Thursday, October 27, 2011

Northwoods Autumn Festival

My home town is Bessemer MI. I’ve never lived there but my maternal family roots go back 120 years in the place, it was there that as a child I first saw the Northern Lights from the back window of my Uncle John’s house and the Gogebic Range is where I’ve felt most at home. So I claim it with no less authority than if I were born there and dare anyone to say I can’t.

Along the way I’ll tell you the story of Bessemer, which is complex. But not today. On the weekend of October 1st the sun shone bright upon the Range and Pumpkin Fest went off with nary a hitch…though the helicopter guy never showed so the helicopter rides didn’t either.

I suppose Pumpkin Fest is Bessemer’s celebration of both harvest and Halloween, the latter held a month early. That’d be because Monday’s forecast calls for 45°. Folk will be wearing gloves, which means you can’t lick your fingers and that makes it tough to enjoy your sno cones, which (apparently) go all the way back to the Roman stinkin’ Empire. I read it on the Internet so it must be true.

Among the delights at Pumpkin Fest was a horseshoe tournament held down by the VFW, an antique tractor pull and a pie social. Abelman’s Department Store, where they’ve been selling quality goods since 1887 with attendant service you’ll never find at the Wal-Mart, held a sale. A pumpkin seed spitting contest was met and won. And of course there was food. Taken together, the sort of day many are familiar with only from old movies, if at all. The sort of day our corporate media delivery machine would treat as quaint while obliquely snickering at the rubes. Cynicism being the order of our day, as it helps keep the rubes in line.

When I arrived downtown, ventriloquist Dave Parker and Skippy already held a crowd of costumed children rapt. I first thought to show you pictures of these kid’s faces because they’re a treasure, but the Internet is no small town newspaper and I’ve no business plastering kid’s faces across it so Mr. Dave and Skippy will have to do:

I went over to the pie social at City Hall. Admission was cash on the barrelhead if you intended to eat pie, free to merely socialize. The table of pie stretched 40 feet or more, the auditorium was packed and the place bristled with anticipation. I was just in time to capture this:

I must be allergic to pie because my eyes misted over, so I went back out into the sun to clear them. In the grand American tradition, two members of the local Tea Party had a table set out on the street, taking their personal politics to the public square. Business was scant, beaten to Hell by sno cones.

Though popular movements on both extremes of our political spectrum currently dominate the news, that table served as reminder that our retail politics have shifted from the street to the Internet and social media, where we gnash the dry kernels of our myriad grievances 24/7. We need never face our neighbor in disagreement, need never consider dissenting opinion. That means too many of us now try to remake our community in our own proprietary image, taking little account of our neighbors.

We ought treat this newfound digital liberty with better care, as each of us sitting alone venting our miseries into the ether means we’re free to neglect what it means to be a neighbor.  And regardless of intention, in such isolation we end up working against our community’s greater health.

No matter what you choose to believe, that’s no way to teach those children on that stage how to be either a good neighbor or a good citizen.

Anyway, some days are just to celebrate who we are and at least at Pumpkin Fest, most folk paid politics and its attendant grievance no mind. The autumn sun was brilliant. Kids laughed and skipped and sang. Adults proudly embraced their community, while Dave Parker with his goofy songs and invariably creepy sidekick Skippy held children of all ages in happy thrall.

Though I never did learn why the helicopter guy didn’t show, and me having set ten bucks aside for to purchase a bird’s eye view…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

King Copper -- Prelude

There are any number of fine scenic drives around the Superior Basin: the Covered Road in Houghton County MI, Brockway Mountain Drive out on the Keweenaw, the ride up the Nipigon Palisades in Ontario and (while we’re there) the entirety of Trans-Canadian Highway 17 across the north shore of Superior all the way from Sault St. Marie to Thunder Bay, which is bordered by wonders on every side pretty much its entire length. We’ll not be taking those last two until next spring, as winter is bearing down and Mrs. Hutton didn’t raise any fools.

My favorite drive is the 24 miles or so of two lane blacktop named South Boundary Road that runs up and down and all around through splendid woods from the Park Headquarters of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness to the Presque Isle unit on the western edge of the park. It’s what you call “Seasonal”. That is it’s not plowed so in winter you travel it at your own risk. Like every other day I suppose, but more so.

