RETURN TO ITASCA
Written Fall Semester 2000
By Tom Cole

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Thomas Wolfe said you can't go back, but he was wrong. I know that he was wrong because I myself have gone back to Lake Itasca in Minnesota twice and it worked out just fine.

I found that nothing had changed when I returned. Everything was exactly as I remembered it and exactly as I left it with each stone on the shore and each trail in the woods and each turn in the stream perfectly in place just as it was 20 years and even 35 years before. And what's more, I was grandfathered in — I still owned the place and no one stepped up to dispute the claim. No one wanted to, and quite possibly no one dared.

My father was a limnologist — an aquatic biologist — who was hired every year to teach at the University of Minnesota's biological station in Itasca State Park. Because of this, I spent my summers on Lake Itasca, a big, pristine tree-lined waterworld of bass and walleyes, where the days were long and lazy and the living was just plain fat.

Itasca is no phony lake with its population of bass and bream carefully managed like the carp and catfish in a Texas stock tank. No, Itasca is a real lake with its own breeding schools of everything from ciscos to sticklebacks to northern pike like sleek maurading hounds.

Itasca is mostly a sun-drenched pool of azure, but it can also be a windy expanse of gray waves leaping high and frothing white. And when a thunderstorm rolls over the lake, the lightning creates a constant, even strobe that makes people walking around look as though they were at a 1960s acid rock concert. If the wind really kicks up, trees as big as California's giant sequoia, "the General Sherman" topple around the lake and across the single park road. In the morning, I have seen the rangers with big power saws cutting up the trees so that cars can get through. But as I said, Itasca is mostly a sunny, mild place perfect for anybody's summer.

FIRST RETURN 1987
A NEW GREEN VAN, EAGLES NEST, CHEYENNE, LUSK, BRANCHES, THE LONELY PLAINS, CLEMENTINE, THE CENTER OF THE CONTINENT

In the summer of 1987 it occurred to me that I had not been back to Itasca in better than twenty years. I pitched in with my brother Steve and bought a gigantic ice cream green Ford Van and set out one day to retrace the old trips north, relive a little of the past, and do some fishing.

We recorded everything on the trip. The van got 16.3 miles per gallon. (God, it was a beautiful machine.) Our total mileage was 4,305 miles, the KOA in Nebraska cost eleven dollars, I read Space Prison by Tom Godwin, we crossed the meandering Platte River four times while driving in the same direction.

We stayed off the interstate for much of the trip and were able to see real places with real personalities instead of the freeway fringe of tract housing and the like. The small towns on the road to Itasca interested me. I'd try to imagine living in such places and I'd wonder what it would be like to have my horizons dragged in so much closer by living in, say, Eagles Nest, a tiny town on a big lake between Taos and Raton.

The trip to Itasca is full of the images of the towns along the way. Cheyenne must be the smallest capital of any state. It sure looked small to me anyway. It rests on the dreary, rather shaggy western plains — what is left of the great prairie frontier. We drove from there on to Chugwater, Shawnee, Lost Springs, Keeline, and Lusk. I was especially taken by Lusk because it was so clean and neat, and small though it was, it had its own historical museum. What's more, just outside of town, it had branches — those yard-wide streams, three feet deep that wander through boggy meadows. I always used to think of Vermont when I thought of branches because my mom used to fish in them there.  I had also once heard of a folk recipe for a mixed drink of some kind that called specifically for branch water. No other type of water would do.

As you drive deeper and deeper into the center of the continent, a loneliness creeps up on you. I attribute much of the feeling to the openness of the plains, the emptiness. As a very young child I remember looking out the windows of the family station wagon to see a few old abandoned houses standing out on the plains a hundred, two hundred miles from anywhere and feeling a overwhelming sense of sadness and despair. Who could have lived in such places and how could they have stood it? For some reason, a line from the song "Clementine" would always come to me at such sights. When I was a child, they were the saddest words I knew: You are lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry.....

In 1987 I felt the weight of the continent heavy upon me as we drove further toward its center. But it didn't depress me in the slightest. This time it was just one more interesting aspect of traveling north — back to Itasca.

