Ye Old Menogyn Guides
"Stories of Camp Menogyn"  by Jim Gagen, Guide 1958-59
(1)  "Memories of Menogyn"

We arrived in Camp on Day One in early June 1958 and it seemed very nice. I had been there before as a camper and was thrilled to be coming back as a guide: “A real North Woods Guide” as I featured myself. This sounded pretty cool, and I was sure it was going to be fun and exciting. I was just 18 years old, had finished my first year of college, which had been very difficult while working full time. I had started working for the “Y” when I was 14 in the Boys Department of the main Downtown YMCA building in Minneapolis. My family was very poor. My mother and I lived with her parents in a small apartment near Loring Park, where we shared the bathroom with other families. We had very little money. There was no welfare program available in those days, and I had to take on the support of my mother for several years during high school.

Since I had no father, the professional leaders or “YMCA Secretaries” as they were called, took on the role of substitute fathers for me. I am only bringing up this personal stuff because it really helps to show the beneficial role of a place like Menogyn can in young people’s lives. It was one of the YMCA people, Joe Horvath or George Zeise, who recommended a job at Camp Menogyn to me. He thought it would be a good experience, and he arranged an interview with the Camp Director. This interview was my first contact with Jim Gilbert, a man I truly came to love and admire and whose values and personality helped me mold my own orientation to life. I do not remember much about the interview, except that it went alright and I was impressed with his demeanor.

Jim was a big man. He was well over 6 feet tall and probably weighed around 240 pounds or more. He seemed quite strong and looked like he had played tackle or guard on a college football team. What really struck me was his gentle, patient attitude, and his jovial, friendly manner. Nothing seemed to bother him too much -- he seemed to be a person who could handle just about anything. I came to this judgment immediately, and as I got to know Jim better I found that my first impression was completely accurate.

So back to my arrival at Camp Menogyn and my initial impressions as we arrived there for the first day of orientation. We spent the remainder of the day working hard and the next day as well, getting ready for our break-in trip. In the evening we had a training session with Jim Gilbert, our Camp Director, who talked about the many problems we would face on the trail and different ways we could deal with them. He encouraged the more experienced guides to add to the conversation and provide their insights and suggestions about how to deal with the many difficulties we would encounter. There was quite a bit of laughing and kidding by the more experienced guides, and as the possibilities for catastrophe began to mount, I realized that I had a lot to learn. It struck home that I had gotten myself into a pretty serious situation and that there would be few resources to call upon besides myself once I left camp and started on the trail. But I was reassured by Gilbert because he seemed to inspire confidence and always made light of any problems.

One thing I noticed was there was an expectation that you would screw up, it was unavoidable, and the key would be what you did once you realized what had gone wrong. This seems pretty simple, but it is an amazing gift to learn in life-something I never forgot. What really mattered was not that you made a mistake, but what you did once it happened. The key to survival was not to panic, not to get upset, not to get discouraged, but to figure out a solution and get on with the solution to your problem. This turned out to be a lesson that has served me well all my life. In fact, as I think back over my life.

 I realize now that some of the problems I did not handle well occurred because I forgot this rule. On the other hand, I managed to survive a number of difficult situations by just remembering to not give up and to remain positive and proactive. However, there was little time for reflection during those first two days. We left for our break-in trip the second day at around 3 in the afternoon. I thought this was pretty strange to be leaving so late in the day, but knew I was in no position to question the matter. We paddled down W. Bearskin, Duncan, Rose, and started up Arrow. Already we were learning to move over portages rapidly and efficiently. Gilbert had spread us out so that there was one experienced and one new guide in just about every canoe.

When we hit a portage there was no time for rest. Jump out, hold the canoe, and get the packs and canoe out of the water and up on your back. The more experienced guides often took a pack and a canoe and the new guides took one or two packs and the paddles, and off we went down the portage. Hit the water, put down the canoe, load the packs, and we were off and paddling. It was a pattern we all learned and followed from that point onward. I was always amazed later in my guiding days when our Menogyn campers came upon another group of campers making a portage. We would usually pass them by as if they were standing still trying to figure out what to do next. I remember one trip near Basswood Lake when my campers and I passed three groups of Boy Scouts on a single portage. Once we were out on the lake beyond the portage, my campers remarked among themselves about how good it felt to be able to demonstrate the skills they had learned in portaging.

