I parked our car on Hwy. 402, a county road several miles inland from Lake Superior's North Shore. My wife, Susan Binkley, and I shouldered our packs and began climbing the ridge into the back door of Tettegouche State Park. We took a rest at the ridge top, a good 300 feet above our starting point. Then we followed the long grade to where our friends waited in an ancient cabin of logs and cedar shingles, 20 feet from the shore of Mic Mac Lake. Birch, maples and conifers dressed the granite knobs surrounding the lake. Turkey vultures and bald eagles spiraled in the thermals rising from the rock ridges.
Why not, Susan wondered, just let people drive to the cabins? After all, the path we walked, described to one of our friends as "rugged," was a good gravel road, steep but not rugged at all.
To eliminate the congestion and noise of vehicles, I ventured. And, I added, I bet the mile and a half walk up the steep ridge makes people really appreciate the place because they had to plan and work to get there. The simple act of hiking creates a special experience that otherwise wouldn't be possible. Arriving on foot at our weathered cabin, sheltered in a thicket of conifers, felt like walking back in time.
Tettegouche has four of these unusual hike-in cabins and a unique history among Minnesota's parks.
Like much of northern Minnesota, the craggy uplands overlooking the Baptism River were shaved of virgin pine in the early 20th century. The loggers worked for the Canadian Alger-Smith Lumber Co. They built their camp on the shore of Nipisiquit Lake, and named landmarks with Algonquin words, such as Micmac, from their native New Brunswick.
By 1910, the loggers had slicked the white and red pine. Alger-Smith sold the camp to Duluth businessmen for a hunting and fishing retreat they dubbed the Tettegouche Club. One member bought out the others in 1921 and maintained the camp in its rustic form for 50 years, till he sold to the deLaittres family. Within a few years, the deLaittres and the conservation group the Nature Conservancy worked out a deal to sell the land to the state Department of Natural Resources to add to Baptism State Park in 1979. The deal created 9,300-acre Tettegouche, the largest and most spectacular state park along the North Shore.
The land included the old hunting camp on the shore of Mic Mac Lake. Some buildings were restored. Others, too far gone to save, were removed. Some, already collapsed, were fenced off. One cabin was moved to make room for a shower building. Four cabins were opened for public rental in 1994--but without drive-in access.
"The historical use was walk-in," assistant park manager Gary Hoeft told me. "We wanted to keep the integrity of that. I think this is one of the terribly unique places in the state."
The hike in limited our dining options -- but not much. Our band of friends packed chorizo, shrimp, chicken, potatoes, carrots, fresh fruit and two boxes of a beverage we later learned was not allowed in state parks. A refrigerator and small kitchen made meal preparation easy. A woodstove in the main room kept the cabin cozy. The two bedrooms each had twin bunk beds.
Once they unload gear in their cabins, said Hoeft, most campers hit the park's 23 miles of hiking trails. "They're never by their cabin very much," he said. Another popular pastime is fishing Mic Mac Lake. Nearly its entire 132 acres is less than 4 feet deep except for a narrow trench up to 20 feet deep along the southeastern shore. Nonetheless, anglers catch some big pike, Hoeft said. And he meant big -- occasionally up to 20 pounds.
The next day, our band gathered up water and snacks and headed out to conquer Mount Trudy. We found a trailhead near the cabins and followed the path around one end of Mic Mac Lake. As we walked, we spotted a pine marten in a tree overhanging the trail. It appeared to be a youngster and looked down at us as curious as a kitten.
The trail climbed to the Conservancy Pines, an overlook on the shore of Mic Mac. From there it joined the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs through Tettegouche on its way to the Canadian border. We hooked to the south and followed the nearly level path for a while. Then it began to climb like a jet on takeoff.
After a steep climb of nearly 200 feet, we emerged on Mount Trudy, a rocky bump overlooking Mic Mac Lake and the Palisade Valley. We could see one of the cabins on the lake and behind that the ascending ridges of the North Shore. To the northeast, the Sawtooth Mountains marched toward Ontario, and to the east spread vast blue Superior. A vulture soared -- below us.
That afternoon Susan and I grabbed our fly rods and hopped in the canoe to throw big streamers for some of the lake's big pike. Just a few paddle strokes from the cabin, Susan thought she saw the flash of a fish. But after an hour of casting along the shore and seeing nothing more -- or catching anything at all -- we decided it must have been a mirage. Still, the trip was worth it. Except for the little cluster of cabins, the shoreline was pristine. Mic Mac reminded me of a lake in the Boundary Waters, with clear water and a rocky shore. Big boulders, some the size of small homes, had let loose from the cliffs above and crashed to the shore. A field of talus surrounded the lake.
The next morning we had an impossibly hearty breakfast of oatmeal. (I think the couple responsible for breakfast that morning determined they weren't going to lug out any food.) Then we loaded up our gear, hitched up our packs and started out. We encountered a family of ruffed grouse. In the state park, where they never encounter hunters, the hen and poults scurried about like chickens before disappearing into the brush. Then we climbed our gravel road and hiked down the backside of the ridge to the cars, leaving behind our Tettegouche camp, as if leaving the past and returning reluctantly to the present.
Greg Breining of St. Paul wrote "Super Volcano," a description of the active and potentially deadly volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. This fall, Borealis Books will publish his essays, along with Layne Kennedy's photographs, in "A Hard-Water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It."