SECOND RETURN 2000

THE PERFECT VACATION, SONNY, NIGHT DRIVING, BASTARDS WITH BRIGHT LIGHTS, MONSTER MUSIC

I've got a new system for a trim but perfect vacation. Plan it for five days. That's the secret.  Look, you've got a day of traveling there and one back and then three solid days and four solid nights to do what you set out to do. It's perfect. It's what my brother and I did on our second return to Itasca in the summer of the year 2000. And this time we brought Sonny, Steve's 9-year-old son, a precocious, rambunctious towhead.

Naturally we didn't drive; Minnesota would be too far away to fit the five-day schedule. We flew to Minneapolis on an Air Bus, a European 737 knock-off that rattled and groaned the whole way and yawed quite frighteningly on take-off and landing. My brother kept yelling, "Top rudder! Put some top rudder on it!"

When we got to Minneapolis, we rented a car. In front of us we had a road trip of better than 250 miles to get to Itasca.  Since the plane landed in the late afternoon, that meant night driving, which I hate.

Two-lane night driving sometimes seems to me like something out of the past. It's a forties or fifties-ish kind of endeavor when everyone used to risk their necks more than they do today on crummy two-lane roads and no one thought twice about having no seat belt or driving at night in the rain. I'd forgotten what it was like. Here's exactly what happens:

I
"Oh, that bastard! That bastard won't dim his lights. Well, I'll flash my brights to let him know. Ah, he dimmed them. Thank you — jerk. I'm half blinded, you dumb bastard.......
II
"Oh, another bastard! Another bastard who won't dim his lights. I'll flash my brights. Oh, he flashed his brights back at me— aagg! My eyes! His headlights were ALREADY dimmed! Well your dims are too damned bright, you dumb bastard. Get 'em fixed........
III
"Hey, who's this bastard? He's flashing his brights at ME! My brights aren't on, you dumb bastard. You want to see brights? Well, here they are! Hey, they dimmed! My brights were on! SORRY! SORRY!"

Sonny sat in the back seat and it was my job to play the blaring tapes he wanted to hear on the cassette machine on the dash. The tapes were out-of-season Halloween monster tunes with Elvira and other grade B performers singing. They posed a safety hazard, as they were driving  me crazy. I seemed immersed in a world of roaring darkness punctuated by the occasional blinding flashes from the headlights of oncoming cars, but Steve talked me into letting Sonny play his tapes anyway.

I drove clean to Bemidji passing through a thousand small towns on the way and seeing little more of them than what the headlights revealed at the side of the road.

FIRST RETURN 1987

GERMAN BROWNS AND PARK BENCHES, ROOSTER TAILS DRAGGED WITH THE CURRENT, POLISHED WRITING, FREE CAMPING, MID CONTINENTAL SUNSET, FISHING AT OAHE DAM, MOONEYES, WALLEYES, WE GET SKUNKED!

Steve and I pulled our new van into Spearfish, South Dakota on June 9, 1987. Spearfish is a nice university town with a trout stream that runs around and through it. You can fish for German browns from half of the city park benches in Spearfish . We caught a few good ones by casting Rooster Tail brand spinners upstream and reeling them back. (If you know anything, you don't cast downstream when you're fishing in a fast-moving brook. The rushing water will make your spinner spin like crazy as you reel it in, but no self respecting trout will believe anything natural is moving against the current that way. And he would have to beat the current himself to go after it.)

As I mentioned, we kept copious notes in a journal during the trip and some of the entries suggest that we had plenty of leisure time to polish the writing. For example, on June 9, 1987 I wrote:
 

After looking over the town of Belle Fourche and its big, icky fishless reservoir, my associate Stephen and I decided to revisit Spearfish, South Dakota and perhaps inquire of the local residents what lodgings could be procured. Being possessed of shy demeanor and seeing as we did that such questioning might be a bit intrusive and of an unseemly character and, indeed, of questionable intent, Stephen and I deigned to spare our northern countrymen the vexation planned earlier and instead consulted — both of us — with considerable concerned interest the literature supplied us by the tourism department in hopes that we might independently acquire the needed information that would enable us — if only briefly— to enjoy the campground facilities available locally. We were even willing to pay.

