On the Rez

Author: Stephen

Pulled into the Grand Portage Marina Saturday afternoon, after a day paddling along the rocky coast through an ethereral fog. Beyond a hundred yards, everything was white, so I hugged the shore to keep my bearing. I lost my deck mounted compass a couple of days ago, and am now relying on my handheld, which I have tucked into my mapcase on the deck. 

I spent the previous night at Antonia’s Stop, my final campsite on Minnesota’s Kayak Trail. What a great thing the trail is: Campsites along the Minnesota shore every 15 miles or so, marked by signs visible from the water. The state DNR provides excellent maps, available for free at local outfitters. Launch sites and picnic areas are also identified. Matt and I had tentatively planned to meet at Arlo’s stop, which is close to Antonia’s, but we lost phone contact, and our paths diverged. It was great spending time with him. How can you not love a guy who makes you spruce tip tea?

The marina and campground is owned and managed by the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, “Gichionigamiing” in the Ojibwe language. It is one of six bands comprising the federally recognized Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

As I hadn’t had a day off from paddling for eight days, I decided to take a rest day Sunday. I slept in, then spent time organizing my jumble of food into breakfast, lunch and dinner bags. My solar panel seems seems to be dying after six summers on the lakes, and the marina manager, Ron, let me charge my radio, camera and phone batteries in the office. 

When I returned later to collect them, I ended up spending an hour talking with Ron. He’s a NavaJo, and most of his family is in Arizona.  He hasn’t seen them in nine years, and has watched his neices and nephews grow up via Facebook. One of his little brothers has been in jail for a year, awaiting sentencing for robbery. Unless he informs on the bad guys he’s been hanging with, he faces 40 years in the penitentiary. Ron said another brother is waiting to be sentenced on a drunk driving conviction that involved a head-on collision that killed someone. 

Ron has established a family of his own here, and become a valuable employee of the tribe. He works 10-15 hours a day, seven days a week, either at the marina or at a job just down the road at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, the band’s big money maker. I ate a huge walleye sandwich dinner there. I returned to my tent and slept like a waterlog.

It started to rain in the middle of the night, and when I awoke Monday the prediction was for it to continue all day. I rolled over and went back to sleep. When I finally crawled out of the tent, I set up my camp kitchen under the restroom roof overhang and made breakfast. 

Michelle, whom I met at the marina office the day before, was there cleaning the restrooms and laundry. I thanked her for doing such a good job. She said she works there four hours a day, four days a week. She’s saving money to buy a van. 

“Everybody calls me Tubby,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s been my nickname since I was a little girl and I fell into a wash tub.”  I laughed, and told her my sister put my brother in a dryer when he was little. “You and he would make a great couple,” I told her.

As Wikipedia says, “The Grand Portage National Monument is located on the reservation and managed by the National Park Service. The site includes a reconstructed trading post which is authentic for the 18th century.” Matt told me a couple of times that I should check it out. I popped open my umbrella, my favorite new piece of gear, and stolled through the rain a half mile down the road to the Heritage Center. The center is filled with artifacts and displays depicting the fur trading era, and beautiful examples of Ojibway art and craft. 

Across the road is the trading post. I walked there with one of the site interpreters, a retired teacher dressed in period clothing. This was her first season, and her job was to fill in for the more experienced interpreters when they took breaks, so she was in the process of learning a little bit about everything from wood turning to birchbark canoe construction.  

At 3 pm in the “Great Hall” there was a talk about canoe paddles, which I found fascinating. The park employee giving the presentation was making his first paddle, and was clearly enraptured with his subject. He started his talk with the quote, “We shape out tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” He called the paddle an “international tool.” 

I returned to the campsite, and made dinner under the overhang. Ron came up to use the restroom, and we were talking when his stepson drove up in a van. He was wearing a flat brim hip hop NY ball cap, and had “Family” tattooed in large script on his forearm.  He gave Ron a big hug and told him he’d missed him. He ask Ron when he was getting off work. “In an hour and a half. I’ll see you at home.”

“Good,” his son said, and gave him another deep hug. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, ” Ron said.

After the van left, Ron was quiet for a moment, then told me his son had just returned from a memorial for two of his cousins, who died a couple of weeks ago. The pair had spent the day at a powwow, and went out drinking with friends in the evening. Five of them got in two cars for a race. They didn’t know the road they were speeding on ended at a lake. Both cars when in. The cousins were in the front seat of one car. A girl in the back escaped, they didn’t. The kids in the other car managed to get out, and tried to dive down and rescue the cousins. It was too dark, and too deep. 

Ron said the boys’ mom was very strong at the memorial service, and focussed on sending a message to the youth.

“This has to stop here,” she said. “No more.”

I’m sitting at the casino now, typing in the hallway between the gaming room and the restaurant, at a little table flecked with cigarette burns. A couple just walked by. The man suddenly took the woman’s hand.
 “You’re holding my hand,” she said, beaming. “How sweet.”

  “I missed you,” he said. “Really bad.” 

2 Responses to “On the Rez”

  1. Steve Sikkema Says:


    Glad to see you are back on the Water. Thanks for allowing us to follow along.

  2. Matthew Pierle Says:

    Nice vignette Stephen. Keep on plying that “international tool” through the big waters.
    Love you and miss you my friend. Matthew

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