On an Easter Sunday drive, we saw an elephant. Since this was our first Minnesota elephant sighting, we pulled off the highway to get a better look. We learned the elephant belonged to a small travelling circus, which was giving a show in Carlton the following day. Tiny was her name. We were told Tiny was gentle, weighed 7,000 pounds and was very smart.
She was also devious. Tiny reached her long and dexterous trunk into a trailer of circus gear parked near her cage and probed the contents. Eventually, her owner stuck his head out the door of his nearby RV and yelled, “No Tiny! Knock it off.” Tiny obeyed, briefly. Not long after the man went back into the RV she reached into the trailer again.
Pulling back on the highway, we decided seeing an elephant was better than seeing the Easter Bunny. Our Sunday drive was off to an adventurous start. Along for the ride were my mother and 15-year-old Joe, who was coming to visit his grandmother Vikki and me for the week.
We headed for Jay Cooke State Park, where my parents took countless drives when my father was alive. In spring-time, the melt-swollen St. Louis River roars and rages through several miles of rock-studded rapids in the park, drawing sightseers and adventuresome whitewater paddlers. At least, that’s what happens most years. No paddlers were present at the put-in below Thomson Dam, where a modest flow poured over the spillway. The river was as low as I’ve ever seen it in the spring.
High water or not, Jay Cooke is a beautiful park where forests of mature white pine and hardwoods shroud rugged hills. Highway 210 winds along the ridges, offering views of the St. Louis snaking through the valley below. The park is the Duluth area’s best-kept secret, even among locals. Joe, for instance, lives less than 10 miles away and hadn’t been there before.
We stopped at the Swinging Bridge, the site of the park office and a famous landmark. After purchasing a park sticker, we walked down to the bridge and crossed the river. First constructed by Civilian Conservation Corp crews in 1933, Swinging Bridge is one of only two suspension bridges in the state park system. A nearby plaque has a picture from April, 1950, when the river was so high the bridge was washed away. This year, the river is at least 10 feet beneath the bridge.
We weren’t alone. Families, hikers, and photographers were out enjoying the beautiful day. Mom and I remarked how years ago, when we visited Jay Cook with my father, we encountered few people. We were pleased to see the park getting more use.
Back in the car, we continued along Highway 210 reminiscing about Dad. He grew up Duluth’s Gary neighborhood, not far from the park, during the 1930s and 40s. He often talked about fishing for walleyes in the river and sneaking into the park’s backcountry to poach deer. A lot of water has since passed beneath the Swinging Bridge since then, but the walleye fishing remains as good as ever and the park now holds an annual deer hunt.
We passed a place where I had a very early memory of Dad. As a young boy, I was interested in trapping, so Dad stopped where a tiny creek crossed the road to show me tracks left by mink or other critters in the fresh snow. As we stood beside the road, a park ranger, no doubt long since retired, pulled up beside us and rolled down his window.
“What are you doing?” he asked in an authoritarian tone of voice.
“We’re looking for tracks,” Dad answered.
“What kind of tracks?’ asked the ranger, his tone suggesting we were up to no good.
“Fish tracks,” Dad answered with a step toward the ranger’s truck. “What does it matter to you?”
When you are a kid, you just don’t expect adults to become confrontational. Never one to mince words, Dad made it clear to the ranger that he was done answering questions. Wisely, the ranger concluded his interrogation and drove away. Dad and an eight-year-old boy whose eyes were now the size of saucers went back to looking for tracks.
Joe thought the fish tracks story was a pretty good tale. He remarked more than once that going for a Sunday drive was pretty cool. We continued on, stopping briefly at Duluth’s Chamber’s Grove Park on the river bank and a couple of out-of-the-way spots we knew thanks to Dad. Joe learned a little about his hometown and a little more about life’s simple pleasures. No one knew better than Dad that you really don’t need anything more than fresh air, clean water and public land to enjoy a day outdoors. It was a good lesson for Joe—and one I hope sticks with him. After all, it’s hard to forget the day when you saw a Minnesota elephant.