Sprawl Of The Wild

Baxterization, beaten paths, and the great riparian land rush of northern Minnesota

Barry Babcockis about to get mad. You can't see the coming torrent of complaints from his expression. At 57, Babcock has a friendly, warm manner. Anger does not seem to be one of his usual reflexes. He is an athletic-looking sort of guy, less in the mode of a fitness-center buff than of someone who has spent a lot of time paddling a canoe and tramping around the woods. Babcock recounts his big adventures--most recently, a harrowing near-drowning episode in the icy waters of Canada's Quetico--with the sort of zest that suggests a conviction that you haven't lived until you've nearly died.

Like a lot of back-to-the-woods types, Babcock has a life that's governed by the changing seasons. In the fall, he likes to bow-hunt deer on the wooded 80-acre property he owns in rural northern Hubbard County, located in the gut of north central Minnesota. Thanks to an outsized deer herd and liberal tag limits, Babcock can usually keep his freezer stocked with venison year-round. That's a good thing. A retired motel owner, he gets by these days on $500 a month.

So to the extent he's able, Babcock lives off the land. Sometimes he scours the nearby forests for chanterelles or morels or a host of other obscure but equally edible wild foods--the kinds that sustained the Indians in the old days. In the spring and summer, Babcock likes to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, usually by canoe. While he describes himself as a "half-assed naturalist," the truth is that he is encyclopedic when it comes to the flora, fauna, and history of the north woods. He puts it more modestly. "My avocations," he says with a shrug, "are deeply intertwined with the outdoors."

Babcock's one-room home, which he assembled from a garage kit, sits at the end of a long, winding dirt road. His nearest neighbor lives about a mile away. On this warm June morning, Babcock has just enjoyed a breakfast of stinging nettles. Despite the nasty-sounding name,stinging nettles, he informs me, are actually quite nutritious. You do need to be careful with the preparation.

Absent running water--no hose or irrigation system--Babcock waters his vegetable garden the old way: by hand. With a rambunctious and somewhat ill-behaved field spaniel whirling at his feet, he pumps five gallons of water into a plastic bucket and carries it back. At the center of Babcock's garden sits the most conspicuous sign of modernity in the vicinity: two enormous sets of solar panels. The panels supply all of Babcock's electrical needs, which are few. He has a phone line, a satellite dish, and a computer. Aside from those amenities, Babcock lives off the grid.

Ambling back to the shack, Babcock pokes around a bookshelf looking for his favorite volume, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Leopold, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, is widely regarded as the father of game management and, by extension, the modern conservation movement. From a broken-down farm along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, Leopold meditated about all manner of things. The resilience of bur oaks in the face of prairie fires. The virtues of solitude. Man's complex relationship, and duty, to the wild. A keen observer of the natural world, Leopold (who died in 1948) remains a hero to people like Barry Babcock.

Babcock first read A Sand County Almanac when he was in his early 20s. It shaped his outlook on the natural world. So in 1970, when Babcock saw an 80-acre plot come up for sale for $3,000, he snapped it up. He makes no bones about the fact that his exposure to Leopold played a role in the decision. "I think The Sand County Almanac is one of the great philosophical works of the 20th century," he says. Babcock's Almanac is one of those battered books that you can tell has been read dozens of times, dappled as it is with pencil notes and asterisks and infatuation. "Leopold was the first one who connected all the dots, who really got what conservationists should be focused on," Babcock explains. "He was a real visionary."

The discussion of Leopold leads to the object of Babcock's great ire, the bane of his daily life: the incredible proliferation of all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs. Babcock resides in the heart of ATV country. A combination of lax regulation and inadequate enforcement on the state-owned lands that surround his property acts like a magnet for the four-wheeling set. In recent years, ATV manufacturers have enjoyed a fantastic surge in popularity in Hubbard County and the rest of the state. Between 1998 and 2004, according to the Department of Natural Resources, ATV registrations in Minnesota increased by a staggering 133 percent, from 98,000 to 224,000.

With their outsized tires, mighty torque, and capacity to travel across virtually any landscape, ATVs have become one of the ubiquitous features of the north woods. If you drive the Minnesota countryside much, you've seen the most obvious evidence: endless parallel lines of dirt that scar the ditches along every trunk highway from Winona to Koochiching County. But unless you frequent the deep forests, you probably haven't seen the real effects of the ATV boom. In places like Hubbard County, rogue riding has become a virtual epidemic. It has hit the area fast and hard--like meth for the gear-head set.

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