Today’s guest post is from author Vania Rheault. She gives us a tour of the small town she grew up in—International Falls, Minnesota. I’ve never heard of the place. Not as famous as Lake Wobegon, I guess. But the town sounds much like the Ohio small towns I grew up in and around, and Vania’s writing has made me feel very nostalgic.
I grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, United States. Where is that you ask? Oh, it’s somewhere up north, along the Canadian border. Still no? Okay, here:
Our claim to fame is our nickname, Icebox of the Nation. Though I don’t understand how being the coldest town in the United States is anything to brag about. They’re so proud of it they put the logo on hoodies. (No. I don’t own one.)
Growing up there was a cross between drastically boring and immense fun. As a kid we could ice skate and go ice fishing on Rainy Lake. We were known for our ice fishing derbies. Of course every spring someone would have to do this…
…because they were too stupid to stay off the ice. For a child, it was grand entertainment. I suppose it would be for an adult too, so long as no one was hurt. My parents owned a house on Rainy Lake, a small bay and beach were in my backyard. In the winter my dad would plow a skating rink for me and the neighborhood kids. We would skate from sun up to sun down, only going inside long enough to warm up, eat, and go to the bathroom. I would stay out well past dark, lay in a snowbank, and watch the Northern Lights dance across the sky.
The summers were just as fun as the winters, what with the beach in my backyard. Also, my dad loved to fish and I would go with him in his little aluminum boat and read while he fished all day. The Falls is a big tourist town, with people using it as a stopover to get into Canada to fish. Rainy Lake contains walleye, perch, and northern too, and the resorts that dot the lake’s shores fill to the brim with fishermen every summer. One of the resorts, Sha-Sha, can I get a picture of it for you, hold on…here it is…
…was a fun to place to go because they had (I say had because they had to rebuild after a fire destroyed their entire facility and I’m not sure if they’re there anymore) tame chipmunks to feed. The bar at the resort would sell you a bag of peanuts for two dollars, and those little guys would scamper right into your hands to take one off your palm.
International Falls, back when I was a kid, was home to little over 8,000 people. The main source of income to many people was, and still is, despite recent lay-offs, the Boise paper mill. My dad would bring home reams and reams of paper for me to draw on. Living there, though, at times, felt isolating. Like many small towns, shopping choices were few. We had a Pamida for a time, and a Kmart. That meant having to go out of town for simple things like school clothes. Every fall my mom would take me to a neighboring (by neighboring I mean two hours) town that actually had a mall. The trip was usually a tiring, all day affair. And of course, back then, I didn’t appreciate it for what it was—an escape.
I was a voracious reader because there was nothing else to do. The Falls was big enough for a city library and I was there often. Because of the small population, my high school had as many kids in it as my son’s graduating class will have. (By the way, our class song? Life in a Northern Town by Dream Academy, of course.) Surprisingly, the Falls was even big enough to have a community college, Rainy River Community College, and I earned my Associate’s of Arts degree there. The best thing about being nineteen and living in the Falls? Going across the border to drink in Fort Frances’ bars. Fort Frances has an elegant convention center called La Place Rendez-Vous, and we would get dressed up, go out to eat, and feel grown up ordering wine with our dinners.
I don’t live there anymore, moving to a larger city in Minnesota to attend college. I can’t help but compare the two, and now that I’m an adult, can’t choose which I like better. Stores that stay open past nine? Yes please. Clothing choices, restaurants, a movie theatre with more than one screen. But there are things I miss, too. My kids don’t “go outside and play,” whereas, I’m still friends with the kids I grew up with on my street. I would like to think growing up in a larger city gives them more opportunity. The schools are bigger with more funding. I live in an area now where if my son decides to go to college, he doesn’t have to move away if he doesn’t want to.
I haven’t been back to the Falls in almost 14 years, and I don’t keep in touch with any of my classmates. I hear gossip and sometimes I’m surprised to learn that the kids who were the most trouble in school are business owners and managers of the places I used to go way back when.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. Some time ago I heard someone tore down my old childhood house. There’s nothing there for me now but memories.
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