Adventure Articles
Art Madsen's Snowshoe Baby


Helen Sue on her first birthday. She began snowshoeing
before age one; possibly the youngest to learn to snowshoe.

Chris, Dinna, Helen Sue, Sandy, Chucky, Art, returned home by snowboat.

Summary Article Printed April 7, 2006
in the
Grand Marais Cook County News-Herald
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"Art Madsen's Snowshoe Baby" was published in the winter 2005-2006 issue of the
Boundary Waters Journal

Full story below.

Art Madsen's Snowshoe Baby


Helen Sue Manzo and Alesha Leanne Manzo.


Art Madsen (1904 – 2000) one of Quetico Provincial Park's original 16 rangers and a sworn officer of the law, helped lay the foundation of Quetico's vast 1,000,000 acre/600 lake park. Art patrolled various beats in the Quetico during the winter—averaging 1500 miles per winter on snowshoes. He captured two of Quetico's most notorious poachers: one which took Art three years to track then had to wrestle the armed poacher to the ground before arresting him. Art Lake lake in the north-eastern section of Quetico is named in Art's honor. Art lived an adventuresome, vibrant, long and healthy life. (For more on Art Madsen see Boundary Waters Journal fall 2000 issue "The Original Quetico Ranger" or “Adventure Articles.”) - (Direct link to story)

In 1931, Art Madsen established Sagonto, a wilderness resort on the Canadian side of Saganaga Lake, bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In 1946, at the age of 42, he married Virginia “Dinna” Clayton from Duluth, Minnesota, and most of their children were born after Art was in his 50's. One of their children, “The Snowshoe Baby” —dubbed by the media when the epic trek of Art's expectant wife Dinna and the birth of their daughter received international acclaim.

By January of 1956, Art and Dinna had three children aged six, five and two. Dinna was expecting their fourth child in approximately a week, Art decided Dinna needed to get “out” to the nearest hospital, which was in Duluth, where Dinna could stay with friends or relatives.

Back in 1956, the only means of communication they received was by mail delivery once a week, picked up five miles down the lake by another family on the lake using a dog team. Dinna stated, “In those days the only valid reason for a woman to leave the lake in the winter was if she had an abscess tooth or was ready to give birth.”

The first leg of the 180-mile trek to the hospital in Duluth would be to travel five miles over the frozen lake to The Gunflint Trail in cold January temperatures. From there she planned to meet the weekly mail delivery and get a ride “out” with the mail truck 66 miles away to the closest village of Grand Marais. If anyone needed to “go out,” the mail carrier, Don Brazell, was more than happy to accommodate any of his friends from Sag, as advance communication to schedule a ride was nearly impossible. In addition, the neighbors on this remote lake were ready and willing to help one another at a moment's notice. Once in Grand Marais, Dinna had planned to travel by bus to Duluth.

This would be an arduous trek under normal winter conditions, but that frigid January of 1956 with temperatures below zero, the area had a reported snow level of some 100 inches. The weight from the heavy snowfall caused the ice beneath to crack and water seeped onto the lake saturating the snow and creating deep, soggy and heavy slush. Freezing slush became a torturous obstacle for man, machines and dog teams. The trip five miles down the lake would be strenuous for any conditioned northerner, but for an expectant mother, it would not only be laborious, but could endanger both the mother and her unborn baby.

Dinna related, “In the winter time the very small cabin felt even more comforting than usual, especially as I was large with child number four, and not wanting to go 'out' to the hospital or to town. But Art was determined to get me 'out'.”

It was decided that Dinna would take their oldest child, six year old Chris, with her to Duluth. The other children, Sandy age five, and Chucky age two, were placed in the care of neighbor Charlotte Powell, who lived six miles north of the Madsen's. They had gotten word to Charlotte to arrange for her to take care of Sandy and Chucky while Art transported Dinna and Chris to the landing.

The previous day, Art had spoken with his neighbor Jock Richardson who lived a half mile away on the same island, to ask how the Model A (half track) was working. Art had hoped to use it to transport Dinna and Chris down the lake to meet the mail truck. Jock said as far as he knew it had been running good. (The half track was a winterized mode of transportation that Art and Jock built from a Model A Ford. Art related: “It had a double reduction gear in the lower end, so you could put a steel track on it. I kept that thing running for years—we even hauled logs with it. But with that double traction, the only thing that would buck it, was if you ran into slush on the lake and it was freezing hard—then the track would ice up, and the track would get so tight it would snap.”)

