Excerpt from "Back to the Barrens"


My office sits high in the sky. Like the upper floors of the Sears Tower or even Taiwan's lofty Taipei Tower, which tops them all, my office sways with the wind. Despite their luxury, their soft music and breathtaking views, the towers and the people who work in comfort within them are fixed to the ground, while my noisy, narrow cubicle can respond to my whims, climbing high to attain a broader perspective and a panoramic view.
Today I'm making a test flight to be sure that everything works as it should. My Piper PA-11 seaplane, the Tundra Cub II, is almost identical to the original Tundra Cub that repeatedly carried me across northern Quebec, Nunavut, the Yukon and NW Territories and into Alaska.
The Cub should be perfect. It's fresh from the shop and an annual inspection, but experience has taught me that this is a time when things can go wrong: a screwdriver forgotten on top of my engine, its plastic handle melted into the engine's heat-radiating fins; a brake part wrongly replaced on a Lake amphibian, making it impossible to taxi, and on another occasion, a fuel flow sensor on the same aircraft secured to the wrong fitting. All of these have happened to me. None caused a serious problem, but they demonstrated the wisdom of the Cold War precaution: "Trust, but verify."
I'm flying at 9,000 feet. Far below, in a deep, three mile long trench carved by Minnesota's most recent glacier, a clear, spring-fed body of water called Ely Lake smiles up at me. The lake's southern shore cradles a seaplane base within a sheltering bay. Directly across from the base, my pine-shaded home overlooks a sandy beach where I keep the Tundra Cub II.
Day after day, an assortment of Piper, Stinson, Cessna and de Havilland aircraft quietly slip down from the sky while others roar away from the base. When winter arrives, silence briefly returns as ice begins to form. A week or two later, fishermen arrive on snowmobiles. In December, ice-fishing houses appear, towed into place by cars and trucks, adding a new hazard for aircraft that have switched to skis.
Three miles to the north is the town of Virginia, the place of my birth. There, a Community College and dozens of homes and businesses spread across the former site of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber mill. Once the largest white pine mill in the world, the "Rainy" set records in the 1920s, sawing a whopping million board feet of lumber per day.
A few miles beyond Virginia, the long, east-west, spine of the Laurentian Divide separates much of northern Minnesota into three watersheds. The westernmost feeds the Mississippi and, therefore, the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of the showers that fall on the Divide's southerly slopes wash taconite dust from behemoth-like trucks, loaders and excavators - huge, lumbering creature/machines that look like characters from a Star Wars film. Their purpose: to consume great bites of rock-hard, charcoal-grey iron ore.
Others are trapped in a ninety-mile long, East/West scattering of deep, red-walled pits - the exhausted remains of the hematite mines that gave the Mesabi (Sleeping Giant) Iron Range its name, but most of the rain will find the St Louis River, there to meander through ninety miles of bog, forest and marginal, north country farms to Lake Superior, where it begins a multi-century journey through the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence Seaway to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
Rains that fall on the Laurentian's northern slopes will follow a different path, forming streams so rich with iron and bog-tannins that they wear a root beer-like hue. Some will feed Lake Vermilion, the Ojibwa's "Lake of the Sunset Glow." Flowing past my cabin, where in the thirties we purchased blueberries for ten cents per quart from Ojibwa families in birch bark canoes, they'll seek Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and big Lake Winnipeg before cascading down the Nelson River to a salty Hudson Bay.
This is northern Minnesota, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, a country laced with rivers and streams that the Ojibwa were paddling long before the Egyptians devised the clepsydra, the water-clock that measured a much longer river - the endless river of time. Centuries passed, bringing voyageurs who propelled themselves inland with biceps and brawn, then shouldered their loads over hills and through bogs to yet another river, and yet another lake.
I feed in a touch of aileron and rudder to begin a gentle left turn, then throttle back slightly and watch the world revolve. Twenty miles to the north lies Cook, the home of the Wien brothers, the bush pilot founders of Wien Air Alaska who began with airplanes quite like my Cub and ended up owning jets that they couldn't have dreamed of while rafting the Little Fork River that tried to flood their boyhood home.
