Sawyer, where you travel at your own risk


More rez adventures with the Indian Scout

Deep into Sawyer’s moose country, the monster truck sank into mud holes that turned the front seat into a bouncy children’s ride like those at Enrollee Day weekend. Down the narrow pathway we heard sticks snapping to the east, as though some woodland critter leapt off the rough road and out of sight.

On a recent gorgeous summer day I asked the Indian Scout to show me all sides of Sawyer. The wild rice. Ditch banks. Churches and taverns. The commercial district.

The lookout hill and lookout towers. The grasshoppers leaping. The stark beauty and the naked horror that is Sawyer.

Scout agreed. We headed due west on Big Lake Road past patches of blackened bald ash trees that stuck up like deformed toothpicks. Scout said a bunch of careless beavers built a dam that flooded a swamp and killed the trees. We passed tall evergreen pocked with brown patches, the victims of drought.

The truck climbed Ditchbank Road where Scout came to a halt on what he called lookout hill. Look to the right of the Cloquet water tower, he said, and you’ll see Spirit Mountain in Duluth. Indians used to send smoke signals from there.

Back in the truck we roared onto Maple Road toward Big Lake and the Indian mound that dated back centuries. The truck shuddered to a halt near a densely wooded fenced-in area not far from the shoreline. Foliage made the mound area impossible to photograph, but the camera lens easily focused on liquor bottles at the rim of the mound.

The Scout advised a return visit after the leaves fall and the woods stand back to reveal secrets. He added that the only mound-like formation on reservations today is the ubiquitous septic tank.

From there we nearly zoomed past the Sawyer Church, also known as the Second Oldest Church in Minnesota. The tiny structure at West Moorhead and Mission Roads leaned a little, as though unsure of its place in the world. Its weathered boards, maybe 14 inches wide, were held in place by cement.

Scout said the church was built when stands of large pine were common in northern Minnesota. He cursed the loggers who chopped down the trees as we approached a statue of some kind encased by a wood frame. Don’t move the branches when you take the picture, Scout said. Let people see the decay and unkemptness of it all.

Slightly depressed, we stopped at the Sawyer Community Center for a photo opportunity. A boy rode over on a bike. “You old hippie!” he hollered at Scout. “Can I have money for pop?”

Pop was a good idea. We headed for the Sawyer Commercial District on Highway 210, first to see if Jerry Fairbank’s new store was up and running. A bang on the door caught the attention of two or three hyper weiner dogs who ran barking in circles in the storeroom.

Where’s Jerry? Another bang on the door. Boxes of Minnetonka Moccasins, pottery, card racks and display cases cluttered the room.

Where’s Jerry? His truck was in the driveway! Where’s Jerry?

Undaunted, we set out for the Sawyer Store just up the road a piece. The Scout bought a root beer; I bought iced tea and note cards. A sales clerk said they sold lots of chips and pop, classic rez and off-rez staples.

Fortified by the beverage, we aimed for the Sawyer Cemetery, a short jaunt from the store. Small flower boxes decorated two rows of unmarked graves marked with white crosses. Off to a side was a picnic table. The Scout chatted easily with someone who stopped after recognizing the monster truck. The Scout chatted easily with everyone.

On Moorhead Road en route to Perch Lake we encountered an angry rez dog that barked its head off. The Scout has riced on Perch Lake since he was 13. He makes wild rice cookies at the height of the season but refuses to reveal the cookie ingredients. When he makes the cookies, people will not leave him alone. They want those cookies. Now.

We drove to the yellow-green beauty of Perch Lake where a quiet wind teased the wild rice. Where’s the water, I asked, and the Scout said no water in sight was a good thing. It’s all yellow-green wild rice as far as the eye can see, giving up a mud spice smell. It’s breathtaking. To behold the yellow-green against the shoreline is to behold pure peace.

I tell the Scout that this is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in months, second only to a plate of barbecued ribs from the Elder Nutrition Program. Scout smiled.

We raced off on Spirit Lake Road to the most western house on the rez, and were met by a cheerful white dog. Near the house a flag flew at half-mast. Why is the flag at half-mast, I asked the Scout. Because it’s stuck there, the Scout said.

We raced off to more than I can describe on the narrow road into moose country bordered by ditchbanks, five-foot high grass and thick underbrush.

“Moose can walk through this like you walk down a sidewalk,” the Scout said. “Moose glide into the woods and immediately disappear.”

We stopped at Dead Fish Lake, noting swarms of active grasshoppers. Scout climbed a lookout post and snapped a photo.

That afternoon in the Sawyer District we took in 40 miles of road sights. We traveled rough pathways marked “Minimum maintenance – travel at your own risk.”

We stared down the angry rez dog, laughed at weiner dogs and agreed that the afternoon was well spent in the mysterious, magnificent District of Sawyer.

Deborah Locke can be reached at, or by telephone at (218) 878-2628. Her mailing address is FDL News, Tribal Ctr., 1720 Big Lake Rd., Cloquet MN 55720