A fishing lodge that closed in 1978 when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness expanded reopened Sunday as Minnesota's newest - and most remote - history museum and nature center.
The Duluth News Tribune reported that Chik-Wauk Lodge was opening to the public Sunday - the culmination of a five-year, more than $1 million effort by local residents to create a place to tell the colorful history of the Gunflint Trail.
That 60-mile, dead-end highway meanders north from Grand Marais on Lake Superior into the heart of the state's scenic lakes and forest region. It's an area thick with a history of native peoples, fur traders, mining speculators, loggers, fishermen and sportsmen and, more recently, recreation outfitters and cabin and bed-and-breakfast owners.
"It's an area where people at first learned all these skills for survival, and then turned it into recreation," said Sue Kerfoot, past president of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society and a driving force behind the new museum. "From dog sledding and fishing and hunting and canoeing in the 1800s, where you had to know how to make it ... to the people who stay at the resorts now."
The Gunflint Trail itself evolved from an Indian trail, to a tote road to supply mines that never produced any ore, to a logging road in the early 1900s. The route as it's known today developed in the early 1920s to give people access to pristine fishing lakes but wasn't paved until the 1970s.
It is on the bay of Saganaga Lake that Chik-Wauk sits, the filming site for the famous 1960s Hamm's Beer commercials featuring a canoe-riding grizzly bear.
The new museum is professionally designed, with hands-on exhibits and a trove of Gunflint Trail artifacts, memorabilia and history. There's a diorama of local wildlife and trees, an interactive exhibit about the Voyageurs fur trade and exhibits on wildfires, local residents, logging, geology and mining, and Indian history.
The wildfire exhibit is particularly relevant. In 2007, just as work on the museum had started in earnest, the Ham Lake fire - the region's largest since 1918 - wiped out dozens of cabins and homes in the area and threatened the museum structure. Only a hastily installed sprinkler system saved it, and charred trees can be seen as close as 100 feet from the front door.
"It was as if it was meant to be," said Fred Smith, president of the historical society and lead volunteer in the restoration.
Professionally produced video tells stories of the original lodges along the Gunflint and of about a dozen colorful local characters, including Gunflint Lodge founder Justine Kerfoot, known locally as "the Woman of the Boundary Waters"; and Benny Ambrose, the last person to live in the Boundary Waters.
"People come up here knowing more about the Amazon forest than the boreal forest we have right here," Sue Kerfoot said. "We need to change that."
Information from Duluth News Tribune
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