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December 1991

Ellsworth's Rock Garden

by Andy Bergstrom

I left Camp Woodenfrog on lake Kabetogama, in northern Minnesota, around noon. The camp was deserted for it was only 20 degrees above zero and a strong wind was blowing. After snapping on my skis I left the parking lot, skied down the snow covered boat ramp and out onto the ice. My destination, Ellsworth’s Rock Garden.

I glided past two snowmobilers. One of them was having troubles with his machine. They had just pulled off the snowmobile freeway which ran along the shore. They worked like a pit crew in the chilly air and within a couple of minutes they raced back onto the lake highway. I looked both ways and cautiously crossed the packed snow/ice road. Ellsworth’s Rock Garden is located behind Cutover Island, near Clyde creek on the Northeast shore of the lake in the midst of Voyager National Park.

I skied passed a small unnamed grassy island on my left and noticed a wall of ice about 2 feet high. It was a pressure ridge that reached from the island out across the lake as far as the eye could see. The cracked ice ridge resembled the plates on the back of a stegasaurus. I chose a low section in the wall and crossed the cracked and shattered ice. The vertical ice interrupted the wind as it raced across the lake, causing it to drop the snow riding with it. The snow created a nice ramp, on the one side of the ridge, which I skied down.

The rock garden, owned by the Ellsworth family during the 1940’s, is now owned by the park service and deserted. There are no roads leading to the garden, with the lake providing the only access.

Three miles later I neared Cutover Island. As I approached, I noticed several rows of small circles in the snow extending from the island out on to the lake. The wind had made them nearly invisible, but I guessed that they were tracks from a wolf pack prowling the area the night before.

Ellsworth was a sculptor and with his wife he collected thousands of rocks of all sizes from all over the area, often importing them from across the lake. They used the rocks to terrace the hillside near their home. Within the terraces Mrs. Ellsworth planted flowers and Mr. Ellsworth erected stone sculptures.

I cut across a narrow portion of the island and skied toward a dock and small clearing on the far shore. Reaching the dock I took off my skis and walked up a small hill to a clearing. Off to my left was a small building, to my right a wooden shack, and ahead, in the woods, a stone chimney and outhouse, all that remains of the Ellsworth’s house.

The trees and weeds have begun to reclaim the garden so it is now mostly hidden in woods. I walked toward a boulder which had the work ‘UP’ painted on it. Approaching the rock I passed a stone creature, resembling a deer, lurking behind a pine tree. I followed the snow covered, stone stairs up into the garden.

Ellsworth would take boulders of odd shapes and combine them with a little cement to create strange and familiar forms. A flat slab of rock supported by three triangular rocks forms a table in one corner of the woods. A stone duck is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the frozen lake. A path meanders throughout the woods, outlined by square walls made up of small tightly stacked stones. At the top of the hill, a rotting teepee stands. The tall stone monoliths in the deserted woods bring on an eerie feeling of visiting an ancient culture. Only the deer and mice have visited the garden this winter, having left tracks in the snow.

The sun was beginning to fade so I headed back to Camp Woodenfrog, retracing my tracks which were faintly visible in the hard windblown snow.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom