Thursday, September 29, 2011

Autumn takes a hard turn…

I won’t do much of this diary sort of thing. As inherently egocentric as blogging might be, I don’t want this project to be about me any more than can be managed. But a friend told me that folk want to know who it is they’re reading and he’s probably right about that so I thought to share.

The low pressure system that for the last week sat stationary over the lower Great Lakes and brought miserable weather to the midsection of the country while spinning persistent showers up along the south shore of Superior has finally been nudged on, which is a good thing if for no better reason than that it’s weird for weather to ride from the east. The clouds that for days gently cloaked the tops of the Bessemer Bluffs greeted dawn this morning as fierce portents -- roiled, fractured and ominous. You didn’t have to pay really close attention in order to know the jig was up.

I began yesterday by canoeing one of my favorite lakes in the Ottawa National Forest and if I’ve ever spent a prettier morning there I don’t recall it. Overcast with just a hint of fog, the water was as glass and mirrored the colors of the forest that rings it.

The ripples you see on the surface came from my canoe. They radiated out across the entire lake. And either the yellows in the trees about fried the sensors on my Canon SLR toy or I’ve not yet figured out how best to use it. My guess would be the former, but in time we’ll find out.

Later in the day I packed in to the old mining town of Nonesuch and there found autumn in all its quiet splendor, yellow and red leaves dressing the hard black stone of crumbling foundations. Quietude unknown in any city. By the time I walked back out to the car I was warm and moist with sweat. It was a joy to scoop handfuls of ice water from the bottom of my cooler and dump it over the top of me. Did good work while there, I think. Though as is always the case with film you don’t find out you haven’t until it’s too late to do anything about it. Regardless, it was about as fine a day as can be had.

I suppose it’s true in all big sky country, but for most of us it’s rare to plainly see a season turn upon a single day and so it did today. By midmorning the breeze had picked up and the clouds began to spit. By afternoon the storm was full blown and it was 48 degrees, the wind a steady 20/25 mph from the NW with gusts I’d guess as high as forty. Ravens hung in the air like kites. Geese, for all their squawking persistence flew backwards trying to seek safe haven in a field, their big heavy bodies caught up in the wind. Trees roar, when bent so far.

It’s tough to tell just how much rain fell as it came in horizontal sheets. It can’t be enough as the region’s been locked in drought for a long time now but maybe there’ll be sufficient increase in the flow of the rivers so fish can finally come in from the big lake and do their autumn thing. Time for that grows short. As does time for everything that thrives this side of freezing.

The rain slackened with sunset and a great hole appeared near the horizon to the west. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”, they say. We’ll see. The weatherman can’t ever seem to get it right up here, maybe old sailors can. What’s true is that clouds still race across the heavens like 78rpm smoke in a 33 1/3 world. And if you don’t get the reference, that’s why God made Google.

I’m looking forward to roaming the woods tomorrow, as what leaves can fall will have fallen to cover the forest floor with fast fading brightness and everywhere it’ll be different than it was even just yesterday. No matter how bucolic some days may yet be, this place has today turned its face toward winter and there’s no going back.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Most Superior Place

Lake Superior is aptly named. The greatest freshwater sea in the world, like an ocean it makes its own weather. Around its basin is a vast wilderness that feeds from it -- a rich and ever changing necklace draped over the shoulders of a watery god and resolutely indifferent to all human concern.

Within an easy day’s drive of this wonderland live more than 20 million Americans. Most of these people are at least vaguely aware of its existence. Some have even seen it. Few know it well.

Those hardy folk who know it best are the ones that live in its embrace. It’s not an easy place to be. With but few exceptions, the towns are small and getting smaller by the year as populations age and the young folk leave, drawn to big cities by the siren song that promises excitement, opportunity and ease of living. What most of us might consider routine services are in this region often hard to come by or nonexistent. What most of us might consider poverty is commonplace. How many people do you know that burn wood to heat their homes in the winter?

These small towns are remnants of a robust past. At different times Voyageurs roamed the rivers and forests, taking furs. Lumbermen then cut those forests to the ground, with the magnificent hardwood and fabled pine used to build cities like Chicago and Detroit. Miners blasted and dug through long dangerous days to retrieve the iron and the copper that helped fuel an Industrial Revolution that led to the America of today.

Quintessentially American, these towns with names like Bessemer and Ironwood, Ontonagon and Grand Marias were settled by waves of immigrant workers from across Europe and beyond. And of course, before any of these were the Potawatomi, Ojibwa and Sioux, whose culture in this place long preceded white folk and whose culture in this place remains vibrant and provides for ancient echoes.

Over the next year I’ll explore the many facets of the Superior basin and you’re invited to come along. Whether you know and love this place, or have visited upon occasion, or if you’ve never come within 1000 hundred miles of the Superior shore, together (at least vicariously) we’ll come to know these people better whether by seeking them out and listening to their stories or by eavesdropping in their diners. I guarantee that if what you take from small town America is all that the media delivers, some of their views will surprise you.

We’ll slog through swamps, hike forests, paddle streams and lakes then take rest beneath the shade of a hemlock next to shining waters so blue it hurts the eyes to look. And together we’ll stand in awe on the Superior shore as night falls, the Milky Way ascends and the Northern Lights come to dance the night through.

It’s time to hit the road to see what we can see and maybe learn a bit along the way. Please feel free to ride shotgun -- that seat is reserved for you.