'Life at Kettle Falls' tells of historic hotel in the north woods
RAINY LAKE, NEAR INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — Mike Williams set the hook on another walleye on a recent Tuesday morning, hoping it was the right size for lunch. We would need about three for a good meal at the Kettle Falls Hotel, said Williams, a fishing guide from International Falls.
Some things never change.
When Williams was a kid in the 1950s, working at the historic and remote hotel on Rainy Lake, he would often run up to the nearby dam to catch walleyes for guests’ lunches. Williams, 67, spent most of his childhood with his parents and grandparents at the hotel under the big white pines where Namakan Lake spills into Rainy Lake.
As he fished on this early August day, Williams told lots of stories from his life at Kettle Falls and on Rainy Lake. He has collected many of those stories from his life as a resort owner and fishing guide in a new book titled “Life at Kettle Falls.”
The hotel, now owned by Voyageurs National Park, was operated from 1918 to 1992 by four generations of the Williams family. Robert Williams, Mike’s grandfather, bought the hotel in 1918 for a reported $1,000 and four barrels of whiskey.
A known name
It’s difficult to imagine anyone in northern Minnesota who has lived a more colorful and eventful life than Williams. He’s a complete outdoorsman who has hunted, fished, guided or trapped on Rainy Lake in every season. For many years, he flew a small plane on floats or skis. He began guiding anglers at Kettle Falls when he was just 12 years old.
Williams and his wife, Mary, ran Kettle Falls from 1971 to 1982, raising two daughters, and they operated Thunderbird Lodge on the lake near International Falls from 1986 to 2005.
“Everybody knows who Mike Williams is,” said Rod Haanen, the current owner of Thunderbird Lodge. “I think he’s respected by everyone, too. He’s a great friend. He helps people out with anything and everything.”
On this day, Williams was fishing with his old friend Kenny Henrikson, 71, of International Falls, and me. He eased his big Crestliner into a scattered group of boats over a drop-off in 30 feet of water. We flipped minnows into the water and began catching one walleye after another. Henrikson and I caught them on jigs. Williams used a Lindy-style rig with an egg sinker and a plain hook.
“In a normal year, we’d be using leeches, but they just haven’t been doing it,” Williams said.
Story after story
As we fished, Williams told story after story. Fishing. Deer hunting. Grouse hunting. Beaver trapping. Duck hunting. Thin ice. Nuisance bears.
He would begin a story, but inevitably it would get interrupted when one of us began playing a walleye. The fish were foot-longs, 14-inchers, 16-inchers, 20-inchers, 22-inchers and a 24-incher. With the slot limit on Rainy Lake, all of the fish from 17 to 28 inches had to be released.
At one point, Williams’ rod tip began twitching as he was telling a story about fishing the same spot with television outdoor host Butch Furtman. It was a good story, and Williams didn’t notice the bite. Henrikson did.
“Mike. Mike,” Henrikson said, pointing at the rod tip.
Williams broke away from his story long enough to set the hook and reel up a 22-inch walleye. He tossed it back into the lake and finished the story.
The plan was to catch enough fish under 17 inches for a walleye lunch at the hotel. If you fillet your fish and take them to the hotel dining room, the staff will prepare you a walleye sandwich or a complete walleye “shore lunch.”
Fishing has been good on Rainy this summer, Williams said, but getting fish outside the slot limit can be difficult.
“There are some days you can catch one out of three (to keep),” he said. “Other days, it’s been one out of 12.”
We kept three decent walleyes beneath the slot limit. Lunch was secured.
We took the scenic route to Kettle Falls through Kempton Channel, past houseboats nosed into protected coves. A bald eagle surveyed the scene from the upper limbs of a white pine. Every bay, nearly every island held its memories for Williams.
“I can’t tell you how many partridge we shot on this island.”
“I used to trap mink all along these shorelines.”
“The last logging camp was right here. It went away in 1966.”
In his book, Williams writes about fishing near the green buoy just downstream from the docks at Kettle Falls. When we arrived at the narrows near the hotel, Williams couldn’t resist stopping there, where the current flows down from the dam.
“Of all the places to fish in the world, this is my favorite place,” Williams said. “It’s good from opening day until it’s too cold to fish.”
Because we were now in Ontario waters, where no live minnows are permitted, we left those on the hotel dock and switched to night crawlers. As non-residents, we were each allowed just one fish in a daily limit.
We caught fish on nearly every cast. Walleyes. Plump smallmouth bass to 16 inches. We each kept one of the walleyes we caught and released all of the bass.
The fish never quit biting, but eventually we decided it was lunch time. At the hotel dock, Williams filleted our three Minnesota walleyes. We gave the bag of fillets to our server and ordered the walleye sandwiches.
Kettle Falls Hotel was renovated by the National Park Service in 1987, but it retains its original look and character, right down to the severely warped floors in the bar. For Williams, the trip to Kettle Falls was like coming home. In the 1950s, when he was a kid, his mom would send him out to catch walleyes — sometimes after guests’ lunch orders were taken. He remembers sprinting down to the dam to catch walleyes, racing back to the hotel, filleting the fish and delivering them to the kitchen.
Photos of Williams’ grandparents and parents are framed on the wall of the dining room. Friends stopped at his table to greet him. A hotel staffer approached him about a guiding job the following week.
On the table, laminated cards offered “trivial pursuit” questions about the hotel, Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park. Williams conceived the cards and wrote many of the questions. He spent seven summers from 2006 to 2012 driving the park’s tour boat and still fills in on a volunteer basis.
‘You never forget’
Out on the water, Williams kept sharing the stories of his life as we made the return trip to International Falls.
“I found my first arrowhead on that island.”
“The only time I got two deer with one shot was right there.”
“This is where Art Langdorf walked across that thin ice when we were deer hunting.”
When Williams tells these stories, it is not to impress anyone. He understands that the kind of life he has led — when heat came from a woodstove and outboards were small and ice for hotel guests came from the lake — is never coming back again, and that those stories are important to pass along.
That’s why he wrote the book. That’s why, traveling the lake, he cannot help sharing his memories.
“I saw a big bull moose swim right across here once.”
“Up there, Cormorant Bay, is where I made my first guide trip.”
He told about a November night years ago. He was 12, he said, and was making a long ride up the lake with his dad after a deer hunt. The moon was full.
“Dad’s buck was lying in the bottom of the boat,” he said. “I was sitting down there, looking up through the ice-encrusted antlers of that buck at the moon. That’s something you never forget.”