Jeff and Sandy Bromenshenkel

River Angels

Jeff and Sandy Bromenshenkel, river mile 1201, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary this coming Monday—married here along the river, and as Jeff says, they will end their days together in the same place they got their start.

The Bromenshenkel’s are more than just another Mississippi River couple, they are a refuge along a long stretch of uninhabited Mississippi River terrain. Jeff and Sandy open their home to upwards of 50 paddlers—and now runner/cyclists—every year, some planned, others impromptu, people tired and weary of the unexpected trials of the first 150 river miles.

Before we could even reach Grand Rapids, we ran into Sandy—she found us at the Deer River Wild Rice Parade and made sure we knew where to go and what to look for. She seemed disappointed even that we weren’t staying with she and Jeff that night, but our friend Mark Box in Deer River had made other accommodations for us. We planned for a pontoon ride on another night during our stay, and took our leave that afternoon. But the surprise meetings were not over. Next day, after the run to bike exchange with Tom I arrived at Tiogo Beach to cheer on he and some local cyclists who would escort him into town. To my surprise, there drove up Sandy!—this time accompanied by husband Jeff. Turns out he was the escort cyclist, as everyone else had bowed out! It became obvious there and then that these two kind folks were the go-to hospitality team for rovers and ramblers like us!

Getting to know the Bromenshenkel’s was not just a matter of comings and goings, though. Our next stop was the Itasca County YMCA, where community partner Joni Namyst had organized an afternoon of interactions as well as an evening community meal and opportunity for me to share stories. Little did I know that the Bromenshenkel’s were again stepping up to bat, serving as two of the five people we would interview that afternoon for several hours. Along with another couple, Scott and Freida Hall, as well as local well-known nature expert and curler John Latimer, the Bromenshenkel’s shared with us stories of the river, why they’ve made their lives there, the changes that have occurred over time in the region, the impacts on the river, and river’s impact on their own lives.

As they talked about the water temperatures fluctuating year to year, Sandy mentioned how she swims in the river—not being able to get in until much later this year. She didn’t, however, mention, the secret she briefly shared with me earlier that day at Tiogo Beach as I coveted the opportunity to get in the water… When she told me then about swimming the river, I asked—in a wetsuit? A bathing suit? Not knowing what was suitable for such a body of water. And with a sheepish grin and a giggle, she looked up at me and her eyes said it all!

As the conversation continued, it became clear that Jeff and Sandy don’t just live on the river, they have great knowledge of the river—its twists and turns, and all the facets that affect water levels, quality, and temperatures. Jeff clearly articulated the impact of Minnesota Power—how it has lessened over time thanks to changes in their operation, burning less coal, changing the river flow, leaving less trace minerals. The threat to the river from industries like Minnesota Power and the Blandin Paper Company is not near as great as it once was, according to the Bromenshenkel’s—what is much more disconcerting is the pipeline project coming through the region and the risk inherent in having oil running just beneath the river.

While the river appeared fairly protected in the region, it did pose some threat to residents along its banks. Jeff and Sandy’s property is in a safe haven thanks to a buttress of marshland, so personally they are not affected by the river’s forceful current causing erosion as it flows downriver. However, just downriver of their property they took us to see where land, trees, even barns were falling into the river due its current eating at the land over time. This scenic tour occurred later that evening, after the events at the YMCA—out on their pontoon. We first traveled downriver to see the effects of the current, then rode upriver quite a ways, exploring the marsh and the meandering, the cutbacks and oxbows. We even drove the boat head first into the marsh at one moment, so we could snag a sample of some foliage—beautiful red berries that Tom kept spotting amidst the grasses. They really looked like flowers from a far, but as we came upon them, it was clearly a cluster of elderberries.

Our time with Jeff and Sandy continued on for another day, broken up by Tom and I going into town for a radio interview at KAXE and a workshop I taught to the High School color guard. When we returned home to the Bromenshenkel’s Jeff had just come inside from working in the garage—He’s making cabinet doors for his kitchen. They’ve recently remodeled their home, and are still putting on the finishing touches, with their own hands. Everything thoughtful. Everything cared for. They have a wall in the sitting room made up of likely a hundred horizontal wooden boards, all stained a different color. Jeff explained that these were the test strips for determining the stain for their floor boards! But even more precious is that these boards came from a friend of theirs who was dying of cancer. She didn’t like to have people to her home, so Jeff and Sandy had her stay with them for a while and arranged for friends to visit her there in her last days. Their kindness is unending.

Later that night, Jeff prepared a “Minnesota Cabin Meal” for us. Fried fish he caught at Lake of the Woods, baked beans, and some magically delicious potatoes. We sat over dinner and good conversation as if we had known the Bromenshenkel’s for quite some time. At a certain point, I cannot remember the prompting, a joke went around about needing marriage counseling, and Sandy interrupted saying—it works! And Jeff chimed in with agreement. They went on to share about a time in their marriage where life had just created a distance between them. Sandy explained that she likes to talk things out, and Jeff likes to keep to himself. (At that moment, Tom and I gave each other knowing glances.) However, it had not gone too far astray, and it was when Jeff said to Sandy, “I made an appointment with a counselor,” that she fell in love all over again. She could feel his commitment. 

These are the Bromenshenkel’s. You should know them if you don’t. And they have an open door policy if you’re canoeing the river. So stop in, and experience something rare and beautiful—although according to them, they say we’ll find a lot more of it as we travel downriver.