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If the sun seemed to shine a little brighter than usual atop a trail north of Bemidji last Saturday afternoon, there was a good reason. The day was a special occasion, a time to honor Earle Dickinson, a man who dedicated his life to the tradition...

If the sun seemed to shine a little brighter than usual atop a trail north of Bemidji last Saturday afternoon, there was a good reason.

The day was a special occasion, a time to honor Earle Dickinson, a man who dedicated his life to the tradition, the history of Buena Vista Ski Area.

Dickinson's father, Leonard Dickinson, founded the ski area in 1936, and Earle took over the reins in later years. Buena Vista is one of the longest-running ski areas in Minnesota.

Ask anyone who knew him, and they'll tell you Earle Dickinson lived for the outdoors. Whether he was logging, tending the family's horses, working on the D8 Caterpillar or giving sleigh or wagon rides, Dickinson was at his best when he was outside. A vigorous man who wore Western clothes and a cowboy hat, Dickinson was on the D8 that day last October when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Family members found him seated at the bulldozer, which he'd managed to stop before dying.


Earle Dickinson was 78.

"He wanted to get his projects done," his daughter, Suzanne Thomas said. "He did everything he loved to do right up to the end."

Dedication ceremony

And so they gathered last Saturday, to celebrate that passion by renaming one of Buena Vista's most popular trails, the Logjam Trail, in Dickinson's honor.

"Earle's Trail," they plan to call it now.

Or maybe "Earle's Happy Trail," in honor of the Roy Rogers song Dickinson loved to sing.

Either name will be a fitting tribute. The trail overlooks Lake Julia, and at certain times of year, when the leaves aren't too thick and the light is just right, you can see nine lakes and miles of hills and trees.

"Earle loved that trail," his wife, Mariann, said. "In the summer, he would go horseback riding on the trail. It's a beautiful view."


It's been a difficult winter in the skiing business, a year in which resorts such as Buena Vista have had to rely heavily on snow-making equipment. The winter started off warm, with little snow, and then turned cold, with little snow.

That all changed a couple of weeks ago, though - just in time for last Saturday's dedication ceremony. With several inches of new snow, Buena Vista resembled a winter wonderland, and the temperature flirted with 30 degrees.

Perfect, in other words, for the celebration of an outdoorsman's life.

"It was wonderful," Suzanne Thomas said. "It was sunny with hardly any wind at all, and we had a nice turnout. We had families from all over.

"We wanted to have a remembrance time for Dad, and it ended up being a wonderful occasion and gathered many people from the past.

"He would have been very pleased to see all the smiling faces."

Carrying on tradition

Dickinson also would have been pleased to see the tradition he helped forge is very much alive and well.


Family members talked about that tradition during a recent telephone interview. Besides Thomas and Mariann Dickinson, daughters Liz Letson and son John Dickinson talked about the memories of their dad and preserving his legacy.

They all live within a few miles of Buena Vista and share in running the resort. Thomas is Buena Vista's director of operations, and Letson works in group sales; John Dickinson works in the sawmill and helps out making snow and grooming trails.

Another son, James, who lives in Bemidji, and daughter Dianne Hoffbeck, in Barnesville, Minn., also help out at the resort.

It's been a trying few months, they say, but life goes on.

"It seems like his presence is still here," Liz Letson said.

The tradition certainly is; Buena Vista might be a ski area, but it's also much more. There's a Lumberjack Hall of Fame here, a logging village and a ranch. Logging Days, a Buena Vista staple, marked its 24th season this year. And the annual Pioneer Days event wraps up today.

"His passions were keeping the ski area going and keeping the logging history alive for our Logging Days event," Letson said. "It's been a tough year emotionally, but we have been so busy, and that's been helpful."

So many stories


Talking, remembering, laughing - and occasionally crying - also helps. Earle Dickinson may have stood only 5 feet, 10 inches, but he was a larger-than-life presence to all that knew him.

Even Dickinson's horse, Choko, seemed to sense that presence, John Dickinson recalls.

"He passed away on his Caterpillar, and his horse for days after, I don't know how many days after it happened, his horse was kind of hanging around the Cat with his head low," Dickinson said. "It was kind of ironic. It's like the horse was just hanging out where he last saw him."

Earle Dickinson loved horses, which explains why John's three sons called him "Papa Eehaw" instead of Grandpa.

One time last summer, John recalls, his dad donned a splashy Hawaiian shirt as his way of saying "aloha" to a group of visitors from Honolulu.

"That was pretty neat," John said. "He was dressed up in a Hawaiian shirt sitting on a horse with a cowboy hat."

That's just the way Earle Dickinson was, they say; he wanted to make people feel at home.

"We used to always have this little thing where we'd say, 'Dad, how many people are here?'" Suzanne Thomas said. "He'd be within 10 people. He loved to float around and visit. He'd be visiting with someone from Grand Forks or out of town, or he'd be out on the sleigh. He loved to go out and get the horses.


"I think that was one of the favorite things he liked to do is visit with people on the sleigh. He'd tell them the history."

And always he'd sing. Old-time songs mostly. His favorites. Songs such as "Shenandoah," "Edelweiss" (from "Sound of Music") and of course, "Happy Trails."

No wonder he became known as Bemidji's version of the Singing Cowboy.

"He loved to sing, whether they were riding in a sleigh or covered wagon," Mariann Dickinson said. "He had a beautiful voice."

They sang some of those songs last Saturday at the end of the dedication ceremony. He might not have been there in presence, this man with a gift for gab who loved to sing, who loved to work outside and loved to share the area with others. . . .

But Earle Dickinson most certainly was there in spirit.

Perhaps, that's why the sun seemed to shine more brightly than usual over Buena Vista - this land of lakes, trees and hills that Earle Dickinson called home.

Reach Dokken at 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 148, or bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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