Lake break in Bemidji
A favorite place in Minnesota's north woods gets even better.
© Beth Gauper
On the south shore of Lake Bemidji, "Agent Orange'' poses for passersby.
Once, Bemidji was one of the roughest towns in Minnesota. Now, it's one of the coolest.
This is the north-woods logging town that produced the original Paul Bunyan and Babe in 1937, and even today, these figures on Lake Bemidji are rarely without a cluster of tourists at their feet.
Look beyond this iconic but corny duo, as the visitors bureau fervently hopes you do, and you'll find everything else a tourist heart could desire – a gorgeous state park, a paved bicycle trail, a professional playhouse, fine restaurants and shops.
Bemidji is one of my favorite places for a lake break, and on a recent visit, I found even more of everything I already love – more bicycle trail, more beach parks, more cool art and, nicest of all, more welcome signs.
There are two other cartoonish figures in Bemidji, both symbolic of the historically uneasy relationship between the town and the Ojibwe residents of the nearby White Earth Reservation.
One is Chief Bemidji, a benefactor of Bemidji's first settlers, and the other is the half-naked Injun Joe, who stands in front of Morell's Chippewa Trading Post with his arm raised in a "How'' salute.
But now the chief is on his way out, with a committee raising money for a more respectful statue. And a tree has grown in front of Injun Joe, nearly blotting him from view. Passersby are drawn instead to the giant metal powwow dancer across the street, “Niiemii,'' Ojibwe for "he dances.''
And downtown, Ojibwe words have sprouted on the doors of shops – “Boozhoo,'' or “Welcome,'' and “Biindigen,'' or “Come in.''
You see a lot riding the 17 miles around Lake Bemidji, one of the most pleasant ways you can spend a day.
Start on the northwest corner at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, the lake's last resort, and you'll soon pass the Bemidji Town & Country Club, a golf course that was founded in 1916 and is open to the public.
Then you'll pull into Lake Bemidji State Park, which has four new camper cabins, a bog walk, a long sand beach and a full-time naturalist, John Fylpaa, who takes tourists on free weekly pontoon-boat history jaunts around the lake.
The 112-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail starts in the park and follows its eastern shore, crossing the Mississippi River, which
enters Lake Bemidji near downtown.
Both entry and exit points are popular fishing spots, and the town is named for the Ojibwe word Bemidgegumaug, or "river flowing crosswise.’’
You can ride the trail all the way to Brainerd, and connections to Cass Lake and Park Rapids make this likely the longest paved bicycle network in the nation.
© Beth Gauper
A tree now obscures Injun Joe, once one of the first things visitors saw.
But if you're heading toward downtown, a new stretch of trail takes bicyclists past a small Rotary Club beach and a fetching
beauty made of rusty rebar and chains, Travis Turner's “Agent Orange.''
The piece is part of Bemidji's annual Sculpture Walk, and it's for sale, only $6,000. I wonder how it would look in my
Downtown also is dotted with interesting pieces, including two turn-of-the-century high-wheelers that may be art, bike rack or both. It's next to the Yellow Umbrella, an art collective-vintage shop, and in the window I see an ingenious papier-mache sculpture that I also want.
It makes a centaur out of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and shop intern Emily Wendland made it as her senior
There's a lot of talent in this university town. Just around the corner is the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota's oldest professional summer-stock company.
There are lots of treats, too. Chocolate Plus, the kind of candy store that makes kids' eyes pop out of their heads, is
across the street from the playhouse and stays open through intermission.
Around the corner, Althea's Cakery sells artfully decorated cupcakes. Cabin Coffee sells huge homemade bars.
It's hard to get out of downtown, but I do. From Library Park on the lakefront, I turn onto Lake Boulevard and ride onto the campus of Bemidji State University and Diamond Point Park, where the recreation center rents canoes and kayaks.
This lovely point has a quirky history. In 1894, a fellow named Silver came to the lake looking for gold, but found what he thought were diamonds – actually, quartz pebbles. He discovered they were worthless, but not before sinking his money into land.
Two years later, another man also bought up lakeshore – but this one was better at PR. He knew there weren't diamonds but he spread the rumor anyway, making money when St. Paul newspapers printed the story and his land value rocketed.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists pass the spot where the Mississippi River enters Lake Bemidji.
Today, students and families flock to the park and its beaches, playground and handsome Arts and Crafts-style picnic
pavilions. At the Recreation Center, you can rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard for only $5 an hour.
From the campus, the route follows Birchmont Drive past Cameron Park, which has a boat launch, playground and a broad sand beach with a shower tower.
This quiet road rejoins busier County Road 21 just a half mile short of Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge – but while I'm in town, the city paints broad bike lanes on both sides of the freshly paved road.
At the 1921 lodge, I shower and join gracious proprietors Randy and Tina Ruttger for their weekly wine-tasting reception. But I'm horrified when a longtime guest suggests to Randy that he sell off his cabins and make a ton of money.
I'm relieved when he laughs and says, “What would I do if I didn't have a resort to run?''
Randy Ruttger's branch of the famous Minnesota resorting family has owned Birchmont Lodge since 1937, and it's one of my
“I started working for my father because I was too lazy to get a real job,'' he jokes. “Why would I work in an office when I can be fixing a boat or running a tractor or raking the beach?"
It's great that the town of Bemidji is moving on and modernizing. And it's also great that its best parts are staying the same.
For more on the town, see Bemidji's
For more about the Birchmont Lodge, see Quick break on a lake.
For more about the Paul Bunyan State Trail, see Bicycling the Bunyan.
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