In one of our pamphlets was mentioned a campground facility near the fishing stream in town, and Stephen, having read and relayed this information to me, was very keen on going there at once while at the same time seeming most mightily interested in our arriving there without delay and being, in addition, not a little anxious to be off quickly.

Instead, however, we left Spearfish and spent the night in Pierre, where there was free camping on the Missouri River. (Did I say that Cheyenne was the smallest state capital in the US? Perhaps it is Pierre.) There were black rain clouds in the late afternoon and a big sky filled with pink — almost like an Arizona sunset.

In the morning, we drove the van a couple of miles to Fort Pierre, where we tried to catch some fish in the tailrace waters of Oahe Dam. Many years ago Steve had caught a pair of mooneyes there. Mooneyes are eerie-looking giant minnows with huge yellow, owlish eyes. This was also the same spot where I caught the first fish that I ever caught on a lure. I still have the lure and the fish's jaws. It was a walleyed pike. This time, however, we got skunked, but we didn't mind very much because we had a lot of fun just trying to catch fish and we knew we would do better at Itasca.

SECOND RETURN 2000
SUPER 8, MOTEL 6, BEMIDJI, HOMES ON THE LAKE, "THE WILLOW POPPER," THE JITTERBUG, SONNY CATCHES A LARGEMOUTH BASS

Bemidji is a half hour north of Itasca and it irked us to have to stay there and commute to the park, but we had little choice; it was the Fourth of July weekend and the Douglas Lodge, a wonderful rustic hotel right on Lake Itasca, was booked solid. For a long time,I had had the dream of staying there. Steve instead had reserved us a room in the Super 8 in Bemidji, but we had a bit of trouble finding it because the bonehead kept calling it a Motel 6 of which there aren't any in Bemidji.

It was late when we arrived there but there were lots of young people walking around town. A loud rock 'n' roll band was playing on the side of the road. Bemidji is a university town on the wild, giant lake of the same name. In the 60s, I remember Lake Bemidji being full of sea planes, but on this trip we saw none.

The next morning, we took a wrong turn on the way out and we had to drive through some neighborhoods. We saw that many people had the shore of Lake Bemidji right in their backyards. In a land of 10,000 lakes this kind of thing is not unusual.

I had made a list of the places I wanted to see again and the things I wanted to do. First of all, I wanted to go down to the dock at the Douglas Lodge. More than 35 years before, I had stood there and watched an obnoxious youth about my age talk about his "Willow Popper."

"Look at that big sunfish," he said. "I'll just put my brand new Willow Popper over near him and he'll see the Willow Popper, and he'll want the Willow Popper, and he'll bite the Willow Popper!"

Willow Popper this, Willow Popper that. I thought the kid must have been a brain dead; the Willow Popper was bigger than the stupid fish. Later, I learned that I had misheard; the lure was called a Hula Popper and as I became more experienced with fishing, I grew to like the Hula Popper even less. I had my reasons. However, the same company also manufactured the Jitterbug , which I believe is the finest topwater lure ever made. Before the trip I bought a brand new one and now in the bright sunlight of the year 2000 Sonny came up to me on the dock and said, "Tom, can I borrow your Jitterbug?"

"Sure you can, Sugar Bunny," I replied.

It was a public dock with people around and there wasn't much chance of catching anything, but he could give it a try. You never know in Minnesota, and you never know with a Jitterbug.

Steve helped Sonny fasten the lure to the line and gave him instructions. "Just walk it along in front of those lily pads."
A five-pound largemouth bass suddenly appeared from out of the dark watery shadows beneath the Jitterbug, opened its mouth and, inhaled the lure.

The fight was on.

"Don't horse him!" Steve warned. "Whatever you do, don't horse him!"

Sonny horsed the fish up to the dock as Steve threw himself halfway over the boards, grabbed the bass by the lower jaw, and hauled him out of the water. From that moment on, Sonny wore a huge smile that was kept alive by the fact that he continued to outfish both of us consistently throughout the entire trip.