Our training and expertise clearly paid off when it came to moving down the trail during the day. Arrow Lake is a long lake, wide in places. When we hit the lake late in the afternoon, we were paddling initially in white caps against an East wind. In the evening the wind ceased, and the lake became calm and still. And then night came, the moon came out, and I wondered how long this was going to go on. My muscles began to cramp and my back ached from the sudden surge in exercise, but still we went on. It was a beautiful night, the lake was very still, and light from stars and moonlight glistening on the lake. However, I began to worry that we might go on all night. Maybe this is what Gilbert had in mind by a “break-in” trip. Just about the time that I thought I just might have gotten myself into something that was beyond my physical ability, we pulled into shore and made camp for the night. It was late and we had paddled for many hours without interruption, except for the portages which were handled very quickly.

The next morning we were up early, I do not remember the time, but is seemed to be barely dawn and I was still very tired. There was no time to be wasted. The most experienced guides along were René Fournier, Norm Dahl, and Jim Riley. They already had breakfast underway. We were told to pack our stuff and take down the tents so we could leave quickly. We ate a quick meal and were soon on the lake again paddling up Arrow. Eventually we reached Sandstone Lake, and then we started up a narrow beaver stream that went on for some distance.

We paddled along this stream for a while. Our canoe was in the lead with me in the bow and Jim Riley in the stern. We rounded a bend in the stream, and suddenly, with no warning, the canoe under me rose a foot or more out of the water as a moose emerged and thundered off into the woods. The moose had apparently been fully submerged, feeding on vegetation at the bottom of the stream, when we had inadvertently paddled right up on its back. We were both shocked and awe-struck. It took some moments to understand what had just happened. Unfortunately, no one in the canoes behind us saw what happened. For some time afterwards we had to endure the joshing of the others about making up a tall moose tale. A few minutes after this incident we came to the end of our journey up this stream as we approached a small hill that had some rocks piled up to mark a portage.

We disembarked and started through the woods. There appeared to be a trail for about 100 yards and then it disappeared. We walked single file with our packs and canoes for about two hours through very difficult terrain, marked only by occasional rock cairns. Apparently René was the only guide in our group who had been over this portage before, and he was able to lead us over it. It totaled about two miles and went through rugged country. Portaging our packs and canoes through dense forest and over rocky, steep hills was very strenuous. This turned out to be the longest portage and most difficult portage I ever took as a guide. One more short portage and we reached Flatrock Lake. Here we camped on an island and watched a beautiful Canadian sunset, secure in the knowledge that we had left civilization far behind us on that long portage.

Later in the first season at Menogyn, I decided to take this portage with a group of campers. The group seemed especially strong and adventuresome. When we discussed the various options for a trip on their first day in camp, I found out they were experienced canoers who had been on previous trips and wanted to try something really challenging. When I described the trip to Weikwabinonaw Lake, they liked the thought of a very difficult portage, and so we decided to follow the route of my first break-in trip. As it turned out, it took me three days to get over this same portage with my campers, and the third day turned out to be the most strenuous day during all my time at Menogyn.

The first day I elected to leave the packs and canoes at the beginning of the portage because I was not sure of my ability to find the other end of the portage. We spent the entire day scouting around and looking for the tiny lake that was our destination, without success. The second day, we again set out without canoes and packs, blazing a trail through the woods to permit us to bring them through, and we went beyond where we had been the day before. We climbed a high hill and looked for the lake, and I could not see any lake, but I saw another hill and believed that the lake must be behind it. That night we had a meeting and I told the group that we either had to get over the portage the next day or turn back and try another route. They voted to go ahead, so early the next day we started out with the packs and canoes following the trail we had blazed. We reached the point we had been to the day before and pressed on. The terrain was really difficult and we had no water with us.

We only crossed one stream during the entire day, and that was our only source of water for the day. We finally reached Joe Lake about 7 in the evening, and each of us dropped what we were carrying and rushed head first into the lake and drank water on our hands and knees like dogs. I do not believe I have ever been that thirsty ever again in my whole life. It was quite an experience, but we made it and I know we were all proud to have made it over that portage. I am not sure the folks back in camp or their parents would have felt quite the same way. In retrospect, it is probably a wonder I did not get lost on this portage with this group, and I cannot imagine why it took us so long.

