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Museum at the end of the trail tells Gunflint's story

SAGANAGA LAKE -- It's been 30 years since the sounds of anglers and families filled Chik-Wauk Lodge at the end of the Gunflint Trail. But it won't be quiet here much longer.

Chik-Wauk Museum
Adam and Ashley Kirchoff and their parents, Diana and Chuck Kirchoff, of Minneapolis have fun checking historical dates marked alongside the rings of a 300-year-old slice of white pine on display in the Chik-Wauk Museum. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

SAGANAGA LAKE -- It's been 30 years since the sounds of anglers and families filled Chik-Wauk Lodge at the end of the Gunflint Trail. But it won't be quiet here much longer.

The former fishing camp that closed after the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness expanded in 1978 has been transformed into Minnesota's newest -- and most remote -- history museum and nature center.

Chik-Wauk will reopen today with a grand celebration, the culmination of a five-year, more than $1 million effort by local residents who wanted a special place to tell the story of the Gunflint Trail, a 60-mile, dead-end highway that meanders into the heart of northern Minnesota's scenic lakes and forest region.

It's a region rich in history of native peoples, voyageur fur traders, mining speculators, loggers, fishermen and families -- especially those who came here and stayed to carve out a living on walleyes, white pines and hard work.

To this day, there's a spirit of independence, even quirkiness, that defines a Gunflint Trail resident.

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"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 lynchpin for 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. It's all about the land and the water here. The land shapes the people; we don't shape the land."

The Gunflint Trail evolved from an Indian trail to a tote road to supply mines that never produced ore to a logging road in the early 1900s. The route as it's known today developed in the early 1920s to access pristine fishing lakes for a growing number of camps. The road wasn't paved until the 1970s.

It was here, on the bay where Chik-Wauk sits, that the famous 1960s Hamm's Beer commercials were filmed featuring the iconic border-lakes scene, complete with burly north woods paddler and unlikely canoe-riding grizzly bear.

"Those commercials were the first time a lot of people saw what was up here," Kerfoot said.

But the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center is much more than old beer signs and paraphernalia. It's a hands-on, high-tech museum professionally designed and well-stocked with authentic Gunflint Trail artifacts, memorabilia and history.

Professionally designed

The museum is a medley of local, volunteer artists and craftspeople's efforts and work by Split Rock Studio of Arden Hills, Minn. There's a diorama of local wildlife and trees; an interactive exhibit featuring the fur trade and Voyageurs (with a real stuffed beaver to touch and a beaver felt hat); and exhibits on wildfires, local residents, logging, geology and mining and Indian history.

The wildfire exhibit is especially relevant. In May 2007, just as work on the museum was going in earnest, the Ham Lake fire, Minnesota's largest and most costly since 1918, wiped out dozens of cabins and homes in the area. But an outdoor sprinkler system hastily installed by local firefighters, along with constant water bombing by firefighting aircraft, spared the museum. Charred trees left by the fire are visible all around, some just 100 feet away.

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"Driving in here after that, I was thinking the worst," said Fred Smith, president of the historical society and lead volunteer in the restoration. "Every-thing was burned right up to the (museum.) But they saved the lodge. It was as if it was meant to be."

Professionally produced, 2-minute videos tell the stories of each of the original lodges along the Gunflint and the dozen or so most colorful characters of the 1900s.

That includes the famed Justine Kerfoot, "the Woman of the Boundary Waters," who helped found Gunflint Lodge; northwoods pioneer Benny Ambrose, the last person to live in the BWCAW full-time; and Sea Gull Lake Resort legends Eve and Russell Blankenburg.

"We wanted to get this together and get all we could before we lost all the first-hand memory of the people who settled here, who made the Gunflint Trail what it still is today," Kerfoot said. "Those first (settlers) are gone, and we're going to lose the generation that heard all their stories."

The Forest Service contributed histories of the Superior National Forest and BWCAW. And there's an exhibit on the boreal forest that makes up the border region -- the same forest that envelopes northern latitudes around the globe -- and the birds, animals and wildflowers that call the forest home.

"People come up here knowing more about the Amazon forest than the boreal forest we have right here," Kerfoot said. "We need to change that."

History

In the early 1930s, Gunflint Trail settlers Russell Blankenburg and Ed Nunstedt built a private road to land they owned on Saganaga Lake. Nunstedt soon began work on the Chik-Wauk Lodge, but the first building burned down before the first guests could arrive.

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In 1934, Nunstedt built a new lodge made entirely of local rock, a building that stands today. The lodge eventually was purchased by Ralph and Bea Griffiths who, after new regulations arrived with the 1978 BWCAW Act, sold the property to the U.S. Forest Service in 1980. The Griffiths continued to live in the main lodge until 1999, but the building was falling into disrepair even then. The Forest Service removed all of the cabins and outbuildings.

Smith said it was difficult working under rules set by the lodge's placement on the National Register of Historic Places. But volunteers and local craftsmen managed to get a new roof, fix the sagging deck and re-glaze 480 individual panes of glass that allow a panoramic view of the lake from the lodge.

The Forest Service, which has granted a 25-year lease to the historical society and has been supportive in the museum's development, still owns the lodge and land.

"They've really gone out of their way to help," Smith said.

Dozens of people have donated to the museum effort, with two local residents anonymously donating $100,000 each. Other grants came from the National Scenic Byway Program and Cook County. There are more than 500 members of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society, and the lodge's former owners, the Griffiths, are set to bequeath money for an endowment for long-term maintenance and improvements.

The museum is handicapped accessible, as are most of the nature trails that are ready for hikers and wheelchairs across the 50 acres at the site.

There are picnic tables, toilets and a gift shop at the museum. Ada Igoe of Grand Marais, the site manager, and at least one staff member or volunteer will be on duty to answer questions or give semi-guided tours each day, Igoe said.

Thomas Helm of Minneapolis, whose family has owned a cabin on the Ontario side of Saganaga for decades, stopped in last week for a sneak preview tour of the new museum.

"This is a great addition to the area. It might get people to stop and stay a little longer on the trail," Helm said. "There were so many real characters up here over the years, and the area has such a fantastic history. That's the story needed to be told."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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