Al Batt: Walking around Lake Sisseton isn’t for sissies

Published 9:59 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt


I could see it in my wife’s eyes.

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My fragility frightened her.

The illness and its treatments had taken a toll.

I’d had surgeries and hospital stays. I’d lost 75 pounds so quickly that my shadow couldn’t keep up. It lost only 25 pounds. I love to walk, but 50 steps was my limit. Dizziness, balance issues and exhaustion kept me from taking another step.

I used a walking stick to shuffle to one venue where I’d be speaking, but needed to rest. I sat on a gigantic rear bumper of a parked pickup. I worried the truck’s alarm would sound. I gave my talk while sitting on the edge of a stage as if it were another bumper.

Not long after that low point, I pushed the number of steps I could take without rest to 51. Buoyed by that momentous achievement, I decided to take a challenging walk. I didn’t need to build a barn. I just needed to walk. Neither loving wife nor friends could change my mind. I can be stubborn. I received a card reading: “Women’s faults are many. Men have only two — everything they say and everything they do.“

I’d made up my mind to walk around Lake Sisseton, one of a chain of lakes in Fairmont. It was named after the Sisseton branch of the Sioux. Walking around that lake wasn’t like climbing Mount Everest, but it’d be a test. I was told the walk would be 3.63 miles. My wife would accompany me and I hoped no one from my insurance company would be watching. I’d planned to walk it nonstop, but that didn’t happen. I took advantage of places provided for sitting, from which I listened.

I listened because of the legend of the Singing Oak, an ancient tree that stood in what is now Sylvania Park. Thanks to the Pioneer Museum, Major Arthur M. Nelson and an 1895 edition of the Martin County Sentinel, I’d read about a Sioux singer whose songs ridiculed war and irritated tribal leaders, but made him popular with the people. The legend tells of Sisseton warriors capturing a white child. The singer befriended the child. An epidemic, likely smallpox, hit the tribe. A council of wisemen decided the Great Spirit was displeased by the presence of the white child. They decreed the child be put to death. The singer pleaded fervently on the child’s behalf. The tribal leaders sentenced him to die with the youngster. The two were burned together at the oak tree. The singer died heroically, singing that the Great Spirit found war hateful. His tragic end and his dying words influenced the people. The Sentinel article read, “And it is a matter of history that at the time of the great Sioux uprising in ’62 the Sissetons under their aged chief, Standing Buffalo, were the only ones that remained passive and did not make war on the whites.”

The victims’ remains were buried near the water. The Sioux believed the voice of the singer and the cries of the child could be heard there. White trappers and hunters claimed to have heard a voice of a man singing and a child sobbing. Signage in Sylvania Park quotes Nelson on his visit to the site: “I am free to admit that a feeling of indescribable dread, if not fear, crept over me when there came in my ears much more distinctly than ever before a man wildly singing, mingled with the agonizing cries of a child.” The tree was destroyed years later by a fire. Nelson said evidence indicated a lightning strike, but perhaps its heart had smoldered since the cremation of the singer.

This all seems to have little connection to my walk, but I found strength in the story. The singer’s bravery made my steps simple and easy compared to what he’d suffered. Welcomed inspiration comes in many forms. I completed my walk. It was the tentpole to my recovery. The trail wanted it to be a best two out of three, but I refused.

On my walk, I’d happened upon a midden and its owner scolded me severely. Red squirrels stash food (cones, nuts, fruit and debris) in caches called middens. The piles could be in hollow trees or stumps, underground dens, beneath logs or at the base of trees. That squirrel saved food as I save moments in my midden of memories.

I’d walked to the end of the trail. I needed to do that. An ending can mark a beginning.

And each day gets a little better.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.