Wednesday, Aug. 21, International Falls, Minnesota
We’re at the Coffee Landing Cafe on Main Street in International Falls. I just walked back from the border checkpoint, where I had a brief if amusing chat with Supervisor Chad Shikowsky.
Before I met Chad, I ran into Officer Fritz. I asked him his name, and he said, “Officer Fritz.” I already knew that, having read his name plate.
He referred me to Chad. Chad’s a nice enough guy, but Chad works for the U.S. government. Not only that, Chad works in the realm of border security. That means he could tell me nothing. He was quite up front about this.
I asked if I might record him telling me nothing. I thought it might make my unborn grandkids laugh someday.
Chad shook his head and said, “I’d rather that didn’t happen.”
Chad’s 40, has a wife and two kids. He likes to go hunting and fishing. He’s just an ordinary Minnesotan working a job that became less ordinary after 9/11.
I googled Chad. In a few keystrokes I found out more about the human being named Chad Shikowksy than the government would allow him to tell me.
For one, Chad loves ice hockey. He’s on the board of directors for the International Falls Rec Hockey organization. He officiates hockey games. In February of 2007, Chad worked the Class 1A girls semifinal hockey game between Farmington and Crookston. For the record, Farmington won, 4-2.
So, Chad’s got a thing for authority, I guess.
I’m only kidding. Chad is laid-back in an authoritarian kind of way. He’s cut from the Scandinavian-Lutheran-Minnesotan mold. I imagined him as a rangy, taciturn defenseman who loves to ride wingers into the corner boards. If I were mucking about in the corner, I’d want Chad on my team.
He even told me I could take photos of the customs building, though he made sure to tell me I couldn’t take photos of border-patrol agents doing whatever it is they do to keep me safe.
So I took a picture of the building. On cue, a female agent emerged from the front door and admonished me for doing so. Nearly walked right into my frame, she did. Came perilously close to getting an unsanctioned portrait taken. What a kettle of walleye that would’ve been
I shrugged my shoulders and said Chad said it was OK. I took another one or two, and here came Chad. He wanted to know how long I planned to lurk about with my camera.
“The longer you’re out here, the more anxious my people get,” he said.
He told me I could go to Canada, if I had the proper documentation. I could see he hoped I did and would.
“It’s just what we do,” he said by way of explanation.
If it’s known for anything, International Falls is known for being cold. The icebox of the USA. f you’re my age, you probably remember those vintage Diehard commercials, cars starting on frozen Rainy Lake in International Falls. Yesterday the temperature was at least 95.
We woke up in a boat-launch parking lot right on the Rainy River. I walked down to the dock and was startled at how easy it would be to swim to Canada. Later I asked Chad what would happen to me if I had followed through on my imaginary swim, and he said that would be up to his Canadian counterparts. Certainly they’d detain, scold and deport me. At the very least.
Looking east you could see twin paper mills looming on either side of the river. One American, one Canadian. The American one is run by Boise Inc.
As for the noxious odor that hangs over International Falls, they blame the other. Well, they may not have the opportunity forever. In May, Boise announced it would shut down two of its four paper machines here and lay off 300 workers.
I asked Chad, who grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, if you ever get used to the stench coming from the twin paper mills.
“I’m not sure you ever get used to it,” he said. “Maybe you learn to tolerate it, to live with it. But get used to it? Sometimes it just knocks you out.”
Before my run-in with Chad, I met Teddy Byklom in the parking lot of the County Market. He’ll turn 94 in November.
Becky was in the Dollar Tree. A wave of sound flooded in from my left. Soaring steel-guitar chords cut through the soothing breeze that blew in off Rainy River.
Hank Williams. Don Helms. Hey Good Lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?
Old Teddy was blasting that Hank Williams. His wife, Leona, was inside shopping. Apparently this is the only chance Teddy gets to rock out. He was rocking out, let me tell you.
I tried to get his attention. I bebopped around the side of his car. I think I made him nervous. First he shut his door. Then he turned off the music. I was crushed.
