Another Trip to Ottertrack
My story about Ottertrack sparked a memory for Ralph Griffis who used to own and operate Chik-Wauk Lodge at the end of the Gunflint Trail. His phone calls are always a treat and I welcome the interruption so I can take a trip back in time with Ralph.
This time he told me about a time he snowshoed down into Ottertrack to visit Benny Ambrose. Ben Ambrose lived down in Ottertrack before it was the BWCA that we know today. Back in a time where boats were stored over Monument Portage for day fishing trips, resorts could be found in Knife Lake and you could snowmobile(once they were made) to Ely. Not many people know too much about Benny, who like Dorothy Molter(The Rootbeer Lady), lived in the wilderness even after it became the BWCA.
Ben kept more to himself and didn’t sell rootbeer or have any reason for folks to stop in and visit him. Ralph told me Ben used to park his car at Chik-Wauk and pull his canoe up on shore when he would go "wherever it was he went." Ben did this for a long time before Ralph finally went out to introduce himself by saying, "My name is Ralph and I own this damn place." Ben calmly replied, "I know you do." After their brief introduction they went up for coffee and cookies and from that day on Ralph said he would have a hard time getting rid of Benny when he did stop in.
One winter when Ben was down at Chik-Wauk Ralph invited himself up to Ben’s place in Ottertrack. Ben told him to come on up anytime he wanted. Ralph wanted to go and "visit a remote area, because he had never been before." Don’t ask me what he thought living at the end of the Gunflint Trail 56 miles from the nearest town on a dirt road was back in the late 1950’s, but I guess it wasn’t considered remote and Ralph considered himself "green." Not in the way we mean it these days, but as in inexperienced.
One day Ralph set out to snowshoe to Ben’s place. Anyone who knows this area would think he was a bit crazy to even consider doing such a thing. In fact, when I suggested I cross-country ski back to American Point from Ottertrack our friend Mark looked at me like I was nuts. Ralph had packed a sleeping bag and some other essentials and by the time he was at the Winter Portage, to get around the narrows going into Saganaga, he was already tired so he stashed his sleeping bag there.
From there he snowshoed across Saganaga Lake, probably in the same path the towboats travel these days. It’s probably about 7 miles from Chik-Wauk, which was down on County Road 81 in a bay of Saganaga, out to American Point. Then from there he snowshoed all of the way down into 3rd bay of Saganaga, watched some otters swimming in the small rapids and continued across Swamp to Monument Portage. The 80 rod portage alone is enough for most people to hike or snowshoe, but after 13 miles of snowshoeing I guess Ralph didn’t think too much about it. From the portage he made his way onto Ottertrack and over to Benny’s cabin where he was welcomed with open arms and the invitation to go and get firewood.
Ralph said the only reason he could think of for Benny to make him go and pull a sled to get firewood after his long trek there was so that he wouldn’t make it a habit of coming to visit real often. They went to the stash of wood, hauled it back to the cabin and then split it all for the outdoor kitchen.
Ralph ended up spending two nights out at Benny’s on Ottertrack before deciding to head back home. He told Benny he was going to stop and see Silver Falls in the winter as long as he was up there and Benny invited himself along. Ralph thinks the reason Ben went along was to keep Ralph from falling through the ice and killing himself around Silver Falls. They made the trek to Silver Falls and after they snowshoed to the opening of Cache Bay they parted ways.
Ralph said, "The thing I thoroughly enjoyed about the North Country was the void of any outside interference." Isn’t it something that a trip to Ottertrack in 2008 could be so similar to one in 1958?
Thanks for sharing your trip to Ottertrack Ralph!