We were used to Minneapolis, the “city of lakes” so, when summer arrived that first year, we began to search for a swimming beach. The locals directed us to Norway Beach on the shores of Big Cass Lake just four miles outside of town. This sandy beach, ringed by majestic tall trees, was breathtaking. Unlike the crowded Minneapolis beaches, this one seemed to be our private oasis in the forest. No one else was there when we arrived.
My little brothers and I splashed and swam for a while but I was soon enticed back out into the shadowy forest. The pine needles and pine cones were a new sensation on my bare feet and the rough bark on the trunks of these giant trees was like nothing I knew from the trees that had shaded our Minneapolis boulevard. In my first foray into tree hugging, I wrapped my arms around the trunk of one of these majestic trees, leaned far back and gazed up into the piney canopy.
The pine trees I knew best were the “Christmas tree” pines that grew on my grandpa’s farm in eastern Minnesota. Branches on those trees grew all the way down to the ground. These trees had no branches that grew low enough for me to reach; the lowest were above the head of my 6’ 2” tall father.
My family eventually asked why the area was called “Norway Beach” and was told that it was named after the trees, Norway Pines. Later we learned that only in Minnesota is this tree called Norway Pine, likely first by settlers from Scandinavia. Its real name is the Red Pine and, in 1953, was designated the Minnesota State Tree.
I lived a number of my childhood years in Cass Lake and have wonderful memories of swimming in the crystal clear waters of Big Cass, picnicking on the sugar sand beach, walking in the emerald green forest, and watching spectacular sunsets at day’s end.
Trips to nearby Itasca State Park were also favorite family outings in those years. We discovered that the park was one of the best places in the state to see huge stands of Red Pines; 5,000 acres, one of the state’s largest stands of this tree can still be found there.
Since Dad was newly ordained, we laughed when we discovered that a perfect spot to picnic among the Red Pines was in Preachers Grove. This is still one of the best spots in the state to enjoy these old growth trees. There is also a great bike path that goes right through this area. Another Red Pine trail meanders from the south entrance road and leads through over a mile of old-growth red and white pines.
Our family continues to have personal connections to this favorite of our state parks. In the early 1930s my husband’s father bought 80 acres of woodland that borders the park. He built a small hunting shack there and sons, cousins and “shirt-tail relatives” gathered every year to hunt and bond.
In recent years, my husband built a huge log cabin from Red Pines logged on our land where the family still hunts and gathers for reunions, weekend retreats and so much more. It’s wonderful to be able to still spend time in this area that holds so many memories for me.
We, and others in the area including those within the park, were devastated in July of 1995 when a catastrophic wind storm took down many of these beautiful trees.
A news report from that day reads: The 115-mile-per-hour winds blew so ferociously during the July 9–15 storms that old-growth red and white pines snapped like pencils, and whole stands of trees looked like straw scattered across the landscape. More than 7 million trees were bent, broken, or uprooted, and in August a total of 15 counties and the White Earth Indian Reservation were declared federal disaster areas by the President.
My husband, sons, brothers-in-law and nephews spent weeks just clearing the road in to our cabin in the woods. Even now, 18 years later, there are many trails that we used to walk that are still blocked as a result of the blow-down. Much beauty remains, however, and nature’s new growth is evident everywhere in the forest.
A memorial in Itasca State Park now commemorates a part of my family history. After leaving Cass Lake, my father pastored churches in several other small towns in Minnesota. One of those churches, the Osage Baptist Church, was scheduled to be demolished a few years ago but townspeople lobbied to save it as a historical building. The church was eventually moved to Itasca State Park where it now can be visited in the Pioneer Village. When we are able to visit, we sometimes sit in the old church now nestled among our beloved Red Pines, and think of the years of discovery when we were so much younger.
Of all man’s works of art, a cathedral is greatest. A vast and majestic tree is greater than that. ~Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1870