Snowshoeing, Art started out ahead of Dinna and Chris to travel over to Jock's to prepare the half track for the trip down the lake. There was slush in front of Art and Dinna's front shore, and they didn't want to chance the half track getting bogged down in the deep slush. So, they decided to start out from Jock's. Dinna said goodbye to Sandy and Chucky leaving them safely in the care of her close friend Charlotte. Then she and Chris fastened on their snowshoes and traveled the half mile to Jock's around the shore.

Art related, “When I went over to Jock's to get the half track the next morning, I found out it wasn't working. I discovered that a condenser had gone out on the ignition, and it took me a little while to come up with [a replacement] ignition.”

But “the rush was on,” for Dinna only had so much time to get down the lake to meet the mail truck, as Don Brazell would not be back until next week—near her due date!

Art recounted, “In the meantime, there was a fellow on Sag with one of those propeller-driven snow rigs with skis on, that we call a snowboat—similar to what they use in Florida in the Everglades. He offered to take us down the lake, but he said he could only go as far as the winter portage, as it was a little crooked on the portage, and it was hard for him to steer it in there. Also, the snowboat used aircraft fuel for the engine, and he was short on fuel. So, he took Dinna and Chris as far as the winter portage, and I would follow to take them the rest of the way as soon as I had the half track repaired.”

Dinna stated, “I bundled up Chris, and I was wearing everything I could, as it would be even colder riding on that snowboat. We'd have to wait at the winter portage for Art, but we'd get three miles, anyway. So, Chris and I rode with Vern Grover, who was from Duluth, to the winter portage. The seat in the snowboat was a wide plank that stretched about five feet across the boat. But the ice, slush and snow drifts had frozen into rough and jagged shards, and the air boat went very fast causing a sharp jar with every bump we hit. At one bump, we came down so hard that the plank seat cracked—it didn't quite break through, and eventually we did end up on the winter portage and gladly piled out.”

Dinna continued: “It was bitterly cold, and we were still two miles from the end of the road—the top of The Gunflint Trail. I had a hungry six year old to entertain—Chris was getting antsy about waiting.”

Dinna told him that she was going to start a fire to help them keep warm. Chris related to his mother how he had read that “the Boy Scouts could start a fire with just one match,” and challenged her if she could do the same. “I had to to prove that his very pregnant mom could do no less. The portage had birch trees and lots of dry tree branches, and I also found an old, dry stump that had dry chaff in the hollow middle. So, it was no time at all that the fire was blazing away with rocks to corral the fire. The fire cheered him quite a bit, but by then we were both hungry.” Dinna recalled.”


Art soon had the faulty condenser fixed—even in spite of working in the freezing cold with his bare hands. So, he started out to meet his wife and son, but quickly ran into slush! The area had nearly two feet of snowfall the night before, causing the lake to become very slushy. Even for the most experienced winter traveler, slush is often impossible to avoid. In the frigid temperatures, it quickly froze to the tracks and snapped them.

Art had seen Irv Benson go by with his dog team and knew that Irv, upon seeing Dinna and Chris on the winter portage, would offer them a ride. But, Art had Dinna's suitcases with him, and he needed to get them to her before the mail truck arrived. He would have to leave the half track and take care of it later that day. Art had his handmade-wooden toboggan loaded on the back of the half track along with his snowshoes. He unloaded the toboggan and his snowshoes, leaving Dinna and Chris' snowshoes in the half track, as he was certain they would have gotten a ride with Irv and would be at the mail-truck stop by now.

Strapping on his Michigan style snowshoes, he began the strenuous journey of slogging down the lake through the weighty slush. The slush was some of the worst he had seen, and it was as if he were lifting 20 pounds of lead with the heavy slush that froze instantly to his snowshoes with every step. Art carried a stick and had to continuously hit the sides of his snowshoes to dislodge the freezing slush.

Dinna, waiting at the winter portage, recalled: “Suddenly, we could hear someone coming with a dog team! It was our neighbor Irv Benson (who lived on the island behind us) with his team and sled. Irv had a load of furs to send out with the mail truck, and he informed us that the slush was very bad. Irv offered us a ride, but his sled had quite a load on it with his furs. At the same time, Art had just started out with the half track three miles away. I could faintly hear the half track's engine, off and on, as the wind would pick up the rumble and carry it around the islands and trees. I was confident that Art would be coming soon on the half track, so I declined Irv's offer. Irv then left with his dog team to catch the mail truck. Chris and I continued to wait.

