International Falls: To Canada and back

Editor’s note: In the interest of clarity, for I know this journal jumps back and forth with a whimsical indifference to organization, this rambling bit of nonsense chronicles our hit-and-run visit to International Falls, Minn., and Fort Frances, Ont. That was Wednesday, Aug. 21, nearly four weeks ago already.
The underlying narrative: Becky was ready for the trip to end, while I tried to outflank her desires and make it last as long as possible. Again, I’m sorry for being such a selfish dick. 
We came into International Falls late the night before, Becky having driven the 170 miles from Karlstad, aka the Moose Capital of the North. Whatever discord simmered inside the Behemoth was softened by the visual pyrotechnics produced by the Northern Lights. The show seemed to go on forever.
It was not without its peril. Once or twice Becky nearly drove off the road while craning to watch the show, but she did an admirable job of getting us to International Falls, aka the “Icebox of the Nation.”


Thursday, Aug. 22, Ironwood, Mich.

We left International Falls in good spirits last night after our twilight raid on and impromptu visit with Leona and Teddy Byklom. You don’t often meet a couple who have endured 70 years of marriage. I’d have to live to 114 to reach such a milestone.
Not likely, I guess.
When we’d parted ways with the Bykloms, Becky got behind the wheel of the Behemoth. We headed south on U.S. 53, the Peoples Republic of Canada at our backs. I wasn’t worried, though
I wondered if the Northern Lights would turn the heavens into an incendiary canopy as they had yesterday, when we made our way from Karlstad to International Falls.
The moon was fat and luscious in the North Country sky. Becky, however, was not in the mood for romance and poetry. She was driven instead by a fierce determination to get us to Pennsylvania and parry my predilection for endless wandering.
If she didn’t stay focused, we might wake up tomorrow at Voyageurs National Park.
And so she drove for five hours. She whipped the Behemoth relentlessly forward, on to Duluth, over Saint Louis Bay and into Superior, Wis. She didn’t stop driving till we’d reached Ironwood on the western fringe of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
When we awoke this morning, we were nearly 300 miles removed from International Falls.
Back there, we had ourselves a little cross-border adventure while absorbing the singular redolence of the paper industry.
After leaving the Coffee Landing Café, which seems to be the hippest, hoppingest place on Main Street, we stopped at Border Bob’s duty free shop. I asked after Bob, but he was out of town and not due back until tomorrow. My source wasn’t too forthcoming, but she did say Bob’s been running Border Bob’s since it opened in 1978.
Shaking off the disappointment, we returned to the sidewalk, skipped blithely past U.S. gendarmes and crossed the bridge into Fort Frances, Ontario. Our path took us above Rainy Lake and afforded an excellent view of the hydroelectric dam that powers the Boise Cascade paper mill and its Canadian counterpart. The pedestrian route also spared us the $6 toll, which is a source of irritation for locals and wanderers alike.
A little back story: The Fort Frances-International Falls International Bridge is brought to you by the paper industry and is wholly owned by resident mills. Back in 1905, a timber baron named Edward Wellington Backus, president of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company, had this dam built to fuel his plants.
The miracle of artificial light was bestowed upon the region.
E.W. Backus had a grander vision. He wanted to build six more dams and turn this region into an industrial powerhouse. His plans were thwarted by a cabal of conservationists and tourism advocates spearheaded by Ernest Oberholtzer, who would become a founding member of The Wilderness Society.
Now an interloper might reasonably ask where one might go to visit the famous waterfall which helped give the “Icebox of the Nation” its name. The answer is nowhere. Koochiching Falls, which once tumbled 35 feet downward over a series of rapids, lies beneath the reservoir created by Backus’ dam.

Agent Jason Wiersema takes a moment away from his job as sentinel of the free world to pose with a 6-year-old imp.

Agent Jason Wiersema takes a moment away from standing guard at the portal to the free world to pose with a 6-year-old imp.

But that’s history now. In the here and now, on the far side of the bridge, we checked in with youthful Canadian agent Jason Wiersema. He welcomed us to Canada with a sober formality befitting his profession. His steely facade soon softened. He said we were the third group from Washington state he’d seen today.
I couldn’t imagine one of his American counterparts divulging such sensitive information.