To get there off the Gogebic Range, head out of Wakefield onto the slender ribbon running all the way to Marquette but instead hook a quick left onto County Road 519 to leave all that behind. In Thomaston -- which lost its post office in 1926 but was once a happenin’ place -- take a second left and you’re headed straight north into mostly nothing but a waving ocean of trees until the Presque Isle River falls out from the southeast to greet you. Then north becomes relative and after a bit you meet up with the aforementioned South Boundary Road. Along County 519 lies today’s story.

We’ve dug copper in the region for better than 5,000 years and times being tough, we’ve returned to take some more. A company named Orvana intends to dig a mine between the Black and the Presque Isle River, out in the woods near the shore of Superior. They call it “Copperwood”, designed to sound like a bucolic subdivision but reachable only via County Road 519. Fourteen years the job creators say, they’ll pound copper from hard rock and make the region worth something again. Sell the treasure on the open market so American firms can bid for our copper against the Chinese or whomever. Create jobs. Make some money. Fourteen good years maybe more, to help reinvigorate our community. Win win.

On the last day of September, a group of people got together at the Wakefield Twp. Hall. The mood was celebratory, the way it is when folk gather to slap themselves on the back for a job well done. Turns out, Orvana will contribute something less than a quarter of the $3.5 million it’ll cost to convert 519 into an industrial service road, which meager percentage was sufficient for all involved to tout the virtues of public/private cooperation, even despite 75% of the tab being left to you and me. Giddy with enthusiasm and as reported by the Ironwood Daily Globe the next day, State Senator Tom Casperson took the opportunity to exclaim: “Let’s put our people to work and let’s not accept people telling us that we’re ruining the environment. We won’t accept that.

…Together, they can’t stop us.”

They? Who the Hell is they?

The legacy of mining litters the Superior Basin like fallen leaves in autumn. From ancient copper pits on Isle Royale east to Sault Ste. Marie, which canal was dug so we could haul riches away from the place, northwest from there to the copper, gold and platinum around Marathon Ontario, southwest to the famous Wasabi Iron Range in Minnesota, across to my home turf of the Gogebic Range and finally back to the proposed Copperwood on the western edge of the Keweenaw Fault where famous mines once sprung up atop ancient pits. We’ll not escape the legacy of mining along our scenic drive and will have ample opportunity to decide for ourselves what that’s meant to the region and how it continues to inform the culture. At any rate, County Road 519 isn’t where we’ll make the case either way, as it’ a done deal.

I just wanted you to know that even before final permits for the mine have been let, work on the road has begun and is scheduled for completion in 2013.

So if you'd prefer to drive Michigan County 519 before heavy equipment rules the road and see this:

which will bring you to this,

which after a short distance ends here,

then you’d best take the opportunity sooner rather than later, ‘cause all the way from Wakefield right up to the South Boundary Road, County 519 is about to be remade into something altogether different and “they” won’t stop it.

King Copper is accepting no less.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Eagles (Almost) Dare

Along this winding route we’ll spin some tall tales, meet people past & present who lend the region its complex cultural character and even tell a few animal stories for good measure ‘cause animals by far outnumber people here and always have. I thought we’d start with a tale that features all three.

Let’s get this out straightaway: I’m a fisherman and many of my own stories in the woods came about because I fish. I realize that makes me a barbarian to some. I’m also a ‘catch & release’ fisherman, which means meat hunters often take me for crazy. The stories aren’t about fishing. They’re about the moment because fishing brings me to rare places at exquisite hours and in that combination you sometimes experience extraordinary things. These days, field photography does that too.

On with the story:

While fishing you meet fellow fishermen and though you mightn’t ever learn their names, over the seasons you come to know them passing fair. It was on the Black River beneath Rainbow Falls that I met the only genuine woodsy I’ve ever known to talk to.

The forests around the Superior Basin are vast and rich. You can live in and off of them, provided you’re of a mind to and are sufficiently skilled because when lacking those skills all you’d do is die and pretty quickly too. It’s a hard life full of peril but the personal rewards can be profound, as the rhythm of life in the woods is sublime. My woodsy acquaintance was a youngish man. Known around town, I later learned that he’d come in during the worst of winter, take a cheap apartment or maybe bunk with a friend and do odd jobs by way of barter for his keep. Then, with the first hint of winter giving way and deep snow still a challenge for most everyone else, he’d return to where he was comfortable, to be seen the rest of the year only through chance encounters in the woods.

I met him because occasionally we’d chase salmon from opposite sides of the Black, which is narrow down from the falls. I mostly took the easy route from the tourist’s parking lot while he was nearly always on the opposite bank, having come down the hard way from out of the woods. For the first couple years it was a nodding acquaintance but when watching a man fish over time you gain at least some idea of his outdoors ethos and hence his character. We grew comfortable in each other’s presence.

