America’s ‘Icebox’ Has the Warmest People

A man had paid for my breakfast, which puzzled me because I had not seen another patron in the Chocolate Moose diner. He sat in the booth ahead of me, divided by a pony wall, the waitress says. Maybe he sat down while I checked my email. I extend my debit card and name the tip amount. Like many restaurants financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Chocolate Moose is no exception, they are struggling—even with all its taxidermy, vintage hockey posters, and stacks of moose t-shirts for sale. 

Located in International Falls, Minnesota, a city bordering Ontario, Canada, tourists normally fill this restaurant in August. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s March border closure has prevented nonessential travelers from crossing the Fort Frances Border Crossing bridge. 

Eyeing my surroundings, I walk back to America’s Best Value Inn. The leather-faced men I had seen that morning standing around plastic garden tables holding cigarettes and fishing poles have disappeared.

In the evening, I run on the Oberholtzer trail next to Rainy Lake in Voyageurs National Park, America’s northernmost national park. In 1909, Ernest Oberholzer traveled 3,000 miles of the Rainy Lake watershed in a canoe with a guide, an Ojibwe man whose name translates to “He Who Echoes Far Off.” Oberholtzer, who said he was “born into the wilderness,” founded Deer Island, Inc. to provide campgrounds to tourists. I meet an older couple from Williamsburg, Virginia who drove to Palatine, Illinois to visit friends. They detoured nine hours to the North Woods because “why not,” they say. They recommend I have dinner at Sammy’s Pizza in downtown International Falls.

Downtown International Falls reminds me of Anchorage, Alaska, but colder and with fewer people. The city averages a high temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit 109 days per year, giving it the nickname “the Icebox of the Nation.” Border Bob’s will stay closed until the U.S.-Canadian border reopens. Its owners are “thinking about retirement,” according to two wooden scrolls nailed next to the door. Staff at The Sports Shop, which features hockey sticks and cross-country skis in its windows, takes customers by appointment only, its taped flyer says. A “for sale” sign lays in front of a lumber and fireplace log cabin store. 

As Saturday morning comes, I rent a kayak and room at Arrowhead Lodge and Resort in Kabetogama, an unincorporated community next to Voyageurs. Becky, the co-owner of the lodge, informs me that the policy is, “One person or party per beach.” I ask her if the National Park Service had updated its COVID-19 regulations. “It’s island etiquette,” she says. I explain when I imagine a beach, I think of a wide-open space. But at Voyageurs, more than 900 islands—each about the size of a baseball mound—dot the park’s 218,000 acres.

Before I step into the kayak, Becky’s husband and lodge co-owner, Mike, says to stay close because a storm will arrive at 4 o’clock. “The waves reach four feet high like the ocean,” he says, extending his arm to the ceiling. “You don’t want to be out there when that happens.”

I kayak in the direction of Bald Eagle’s Nest Cutover Island and pass two fishermen in a boat that sparkles like a ruby. All three of us stare at a swarm of eagles circling a bluff. I have seen more eagles than people today. The clouds cast a shadow over the water. Heeding Mike’s warning, I turn around. All of the islands look the same. Sometimes it is life’s lack of structure that gives you no choice but to sit back in a kayak and accept the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going. I hug the shoreline to guide my way back. 

The wind picks up and the sky darkens. I cannot see the burgundy wooden lodge. I open the bow’s compartment and unwrap my iPhone from the plastic bag Mike provided. His warning reverberates in my ears. My GPS shows I am on the wrong side of Lake Kabetogama.

I follow the sun west to reach my destination. “Just keep paddling,” I hum the same way Dory sings “just keep swimming” in “Finding Nemo.” I imagine the French-Canadian voyageurs in their birch canoes navigating and paddling 16 hours a day, singing songs either to break up the monotony of rowing or to distract themselves from their fear of drowning. An apt song choice for Kabetogama would be Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock” the lyrics of which are “I am a rock. I am an island. I have my books, and my poetry to protect me.” But instead of literary pursuits, the locals occupy themselves with physical pursuits: hunting, fishing, canoeing, and snowmobiling.

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I cling to a tree branch and recognize its flowers as bright as the fishermen’s boat. Ahead, I see the burgundy lodge. I push myself off the tree’s roots and paddle toward it. A half hour later, I pass another island and look back at the red-flowered tree to gauge my progress. Not much.

I near the shore to discover the red-roofed cabin is someone’s home, not Arrowhead. “Like a mirage,” I think. I refresh my GPS. I need to paddle another four miles north to reach my destination. But I am running out of time. I do not need my watch to know that. All I have to do is look up to the sky. 

I drift between two homeowners’ docks. I realize just how much I got my wish to leave Chicago to “get away from it all.” I do not have enough energy to “just keep paddling.” My arms shake. The fishermen are gone. I berate myself for not asking them for directions. It would have disturbed the natural order of things on Kabetogama: stillness.

I call the lodge. Mike says they do not offer a pick-up service. I offer to pay him. He provides a number for a water taxi. I reach the taxi boater’s answering machine. “If I don’t answer, it’s because I’m on the water,” his voicemail recording says. I hang up and feel a drop of water—from my tear, not the rain.

I hoist the kayak onto a dock that has the BLM flag. The kayak is too heavy for me to carry up the stairs. I leave it.

Snowshoes dangle on hooks on the rustic cottage with screen-less windows revealing an empty house. I knock on the neighbor’s door. An elderly woman with a French accent answers. I introduce myself and Nicol invites me in. Vintage family photos adorn the walls of her cottage. I try taking off my Nike sneakers to keep her carpeted floor dry, but she does not let me. Her husband, Gene, asks to see the kayak. I demonstrate its weight. At his request, I park it at their dock. 