“One of them might’ve gotten arrested,” he said.
Maybe he was joking. Maybe he wasn’t. But that’s the point. After receiving the 911th degree on the U.S. side, we met a border guard who talked as if he were a flesh-and-blood human and not a bipedal robot programmed to see the terrorist lurking in every man.
I thought of my pal Chad Shikowsky. I bet his job as supervisor on the U.S. side gives him a well-spring of stress to release in those after-hours hockey scrums. I’ll bet Chad and Jason would have a lot to talk about over a couple of pints.
As Jason examined our identification, we discussed the most salient feature hereabouts: the tag-team paper mills slowly dying on opposite banks and dragging their respective towns into the noxious mire with them.
Just last May, when we were driving into Tallapoosa, Ga., Boise announced plans to lay off 265 workers in International Falls. CEO Alexander Toeldt allowed the layoffs were regrettable, but said they would allow Boise to “enhance the overall competitiveness of the International Falls mill and our paper business.”
Perhaps this is the sort of devotion to competitiveness that prompted the Association of Suppliers to the Paper Industry (lovely prepositional phrase there, ASPI) to award Toeldte its 2013 Customer Executive of the Year Award.
toeldteCustomer Executive of the Year! You can’t make this shit up. Congratulations, Alex!
Purely for the record and with malice intended to no one, Boise rewarded Alexander Toeldte with a total compensation package in excess of $4.5 million in 2012.
Well, times are tough all over. And so it goes.
On the bright said, Agent Wiersema said, economic stagnation is not without its upside.
“It’s a terrible thing to say with all the people losing their jobs, but the smell’s not as bad as it used to be,” he said. “They’re just not making as much paper as they used to. It’s no fun coming to work, smelling that poison air and getting a headache a couple times a week.”
Jason offered a few suggestions for our hit-and-run tour of Fort Frances, and we thanked him for his cordiality and professionalism. We started walking. We made a quick stop at a pharmacy to see if they had any Canada T-shirts for sale.
They didn’t. At the pharmacy counter, we noticed a sign noting that certain prescription co-pays had dropped to $2. We walked on. We walked all over downtown Fort Frances.
Not much to see here, just another gray town scuffling to stay afloat in the global century.
And we walked some more. We walked about a mile north, hung a left and then started walking south on Second Street. The $2 co-pays left us a little depressed.
The more we walked, the more we talked about the healthcare divide we crossed when we walked across the bridge.
It seemed that even poor people, and there are plenty of them in Fort Frances, are more amiable here.
Guess it all depends on your perspective. I don’t want to get into the whole healthcare fracas here. People believe what they want to believe, and I’m not going to change anyone’s mind.
Furthermore, my grasp on the details of single-payer healthcare is too slight to permit me any sort of well-versed pontification.
It’s just that … why does the mere notion of universal health care make so many people so angry? Many people who would benefit see red when the subject comes up.
We have become an immature nation. Almost infantile.
No significant national discussion can take place unless it starts with the prima facie acknowledgement that we are the greatest nation in history, on this planet or any other you’d care to name.
We are the best. We are special. I hate to sound like a shirtless Russian thug, but even a broken clock is correct twice a day.
We are exceptional, like all toddlers. Everyone knows this. It is the first principle of American political science. All else follows.
We are children. #NeverForget
Don’t get me wrong. Canada is no utopia. The national obsession with ice hockey is more than enough to make one suspicious. As for medical care, I suppose there are costs and trade-offs and problems with all systems. Since it is operated by and for human beings, I’m sure Canada’s healthcare system is rife with corruption and suffused with inefficiency.
I am no polemicist, just an aging man trying to get by in an indifferent world. The Koch brothers spend their billions convincing people the market system is a better, more efficient, more humane way to go. That is their right. I am beyond their reach, however.

DSCF8196

On a more, anecdotal note: As we crossed the street, I couldn’t help but notice that the little white figure (Max calls him the White Man) whose appearance signals it’s OK to enter the crosswalk looks, well, jauntier than his American counterpart. He seems livelier, more optimistic. He’s got a spring in his step.
This much is not open to debate.
To wit, check out this guy we stumbled across on Michigan Avenue in Chicago:

DSCF8298

Much more serious fellow. He is carrying some kind of heavy load. Take a closer look at our walking men:

