MCGREGOR, Minn. – For decades, the answer has remained the same:
“Draw a line between Brainerd and Duluth. It’s about halfway between the two.”
That visual usually answers the question “Where’s that?” — which almost always follows when you say you have a cabin on a lake near McGregor.
At least, that was the standard response two months ago. But in the wake of the Governor’s Fishing Opener on Big Sandy Lake in May, this hidden gem may have been unveiled just a bit.
In terms of Minnesota recreation destinations, the McGregor lakes area has long lived a Lake Wobegon-like existence. Similar to Garrison Keillor’s fictional hamlet that is allegedly in the geographic center of Minnesota, but was skipped over by mapmakers, McGregor is in the middle of everything but somehow skipped over in the minds of many Minnesotans who look for places to go “Up North.” It’s a geographic anomaly that the locals generally love. With Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge just to the south and Savannah Portage State Park to the north, the region has two relatively large, deep lakes where walleyes and northerns abound, and several more small, shallow lakes where panfish are more prevalent. The Mississippi River winds its way through the county as well, while the town of McGregor is surrounded by low-lying wetlands.
“We actually feel pretty lucky,” said Lisa Kruse, the community education director for the McGregor schools, and chief organizer of the 2016 Governor’s Fishing Opener. “A hop, skip and a jump one way is Duluth. An hour’s drive west is Brainerd, an hour to the north is Grand Rapids and if you want to go see arts or museums, you go two hours to the Twin Cities. But when I drive to work every day, the only thing I’m really looking for is a deer that might jump out in front of me. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
That love of where they live, as it is now, is one challenge that May’s big event posed to Kruse and others. They clearly want the lasting legacy of the visit by the governor and his entourage of media to be a new statewide awareness of Aitkin County as a year-round recreation destination, while maintaining the relative solitude that has made the region an unexpected find for generations.
“Obviously, tourism is so very important to this area, and having been born and raised in McGregor, growing up I worked for a lot of businesses driven by tourism,” said Scott Turner, the Aitkin County sheriff, who lives on a small lake near McGregor. “We know we need people to come here and enjoy the area. At the same time we don’t want to get rid of our rural values or the pristine nature of the environment here. So it is a balancing act.”
From a pure fishing standpoint, the governor’s event was a mixed success. It was rough weather that Saturday morning, with near-freezing temperatures and a strong northwest wind making it generally uncomfortable on the water, even for hardy Minnesotans. But people caught fish on Big Sandy, including Gov. Mark Dayton. Guided by Bob Staska, McGregor’s high school principal, athletic director and head football coach (in a town with 400 year-round residents, wearing multiple hats is common), the governor hauled in a nice perch mere minutes after leaving the dock at Big Sandy Lodge, and landed a few more decent-sized fish before heading to the event’s shore lunch.
Overall, it was a busy day on the busiest lake in a region that values peace and quiet. Even in this relatively serene part of the state, Turner knows people who have sold their places on Big Sandy and neighboring Lake Minnewawa in favor of property on smaller lakes in the area, where there are fewer fish, but also more loons and fewer wake boats.
For nearly 50 years the Myers family has owned a cabin on one of those smaller lakes, just west of McGregor. At night while sitting around the bonfire, it’s common to hear a conversation carrying across the water from the other side of the lake, or to hear the campfire hymns from the Bible camp on a neighboring lake wafting in from more than a mile away.
So thanks to the Governor and Co., the secret of the region is out, but locals chuckle at the idea that “another Brainerd” is coming to the McGregor lakes area anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’re in danger of having that happen,” Staska said. “I like fishing by myself. Obviously, who wants to fish in a crowd? Part of the allure is that it is quiet. And the fishing can be pretty good, too.”
Jess Myers is a media relations professional and freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights.