Sky-Blue Waters, Bears and Beer

HAMM’S BEER ADVERTISING ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL

The Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais has long been renowned for its rugged, pine-filled forests and pristine lakes. People travel the world over to hunt, to fish, or to paddle the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The unique characteristics of this landscape have long been known to advertisers as well.

The best known and most extensive advertising campaigns were created on behalf of Hamm’s Beer of St. Paul. Their slogan, “From the land of sky-blue waters” is etched in memory of Minnesotans who have spent several decades on this earth. While most of these ads featured cartoons of the Hamm’s Bear set to the beat of tom-toms, others featured live photography.

Beginning in the 1950s, Hamm’s began using print ads and calendars with carefully orchestrated photographs of the lakes and streams near the end of the Gunflint Trail. And in 1973, Hamm’s television commercials featured Sasha the bear and his bearded trainer, Earl Hammond, traveling along Seagull and Saganaga lakes.

Throughout those years, one man was an integral part of all these ads. Rolf Skrien, former owner of Way of the Wilderness Lodge at the end of the Gunflint Trail, served as location scout, or finder, as he puts it, for all these ads. Remember that iconic image of the man fishing in the red canoe atop the blue water, beneath the blue skies, next to a rocky shoreline? That’s Rolf in the canoe. He also guided the crew to that spot.

Rolf Skrien holding a photo of himself in the red canoe. | CHUCK VIREN

By the time the Hamm’s beer advertisers came calling in the 1950s, Rolf had extensive experience as a guide and location scout. It all started in 1946, shortly after Rolf was discharged from the Coast Guard after World War II. He and three Coast Guard buddies set off on a late April canoe trip from Saganaga Lake. With poor maps and not much experience, they headed north. After they hit French Lake, they turned west without a clear idea of where they were or how they would return. They had brought pistols and supplemented their rations with grouse they shot along the way. Near the western edge of the Quetico Provincial Park, after not having seen anybody for about a week, they encountered some native people who told them how to get to Ely. From there they re-supplied themselves and returned via Knife Lake.

Upon their return, Russel Blankenburg, who owned End of the Trail Lodge, asked if any of them could stay and guide for the fishing opener. “That whole trip really got into me,” said Rolf; he realized that, “this is the life for me.” So Rolf talked one of his buddies into staying for a few more days. After the opener, Russel asked Rolf to stay on and guide. Having no real prospects at home, Rolf agreed. He never left.

Later, nature photographer Les Blacklock began using him as a location guide for his calendar shots. By the time the Hamm’s Beer people called, Rolf was their obvious choice as a location scout. He brought them to Seagull Creek. They wanted a guy fishing in the photo, so Rolf floated strategically in the red canoe. In order to give the appearance of success, Rolf tied a rock to the end of his line, a trick he had used before. Then they waited. And waited. Hamm’s was promoting their slogan, “from the land of sky blue waters,” and so they wanted a shot with clear blue skies that reflected on the water. However, the clouds were moving pretty fast that day, so the opportunity to film a cloudless sky never came. Then it started to get late; they took the picture anyway. In the photo there are mostly blue skies overhead, but many white clouds appear in the background. Rolf said the photographer feared the picture would never sell. Years later, Rolf was in a bar in Duluth and overheard a man claiming that the photos were shot in California. Rolf refrained from setting the record straight.

Earl and Sasha at Chik-Wauk. | CHIK-WAUK

In 1973, Rolf’s services as a finder were called upon when the New York advertising agency of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, Inc. brought animal trainer Earl Hammond and his Kodiak bear Sasha to Chik-Wauk Lodge to shoot a series of ads, mostly during two weeks in late September. Suddenly Rolf was not just location scout but assistant animal trainer. Earl used marshmallows to reinforce Sasha’s behavior, and Rolf was assigned to go ahead of the bear and leave a marshmallow every 10 feet or so along the path they wanted the bear to follow. Sasha had an acute sense of smell, and the trick worked well. That is until Rolf ran out of marshmallows. They were atop the Palisades on Seagull Lake when Sasha came up to him looking for a handout, and suddenly Rolf was worried. Sasha was well trained but was still a wild animal and unpredictable. Sasha didn’t hold a grudge, though, and Rolf emerged unscathed.

One of the commercials featured Sasha riding in the front of a canoe with Earl in the stern handling an outboard motor. The stern was loaded with rocks and sand to provide a counterbalance to Sasha’s bulk. Sasha, however, repeatedly wanted to dip his paw into the water as they motored along, and Earl could never break him of the habit. Fortunately, he never fell from the canoe or had it capsize.

There was only one incident with Sasha where things got a bit out of control. The crew had taken a break for lunch. The bear had been chained to a log while they ate, and Sasha, who evidently did not like being excluded from their party, picked up the log and began swinging it around. Earl however knew just how to handle him, and after he was fed, he immediately settled down.

Gail and Rolf Skrien at their cabin on Seagull Lake. | ROLF SKRIEN

As Earl and his bear were about to leave for their farm in Pennsylvania, Ralph Griffis, owner of Chik-Wauk Lodge, asked for a photo of Rolf with the bear. Rolf began to run down to Sasha when Earl waved for him to slow down. Running toward a 340 pound bear is not exactly a good idea, as they might perceive that as a threat. As Rolf walked slowly into position for the photo, Sasha took Rolf’s hand into his mouth. Evidently Earl had trained him to do this, but Rolf was understandably nervous. If one looks closely at the photo, they can see that Rolf’s smile is perhaps a bit more strained than it otherwise might have been.

Advertisers sell dreams and emotions. Our land of sky blue waters offers the promise of crisp, clean air, warm sun on our faces, and wilderness adventure. For over 60 years, advertisers have come here to capitalize on that promise. None have been more successful than Minnesota’s own Hamm’s Beer.

By Chuck Viren

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