcon. Easthouse docks his boat on Garden Island in Falcon Bay. When Tanner and his family lived here, they cleared fields and planted corn in the spring after making maple sugar. Then the families gathered and dried blueberries. After that it was time to gather wild rice, and then time to harvest the corn. Most of this food was stored against hunger in the winter and spring.
Life could be hard at Me-naw-zhe-tau-naung, the village on Garden Island. Tanner returned one spring to find the village starving and his child dying of measles. In the Ojibwe tradition, he prayed for a medicine hunt. That night, he dreamt of a young man who showed him "many ducks covering the surface of the water, and in another place a sturgeon, in a third a reindeer." The next day he found and killed these animals and considered the dream fulfilled.
Boats are docking for shore lunch as we pass the emergency shelter, which provides refuge for stranded boaters and snowmobilers. One of the anglers cools off with a swim. As we walk along the shore, Easthouse points out a cast-iron ice chipper partly buried in sand. He's rescued it from the water several times, as the shoreline erodes, because it's part of the island's history, an important artifact and one of the last remnants of the former commercial fishing station here. I graze as we walk, on wild grapes, strawberries, and peas. There's no way to know if these foods are descended from the plantings of Tanner and his family, but Garden Island is still a garden.
Next we land on Babe Island, northeast of Garden Island and on the international boundary. We climb up a rock face to find a thriving patch of brittle prickly pear cactus. It is shocking to find a cactus in the north woods, but as it turns out, this isn't the same species that grows in Arizona. Brittle prickly pear grows throughout western North America and has the greatest freezing tolerance of any known cactus. This colony of prickly pears makes a go of it on this remote, wind-blasted island where winter temperatures can drop to minus 40 F. As Tanner and the commercial anglers of the 19th century found out, one must be a hardy soul to live out beyond the Big Traverse.
Back at my campsite that evening, stars peek through the forest canopy after my campfire has burned out. I am drawn back to "my" beach for a better view. Once my headlamp is off my eyes adjust to a world of black and gray. The water of the Big Traverse is glass, faintly luminous, reflecting the blanket of the Milky Way. There is no moon. Shooting stars streak across the sky. The longer I stand, the more the heavens open. A nebula faintly twinkles above the horizon to the northeast. Frequent splashes break the silence, telling me that there's lots of activity under the smooth surface of the lake.
There appears to be a forested island in the near distance, shrouded in mist. It looks so real that at first I don't question it. But as I've seen in the daylight, this part of the lake is wide open. As I remind myself that it's not really there, the northern lights rise up from its center in columns of white, reaching into the sky.
A lifetime may not be enough to fully experience Lake of the Woods. I want to explore more, here among the sand hills and out beyond the horizon. But I've seen a lot in my short visit. Right here, at this moment, I'm just glad that I lingered at the gateway.