Ronning’s Lake Carvings

It started in January with a local PBS show. I was trying to figure out a really good gift for a really good friend with a birthday in March. I often feel I’m a poor gift giver. It’s not a lack of generosity but that I forget to allow the time necessary for proper gift selection. I find I need that time to find something that both appeals to me and (more importantly) is a great fit for the recipient.

Part of my gift giving philosophy is that the gift should be something I’d almost rather keep than give away. I figure if it appeals to me, it should appeal to my (generally like-minded) friends. I’m not sure that logic always follows, but c’est la vie.

Anyway, I was watching PBS…

The show was about lumber in what we call “the Arrowhead” — that huge pointy bit of Minnesota that sticks out east over Wisconsin like an awning. It’s beautiful and mostly wild country. So much so we call it God’s Country. It’s truly one of the most peaceful beautiful places in the USA. Along the top of it, bordering Canada, is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a hugely popular recreation site where motors are prohibited.

The Arrowhead also has a large lumber industry that feeds both the paper making mills in the area and various lumber outlets for construction (or sometimes art). Part of the focus of that PBS program was on how the variability of demand, which is based on economics and trends (maple might be in one year but not the next), combined with the variability of the growing season and the need to project future tree growth, makes the lumber industry prone to boom or bust.

It was an interesting documentary about a wonderful part of the state. What’s important to my story, what really caught my eye, was the segment about Minnesota artist, Todd Ronning, and the bespoke wood lakebed carving he does.

Todd Ronning routing a lakebed (note handmade panel in foreground).
[Image is from the Making It YouTube video featuring Ronning.]

According to his website, back in 1991 he (like me) was pondering what to give for a birthday present and had the idea of carving a lakebed in wood. That turned into an extra-income side project that blossomed because it’s such a cool idea. In 2000 he quit his day job, and now this is what he does full-time. We should all be so lucky!

Part of what makes it doubleplus cool in my eyes is that he does it all by hand. The carving is all done with a hand router. No numerical control, no laser gadgets, no computers. Human hands and eyes. And wood from trees. Things that are real and that matter. The very soul of art.

There is variety in the kinds of art Ronning creates. The wall hangings are purely decorative, but he also makes tables and counters. Regardless, using a depth chart, he carves the lakebed into the central piece of wood. The deeper a given part of the lake, the deeper the carving. A reverse topological map.

He even constructs his own wood plaques from raw lumber. That’s why you get to pick what kind of wood you want (from his options: hickory, cherry, birch, and others). And why you can get the optional bark edges. Or an entire end or coffee table. (I wonder if he’s ever done a fancy doghouse?)

I was totally captivated. I inherited a love of maps from my dad, and anyone who has fished has learned to think about the structure of the lakebed.

And I knew exactly what I wanted to get for my friend!


She lived up in the Arrowhead for a time. I figured there might be a nearby lake she’d gotten to know. If so, a carving of that lake might make a very nice gift. I know she loved living up there and has great memories of it. (I think about moving up there myself sometimes.)

Without letting her know my scheme, I asked her some vague questions about when she had lived up there and, sure enough, there was a nearby lake. One that she’d even fished.

So, that’s what I asked Todd to make. Turned out awesome. Check it out:

[Click for 2738×3373 pixels version. (1.94 MB)]

I picked birch wood (with the optional birch bark sides) because birch trees remind me so much of my childhood — they seem very Minnesota to me.


I was so impressed I had to have one of my own. I knew exactly which lake I wanted. Lake Thompson, the Canadian lake my buddy “Scott” and I camped on and fished every summer for over two decades. [See Canadian Camping 1996]

Thompson is a seriously obscure lake in the middle of nowhere. No roads lead to it, not even close. It’s just over the border from the BWCAW, so to the south is mostly just forest. To the east is Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Southwestern Ontario, in general, is mostly wilderness.

There is a chain of lakes one can portage… maybe, depending on water levels and other conditions. Even when it’s possible, it’s not an easy portage. We used a Canadian flying service to get in and out on float planes.

Because Thompson is so obscure, there aren’t any convenient, let alone recent, depth maps. For example, “Scott” has a GPS app he bought that has detailed topographical maps that include most lakebeds. Most lakebeds. Not Thompson, though (or any of its nearby lakes).

Todd poked around the internet and found a scan of a hand-drawn one that looks quite old. And was probably created using fairly crude and low-resolution depth information:

[Click for 2600×1951 pixels version. (4.81 MB)]

I went so far as to contact several branches of the Canadian government to ask about resources unbeknownst to us. And let me just say, the Canadians are totally awesome. I used various of their webpages to contact three Canadian offices. All three responded promptly, gave me their best effort, and even engaged in a little back and forth about lakes, fishing, and Ronning’s Lake Carvings (because I’d told them why I was asking).

After so many dealings with American corporations, tech companies especially, it was astonishing, wonderful, delightful, refreshing to deal with people who took ownership and really tried. I was very impressed. Unfortunately, all three pointed me to the same map Todd had found. Apparently, it’s the one and only depth map of Thompson.

Todd obviously has that old-fashioned take-ownership spirit, too. He found the map and made it work by combining it with satellite photos of the lake (which, again because the area is so remote, aren’t as high quality as the ones of your neighborhood).

And it turned out absolutely awesome:

[Click for 3579×2513 pixels version. (1.36 MB)]

I went with birch again and the optional bark edging. I really do love birch trees. Aspens are very cool in their own way (and not related to birches), but there is something about birch bark that is extra special. You can make canoes from it. Or use it as paper.


I moved into this place after my divorce in 2003. Then other challenges happened. In search of peace and quietude I never hung anything on my walls, just left them silent and blank. A friend even commented on it once. It is a change for me. I’m usually one for visual clutter, one who wishes he had more wall space to hang things on.

I came to like my empty walls, but this lake carving deserved a spot of honor:

My one and only instance of wall art.

It also deserved a party so my friends could come over and check it out. A good time was had by all. And several weeks later, I still find myself sometimes just standing and staring at it. I know that lake, and there it is. I can even touch it!

§ §

If you’re looking for an extraordinary and unique gift for anyone who loves lakes, or rivers, or even bits of ocean, you couldn’t do much better than to get them a hand-done lake carving of their favorite lake.

Check out his website: Ronning’s Lake Carvings.

Or: download his brochure (PDF, 756KB).

Or watch this video from Making It, a YouTube channel about “artists, artisans and entrepreneurs” in Northern Minnesota:

Stay with wood, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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