Matt and I decided that our anniversary in September was a great excuse for an annual trip. We had initially planned on Las Vegas because his parents were going around that time, but for Celine-Dion-related reasons, they decided to postpone. (She ended her run of shows. I know.) We decided instead to attempt to get in another camping trip in the last fall, which is always kind of risky in Minnesota.
I’d been checking conditions at Itasca for several weeks before the trip, and not only was it supposed to be relatively cold, there was a campfire ban due to extremely high fire danger in the area. That was far less than ideal for camping, particularly with cold nights, but we decided we were going to go regardless, because the daytime would make it worth it. Just a few days before we were supposed to leave, they lifted the fire ban for the campground, and suddenly the forecast improved a ton. I couldn’t believe our luck!
We piled everything into/on top of the car, and headed out Thursday morning. We’d never taken the kayaks on a four-hour trip at highway speeds before, so it was a little nerve-wracking. The front tie-down went directly through my field of vision while I was driving, but it did its job and our kayaks stayed firmly attached.
We arrived at the park just after check-in, and found the campground very sparsely populated. We had a very nice, relatively private site in the non-electrical part of the campground (i.e. sans RVs), and were close to the bathrooms. Which were FANCY compared to anything else we’ve seen… they were not only sparkling clean, but there was hot water and hand driers, plus individual shower rooms. We unpacked the car, then drove back up to the ranger station to get firewood and ice. We took note of the sign about protecting your food from raccoons and bears, too, because we’d endured a raccoon attack on the previous trip. Plus when there’s a hanging hook at your site, you know they’re a raccoon problem.
We set up camp, got the fire started after way too much effort (when it’s so dry you’re banning fires, how do you end up with damp firewood?) and got to prepping dinner. Shortly after dark, we sat down to enjoy our campfire banh mi, which was delicious.
The first night was supposed to be the coldest, and that was no joke. I had on warm clothes and a blanket while sitting at the fire, but I was still pretty cold. By the time we were ready to head to the tent, it was in the mid-40s. We’d camped in that weather before thanks to the heaviest comforter in the known universe, but for some reason this time I could barely handle it. I kept dozing off and then waking up, because something like my hand sticking out and being cold was keeping me awake.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the raccoons invaded. We’d put the food bins in the car, but didn’t bother to think about the trash. I heard them tearing stuff up, and it sounded like maybe they were throwing our recycling all over the state. What a bunch of jerks.
I did not sleep well, and was convinced I wasn’t going to make it through the rest of the trip.
We got up the next morning and I didn’t feel as terrible as I expected. We fired up my sister’s camp stove (we’d brought it in case they decided to ban fires again while we were there), and made some biscuits.
Matt cooked sausage, fake sausage, and eggs, and we made some delicious breakfast sandwiches. When we were done, we loaded the kayaks back on my car and headed off to explore the park.
We drove down to the Douglas Lodge area to hike and check out the situation with the daily paddleboat tours. They were supposed to be running that late in the season, but we weren’t positive that would be the case. We parked at the lodge and walked down to the launch, and saw the boat there with staff people working on it. It didn’t leave for a couple of hours, so we went to hike Dr Roberts Trail.
The daytime weather was absolutely perfect for hiking, and the colors were amazing. We didn’t encounter a single other human being on the trail, either.
From our hike, we climbed back up to Douglas Lodge to go check out the inside. Right at the door, there was a sign saying the boat tour that day was cancelled due to an emergency, so we figured we’d go the next day instead. We wandered around the lodge, then went over to the building with the gift shop for the required souvenir purchases. We then hopped in the car and drove down a very narrow road to find the boat launch at Mary Lake. We unloaded the car, and put the kayaks in the water.
There were signs about the lake being a loon nesting ground, so we paddled around the entire perimeter watching the reeds for any sign of loons. We didn’t see any birds there; we saw no animals at all, actually, though we did see a few spots where they came down to the lake for water. On the far side we came across some hikers on the trail near the lake, and talked to them for a bit before heading back to the launch.
We took the boats back to the campsite, made lunch, then headed up to the north end of the park to see the Mississippi headwaters!
I was worried the start of the river would be dried up, but there was still a bit of water flowing. We crossed the rocks, came back across the log bridge, and took a trail leading back to the visitor center. The visitor center entrance was basically one gigantic swarm of ladybugs who seemed to particularly like the giant wooden pillars. They were flying everywhere, especially directly toward my hair. I was incredibly glad they weren’t all over the campground.
We stopped into the bigger shop there, and both picked out stickers to put on our kayaks. We figured that was a good way to track our water-based travels.
From the visitor center, we continued around the park on Wilderness Drive, a several-mile one-way road through the forest. It had been closed recently due to fire danger. We got out to take a couple of short hikes, including one where we learned all about responsible forestry, and another where we saw the former tallest white pine in Minnesota (it fell victim to a storm a few years ago). Then we stopped for the half-mile hike to the fire tower.
The trail there was probably the best of the fall colors, which was saying a lot.
We headed up the stairs, stopping to catch our breath along the way. The stairs were slippery open grates so that you could see all the way to the ground, and the whole thing swayed the further you climbed up it. We met a guy coming down, and he told us to just go slowly and hang on. About halfway up, Matt’s dislike of heights got the best of him, so he climbed back down while I continued upward.
Just below the top deck, I met a couple really drunk guys climbing back down with their beers. Up top, it was just me and a weird quiet girl who barely wanted to even say hi. I took a bunch of photos, then headed back down. The climb down was worse due to the slippery, narrow steps, but I could see Matt waiting at the bottom.
We headed back to the campsite as it was nearing sunset, and secured everything there from the inevitable raccoon visit. We then got in the car and headed off toward Zhateau Zorbaz, about 35 miles away outside Park Rapids. It’s a longstanding tradition when up north.
It was dark by the time we were on the road, and being very unaccustomed to driving in the middle of nowhere, I was pretty freaked out at the possibility of hitting a deer. We were on the highway for 10 miles, then on small roads winding around lakes and resorts for the rest. Luckily there was little traffic, so I could drive with the brights on the whole way, and Matt was on extra deer patrol. We saw several of them along the way, so my concern wasn’t misplaced.
Zorbaz wasn’t too crowded, but there were still several locals there holding up the bar. We got a table and ordered pizza and beers. We’d been to their other location a few times, but went because it was entertaining, not because of the food. I hadn’t even realized that their pizza is actually really good!
We finished our meal and went up to sit at the bar and watch baseball while we had another beer. Round about 10pm, it was time to head back to the site, since the park entrance closed at 11.
We got there a couple minutes before 11, though we could see no indication of actual gates to be closed. There were still a few fires going at the campground, but for the most part it was quiet. Also, the sites had filled up like crazy by then, since it was the weekend. I was glad we still had a fairly private site, but the bathroom was full of teenage girls getting ready for the night. (My getting ready for the night? Go pee in the woods before bed. I’m not too fancy while camping.)
We sat around the fire for a while, then headed to the tent. This time I was perfectly comfortable, even though it was only a tiny bit warmer than the previous night. I slept very well, even though I woke up sometime around 2am to hear the raccoon raid again. There was nothing to eat, but still they had to come by and investigate.)
The next morning, we cooked up Hell’s Kitchen’s wild rice porridge for breakfast. YUM.
We then hopped in the car and headed toward Bemidji, about 40 miles to the northwest. We needed to pay Paul and Babe a visit, since it had been a while. On the way, we learned from the radio that it was homecoming in Bemidji, and that they had citywide events going on all day.
When we got there, they were having some outdoor sports event where people were playing miniature tennis on the plaza around Paul and Babe. It was really busy, but we managed to get pictures in and stop into the visitor’s center (which houses a substantial collection of “Paul Bunyan’s _________” donated from all over the place).
We went across the street to the nearest gift shop, and ended up talking to the lady at the counter for a long time. We then drove down to the south end of the lake to see the arena where the Bemidji Beavers hockey team plays, since I feel the obligation to visit all WCHA hockey venues whenever possible. (I’ve seen the arenas in Anchorage, Denver, Colorado Springs, Grand Forks, Duluth, Madison, Mankato, and Omaha!) After that, it was time to go find some lunch at the locally-famous Dave’s Pizza.