The only explanation I can come up with is that I must have led the group on an unnecessarily circuitous path over some very difficult terrain. In any case, the rest of the trip was wonderful and I learned a lesson about not giving up when things do not go well in life. Also, I believe this trip was one of the best I ever took with a group of campers and felt a warmth and camaraderie develop in this group that was really special. I knew that each of us felt like we had been really tested and found capable of meeting the challenge. I remember how proud and positive these campers were when we got back to camp and were able to tell other campers about their experiences during the final campfire in the Menogyn Lodge.

Returning to our Guides Break-in trip, the rest of the trip went very smoothly. After our long portage to Joe Lake, nothing else seemed very difficult by comparison, so I am assuming Gilbert felt he had accomplished what he wished to achieve on this trip. He had transformed us from beginners to experienced guides in the matter of a few days. As I think back now, I marvel at the ease with which he directed the group. Gilbert was always calm and good tempered, nothing seemed too big a deal for him or beyond finding something humorous in the experience. It was clear that for Jim, life was just one exciting experience after another and something to be relished and enjoyed. I know that the lessons I learned from this man were ideas that stuck with me my whole life and helped me repeatedly to move forward and to persist when things got tough.

Although I only worked at Camp Menogyn for one more year, the two years I spent there have turned out to be among the best times in my entire life. I remember the good times we would have back in Camp between trips. We would work on outdoor projects, prepare equipment in the boat house, take the afternoon sauna, indulge in a little rollicking horseplay, have a great meal in the Lodge, and then meet at Directors Cabin to tell stories and get more training. Jim Gilbert would usually suggest a work schedule at breakfast and set the routine for the day. It was a joy to hear him approach any subject. He would say something like: “Pete do you think you could fix that stairway by the outhouse today?” Of course, Pete would say: “Sure, I would be glad to do that.”

The tasks would be allocated across the group in much this way, and when you were asked to tackle some job, it was normally with some pride that you could acknowledge the assignment and agree to accomplish it. The more difficult the task, the more proud you felt that Jim would even trust you to tackle the project. There was just something intangible about the man and the way he approached life that made you feel so good to be alive and working with him.

Along with Jim, I also feel obliged to mention his wonderful spouse, Wumpy, as he called her. Wumpy was a beautiful woman, warm and friendly, and she made every guide feel like her son. She was always interested in where we had gone on a trip or what had happened to us, and moreover she wanted to know all about our life in the winter between camp sessions. She would encourage each of us in our studies. She had that rare ability to make you feel that she was so proud of everything you accomplished.

By some lucky circumstance, I was able to get a ride with Jim and Wumpy from Chicago to Minneapolis a year or two after I had been a guide at Menogyn. I do not remember the circumstances of why we happened to be there or how we happened to link up, but being of scant resources, it was very helpful to get a ride home in a car rather than to buy a ticket on a train or bus. In any case, we used the time to catch up on what had happened at Camp Menogyn during the time I had missed, and then the conversation turned to my career plans, etc. I do not know exactly what we talked about any more, but I do remember that when the trip was over I felt I had finally worked out some big decisions in my life and knew what I wanted to accomplish.

Jim was able to help you ask just the right questions so you would be able to think through a problem. I did not see Jim Gilbert much after that ride. After college I joined the USAF and left Minnesota. I remember visiting him once at their home in Minnetonka, and I received a Christmas card every year, but beyond that I did not see him again for a long time. I visited with him in his office in Minneapolis when he was President of the Minneapolis YMCA and found him to be exactly the same man whom I had known at Menogyn. He was still the humble, kind, warm, man who found a little humor in every experience and still offered me the same wise and patient counsel he had before.

The year before Jim died, my wife and I met him for lunch in NE Minneapolis at a restaurant. We spent several hours recounting our intervening experiences and chuckling over past mistakes and accomplishments. As usual, in spite of trying to find out more about Jim, he peppered us with questions and kept the focus on our life more than his. We reviewed Wumpy’s passing and talked about my wife’s cancer, but little mention was made of Jim’s own sickness.