FIRST RETURN 1987
PERCH-COLORED LAZY IKE, THE DEEP DIVIN' JESUS, A FISHER FOR CHRIST AND A LETTER TO EXACT VENGEANCE AND REDRESS, BIG NORTHERNS, OLAF'S, FREE 3.2 BEER, FREE CAMPING, NAGGING TWELFTH MAGNITUDE HANGOVERS, RACCOONS EAT OUR PIKE

The van ran like a dream to Fargo/Moorhead and onward to Park Rapids and Itasca. We rented a rowboat when we got there, put Steve's Gamefisher 1.5-horse outboard on it, and started trolling. Steve used a perch-colored Lazy Ike. It was an exact replica of the lure he used as a kid to massacre — I said MASSACRE the walleyes at Itasca. (The original lure is retired and in Steve's archival tackle box at home.)

I used a lure we called the Deep-diving Jesus. We called it that because before the trip Steve bought a fishing lure and when he opened the package there was printed material in there from one Samuel Tyler, Company President urging him to be a "Fisher for Christ." Steve got mad at the proselytizing, which he had every right to do; he'd bought the lure in good faith trusting there would be no strings attached and having been raised, as I was, in a family of pretty devout atheists, he felt the insult perhaps a bit more deeply than others might and believed that redress and restitution were justified and would be exacted at once. He quickly dashed off the following letter:
 

Dear Mr. Tyler:

I just bought one of your deep diving plugs. On the very first cast, a fish hit it and broke off the plastic diving lip. This fish was only a small bluegill. As a fellow Christian, how's about a new lure?

Yours in Christ,

Hank Johnson

Steve and I always use the Hank Johnson alias whenever we get up to such shenanigans. Anyway, a few short days later a brand spanking new lure sporting first class postage arrived at Steve's house and we both knew we had a winner — a lure that was surely supercharged with good luck and which we felt blessed to have so fortuitously acquired.
 
 

The lure did indeed seem bestowed with grace and good fortune. I hooked a gigantic northern pike on it and added it to the stringer with the fish that Steve had caught on his Lazy Ike. Here's a picture of the fish we caught. That's me holding up the stringer. The big fish in front was caught on the Deep-divin' Jesus.

                                                 First Return to Itasca 1987, Hefty Northerns

It was a great day of fishing and afterwards I drove us to Olaf's, the old local bar that all the biologists used to frequent. Now, Steve and I were on the wagon and I had been something of a jogging health nut for some time. The nostalgia, however, was a huge temptation (as most anything is when it is time to fall off the wagon) and so we saddled up to the bar and ordered a couple of frosty 3.2's to toast our success. Yes, this part of Minnesota only served 3.2 beer, but believe me you can get pretty schnockered on it as we were soon to learn.

Olaf had sold the joint a few years earlier and the guy running the bar didn't even want to be there. He himself had sold the place a year ago but part of the contract said he'd have to take it back if the buyer couldn't make a go of it. The buyer flaked out and now the poor guy was back behind the counter with a whimsical expression on his face and a distinct feeling of deja vϊ as he listened to endless drunks blabbing on and on day in and day out about walleyes and women and trucks.  Hey, who says you can't go back?

On this day he decided not even to charge for the beer and so all you had to do was say, "Fill her up!" and he would. To this day I do not understand his action. I do know that everyone drank until last call and no one paid a dime for anything. Nor left a tip neither.

Steve and I pedaled the van back to the campground and as it was late in the evening the station was closed and there was no one to collect our fee. We awoke with nagging twelfth magnitude hangovers and found that the raccoons had raided our cooler and eaten all of the pike. They lay stripped and boned behind the van. I didn't care, of course. What were we doing carting those slimy pike around anyway?

We packed up and left the campground as early as we could so the ranger wouldn't be there to collect our fee on the way out. This may seem dishonest; it is not. We were grandfathered in — grandfathered, see? and Steve and I were not about to argue the point with anybody or pay for the privilege of staying in our own place.

