I made it a point when I was in the Midwest recently to revisit a desolate campsite in the swamps of northern Minnesota. It was the site of the first of several amazing kindness-from-strangers incidents I had experienced during my solo canoe trip down the Mississippi River in 2003.
Bear Den Landing it’s called and it is at the end of a 2.5-mile dirt trail called Bear Den Forest Road, off of County Highway 5 in rural Solway. Some maps call it Bear Den Canoe Road, which I like better.
It is 30 river miles from the headwaters at Lake Itasca and I reached it in the late afternoon of Day 3 of my paddle. By road it is 22 miles from the start, a mere 25-minute car ride.
I camped there that night and at first light on Day 4 I set off. By that evening I was right back at Bear Den Landing, after a frustrating, tiring and unsuccessful day trying to find my way downstream through the thick rice swamp and weed bogs in low water. As I was getting ready to set up the tent for the night, fully prepared to walk out that dirt road in the morning and find some help getting me, my canoe and all my gear to Bemidji, a couple of fishermen pulled up.
I hadn’t needed, or even really thought about needing, the kindness of strangers on my trip and here I was, only four days into it and I needed a hand. And serendipity brought me George Weidig and Dean Jones, two nice fellows more than willing to help out. After I explained the situation, they quickly offered to go get Dean’s pickup truck and carry me and all my stuff to Bemidji, some 28 river miles and 18 road miles away.
So I had this pleasant bit of history with Bear Den Landing and I wanted to check back there, now 14 years later, to see if it was still the nice camping spot that I remembered. It certainly was, with the addition of a couple homemade teeter-totters and minus some of the shade trees. It seems to have acquired an address as well.
While in northern Minnesota this summer I also swung around for a return visit to the town of Little Falls. I went through there on Day 22 of my trip. I had paddled 346 miles by then, but by road I was a mere 115 miles from where I had started, two hours by car.
This was where I enjoyed my second major stranger kindness incident. It happened when a pack of boys approached on bicycles as I was unloading the canoe for the portage around the dam.
Mentally I was prepared to be hassled, but all I heard was Can We Help You? when they pulled up, and boy they sure did. With all that assistance I got the boat and gear to the put-in spot in good time and one of them even refilled my water jug for me at the park bathroom. I got all their names and addresses and sent them all postcards when I arrived in New Orleans.
I also stopped at the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park. I finally now have a decent photo of the sign marking the beginning of the Mississippi River (the one on my site is pretty badly backlit and about impossible to read). That area’s changed a lot since 2003. There is a headwaters center building and new parking area across the river from where the parking area used to be.
Below is a photo of friend Jim Bogden and I at the signpost in 2003 and a clear, 2017 photo of the signpost so you can see what it says.
And finally I want to give a hearty shout out to the Rock Creek gas station and store just outside the northern entrance to Itasca State Park. I am sure it’s one of only a very few gas stations left in the country where you just pull up to the pump, fill your tank and then go inside and pay up. When’s the last time you were able to do that?