On remote island, Northland man has lived a life beyond the grid
SAGANAGA LAKE, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS — Dicky Powell hops on his Ski-Doo and makes the 30-second ride from his cabin down to the frozen surface of Saganaga Lake. He removes the cover from his water hole, grabs an ice chisel from his sled and begins chipping away. The hole has frozen over, as it does every day this time of year.
It’s mid-February on the Canadian side of this sprawling border lake. For much of his life, Powell has gotten his water this way during the winter — growing up at his parents’ fishing camp down on Scandia Bay, running the Chippewa Inn fishing resort on Saganaga and now living at a cabin on Sitch Island just a half-mile away.
Powell, 70, is a fixture on Saganaga, the elder statesman of a hardy breed who has chosen to live close to the land, far from the nearest town and several miles by water from the nearest road.
“I’m the old-timer on the lake,” Powell says, as if he has trouble believing it himself.
Gone now are the fiercely independent characters who once lived on Saganaga and neighboring lakes — the old park ranger Art Madsen and his wife, Dinna; the irascible Irv Benson and his wife, Tempest Powell Benson;
prospector Benny Ambrose down on Ottertrack Lake; and Mike Deschampe.
When Powell has filled a pickle pail, he hauls it to the cabin, where Sherry, his wife of 38 years, is at work.
The Powells live a simple but rich life here. No telephone. No computer. No running water. Heat comes from the woodstove. A generator provides electricity during the evening. The propane that fires their stove must be hauled by snow machine and sled from the public landing. By that time, the propane tank already has traveled 60 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, the nearest town.
“It’s a pretty good life,” Powell says. “There’s a lot of things we don’t have but we don’t miss.”
Powell has spent all of his life on the Canadian side of Saganaga hunting moose, fishing, trapping and catering to anglers who come to catch Saganaga’s walleyes. He has earned the respect of those who know him.
“Everybody loves Dicky,” says Chuck Erickson of Larsmont, an avid angler who has fished Saganaga for years and always stayed at the Chippewa Inn. “He always has a smile on his face. He’s always willing to lend a hand.”
As a former fishing guide and an angler, Powell’s knowledge of the island-dappled Saganaga is deep and wide.
“What he says is the gospel truth, to the best of his knowledge,” says fishing guide Mike Berg, owner of Seagull Creek Fishing Camp on the Gunflint Trail. “You go out there, and he’s right.”
Rich family history
The Powell family has been a fixture on Saganaga since the early 1900s. Dicky Powell’s grandparents were Jack Powell and his Ojibwe wife Mary Ottertail from the Lac La Croix First Nation down the border. They raised a family, hunting and trapping, on Saganagons Lake just north of Saganaga.
Dicky is the son of Bill and Dorothy Powell, who ran a fishing camp on Scandia Bay and, starting in 1959, the Chippewa Inn fishing lodge near Canada Customs. Powell’s earliest memory is of a moose hunt.
“I was 4 or 5 years old,” he says. “The first thing I can remember is moose hunting on Northern Light (Lake). We were up at the north end with my parents. We woke up to snow on top of us. It had a lot of weight to it. I can remember that as clear as day.”
He remembers when his family would make the two-mile portage to Saganagons Lake to visit his grandparents.
“We’d get to the end of the portage and yell,” he said. “My grandpa would come and get us in a little birchbark canoe. Boy, you had to sit still and have your hair parted right down the middle when you sat in that canoe.”
The Saganaga community always has been a tightly knit, if independent, collection of people who fought fires, rescued travelers and scratched out their livelihoods. Living remotely, up against the elements, they found a way to get along despite their differences.
“There may be somebody you know who you don’t get along too well with, but you yell, ‘Help,’ and somebody’s going to come,” Powell said.
Powell guided for many years at End of the Trail Lodge, a fishing resort on the Minnesota side of Saganaga Lake. That’s where he met Sherry, who had come north from Chicago to work at the resort. Previously, Powell had been married to Colleen Powell. They had two children, Rich Powell of Two Harbors and Shelly Powell of Duluth. Dicky and Sherry had twin daughters, Laura and Paula. Laura and her husband, Larry, now operate the Chippewa Inn.
In the years that Dicky and Sherry operated the Chippewa Inn, it was at the heart of Sag’s fishing world, Berg says. Bill and Dorothy Powell had started the resort to be near the new Canada Customs office, figuring that’s where the anglers would funnel in. They were right.
“The Chippewa Inn has always been the fishing hub for Sag,” Berg says. “Dicky was brought up with all of that.”
When Berg was getting started as a guide on Sag 34 years ago, he would ask Powell about fishing spots.
“You’d go up there and pick a 20-acre section of the lake,” Berg says. “I’d say, ‘I need more reefs. What’s here for reefs?’ It’s always amazed me how well he knows the lake. In Dicky’s day, depth-finders were just getting introduced. But he knows what’s under the water. You gotta have that picture, and he’s got it.”
Powell could put anglers on fish. But for many of them, it was worth the trip to Chippewa Inn just to hear the stories of his life.
When Erickson would stay at the Chippewa Inn for fishing, he often found it difficult to get on the water.
