Ye Old Menogyn Guides
"Recollections of Menogyn"  by Ted Gamelin - Guide 1957-59, Trail Director 1962

When I first visited Menogyn as a camper in 1956, the challenge of exploring the Northland fired my imagination. I spent my three college summers from 1957 to 1959 as a Menogyn guide, and I returned in the summer of 1962 as Trail Director, accompanied by my wife Helen. Here are some recollections of Menogyn from those years, as best as I can remember. Discussions with Helen and Dan Gamelin have fortified my memory, as have the reunion meetings in 2009 with old Menogyn friends Jim Riley and Dave Hamernick, among others. My purpose in writing is twofold: to contribute to the historical archives of Camp Menogyn, and to contribute to family history records. I want to tell my grandchildren what their grandfather did as a youth.

(1)  Around Base Camp

The Year of Transition

My first year guiding, 1957, was a year of transition for Menogyn. Jim Gilbert had been Assistant Camp Director in 1956, and he had agreed to take over the camp directorship from Phil Brain in 1957. However, previous commitments prevented Jim from being at Menogyn the entire summer. To facilitate the transition, Phil Brain agreed to spend some time filling in for Jim. One or the other was always on the scene, and occasionally both were around.

Phil Brain was a soft-spoken person, taller than average, strong and wiry. As a soldier stationed in the Philippines at the outbreak of World War II, Phil had survived the Bataan Death March. Later he wrote about his experiences, and he credited his survival to the skills he had picked up earlier as a guide at Menogyn.

Phil Brain’s father had been a University of Minnesota tennis coach. He had owned a cabin at the end of West Bearskin Lake, and was known as something of a practical joker. Several stories, possibly apocryphal, were told about him. One story was that he had hung a cord in the outhouse behind his cabin with a sign, “When done, please pull.” The cord was attached to a bell on the outhouse roof. A loud clang announced that another guest from the city had been taken in. According to another story, he had built a separate compartment into a coffee pot where he could stash some old socks without affecting the coffee. At breakfast he would offer guests coffee, feign a blockage in the pot, open the lid, pull out a pair of wet socks, close the lid, and continue pouring as if nothing had happened.

Phil Brain gave the impression that he understood much more than he was ever going to tell you. I remember him coming by the guides’ shack, Hernando’s, when I was busy analyzing a simple game called nim. In this game, cards are laid on a table in a certain configuration, and the two players alternately remove cards subject to game rules until the player stuck with the last card loses. There are certain sure-win positions, and a person who knows these controls the game. Somehow I cajoled Phil into letting me show him the game. I let him move first, figuring I would eventually maneuver myself into a sure-win position. He silently surveyed the situation, and then much to my chagrin, he moved himself into a sure-win configuration. I realized that he knew much more about the game than he ever let on.

Jim Gilbert was from a different generation, not many years older than the senior guides. He was a big guy, not tall, but solid and muscular. He had the quickness of a first-class athlete, and he demonstrated it occasionally on the volleyball court. He had been on the football team his freshman year at the University of Minnesota. He was convinced that he could be successful at the sport, but he decided to drop football on grounds that the program was very time-consuming and other things were more important. What would his future hold for him after four years of football?

Jim had unique personal qualities. He projected a quiet reservoir of forcefulness and leadership. He enjoyed people, and he showed that he cared for them. He had a good sense of humor, and he got a kick out of recounting the guides’ eccentricities. I recall particularly how he relished telling about amusing incidents that occurred when he worked with Menogyn Board members on a project to erect a map board to display Superior-Quetico canoe routes.

Around camp Jim Gilbert was known simply as “Jim.” As time went on, people began referring to him as “Jimmy G,” to distinguish him among a multitude of “Jim’s”. His wife was known as “Wumpy.” She had a real name, but no one ever used it, and most of the guides did not even know what it was. While a MA student at George Williams College in Chicago, Jim had rescued Wumpy from a boyfriend who dressed in cowboy hat and boots. Wumpy was a delightful person, always cheerful and supportive, very busy with the task of raising family.

Jim Gilbert was a “zip-zip” guy. He decided what had to be done, and he attacked the job with enthusiasm, no matter how menial. He was pragmatic and inventive, and he took the initiative in experimenting with changes in order to improve the camp and adapt to the times.

Proposals to modernize operations were not always received enthusiastically by the guides. Most of the conflict centered about Linc Eckmann, who was brought in tp manage the boathouse with a mandate to streamline the operation, making it more efficient and economical. For each trip, guides were required to plan and file menus, fill out quantity sheets for requisitioning food, and weigh out the requisitioned quantities as they were being packed. Though completely rational, the changes did provoke some consternation among the experienced guides, who were very independent and who had their own way of doing things. They were adept at measuring foodstuffs by eye, and they viewed quantity sheets as a sign of impinging bureaucracy.

