A Journey North to Pelican Lake


During my years at Bowdoin, I had promised my close friend and teammate Eric that I would visit him in Minnesota. For those that don’t know him, Eric is a man of the wild. He’s been known to go off the map for months at a time on epic excursions into northern Minnesota and Canada, embodying the antithesis of the semester’s-end platitude, “keep in touch.” During opportune times at Bowdoin, Eric would wake up at 3 am and head to strategic areas in the Maine woods, huddling in the brush and making turkey calls to summon his prey. While many of us might show up to tennis practice stressed by a particular workload or personal issue, Eric would lament over the morning turkey that got away.

Eric isn’t just a man of the wild. He’s a man of the Minnesota wild. (Not the hockey team, though he probably could have been given his athletic ability and, well, his favorite adage that “anything is possible” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyjOy7fRzs0]). In fact, Eric wrote one of the most resonant narratives I read as an undergrad about the environmental history of his family’s ancestral home in Minnesota. I’ll include his introduction here:

Time off in Minnesota means going North. It might mean driving six hours from your place of permanent residence in the Twin Cities or fifteen minutes to an isolated lake from an already isolated lake that you call home, but no matter the distance, the important thing is that you are going North. In the minds of many, a trip South is reserved for college students, the elderly, and those of weak constitution who can’t handle the weather. Whether journeyed monthly or once a decade, a trip North is a pilgrimage traveled by countless devout Minnesotans across the state. North was a place to escape the pressures of home or the congestion of city life. Born and raised in the North Star State, my experience and the experience of four generations of my family that have preceded me have been no different.

Pelican Lake sits at the center of my family’s ancestral geography. On the Southeastern shore of Pelican Lake, 8367 acres of deep blue, gin clear water spilled onto the landscape of central Minnesota, my family’s cabin sits nestled on a short ridge dotted with oak and white pine. When my great-great Grandfather Willard Sparks spent his summers there, the cabin was described as quaint, or primitive, depending on your outlook; a single room opening out the back to a golden, sugar sand beach. The color of the grains seemed to be stained by the thousands of setting suns that have bathed our shore in a cascade of gold, yellow, and red light every day during dusk of clear summer days since it first emerged from the cover of glaciers. Together the sand and light gave our stretch of shore its namesake, Sunset Beach. Ninety-one years later, when I walk out the back door of my cabin I leave a four bedroom, three bath, all season home with a two car garage and full kitchen. Yet, I step onto the same golden sand. The lake rests quietly, exhausted from a day of playing with the wind. Rings of water emanate where fish have broken the still surface, and loons lure each other closer with their stirring calls. All of this growing stillness and subtle activity set to the ephemeral cascade of colors that accompany a falling sun. It is a scene that my great-great grandpa Will saw hundreds of times all those years ago; it is a destination for my family’s northern pilgrimage that connects me to a man I never met and rarely hear of. He created a place to go North, and I continue to follow in his footsteps, arriving at a place that has in many ways stayed the same, but that also has been profoundly changed over the last century.

To really understand Eric, or attempt to understand Eric, I wanted to experience him in his element. I knew this couldn’t just happen in the confines of Lubin Squash Center, home of the janky tennis stringer of years past, or the beer-soaked halls of Coles Tower. I would have to make the journey to Pelican Lake and see Eric in the Land of the Golden Gophers myself. And so I did.

It was October 26th, 2014, and I looked out from an airplane window at the rolling expanse of Minnesota wilderness. I remember thinking that the landscape reminded me of Maine, except with the prevalence of lakes substituting for rivers and ocean. It was late in the unfolding of fall, though the trees held to their leaves of orange and yellow and red with conviction. I could sense that the natural environment was much more saliently a context for human life here, a distinction I could draw from other parts of the US having lived in Southern California for much of the last four months.

I landed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and navigated my way to the shuttle service that would escort me the 2.5 hours north to the town of Brainerd where Eric would meet me. I couldn’t help but recall the opening line of Eric’s environmental history piece–“Time off in Minnesota means going North.” I was a fish out of water–or a fish out of lake more aptly–but all I knew was to make my way up north.

In the van, I struck up conversation with an old man who had grown up in central Minnesota. He told me he now lives in Alaska, where he spent most of his working career as a fireman. In fact, he had served as a guard at the entrance to the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which he said was a place of precipitous crime and disorder. The man gazed out the window and narrated much of our journey up north, commenting on the flora and fauna and some of the stark changes he observed in the built environment along the way. It was clear that this place evoked  great deal of memory. He told me had come back to visit a former girlfriend of his childhood, a person who has undergone a number of broken relationships in her life. I inferred from his drop-off location that he was staying in a hotel, but planning to be here for at least a few weeks, and so I gathered he was pursuing a substantive connection with this important person of ages past. People, place, memory–and so this man made his journey north.