As the compass pivots through 270 degrees, a budding cumulus cloud briefly obscures Hibbing, the birthplace of slugger Roger Maris, the city where the Greyhound Bus Line was born, the city with the world's largest open pit iron mine - a mine so large that it supplied a fourth of the iron required for World Wars I and II - and the city that gave music lovers a guitar-strumming folk/pop/rock star named Bob Dylan.
By the time I've turned just east of south, I'm down to 8000 feet, but even from this height, fifty-mile-distant Lake Superior is just a sliver of water, backlit by the mid-morning sun. The Ojibwa called the lake Gitchi Gummi, meaning "big water." It's a very appropriate name. As the world's largest fresh water lake, Superior's depths, which extend 733 feet below sea level, contain a tenth of the world's supply of fresh water. The other Great Lakes raise the total to 20%, a figure matched by Russia's smaller-but-immensely-deep Lake Baikal.
Superior, which is large enough to have tides, holds much more than water, having swallowed hundreds of ships, the most famous being the 700 foot Edmund Fitzgerald, the ill-fated vessel immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot's sonorous Gales of November, which asked, "Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?" Loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite iron ore pellets, the Fitzgerald fell victim to high winds, snow squalls, thirty foot waves and possibly insecure hatches, sinking in 530 feet of cold, clear water. The captain and crew numbered twenty nine souls, and not a one survived.
This greatest of lakes is fringed with history: Strewn along its northern shore are beds of stromatolites, the fossilized remains of algae-like organisms that began to breathe oxygen into our primitive, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere some two billion year ago, eventually making life possible for oxygen-lovers like us who thrive today, but would have perished before the algae worked their magic.
Near Superior's confluence with Lake Michigan, a 17th century French explorer named Jean Nicollet frightened the Winnebagos by looking too god-like when he donned a radiant damask robe that he had planned to wear when he steeped ashore in Japan.
A few decades later, two more Frenchmen, Pierre-Esprit Radisson (radishes) and his brother in law, Medart Chouart Sieur de Groseilliers, (gooseberries) began to explore the country to the north of Lake Superior, laying the ground work for a massive trade in furs, the "soft gold" of the North that would give birth to two giants of commerce, the Hudson Bay Company and its chief rival, the North West Company, the company that relied on 600 pound, 36 foot canots de maitre on the Great Lakes, then switched to 26 footers with half the weight for the inland lakes and rivers far to the north and west of Grand Portage.
In 1902, near the north shore town of Ilgen City, five young entrepreneurs set out to make grindstones from an outcropping they thought was corundum. The "corundum," however, turned out to be a softer look-alike, and when the news leaked out, the company's stock dropped to "a couple of shares for a shot, and cheap whiskey at that." Discouraged, but undaunted, the five persevered, becoming so successful that by the 90s, their Minnesota Manufacturing and Mining Company (3M) was posting record sales of $15 billion per year with a long list of popular products like sandpaper, Scotch tape, Scotch-brite, synthetic dental filling materials and the ubiquitous Post-it notes.
Today, the "big water" port of Duluth is alive not with the fur trade, but with taconite pellets from the Iron Range, with Midwest coal and grain, with ocean-going cargo and cruise ships bearing German tourists, and with a foresighted industry that has become the world's # 1 builder of single engine aircraft - an innovative firm called Cirrus Designs.
When I've turned full circle, I still have a mile to descend, so to hurry the process, I lose a few thousand feet by practicing power off stalls. Tiring of stalls, I drop the left wing, push in right rudder and raise the nose a trifle. The Cub side-slips earthward, dumping buckets of height. A few minutes later, I'm standing on the float.
When I open the cowling, I'm pleased to see that the engine is dry. There are no fuel or oil leaks, and nothing is out of place. Tomorrow, when the sun has baked away the fog, I'll head north in an aircraft stuffed with camping gear, food, maps, three books (Stefansson's My Life with the Eskimo, Bill Bryson's A Short history of Nearly Everything, and an entertaining old friend: Herter's Professional Guide's Manual plus five new items - a digital camera, a noise canceling headset, a GPS that I don't know how to use plus a sieve from our kitchen and a war surplus "foxhole" shovel for my whimsical search for the new Mother Lode of the North - diamonds. Watch out, De Beers!"

The author donates all of his book profits to educational charities.

Links to other pages on this site:

Back to the Home Page| The Author| The Books| Reviews and Reader Feedback|
Author Bio Photo Gallery| Presentations

George Erickson, 4678 Cedar Island Drive, Eveleth, MN 55734