Little did we know that the half track had thrown a track and was bogged down in heavy slush.”

When Art reached the winter portage, he was alarmed and quite distraught to find his pregnant wife and young son still out in the freezing temperatures. If Dinna had gone into labor, she would have been without any help—he was understandably concerned.


Art only had his snowshoes and it was such “tough going” that he knew it would be nearly impossible for Dinna to struggle through the thick slush the remaining two miles. Art, certain that Irv would have stopped and offered Dinna a ride, asked her why she had not gone with Irv and his dog team. Dinna replied, “Because I heard the half track running and knew you would be here shortly.”


Art had a small toboggan with our suitcases, but not our snowshoes. So, he tied his snowshoes onto me. In that deep slush I could only walk fifteen steps, then I had to rest and then start again. Our legs were so tired, and Art had to struggle along himself without any snowshoes, assist Chris and tow the toboggan as well. Art was plodding in the snow up to his knees, and Chris was following in Art's footsteps, and whining as he was sinking almost the entire length of his little, six year old legs.” recounted Dinna.


The baby kept moving, and Art was afraid that we were going to have it right there. I did my best to stay calm and focused by telling myself, 'Take it easy, but push onward. Hurry up, but go slow.”

They continued on, making slow progress, but somehow managed to complete two miles. Upon rounding the bend to the last stretch of ice, snow and slush, the landing was in sight. Irv Benson saw them heading his way, struggling through the deep snow and slush. Seeing their predicament, he hitched up his dogs again and came to meet them to transport them the last one-half mile for some reprieve. The mail truck still had not arrived; and for some unknown reason, it was way behind schedule.

Art said good-bye to Dinna and Chris at this point to return to the island and kids. He quipped, “All I had to do was snowshoe the five miles back home through that heavy slush!”

Dinna said, “Chris and I rode on Irv's dog sled to the mail truck stop. We greeted George Plummer and Charlie Cook. They were from Gunflint Lake, and were also waiting for the mail truck to arrive. We all stood waiting for the mail truck, but it was getting colder all the time, and there was no sign of it coming! And no place to sit and rest. After some time, George said they were going to drive over to Russell and Eve Blankenburg's on Seagull Lake to use the phone to find out what had happened to the mail truck. When George arrived at Blankenburg's, Eve told him that she had already called and the mail truck would not be making it up The Trail that day for there had been a 17” snowfall on The Gunflint Trail. Neither the mail truck nor the snowplow made it up The Trail that day. When George informed her that I had come down the lake to get out to Duluth, Eve invited me to spend the night at their place. So, George came back to take Chris and me to Blankenburg's,” said Dinna.

Dinna continued, ”Somehow, George was able to get his car through those rough and icy, dirt roads to Blankenburg's on Seagull. It had been a long day. We had started out at 8:00 a.m., and it was nearly 5:00 p.m. when we arrived at Blankenburg's cabin. Eve greeted us warmly and had dinner ready for us. We spent the night in a little 8 x 10 cabin, while Eve and Russell stayed at a cabin nearby. There was a small, wood heater in our cabin, and Russell had the fire going to thaw out the cabin for us. I was still chilled, and that evening in an effort to warm up, I must have had a dozen quilts on me. But, each time the fire went out, it cooled off so quickly, I found my boots frozen to the floor!”

In case Dinna needed help during the night, Eve gave her a cow bell to ring to signal for assistance. There was a blasting wind that night, and Dinna did not need to ring the cow bell during the night, but needed to ring the bell the next morning, as Dinna could not open the door of the cabin. There was a snowdrift blocking the door on the outside due to the blizzard during the night—and the door was frozen shut.

As soon as I rang the bell, Eve came over on the double and got the door open,” Dinna stated. “Then Eve shoveled the trail over to their cabin before we went over for breakfast. The trail had drifted over about three feet deep.”

Eve called the county snowplow custodian to inquire when the snowplow would clear The Gunflint Trail that day. The road had already been closed for many miles the previous day. The custodian informed her that it may be two to three days before they could plow The Gunflint Trail.

Dinna said that Eve was a little nervous, and didn't want a maternity case on her hands, so Eve told the man, “My husband is one of the biggest taxpayers in the county, and we've got an expectant mother here, and we want to see that snowplow, today.”