 Eventually, darkness descended upon us. It wasn’t your typical half-mitigated darkness characteristic of most of the developed American landscape, but an overwhelmingly dark void obscuring most any vision apart from the immediacy of the highway and the luminous stars apparent above. I proceeded through an unfamiliar land, but Eric’s land no less, and I was excited to gain some vision in the dark with the help of his local stewardship.

We reached the town of Brainerd, and pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant. Sure enough, Eric was leaning against the hood of his car, set to receive me with his flannel and backwards hat. I gave him a big hug, and he helped me schlep my excessively heavy bag into his trunk. His car was filled with camouflage gear, fishing supplies–I was glad to see some things hadn’t changed. We went to a local restaurant-bar and caught up over food and beer, before heading back to his family’s cabin. The cabin is a cozy, wooden-furnished home with the amenities to combat the extremities of Minnesota’s seasons, while enveloped by an ethos of history and ancestry. Taxidermic largemouth bass and old photos hang on the wall, while one particular doorframe is marked with the height measurements of countless family and friends who have graced this place over the years. We walked down a set of stone steps to the edge of Pelican Lake, whose massive expanse was barely comprehensible in the darkness, aside from the spotted lights dotting the distant shore. I realize that deep in my subconscious, I had harbored an instinct that told me I needed to be close to the ocean to feel truly grounded in my life, but in this place, I could experience the real solace of home.


I arose early the next morning as sunlight illuminated the cabin, and looked out at the beautifully vibrant lake before me. Eric had already prepared breakfast for us, which only made the experience that much richer. We decided to go on a walk with his dog Boulder, a tranquil yet loyal companion who very clearly constitutes an indispensable aspect of Eric’s identity and rootedness in this place. We trudged through the surrounding woods, where Eric showed me his hunting camera set up with night-vision images of bucks and other critters that had found their way here. He was intent on getting a buck one of these days, and a picture message I would receive weeks later confirmed my intuition that he would. We talked about our realities beyond college, and how great of a challenge it was to reconcile these different chapters of our lives. Selling fruits and veggies in California, living and working in the woods of Minnesota–what people and experiences and ideas would we carry with us across these distinct realms of existence? What’s the right balance between holding on to emblems of the past and embracing the novelty of the present? How do we meaningfully sustain relationships with people and places in a time when individual mobility is such a common phenomenon in our circles, and things so quickly change?


We returned back to the house and made a fire on the beach, over which we barbecued our lunch. I cherished how connected I felt to Eric, the food we prepared, and the beautiful environment situating our experience in this place. I asked some questions about Pelican Lake’s fish population, and Eric responded with his keen insights into the ecological state of the lake. We decided to spend the afternoon fishing off his boat, with the hopeful prospect of providing dinner for the night. We gathered warm layers to confront the cool chills of the late autumn wind, and set out on the lake. Naturally, Eric ramped up the motor and sent us cruising over the surprisingly choppy surface of the water, and I rejoiced in an overwhelming state of freedom, joy and connectivity.


We spent some time fishing in the shallow, vegetated waters of an inlet on the far side of the lake, where Eric snagged a few largemouth bass. These were beautiful freshwater fish that would make for a great dinner, and providing our own sustenance for the night was a rewarding prospect.


We relocated to a deeper section of the lake, where Eric wanted to troll along a particular ridge at which the vegetation drops off to a more barren abyss. Here, he told me, was a great place to catch the big guys. We motored along for a while as our lines dragged behind us, and I stared up at the unbelievable expanse of open sky presiding over the rim of the lake. What an amazing place to be on planet earth. Suddenly, I felt a bite. I jerked my rod to set the hook, and started battling what I could feel was a powerful creature dwelling in the depths of this lake. My adrenaline was pumping, and Eric came to my side to help land the unknown fish soon to reveal itself. After an arduous struggle, I summoned this remarkably large freshwater pike to the surface, and Eric grabbed the line and brought it into the boat. “Wooooooooooooo” he yelled, and I responded with a blaring “yeeeeeeeeeppppppppp” as we shared this epic moment of utter elation out on Pelican Lake.