 Linc had an engineering degree and a law degree, and he was amply endowed with the virtues of diligence, promptness, orderliness, and cleanliness. Sometimes Link went a bit overboard. One of the staples on my lunch menu was “P&J,” a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At some point Link asked me to economize by choosing between peanut butter and jelly for each lunch, but not to serve both together. I remember meeting Phil at Director’s Cabin to vent about Linc in general and to appeal the P&J directive in particular. I made the case that jelly is necessary as a lubricant to help the peanut butter go down. Phil sat through this in silence, probably wondering what he had done to be subjected to such nonsense. He finally did allow that P&J was ok.

Linc lost touch with the Menogyn crowd, though a couple of years later someone reported spotting him at the University of Minnesota collecting litter with a spiked stick, undoubtedly doing his civic duty to keep the campus clean.

The Garbage Pit

When Camp Menogyn opened in early June of 1957, my first assignment was to help dig the garbage pit for the coming season. A contingent of guides equipped with shovels rowed across the bay to learn firsthand about glacial till. Bloodthirsty mosquitoes awaited our arrival. It was the only occasion of the year when we might have considered donning mosquito hats. We located the garbage pits from previous years and proceeded to excavate at a new site. Tom Hedin claimed to know something about geology, and he informed us that what we were digging into was pure schist. When the job was done, we fired up the Finn bath. The rising steam cleansed us and erased any trace of mosquitos.

One of the new guides, Jim Sudemier, was an inventive fellow with a penchant for ideas that led to trouble. Bears occasionally visited the garbage pit, and he decided to observe them close at hand. He set up his observation post in a tree overlooking the pit, and rigged a line to carry a boatswain’s chair from the tree to the lakeshore. He cleared a route for the boatswain’s chair by removing brush and small trees along a corridor to the lake. Should a bear behave menacingly, he would ride the boatswain’s chair to the lake, hop into his boat, and push out of reach of charging bears. Phil Brain was quite unhappy about this. One day chugging through the boathouse bay he looked over at Sudemier’s handiwork and commented that this was the first time we could ever see the garbage pit. These words from the man of understatement soon spread around the entire camp.

Jim Sudemier also managed to create a crisis for our cook, JW Brown. Jim was from out East, where students had discovered that the pies sold by the Connecticut-based Frisbie Baking Company came in tin plates that could be used for playing catch. Properly thrown, the plates sailed in a beautiful trajectory, begging to be run down and snatched out of the air before striking ground. This led to a frisbee craze in the 1950’s, and the mass production of the plastic frisbee. Not having a modern frisbee at hand, Jim decided that the original upside-down pie tins would serve just as well, and we enjoyed participating in the frisbee craze with pie tins from the camp kitchen. One feature of our frisbee games was that as the pie tins collided with rocks, their edges developed sharp nicks, and we had to be very careful to catch the frisbee without grasping its edge. Needless to say, JW found it quite upsetting to watch us throw his pie plates around. He turned to Jimmy G for support, and some serious negotiations followed. In the end, Jimmy G bought a number of pies in Grand Marais for dinner at the camp, thereby producing enough pie tins to satisfy the needs of both JW and the frisbee players.

The Finn Bath

Jimmy G built the Finn bath we used during my years at Menogyn. He was proud of his Finnish ancestry, and thus referred to it as the “Finn bath” rather than the “sauna.” He talked about the close call he had when he fell asleep taking the first bath in the new structure.

The Finn bath was a shack with tiered benches and a pot-belly stove. The fire heated a layer of rocks on top the stove. Water tossed on the rocks created a cloud of steam, which engulfed the people on the top benches first and worked its way down. A dock outside provided a runway to the cold lake water. Ice often lingered on West Bearskin well into May, and the first Finn bath of the season in early June was a particularly body-jolting experience. The water was deeper on one side of the dock than the other, and bathers were instructed “Dive left!”.

There had been a Finn bath at Menogyn from the earliest days, and taking a Finn bath had evolved into a camp ritual. The Finn bath was an effective remedy for the ills of life in the wild. It removed layers of caked dirt from the bodies of campers who had worn the same grimy clothes for days on end, and it obliterated signs of mosquito bites. One emerged from the refreshing experience a new person.

The Finn bath created a constant demand for firewood, and we needed the fuel for campfires as well. At one time or another, most of us took our turn splitting logs. The Camp Assistant in 1957, Jack Brudenell, particularly liked to split logs for the wood supply, having made it part of his fitness regimen. At the other end of the spectrum, certain of the guides never seemed to be around when heavy in-camp work was doled out.

