Archived Story

You don’t have to be ‘up north’ to experience Minnesota

Published 9:05am Saturday, June 23, 2012

Column: Bev Jackson Cotter, Art Is…

It was another beautiful, quiet June morning on Bancroft Bay when suddenly I heard a frantic quacking. A female mallard was swimming back and forth, back and forth near the shore line and her two young ones were following. The momma was the source of all of the noise. I looked for her third baby. It was nowhere to be seen.

Bev Jackson Cotter

There have been two mallard families in the Bay this spring that are regulars — one with six young ones and the other with three — until today.

Several years ago, I heard another frantic quacking, this time accompanied by wings flapping on the water. I spent the next few minutes standing on the shoreline watching a huge snapping turtle taking a mallard down. I wanted to knock that turtle in the head with a shovel, but at the same time I thought, “This is how nature takes care of itself,” and I just stood and watched, all the while with an awful feeling in my stomach. I hope the baby’s ending was not as prolonged.

I used to think that we had to go up north to really enjoy Minnesota. That was before I moved to Bancroft Bay. One morning recently there were three families of Canada geese, 13 pelicans and several mallards all minding their own business, ducking (sorry for the play on words) their heads for food and paddling around each other.

The book “Paddle Whispers,” written and illustrated by Doug Wood, is a wonderful description of northern Minnesota. In his introduction he says, “Dawn in the North Woods. The silence of rocks. A sleeping lake, wrapped in night blankets of fog. The paddle whispers, the canoe glides. From far ahead I hear rising the long, lone wail of a single loon.” He describes the Minnesota I love, a place and a peace.

He shares the story of a canoe trip where he is looking for something inside himself, knowing he is alone, no matter what may come his way. “It is early afternoon, and as I paddle along a series of looming cliffs, a pattern has been established. Clouds continually form and build in the west, then go around — to the south, to the north. Occasionally I catch a few drops of rain from the edge of a shower. But suddenly the pattern changes. Almost unbelievably fast, a squall line sweeps across the lake, driving a black wall of rain before it. White caps leap like wolves. There’s nothing along this shore but rock! Quick, if I can just get behind this little point… There! Now pull the canoe up and scramble for the ledge with the overhang. Please don’t let lightning hit this rock… Wind tears. Thunder slams. A searing flash and an ancient skeleton of pine shatters not sixty feet away… Fear. Humility. Awareness — no, Aliveness. They seem to go together.”

“…I’m sure there are many things I’ll never learn from traveling over the earth by canoe. I’m just not sure any of them are worth much.

“With a canoe, it’s simple. An empty bow always swings with the wind. Lean too far and you tip over. When you don’t paddle, you drift. When you do paddle, keep your bow lined up on the horizon, or you’ll go in circles. Don’t over-pack, you have to carry all you bring. Scout a rapids before you run it. When paddling, it sometimes helps to sing a song, but be quiet if you want to see and hear shy things…”

And then there’s the other side. When portaging, “I have a canoe on my head, a rock in my shoe, mosquitoes up my pants, black flies burrowing into my neck, and beaver bog water running down my backside.”

And all the while, “The paddle whispers. The canoe glides.”

Doug Wood’s thoughts and my meanderings are all here to introduce a new exhibit at the Albert Lea Art Center. “Adventures in the Outdoors — Minnesota Style” is a show featuring the work of local artisans who use nature themes including hunting, fishing and wildlife in their works.

The show includes detailed decoys, dramatic paintings, life-like taxidermy, precocious, colorful carved fish and a variety of well worn and well used Minnesota “up north” adventure items.

Grandma Mason, who lived near Leech Lake, used to go “up north” to pick blueberries. We laughed when she said that, because we thought we already were “up north” when we visited her. We have some Iowa friends who come “up north” to visit us.

And for just a little while, you can stop at the Albert Lea Art Center and be “up north.”


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where the show “Adventures in the Outdoors — Minnesota Style” will be on display through July 28. The Art Center is located at 224 S. Broadway Ave. in Albert Lea.