A lake in a thousand
By KAREN M. LASKI
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001
1. It's BIG!
Less than two hours from the Twin Cities, U.S. 169 skirts the western shore of Mille Lacs (the locals pronounce it ma-LAX). It is virtually an inland sea, stretching beyond the horizon. The lake's name, a French term used by early explorers and fur traders, means 1,000 lakes and was used to describe the area, not just the big lake. But it measures 16 miles wide and 22 miles long, about 80 miles around. The few shoreline communities exude that friendly, small-town feeling.
Every winter a community of 5,500 dwellings pops up on the frozen surface. Dubbed Frostbite Flats, these structures are ice-fishing houses. These run the gamut in comfort from bare bones to furnished, carpeted facilities with propane heaters and toilets.
From late December to March, plowed roads criss-cross the lake so that fishing enthusiasts can reach their shanties. Non-owners can rent a house in four-hour increments during the week, or for an entire weekend.
Instructions on how to drill the holes in the ice to reach the fish are included free of charge to renters.
Mille Lacs is home to about 40 species of fish, including an estimated 1.1-million walleye. Other popular targets are smallmouth bass, bluegills, muskie, northern pike and perch.
3. Year-round recreation
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, among the largest of the 70 state parks, is situated less than a mile from the lake. Kathio spans an area once covered by a pine forest. Loggers felled the trees in the 1850s.
Divided by the Rum River, the 10,585-acre park is now primarily a second-growth forest of aspen, birch, maple and oak. Under this hardwood canopy, hikers wend their way along 35 miles of trails, with a chance to spot beaver, otter, mink, deer and bald eagles.
Not even temperatures below zero keep Minnesotans from playing outdoors. When deep snow covers park trails, 19 miles are groomed for cross-country skiing. Snowmobilers enjoy a like number of trails, while snowshoers must make due with a 7-mile groomed trail, or they can strike out across non-groomed areas.
Once the snow melts, bikers appear on many of these same trails. (Minnesota reportedly has more paved bike trails than any other state.)
Pitch a tent or park a trailer, and enjoy Minnesota's clear, night-time skies. Camping is limited in winter at the state parks, when the water is turned off. But Kathio's five heated cabins remain available year-round. Six of the 22 campsites with electricity at Kathio and four of the 41 sites at Father Hennepin State Park are also available.
During warmer weather, overnight facilities at Kathio include 70 drive-in camping sites. Father Hennepin's two campgrounds have 103 drive-in sites accommodating RVs up to 60 feet (including tow vehicle). More than a dozen lakeside resorts offer RV hook-ups, as do a few family campgrounds.
5. Indian heritage
For a better understanding of the Ojibwe tribe of American Indians, who have inhabited this area for more than 250 years, visit the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, two miles north of Kathio on U.S. 169.
Through a partnership between the Ojibwe Band and the Minnesota Historical Society, a contemporary museum opened in 1996 on the southwest shore of the lake. Exhibits tell the band's story, from its arrival in Minnesota to the present.
Life-size dioramas depict seasonal subsistence activities followed by the Ojibwe, who sustained their independent lifestyle until large lumber companies stripped the ancestral lands.
On my recent visit, guide Doug Sam shed light on the seemingly mundane activity of harvesting wild rice in the fall. Most harvesting was done by women, two to a canoe. One paddled or poled the canoe, while the other sat in front and pulled the rice into it, removing the grain from the plant heads with two sticks.
If the lake's male overseer thought these women were making too much noise, he ordered them off the lake. (Indians believed noise fuels the winds, disturbing the lake and land.) If they disobeyed him, he used a pole to punch a hole in their birchbark canoe. Today the more easily harvested rice is sold in gift shops and supermarkets.
Mille Lac's rice beds help sustain several species of ducks as well as sheltering them from cold winds.
Rising early on a cool September morning, I accompanied a friend across Mille Lacs for a breakfast of wild blueberry muffins. As he pointed to wild rice growing along the shallow shoreline, a loon's haunting call broke the stillness.
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Karen M. Laski is a freelance writer who lives in Marshall, Va.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council, call toll-free 1-888-350-2692, or visit the Web site at www.millelacs.com.
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