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Blane Klemek column for July 11: Legendary Boundary Waters resident inspires stories

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My favorite place in the world I know is the Boundary Waters; and it's there that I'll be this coming week. My boy and I - his first-ever trip - will put in on Sawbill Lake followed by a paddle across the lake and a short portage to Alton Lake. From there, who knows? Maybe we'll continue to Beth Lake, or maybe we'll just stay on Alton. It matters not.

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Throughout the evenings leading up to the trip, I was frantically pulling things together - sorting through my gear, buying a few essentials, repairing what needed fixing and packing. Honestly, as much as I love canoeing the Border Country, I find preparing for such journeys an ordeal I'd rather do without. By the time I finally leave home, I'm nearly exhausted.

I tried to find a special book for the trip. I asked my boy that if I could locate the book, if he would be interested in reading it. After all, I can't think of a better place for him to read about the Root Beer Lady, Dorothy Molter, than the place she lived most of her life in - the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

I could have probably met her had I known about her. After all, my first trip to the Boundary Waters, where she lived 56 years, was 10 years before she passed away. Along the Minnesota-Ontario border on the Isle of Pines at Knife Lake some 30 miles northwest of the nearest town, Ely, lived an unmarried woman who became affectionately known as the Root Beer Lady.

Dorothy Louise Molter spent most of her life living alone in what is now known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Born on May 6, 1907, Dorothy was raised in an upper-middle class urban household, an unlikely place for a future wilderness woman. But her first visit to those boundary waters lakes during the summer of 1930, at the age of 27, would forever change her life as she fell in love with Minnesota's northern wilderness.

The summer of 1930 found Dorothy accompanying her father and stepmother to an Isle of Pines resort, Berglund's Resort, which consisted of four rustic log cabins, one of which dated back to the old logging days. Dorothy impressed the Finnish owner of the resort, Bill Berglund, during her second visit to the resort the following summer of 1931. Bill was struck by Dorothy's knowledge of wildlife and her ability to paddle a canoe, carry 80-pound packsacks and swing an ax. He offered Dorothy a summer job to help run the resort.

Dorothy was a nurse who trained in Auburn Park Hospital in Chicago. But by 1934, having had enough of city living, she moved north to Berglund's Resort on Knife Lake to stay and work with Bill until he died in 1948.

Bill loved Dorothy like his own child. And as old age and its toll took hold of Bill, he told many people that the resort would one day be Dorothy's after he passed on. The only trouble was Bill left no will behind, and so the rightful owners were the next of kin, Bill's brother and sister. But living far from the Isle of Pines, the two siblings were uninvolved in their brother's resort business, yet they were well aware of Dorothy's devotion to Bill and of Bill's wishes. And in a most gracious act of selflessness, Bill's brother and sister, inside the Lake County Courthouse in Two Harbors, deeded the property to Dorothy Molter.

In the remote wilderness canoe country of the border waters, Dorothy soon became known as "Florence Nightingale of the Wilderness," so named after an English nurse who, in 1854, led 38 other nurses into a battlefield to attend the wounded. Shortened later to "Nightingale of the Wilderness" many a canoeist was made aware by outfitters and fishing guides of the trained registered nurse located on Knife Lake.

From the time that Dorothy became permanent resident and owner of the resort at the age of 41, until her death in 1986, she lived alone - shuffling between both her summer and winter residences in the North Woods - and canoed, planted gardens, fed birds, greeted canoeists and snowmobilers, entertained family and friends and wrote her famed Christmas letters that she would send each year to hundreds of guests and friends.

And about those letters. Beginning in 1959, Dorothy often would have one of her bird friends "ghostwrite" the letters. As the wilderness woman wrote in that first letter, she introduced a pileated woodpecker and continued, "Dorothy calls me Mr. Philly, but the books have a lot of names for me like Lord God Woodpecker ... Great Black Woodpecker ... the people I wake up at dawn have special names for me that you don't see in the bird books, or even in the dictionary." There were many bird writers, like Hairy Woodpecker, Louie the Loon, Hummy the Hummingbird, Baldy the Bald Eagle and even mammalian friends Bruno and Brunella Bear.

For three decades, from the early 1950s into the 1980s, Dorothy was known as the "Root Beer Lady." Blocks of ice were sawed from Knife Lake in the wintertime to keep the root beer cold during the summer. But the idea to make root beer for thirsty canoeists and anglers didn't come up until President Truman banned floatplanes from the wilderness area in 1948. Prior to the ban, planes were used to deliver cases of pop to Knife Lake and so, in 1952, Dorothy began brewing, bottling and dispensing root beer. Her tasty root beer only added to her growing legendary status.

During my summer employed as a park naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park, I enjoyed giving a program about this fascinating woman. The park had a documentary film about her, which I showed to park visitors.

After one particular program, a man in his early 50s came up to me with a story. He told me that he and a friend when they were young had been canoeing on Knife Lake on a very windy day and were having a little trouble. An old woman, he said, came paddling alongside them and asked if they needed help.

He and his friend politely declined the offer but scoffed openly to one another once she was out of earshot. They watched the old woman make her way to shore and beach the canoe. Once she was there, they watched in amazement as the old woman threw a heavy pack on her back and lifted up her canoe in one swift motion to her shoulders and disappeared down the wooded trail.

The man told me that he later learned that the old woman was Dorothy Molter, the Root Beer Lady.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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