Winter is wearing on me. I didn’t intentionally save this post for January – in truth I forgot about it in the frenzy of Halloweentime – but I’m glad I have this opportunity to bring a shot of much-needed color into the month. Back in October, I wrote about Manitou Island in a post titled Islands of Immortality. (‘Cuz I’m artistic that way, and stuff.) Go have a read so you can really appreciate what I’m about to show you. I’ll wait.
Back? Ok. Not long after my courage failed me that day, I was out driving with my 16 year old son. When we got down near the lake, he expressed some interest in the arched wooden bridge that crosses a channel next to Motoska Park. I told him what I knew about Manitou Island and confided my failed attempt to explore it with Kris.
He just looked at me. (You know the look – the one that only a teenager who is disappointed in you can deliver.)
I had no alternative – we rumbled across the bridge.
After crossing the bridge and descending a hill, the road split in two. We took the right fork. The island is heavily treed and the autumn foliage was at peak. The sun shone through the canopy, which danced in a steady but mild breeze. The resulting dappled shade from the trees, and the fallen leaves we displaced as we drove, made it seem like the pavement itself was in motion. To our left, we saw a park surrounding a central, well-kept tennis court. Along our right side, multi-storied colonial-style homes, on immaculately groomed lawns, dotted the landscape. After the park, the roads that flank it merge and continue toward the island’s point.
There are, perhaps, 30 homes arranged on the island. This one is at the point:
There is a strip of semi-wild scrub between most of the manicured lawns.
Traffic on the island was light, and consisted mostly of delivery and service vehicles. We didn’t see anyone in any of the yards. We didn’t see any security personel either. Even so, we didn’t push our luck. We stayed only long enough to take a few photographs.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. I can’t imagine the island ever being more beautiful than it was that afternoon.
If I ever have to retrieve my son (and, perhaps a pretty girl) from the local police station, though, I’ll be especially understanding – It’s the least I can do for a kid who loaned me a little youthful courage on such a perfect autumn day.
A few days ago, a friend, Kris, came to White Bear Lake to spend the day with me. I showed her the independent bookstore, the bakery, my favorite upscale patio bar / restaurant, and a shop with distinctive clothes on one side and high-end home decor on the other.
Once we’d hit the high points in the town proper, I drove her along the lakefront to Matoska Park, where the two-story gazebo lives, and where a bridge crosses a narrow channel then leads to Manitou Island. The island used to be a boys’ camp in the late 1800s when WBL was a big resort town. Now it’s a private neighborhood for the wealthiest of WBL’s citizens. We parked in the lot meant for SUVs with boat trailers, and strolled toward the bridge. At the first Residents Only sign we paused, looked at each other then continued on. We made it all the way across the bridge, and a few yards onto the island itself before we came to another sign that warned us of security patrols, and reminded us that we were not welcome.
“We’d do it, if we had a little alcohol in us,” she said.
I laughed and told her I had another place to show her. We went back to the car, then on to a dive bar on the edge of town. Dick’s Little Bar has an honest-to-goodness backyard, complete with picnic tables and a horseshoe pit. Once, when I took my mom there for a lunch, the waitress gave my dog three strips of bacon as a treat for being cute.
At Dick’s, you can get an a-mazing, greasy hamburger, on a butter-toasted bun, with chopped fried onions … a burger just like the ones that Kris and I used to flip – twenty-five years ago – at a little place in Anoka, called Patty’s Pub.
Kris and sat at a picnic table, sipped beer, and reminisced about being 20 for a while. Then the conversation turned to the present.
Later, at home, I started thinking about another Island, one that doesn’t have an official name, and isn’t even a proper island.
In this photograph – taken this spring – it appears easily accessible … but 2012 has been a dry year. When I was a teenager the river ran high in Anoka. The Rum rushed through that channel, and the tips of those stepping-stones were slippery with algae. That didn’t stop me from going there hundreds of times. From the time I was 15, I liked to sit on the upper level of the “castle” and write in my journal during the day. At night, filled with teenagery angst and a spooky sensibilty, I liked it even better.
In the dark – sometimes with friends, but often alone – I would scramble down the steep bank toward the castle, across the rocks and out to the island. (At the time I didn’t think of myself as serial killer bait.) Every once in a while, the police car that patrolled the lot above the river would stop, and a cop would shine a light toward the island. By the time his flashlight beam played over the castle, I was always hidden in its shadowy belly.
Back then, I was fearless.
When did I get so old, I wondered. Why hadn’t Kris and I boldly cross over the bridge to explore Manitou Island that afternoon? After all, we are just two respectable 40-something women, out for a stroll on a lovely autumn afternoon. What cop, or security guard, would do more than remind us the island is private and suggest we leave?
