As the winter wears on, many Gunflint Trail residents turn to seed catalogs and the prospect of planning the summer gardens to spark hope in spring’s arrival. Gardening has always been an adventure on the Gunflint Trail. Despite temperatures that frequently reach the 90s in mid-summer, the short growing season limits the variety of plants which can be grown. Gardeners also have to contend with a general lack of top soil, not to mention hungry deer and chipmunks ready and willing to filch a gardener’s handiwork. Nevertheless, through the years, many gardens have sprung up on the Trail.
Justine Kerfoot wrote in the foreword of the Gunflint Lodge Cookbook about the garden her father, George Spunner, maintained at Gunflint Lodge for several years, starting in the 1930s: “There was always an abundance of lettuce, carrots, radishes, cabbage, rhubarb, onions, and of course, a year’s supply of potatoes. Tomatoes and sweet corn would never make it. The deer like all the fresh greens, too. After many experiments, Dad discovered that a row of mothballs placed around the garden would act as a deterrent to deer.”
Willard Johnson at Loon Lake Lodge in an interview with the Gunflint Trail Historical Society remembers Clara Dewar, past owner of Loon Lake Lodge, had beautiful gardens. Berries were Clara’s specialty. “All the neighbors up on Gunflint and all east [of here] used to come up and buy raspberries from her,” said Willard.
A few years back, the Pattens at Okontoe developed quite the potato field on one piece of their property with sandy soil. The venture yielded tons of Yukon Gold potatoes, but also lead to some potato bug issues, said Nancy Patten in a 2004 interview.
Many gardeners along the Gunflint Trail resort to raised bed garden to deal with this northern land’s lack of top soil. Betsy Powell’s raised bed garden on the Canadian side of Saganaga Lake consisted of a series of Styrofoam containers. Her neighbor, Irv Benson, preferred to use 5-gallon pails as his planters.
Not all gardens on Gunflint Trail are planted to produce food. Many individuals, such as Benny Ambrose and Ben and Mama Gallagher are remembered for their exquisite flowerbeds. Another fellow with flowerbeds was George Wartner, who lived alone on Gunflint Lake in the 1910s.
Dietrich Lange would write about Wartner in his book Stories from the Woodland Path: “The largest and most gorgeous pansies I ever saw were not raised by some rich man’s gardener, but by an old hermit, who lived in the wilderness north of Lake Superior. A beach of red shingle and pebbles on Gunflint Lake on the International Boundary, the old man had converted into beds of pansies: Pansies white, and yellow, blue and purple, and very dark, pansies smiling and pansies laughing, pansies suggesting all human moods and faces. It was worth a journey of many miles to see the pansies of the Hermit of Gunflint Lake.”
May these thoughts of gardens help you imagine soft warmth of spring sunshine on your face.