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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Toto, we’re seriously not in Kansas anymore

David Colburn
Posted 9/2/20

It’s hard to believe I’ve already been on the job at the Timberjay for seven months now. Even with the COVID-19 shutdown, time seems to have passed as quickly as a hiccup.I can …

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Toto, we’re seriously not in Kansas anymore


It’s hard to believe I’ve already been on the job at the Timberjay for seven months now. Even with the COVID-19 shutdown, time seems to have passed as quickly as a hiccup.
I can unabashedly proclaim that I couldn’t be happier with my move from the wide-open prairie of central Kansas to the north lands of Minnesota. Or is that the northlands? Or north of “the divide?” Or north of “the Iron Range?” Or the Boundary Waters area?
And therein lies the one drawback to feeling totally settled here in my new home – I’m still trying to figure out just where I am.
Google Maps has long been a go-to for me, and in early February I sat down at the computer to get a better feel for the lay of the land around here. As the new Cook/Orr Editor, I figured I ought to learn more about the area. I knew the Orr was on the shores of Pelican Lake, so I put “Pelican Lake” into the search bar, clicked, and started browsing the area.
I immediately noticed something odd. Orr wasn’t where I thought it would be, there on the eastern end of the lake. Hmmmm. I scrolled around the shoreline – no Orr. I zoomed out – no Orr, no Cook, no Lake Vermilion nearby. What was going on?!?
Jodi Summit clued me in. I was looking at the Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, about 170 miles away as the crow flies from the Pelican Lake I wanted. TWO Pelican Lakes in the same state? What’s up with that?
But no, it was worse than I imagined. Minnesota has six Pelican Lakes. Ye gads!
I suppose that with more than 11,000 lakes it was inevitable that people would run out of original names and start duplicating, but six seemed rather excessive. Turns out it’s rather conservative.
Long Lake appears to be the king of lake names in Minnesota, although apparently there’s some disagreement as to just how many have that name. Wikipedia lists 30, while another source says 27. And woe is me – four of those appear to be in St. Louis County. SERIOUSLY? Couldn’t folks get together and mutually agree to rename three of them Longer, Even Longer, and Longest Lakes to avoid confusing people like me?
I’d volunteer to convene a group to negotiate the changes, except that I’m fearful that I would discover that two of the Longs were named by DFLers and two were named by Republicans, and we’d get absolutely nowhere until Gov. Walz lifts his mask order and yields his emergency powers.
My hometown in Kansas, Marion, has been called “the town between two lakes” since the 1960s, when a sprawling federal reservoir was built west of town that is complemented by a charming CCC-era county lake to the east. For a number of years there was confusion for non-locals because the Corps of Engineers insisted on calling the reservoir “Marion Lake,” while the other was named “Marion County Lake.” We locals knew the difference, and we never called the new one Marion Lake. It was always just “the rez.” Which, of course, has a completely different context way up here in, uh, what DO I call this area again? The Corps finally relented and started calling their big puddle Marion Reservoir, and then everyone could tell the difference. Problem solved.
Meanwhile, note that Marion Reservoir and Marion County Lake are each within five miles or less of Marion. Makes perfect sense to me. Lots of Kansas lakes are named after their nearby towns. Not terribly creative, I’ll admit, but predictable. If you go to Cheney Lake, Cheney is right there. Simple.
So would anyone care to help me undertand why the only Ely Lake in Minnesota isn’t next to Ely, but instead is 40 miles away next to Eveleth? Doesn’t take a Scripps National Spelling Bee winner to see that Eveleth and Ely aren’t terribly similar. Did an early Ely settler venture out and stake claim to the lake by Eveleth? Did the Eveleth mayor lose a bet with the Ely mayor over a hockey game that forced him to change the name of Eveleth Lake to Ely Lake?
Meanwhile, Lost Lake is a little less tedious, as there are apparently only three of those in Minnesota. But what were these people who named these lakes thinking? If they saw a lake waiting to be named, it obviously wasn’t lost at all. Maybe they were lost and the names reflect their hapless state at the time, but the lakes themselves certainly aren’t lost. They’re right there on the map. Change them to Found lakes.
I also fear I’ll never figure out why “Lake” goes in front of some names and after others. I certainly made the rookie mistake of saying Vermilion Lake, and was quickly corrected. Lake Vermilion. Just like Lake Vermilion Township. Oh, wait – that’s Vermilion Lake Township? And of course, let’s not forget the River Vermilion. Oh, wait – the Vermilion River? Then there’s Lake Kabetogama. NO. It’s Kabetogama Lake.
And if the lakes are mindboggling, just imagine how I’m doing with the roads around here.
It’s incredibly easy to keep track of where you are in most rural parts of Kansas because the roads are laid out, for the most part, in north-south and east-west lines. Straight lines. Sure, there are exceptions, such as the vast expanse of rolling tallgrass prairie near my hometown called the Flint Hills. Thousands and thousands of cattle are trucked in every year to fatten up on this most glorious stretch of hills, and they certainly don’t need roads to get around. But the grid pattern is so prevalent that when one ends up on a curvy road it’s still easy to keep one’s sense of direction.
There aren’t many straight roads here in my new home, and trust me, I’m not complaining. Exploration with an element of uncertainty is grand. But try as I might, I still can’t seem to consistently figure out which direction I’m driving. My truck has a built-in compass on the dash, and when my brain says “West,” the compass often says “SW” or “NW” or worse. Put me on a Forest Service road on a cloudy day and I haven’t a clue what direction I’m going. Fortunately, since I’m on a Forest Service road, I really don’t care about direction.
Anyway, did I mention that I totally love it here? I do, I do, I really, really do! Wherever here is. There’s no place like home, right, Toto?


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