jaunty2          oppressed

Look at the difference in posture.
On the left, Mr. Canada has a foot in the air. His stride is loose and carefree. You can almost hear him whistling. Sure, he has worries, but they do not press upon him with undue weight.
Should he lose his job due to plunging economy, untenable workplace relations or even his own malfeasance, he need not worry about his family’s access to medical care. If he sees a suspicious-looking mole on his wife’s shoulder when she turns away from him in bed, he can simply urge her to get it checked out.
That’s what his taxes pay for.
Just across the border, a real stone’s throw away, you have Mr. America. I mean, look at the poor bastard! I don’t know shit about semiotics, but this wretch has a chip on his shoulder. Or maybe it’s a shipping container. His head his lowered. There’s some genuine shoulder-to-the-wheel gravity in his forward lean. He is focused on the destination. The journey? That’s for some less-serious person.
He has no time for idle chit-chat. He’s got someplace to be. And now. What if he’s late to work? Again? He’s already cross-ways with his boss. Already has a letter in his file. Yet he needs this job. He’s got a wife and three kids at home.
Because without this job, he suddenly becomes exposed to a Pandora’s box of potential calamities. What if he breaks his leg, suffers a mild stroke or finds a strange lump in his neck?
That’s a lot of stress. Better to keep his head down and get through his day the best he can.
Here in America, we manufacture stress by the boat load. Wall Street is bullish on stress. It’s a growth industry, brother.
It’s no surprise that cancer treatment is one of our few booming industries nowadays.
Cancer therapy and private prisons shall save us from the abyss.
But seriously, what’s up with this guy …

Max gazes at the Canadian mounty's scarlet tunic with appropriate suspicion.

Max gazes at our inanimate mounty friend with appropriate suspicion for his scarlet tunic and cheesy mustache.

Back on earth, we were able to get Max ice cream at Maddy’s on Second. We had fulfilled at least one mission Jason laid out for us. We didn’t find the river park with the tugboat.
We had walked enough.

It was time to go home.
As we made our way back to the border, I expressed the desire to stop in and see if Jason was still around before crossing the bridge to the greatest nation in the world.
For one, I’d forgotten how to spell his surname. And in light of my experience on the U.S. side, I regretted not asking Jason if I was allowed to take his picture. Becky thought not, but I wasn’t sure.
We’d see.
When we arrived, Jason was no longer at his post. We were greeted instead by Agent Fisher. I asked about Jason, saying how we’d had an interaction with him. Seemed like a good guy, I said said he’d been nice. Agent Fisher said we must have the wrong guy.
Another comic. Was just like an ordinary corporate office.
Jason was working one of the automobile booths. Fisher pulled him out so we could take a picture.
Amazing. Jason appeared, and we talked a bit longer. I asked him about the healthcare divide on opposite sides of Rainy Lake. Asked him to tell me just how fucked up Canada’s single-payer system is.
He was thoughtful. More thoughtful than me.
I mentioned something about envying his free healthcare. He bristled, but in a very polite way.
“As a government employee, nearly half of my paycheck goes to taxes of some kind,” he said. “It’s anything but free. So it can be frustrating. But on the whole, I am happy to have it.”
I asked if the average Canadian was happy with the tradeoff. He said he thought so. He asked if we had it, and seemed a bit troubled by my answer.
Not wanting to sully our friendship, I quickly changed the subject.
Then I asked what would happen if I swam across the Rainy River from International Falls to Fort Frances. I’d had this on my mind since the morning. We’d slept in a concealed corner of a parking lot at a public boat launch. We slept on a downhill incline, but nonetheless I always find myself more energized when waking up in some particular or natural place as opposed to a Walmart lot.
I tried to walk off the kinks and stiffness as I wandered toward the river’s edge. I was surprised too see how close Canada was.
If you can’t reach out and touch it, it seemed you could dive in and be there in no time. You didn’t need to be Johnny Weismuller to make it to the other side.
Besides, it looked like fun. Jason was unimpressed. While it was unlikely to get caught (“It’s like a needle in a haystack”), it was dangerous. More than a few people have died trying the stunt.
“If you got caught, you’d get arrested and we’d give you a big fine,” he said. “You’d go to jail until you got a hearing. You wouldn’t go home immediately.”
And the fine?
“It starts at $1,000.”
And so it was I lost my whimsical desire to swim across the Rainy River. Besides, that river’s gotta be a toxic gumbo, what with those dueling paper plants on either bank.
Jason came out front to pose with Max. He even suggested Becky lower the shade to reduce the glare. It was awesome, even if he is a Blackhawks fan. He has a teaching degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, but they offered him full-time work here. I asked if he ever thinks about returning to teaching.
“Only when I’m working nights,” he said with a half-smile. “Those night shifts can be brutal.”
It is hard to express with any degree of accuracy the chasm dividing our border experiences. It is a gulf much, much wider than the humble Rainy River. In any case, it’s purely anecdotal.
But … when we got back to the homeland, feeling more or less secure, we were greeted by Agent Adair. It’s as if Agent Wiersema had phoned ahead to tell him we were on our way.
In any case, he played his role to the hilt. He lips remained pursed. His scowl never betrayed him. His voice never lost its wary monotone.
Christ. What do you do to these guys, Chad? Do you dock their pay if you catch them revealing their humanity? Do you lock them in a room and subject them to Dane Cook monologues? Repeated playings of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Worse?
I shudder to think.

