It catches your eye not far past Five Mile Rock north of Grand Marais, somewhere between Kimball Creek and the Kadunce River. A thicket? A massive pile of rocks? Landlocked beaver dams pocked with animal dioramas?
But we whizzed by, mostly focused on the big lake that glimmered like diamonds on a brilliant summer day. “What in the heck was that?” I asked my wife. “Remind me to slow down on the way back.”
The — what’s the word — monument must have had the same impact on people driving north to visit the highest waterfalls in Minnesota near the border at Grand Portage State Park. Several other cars had marked the mileage and were parked along the west side of the road. People wandered the strip of lawn along what seemed to be 100 yards of frontage of a small, white cottage.
The falls were an incredible natural force that day, plunging in multiple rivulets into the cola-colored water. But the odd roadside attraction was mesmerizing too, and it was handmade, constructed by bucketfuls of rocks, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of stones and trees, moved from cliff side by four-wheeler and, on occasion, a dump truck by a single 63-year-old man.
Intrigued, I asked around at a coffee shop in town. A woman smiled when I mentioned the rock garden, then rolled her eyes and said, “artwork,” using fingers to do air quotes. “I think he’s a state senator.”
Indeed, this menagerie of rock, stone, tree limbs and carved or forged animals is the four-year project of Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who bought the small cabin along Hwy. 61 about seven years ago. What started as a small, contained structure meant to creatively use several large trees that were knocked down in a storm a few years ago has spread 500 to 600 feet along the front of his property and grown into a piece of handiwork that stops traffic and confounds tourists.
Several of them were circling Wiger’s yard recently, snapping pictures and wondering what would motivate someone to put in the hundreds if not thousands of hours of work hauling and stacking wood and rock into improbable formations that soar without the help of cement or anything. One woman speculated that whoever was behind it must be an engineer or someone with OCD.
Wiger has a simpler explanation. “I’ve loved rocks since I was a kid,” said the 19-year legislator, chair of the education committee. “I love nature and trees.”
Wiger is a lawyer, not an engineer, so most of his balancing rock sculptures, of which there must be hundreds, are “trial and error,” he said. It all began when that storm knocked down some trees. Wiger also bought the cottage because it backs up to 40-foot cliffs filled with rocks and stones, which occasionally give way. He then carries them by bucket, by hand or in his four-wheeler and begins another vignette, another sculpture of nature. He estimates he has moved “tens of thousands” of rocks and he can’t even imagine how many tons constitute his concoction.
Then he began buying up animal sculptures, some from local carvers or artists, and placing them among the rock and log scaffolding. The animals range from small wooden sea gulls, to eagles that perch on the cliff behind his house, to foxes and a pack of wolves that hover around a fire pit.
Capping it all off is a 7-foot-tall iron moose that looms over the yard, something he bought from a guy dubbed “the moose man” who owns a body shop on south Lyndale in Minneapolis. “I really liked it,” Wiger said of the giant moose. “I thought it would be just perfect for up here. The whole look just started to evolve.”
The result is something that is hard to explain, a quixotic cross between the state’s largest and most whimsical private rock garden and the odd animal dioramas found in places like the Moccasin Bar in Hayward, Wis.
“It’s a hobby,” Wiger said. “And it’s good exercise. I’ve done it all myself.”
People stop by daily to take a look. “I would say I’ve seen a great deal of interest,” Wiger said. “You do get a lot of tourists. Many do enjoy it, though I’m not here all the time. Obviously, it’s very different.”
Late in the last legislative session I chatted with Wiger about all the conflict and stress and the last-minute haggling. This week he said his rock extravaganza was a way to deal with that stress.
“It puts your mind in a different place,” said Wiger. “It helps you focus and recharge. I’ve always loved northern Minnesota and being in the woods.”
In fact, it was just after 6 a.m. when we talked, and Wiger was dressing for a hike. But I couldn’t help but envision him pushing rocks up a hill, over and over, to build something with no apparent purpose, and not see a comparison to the Myth of Sisyphus. I asked which was harder, building the giant thing or trying to make gains at the end of a session.
“Oh, gosh,” said Wiger. “Probably the session. I have more control over destiny here.”
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