Following that luncheon we kept in email contact and communicated much more than in the past. I feel especially proud of the fact that I was able, during this period of communication, to tell Jim how much he had helped me in life and to thank him for his invaluable contributions to my own progression as a person. Some time went by after my last email and I was beginning to get concerned when his son called me and told me that Jim Gilbert had died. He said that he had found my emails on Jim’s computer and realized he had never responded to me, so he felt it was important to call me and let me know what had happened. It would be impossible to really explain what Jim Gilbert has meant to me in my life, but I know that because of him I was able to accomplish far more than I would have done on my own. Without Jim and Camp Menogyn, my life would have been far different than what it became, and much more empty. Jim Gagen, July 2010

(2)  "The Grand Portage with Jim Riley"

We left Menogyn by the big rubber barge, which was full to the brim with campers. This was an old war surplus rubber barge from the Second World War that we used to bring campers down the lake to the camp. It was about 30-40 feet long and maybe 10 feet wide. Down the lake we went to meet a school bus that had been ordered to take us on an excursion to the Grand Portage. We arrived sometime in early afternoon and started down the 11-mile Grand Portage that the Voyagers used to take from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River. (Actually, since highway 61 cuts across the portage a mile or two from Lake Superior, it is not clear in my mind how far we actually hiked on this portage.)

But in any event, from the Pigeon River the Voyagers started out on the great inland lake highway that stretched across what would become Northern Minnesota to Lake Winnipeg and the great Northwestern Area of Canada. This was a journey of a thousand miles by canoe once they traversed the Grand Portage. The Voyagers would take supplies and other materials to the fur trappers of the Northwest Trading Company, the Hudson Bay Company, and the American Fur Company who had outposts in the wilderness all the way to the Great Slave Lake and beyond-some even as far as the Yukon.

It took us about 2-3 hours to make the trip across the Grand Portage and we started making camp and setting up tents once we arrived. There were about 40 or 50 campers and 5 or 6 guides in the party. To my knowledge we had never done anything like this before as a group from Menogyn and our activities were a little disconnected. As a new guide, this was my first year at Menogyn and I had only been there for a few weeks. I did not know what to expect in this situation and started helping some of the campers get their tents up and get settled. That was when I heard a terrible scream and turned around to see a camper about 50 feet away with an axe who had just chopped into his ankle and had blood squirting out of the cut in his tennis shoe.

The other guides and I immediately rushed to this boy and began applying pressure to stop the bleeding. Then we found a first aid kit and bandaged the large cut, but knew that immediate medical attention was required to stitch up the large incision in the boy’s foot.

I do not know how the decision was reached, but soon Jim Riley, a large camper, and myself were drafted to carry this camper back across the Grand Portage to get proper medical attention. We made a liter for the boy, who must have weighed nearly 130 pounds or more and started out down the portage. The camper who went with us was a big strong young man and we were glad to have his help. We took turns on the liter with one person walking and resting his arms while the other two carried the liter.

It soon became apparent that this trip would take a long time and that we would have to rest periodically. There was good moonlight and the Portage was well marked. The hours seemed to slow down and the ache in our muscles began to become stronger. However, the thing I remember most about this very tiring experience was that the other guide, Jim Riley, sang a good share of the way and talked frequently to keep our spirits up. I realized that his positive attitude and good singing voice managed to keep our spirits from totally crashing from the burden we carried. I never forgot this outstanding leadership that Jim provided on this journey and can still hear his voice raising in the woods as we stumbled along with our load.

We finally reached Highway 61 around 1 or 2 am in the morning. There was very little traffic at this hour and the first car that came along refused to stop for three waving young men on the side of the road. Then the next car refused to stop too. We got worried and knew we had to stop a car, so we braced ourselves across the road determined to stop the next vehicle. We succeeded and almost got run over in the process. What we found when we approached the car was a group of drunk young men who were more than willing to take us for a ride, but there was very little room. We suggested to Riley that he go with the injured boy and that is what happened. We learned later that Jim made it to border and to a small town and was able to locate a doctor with great difficulty-thank goodness for his dedication and determination. Who knows what would have happened to this injured boy’s leg if he had not persisted.

