During the off season I enjoy going through the archive items we have here at Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. I especially love reading old articles that talk about the life on the Gunflint Trail.
I hope you enjoy this article! Writer of the magazine was Frederic A. Beck.
Of Moose and Men
Published in the Northwestern Bell Magazine Volume 44 * Number 6 * July – August, 1963
The setting could be right out of one of those he-man adventure magazines. Tall, white pines; towering birch and poplar; rugged, rocky terrain tangled with brush and saplings; deep, ice-blue lakes.
Drive where you can drive, and you’re likely to see a deer crashing through the brush, a bear lumbering over a hill. Mark your path well as you walk into the woods. Because of the beauty, you won’t mind the blackflies, blowflies and mosquitoes.
After a while, you may see a bull moose slogging through a bog. Don’t be surprised if you see a telephone line, too; that pole on the ground just yielded to Mr. Moose’s battering-ram charge. Old stuff, up around Grand Marais, Minn., country that can make a telephone man cuss, real hard.
Grand Marias (population 1,300) squats at the edge of Lake Superior, 105 miles north of Duluth, a scenic 45 minutes away from the Canadian border. Working out of Grand Marais, Northwestern Bell telephone men give cars and trucks a real workout, maintaining lines, phones and equipment up and down 85 miles of North Shore Drive (Highway 61).
At Grand Marais, the Gunflint trail begins. Originally a dogsled-foot trail for trappers and traders, the Gunflint is now a narrow, sometimes-blacktop, sometimes-gravel road snaking 60 miles into northern wilderness. The telephone line serving Gunflint lodges and cabins is sometimes near the Trail; more often, deep into the woods. To find trouble locations, it’s routine for Equipmentman Leonard Goodell, Combinationman Earl Krause to hoof it for miles. With snowshoes in winter, when the temperature can drop to 40-below.
When walking the line, sometimes together, Goodell and Krause never know what they’ll run onto – bears, moose, deer, lynx, wolves, Indians – and most treks inspire another chapter in the endless Gunflint Trail saga. “Found three cubs playing one day,” boomed Earl, himself as big as a bear. “Couldn’t help stopping to watch ‘em. You can smell a grown bear; king of a musty smell. He was up-wind, and when I turned, there he was, clomping down the hill toward me. Ever try to run with snowshoes? I don’t know how I got away from him, big as I am, but I made it back to the truck.”
Some of the trips are not so eventful, but a ride up the Gunflint with Leonard Goodell is something to remember. A way of tall trees on both sides of the road; high wooded ridges, a calendar scene lake around many curves. “I’ll show you my buddy,” Len remarked as the truck eased around a sharp turn and slowed near a swampy area set back from the road. A huge moose plodded out from the trees, splashed into the swamp and stood peering warily towards the truck. “He’s usually around, this time of the day.” Further up the Trail, Len slowed down, crept up to within 20 feet of a delicate little fawn standing in the middle of the road. The fawn gazed nonchalantly at the truck, disappeared into the trees with one graceful leap.
Like other trouble -shooting telephone men, Krause and Goodell never know when they’ll be asked to go out and help restore telephone service. At 5 one recent morning, Goodell got a call from Bob Coffey, equipmentman working the testboard, headed up the Gunflint; phones were out up the Trail. The trouble; twenty miles up, a 130-foot-high white pine had been struck by lightning. Before the tree’s top half crashed down through the telephone line, the lightning went on to hit the wire. The bolt zipped through the line in both directions, splintered 17 poles. Len spliced the wires to restore service, untangled them from the tree branches.
Soon Construction Foreman Ade Brummer’s linemen – Ken Seafolk and Stanley King – were at the scene, clearing debris, replacing poles and wire. A tall, casual man with black ball cap tipped back on his head, Ade said the repair job was “not too unusual.” He pointed down the Trail to a new pole. “Put that in the other day. Moose decided to charge the old one.” When a job is too big for two men to handle, the construction crew is called in. In Ade’s words: we do the bull work.”
Snowshoeing along the Gunflint Trail is no more unusual than canoeing across Se Gull or Saganaga Lakes to service phones. “We take most of our canoe trips in the spring,” says Leonard, “to check fuses and replace carbons (components that absorb lightning before it reaches a phone). You paddle one-fourth mile to the Plymouth Youth Center, on an island in Sea Gull Lake, and a half mile to Lewis Island on Saganaga Lake.”
Last summer, Grand Marais operator reports showed that calls were not going through from Lewis Island. Goodell strapped a canoe on his truck, grabbed his test-set and was knocking on the customer’s door around midnight. He had checked equipment in a backwoods office 27 miles up the Gunflint, spotted the trouble cause. “The guy had been trying to call his daughter,” Leonard recalled, “to let her know he got to the cabin safely. He was surprised as heck to see that we knew about the trouble already.”
Service restoration is not always that quick, nor the answer to problems so pat around Grand Marais. L.A. (Larry) Carlson, Duluth District plant manager, fingers the area as one “with some real tough problems.” For example, telephone lines are on power poles (14,400 volts) along much of the Gunflint Trail circuit. The telephone lines draw voltage out of the power lines, and this can make for a garbled conversation. Since the line runs far into the woods at many points, it’s not easy to find trouble quickly when service is interrupted.
“Since much of the land there is solid rock,” explains Carlson, “buried cable can’t go in; we’ve seriously considered laying it on top of the ground.”
Rocky land, dense trees, electricity (natural and man-made), mischievous animals are but a few of the problems “up the Gunflint.” The aspirin for these headaches come from Grand Marais, and the Duluth telephone men are working toward a permanent cure.
The Gunflint Trail is the toughest area for Grand Marais Manager Paul Larson to watch over, but the overall picture is much bigger: Including Trail phones and those in Grand Marais, there are 1,703 telephones (May figure) in eight communities along the shore of Lake Superior – at Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen south of Grand Marais; Hovland, Mineral Center, Pigeon River and the Chippewa Indian Village of Grand Portage to the north. In sheer distances alone, the job is huge.
“Our men put at least as many miles on their trucks as any in the Company,” Larson points out. “The miles run as high as 200 a day. And, as you’ve seen, we have some pretty rugged country to walk through … or canoe to.”
The job is not merely maintenance; service improvements are going in at a quick pace. A new Grand Marais telephone building was finished recently, and the town will be converted to dial service next January; Grand Portage went dial last year.
This wild, Northwoods country is loaded with frustrations that can make a telephone man tear his hair. The bear who bullied Earl, or the moose who hates telephone poles.
But on evenings, week ends and days off (barring telephone emergencies), a man can hook whopping walleyed or northern pike, lake or brook trout, bass or any fish he cares to go after. The hunting’s some of the best in the country.
There’s a placid, pike-filled lake, just off the Gunflint, called Devil’s Track. Legend has it that the lake is named after an old, crippled trapper who walked the area many years ago. In winter, he wore a snowshoe on one foot, supported his other foot with a cane. The Indians thought the strange tracks in the snow belonged to the devil. When there’s trouble up the Gunflint, Grand Marais telephone men may wonder if the Indians weren’t right.