Avenue of the Pines: Forest Byway
by Lisa McClintick
The 46-mile Avenue of the Pines Scenic Byway delivers what it promises -- thick evergreens that flank the road like sentries. But don't just cruise by. The best way to enjoy this Northern Minnesota route from Deer River to Northome is to head into the Chippewa National Forest.
Now at 1.6 million acres, this national forest was the country's first one east of the Mississippi. Yep, east. While the mighty Mississippi carves southeastern bluffs and Minnesota's state boundary, in the far north it's a humble steam that starts at Itasca State Park. Paddlers can have the river to themselves as it quietly curves north like a backwards question mark.
After the heydays of big logging, the country fought its way out of the Great Depression. One of its biggest success stories--the Civilian Conservation Corps--set up camps in the forest to build roads, bridges and dams, including one on the Mississippi to control its flow downriver. It created Minnesota's fifth-largest lake: Lake Winnibigoshish or more affectionately known as "Lake Winnie."
Bring a boat or rent one from local resorts to explore the lake. There are more than 140 miles of undeveloped shoreline. Rich with walleye, northern, muskie and panfish, it's a favorite place to drop a line and reel in dinner. So is the nearby Big Cut Foot Sioux Lake. Look for access to both on the west side of Highway 46.
CutFoot Sioux Visitors Centeroffers an overview of the forest with exhibits on the Civilian Conservation Corps history, local wildlife and stories from the Chippewa tribe. Pick up maps, reserve a lakeside campsite or join a naturalist program.
Head into the pines on a 22-mile hiking trail that follows the Continental Divide. Mountain bikers and horseback riders roll or trot by on the 18-mile Cut Foot Sioux Trail, which connects to 13-mile Simpson Creek Trail. In the winter, fresh snowfall lures skiers and snowmobilers.
The forest was named to honor the Chippewa, whose ancestral visions told them to seek "the lakes with food." They found wild rice or "mahnomin." On late summer days you may still hear the whisper of a canoe gliding into yellow-green rice beds on Nature Lake and others with shallow water.
Look for hand-harvested, hand-parched wild rice for sale along the byway or in the area's small towns. You also can celebrate Minnesota's iconic food with Wild Rice Days in Deer River each July.
Another big summer celebration, the White Oak Rendezvous, re-enacts a 1789 gathering of voyageurs and trappers at a Mississippi River trading post. In January, howls fill the air for White Oak's Winter Fest and Sled Dog Classic.
During late summer, keep your eyes open for a rare glimpse of black bear or witness one of country's greatest comeback stories as a bald eagles soars overhead, snatches a fish or settles majestically into the treetops along Avenue of the Pines.