Meanwhile, back at the point were we sent him off on highway 61 there were no more cars coming down the road and the camper and I huddled on the side of the road and froze for the next 5-6 hours until the sun came up and the bus to pick us up arrived. By then we were very chilled and very tired. I am not sure anyone back in camp realized just how much of an ordeal this whole thing was for this other camper and I. We went back to camp and life went on as normal. In thinking back I just remember the outstanding leadership that Jim Riley provided during this entire hike and the fine example he set for the other camper and me. I doubt whether I will ever find out who the camper was who was injured or the one who accompanied us on this mission, but if by some unbelievable chance either of them happen to read this, I would love to talk with either of them and find out about their impressions of the night we spent listing to Jim Riley sing us along the Grand Portage.

(3)  "The Bear on Agnes Lake"

It was around noon as we paddled down Agnes Lake above Basswood when I spotted an island that looked like a good place for lunch. We pulled into shore and I picked up our canoe and carried it up in front of a big rock and begin making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One of the most prominent food supplies each guide took on a canoe trip was a couple of quart-size cans of peanut butter and jelly. In the boathouse we had large vats of supplies from which each guide assembled his food pack. We had macaroni, spaghetti, oatmeal, powdered milk and yes, peanut butter and jelly. Most guides, I believe, also had a “bread pack” which consisted of a hundred or more loafs of squashed bread-Wonder Bread was the brand, I believe. We collapsed the bread by pushing on each end until we had squashed them down to a few inches wide. I am not sure about the nutritional value of this approach, but it sure was easier than baking bread on the trail for a hungry group.

In any case, back to Agnes Lake: I laid out about 20-30 pieces of bread on top of the canoe and proceeded to layer them with peanut butter and jelly. I was totally engaged in this process when I realized the camper standing in front of me was highly agitated and motioning upward behind me with a jabbing stab of his arm. I turned around and found, much my total surprise, a huge bear standing on his hind legs and sniffing the air. The bear was on the rock behind me and appeared about 7 feet tall to this rather frightened sandwich maker. I must have backed up and tipped over the canoe or something. I may even have had the presence of mind to grab the “hooch” pail and bang it against the canoe, so when the bear heard the sound it immediately ran back into the woods behind the rock. (Hooch was our term for cool aide in those days-a colored drink that gave the water a little flavor.)

Then to my surprise and chagrin, my campers started chasing the bear. I yelled at them, “don’t do that!” or something in my startled voice, to no avail. However, the bear did something that had a better affect. He turned around, stood up, and banged one of the birch trees with his paw. The tree vibrated like a tuning fork and had a very immediate effect on my campers. They turned around in their tracks and started running back toward me. This little delay gave me just enough time to grab the canoe and the bread and food packs and drag them down to the lake. I told everyone to get in the canoes and get into the lake. As we did so, the bear returned to our luncheon spot and immediately began eating all the sandwiches I had spilled on the ground. We sat and watched him for a while and then decided our luncheon foray was over and pushed off down the lake. We were pretty hungry by dinnertime, but happy to be in one piece and without a bear to help us with our dinner.

(4)  "Menogyn Apple Pie"

It was my last official trip as a guide at Menogyn and I was really looking forward to it. Several of my friends were going to be on the trip, including one Dick Dansingburg, who eventually joined the staff at Menogyn. We had a fun trip and everything was going pretty well until that night I decided to bake an apple pie on the reflector oven. There were several of us working on the pie and it was looking good. We had the pie crust ready to go in the pan and had the dried apples soaking. I asked ?Dick to go into the food pack and get some sugar to mix into the apples. He accomplished this quickly and we mixed everything up and started baking the pie on the side of the fire. It looked great and cooked away with a good fire made with plenty of cedar wood.

When it was done, I took it out, let it cool and after we had finished eating our main course proceeded to cut up the pie and serve it to an anxious group who were eagerly awaiting some desert. We settled down in a circle around the camp fire with some hot tea and took our first bite of the pie. Yuk!!Blahhhh, what happened to this pie. It tasted terrible-the worst pie I had ever tasted. Then it dawned on me that Dick may hot have done the taste test on the white stuff he mixed with the apples. OMG. I had not labeled the bags because I was used to just sticking my finger into the bag and tasting what was there. I asked Dick if he had tasted the sugar and he just looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” he said, “why would I?” “Because,” I said, “you apparently put salt in the pie, rather than sugar.” And thus was the story of our apple pie.