When the snowplow finally made it to the end of The Gunflint Trail that day, Russell and Eve drove Dinna and Chris to Grand Marais following the snowplow on its return trip. They stopped in at Leng's Soda Shop (the hub in Grand Marais at the time) for Russell to use the phone.

Russell called Ade Toftey, the publisher/editor of the Grand Marais Cook County News-Herald and Eve related the story of Dinna's trek thus far. Ade Toftey jotted down the information and then sat down and wrote an article about Dinna's strenuous journey down the lake by foot, snowshoe, snowboat, and dog team—then to Grand Marais and Duluth by car and bus, in order to get “out” and make her way to the hospital to deliver her fourth child.

The next morning, Dinna and Chris caught the Greyhound to Duluth. At the same time, Ade Toftey's article went out over the Associated Press wires, and newspapers from all over the country picked up the story. As soon as Ade's article hit the papers, it began to create a public stir. Readers from numerous states wrote to the papers to ask if the baby had been born. Also, hospitals in St. Paul, and Minneapolis, wanting to help, offered for Dinna to have her baby in the Twin Cities. Two gynecologists from Illinois, who spent fishing vacations at the wilderness resort earlier that year, invited Dinna to come and have her baby in Illinois, gratis. News releases and radio programs discussed which city Dinna should chose for the delivery of her baby.

But, Dinna, not wanting to travel any farther, decided to stay with friends in Duluth. The next edition quoted Dinna, “It's much better for me to stay here. Besides, it would not really be wise for me to keep on traveling.”

As the newspapers continued publishing stories and photos about Dinna and her six year old son Chris—covering his introduction and reaction to city life, his first experience attending a school classroom, etc.—public interest grew. In a letter Dinna had written to Art at the time, described, “Chris says 'Hi' to everyone he meets!” Dinna enrolled Chris in Bay View School's first grade: “Wilderness Mom's Son Spends 1st Day in School” It was reported: “Dinna had been tutoring her son at home (using Canadian correspondence lessons) and forwarding his work and tests to school officials in Toronto. Although he is 'up on his lessons,' he had never been inside a schoolhouse.”

Then Dinna's delivery day arrived! On February 6th, Dinna gave birth to a girl, Helen Sue. The only way that Dinna could notify Art of the birth of their new daughter was the interruption of a radio program of which he would be monitoring every morning at 7:00 a.m. Dinna contacted KDAL in Duluth, and the message was delivered over the Eddy William's Program (a country music program that played callers' requests). Art was listening in his cabin on Saganaga, and heard the announcement over the radio that all was fine, and Dinna had given birth to a baby girl!

Dinna had now become known as the “Mushing Mother of the North,” and at the birth of her daughter Helen Sue, Jim Klobuchar of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sent the story (which had been mounting in the press) and the announcement of the birth of Dinna's daughter, over the International Press wires. Helen Sue was dubbed forever after as “The Snowshoe Baby.”

Art and Dinna received mail from around the globe congratulating them on the birth of their daughter and asking many questions about their wilderness life. Numerous articles with variations on the trek were sent to Art and Dinna with titles such as: “By Dog Team, Snowshoes: Expectant Mom Mushes Way to Village”; “Baby's Birth Near, Mother Treks Across Wilderness to Doctor”; “Everything From Snowshoes to Bus 'Outruns' Stork.”

The mayors of Grand Marais and Duluth presented Dinna and her new-born baby with a number of gifts, some of which were winter toys for the older siblings and hand made, baby snowshoes for Helen Sue. Dinna was given credit for “putting Grand Marais on the map.”

Art had written to Dinna on February 12th, 1956, planning the details of her return to the lake:

Dear Dinna, Chris, Frank and Emma,

Here I am again after reading all your mail. I went down with Jock and the snowmobile yesterday, the piston came for [the] snowboat. So I'm going over to put it in this morning. Then I'm running Jock down as he is leaving today. I started up his truck down there yesterday, hard to start after sitting so long. I'll be hauling the mail while Jock is away, so I'll be there Saturday mail time 1:30. I'm sure Don would bring you up from Grand Marais if you phoned him... Charlotte will be at Jock's. So if [you are] coming sooner than Saturday [the] 18th, phone Superior Airways [in] Fort William [now Thunder Bay], so I can meet you. I'm glad you had a local doctor...

