Minnesota’s ‘Root Beer Lady’ Lived Alone in a Million-Acre Wilderness
September 17, 2020 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Yay, Dorothy!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:26 PM on September 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

This reminded me of Growth of the soil. Dorothy is larger than life and has a knack for putting a wild land in a half Nelson, like Isak. Too bad she didn’t find a worthy partner.
posted by waving at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2020

Reminds me of the very enjoyable book Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejía
posted by armoir from antproof case at 6:58 PM on September 17, 2020

I’ve been to Knife Lake once or twice (a grim slog if you’re not like, super into long form canoe trips) and have been to the cabin museum in Ely. The small batch Dorothy Molter branded root beer that you can buy in those parts is about as good as any craft root beer.

However, a friend who has lived up there most of her life actually met Dorothy as a child and sampled the actual original recipe root beer straight from the source, and states that it was not great. Which puts the vintage McCormick’s Root Beer Spice tins in the museum kitchen into a bit of context.
posted by padraigin at 7:21 PM on September 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Talk about balm for the soul. Humans are not all bad. Thank you for this post.
posted by rogerroger at 8:13 PM on September 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also, the Ely tourism people are very good: their annual campaigns are clever and funny and warm.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:45 PM on September 17, 2020

The Boundary Waters are really big. It’s not just the BWCAW in Minnesota — Quetico Provincial Park is on the Ontario side — and together they comprise over 3,500 mi2 / 9,000 km2 of lakes, rivers, and boreal forest with no roads, no motorized vehicles or overflights allowed, and almost no residents. The Anishinaabe groups who lived here were long ago forced to peripheral areas such as Grand Portage at the far eastern edge and the logging camps have moved on. Because Dorothy was allowed to remain in the middle of this now-vacant landscape, the media liked to portray her as the loneliest woman in America, with only wolves, moose, and bears for neighbors. But she was no misanthrope and she was far from lonely.

Aside from the thousands of canoeists and kayakers in the warm months (and a few snowshoers and dogsledders in the cold months) who visited her on the Isle of Pines, there were many people she ventured out to assist when they were in need of medical attention. She was known to snowshoe for miles in -25°F / -30°C temperatures to treat patients when bad weather or rough ice prevented ski planes from delivering doctors.

My grandparents’ honeymoon in the mid 1940s was a canoe trek in the Boundary Waters. Partway through the trip my grandmother, who was a few months pregnant with my uncle at the time, had some painful complications. They happened to be on Knife Lake (a few miles away near the other end) and fortunately were able to paddle to Dorothy’s place for help. Over the next 40 years or so they continued to stop by Isle of Pines periodically as their family grew with more kids and then grandkids, and Dorothy loved to see all of them visit. She passed away before I was old enough to meet her or try her root beer, but I’ve seen her in many Super 8 films and photos from my grandparents’ collection.

Dorothy did actually have a neighbor, of sorts. There was one other person who was allowed to stay permanently in the region after it was designated a federally-protected wilderness area, a guy named Benny Ambrose [pdf], who lived on Ottertrack Lake about 10 miles away. He and Dorothy would visit each other occasionally, sometimes exchanging vegetables from their gardens or other items they’d managed to get from the outside world.

Here’s the Isle of Pines—where Dorothy’s cabin(s) used to be before being moved to Ely—on Google satellite view (it’s actually two small islands that were connected by a wooden footbridge). She lived in a cabin on one of them facing a protected bay in the cold months and preferred to be in a more rustic tent-like cabin on the other island with a beautiful view of the lake during summer.
posted by theory at 9:25 PM on September 17, 2020 [30 favorites]

At her winter cabin
posted by theory at 10:13 PM on September 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Wild and interesting story. I keep thinking about the mosquitos.
posted by SoberHighland at 4:39 AM on September 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am totally buying the book from the museum -- I have a serious weakness for reading about wilderness living.
posted by JanetLand at 6:00 AM on September 18, 2020

