DAY 12 – SATURDAY JULY 20

LONG LAKE TO AITKIN

The morning was fresh and cool with a light dusting of rain. We weren’t sure how long it would persist, so we prepared rain gear for the trek ahead. After tidying up at the Marcum House at Long Lake Conservation Center and confirming the new route—taking us off the only gravel stretch of  The Great River Road and MRT in Minnesota, we got on our way. Tom set off on foot, the first 5K leg, and I went on ahead in the van to meet him at the Fleming Methodist Church for the run to bike transfer. Thank goodness today was his turn to cycle, because the new route had us on State Highway 210 and US Route 169, neither of which have very friendly shoulders nor oncoming traffic! I took on 169 at the radio station just outside of Aitkin, Minnesota for the final 3 miles into the Fairgrounds, running almost as fast as Tom rode out of pure adrenaline in the face of this traffic.

Once we reached the fairgrounds, Ross Wagner, director of Economic Development for Aitkin County, Minnesota and partner for Relay had already met up with Tom and set out some picnic tables at the riverboat stage. The sun was starting to open up the sky and the afternoon looked promising. A small SUV drove up and out popped a petite woman carrying a crock pot. She said, “I’ve got lunch!” And immediately I knew she was Ross’s wife. I learned her name was Vicki, not Victoria like me, just pure Vicki because her father thought Victoria was too extravagant.

While I was fielding Vicki, Tom was intercepting a former coworker of his father’s who had read in the paper that “Tom Styrbicki” was coming to town and came out to see who he thought was going to be his old friend. Another early arrival came from Bill Cook and his wife—they were ready for something to be happening, but since things were not quite yet underway, they decided to come back a little later. Jim Matteson also arrived around this time, planning to provide some musical entertainment at the gathering, but also surprising us with the information that he is the father of Shanai Matteson—an artist and environmental activist based in Minneapolis who has helped the Relay from the beginning.

Anyhow, the gathering at the Aitkin County Fairgrounds turned out to be an intimate group, allowing for everyone to share from their own place. Boyd Bremner from his historian’s podium, Bill Cook from the place of a generational cattle farmer, Ross Wagner another long-time Aitkin County dweller with a deep family story. Then there was Jill and Pam talking of how to make the past into the future of Aitkin, following after the example of neighboring town Crosby, to push forward the new tourism economy. Despite the few gathered at this noonday feast, conversations lingered, and we struggled to get out of the fairgrounds and on to the Depot Museum that Boyd had encouraged us to visit. We did finally make it just before closing time, visiting again with Boyd, his stories never-ending it seems, needing encore after encore if encouraged.

We had to get on to our next engagement, however. Pete Gansen, County Zoning Agent and river dweller. When I first reached out to Pete about the visit, he assumed we were paddling and offered to give us gps and river mileage to his house. I assured him our route was by land and not by sea, so he instead gave us the address and description: “Yellow house on the southeast side of the road with a pile of logs out front. Our address sign is up.”

We spotted the house easily, as the log pile was higher than me stacked on top of Tom! It’s only later that I learned what all those logs were for—the two wood stoves Pete and his wife Jolene use to heat their home in the winter. He explained that the pile out front should get them through one year! But I’m ahead of myself here.

We drove up past the logs onto the grass next to Pete’s cadmium yellow pickup truck around 4:10pm, and Pete wandered out to greet us. He’s about 6’2”, pale ginger hair covered by a well-worn baseball cap but not hidden thanks to the full ginger beard gracing his chin on down. We immediately fell into a nice rhythm of conversation with Pete that built into a friendship with he and his wife over the next four hours. The interaction went in spatial phases: 1. Out by the truck to get acquainted, 2. In the garage to get a beer and talk a bit about fishing and see some tackle, 3. In the living room to fetter out Jolene and meet the cats (all five!), 4. Basking in the sunshine in the riverside addition where the couple often camps out in the summer and warms up in the winter with the great Minnesota sunshine and cool crisp winter air, 5. Out by the river at last, or on the river nearly, as we hiked down a rocky bank to see the point where the diversion channel begins and the river snakes on in the other direction if you want the long haul.

I think we could have stayed, hanging out with Pete, learning about his passion for travel and the outdoors, for what life might bring next, his experience in landscape architecture providing a lens on how he experiences the world at large, but also his deep study of people that comes with a deep understanding too, through the work he does in Aitkin County. A former zoning official that left the trade to go into fisheries apparently told Pete the reason for the change was that “Fish don’t talk!” And yet, the conversations over permits, much like the sprawling conversation with us, don’t seem to phase Pete. In fact, he said he welcomed the time with us as he felt he’d be interviewing us as much as we’d be interviewing him!

We finally took our leave of Pete and made our way to Block North, our friend Rich Courtemanche’s Brew Pub located here in Aitkin. It was closing in on 8:30pm already, and by the time we drank our beer, ate our dinner, transcribed our notes, made a few posts online, our computers were out of juice and so were we. We had just enough energy to make it to the Aitkin Campground and pitch the tent by the light of the headlights, roll out the bedroll, the sleeping bag, blow up the pillows and climb in.