It took us a long time to find directions on our phones, and then a long time to actually find the place. (We did circle around a neighborhood near campus and saw a bunch of students drinking out in their yards, plus some classy college ladies wearing “Sloppy Beaver” tshirts.) When we got there, it was closed. SIGH. We headed back toward downtown to drive around and find a place, which was more challenging than you might think. We finally settled on the Blue Ox, a huge restaurant/bar with a giant tent set up outside for the band playing later that night, post-homecoming.
We got seats at the bar near the TV showing the Gophers football game (which was terrible, but it was the Gophers). There were a bunch of really drunk homecoming celebrators there, but the place was mostly empty besides that. We ordered Leech Lake beers, which were excellent, and some lunch. We got talking to the bartender, who told us about how he was working until after 2am, and how the place would be insane that night. We were glad to just be in town for lunch, before the disaster struck.
On the way out, we asked him where we could buy more of the Leech Lake beers in town, and he directed us to a liquor store. We stopped there for some bombers, then got on the road back to the park.
Our next stop was the public boat launch on Lake Itasca, where the rental building was. It was gorgeous outside, a very unlikely 80-degree day so late in the season, and the place was nuts. Most people seemed to be renting bikes, kayaks, and canoes. We, however, were in search of a pontoon. Because, seriously: pontoon.
They took us down to the dock, gave Matt a primer on how to pilot it out of the very small marina, and sent us on our way with a cooler full of Leech Lake beers, a stereo, and some snacks.
Our boat ride was glorious. We went down to the west arm of the lake, the one we were unlikely to be able to paddle on, and then back up to see the headwaters from the other side. I spent most of the ride with my feet up either on the couch or the front rails of the boat, drinking beer. There was hardly anyone else out on the lake, despite the crowding at the rental building. We’d never had a powered boat to ourselves before, and we loved it.
I drove for a little while around the top of the east arm, and then our couple of hours were up and we needed to get back before they closed. Matt very bravely sailed us back into the marina (which scared me a lot, but he did well), and we went to check out. We headed back to the campsite to hang out and play games before dinner.
We stayed at the picnic table too long and had to make dinner in the dark, but it worked out well. We had meat and non-meat satay with peanut sauce, and skewers of mushrooms, onions, and asparagus. It was delicious. (Since it was just the two of us on this trip, we went out of the way to plan meals and make slightly fancier food than usual. We ate REALLY well.)
We spent the rest of the night around the campfire drinking manhattans, aware that everyone else had already gone to bed. (That never bodes well for getting any sleep in the morning.) At one point Matt heard a noise nearby, and turned on his headlamp to see a little skunk walking through the woods next to our site. We couldn’t believe how cute he was, though it made me nervous that maybe some raccoons were lurking nearby.
We went to bed (very comfortably again… I have no idea why my first night there was so terrible!), and slept well til the nightly raccoon visit. This time they pulled our camping organizer off the table onto the ground, and after I heard the crash I was convinced they were tearing the fabric up. Then they walked right past our tent making squeaking noises at each other, to the point where I could see their shadows. Blech.
Someone had a dog that barked on an off for a few hours, and then almost constantly for the rest of the night. I have no idea how the dog wasn’t driving them crazy, or embarrassing them to the point where they took it into the RV (I assume it was an RV, since it always is), but the damn thing wouldn’t shut up. At one point someone yelled, “can’t you hear your own dog?” That sucked a lot, and did not help with sleeping. Also, everyone started getting up at sunrise, since they and their kids had apparently all gone to bed at 8pm.
We got up and made breakfast, and started readying our camp for teardown. Then we loaded up the kayaks and took them to the boat launch at the south end of Itasca, next to the paddleboat we never had time to ride (not that I’m sad about it… the pontoon was way more awesome). We put in and didn’t see a single other person on the lake until we got to our turnaround point, so it was fantastic. We paddled slowly around the edge of the lake, scaring up coots and finding tiny waterfalls.
We took the kayaks out just as the paddleboat was starting to load people up, and it was then time to head back to the campsite and pack up. Everything was pretty well-organized already, so it didn’t take us long to get everything loaded up and get on the road. As we drove out of the park, we noticed that the trees were starting to turn brown and lose their leaves. I’m not sure how we managed to end up there at the absolute perfect time, but I’m thrilled we did!