February 21, 2000
Beginning of the Road
By Dane Sorensen
During the President’s Day weekend I had that sudden urge for a field trip. Not having a friend at Northwest Airlines limited me to a car trip. Not having a friend at Holiday Inn or any other motel limited it to a day trip. Now there are not too many places you can go for a day from Ely. For real diehards I know a day trip to Minneapolis is possible, but those kinds of trips leave you pretty wasted the next day. Much to the dismay of our local merchants the most popular day trip is to Duluth. However, since I don’t have a friend at Mastercard, I knew I had better stay away from that town as well. With the exception of a day trip to Cook or Cherry the only other option was a trek up to International Falls.
I have never been to International Falls. From what I had heard it is almost as cold as Embarrass and more along the lines of a factory town like Cloquet. I remember hearing that Rocky and Bullwinkle lived in Frost Bite Falls, which was inspired by International Falls. Any way that you look at it, International Falls must have as much claim to fame as any other town in Northern Minnesota. Besides they are at the front lines protecting us from Canada. Now that is a full time job.
Another long time goal has been to drive the entire length of the Echo Trail. Its fame for being a scenic and backward road is as high as our other famous path of carsickness – Highway 1. What I find mysterious is that both these roads start out twisting and turning as if a drunk designed them. And then just like magic after about 30 miles both roads straighten out to where you can sustain some consistent speed. How Ely could be blessed by two roller coaster highways is a mystery. I would love to send the road engineer who did this down to Minneapolis to make their lives even more cursed then they are. Come to think of it, I think that engineer may already be employed down there. If you have ever tried to make sense out of the roads around the bigger malls and shopping centers, you will know what I mean.
So I informed my lovely wife of “our” plans for a one-day vacation to beautiful International Falls. After a lazy breakfast at noon we took off around 1:30. As you can tell, my family was anxious for an early start. After about 25 miles one of the kidlets started to look glazed over from carsickness. A brief stop to shuffle people and letting the afflicted have a front seat seem to solve that problem. Once we hit the 40-mile mark our drunken highway engineer finally sobered up and the Echo Trail calmed down. When the Echo Trail came to an end I was disappointed to have to go back to blacktop. It was fun roaring down the road with no one within sight. I don’t think we saw more than three cars during the whole Echo Trail run.
Upon entering International Falls, I was surprised to see a town that had very little character. The closest I saw to anything interesting was the Ace hardware on Main Street. It was well preserved and had the look of a hardware store from the 1930’s. Otherwise, you can’t miss the paper mills. They are more dominating than in Cloquet
. Unfortunately, for the town the place smells like dirty diapers. Sulfur is the perfume of the day for International Falls. How sad it is to have to allow this type of pollution to exist. Cloquet had the same smell and it has succeeded in getting rid of it.
I feel sorry for the town. To have such fine looking schools and a community college and yet to have everything smell like rotten eggs. I can see why tourism is not a big industry for that town. Another odd thing was the lack of restaurants in the town. Most were closed on Sunday. Gosh, if I wanted that I could have stayed home. So we quickly decided to expand our day trip and flee the country.
Our flight to clean air came to a quick stop when we did not have exact fare for the toll bridge across the border. The paper company owns the bridge. It cost $2.75 to cross a 300-foot bridge to Canada. We had to U-turn and find an ATM. The custom agents must have thought us strange when we did a U-turn back to the USA. I’m surprised they did not arrest us and take our old minivan apart looking for guns and ammo for Free Quebec.
After finding an ATM we headed back and easily made it into Fort Frances. I must say it did not look any different. Again, most places were closed and the smell of papermaking permeated the place as well. We drove out of town and finally found a lovely restaurant by Rainy Lake. It was great knowing the price of everything we saw on the menu was 40% cheaper due to the Canadian dollar.
After our meal we headed back to the good old USA. We took 53 to Cook and then crossed over to Tower. Even I could not take the roller coaster Echo Trail after eating a big meal.
Entering our fare town at night, we again felt at home. It was good to see the friendly water tower, the festive light posts, and the frozen images of Whiteside Park. Our restaurants may mostly be closed as well, but at least our air is clean and our town shines with our unique flare for the unusual. “Gee, Auntie Em, there is no place like home.”