Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles written by Mark Junge as he and his wife, Ardath, ride their electric-assist bicycles along the Paul Bunyan Trail in Minnesota. Mark is 78 and oxygen dependent.
“A visitor at one of Paul’s camps was astonished to see a crew of men unloading four-horse logging sleds at the cook shanty. They appeared to be rolling logs into a trap door from which poured clouds of steam.
“‘That’s a heck of a place to land logs,’ he remarked.
“‘Them ain’t logs,’ grinned a bull-cook.
“‘Them’s sausages for the teamsters’ breakfast.”
– W.B. Laughead, “The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan”
William Laughead was an adman for the Red River Lumber Company, one of the largest pineries in the U.S. during the last quarter of the 19th century. The subtitle of his promotional book summarizes the origins of Paul Bunyan folklore: “As Told in the Camps of the White Pine Lumbermen for Generations During Which Time Loggers Have Pioneered the Way Through the North Woods From Maine to California.”
There are other examples of American folk heroes, including Mississippi River keelboatman Mike Fink and Johnny Appleseed, who planted apple orchards from coast to coast. Actually, Paul Bunyan may have originated in French Canada, but his fame stretches across America’s north woods. Laughhead says that Paul Bunyan lying contests had a purpose: “To over-awe the greenhorn in the bunkshanty, or the paper-collar stiffs and home guards in the saloons, a group of lumberjacks would remember meeting each other in the camps of Paul Bunyan.”
He was a symbol of bigness, strength and vitality – traits also ascribed to pioneer Americans who o’erspread the land between two oceans. Paul Bunyan, like his feats of strength, was enormous. He was 63 ax handles high. It took five exhausted storks to deliver him to his parents. When he was a week old, he fit into his father’s clothes and downed 40 bowls of porridge a day.
But wait, there’s more. On his first birthday, he received a big, blue ox named Babe, who was 42 ax handles and a plug of tobacco wide. Together, they cleared forests from the northeastern United States to California. Pulling his ax behind him, Bunyan created the Grand Canyon. He built Mount Hood by putting stones on his campfire. His camp stove covered an acre, and his hotcake griddle was so large that it was greased by men using sides of bacon for skates.
So it is natural that the Paul Bunyan name was applied to a 120-mile, rails-to-trails bike path extending from Brainerd to Bemidji in north-central Minnesota – one that my wife, Ardath, and I currently are pedaling using electric-assist bicycles.
Originally, the bike path was used by a narrow-gauge railroad built in 1892 by the Gull Lake and Northern Railway to haul logs out of the forest. The last train, under the ownership of the Burlington Northern, rolled along its tracks in 1985. Today, it is the longest, continuously paved bike route in the U.S. although the word “paved” is a bit of puffery.
The first half of the asphalt trail going north from Brainerd is sliced – and diced, in some places – by narrow cracks, which have grown wider and deeper with the heaving and thawing of the ground in winter and summer. Trickling a little asphalt in the cracks is not enough balm to prevent the bicyclist from a spanking, especially if she is riding a road bike with narrow, highly inflated tires.
Well, in the long run, it just doesn’t matter. We’re gettin’ ’er done. I’m so proud of my wife, I could bust my buttons, as the old folks down home used to say. For the past four days, we have ridden the Paul Bunyan backward and forward. There’s no other way to ride it together. Our mode of operation is to park the camper/pickup truck, ride for about 15 miles, then turn around, ride back to the truck, load the bikes and drive to the next RV campground.
So far, we have ridden more than 120 miles through the boreal forest, averaging about (or “a boot,” if you’re Minnesotan) 12 or 13 miles per hour, zipping past oak, maple, ash and aspen, as well as red, white and jack pine that rise just beyond the grass and shrub-lined path to either side of us.
Although the Paul Bunyan route snakes along the shoreline of 21 lakes, it’s hard to appreciate them because those darn trees keep obscuring the view. Minnesotans we’ve met along the path are a bit disappointed in their lakes this year because water levels are low due to drought, and also because Zebra mussels have invaded some of them. The mussels filter dirty or toxic water, allowing photosynthesis to take place deeper below the surface. This causes plants to grow, die and rise to the surface to clobber up the shorelines with a decomposing ring of vegetation.
”The winter Paul logged off North Dakota with the Seven Axemen, the Little Chore Boy and the 300 cooks, he worked the cooks in three shifts – one for each meal. The Seven Axemen were hearty eaters; a portion of bacon was one side of a 1,600-pound pig. Paul shipped a stern-wheel steamboat up Red River and they put it in the soup kettle to stir the soup.” (ibid., p. 13)
Our first spotting of a giant statue of Paul Bunyan was in Jenkins, one of 16 towns along the trail between Brainerd and Bemidji. Of course, one has to take photo. At Pequot Lakes, we took another of Ardath hanging onto the neck of Babe the Blue Ox, a fiberglass version similar in construction to Cheyenne’s cowboy boot in Depot Plaza.
”Once in a while, Babe would run away and be gone all day, roaming all over the Northwestern country. His tracks were so far apart that it was impossible to follow him and so deep that man falling into one could only be hauled out with difficulty and a long rope. Once, a settler and his wife and baby fell into one of these tracks, and the son got out when he was 57 years old and reported the accident. These tracks, today form the thousands of lakes in the ‘Land of the Sky Blue Water.’”
It might be surprising to learn that the name Minnesota is a Sioux word for cloudy water – like the water a fisherman might encounter in Wyoming during spring runoff. The Sioux thought that the Minnesota River looked like a cloudy sky. The English translation came out as “sky-tinted waters.” From this comes the misleading Hamm’s beer ads of the 1960s featuring a thumping, log-rolling bear.
Baby boomer schoolkids – with a boost from Walt Disney’s cartoon character – learned that Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes were created by Paul Bunyan’s footsteps, not the Babe’s …but who really cares?