Now I grew up in southern Louisiana, with the rivers, lakes, bayous, marshes, and general rains and standing water breeding mosquitos like mad.

But I’ll give it to Minnesota, and in particular this stretch of Minnesota that we’ve been wandering along starting back around Jacobson, through Palisade and onward to Long Lake Conservation Center — here the Mosquitos are particularly ripe!

We woke up in Palisade at Bergland Park Campground on the morning of Friday, July 19 in the wonderfully air conditioned camper of Sharon and Jerry DeWitt, and despite these protective accommodations, my body was littered with at least ten new red, swelling, itching bites thanks to that state bird of Minnesota! But onward we must run and ride, itching as we go!

We couldn’t escape Palisade, Minnesota without a little more hospitality, however, and a final opportunity to experience the local diner Gabby’s Eats & Treats—where the line is usually out the door we’ve been told. Sharon and Jerry invited us, and most everyone from the evening before’s event, to join us there for breakfast at 7am and send us off to Long Lake. The group ended up being small, just the four of us to start, but then Mike, the paddler who fortuitously arrived just after us at the campground, joined us for some coffee and shared some of his own story about becoming a Quaker after years in the Lutheran ministry. He was spending the day off the river, photographing sites in Palisade with his various camera rigs—medium format, 35 millimeter, digital, and several others. Somehow he manages to carry in canoe a mobile darkroom for all these different media as well!—I’m left in wonder at that.

The clock was ticking closer to 8am, our planned launch time for the run, and Tom and I go to pay the check. Before I can make the move, Sharon steps in and takes care of things one more time—the generosity of this Palisade Councilwoman is just one more representation of what we keep finding up and down the river. Something very special. Something to write home about.

And we’re off! Or Tom is, that is, and I’m following behind in the van. He crosses over the Mississippi River bridge in Palisade and onward to Long Lake Conservation Center. We make the exchange run to run on this much shorter leg of our journey, only 6.6 miles today, at 450th Street, and I set out “in the Zone” as Tom says when he later catches me on film at a turn up the road. As I approach the gates of Long Lake, I see a swarm of small bodies holding signs and cheering! I had known from our contact at the center, Courtney Dowell (Education Director), that she planned to have a group of outgoing campers to welcome us, but this was quite a greeting. The closer I got, I could feel the momentum ramping up, and see Tom in the distance filming it all alongside another group of kids forming a human barrier fence that I might have to run through at the pace I was going—unlikely to be able to come to a full stop very quickly. The reason for the uptick in pace? The students lining the stretch of road had all started to run with me, no, not run, but sprint! They are yelling at me, and me at them, to run faster, “sprint it out!” They are cheering and the others at the gate are cheering as well. We finally reach the human finish line and WHEW! Breath….

As we all catch our breaths, Tom manages the crowd, fielding questions and comments about how we are “so skinny” and “how much do you run?” And then asking each of the kids to introduce themselves. We take a big group picture just after a truck drives through the entrance to tell us of a bear siting just up the road! Glad we missed that—Tom and I only caught site of a few fawn. At this point the group broke, knowing we would see them again and have time to visit at lunch. Courtney showed us to our rooms at the Marcum House, very spacious, wifi (hooray!), and a kitchen area with views of the beautiful lake—it’s like we are on vacation (almost!).

We got about an hour and a half to recover, which is rare, so I fit in a quick shower since it had been a few days, and we prepped for our interview with Bob Marcum, the son of the founding father of Long Lake Conservation Center. Bob arrived a little early and we got right into a great conversation. First about the history of the place and the story of his father moving here from Kentucky and living and working in Saint Paul at Fort Snelling for a while. Eventually he got the job as a game warden up in Aitkin County, Minnesota, but turns out that policing people in relation to wildlife was less appealing than cultivating a sense of care for the environment. He not only worked on building this center for education of youth, but also public water access, sportsman’s clubs, and countless other engagement opportunities for the environment in and around Aitkin County.

But the story wasn’t just about Bob’s father. Bob himself plays an instrumental role with Long Lake’s foundation, the non-profit side of this county-operated education center. Before growing up and giving back to the center in this way, Bob himself was among the first class of Long Lake students, sneaking in at age 11 when the school only allowed ages 12-14 (not to mention that they only allowed boys for the first two years!). After his school years, Bob went on to start a graphics and printing business for 20 years before moving into refrigeration. Eventually he’s gotten more into politics and the work he does now as an advocate for Long Lake as well as Medicaid and other causes he can use his voice to support. A strong-minded DFL-er, Bob truly believes that the environment, the investment in Aitkin County, Minnesota’s natural resources and wildlife is something that both parties can stand together on, and should, especially as we enter this new election cycle. I think we could have talked to Bob all night long, his stories—some of Long Lake, some of just life—started to slip out in pauses and breaths during the conversation as we attempted to close things up. However, we had to get on to the evening program, including a dinner of walleye and wild rice prepared by Bob’s husband Joel who works as the chef here at Long Lake! What a nice connectivity the world weaves.

As we made our way over to the dining hall, the deer flies were on the attack! My body was twitching still as we got inside and walked down the hall into the cafeteria. As I finally started to relax, we got reacquainted with the Pick’s, a couple we had met the night before at the events in Palisade. They were manning the door, checking attendees off a list as well as checking ID’s! As tonight held in store another treat—a beer tasting courtesy of Aitkin County land commissioner Rich Courtemanche and the “Forest to Tap” program.

We visited a bit with Pam Brand, a naturalist here at the center, and then made our way to a spot at a table, eventually joined by Rich and his wife Gina. What a nice visit with them, learning that they spent 7 years in Louisiana while Rich was getting his masters degree and some time after, even working at times down in LaFourche Parish where my mother is from. 

Following our segment of the program, dinner was served, and what a treat! Simultaneously several people stopped by our seat at the table to offer additional stories—one woman telling me about a canoe triathlon she and her husband did, despite having to fight off the bugs! And another man wanting to connect me to the Wildlife and Fisheries Refuges along the river to help tell their story. So many beautiful people, and such affirmation that we were staying true to our mission with both gathering and sharing, and that our storytelling was coming across.

We then got to hear from Rich—and taste his many beers gathered up from northern Minnesota breweries! What a treat. He explained how the forests are necessary to keep the water clean, and how fortunate they are in Aitkin County, that so much of the land is already public forest. Forestry, he said, is not what we think of from the past, clearcutting the white pine and leaving nothing behind. Instead, forestry is a sustainable practice that truly cares for our environment and builds up the future of Minnesota, both in terms of the economy of Aitkin County as well as and most importantly in terms of the wildlife and environmental considerations. Look for more on this in future posts…

The night grew long, and we had a few more conversations as people began to drift out of the hall. Finally we made our way back to the Marcum House and got in a bit of work before tucking into our bottom bunk for sleep—that’s right, one cozy couple in a twin bed for the night… There was another bed in the room, and the two top bunks of course, but when you are busy all day, this husband and wife team needs a solid embrace.