SECOND RETURN 2000
PISS POT VISTA, THE CULVERT, SONNY CATCHES CRAPPIES AND A ROCK BASS, THE TEN-FOOT LOG, CIVIL RIGHTS WORKERS

There were other sights on my list that I wanted to see. One was Peace Pipe Vista , a gorgeous overlook of Lake Itasca surrounded by tall white pines. I made the mistake of calling it "Piss Pot Vista," a term that Sonny would repeat every two minutes for the remainder of the trip.

We also had to visit the culvert , a pipe through which the entire Mississippi flowed into a beautiful, fishy pool at the end of which the river continued lazily onward until it turned out of sight to continue through places unknown and mysterious to me.

We went down to the pool and Sonny hooked and landed two black crappies and a strapping red-eyed rock bass. I caught a pike. I always felt that this was the perfect fishing pool as it was possible to catch anything -- anything at all-- in it.
Upstream are the headwaters of the Mississippi. Before the trip I had come across a picture of my parents newly married I guessed, standing at the headwaters. They lived in Minneapolis at the time and must have driven up.

On this trip, Sonny stood at the same headwaters and cast a little spinner out to catch creek chubs, plumpish sucker-mouthed minnows. At the headwaters is a ten-foot log standing on end. On it is carved the following:

HERE 1475 FT
ABOVE
THE OCEAN
THE MIGHTY
MISSISSIPPI
BEGINS
TO FLOW
ON ITS
WINDING WAY
2552 MILES
TO THE
GULF
OF MEXICO

The log brought back memories because in the 1960s my friends and I committed a small act of vandalism that resulted in a strange twist for me. Late one night, we walked through the woods from the biology station all the way to the headwaters and pushed the log over. The next day we knew the rangers would just set it back up -- but I was still a little nervous about the crime when I got up and went to breakfast. My father sat at the table with me and picked up the morning paper.

"Hmm," he said, looking at the front page. "It looks like there's been some dirty work down in Mississippi."

Holy cow! I thought. It's in the paper? Already? I soon learned, however, that my father was not talking about the Mississippi River. He was reading about the young civil rights workers who were murdered by those redneck cops down in the state of Mississippi.

Although it was the Fourth of July weekend we only had to wait an hour to rent a boat and motor. Minnesota is simply not a very crowded place. We trolled over to the biology station and stopped at the docks. Two professors with Arizona connections were there and both knew my parents. We talked to them and swapped 30-year-old names. They knew most everyone we did. "Oh, Jim Underhill isn't doing too well," one of them said.

We hung around for some time at the docks where I had spent so many happy times fishing. Eastern kingbirds fluttered out across the water catching insects. I'd forgotten all about them. They seemed strangely gaudy with that touch of red and the white fancy-- almost lacy-- border at the end of the tail. One perched on a water craft that we immediately called the Tom Poon II. The original Tom Poon was christened in the 1960s by one of the faculty children who couldn't pronounce "pontoon." The name Tom Poon was not painted on the side as before and it didn't seem to be the same craft, so that's why called it the Tom Poon II.

I heard a white-throated sparrow in the trees behind the dock and suddenly wanted to do some decent bird watching, but Steve and Sonny were there to fish so we went trolling again instead. We trolled all three days and Sonny caught pike after pike and said, "Eat my dust, you guys!" every time he got one.

We went to the Douglas Lodge to eat and oh what vittles they served! The place smelled somehow like pipe tobacco and cedar. I liked everything about the Douglas Lodge. They even served a nice hoppy Summit Pale Ale. (No 3.2 beer this!) We asked again about rooms and to our surprise learned that there was a vacancy. We immediately drove 30 miles back to Bemidji and checked out of the Super 8. My dream of staying at the Douglas Lodge had come true.

At the Douglas Lodge gift shop we mentioned that we were from Arizona, the woman there said, "Oh, you're the Coles!" She had not seen us in 30 years, but for some reason remembered us. She had lived on the biology station because her father was on the staff and ran the daily operations there. "I never left home, as you can see," she said.