****

Back in the U.S.A., I had one mission to accomplish before leaving International Falls. I wanted to swing by Teddy Byklom’s house and get his photograph. I’d looked up his address, and it was more or less on the way out of town.
We went south on 53 for a bit less than a mile and then turned onto 14th Street. There it was, the Byklom’s Buick Century parked in the driveway of a humble house.
I conscripted Becky and Max to join me in this unorthodox mission, hoping their presence at my side would make me look less insane.
It was about 7:30, so I figured Teddy, even at age 93, might still be awake.
The door was open. I could hear the sound of a television. I knocked. Max knocked too. No answer. Knocked again. And again. One more time. No luck.
Defeat was imminent. We walked around back. Nothing there. I figured we should give it one final try. Knock loud, Becky said. I did. Voila! Leona Byklom appeared at the door in housecoat and half-closed eyes.
I must have looked like a madman. I am here to take your picture. She volunteered to put on a blouse, and we were in.
They’ve lived in this house since 1944, when Terry built it. In June, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
I loved the Bykloms.

Leona and Teddy Byklom on the front porch of the house he built 69 years ago.

Leona and Teddy Byklom on the front porch of the house he built 69 years ago.

Terry? Teddy? Are you confused? I was.
His name is Theodore Byklom, son of Knute and Grunhilde.
Turns out he answer to both Terry and Teddy.
“My dad’s name was Ted Johnson,” Leona said. “When we got married, his name was Ted. When we would gather we’d call Ted and they both would answer. So I nicknamed him Terry.”
Terry or Teddy, he grew up in the country outside Bemidji. Her family lived in town.
There’s was a brief, old-fashioned courtship.
“Me and my girlfriend, a neighbor girl, we went for a walk to a place where kids hang out, ya know,” she said. “And he was down there, too. My girlfriend had met him one time. And he started to talking to her. And then he said let’s go in there and I’ll buy you a Coke if you want. So we both went in, and he went and ordered the stuff.
“I sat on one side because I thought he he’d sit with her. But he came and sat with me.”
About a month later, on June 5, 1943, they were married. He served in the 15th Infantry but he never left the states.
“They were going to send us over to Europe, but they didn’t,” he said. “Another bunch went. So that’s what saved my life.”
He knows well enough. His only brother, Bennie, lies somewhere off the coast of New Jersey. His ship, the USS Jacob Jones, was hit by a German submarine and sunk on Feb. 28, 1942.
They came to International Falls in 1944. Terry had a job at the paper mill. He stayed for 40 years.
Back then, the neighborhood wasn’t much.
“There wasn’t hardly anybody living there,” Leona said. We came in the back way it was so muddy we got stuck. Everybody thought they were way out in the country. There were three or four homes up the street, and one of them had pigs.”
I asked if it were really possible that International Falls was that much colder than, say, Bemidji.
“Ya,” Teddy said. “Oh ya. Colder then Bemidji? Oh ya. We had snow on the ground way up until May this year. Sometimes it was 40, sometimes 50 below.”
Teddy took us outside and showed off his camper and trailer. He breathed with audible labor. He said it’s been five years since it’s been on the road. There was a wistful look in his eyes like he wished he were somewhere else right now.
I asked him about the parking lot scene, about the Hank Williams that came booming out of his car. I asked if he really did love the music, or if it was just incidental.
“Ya, I do,” he said. “I’ve had many guitars, but they’re gone now. I used to sing, too. I got emphysema in my lungs. I got it out of the mill, The doctor said I’m OK, but I got that wheezing in my lungs. I’m OK, ya.”
And that was our run-in with Teddy and Leona Byklom. As usual, we were much richer for their indulgence. As we said our goodbyes, Teddy made reference to his days in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He worked at Cass Lake, a regional hub.
The memory provoked a sideways smile. I asked him about the experience.
“It was good for the poor people; a dollar a day, ya know,” he said. “And I’m afraid the times are going to change. Ya, the government should start it up again. And they could. They could build roads, they could do everything.”
Oh gosh, that Norwegian blood is so damned pragmatic. What are you thinking, Teddy boy?
It was time to go. By even the most direct route, we were still 1,368 miles from Berwyn. And we had a stop to make in Chicago.

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