We just got back to the county after a lovely vacation and were surprised by the dramatic advance of spring weather during the last week. When we left, our driveways and paths were treacherous sheets of ice and the snow gauge stood at 23 inches. Now, just a short week later, the snow gauge is down to 6 inches, the roofs are almost free of snow and the lakes are looking unsafe for travel.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is warning us of major construction this season on Highway 1, the road that runs from Illgen City to Ely. Highway 1 is a famous stretch of American road, known for its tight turns, abrupt hills and remote, forest scenery and wildlife. It is also infamous for accidents, which is why it is being reconstructed. The engineering plan is to make the road safe, but retain as much of it’s winding, rolling personality as possible. Hopefully, Highway 1 will remain the attraction for motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts that it’s been in the past. I have often ridden my motorcycle up to Ely. Last year, we stayed at the Ely Motel and the owner told me that he has many customers who come from all over the country to ride or drive on Highway 1.
There is always some nostalgia that arises when progress moves forward, even when it is for clear-cut safety reasons. The demise of quirky old Highway 1 got me to thinking about a canoe trip that my family took back in the late ‘50s. We decided to start the trip at Seagull Lake and instead of taking the Sawbill Trail back to Tofte and then up to Grand Marais, we drove across The Grade from the old Sawbill CCC Camp to the Ball Club Road and on to the Gunflint Trail from there. In those days, The Grade was literally and old railroad grade with the rails and ties removed. It received so little traffic that the alder brush had grown in thickly and dragged roughly along the sides of what would be today be called a Sport Utility Vehicle, but in those days was called a Carry-All.
The roadbed was very rough and consisted of coarse fill rather than crushed gravel. Parts of the road were swampy and flooded – deep enough that we worried about water getting into the engine carburetor. Our speed seemed to be just a hair faster than walking and several times we had to get out and clear downed trees. We had to keep a sharp eye out for stray railroad spikes that were left lying around when the rails were pulled up. Sure enough, we picked up a spike in one of our tires. As my dad changed the tire, we worried about getting another flat and being stranded along a road with virtually zero traffic. We had all our camping gear and food for a week, but as a young kid, I was terrified that we’d end up camping far from where my fishing pole could be put to good use. It took us about four hours, but we finally made it to the Gunflint Trail with the only damage being thousands of light scratches in the carry-alls paint.
The Gunflint seemed like a major highway compared to The Grade, but in fact the Gunflint at that time was a narrow gravel road with lots of corduroy, frost heaves, speeding logging trucks and deep ditches. On one set of sharp curves we came upon a pickup that had gone into a wet ditch and was well buried in the mud and leaning heavily to one side. My dad hopped out and had a quick conversation with two cheerful men who were working with a spade and a come-along hand winch to get the truck out. When Frank got back in the car, I remembered asking him if the men wanted us to call them a tow truck. He said, “Those are the Boostrom brothers. They don’t need any help with a little job like that.” I remember very little of the canoe trip, but that back road adventure has stayed vivid in my memory.
Of course, it’s all in your perspective. The late Edwin Nelson of Lutsen told me once that he used to live on Gunflint Lake when the Gunflint Trail was still literally a foot trail. He said that twice a winter he would snow shoe from Gunflint Lake to Grand Marais and bring back a toboggan full of groceries and supplies. He said it took him one day to snow shoe to town, but with the hill and the heavy toboggan it would take him two days to snowshoe home. The distance was over 50 miles each way. I’ll never forget Ed’s comment when I marveled at how amazing it was to snowshoe that far. Ed looked me straight in the eye an