Bear Den Landing

I made it a point when I was in the Midwest in June 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 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 IMG_4815cForest 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 on Day 3 of my paddle.  By road it is 22 miles from the start, a mere 25-minute car ride.

On Day 4 I set off from Bear Den Landing and by that evening I was right back there, 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.

bear den landing view

This is the view looking downriver from Bear Den Landing in 2003 and, below, my campsite there in the morning fog of Day 4. (Photos by Ron Haines)

foggy morning


Here’s the 2017 view looking downriver–note the address sign.  Below are the teeter-totters I found there in my recent visit.  (Photos by Ron Haines)


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.


In this 2003 photo at Little Falls, MN, you can see my canoe and gear at the take-out point and off in the distance the boys on bikes approaching.  Below is the same area in 2017. (Photos by Ron Haines)


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.   IMG_4829c







at dam 5c

And here I am in 2003 clowning around on the rocks that mark the beginning of the Mississippi River.  A 2017 view of the same area is below.




A new-to-me headwaters center features a nice interpretive display, a cafeteria and a gift shop.  (Photos by Ron Haines)


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?




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Shoddy Mill Road, the sign says.  This one’s in Glastonbury, CT., but I have seen them elsewhere in my travels around the northeast.

These are not new roads in newly developed areas, so the name obviously originated a century or more ago.


But why celebrate a shoddy mill?  And what explains the proliferation of shoddy mills?  Or maybe it isn’t the mill that was shoddy so long ago, perhaps it was the Mill Road that was shoddy?  If that’s the case, how did so many Mill Roads in the northeast get so shoddy?  Why are there no Shoddy Main Streets?  There are way more Main Streets than there are Mill Roads.   Or maybe there was a Mr. Shoddy, who owned a string of textile mills in the Northeast?

Or maybe, just maybe, shoddy didn’t mean shoddy back in the day?  Turns out that’s the answer.

The word shoddy was a noun in the early 1800s in England and was simply recycled wool; fabric made from cutting or tearing apart existing wool cloth and re-spinning the fibers.  It was cheaper than using virgin wool.

The use of shoddy grew and spread to the U.S.  Originally used as padding, the recycled fabric soon grew to be favored in clothing, because when new it looked just like the high-grade stuff.  At one point, a U.S. Government report noted that shoddy was used widely for clothing and blankets for the Army and Navy.

The use of shoddy for clothing eventually evolved the word to its modern-day meaning, however, because although the cloth looked good initially it was nowhere near as durable and lasting as virgin wool.  “Shoddy” soon became equated to inferior or poor quality in general.

By 1862 in fact, the word, by now an adjective, came to be defined as “having a delusive appearance of high quality,” in reference to the quality of governmental supplies for the armies in the Civil War.

Things do come full circle though.  At the end of Shoddy Mill Road in Glastonbury  is the 77-acre Shoddy Mill Open Space, a spectacular reuse of the ruins and land of the Crosby Manufacturing Company,  where wool waste was once recycled into dark blue woolen yarn.






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Oquawka revisited

I was roaming around the Midwest recently and decided to stop at a small, Mississippi river town in Illinois called Oquawka, a place I had been once before.

Its name makes it memorable enough, but for me it was a return to a spot that will always stick in my mind because of what happened there before daybreak on September 20, 2003.

I had arrived the previous day by canoe, on my way from Minnesota to New Orleans.  I paddled into the town’s small marina.  It was very welcoming, a set of public docks and a boat ramp protected from the wind and waves by small breakwaters.  The perfect spot to leave the canoe for the night.  And I was happy to find a small grassy area nearby to set up my tent.

It was my 54th day on the river, so I quickly and easily settled into what had become a comfortable routine for me:  Set up the tent and scout out the town for a nice place to stop for a few beers and a huge dinner.  And keep an eye out for someplace to have breakfast in the morning.  In Oquawka everything I needed was within easy walking distance of the river.