We navigated our way back to shore, where we would fillet the fish in preparation for dinner. The pike was still alive, and I decided I wanted to be the one to put it out of its misery. It was a strange sensation of asking to kill the fish myself, especially since Eric had been relatively more used to this aspect of hunting and fishing, but I wanted to experience the visceral act of taking something’s life that I intended to put in my stomach. I thought: how often do omnivores pick out meat from the butcher, or the frozen food section, and completely dissociate from the inevitable death that creature had to undergo? The suffering and death of these animals is so distant from our realm of consciousness that we hardly think about it, often choosing not to think about it as a justification for particular dietary preferences, or an aversion to unappetizing “morbid thoughts.” Meat is so often considered a replaceable “product” occupying a particular space in these commercial establishments, not a remnant of a living being that lost its life and quite often suffered in finding its way onto our plate. As I bludgeoned this creature with a piece of driftwood, I could see the life leave its eyes before me. It was a powerful experience that was much more rattling than I could have anticipated, but so damn real in putting me face to face with the real sacrifice of what I chose to put on my plate. I would eat our pike dinner that night with profound gratitude, and deep sense of respect for the life of this beautiful creature.


We woke up the next morning intent on going for a run. Eric had heard of some nature trails in a small town about a half hour away, and we decided to go there to get our exercise for the day. We stepped out of the car in the brisk morning air, and I had to make a conscious commitment to move my body around. Soon after taking off into the nature preserve, I relived my many experiences chasing after Eric on the various gnarly workouts of our college career. The notions of “a jog,” or “easing into it” were not in his vocabulary, and I had to book it just to keep pace. We weaved around on these narrow trails that ascended up to woody vistas, looking out on the expanse of former mines that had filled in as lakes. I reaffirmed my motivation to run in reaching these beautiful spots, but as we doubled back the way we came, we quickly learned that our main route back was blocked off. Of course it was. A cathartic few mile run turned into a cumbersome slog navigating back and forth around a series of nature trails, getting found only to get lost again. I suppose this was part of the Minnesota experience, and I had to embrace it at that.

We spent most of the rest of the day fishing on another lake behind Eric’s house, and caught our dinner for the night. I continued to be impressed by the depth of his understanding of the ecology of this place. At one point, Eric threw back a particularly large largemouth bass back into the water because he thought that it was probably a strong progenitor of the species in the lake, and ought to be present to sustain the health of the ecosystem. I realize that hunting and fishing are often considered brutal activities, and I recognize they involve quite a bit of suffering, but I do think they can provide a unique platform to connect deeply with the natural environment. They can induce a greater understanding of humans as a part of the natural world–something often lost in today’s circumscribed understanding of nature as somehow apart from ourselves–and a more intimate awareness of the implications of how we cohere with that world. It’s a complicated issue, one with which I continue to grapple today, but I feel more ethically grounded when I fish (I have never been hunting) with an appropriate ecological awareness, the intention to eat what I catch, and the compassion to minimize suffering when possible. As an avid fisherman and hunter, Eric embodies all of these qualities, and I am confident he is one of the most conscientious stewards of this Minnesotan environment you could find.


The next day we drove down to Minneapolis, which offered a change of pace in meeting up with Eric’s sister and experiencing the surrounding city. Eric suggested that a great way to see the place would be to go for a bike ride. I should have seen it coming. A leisurely, “touristic” ride turned into an over 40 mile arduous trek through the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. I struggled to keep up with Eric as he careened around the dips and turns of the road, which for a good long while paralleled the Mississippi River. Surely my calves were not built for this kind of long-twitch muscle exertion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing a number of public parks, the modern cityscape, and the interaction of the built environment with natural water bodies, things I felt I could experience that much more closely through the physical activity of riding a bike along the way. Riding in the trail of Eric encouraged me to test my own limits, and to gain a glimpse of a lived interaction with this place through his eyes.

We said our goodbyes later that day, as Eric was waking up at the crack of dawn to drive back north. It was one of those inevitable points of departure I had come to know in the “real world” where Eric had a duty to head back to work, and I had a duty to visit my family back east before leaving the country for 9 months. I was definitely saddened to realize we wouldn’t be heading to practice the next day, or procrastinating on homework in the dining hall that night. This wasn’t a semester’s break where I knew Eric would head off the map for some time, only to return to our familiar stomping grounds soon enough. I didn’t know when I’d see my friend again. But at the same time, I felt a deep sense of contentment that I could share this experience with Eric. In some ways, I cherished our time together that much more because I knew it was limited, but also because I could experience him in the context of his home in Minnesota–a physical and psychological realm in which Eric is truly Eric. And for that, I was immensely grateful. I boarded a plane the next morning back to New York, but inside I knew my life journey would continue to bring me back north.