IN NORTHWEST WISCONSIN – Long a land of dreams and dreamers, this portion of Wisconsin bears a history embedded in its tall pines, watery bogs, blue lakes, famous rivers and sandy soils. This last — the sand — is rare among North American landscapes, and in some areas extends 600 feet above bedrock. It’s here that Bud Grant, as a kid in Superior, Wis., often hunted and fished, catching a ride when he could to the Brule River, or to Solon Springs, or Minong or Gordon, a fishing rod or gun in his hand.
The land inspired him, as it had the explorer Pierre Charles LeSueur in 1693 and, later, Ulysses S. Grant and presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower. “If I ever get the money,’’ Grant promised himself, “I’m going to buy some land up here.’’
Fast-forward to May 14.
Grant, 86, is en route from his Bloomington home to the northwest Wisconsin land he has owned for about a half-century, the first parcel of which — about 60 acres and 1,500 feet of lakeshore — he purchased for $1 a foot in 1945, the year he was discharged from the service.
Grant’s second land purchase, 400 acres of nearby hunting property that includes a small lake, would cost more. Still, when he bought it in the early 1960s, using money he made playing basketball for the old Minneapolis Lakers and, later, pro football for the Philadelphia Eagles and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the transaction was a bargain compared to today’s prices, pennies on the dollar.
But Grant wasn’t thinking about land values as he drove north. Instead, the late spring had set back everything at his modest lake home, the one sitting on 1,500 feet of shoreline. The dock needed to be put in, the leaves raked and his many birdhouses maintained. The retired Vikings coach wanted these chores behind him, and he wanted also to move his pontoon boat from its winter resting place near his lake home to the small lake lying within the 400 acres. It’s there that he enjoyed fishing with his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, put-put-putting around the lake, searching for crappies and bass.
Grant had no way of knowing as he drove north that sparks from a logging machine earlier that day had gathered into flames and were spreading quickly among the tinder-dry pines that extended for miles in all directions of his two properties.
Already, fire departments from towns small and large, as well as state and federal governments, were on site of the blaze or headed there, hoping soon to extinguish a fire that would grow to 9 miles long and a mile wide.
Grant was perhaps midway between the Twin Cities and his lake home when the fire raced into and quickly through his 400 acres, the forest underbrush igniting ahead of itself in leaps and bounds, while pine crowns exploded.
Fueled by blustery, 30-mile-an-hour winds and 90-degree temperatures, the inferno was out of control.
• • •
Grant’s wife, Pat, died in 2009, and in the years since he has met a woman, Pat Smith, whose interests match his. These include spending time in northwest Wisconsin, and Smith would be following Grant north later that day in her own car.
But she was still at home in Mankato when her cellphone rang. It was a neighbor of Grant’s, Les Chandler, from up north.
“Have you seen Bud?’’ Chandler asked.
“No,’’ Smith said. “He’s up there, or should be. I think he left home a while a go.’’
“Everything’s on fire up here,’’ Chandler said, “and his land has burned. I’m there now, and the gate is open. Do you think he might have been in there?’’
“I don’t know.’’
Quickly, Smith called Grant’s home. No one answered, and she regretted again — as she has a hundred times — that he carried no cellphone.
Another phone call followed, and another, and soon Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was driving to the now-closed team offices to see if Grant was there.
And everything that had been living in his now-scorched 400 acres was dead.
• • •
It’s last Wednesday, and Grant and Smith, in Grant’s Suburban, are driving among the charred ruins of Grant’s lifelong dream, his hunting and fishing land.
The former coach hadn’t been in his 400 acres when it burned. Instead he was still en route north.
Now he was recounting old times.
“When I got out of the service,’’ he said, “I had $300. With $100 I bought an Ithaca shotgun. I used another $100 for civilian clothes. So I had only $100 to buy land.’’
But Grant wanted the 1,500 feet of lakeshore badly. So he took on a partner, splitting the parcel 50-50. Then he borrowed $650 from a bank, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he would play football, basketball and baseball, eventually being drafted professionally in each sport.
“I didn’t have a job at school, but I had to pay the bank each month for the land, so in summers I pitched town-league ball for $25 or $50 a game, whatever they’d pay me,’’ Grant said. “And I’d scalp the tickets I got for Gopher home games. Each ticket had a face value of $3.50. But I’d get $25 for a pair. Sid [Hartman] helped me with that.’’
Grant paid the $650 back in two years. Then his partner decided to get married, and needed cash.
“I bought him out,’’ Grant said, “borrowing another $750 from the bank and paying it off during my junior and senior years, again by pitching town ball and scalping tickets.’’
In 1968, after Grant came to Minnesota from Winnipeg to coach, he built his northwest Wisconsin lake home on the 1,500 feet of shoreline. The structure was untouched by the forest fire.
Now Grant, touring his charred hunting and fishing land, was pointing at a big ghost of a tree, its long limbs blackened.
“That white pine, every one of my kids has climbed to the top of it,’’ he said. “You can climb a white pine because its limbs alternate. You can’t climb a red pine as easily.’’
Here and there, some life was evident among the ruins. Black-capped chickadees flitted. A pair of drake mallards rose from a beaver-dam pond. And Canada geese honked overhead.
But through binoculars, Grant could find no sign of a loon that nests each year on his small lake. And there wasn’t a deer or deer carcass to be found.
Other people in the area fared worse. In all, 8,700 acres burned, along with 17 homes and 35 or more other structures, including hunting camps.
“Fire is the big fear of living in this country,’’ Grant said. “The sand drains water quickly, and the soil is dry. You can grow pine here. And pine burns quickly.’’
Some burned timber might be salvageable. But only larger trees that aren’t yet dead have any value.
Angling his vehicle out the gate of his charred dream land, toward the home he built so long ago on lakeshore that cost him a buck a foot, Grant said:
“It’s all gone now. All burned.’’
“We have to be thankful for what we have. It’ll grow back. But I won’t live to see it.’’