My first stop was at The Fisherman’s Bar and Grill, a nice unpretentious place on Schuyler Street a couple blocks from my tent.  It was a Friday night so the place was busy. The owner let me use his electricity to charge up my cell phone and he gave me a beer cosy with the bar’s name on it as a souvenir of my visit.

After that I walked a block or so for dinner at what is today called Ye Old Fish House, at the foot of Schuyler right by the river.  When I stopped there in 2003 it was called the Oquawka Diner.

Full and content I ambled back to the tent for a good night’s sleep.

That’s when the memorable happened.  Just before first light I woke up to a huge racket.  It sounded like every guy for miles around with a pickup truck and a boat and a dog had descended on the town boat ramp, a mere couple hundred feet from me, intent upon making as much noise as possible.  I peered out of the tent.  The place was mobbed with folks launching their boats.    Boat engines raced, dogs barked, and doors slammed.

In a half hour or so the hubbub ended.  Everyone had sped off by boat and I got back to sleep.  Then, at the crack of six am all hell broke loose again.  This time in the form of continuous loud gun volleys out on the river.  I finally gave up on sleep and dragged myself out of the tent.  I packed everything back into the canoe and headed down the street to the diner for breakfast.

And I asked the waiter what all the early morning activity was.  First day of duck hunting season, he replied, started at six.  And it was the opening of the season over in Iowa, way across the river, not on the Illinois side, where I was.  I was glad I hadn’t camped in Iowa for the night!

I’m happy to report that Oquawka, at least the small bit that I am familiar with,  is much the same as it was when I first visited it 14 years ago.  The restaurant is still there, the bar and grill is still there, and the waterfront remains the same quiet laid back place I found it to be years ago.

Here’s the view from my tent of the town marina back in 2003:103_0362

And the same view in 2017:IMG_4549c

And below are 2017 shots of The Fisherman’s Bar and Grill and Ye Old Fish House:IMG_4555cIMG_4553c

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One of the big red drying barns I featured three years ago in my little story about the waning Connecticut shade tobacco industry is now just a pile of lumber waiting to be carted away.


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Made for Miami Beach

From the style of this old gas station I’d say it belongs on Miami Beach, but I happened upon it along Route 82 in decidedly untrendy West Taghkanic, NY.  It’s empty now, just waiting for someone to give it a little tender loving care and repurpose it.  Go here see all my photos of empty and recycled gas stations.



West Taghkanic, NY.  Photo by Ron Haines


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The wrong cook day

I saw this place late one morning in rural Brookville, PA.  I’d not had breakfast yet because I was hoping to see an inviting place along my meandering drive toIMG_3773c Punxsutawney to see my friend Phil.

This seemed to be a good place to stop.  An inviting name, to be sure.  The building was obviously newish, but it was very apparent to me that there had been a gas station on the site in the past.  A quick look at the little planting in the front of the door gave that away.  That used to be the pump island.

I entered, visions of eggs and bacon and toast dancing in my head.  There were three people in there:  the waitress and a couple old fellows catching each other up on the latest gossip.  I looked at the menu.  There it was, in bold letters that looked like they’d been created on a typewriter, not a word processor: “Two eggs any way, with bacon or sausage and toast and potatoes–$4.75”

I told the waitress that’s what I wanted.

“This is the wrong cook day,” she said. “We’re doing lunch now.”

Turns out there are some days when breakfast hours overlap greatly with lunch hours.

But those days happen when a different cook works.

The cook on duty the day I dropped by has built a border wall between breakfast and lunch.  And there is no crossing it.

So I had a sausage sandwich on flatbread.  With cole slaw.

And yes, there used to be a gas station there.  It burned down long ago.  They had a photo of it hanging on the wall inside.


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A mustard morning

I visited the National Mustard Museum this morning in Middleton, WI, and tomorrow I will tour the Moist Towlette Museum in Dimondale, MI. You guessed it!  I am on a wacky museum and world’s largest things tour of the Midwest.   I have no time right now to digest all I have seen, but the details will appear in installments on my blog in the coming weeks.   Subscribe to be notified.



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