The Laketrails story began on a hot summer stretch of prairie highway in South Dakota in the summer of 1951. Father Bill Mehrkens, then an assistant pastor of the Cathedral parish in Crookston, and Jerry Noesen, then a seminarian from the same parish, were returning from Camp Columbus in the Black Hills.
They had both worked at that camp in different years and were discussing camps and camping programs. Father Bill mentioned a dream camp that had been kicking around in his mind for some time. It would be a program in real wilderness country for older campers – high school age and beyond – and would feature an extensive canoe and boating program.
The more Father Bill talked, the more excited Jerry got and by the time they reached Crookston the two had put together a fairly complete picture of a camping program they were both itching to put into operation. They had even decided to call it Laketrails, but so far, it was just an exciting dream.
Then, in August of that year Father Bill was asked by Warroad pastor Father Emmett Shanahan to take his place in offering Mass on Oak Island in the Northwest Angle on the weekend. Father Bill suggested to Jerry that this would be a good opportunity to look over some big wilderness country for a possible campsite. Jerry agreed and they headed for Warroad with growing expectations.
On the four hour boat trip from Warroad to Oak Island they got acquainted with boat Captain Eric Starren, who knew the lake country and its people. The pair pumped Eric for information and discussed some of their plans with him. He listened carefully and offered some of his impressions, but remained a little skeptical. On landing at the Bay Store on Oak Island, they encountered more old timers like Al Hanson, store operator, and Jim Gaffaney, a summer resident who owned a 52-foot cabin boat on the lake. They were also skeptical.
Their reservations were about adequate safety measures for a canoeing operation on such a large lake, and sufficient experience in a staff that would supervise such a program. They had had some previous experience with camping programs in the area that had become a burden to the people there and they wondered – out loud – if this was another unrealistic plan by overly enthusiastic and inexperienced people.
As the conversations went on and the plan unfolded, Al Hanson became interested enough to loan them a boat and motor and Father Bill and Jerry set out to explore Little Oak Island and other places that were for sale. They combed the entire shoreline of Oak Island checking out leads from Al and Jim.
The choice site turned out to be the raspberry-covered southwest tip of Oak Island, a 17-acre peninsula connected to the island by a magnificent sandbar, a perfect two-sided swimming beach the length of two football fields! The area had been a fishing camp, abandoned some years earlier by Booth Fisheries of Chicago. The buildings were in sad shape and the obsolete remains of net-tarring cauldrons and heavy engine blocks were scattered all over the waterfront. An old icing shack and one dock section lay collapsed offshore.
One useable building was the old cook shack which, at this writing, is the present mess hall. (This was replaced by a new dining hall in 1996.) It was a mess! Behind the main door lay a dead skunk. Behind another door, a porcupine had breathed his last. In a lean-to addition on the west end dead ducks lay on a dirt floor in what appeared to be some kind of stable. Live wood ducks were nesting in the chimneys and were quite perturbed by the intrusion. The windows were gaping holes without sills so the birds flew in and out freely. In fact, the sky could be seen through the roof in several places. And mice played gleefully in the walls and ceiling. Still, the layout of the area looked promising as Father Bill and Jerry envisioned what it could be.
On returning to Crookston, Father Bill began negotiations with Booth Fisheries, having discussed his dream with Bishop Schenk and Father Leonard Weber, C.Y.O. director, who were enthusiastic about the project. Dr. Hecklin, a veterinarian from Crookston, loaned the $3,000 to obtain the property, a total of 139 acres, 122 of which were on Oak Island proper. So, in October, Father Bill contacted Jerry at St. John’s Seminary and told him, “We got the green light! Start planning!”