Sign of the Times

THE SIGNS START as soon as you leave I-94, merge onto Highway 371, and motor north into the pines. Billboards, sometimes. Mostly cruder constructions. Stop for antiques! Turn around! We beseech you! Past Brainerd, the pleas come so fast and furious they seem dangerous, illegal even. You just passed a gift store! You just passed the tackiest collection of lawn litter, er, ornaments ever! Finally, the pleas culminate in this: “You just passed gas!”

Of course, a gas station. You’re still chuckling when you hit Walker, one of the last stops on 371 before the tourist conveyor dead-ends some 20 miles farther north. Walker lies beside Leech Lake, Minnesota’s third-largest body of water, a sprawling splat of tentacle-like bays. The shoreline is only partly developed. At 111,527 acres, the lake is nearly eight times the size of Lake Minnetonka and lies mostly within the moderating presence of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and the Chippewa National Forest. A couple dozen resorts are spread out along the southern and western shores, near Walker, but bogs and marshes dominate the north and east. Walker, then, would seem only a pit-stop for lake explorers, a place to bait up and go. But its charms are worthy of several days’ exploration.

The town’s three-block Main Street has an enormous sporting goods store on one end and the requisite Dairy Queen on the other. Locals speak dreamily of Wal-Marts in nearby cities, but you won’t find one here. You will discover perhaps the largest number of bookshops per block of any town in Minnesota: four, including the aptly named Fishing With Your Mind and the Little Apple Bookstore, which boasts a full wall of paperback romances. While the men are out trolling for muskies, it seems, the women and children are browsing through Aunt Belle’s Confectionary, raising their pinkies at the Enchanted Cottage tearoom, or chilling at Christmas Point—where it’s all Santa Claus all the time.

Signs of tourist culture are everywhere. “I’m a walleye guy in a crappie world” reads a T-shirt in a store window. Even lawyers work out of faux-cabin offices. But there are also signs of change. Jenny & Company purveys sleek pottery and other gifts—contemporary designs, not cabin kitsch—to lake-home owners. The “new natives,” the locals call them—wealthy Twin Citians for whom one room and a wood stove simply won’t do. They’ve been coming for a few years now, building million-dollar getaways and changing the look, the landscape, and even the businesses that exist around Walker.

For most of the past century, this has been resort country. Perhaps no one knows this history better than Warren Anderson, who came up here a couple of decades ago and now has four sons in the resort business. Together, they operate six resorts on Leech Lake. Anderson and his wife, Linda, manage Northland Lodge, home of Paul Bunyan’s Guest House. The circular cabin is designed to resemble a tree stump, with a massive ersatz ax propped against it (there’s a whirlpool in the blade). It sleeps eight, and is outfitted with a Bunyan clock, Bunyan lamp, and a large Babe the Blue Ox headboard on one of the beds. Needless to say, it stands out among the resort’s more traditional, rectangular cabins. “We didn’t want to build any more square ones,” Anderson explains with a wink.

The Anderson resorts are comfortable, family affairs: pine-log furniture in the cabins; kayaks, canoes, and fishing boats at the dock. There are water-skiing lessons and children’s programs. And, if current trends continue, there will be fewer and fewer places like this. Twenty years ago, there were 72 resorts on Leech Lake, Anderson says. Now there are 26. Each is sitting on $3 to $4 million in lakeside property and, with tourism down the past couple of years (some locals blame low walleye counts, others blame rumors of low walleye counts), the incentive to sell out to developers has been overpowering. Someday, worries Anderson, the resorts may be gone completely and only homeowners will be able to enjoy a lakeside stay.

Fewer visitors, of course, would mean fewer customers for the Main Street shops and such attractions as Coborn’s Leech Lake Cruises, double-decker boats that head out from downtown Walker for couple-hour excursions. The dinner- and drink-fueled night cruises are frequently full, but rounding up the 15 passengers necessary to shove off on an afternoon sightseeing trip has sometimes proved difficult. Meanwhile, new businesses have sprung up to serve the lake home crowd. The Boulders, a restaurant that opened in 2004, features white tablecloths, Ikea-style lights, and servers dressed in black. A steak will run you $18 to $26, crab-crusted grouper $18 to $20, and, in contrast to most area eateries, none of it comes in a basket. Embracing Pines Bed & Breakfast, which also opened in 2004, is the town’s only B&B, and has reached out to another category of new visitor: bicyclists traversing the Paul Bunyan State Trail just outside town.

Some things may never change, of course, like the Outdoorsman Cafe. A classic Main Street diner, it was photographed once for National Geographic. All the signs here point toward traditional tourist culture. In the men’s room, above the toilet: “Those with smaller bats, stand closer to home plate.” Ah, Americana the beautiful. Long may you leaven our travels with your artless admonitions.