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Ringing in 2018 with a Ski to Ellsworth Rock Gardens

By Eric Grunwald, Voygeurs National Park Interpretive Ranger

It was the first day of 2018 and I was excited to get the new year off to an adventurous start by getting outside and doing some exploring. It had been a cold end to 2017 with temperatures in the last week of the year bottoming out at -37F. With a forecast high of 0F, I wanted to enjoy some of the relative “warmth.” I layered my clothing and packed up my gear: my skis, poles and lumbar pack with snacks, map, warm water (so that it wouldn’t freeze), and ice picks. When I reached the parking lot at the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center boat ramp, it appeared I would have Voyageurs National Park all to myself; not a single other vehicle was parked there.

I strapped my boots into my ski bindings and set off. It was a cold start to the day at -19 and my skis didn’t seem to glide very well on the crusty, wind-blown snow. I picked out landmarks across Kabetogama Lake to guide my way to my destination: Ellsworth Rock Gardens about 4 miles distant. My first landmark was a distant Sugarbush Island. As my skis warmed up through the friction of gliding across the snow, they seemed to slide a bit more easily. Soon enough I found myself in between 3 islands, Sugarbush Island and an unnamed island to my right and Harris Island to my left. I stopped for a short break in the relative shelter of the islands, and then continued on to my next landmark, the southeast side of Cutover Island.

Every now and then I would pick out some animal tracks in the snow. Wind had obliterated most to the point where they were unrecognizable, but I was able to identify a few wolf tracks, unmistakable in their size. As I rounded the south side of Cutover Island a wooden boat dock came into view; I was nearly at Ellsworth Rock Gardens. I arrived at the rock gardens to find that I was the first human visitor in quite some time. The only footprints in the snow belonged to animals, mostly foxes and deer.

The gardens are a whimsical landscape of terraced flower beds and over 200 simple, rock sculptures. Some would describe the site as folk art, but I like to think of it as an “art environment” where one can fully immerse him or herself in the vision of the artist. In winter, the site is devoid of flowers, but the snow draping the sculptures seemed to add to the scenery and mystique of the place. It made me wonder if its creator, Chicago building contractor Jack Ellsworth, ever got to see his creations covered with soft, fluffy snow. Jack Ellsworth built the rock gardens between 1944 and 1965. The reason for Mr. Ellsworth’s labors are not quite clear. In a rare interview with a reporter from the International Falls Daily Journal, Ellsworth stated “We love this country and wish we could spend more time here, but I just had to have something to keep me busy.” The rock gardens certainly kept him busy. At one point Ellsworth estimated he spent over 14,000 hours laboring on his beloved masterpiece and one local resident recounts a story of when Jack Ellsworth’s wife was struck by lightning one summer. Supposedly Mr. Ellsworth refused to take his wife to the hospital after the incident “because he was too busy in the garden.”

Unfortunately, by 1966 Jack Ellsworth’s health had declined to the point that he was no longer able to spend his summers at his rock gardens. He passed away in 1974, by which time his gardens had become overgrown. In 1977 or 1978 the National Park Service purchased the property for inclusion in Voyageurs National Park. In 1996 a site survey, inventory and preservation plan were drafted, leading to the reestablishment of Ellsworth Rock Gardens as the “Showplace of Kabetogama Lake.”

I trudged through the snow and admired the art. Some of the boulders that Jack Ellsworth used in creating his sculptures must weigh several hundred pounds. It must have been hard work moving them around. As much as I wanted to spend more time at the gardens, a cold wind was starting to blow. It was time to move on. While Jack Ellsworth was never at this site in the winter, the brutal cold got me thinking about another group of people who may have spent their winter at this site, though before there were any rock gardens here. Where the gardens now sit, was once the site of a logging camp. Winter was prime time for logging in the North Woods. No biting insects to contend with and a nice frozen surface where there had been swampland in the summer. Was the logging camp that existed where Ellsworth Rock Gardens now sits a winter camp? We don’t know for sure, but it seems logical that it was.

I imagine the loggers working here in the extreme cold, felling trees with crosscut saws and moving them by horse drawn sleigh to the shores of Kabetogama Lake where they would be floated in huge booms to the sawmill come ice out. I imagine the trip back to their crude log bunkhouse after a long day in the woods. Think of what a welcome sight and feeling it would be to warm up inside the bunkhouse by the hot stove and eat a hearty meal in the camp dining hall. The thought of it was getting me thinking about making my way back to my own warm home, and so I made the ski back across Kabetogama Lake to my car for the drive home.

As I drove I reflected on what I had seen on that day and thought about all the changes that had happened to the lands where Ellsworth Rock Gardens now sits. We know about the logging camp and the gardens, but we don’t know what was there before. Did anyone live there before the logging camp? Perhaps an Ojibwe family once called the area home. If so could they have ever envisioned what the site has become? And what does the future hold for this interesting spot on the northern shore of Kabetogama Lake?

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