Sometimes I will have a free day sneak up on me and I just won’t know what to do with it. They are rare and usually a surprise via cancellation or change-of-plans. However, a few weeks ago, I found myself with a free day. One that I knew of ahead of time. Naturally I planned a mini-adventure. I drove north to Mille Lacs Lake to see some leaves.
I think it’s safe to say, until you take yourself out of your home territory and travel a bit, you don’t realize how much you haven’t seen at around you. I’ve gone countless places and met the locals who were surprised at how much I had seen and done in their own countries. Things they’d never taken the time to do. So I’ve made it a goal to see more of Minnesota, including all of the State Parks. In one year. More info on that later, but I took this one random Friday in October to practice. This is what I found.
This was the earliest start ever. I am in no means a morning person, and considering I had nowhere to ‘be’ today it is hard to fathom rising any earlier than necessary. But there I was, rolling out of bed at 7am, prepping for a day of hiking and photography. I did not know what I would find, nor did I really care until coffee was ready to go. It was going to be a quick day trip so I packed light, my D700 and X100s. My boots were all ready in the car, and with coffee/gear in hand I strode out the door into the chilly morning air feeling a microcosmic victory already. My personal project starts today.
With frost on the car I pulled out onto the road. Morning commutes were underway, and I envied absolutely no one as I got onto the interstate. The trip up would be simple but getting out of the Cities left me with many options to connect to the highway I wanted. I made many last minute decisions and turns, eventually ending up in the right direction. This was all part of the adventure, but I could tell early on that I would not make it up in Google Map’s predicted hour and a half time. Along the way I made stops to see the sun illuminating a river, thrifted some small town shops, and pulled over to photograph a frosted field of tall grass. Eventually around eleven I made my destination, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.
A quick pop in to the office and I would come out with a map and a stamp in my State Parks Passport. The woman inside was very helpful in giving me directions on what would be interesting to see, and how I could find the Hiking Club Trail. Soon I was off on the road in search of interesting people and pretty landscapes. It wasn’t long before I was parked next to the trail that would take me to the lookout tower. Before I could go that direction, I had passed a man cutting down trees and figured, why not go have a chat?
I walked back up the small hill, listening to the sounds of his chain saw tearing through the logs on the side of the road. He worked by himself, geared up in overhauls and warm clothing. I would pass by him many more times throughout the day and every time he would adapt to the warming of the day by ditching layers. He turned out to be a friendly guy with a lot to say. He had been in this forest for many years, not cutting down trees as it turns out, but clearing away hazard wood. I didn’t ask him to explain, as I guessed it consisted of trees that fell too close/over roads and posed a hazard to visitors. They were allowed to come in and clean it out, taking it home for free. He imparted a multitude of stories about deer, like how on occasion he had experienced one within arms reach while his saw was running. Or how one time he had counted 48 from the entrance to where he would cut wood. He questioned global warming based on how strangely cold it was, and told me to keep my eyes open for the famous albino deer that roamed this area.
As I said goodbye, he allowed me to take a few photos of him at work. A school bus had passed us while chatting and now kids were running around the small parking area. I was chilled and surprised to see that none of them had coats on. Perhaps they had some sort of cold adaptation or maybe kids run hot, but I felt they were ill-prepared and I scoffed a little inside. A few more groups of giggling kids passed by me on the path to the tower, but upon arriving at it’s base, I had the whole thing to myself. I climbed slowly, bracing cameras so as not to bang them against the metal framing of the tower. I was taken back in my mind to a time in Maine, having climbed one similar on another chilly day. At the top of this one though was a spectacular view in full sunshine. I attempted a panorama on my phone, just as two others slowly made their way up. One of the pair was extremely uncomfortable with heights, and they were gone faster than they came up. I could have wasted a good part of the day up there looking out over Mille Lacs, but there was more to see and I was moving slowly.
Nothing is quite like the scent of brisk autumn air. I found myself staring out over Ogechie Lake, the breeze bringing with it the smell of warm grass and the rice lake. The sky was a brilliant blue and the water below it a deeper azure. From this vantage point I could see the peninsula I had been on only a moment before. There had been a historic Ojibwe settlement there, discovered after it had been turned into a camping area. I could almost imagine people, heading out in canoes to harvest wild rice and bring it back home to prepare. I could almost imagine whole lives being lived out here. Time and space were playing tricks in my head and I had to keep moving. I was on the Hiking Club Trail and wanted to find my first password.
I passed between the colored trees and crunched through the leaves in complete solitude. My mind wandered while I followed a path that seemed to be a low ridge through the woods. To either side of the path would come occasional little micro-ponds and I wondered how they came to be. At one point I found one that opened up to be a bit more marshy, and I walked out along a dead tree out into the water. If ever I was going to spot a moose, this would be the location for it. I watched a bend, backlit by sun, expecting nothing more than the glorious advent of the animal kingdom to come forward and bask in this photographically orgasmic location. Alas, he never came and I continued my way upon the path. I took to singing to myself and wishing I knew more about deducing animal poop and paw prints. I could tell a horse had been through, but the rest was a mystery to me.
Out of nowhere I came across the password. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I might have walked right past it. To find out what it is, you’ll need to make the trip up! The walk to the car was shorter, and upon reaching it I had one of those moments where I thought my car looked pretty sexy. Which doesn’t happen all that often, so I had to grab a shot of that as well. Time to move on, it wasn’t late in the afternoon but I hadn’t eaten yet and it was recommended that I head on over to another nearby park where the albino deer were more prevalent.
From the confines of the park I hadn’t been able to get close to Mille Lacs itself, so I quickly took a detour to a place called Indian Point. The road dead-ended, so I parked the car and hiked down the dirt road into the woods. I could’ve taken the car in, but upon inspection, I wouldn’t have made it out. Huge potholes and mud pits covered over by sticks where others had made this mistake were what I found, and that would have put a damper on the day. But after I crawled through the brush to the very tip of the point, I had a great view of Rainbow Island. A sharp breeze dared to blow me off of the rocks, but it didn’t double-dog dare me so I headed back to the car.
In half a day, I had adventured over a hundred miles by car and by foot. I had met unique strangers with stories to tell, and witnessed the youth of our state making memories that might establish a passion for the outdoors. The day was not even over yet, but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself and rejuvenated the passion to keep working on next year’s Passport Project. That though, is a story for another time.