It's clear some of you don't have family that dragged you across the BWCA on the promise of homemade root beer only to be told once you got to the island that the lady's been dead for 20 years and the cabin was moved to the town where you parked your car.
posted by Think_Long at 6:25 AM on September 18, 2020 [19 favorites]

This is beautiful and wonderful and I had never heard of it before and I now love Dorothy unconditionally. But the concept of "lake water root beer" brewed in a random cabin kitchen in the middle of nowhere and put up in bottles left behind by decades of tourists in the recycling bin (which I assume was a pit in the woods behind her cabin) is a little bit... no thanks.
posted by ErikaB at 7:04 AM on September 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

the root beer might not have been particularly remarkable in the grand scheme of things, but it had to be sweet divinity to those who had spent a long day paddling/dogsledding and didn't have space in their packs for anything heavy or sweet! There have been plenty of exhausting trips when I've audibly wished for the Ghost of Dorothy to pop out from behind a tree with a few bottles of root beer, like some sort of Northwoods Fairy Godmother.
posted by Gray Duck at 7:21 AM on September 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

I met Dorothy and had her rootbeer! When I was in scouts, we did a boundary water trip in 1985.The stop at her island was past the midpoint of our trip and was a really great experience!. I know that there are photos somewhere. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:36 AM on September 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

From the NYT article about BWCA that theory linked to:
Though [foreign-owned and probably environmentally-disastrous mining concern] Twin Metals’ future looks dimmer every month, the fact that it was even a possibility — and that there are other mining companies trying to exploit the region — calls into question the values, integrity and good sense of civilization in the 21st century.
I am gob-smacked that anyone is willing to damage this jewel of America, just to make some people in another country some money. What a stupid, short-sighted exchange.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:27 AM on September 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

wenestvedt: There are TWO proposed copper-nickel mines in Minnesota near the Boundary Waters: one by Twin Metals and another by PolyMet. Both are still in the review process and there are court battles pending, but their futures are far from dim (that NYTimes article I linked to is a few years old).

In April this year the EPA redefined how marshes, wetlands, and streams would qualify under the Clean Water Act and in June there was an executive order for agencies to waive environmental laws for new industrial projects. Both of these changes could affect the outcomes for the mine proposals.

I’ve been meaning to do an FPP on the subject but it’s seemed like small potatoes compared to other events of this year.
posted by theory at 12:18 PM on September 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

The railroads didn't reach NoMN until the early 1900's. So, when the robber barons sent in their specialists to log MN's ancient forests in the late 1800s, the northern lakes' forests were the first to go. Now and then a photographer came along, so it's lightly documented.

(Minneapolis' Walker Art Center is named for the guy who started working northward from the south end. He was actually a bit conflicted about his role.)

The trees have had a century to recover, so between them, some of the world's oldest rocks, and the petroglyphs the BWCA hath its charms. But don't overlook the state's northern middle-third, where the invincible bogs left behind by the glaciers - with muskeg deposits up to 60-feet deep - have kept all but the winter loggers at bay. The last of the 'virgin white pines' there were 'harvested' in the 1980s.

There a lone wolf and I once spotted one another walking across a logging road. At 50 feet, we shared a long, standstill stare; the wolf resumed first.
posted by Twang at 4:47 PM on September 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Oh, I know! I grew up in the Twin Cities, and hiked Isle Royale and paddled Lake of the Woods as a kid; my parents' place is on Lake Vermilion, and my mom always points out the Laurentian Divide no matter how many time we have crossed it. I have been paying attention to the mines (via Friends of the BWCA) because it makes me so mad. Grrrr!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:07 AM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

That part of the world just calls to some people. On the Canadian side off the border, this August marked the passing of Janice Matichuk, who served as the Park Ranger for Quetico Provincial Park at Cache Bay for 35 years.

MPR.ORG: ‘She was a legend’: Quetico ranger remembered for her guidance, grit
posted by Cris E at 10:46 PM on September 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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