Bill Cooper, also known as Wild Bill, came into Willow River back in the 1960s and put the little community on the map. Cooper bought the Squirrel Cage bar, and people packed into the place when he was serving as the bartender. He was full of stories, one of the people interviewed said in the movie, “Wild Bill’s Run,” that was shown at the Lake Theater last Wednesday and Thursday nights.
But Cooper’s biggest claim to fame and what put Willow River on the map was a 5,500 seven-man snowmobile trip from Forest Lake to Moscow in 1972 and 1973. The men endured harsh conditions on the trip. In addition to the 70 below zero temperatures and high winds, the group had to deal with snowmobiles never intended to run in the harsh conditions, let alone pull sleds piled down with supplies. They ran out of food, and they ran out of gas. At one point they had to sleep with their rifles at the ready; they had seen signs of a fresh kill by a polar bear.
And they had to sleep side by side, zipped into sleeping bags not intended for Arctic temperatures. It was explained in the film that Arctic sleeping bags had been ordered but someone had switched them with three-pound bags and sold the Arctic bags.
“I’ll never sleep with a man again,” one of the men said in the movie.
The movie was a four-year project by Mike Scholtz of Wrenshall. His efforts earned him the Best Documentary Feature Award at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival earlier this year.
How did Wild Bill convince six other fellows to join him on such a trip?
It was explained in the movie by one of the fellows interviewed that he had a way about him. He could talk anyone into almost anything.
Bill’s dream was to go around the world on snowmobiles. In the book, “Trans-World One,” author Larry Dahlberg wrote: “Bill Cooper thought that there was something magic about making it around the world. He also thought it was amusing when anyone said that such a venture was absolutely, undeniably, without a doubt, nuts and impossible. He viewed impossibility as an irresistible challenge. When anyone suggested he was crazy for even considering such an undertaking, he’d laugh, saying that they were crazy for working eight hours a day behind the same old desk without ever exercising the freedom to pursue their dreams.”
Frank Larson of Sturgeon Lake was the Logistics Officer on the trips.
Larson and his wife, Marian, are interviewed in the movie, and tell about Wild Bill and the trip.
“He was a good friend,” said Frank.
But Larson also told of Bill’s escapades, and said that somehow he talked his way through some of the strict rules and regulations of the Canadian government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
He said that the group took fuel from fuel caches that were left by the Canadian Air Force.
“We were supposed to replace that fuel but I don’t think that was ever done,” he said.
After the trip ended in Greenland the second year, all hope of making it to Moscow and around the world died. It was said that it was thought that Cooper had run out of money. He managed to load his snowmobile on the plane that picked up the group, and it is now under the care of Bradd Mlaskoch in Willow River.
Cooper developed his life of crime when he turned to flying marijuana out of Mexico into the United States. Marian Larson said that he must have needed money.
I remember a vacant house between Sturgeon Lake and Willow River that mysteriously burned one night. The rumors were going around that Cooper had drugs stashed in the house and burned it intentionally when law enforcement officers got too close.
Wild Bill was blamed for other crimes, from the burglary of the Sturgeon Lake State Bank to being D. J. Cooper, who had jumped out of a plane in the West with $200,000.
Cooper disappeared, never to be heard from again. The Larsons believe that he is lying in a grave somewhere. He had family, and they haven’t heard from him.
The other theory is that he could be running around in Canada, still a step ahead of the law.
Good or bad, Cooper is Willow River’s claim to fame. And now that fame will be spread all over the world as Scholtz’s movie leaves on a worldwide tour.