Becky came back. She walked over and said hi. A few minutes later, Teddy opened his door again and looked in my direction. He said he has an RV even smaller than the Behemoth.
Teddy did 40 years on a paper machine at the Boise mill. His family is full Norwegian. His parents came to Minnesota, then worked their way up the Thief River.
“I’m older than you think I am. I was born in 1919. Things haven’t changed much. I traveled all around the country, all the way out west. All over the world.”
Says he used to swim across the Rainy River to Canada. I was jealous. Not only is it much harder to cross the border nowadays, it’s more expensive.
The toll across the international bridge to Fort Frances is $6 per car.
“Now they make you go to the courthouse and get a paper (passport),” he said. “They used to let you cross the border for free.”
I asked Teddy if the federal government was doing a good job keeping those Canadians on their own side of the border.
“The Canadians are nice people,” Teddy said. “I like them. All you see around here are Canadians.”
We spent yesterday in Karlstad, population 760, in Kittson County. We went to Karlstad at the recommendation of Jefferson Pepper, my erstwhile spiritual advisor.
Jefferson Pepper went to Karlstad in the spring to buy a dead guy’s beer cans. Usually we end up in certain places due to the whimsy of serendipity. Sometimes we get there because people advise us not to.
And then there’s the Jefferson Pepper phenomenon. He has a strange power over me. In the summer of 2002, he said I should hike Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. I’d never so much as backpacked overnight before. But I did it. I walked from Monson, Maine, to the peak of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. I think I walked 125 miles in all. Just because he told me to.
I’m easily led, I guess. So, if at all possible, I try to humor Jeff. And it turns out Grand Forks is only 78 miles from Karlstad. And we wouldn’t have to walk. So to Karlstad we went.
I remember, vaguely, him telling me about the town which billed itself as the Moose Capital of the North. A town, it turns out, that has no moose.
We drove through the night from Grand Forks, up I-29, crossed the Red River at Drayton, N.D., and picked up Minnesota 11.
Along the way we listened to the CBC Radio program “Quirks and Quarks.” It was startling to hear host Bob McDonald interview scientists and allow them to talk freely about evolutionary processes as if there were no controversy whatsoever. And did you know orangutans are now using iPads?
Bob McDonald issued no caveat emptor, no warnings for parents who might be offended should they discover their children being poisoned by science. Right there on Canadian radio. It seemed downright seditious to me.
It was weird, is all. Those crazy Canucks.
We got to Karlstad around midnight, maybe later. We found the city park, right along U.S. Highway 59. We camped, which was a tremendous bargain at $10 including a full hook-up.
In the morning, I dragged Max out into the already-simmering heat for a photo opportunity.
As usual, I’ll have much more on Karlstad later. All I’ll say now is it’s worse than you think. That moose lurking behind Max? It’s not a moose at all. It’s a mythological creature. Might as well be a minotaur or a chimera.
It’s a Clydesdale horse crowned with a moose’s head. Sue Dufault, the city clerk/treasurer, told me so. She’s a real sweetheart, Sue is.
She told me all of Karlstad’s secrets. Then she told me I should talk to Loren Germundson and Hollis Turnwall, a couple of the town’s veteran merchants. I did. I even visited with Hollis’ 108-year-old mom, Bertha Turnwall. She’s quite a lady.
Karlstad’s biggest secret? The moose capital of the north may have not a single moose, but it does count a celebrity among its 750 or so residents.
I could reveal his identity now, but then you’d have no reason to come back later and read more. Besides, we’re still 1,370 miles from home. Becky is ready be there.
Becky’s done with this trip. I drag my feet, bastard that I am, trying to milk this adventure for all it’s worth. And Becky, she’s been so wonderful, so tolerant, so easy-going for the entirety of our relationship. I wanted to take a shot on this absurd project, and she has given me unfathomable support the whole way.
And this is how I do her? I don’t know what to say.
Except I’m sorry, Becky.
And thanks. You’re the best.