Well, I've got to get along and fix that engine. Oh, yes, the kids get a bath once a week whether they need it or not. So long for now, and will be seeing you, I hope.

Art, Sandy, Chucky

P.S. Got snowboat going. Caught trout and two northern—why not come up, Frank, over Sunday?” [Dinna had been staying with friends Frank and Emma Lighthizer before and after the birth of her daughter.]

After much ado from the media and television interviews, Dinna began her return trip to her wilderness home and family. Art, using Jock's snowboat, traveled down the lake with Sandy and Chucky to meet Dinna, Chris and his new daughter. Reporters had followed to request interviews with Art. Art stated, “Those news hawks weren't going to get me!” At last, Art transported the family the five miles over the frozen lake to the refuge of the peace and quiet of their island home.

In subsequent years, the Snowshoe Baby story would resurface through the media from time to time, by way of newspaper, radio and television coverage, chronicling Helen Sue's life: “Snowshoe Baby Goes to School”; “Snowshoe Baby, Born after Trek, to Marry Today” Helen Sue married Marco “Marc” John Manzo (Purser with Northwest Airlines) of Tacoma, Washington in February of 1974. The marriage announcement went over the Associated Press wires and Paul Harvey also announced it on his radio broadcast.


Then, in October of 1976: “Snowshoe Baby Has Baby.” KING 5 TV News (NBC) of Seattle aired an interview of Marc, Helen Sue and Dinna covering the October 16th birth of her first baby. Marco John Manzo III was born in their Sheraton hotel room in Spokane, Washington.

Ten days before her expected due date, Marc, Helen Sue, Art, Dinna and other family members, were staying at the hotel in Spokane. Helen Sue went into labor and they prepared for the 50 minute flight to Tacoma, where their doctor planned to meet them at the airport. Her husband called the airport to learn that fog at SEA/TAC delayed their flight, subsequently their plans were changed and they remained where they were. It was a short labor and her husband delivered their son, with the support of Dinna standing by. Marc immediately communicated with their doctor for any “post delivery instructions.” But, all was well, and Art (then 72) joined them soon afterwards to meet his first grandchild! They flew home the next morning. Later, news articles arose: “Stork Waits for Snow, But Not For Fog.” Marc and Helen Sue also have a daughter Alesha Leanne Manzo who was born at home (as planned, whom Marc also delivered as the midwife arrived late) in February of 1981.

Several times throughout the years, Paul Harvey would tell various stories about Art and Dinna and the Snowshoe Baby account. Ade Toftey, the publisher/editor of the Cook County News-Herald received “The Story of The Month Award” from the Associated Press. He also received a letter of commendation from a professor of journalism at UMM who had been using Ade's story of the Snowshoe Baby in his classes. He said that Ade's story was a perfect example of one that needs no editing. In 1991, in a tribute to Ade in the Cook County News-Herald, the paper stated that throughout his 40-year career, his all-time favorite story was Mrs. Art Madsen's epic journey.

The “Snowshoe Baby” had a career as a court reporter and then “retired early” at the age of 27, to be a full time mother and to educate her children at home, allowing her family the flexibility to be able to assist Art and Dinna at their wilderness resort. Consequently, Marco and Alesha have spent almost one third of their life growing up at Sagonto, and grew very close to their grandparents.

Later, Helen Sue taught music theory to children at the University of Puget Sound through the Community Music Department. Then until the fall of 1999, she taught private piano lessons to 40 students each week with 40 students on a waiting list, with her daughter Alesha teaching these students music theory. In their teens, Alesha and Marco were city and state representatives in classical piano. Her daughter (24) is also a registered piano teacher. And her son (28) who has trained in flight, obtained his instrument rating and multi-engine license.

Each year since Marc and Helen's marriage, they, and later their children, have assisted Art and Dinna in operating their wilderness resort. Art died eight days before he reached 96 years of age in July of 2000. Dinna, now 83, is still at the resort on Saganaga Lake during the summer months. After the death of Art, Marco moved to the island to assist his grandmother Dinna full time—where he is following in his grandfather's footsteps and has found his home in the wilderness.

Five miles across that lake—it's a piece of cake in September. It wasn't like that in January of 1956. That was an adventure, that's for sure. But it is never as beautiful as it is in the middle of winter,” Dinna stated. From time to time, Dinna still has people stop her in Grand Marais to ask, "Are you the lady who had the Snowshoe Baby?

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