Monthly Archives: July 2009

The All-American community tavern

COHASSET, Minnesota

The difference between a tavern and a bar is, according to Wikipedia, that at a tavern you are a “guest” while at a bar you are a member of the public.  But a quality tavern is more than that – what makes a tavern is more than hanging up a shingle with the letters “TAVERN” in wild-west rustic face font. 

 

 

The historic White Horse Tavern, Newport, RI

The historic White Horse Tavern, Newport, RI

Turning the page in American history, the historic taverns were where the Continental Congress met, where the US Marines were first formed, and where General Washington would launch his victorious assault on the British by crossing the Delaware.

 

A quality tavern is a gathering place, a quality tavern is full of curious characters, a quality tavern is a place where one can stumble upon a great American story. 

I’d like to share such a story in the form of Florio’s Grill & Tavern of Cohasset, Minnesota.

It had been a day of 14 hours paddling including fighting waves coming up-river and a lightening storm.  It had been wetland for the vast majority of the day and as such nowhere to get out.  The sun had set and I was dead tired and by the time I arrived at Cohasset I was ready to lay down some money for a hotel.  There was no campsite on the map for many, many miles. 

The good people of Cohasset had together spent $3,000, I’d later learn, to build a boat landing for travelers just like myself where I tied up my canoe and grabbed my wallet.  It was about 10PM and after crossing the railroad tracks I saw a log tavern radiating light with a couple cars parked outside.  Ashamed of my boots (they were wet) I opened the door and thought about asking after a hotel from where I stood.  The waitress beckoned me forward and as I came into the tavern the owner, Ron Floria, came over to listen. 

RonEI explained that I was looking for a hotel and when they said the nearest one was five miles away, I shook my head and thought I was finished.  There was a silence.  “Do you have a tent?” asked Ron.  “Yes, yes I do.  I could pitch it on somebody’s lawn if anybody lives around here.”  “How about just outside?”  I looked outside and saw trees and old-school wooden benches and a lot of grass.  “Great, just great!” 

Ron did everything he could to make me feel at home.  He offered to bring his truck around so he could shine her lights on my little operation – so I could see what I was doing with the tent.  He let me bring my wet stuff inside to dry out overnight.  He shook my hand and welcomed me to Cohasset – and he meant it. 

RonBI would spend the following two days camped outside Florio’s Grill & Tavern during which time I was able to write, edit and upload the Andy Wells interview(s) as well as a personal interview with CNN international – a story that would be eclipsed by the solar eclipse later that week in Asia. 

I noted that Florio’s was booming – that the open-planned wooden log structure was filled with a very positive vibe, full of volunteer fire-fighters, with youth baseball teams, with business professionals, with city officials, with the wise old men of the town. 

Susan Harper, the City Administrator, came over to shake my hand when she heard that I was camped just outside, what turned out to be across the street from City Hall.  “This is the community hub – the only restaurant in the town,” explained Susan.  She told me how much the entire town loved the place – that when there was a flood at the church as a result of the April thaw Ron had come over with hot food for all the firefighters – for everyone.  “Just that simple act – it meant a great deal.”  She was so excited and touched that I had chosen their town to pitch my tent, well before she would learn that I was doing a little reporting.  Asking about Susan’s reaction to me a bit later other locals explained that she had meant what she said because she was forward-looking.  She could see the day when many people would come from the river to spend money and take in the sights of Cohasset.

RonARon Floria represents three generations attached to Florio’s Grill & Tavern.  A retired cheffer from the railroads, Ron took early retirement and put his money into Florio’s – which he runs with his son, Larry.  Larry’s son, Dominic (age eight) is a frequent guest, along with other family and friends.  The tavern is a family business and it is successful – on multiple levels.  They run it and watch it carefully and the quality of the operation shows. 

When you order buffalo wings they come larger and tastier than I’ve ever seen and/or tasted in my life.  They’ve cut the cost of the menu and offer specials every night – specials which actually fill the place up.  When you order the blackened salmon it is both fresh and reasonable.  And when you look up from your table, a gargantuan moose smiles down at you from its mount on the wall.  “My cousin got that one,” explained Ron.  “Up at the Boundary Waters.  They get bigger than that a bit farther north but this is a good sized one.” 

