Down to Earth Tours study state’s northwest

One of the first things Dave Thorson does, when he stops his 14-passenger bus, is take out a pouch of tobacco and talk about a ritual that goes back thousands of years.

We are at the wild and unblemished Totogatic Flowage in northwest Sawyer County, and Dave tosses bits of tobacco in four directions, as an offering to the Great Spirit and ancestors of this land.

“We offer to you this sacred kinnikinic, so that we may seek knowledge today, about this land that is filled with the blood of our nosa and nokomis – our fathers and grandmothers,” he says.

The prayer acknowledges our survival through winter, the need for rain and sunshine, the arrival of spring. “To the sky above, that gives us breath … and to the earth below, that feeds us and takes care of us. We thank you.”

For the next seven hours, we will learn about the way life used to be in this part of northwest Wisconsin, when the Ojibwe were caretakers of the land and every full moon was a time of thanksgiving. What was celebrated depended upon the time of year and food in season, be it strawberries in June or wild rice in September.

“After a history lesson on Indian culture in fourth grade, we don’t get much of this study as adults,” our guide observes. “We’ve kind of lost our connection to Mother Earth.”

He will put almost 100 miles on his vehicle as we traverse little-known wonders of Sawyer, Douglas and Bayfield counties. The First American Cultural Tour is a new offering for Dave’s Down to Earth Tours, a business that he began in 2006.

Some of what we see is on or near land owned by Dave or his parents, who bought 560 acres in a forest management area for $560 in the 1940s. “My Grandpa Louie said he fished every trout hole in his area,” we are told. “He’s the kind of guy who would say, ‘You ever been down that road, David? Let’s see where it goes’ – and a little of that spirit lives on in me.”

The Cumberland native earned a forestry degree from the University of Minnesota in 1971. He began work with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho as a seasonal firefighter, moved into forestry/hydrology and wildlife/fisheries jobs, and was chosen Idaho Wildlife Conservationist of the Year in 1983.

Dave moved back home in 1991, to develop an environmental education curriculum for Wisconsin schools. “Teaching has been in my blood,” he says. “I love to share what I know with others.”

So we loop around Ounce, Upper St. Croix and White River watersheds, bounce from paved to dirt roads, learn about a 19th century maple sugar camp and wild rice patches on deserted Lake Pacwawong, a once-vibrant Native American village.

We walk hunched over to enter a long-ago copper mine and see 4-foot muskies at a hand-operated lock and dam in the town of Barnes.

“It’s like a miniature Panama Canal or Soo Locks,” somebody surmises, and Dave agrees, speculating that only a handful remain in the U.S. When working, a paddler needs only five minutes to fill the lock and another five to empty it.

We refer to essays and maps dating back to the 1700s, to explain local history and heritage. We hear music and prose, to better understand age-old connections and reverence for the land. We sniff trailing arbutus – “the first flower you’ll see here as winter ends,” inspect wolf scat, see where the world’s largest musky was caught and talk about bird sounds, burial mounds, Clovis to Woodland artifacts.

Dave wears a fishing vest with many pockets and seems to carry a different teaching prop in each of them. We sample maple sugar, feel the softness of mullein leaves, nibble on minty winterberries and garlicky ramps.

His lessons will change with the seasons. The area is home to bobcats, badgers and western fox snakes – but today we only catch a glimpse of two whitetails that swiftly hop in and out of view near a one-lane bridge.

In our group are retired teachers and hardcore conservationists – including a lifelong forager and Ice Age Trail leaders – who learn from Dave’s research as well as add to it. What results is a conversation, not a lecture, with a dozen stops that are uniquely relevant to the day’s theme.

Our teacher says he has asked an Ojibwe elder to partner with him on these tours, and Dave remains hopeful this someday will happen.

“We know more about the Indians of South America than we do our own neighbors,” he says. “I’m on their side – they got a raw deal on everything, but I think the way to handle it is with awareness, not by hiding the culture away.”

Down to Earth Tours are a mix of ecology, geology, history and culture. Tours are scheduled from Earth Day to mid November. Find tour topics and dates at Excursions also can be arranged for private groups, in full-sized buses or the customer’s vehicle, and Hayward need not be the only point for group departure. Call 715-376-4260.

First American Cultural Tours occur on the Saturday closest to a full moon: May 22, June 26, July 24, Aug. 28, Sept. 25 and Oct. 23. Cost for the 7.5-hour excursion is $69, which includes lunch.

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