That’s when it dawned on me. I’m not afraid of the actual potential consequences of ignoring those Resident Only signs. Not as an adult, anyway. The thing that stops me every time is my almost subconscious belief that I don’t look harmless, or respectable, or 40+. Deep in my head and my heart, I feel like the teenage girl that used to hang out on castle island – the girl who would have been hauled down to the station so that the authorities could call her parents … had she ever been caught.
I’m not acting old, I realized, I’m forgetting that I’m old. And that’s pretty cool.
I feel I should tread carefully in this post, because I’ve just moved to this town. I don’t want to give non-natives the wrong impression of White Bear Lake. And I certainly don’t want to offend my new neighbors by taking a too-ghoulish approach to their local tragic stories – stories that may feel fresh and personal to residents here. Still, I am who I am. I notice things, then turn them over and over inside my head.
Tonight, on the news, there was a story about a woman who went missing from WBL back in 1997. The case has been reopened because new technology – ground penetrating radar – might reveal bones that were missed fifteen years ago.
As I understand it, the woman was last heard from when she emailed a friend, saying that her husband was about to come home to resume an argument. He was the main suspect in her disappearance (and presumed murder) but there was not enough evidence to charge him.
Sixteen months later, he was convicted of raping and torturing a girlfriend in the same house. He served seven years in prison. Now he lives somewhere in Anoka County. He is not listed among the level 3 sexual offenders living in Minnesota.
Yes. I do intend to find the property. After that? I don’t know. I can’t help but be intrigued, but I think I might be better served by continuing to comb White Bear Lake’s 19th century history as I search for the hidden haunts of this town.
When my family decided we wanted to make a new life for ourselves, we chose to move forty minutes due south, to White Bear Lake in Ramsey County, because … well, because this little city has been seducing us for years. My husband and I first came here to have dinner with a pair of interesting writer-acquaintances we had met online. (A decade later, they are dear friends – and now, also our neighbors.) Six years ago, my son got involved with a loosely organized psudo-sword-fighting group which meets in a park here. (The group is still going strong.) A year or so after that, I decided I wanted to find a Unitarian church we could attend. Sure enough, the closest one was in WBL.
Before we knew it, we were traveling here at least twice a week. All those trips to the park and the church meant that I was driving around and through the town often. I found a real bakery, an independent bookstore, and a main street lined with other locally owned small businesses. With each discovery, I became more enamored. Last year, my son’s karate studio opened up a new branch … in White Bear Lake.
In February of 2012, when it was time to leave our old life behind and start over, we came home.
So far, we love it here, but – to be honest – White Bear Lake overwhelms me with its overt wholesomeness. The streets are free of litter; the yards are free of dandelions. Smooth bike paths and sidewalks run alongside lush parks and clean beaches – which are almost always populated by healthy-looking people of all ages and races, most of whom are accompanied by a polite dog or two. In the city proper, there are recycling cans as well as trash bins. There are benches scattered all over town. Hell, some of the businesses put out a clean bowl of water for passing dogs.
If you were to suggest that it all sounds a little like Stepford, you would not be the first. It’s not like that though – I see a fair number of folks that would be considered weird anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Here, though, no one glares at the long-haired, gray-bearded guy who pedals along on his tricycle, not even when his giant American flag hits them in the face as it snaps in his wake. No one stares at out-of-the-norm attire, be it a biker’s dusty leathers or a woman’s jewel-spangled sari. No one looks askance at the strange lady who spends an awful lot of time prowling the local graveyards. (One handsome, fit, middle-aged, property owner helped me find my EMF reader when he discovered me searching for it in the snow. He figured it would be good practice for his trained sniffer dog.)
I was raised in Anoka, a town that should exude the same kind of small-town charm as WBL, because of its similar age and history. The atmosphere there, though, is different. The mood is more suspicious, more depressed. There’s more talk of haunted places and tragic tales. Nothing is quite so clean, no one seems quite so content. Now that I live here – in bright, shiny WBL – I see Anoka’s shadows more clearly.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Anoka too. I love that there is a grave in Oakwood Cemetery for an unknown child who was found at the depot in 1888. I love that the Doctors Kline established a sanitarium there in 1892. I love the fact that Anoka survived five major fires between 1855 and 1884. (And that – after the last, and worst of them – she was rebuilt from brick.) I love that she considers herself the Halloween Capital of the World. I love that she is sad, and tired and old and haunted.
But maybe I perceive a certain darkness in my hometown simply because I know her so well. Tonight I am wondering if I will find that White Bear lake, too, has a battered but resilient soul. I’m wondering if she is haunted. If she is, then I’ll be able to settle here.