The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Bemidji

Less than a century ago, the northern forests of Minnesota were chock-full of lumber boom camps, with hundreds of mills and lumber works whining night and day, and dozens of saloons, brothels, and boardinghouses catering to the rough-and-tumble logging trade. The ravenous cutting wiped out the stands—virtually nothing remains of Minnesota’s primeval pine forests—and the camps disappeared as quickly as they sprang up, but the woods have repeatedly grown back, to be harvested on a more sustainable basis while still providing an eye-pleasing backdrop to the region’s literally thousands of lakes.

From its boomtown roots, Bemidji (pop. 13,723) has long since settled down into a picturesque community—i.e., looking just as it did when Hubert Humphrey first ran for Congress. Its compact and charismatic business district fills a half dozen blocks along the south shore of lovely Lake Bemidji. With large mills still busily turning trees into wood products, Bemidji is a typically industrious lumber town, remarkable mainly for having assisted in the birth of that well-loved legendary duo of logging lore, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.

The main course of the GRR wraps around downtown Bemidji, so be sure to follow the Business Loop (old US-2), which passes up and over both the Mississippi River and Lake Bemidji while winding to downtown and a park where the town’s big tourist draws, leviathan statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, have stood along the lakefront since their construction in 1937. Next to that big Paul and Babe on the lakeshore, the Bemidji tourist information center (800/458-2223) boasts a fireplace made with stones from every U.S. state (apart from Alaska and Hawaii, which weren’t states when the fireplace was built) and has displays with odd historical items—including Paul Bunyan’s ax and his oversized underwear.

Along with Paul and Babe, Bemidji offers endless opportunities for water-skiing, canoeing, fishing, ice-fishing, and autumnal leaf-peeping (it’s also the “Curling Capital of the USA”). The old downtown area has a couple of inviting pubs, like Brigid’s Cross Irish Pub (317 NW Beltrami Ave., 218/444-0567), serving good food and great beer, two blocks from the lakefront. A good fast-food option is Dave’s Pizza (218/751-3225) at 15th and Irvine on the north side of town.

Bemidji’s many motels include the family-oriented Hampton Inn (1019 Paul Bunyan Dr. S., 218/751-3600 or 800/776-3343, $120 and up), situated on the lake, with its own beach and complimentary canoes available to guests.

 

Bemidji

Bemidji tourist information center (300 Bemidji Ave.)

Brigid’s Cross Irish Pub (317 NW Beltrami Ave.)

Dave’s Pizza (15th St. & Irvine Ave.)

Hampton Inn (1019 Paul Bunyan Dr. S.)