That night, I walked by our part of cabin #1 and saw next to it a room with someone seated in an overstuffed chair reading. I though at first that it was the office, but suddenly I realized that this was an actual reading room. The light shone yellow through the windows and screen door and there was a fireplace and a couch or two inside. This I knew was a low key place torn from the past and I also knew that the perfect book to read there would be one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' or Jack London's adventures -- in hardback, of course-- one of those Grosset and Dunlap books. If you've ever read one, you know that at the end of each is a page that informs you of the following:

There is a Grosset & Dunlap Book for every mood and for every taste.
 
 

FIRST RETURN 1987
THE LUNATIC AT THE PIANO, LEAVING NEBRASKA, A BLOODY WRECK

Steve and I did all we wanted to do in a few days, hopped back in our van and headed home. The trip back had its moments. For instance, in the lobby of a KOA campground in Nebraska was a piano. I sat down and really started banging those horse teeth. I played "Sophisticated Lady" and "The Lullaby of the Leaves" and "Old Man River" and "Willow Weep for Me." Then I played "Danny Boy" and "Martha my Dear" and "Body and Soul." I was having a great time. Soon, however, I noticed that no one in the lobby smiled. No one came over to listen or make a request. In fact, people began to leave the room. Then I noticed a sign -- a rather large one, and it was right on the piano music stand directly in front of my nose. It read:

THIS PIANO IS PRIVATE PROPERTY AND NOT FOR PUBLIC USE. ANYONE WHO PLAYS IT
WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE THE CAMPGROUND.
Then I understood the people's reaction. They saw me as a willful, brass-balled lawbreaker who could give a damn about the sign or anything else. Possibly they reasoned, I was a dangerous lunatic. I, in turn, reasoned that a dangerous lunatic who plays the piano must be even scarier than your regular garden variety dangerous lunatic -- kind of the way a sociopath wearing a clown's suit is more frightening by far than a sociopath in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I decided to stop my performance after that first set and left the lobby humming the Broadway show tunes that I never got the chance to play.

There is little else to note here regarding the trip back in 1987 except to say that I learned that driving out of Nebraska is better than driving into it and that on the way back there was a horrible bloody fatality on a lonely stretch of highway in Northern Arizona, the sight of which haunted me for days and weeks afterward.

SECOND RETURN 2000
MOSQUITOES, DEER FLIES, PRIME RIB, 20 TO 1 RATIO, ANOTHER HEADWATERS, SCHOOLCRAFT ISLAND, SERVICE ROADS
The year 2000 return to Itasca was as perfect a trip as I have ever made. We hardly fought or argued. There were virtually no mosquitoes or deer flies -- only wonderfully magical and mysterious fireflies. The weather was sublime. I treated myself to prime rib and endless pale ales and stuffed myself at the lodge with breakfasts of sausage and bacon and ham and eggs over hard and hash browns that contained more butter than potato. We got up early each morning to listen to the loons.

Steve and Sonny agreed to follow my list of places to go and things to do. There were a few lakes on the list and since one in twenty acres of Minnesota is water, there's no great premium on such places and you get the lake to yourself half the time. We went to Squaw Lake, the site of wonderful fishing memories for Steve and me. We went to Elk Lake, whose waters rush into Itasca and so make you suspect that you have found the true headwaters of the Mississippi. (The scientists say no, but still I wonder.) We looked over Lake Mary, too.

As planned on my To Do List, we landed our boat on Itasca's Schoolcraft Island and climbed up its banks through the poison ivy to a forest floor ten or fifteen feet above the level of the lake. There, I was lucky enough to see a red-eyed vireo as we explored the jungly woods on the island. When we got back in the boat, a giant pileated woodpecker flew overhead across the lake and into the trees on the faraway east shore.
 
 

We even took the time to walk down the lonely and overgrown service roads in the park as we used to do, and there I saw high in the trees a chestnut-sided warbler.With that, we had exhausted the list and were content to get up early, listen to the loons crying across the lake, and finally drive back to Minneapolis where we hopped on the jet and were home before we knew it.

I know now that I have done away with 20 and 30-year absences from Itasca. The five-day plan makes the trip manageable without eating up the rest of whatever vacation you might have and I have resolved that from now on I will return to Itasca every three years or so. You really can go back, you know.

 
 

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