As you pull into Grand Marais on Minnesota Highway 61, which snakes along the shoreline from Duluth to the Canadian border, after Harley's fish shack but before the American Legion hall, there's a grub stop right on Lake Superior called the Angry Trout Café. It's open only from May through October, when the co-op shopping, canoe-toting, ex-big-city types arrive in droves that outnumber the mosquito, Minnesota's unofficial state bird. George Wilkes and his wife, Barb LaVigne, run the place, and you'll find their teenage daughters, Marybeth, 17, and Martha, 14, working in the kitchen (making salads and washing dishes, respectively).
George, tall and lanky with wire-rimmed glasses, is a man of few words. He's deeply involved in town politics, an advocate of a moderate expansion of the harbor and increased fishing rights. He likes duck hunting, enjoys a good round of sporting clays with his daughters, and keeps his favorite fishing hole (where he often spots moose) a closely guarded secret.
For most of its history Grand Marais depended on logging, mining, trapping, and fishing, and although tourism pays the bills today, not everyone likes the change. For his part, George straddles the line: You won't hear him using the word environmentalist, but his actions suggest that he knows what it means to be one.
The herring served at the Angry Trout is caught by a neighbor, Harley; the wild rice is hand-harvested in northern Minnesota; the poultry and dairy come from an organic farm cooperative in southwestern Wisconsin; and the vegetable selection varies according to the harvest schedule of the community-supported agriculture outfit about an hour outside of town.
As you poke around the joint today, you'll notice that the chairs on the deck overlooking the water look a lot like old tractor seats; that's exactly what they are, the handiwork of the town blacksmith. Each indoor table is engraved with the name of the species of tree from which it was made (all local, all sustainably harvested). The entryway is paved with beach stones that Barb collected by hand.
The Angry Trout's metamorphosis from a dockside shack where Barb nuked hot dogs for boaters began in 1993, when George read The Ecology of Commerce, whose author, Paul Hawken, argued that businesses face three basic issues: taking (resources), making (goods, services, and money), and wasting (resources and money). Hawken's ideas made sense to George. He gave the book to Barb, and she thought so too.
A few winters ago, during the off-season, George started work on a book of his own. The Angry Trout Café Notebook, published in 2004, is a compendium of short profiles of the friends and neighbors who supply the café with products and services, philosophical musings on the culture of sustainability, facts about energy consumption and global warming, and enticing recipes.
"We strive not to be pretentious or elitist," George says. "We aim to provide quality food and service at a reasonable price while taking care of our environment and our community. That's just plain old good business practice." Wise as it may be, George's philosophy isn't necessarily what draws his patrons. On a recent Saturday evening, Doug Larsen, a patron from Minneapolis, was celebrating his birthday at the Angry Trout. The sustainability thing is nice enough, he conceded, but the real reason he comes back is much simpler: the trout chowder.
-- Laura Wright