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Ox tales

Grass for grazing and swamp for water redefine meaning of ‘perfect campsite’

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The ‘perfect campsite’ changes when you’re travelling with a two-year-old — who happens to be an ox named Zik. Long grass for grazing and a swamp for water take priority over a quiet place of solitude in the woods. It was our second day into northern Minnesota when we found just the spot, exactly where Zik’s energy ran out.

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The ‘perfect campsite’ changes when you’re travelling with a two-year-old — who happens to be an ox named Zik. Long grass for grazing and a swamp for water take priority over a quiet place of solitude in the woods. It was our second day into northern Minnesota when we found just the spot, exactly where Zik’s energy ran out.

It also happened to be right at the spot on the map where three lines from Manitoba to Minnesota pass by. The one we’re following — the Red River Trail — was probably the loudest of the three, but now the off-key creaking of our cart is the only hint of earlier days. The Enbridge pipeline, which brings oil to the Minnesota port of Duluth, will remain silent unless there’s a leak. Then we’ll hear a justified uproar. The third line — the Canadian Pacific Railway — was quiet until 3 a.m. of that fateful night. I was told by a Minnesota CPR employee that Canadians drive the trains to the border and Americans take over from there. It was a little comforting to know that at least it wasn’t a fellow Manitoban leaning on the whistle beside our campsite. Uff-da! Zik didn’t seem affected. He measures contentment by mouthfuls of grass.

Painting Northern Minnesota with a Broad Brush

The northern Minnesota I’ve experienced is a land of big hearts and hesitant hugs. In my first hundred miles of travel here, I’ve made many friends and a few observations. Though my sample size is admittedly as narrow as the Red River Trail, I’ve made up for it with the following broad generalities: wearing seat belts seems to be optional. Deer hunting is not; ethnic diversity ranges from Swedish all the way to Norwegian; every farm has been in the family since great-grandpa homesteaded here in the late 1800s; and nobody swears. When something bad happens they just say ‘Uff-da’. I’ve tried it and it actually helps.

TERRY DOERKSEN PHOTO End of the day.

One Day at a Farm Auction

I had the good luck to visit a farm auction on a previous visit to the region. If you’ve never been, put it on your bucket list. A good auctioneer isn’t just a salesman — he’s an entertainer. At one point between the crock pots and the cultivators, this particular auctioneer had time for a story.

Apparently it was rumoured that Sven, who lived by himself in the bush, did a lot of deer poaching and would even shoot the odd loon if he got a chance. The auction crowd knew this was serious. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes and as the Minnesota State Bird, the loon is semi-sacred. But try as he might, Lars the wildlife officer could never catch him in the act. A few days after his retirement, Lars visited Sven’s cabin for the last time. “I know that you’ve poached a lot of animals over the years, Sven. I’ve tried to catch you at it but I’ve gotta admit, you’ve beat me at the game. Now that I’m retired and you’re off the hook, I have one question for you and I’m darn curious. What does loon meat taste like?” Sven took a long draw from his pipe before he answered. “I would have to say that loon tastes a lot like bald eagle.” (Did you hear that collective ‘Uff-da!’ from the audience?)

Outsiders

It was quite natural for us to name our blond-haired first-born son ‘Leif’. My wife, Patty, and I had travelled in Iceland and had read the Vinland Sagas. We admired Leif Erickson, the first outsider to visit this continent. And we liked the meaning of the name: beloved. It was an appropriate name. Leif grew up without any doubt that he was loved. He always assumed everybody liked him. But that assumption would take a big hit when he was the only Gadaa Hun – Outside Person — in a Mongolian junior high. (Side note: I taught English in Mongolia for several years.) His classmates called Leif ‘Shar Mor’: Yellow Cat. That might not sound too bad to you but any epithet becomes hurtful with venom behind it. And when you know that Mongols in general despise cats. Leif was deeply wounded, but thankfully, those wounds never turned to bitterness. Instead he always, quietly, reached out to those on the fringe — outside people rejected by others.

Lindsay was a girl interested in all things Icelandic. She spent any free hours writing a novel set in Iceland. It probably didn’t hurt that the guy she was interested in was named Leif, whose internet handle was MennoniteViking. We could never have guessed when we called that little bundle ‘Beloved’ what love and healing his name might bring.

Leif, Lindsay and our daughter Mischa joined us recently on our ox-cart journey, staying in the Minnesota town of Viking. We rode together, laughed together and together prayed a blessing on the world that rolled on by: a world where people don’t always play nice.

TERRY DOERKSEN PHOTO Leif, the oxcart Viking.

Ollie, Ollie …

I was giving Zik a break and letting him snack beside the road. Lindsay and Mischa took the opportunity to demonstrate a swing dance step they had learned. Unseen by them, a farmer had walked up his driveway and was watching the girls do ‘The Octopus.’ When the free entertainment was over, the audience introduced himself. ‘Ollie.’ I guess the odds were high.

Stonewall on the Red River Trail

I always assumed that the Manitoba town of Stonewall was named after the limestone walls of its quarry. I mean, it couldn’t have been named after Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate leader! Actually it was – indirectly. The founder of the town, Samuel Jackson, got the nickname of Stonewall because he shared a last name with the famous guy. In 1873, our “Stonewall” left Benson, near present Minneapolis, and walked (WALKED!) for 645 kms to Red River. He bought up the land and planned out a town northwest of the settlement and humbly named it after himself. I’m guessing that Stonewall, on his epic hike, followed the same trail Patty, Zik and I re-traced today.

Speaking of Zik, our shorthorn ox was born just outside of Stonewall on the farm of Dennis Scott. One day, after Zik and I had finished a session of Ox Carting 101, I was chatting with Dennis on the porch and noticed a set of painted cowbells on the shelf. “Oh, those came from a craft sale at the Baptist church in Stonewall.” “No kidding,” I said. “My nephew, Rusty, is the pastor at that church!”

Which reminded me that I needed to talk to Erica, Rusty’s wife, about exactly where she grew up. I knew Erica was from northern Minnesota and I was curious if her parent’s farm was anywhere near the Red River Trail. Erica got me in touch with her mom, Janelle, who gave me directions over the phone. “Six miles straight east of Kennedy on the 7, and then go north on a small road for one-and-a-half miles.” I put a dot on the map, right beside the trail!! I sent Janelle a picture of my map, just to confirm that I got the location right. I explained that the pencil line was my best attempt at the route of the original trail, with numbers indicating miles from Winnipeg. The green line was our proposed route.

TERRY DOERKSEN PHOTO An early start.

Janelle called back and said, “That’s the farm, alright.” Janelle’s great-grandfather had homesteaded in a dugout cabin there in the winter of 1882. Janelle remembered how her grandma had taken her on a walk as a small girl, and had showed her where the “first people used to cross” – right where I had drawn the trail with my pencil. Right where ‘Stonewall’ Jackson would have passed by on his way to found the town in which a daughter of that farm would eventually make her own home.

Changing my green line slightly brought us to this Scandinavian haven. There we swapped stories with four generations of new friends who have made their home beside the Red River Trail.

TERRY DOERKSEN PHOTO The perfect campsite, at least for Zik.
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