With over 2,000 lakes within 50 miles of town, the Ely area boasts the world’s greatest concentration of aquatic pockets for freshwater fun…and stories! Enjoy their history, mystery & intrigue in this new blog by Wintergreen co-founder Paul Schurke. And enjoy your own Northwoods adventures with our Wintergreen “Made in the Boundary Waters” clothing and our Wintergreen Lodge dogsledding fun.
NAMAKAN'S "WOMAN OF THE WILDERNESS"
While the Ely area reveres the legacy of Dorothy Molter, the Voyageurs National Park area has its own “woman of the wilderness” icon. A trapper, dog musher, bush pilot, hunting & fishing guide, Betty Berger spent her 82 years adventuring from her family’s island at the mouth of the Namakan River in northwestern Ontario. Her weekly 18-mile supply runs made her a welcome and revered figure among the homesteaders and vacationers along the chain of lakes connecting her remote island with the nearest community, Crane Lake, MN. And her stories of wrestling bears, wrangling sled dogs and hooking monster sturgeon kept them entertained.
Our family learned of Betty when we visited her Namakan Lake island a few years after she passed away in 1997. Betty’s great niece Lori Osterby gave us tour of the pastoral setting: 2-story log home, guest cabin, grape arbor, orchard, gardens, hay meadow and barn for the horses once kept there. She showed us Betty’s incredible collection of native artifacts, including campfire-kilned clay children’s toys, found along her trapping routes or gifted to her by Ojibwa neighbors. Our kids were most intrigued by “Norton the Northern,” Betty’s pet fish that would come to you along the dock when you’d clap your hands under water.
Betty’s legacy is beautifully captured in Neil McQuarrie’s fine book “A Bit of a Legend in These Parts: The Life of Betty Berger Lessard.” Among its endearing references is Betty’s connection with the “Shackers” – retired loggers who chose to live out their days in solitary fashion in shoreline shanties. Some bore colorful names -- Moonshine Joe, Billy the Beast, Spitting Jack, Brandy Joe—but no one asked about their past. They kept to themselves and hunted & fished for provisions.
During the quiet winters Betty was among the few other people they ever saw since her weekly supply run by dogteam took her along the lakes where their huts were located. She’d pick-up and drop off mail for them, check on their well-being, and offer an encouraging word.
As McQuarrie recounts in his book, one winter while approaching a hut Betty noticed the chimney was stone cold. Fearful of what she might find, she pushed the door open. Peering in, she spotted a man lying motionless on the bed. Anxiously calling his name, she was relieved to find him still alive but seriously ill. With help from a friend, Betty sledded him to Crane Lake the next day for medical attention. He survived and returned to his hut where Betty continued to look out for him.
Needless to say, Betty was courted by many of the men she guided or looked after, including an admirer who wrote “you can wring out your socks in my coffee any time.” At age 40, she gave her hand in marriage to Bud Lessard who shared her love of wilderness living. Sadly, he drowned less than a year later while barging a load of hay for winter forage to their Namakan homestead. The island remains owned by Betty’s relatives who look after it as a memorial to her legacy.
Paul Schurke - Polar Explorer