Chronicling the Gunflint

Nonagenarian and award-winning author John Henricksson portrays the northeast wilderness.
Courtesy of John Henricksson

Writers always seem to do their best work when they have inspiring subjects. For more than 50 years, Mahtomedi resident and award-winning outdoor writer John Henricksson has been inspired by northern Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail, producing a half-dozen books and many magazine and newspaper articles. For the past 36 years, Henricksson and his wife, Julie, have spent May to October living in a cabin on Gunflint Lake, enjoying the people and natural wonders of the Gunflint Trail region.

Growing up in the Marshfield, Wis. area, Henricksson spent countless hours tromping through the woods and fishing in the rivers. After earning a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, he spent a decade promoting tourism for the State of Minnesota from 1952 to 1962. He then started his own PR agency, representing boat companies, fishing tackle manufacturers, chambers of commerce and other outdoor recreation-related clients.

After he retired at 65, Henricksson and his wife had more time to spend in their beloved northern Minnesota. They bought and completed an unfinished cabin on the Gunflint Trail, on the south side of a lake. “It’s very quiet and not nearly as crowded as some areas like Brainerd or Bemidji,” he says. “It’s so quiet that some folks from the city leave early, because they can't stand the quiet,” he adds, amused.

Henricksson’s first book was published in 1962, a children's biography of scientist and conservationist Rachel Carson, considered the founder of the environmental movement. “It was quite a popular book, especially with libraries,” says Henricksson, who was one of the first to write about the environmental movement.

Henricksson published his favorite book, A Wild Neighborhood, in 1998, which won a Minnesota Book Award in the nature category. It’s a collection of anecdotes and history about the people of the Gunflint Trail. Then he wrote one about Gunflint Trail cabins. He’s also edited two University of Minnesota Press anthologies of northern Minnesota writing, one of which won the northeast Minnesota Book Award in 1991.

For many years, he also contributed outdoor articles to newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Daily News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and magazines including Field and Stream and Minnesota Monthly.

Henricksson has found the solitude of the Gunflint Trail to be conducive not only to writing, but also other forms of creativity: He’s written on that specific topic, interviewing potters, woodworkers, carvers, a guitar maker and a woman who weaves baskets from red-pine needles.

His most recent book, Over the Portage Into History, is a book featuring profiles of eight little-known adventurers, voyageurs and explorers who canoed the 1.5 million-square-mile wilderness waters of the Hudson Bay drainage, which includes the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota and Ontario.

Now that age-related physical problems have limited some of his activities, like skiing, Henricksson, who celebrated his 90th birthday in December, has more time to work on his next book, Home School of the Wild, on how most woodland animals learn basic survival skills in the first six months of life.

Henricksson has retained his deep appreciation for the self-reliant people of the Gunflint Trail. “The people there are really different from the people we know in the city. They have a different value system, a different lifestyle. They do things you don’t see done anymore, like chopping wood," he says, adding poetically: "There, a man is judged by the condition of his woodshed.”