Ron would tell me stories of his time on the railroad, of how you can never judge a book by its cover.  He’d relate business tips and success stories of how he’s made it during these tough times.  In short, Ron became my friend and when it came time to at long last depart, the Minnesota Nice principle of saying goodbye multiple times rang true.

RonDRon Floria and his family represent a great All-American story.  Their tavern is the real deal.  They are working hard to pursue their dreams and in so doing to offer a valuable service in which folks, from near and far, are quick to shake hands, to speak of the good times and the bad – but most importantly, quick to smile.

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A Monkey’s Wedding in Minnesota’s Wild North

UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER, Minnesota 

Having spent many moons out in the hinterlands of Southern Africa it came as a surprise to catch on video here in Minnesota’s Wild North a true manifestation of the fabled “monkey’s wedding” of that region.  A monkey’s wedding, or “sunshower” is when you experience that rare moment when a rain shower collides with the brilliant, baking sun. According to Wikipedia, in meteorological terms “A sunshower is an unusual meteorological phenomenon in which rain falls while the sun is shining.” Here we have a blue heron enjoying a monkey’s wedding out on the rocks of the Upper Mississippi River, sunning herself whilst enjoying a shower all at the same time.

Traveling down the Mississippi River via canoe one is surrounded by nature at all times, especially here in Northern Minnesota.  You can go for days and days and not come into contact with another human being, which is refreshing but at times a bit lonely.  Lacking human contact, one starts to whistle with the birds, which if fine because they in turn will whistle back.

Included in this compilation piece is a blue heron, a painted turtle, a family of geese, and a young family of deer.  I did come across one 10-point buck but he was too quick for me, bouncing up and over the brush before I could reach for my camera.  Another night, a fox, that I saw as I was coming up just before camp, slaughtered a goose just outside my tent.  So far, no wild bear, moose, or wolves. Although they are most definitely around!

Truly enjoying Minnesota’s Wild North.  Per usual, I can’t say enough about it!

 

Here we have a little history of folkloric names around the world for the “sunshower” phenomenon provided by our friends at Wikipedia:

 “In South African English, it is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding,” a loan translation of the Zulu umshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys.  In Afrikaans, it is referred to as jakkalstrou jackals wedding, or also Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou as dit reen en die son skyn flou, meaning “Jackal marries Wolf’s wife when it rains and the sun shines faintly.”

In Hindi it is also called “the jackal’s wedding.”

In Bengali it is called a devil’s wedding.

In Arabic, the term is “the rats are getting married”

Bulgarians speak of the Devil’s marrying.

In Korea, a male tiger gets married.

In various African languages, leopards are getting married.

In Kenya, hyenas are getting married.

In the American South, the “devil is beating his wife”.

 One animal, the fox, crops up all over the world from Kerala to Japan (Japan also refers to it as ‘Kitsune (the fox) takes a bride,’) to Armenia; there’s even an English dialect term, “the foxes’ wedding,” known from the south west of England. In Calabria, Italy, it is said that “when it rains with sun, the foxes are getting married.”

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Small Mississippi River Town Rallies Against Cancer

AITKIN, Minnesota

Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer.  “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee.  And they’re doing it.  In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.

RelayBRelay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday.  The money collected  “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.

But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life.  In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody.  In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.

I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out.  Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help.  But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”

RelayCCAt the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.”  “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children.  He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.”  Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.  “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.

RelayEEEWhen asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”

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Tentin’ Out

UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER, Northern Minnesota

I’ve had it happen several times now. I’ll be in a bar or a tavern or a church, nowhere near my canoe or my gear. Somebody will take one look at me, tap the shoulder of the person next to them, turn back to me, and then say it: “You’re doing the river. You’re gonna go all the way, aren’t ‘cha?”

I don’t know what gives it away. I always leave my Muck Boots in my trusty Old Town Charles River. It must be that look in my eyes. Wanderlust. The State of Being out on an expedition; a safari – the State of Being at one with nature whilst totally and thoroughly enthralled by everyone and everything all around.

The next set of questions up here in Northern Minnesota from the very start up at Lake Itasca have been the same, in the exact same sequence (and thus in order of importance), from fishermen meets children on the river to the odd, inquisitive observer:

1) Are ya fishin’?
2) What ‘cha eatin’?
3) You’re tentin’ out, aren’t ‘cha?

While I don’t have the correct answer for the first two questions I most certainly do for the third. The tentin’ out principal makes up for my lack of backwoods experience regarding the first two – always said with a knowing, appreciative smile.

Tentin’ Out along the Upper Mississippi River is a load of fun. There are state-maintained river access-only campsites set out strategically all along the Upper Mississippi, complete with wooden bench, fire ring, and spectacular view of the river, usually perched just above. The correct tent is key. Your tent shelters you from mosquitoes; the tent protects you from wind and from rain. Which is important because it’s rained just about every night since I’ve set out. The lightening strikes strike all around so brightly at times they illuminate the interior of the tent even with the storm shelter exterior draped overhead. And yet you feel safe and secure.

If you shift your thinking inward, the tent becomes your personal domain. You can block yourself off completely from the world or zip, zip down the 4-season screens and let the world and the sight of the river in, giddy with excitement to be a part of nature personified as the grumblings up in the clouds above go about their grumbling.

I thank you, Mr. Moss, for a tent well made. Having the time of my life here on the Upper Mississippi. I can’t say enough about it!

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Small business meets community success – The Andy Wells Story

 

BEMIDJI, Minnesota

Andy Wells III of Wells Technology was honored recently by President Obama himself for his success in business as Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year, and moreover, for his willingness to share this success and knowledge with his community – the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe.

 WellsAA“It was a surprise to get the award from the Minnesota Small Business Administration but also a bigger surprise to be invited to Washington D.C.,” explained Mr. Wells. Upon arrival to the White House with small business award winners from different states, Andy was seated in front as a ‘special guest’ – a guest whom President Obama would address in his speech on the “courage and determination and daring” of great leaders, stating: “It’s what led Andy Wells, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe to invest $1300 back in 1989 to found Wels Technology, manufacturing industrial tools and fasteners, and creating jobs near reservations in Minnesota, where he lives.”

 On a reservation where the penitentiary equals the size of the local high school it can be a difficult thing, as a young person in the community, to move oneself forward – to actually visualize the word ‘hope’. Andy Wells hires the people that all other business owners pass up – the young, formerly misguided ex convicts, the alcoholics – people who have made poor decisions in the past but who show determination to make something better out of their lives. Wells’ philosophy:  “You’ve got to help people… that’s the root of success.”  He offers a program that not only teaches the machining trade but also betters and strengthens the character, teaching honesty, self respect, as well as what it means to truly have pride.

And he’s successful doing it. Last year, Wells Technology’s proceeds equaled 54 million dollars, profits which Mr. Wells turns around to better the community.

WellsAUpon arrival at Wells Technology, which doubles as Wells Academy, it struck me as an interesting concept to put a classroom front and center in the headquarters of a main business office. “Every day is an open house,” explained Mr. Wells. “Every day we’ve got a busload of reservation kids or church groups or even car enthusiast clubs coming around. When the busses pull up you can see who the tough kids are – the ones who smoke a cigarette outside before coming in and hang their head in the classroom. But when we start to show them how our products help shoot flares out of military helicopters and other interesting things, they perk up – they start to ask questions – they start to understand why it is important to learn about math and science.”

 Mr. Wells is a pillar of not only small business in Minnesota but also the pride of the local community as well. And yet all of this success hasn’t changed Mr. Wells, hasn’t made him at all prideful. When I asked the Mayor of Bemidji, Richard Lehmann, to describe Andy, he simply explained, “Andy is one of the humblest, kindest men I have ever known. Incredibly intelligent. A real pleasure to meet and to learn from.”

WellsC “There is book learning and there is other wisdom,” explained Mr. Wells, referring to the system of ‘elders’ within the Native American community. “The [positive] influences began in my life early – it was neighbors, my parents, my grandparents … A neighbor friend, named Charlie Barrett, who really had no formal education but was a very humble neighbor noticed me running ahead of the adult groups quite often and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you open the door for people when you’re up there.’ At the time I thought he meant the physical door but now when I look back, maybe he meant more. Maybe he was a wise fellow like many of the wise people I’ve met, and he could see that perhaps one day I would be able to open doors of opportunity for people – and now that’s one of my main missions in life – to continue doing things that help other people because so many have helped me.”

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Passing on the dance of the Ojibwe

BALL CLUB, Minnesota

When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.

DanceJVeterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.

Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.

DanceFWhat makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.

When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.

DanceZAnd funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”

There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.

When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.

DanceXThere’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.

Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.

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Carpe diem

It was approximately 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 14th when the town siren went off in Blackduck, Minnesota. Everyone is familiar with the siren here because they do a practice test every day at precisely 12 noon. The siren went for a good long time. It was eerie to hear it drone on and on through the rain and the wind just outside and it made me apprehensive. I imagined a fire in the downtown district or hopefully a cat up a tree. Thinking I might witness some sort of rescue I grabbed my cameras and ran for my niece’s car.

I had been off the river for one day, hold up in my niece’s house, 25 miles north of Bemidji (the first town on the Mississippi River), drying out my clothes and goods and preparing for a series of interviews here in the general area. A fire engine and a rush of police cars were headed straight through the town and as they passed some local residents watched from the sidewalks. Others were already in their vehicles and as I approached the stop sign at the nearby highway there were a good three to four other cars and trucks between myself and the emergency vehicles. We all followed. Everyone was going the same way. What I didn’t know at the time was that the town siren hadn’t rung for an emergency like this in some time, nor that these residents were not following the fire truck to watch and gawk or to take pictures. They were going to help.

Not long after I saw a Sheriff four wheel drive racing behind. I pulled over and as I did I saw he was towing a speedboat. Immediately I knew. The emergency was on the lake. Blackduck Lake is a straight shot from the town, about a mile off the highway.

I found a dirt road away from all other vehicles and I got out to take a look. There were reeds and muck between myself and the lake where I parked but it was the closest to the lake that I could find without being in the way. A fireman on foot approached me and I asked him what had happened and if I could help. “Boating accident – two bodies still in the water – I’m going to search the shore here in the reeds. They could have tried to swim.” We both tried to wade out in the reeds but it was a bit too mucky. He went one way and then I looked on top of my niece’s car and saw my canoe. And just inside, my paddles. For some reason I had forgot to take them out when I unpacked everything else from the car late the night before.

A local resident came and helped me launch from a private dock. There were lots of bigger boats out in the water but as far as I knew, no canoes that could cut through the reeds and cattails. I was then told the owner of the house from where I launched had just launched her kayak. I followed suit.

The water was choppy but out in the cattails you could keep your course. I looked and I looked and went further and further around the shore. I searched for two or so hours. In the end when the wind picked up and the waves began to rise I was on my way back when I saw the blue boat almost completely submerged, surrounded by Beltrami Sheriff rescue boats. There had been a foreboding in the air but it wasn’t until this moment that the gravity of the situation hit me. The two people who were lost were not going to be rescued. The deputy sheriffs around the capsized pleasure boat were marking off orange buoys for the divers to come in and search. The search would be called off for the night not too long after that as the weather would again take a turn for the worse as the wind picked up something fierce.

I didn’t report on this story and I didn’t end up taking any pictures. I only recount what I experienced now because I was touched that a town like this one could band together to try and help. The other, rather selfish reason is because the whole experience has left me a bit melancholy and reflective and I wanted to try to get it off of my chest. Tonight is the second night that I can’t sleep.

I don’t mean to say that I was a great person for launching my canoe. The point is there were many, many boats out there, all searching, all trying to help. It was a community that was coming together – it was a community in action that you can just tell comes together in different ways to help each other out, each and every day. Small town America has a completely different feel from the big city where I grew up. People take the time to greet people. When you try to cross the street, people stop their car and let you go first.

I’ll never forget the look on the searchers’ faces out on the lake as you’d pass by them. You’d take a moment to look at each other and you’d just nod. Others without boats were in the reeds in their wetsuits. I read in the paper today that other locals were preparing food and coffee for the searchers. Others still were there to comfort the mother of one of the missing young men who had come to the lake and was calling his name late into that night.

Life is fragile and every life is special. Two young men, Justin Daryl Anderson and Cody James Kruegerboth, both aged 21, had been rescued by locals directly following the accident. While the bodies of Adam Joseph Bobick, 26, of Little Falls, Minn., and Shawn Allen Ramsdell, 33, also of Little Falls, were recovered the following day. Although this story is not the sort of “positive American story” I intended when I set out on my Flash River Safari, I see now that it is an important one to understand and to share.

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