At some point it occurred to Jimmy G that the abandoned telephone poles along the road from the Gunflint Trail to the West Bearskin public landing would make excellent firewood. He obtained permission to remove them, and one day we set off with a crew to pull telephone poles out of the ground and haul them back to base camp. This provided Jack Brudenell with material for a month or more of physical conditioning.

Transportation and Communication

Menogyn was isolated from the outside world in a way that is not possible today. Our main connection to civilization was a power boat with a 35-horsepower Johnson outboard motor, the most powerful available at the time. The land route to Menogyn was through the woods along the edge of the lake. When no water transport was available, we walked the two miles from the public boat landing to Menogyn along the lake shore, picking our way through brush and ducking tree branches. I undertook this walk once or twice each summer, when hopelessly stranded at the end of the lake.

Menogyn had acquired an army surplus pontoon raft of the kind that were lined up to construct makeshift river bridges. It was a large black inflated rubber hulk, aptly called the “monster.” Wooden pallets transformed the monster into a barge. Towed by our power boat, it transported groups of campers and large loads between the public landing and base camp. At some point Menogyn purchased a pontoon boat, which could be used to transport small groups of campers and to tow the monster. Unlike the monster, the pontoon boat had a railing that provided passengers with some sense of security.

There was no electrical power during my years at Menogyn. Tanks of propane gas fueled the lights in the lodge and in the Director’s Cabin. Coleman lanterns provided lighting in the boathouse and at Hernando’s. Occasionally when a delivery of propane gas arrived, we amused ourselves by racing up the stairway from the boathouse to the lodge carrying one of the 100-pound tanks, timing the ascent with a stopwatch. Once when the propane delivery was late and the kitchen had run out of gas, Jimmy G was so anxious to hook up the propane that he raced up to the lodge carrying two of the tanks. The sight of Jim charging up the stairway with one tank on each shoulder left us all very impressed.

Since there was no electric power, flashlights were important, particularly for navigating the trails through the woods at night. The blackness of night in the woods is total, unlike anything a city person experiences. It was easy to become disoriented in the blackness. Only the sound of wavelets lapping against the shore, or an occasional glimpse of moonlight reflected on water, gave one a sense of direction. Still it was quite common to be stranded in the boathouse or at the lodge after sunset without a flashlight. Through countless adventures in the dark, I learned to recognize by touch every tree root on the steeply sloped trail behind the second bunkhouse leading toward Hernando’s.

There was no telephone service at Menogyn. Emergency telephone calls, upon rare occasion, were made from Clearwater Lodge, a mile down the road from the public landing. The Menogyn store sold post cards, and outgoing mail was collected at base camp and posted in Grand Marais. This unofficial mail delivery system gave Jimmy G a chance to glance at camper post cards and keep in touch with camper sentiment.

Looking back, I am impressed by the utter simplicity of life at Menogyn. I did not touch a telephone during the summers I was there, and I could count on the fingers of one hand the items of incoming mail for an entire summer. Now, some fifty years later, I log onto my laptop daily to make contact with the world at large, my cell phone is my constant companion, and I have become adept at sorting through piles of junk mail regularly.

JW Brown and the Kitchen

JW Brown was our cook at Menogyn during the Jimmy G years. Winters JW cooked for a sorority at the University of Minnesota. Summers at Menogyn provided him a dramatic change of scenery.

JW was a great baseball fan. He never missed a Twins game on his battery-powered radio. We occasionally spotted him in a boat in the bay, tending a fishing line. I never heard of him catching a fish.

Jimmy G made out the menus, and JW did the cooking, with the help of the Kitchen Assistant. During my years guiding, the Kitchen Assistants were John Traver (1957), my brother Dan Gamelin (1958), and Steve Thompson (1959). Each of these returned later as a guide. Further, John Traver served for a year as Trail Director, and eventually as Executive Director of the Saint Paul YMCA.

JW was very exacting, and the job of Kitchen Assistant was quite challenging. The Kitchen Assistant performed a multitude of tasks, according to JW’s precise specifications. These tasks ranged from assisting with the cooking to rowing the garbage across the bay to the garbage pit. The Kitchen Assistant helped serve the food, and he oversaw the campers doing KP after meals. Over the course of the summer, he made hundreds of trips to the root cellar, down and up that long stairway. It was hard work, particularly since meal preparation was done under deadline. John Traver made a name for himself as the first Kitchen Assistant to get along well with JW.

Once Dan got into a situation that earned him one of Jimmy G’s typically soft reprimands. The line of campers was passing through the dinner service line in the kitchen when a loud snap reverberated through the air. The campers wanted to know what the sound was, and of course no one on the staff really wanted to say.

Jimmy G, who happened to be in the kitchen at the time, explained to Dan afterwards that it was probably not a good idea to have mousetraps set when campers were queued for a meal. Jimmy G was gentle in dealing with people, and he nearly always phrased his criticisms constructively.