A journey through time, to town and back

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Just before the 20th Century a trip into town from Balsam Township in east central Itasca County took two days at full speed. The winding journey required paddling a canoe down the Prairie River, crossing several portages depending on the time of year. I imagine one might camp at the midpoint somewhere near the modern location of Petrich’s store on Scenic Highway 7, which sells the 99 cent jelly beans I like.

In those days the population of the area numbered in the dozens. This according to James E. Rottsolk’s book “Pines, Mines, and Lakes: The Story of Itasca County,” a compelling if culturally archaic book published in 1960. I suspect they automatically issued “Pines, Mines, and Lakes” to every grandparent in the county prior to my birth.

Despite the ongoing relocation of Northern Minnesota’s Ojibwa people to reservations, Balsam of the late 1800s still sheltered a few native people who opted to stay in an area far too remote for their presence to bother anyone. Rottsolk highlights a back country Ojibwa trader the timber cruisers called Bunga Buck. And if that’s what the man actually called himself then my name is Dances with Stereotypes.

Even long after Minnesota statehood, a person could live out here free of all but passing human contact, knowing only the cycles of the natural world. Cycles, I might add, we now pay good money to protect ourselves from.

These thoughts came to mind speeding along the Wabana Road the other day on my way to Grand Rapids.

This was the same journey that once took two days. It now takes me about half an hour. My trip includes a heated cab and a radio tuned to Northern Community Radio, Minnesota’s first public radio station incorporated back before anyone could have predicted the rise of tote bags and All Things Considered.

Comparatively, my journey is remarkably safe. I won’t be attacked by a bear, a highwayman or the impenetrable cold of winter. True, should I spill coffee on myself there remains a small chance I could drop a wheel off the pavement and roll the vehicle at 65 miles an hour. I suppose humans must always contend with some danger. We just don’t see the danger in front of us anymore. It’s always just over our shoulder.

Deep in the countryside of Northern Minnesota one cannot escape the hallmarks of civilization: roads, power lines, and clear fields full of hay for unseen horses. Even the old small houses and their wood burning furnaces emit light and heat that would have been considered luxurious 100 years ago.

These modest square homes sport spindly TV antennas that no longer work since the advent of digital broadcasting. They were built by miners and loggers who split their own wood, even if it killed them … and it probably did.

Passing one such house at dawn I can see straight into the double windows of a humble living room. Where once you might have seen a colorful papered wall or the stark look of logs, this day I see a television larger than a dining room table turned on its side. In the dim light of morning, someone is watching a movie.

I know it’s a movie because I recognize Charlize Theron. The closeup is so large she may as well have been at the mailbox, picking up her newspaper. I’d nod and she’d nod back. Good old Charlize. To think, all the way from South Africa and she’s out here on the Wabana Road.

Wonder if she chops her own wood, Charlize? I imagine she could if she wanted. Probably doesn’t need help. A gal like that comes out here to get away from it all. Nothing clears the mind like chopping wood to feed your own sauna.

Before I know it my trip is done. Some modern task completed, I return home quicker than a bird.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. This brings back fond memories Aaron. I and a long time friend of mine have canoed the Prairie River..starting at Wolf Lake/County Rd 53 down to Prairie River dam on the south end of Prairie Lake. You’re correct, it can’t be done in a day. The only “portages” we encountered were in the beginning, prior to Lawrence Lake. They weren’t your typical over land “portages” but involved dragging the canoe over fallen trees which had totally crossed the river…many of them. The river banks had washed out the tree root support causing then to topple across the river. Because of this, we only got to the bridge on County road 336 by the end of the first day! Nice elderly guy who used to live in Perendy’s place brought our canoe, and us, to our deer camp on Scooty Lake so we didn’t have to camp out the first night. (Wish I could remember the guys name..give the shirt off his back type guy!). Second night we camped on the rivers edge in a small old abandon cabin, just east of the Arbo road. So…we never did have to use our tent! The third day had we had a leisurely paddle to and through Prairie Lake to the dam. The Gorge between Upper and Lower Prairie Lake is a beautiful, unique site. The whole trip is worth taking.
    P.S. We’ve also WALKED (it’s not built for walking) the entire Taconite Trail, from Ely to Rapids, but that’s another story.

  2. john packa says

    dances with stereotypes,
    Have you never had a nickname? Sometimes it’s a sign of respect. And what is up with Charlize Theron, are you super into her again?
    thanks bud.

  3. John Powers says

    Aaron –
    “Bunga” may have the man’s last name. The Bunga family is a large one from the Leech Lake community and it’s history is interesting. It began with a Bunga who was a free African American in the late 1700s; was a legendary voyageur in the British fur trade coming out of Michlimackinac into what is Minnesota today. Married into the Objiwes. One of his sons, George I think, is buried in the Nemadji cemetery in Superior. My great-great grandfather hired a Bunga as a guide for a hunting trip on Leech Lake in 1888.

    • First I’ve heard this. Interesting theory! All I have is the passage from the book, but this would line up with the timeline. Could have well been a relative. Anyway, it had the vibe of one of those back woods tales when I read it.

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