“I’d get up extra early to have coffee with Dicky,” Erickson says. “I’d plan on departing for the lake in an hour, but two hours later, I’d still be there. Sometimes, I didn’t get out until 10 o’clock because I got so involved in talking to him.”
Powell has hundreds of stories, but he doesn’t tell them to impress visitors, nor does he stretch the truth, those who know him say.
“My dad had enough real experiences, he doesn’t need to brag about them,” says his son, Rich.
“There’s no ego with his story-telling,” Berg says.
There is one story Rich Powell has never heard his dad tell others. Dicky and Rich were with another party fishing for walleyes on Saganagons Lake many years ago when a member of the party hooked a northern pike of epic proportions. The angler brought it between the two canoes — but without a net, Dicky was unable to haul it aboard, and it broke the line.
“This fish was ridiculous,” Rich Powell says. “I won’t even guess how big it was. I’ve heard Dad tell stories over and over, but I’ve never heard him tell that story. It’s because it would sound a little bit too superlative. To tell the truth would seem like he was making it up.”
Lots of stories
But Dicky Powell has plenty of other stories. They spill out of him on a winter morning as sun pours through the cabin windows. Any topic — wildfire, moose, ice, beavers, walleyes — might spawn a whole string of memories for him.
“Over the years, we’ve had a half-dozen beavers as pets,” Powell says. “There’s nothing as cute as a beaver about this long.”
He holds a thumb and index finger about 3 inches apart.
“During the day, they lie right by the stove like a rug. But at night, they get up and start moving around. They’d work all night, shoving things around and chewing on things.”
Moose have been frequent visitors. During evenings, when the generator is running, Dicky and Sherry sometimes watch TV.
“One night, I was watching TV, and I heard a noise outside,” Powell said. “Then the TV stopped. I went outside to look. A moose had walked through and picked up the TV wire, and it was up in the woods.”
Sometimes on summer nights, the family would go for a boat ride, looking around. This was when twins Laura and Paula were young.
“There was a cow (moose) and two calves swimming in the lake,” Powell says. “I had a kid over each side of the boat, hugging a moose calf.”
Powell has dark eyes that shine from beneath furry eyebrows and a full head of wavy hair, still mostly black. His wide face is framed by mutton-chop sideburns that descend to embrace a Fu Man Chu moustache. His exposed cheekbones are full and sun-reddened from a life outdoors.
The Powells pass time easily at their remote home. Their nearest winter neighbors are Laura and Larry, perhaps a half-mile down the lake, and the Manzo family at Sagonto Lodge another short distance beyond.
A marine radio on the shelf squawks with chatter among lake residents and people close by on the Minnesota mainland. Sherry reads a lot.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever been bored,” says Sherry, 64. “I’ve been close.”
The couple has traveled, though infrequently. They went to Florida once, many years ago, to visit Sherry’s mom. Last fall, they flew to Spokane, Wash., to visit family. Such trips provide a stark contrast to their world on Sag.
“I got on the plane and looked ahead of me and saw 150 heads,” Powell says. “I’ve never done crowds real well.”
The Powells had a satellite-linked computer for a few years, but when technicians would no longer make the trip across Sag to service it, the Powells gave it up.
“I have no interest in them, but they really are amazing things,” Powell says.
Powell keeps busy in a lot of ways beyond hunting and trapping and fishing. He has built cabins for summer residents. He carves intricate woodshed scenes and gives them away. A summer resident has commissioned him to carve a totem pole, something he has never attempted before.
“She thinks I can do anything,” he says sheepishly.
Playing the odds
Living in the bush comes with some inherent risks. The Powells try to minimize those risks. Each fall, Powell fills a pack with warm clothes and boots. He stores it in a shed away from the cabin, son Rich Powell says, in case of fire.
“In the middle of the night, if the cabin catches on fire, you could run outside,” Rich Powell says. “You don’t burn to death, but you could freeze to death. They’re playing for keeps up there.”
Forest fires present a different kind of fire risk, with the potential to take everything.
“That last fire (the Ham Lake fire in 2007) came within a half mile of us in two different directions,” Powell said. “That was pretty touchy.”
When the Powells used to stay at their cabin during spring break-up and fall freeze-up, which could last as long as six weeks, they were truly isolated.
“You program yourself to a different way of living then,” Powell says. “You wouldn’t pick up a chain saw and start cutting.”
In the past three years, they have bought a home near Silver Bay where they spend freeze-up and ice-out.
“We’re getting too old to cart each other around unconscious,” Sherry says.
Passing it on
Certainly, the Powells are “off the grid” in the truest sense.
“They’ve never been on the grid,” Rich Powell says. “When that type of lifestyle started, there wasn’t a grid to get off of.”
The Powells are aware that the life they have led is far different than that most people know. But they’ve never considered it a hardship. They simply prefer it to any other alternative.
“I’ve thought about going to Alaska,” Sherry says, “but I don’t want to leave here.”
Dicky puts it this way: “We have to go to the landing today. When we leave, I don’t have to lock anything up. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
The Powells are aware that they are the keepers of Saganaga’s history as well as that of the Powell family. Dicky has a lifetime of stories, and Sherry and he have begun to record them for future generations.
“I’m not saying I’m special,” Powell says, “but those stories — when I’m gone, they’re gone.”
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