Gene and Nicol drive me to Arrowhead. They remind me of my grandparents. At the lodge, I apologize and explain the situation to Mike. He frowns and reminds me of his warning. I widen my eyes like Bambi. Gene and Nicol speak to him about where to pick up the kayak—the house on Tomahawk with the Blessed Virgin Mary statue in the front yard. I tell Mike the specific address. Gene suggests I relax. I sip on a draft beer and nibble on duck potstickers at the restaurant, and the waitress asks about my day. She then asks if I think I am the first one to get lost on the water. 

That evening, Gene calls and asks about the missing kayak. I ask the staff. “Mike picked it up,” Mike’s parents say. I relay the message. Gene recommends I visit Kettle Falls, a historic hotel only accessible by boat and known for providing lodging and liquor to fishermen, lumberjacks, traders, and tourists for over a century. A local at the lodge says to contact his tour guide friend.

Bill answers on the first ring. I click “mute” to muffle the sound of the sink’s running water. I had not expected him to answer. He asks about my visit. I recount my kayak mishap and the neighborly care of the locals, including Gene and Nicol’s Good Samaritan act. 

“But we don’t like people up here,” he says, referring to Kabetogama’s population of 135, and International Falls’ of just 6,000. “Too many people up here this summer.” 

I ask if he is being sarcastic. He says that while businesses have lost patrons, campers and RV-ers have exceeded the area’s average summer capacity by 150 percent. 

Bill committed to giving a private tour to a couple at 9 a.m. He says he does not want to give the tour but does not elaborate why. He invites me to join him for a Kettle Falls tour in the afternoon. A couple may buy his boat. I ask him the price, but he refuses to accept anything.

“Also, do you think you’re the first one to get lost on the lake?” he asks me before hanging up.

Sunday morning, Becky prepares bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. I tell her my plans: running at Kab-Ash, a 15-mile trail that connects the Kabetogama and Ash River communities. She explains how to respond if I encounter a black bear—extend hands, speak, and maintain eye contact. One had eaten scraps in the lodge’s dumpster the night before. I run on the more popular Echo Bay trail instead, passing a boy on roller skis and a Park Ranger slicing leaves with an axe.

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After my run, I visit the Bronko Nagurski museum in International Falls. When “the Babe Ruth of football” was not winning national wrestling championships or Super Bowls for the Chicago Bears, he farmed with his family, fished with friends, and cared for his high school sweetheart wife and five children in Ranier, Minnesota, home of Rainy Lake. He supplemented his income in the offseason through barnstorming, when professional athletes formed local sports teams (Nagurski played basketball) to play other teams in California and the Southwest. The Great Depression-era football player reaffirmed America’s uncomplicated beginnings: a product of the farm and wilderness and individual freedom and talent borne of nature.

I greet Bill at the Lake Kabetogama Visitor Center and ask if he likes coffee. He shakes his head “no.” I give him a Lake Kabetogama tumbler mug instead of the coffee beans I had bought for him. “For the cocktails,” he says. 

Bill gives Peggy, her husband Joe, their two-year-old Doberman Ed and me a tour of the Boundary Waters on the way to Kettle Falls. He points to an island and says the American owner cannot access his mansion and guest house. I learn that Peggy and Joe own an island they named Whale Rock, after a rock in front of their house that resembles a whale. Due to border restrictions, they cannot access their summer home either, located a few strokes into Canada.

We dock the boat on the eastern edge of the Kabetogama Peninsula and hike to Kettle Falls hotel. For $1,000 and four barrels of whiskey, Robert Williams bought the hotel the year before prohibition. Its remoteness made it difficult for authorities to locate the distillery, and the proximity of the Canadian border made it easy to smuggle booze. In the 1930s the hotel advertised its natural medicine—the pine-scented air—to hay fever sufferers … “not a sneeze at the border!” Almost 100 years later, I think they should re-run the advertisement.

In the bar, gravity pushes me against the wall in the booth, not from the effects of my drink (I have a Coca Cola), but from the sloped floor that tilts my seat at a 45-degree angle. When constructed, the building’s walls sank, causing the hardwood floors now to bow. The National Park Service preserved the tilted floor in renovations. I flip through album pages of patrons—lumberjacks, fishermen, trappers and traders, and stonecutters and masons who built the dam.

I say goodbye to Bill, Peggy, Joe, and Ed. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Bill says upon learning about my eight-hour drive back to Chicago. In the city, I endure unsightly scenes of ruby-red and blue cop cars. I see mask-wearers jumping six feet away from passersby onto these busy streets, presumably, for survival. Ironically, I endure the discomfort of predictability, of letting my mind rest from planning and my body take a break from the adrenaline rush that accompanies these active trips, even in the most peaceful place in America.

Thousands of miles away from the financial, political, and technological coasts of America, the bootstrapping, rugged individualists I met in a town powered by water and mills pride themselves on independence yet understand the importance of human connection: they showed this explorer generous, genuine and familial care. International Falls may be the “Icebox of the Nation,” but it has the warmest people.

About Melanie Wilcox

Melanie Wilcox is a Chicago-based marketing specialist at Praxair Distribution, Inc., a leading industrial gas company in North and South America, and worldwide. For several years, she wrote speeches, crafted communications plans and created advertising campaigns for members of Congress, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies at a D.C.-based public relations firm. She received her Master of Science in Journalism degree from Northwestern University in 2019, where she specialized in business and technology reporting and documentary filmmaking. Views do not reflect that of her employer.

Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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One response to “America’s ‘Icebox’ Has the Warmest People

  • I live here in Minnesota, and have been all over the northland of the state. If you ever get the chance explorer the boundary waters. Nothing else like it in the world.

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