This man would land a Chinook salmon and then milk the fish in a slack water pool, spilling milt or spawn to help the fish complete the mission of its life and assist in the continuation of the fishery. Then he’d dispatch the beast and secure it inside the worn canvas Duluth Pack he always carried, once a northwoods necessity and not so often seen these days. The effectiveness of midwifery for a non-native species is uncertain, but no meat hunter I’ve seen before or since has shown such tender concern for the resource he harvests. I was and am impressed.

I hooked a Coho Salmon, another non-native species until recently stocked in great numbers by the Michigan DNR. It turned downstream through a rocky run, rolling across the top of the shallow water against the pull of my line. From out of nowhere a Bald Eagle swooped in and with outstretched talons tried to snatch the fish. I cried “Jeez!” (or something similar) and yanked back hard on the line. The eagle missed its prey, glided up to a tree not 30 feet above the river and from there stared intently while I landed and released the salmon.

At the time, eagles in the northwoods were rare. I was stunned and delighted to have such a close encounter.

From the other side of the river, the woodsy caught the occasional chub, a fat river minnow and common forage fish that grows to decent size. He landed another and called out softly “Watch this.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The 51st of these United States

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has long been treated as the suspect cousin with special skills who only gets his seat at the family table for so long as his skills are needed and when they’re not his invitation gets somehow lost in the mail and everybody happily eats without him. But let some war effort require iron, or the price of copper rise and the mosquitos of outside interests swarm the place like it’s the first warm blood of the season.

When not being exploited for its “inexhaustible” resources, the region is mostly ignored by the State Capital in Lansing and periodically some local will launch a campaign for the U.P. (as it’s known) to secede from the State of Michigan and become the State of Cloverland, which is a terrible name for a State, or the State of Superior, which isn’t.

To look at a map, the Upper Peninsula is no part of Michigan at all, connected only by the Mackinac Bridge. If that disappeared into fog roiling the Straits of Mackinac the only thing bordering the U.P that isn’t Lake Superior would be Wisconsin, who had her chance to claim this land but didn’t much want it then and can’t have it now. The late John Voelker, a splendid writer and Michigan Supreme Court Justice said “The best thing that could happen to the U.P. would be for someone to bomb the bridge”. Judge Voelker was no one’s fool though if uttered today his thoughts on the Mighty Mac might earn the good judge a visit from the Department of Homeland Security right quick.

Wisconsin shills herself as the Northwoods with supper clubs, family resorts, fishing guides and shops that hawk “genuine” Indian moccasins to tourists, but to cross the Mississippi watershed divide is to leave all that behind and enter a world apart. Then those roads that lead to resort woods down below become fire lanes and logging roads leading mostly to nowhere but more woods. A place of long shadow, hard rock and forest so deep it’s a national treasure in need of preservation and a towering resource crying out for harvest, depending.

The Northwoods is a tough, glorious place with a checkered past. To look at it today you wouldn’t think that not so long ago as the raven flies damned near every tree in the Upper Peninsula was cut down. Or that cougar and wolves were trapped out. Eagles nearly gone too and in my lifetime. Or that the ridges now dressed in autumn’s finest were crowned by dozens of mines that threw smoke to the sky, while stamp mills pounding stone to separate copper from poor rock shook the earth like giants walking. And the towns that grew to support the industry, towns with names like Iron Belt and Bessemer, these swarmed over with immigrants who brought their own customs, which were made new in a new place. Notably, those included the Finns with their saunas and the Cornish with their pasties and thank goodness for both.

You’d never guess the region was honeycombed by rails that led all the way to places like Chicago. Now the tracks are mostly gone, rails recycled, grades converted to snowmobile trails or let to go fallow. Marquette, the biggest city in the U.P., can only be reached by two-lane. Just last week Frontier Airlines announced its intention to cease air service to the Gogebic/Iron County Airport as of next March, ensuring yet further isolation. And so it goes.

I was talking to a man and his wife, who live on a splendid spit of land they rightly call their own. He said It’s right there in the deed. I own the land but don’t own the minerals beneath it. Some mining company owns those. They can come and put me off my own land for ‘fair market value’. A friend told me that’s true of most everyone up here who owns some piece of God’s green earth. Are they squatters on their own land?  Tenant Farmers who don’t farm? Whatever the word or phrase, it’d be particularly American you betcha.

One thing’s certain: it can’t be “landowner” either. Not when some company has preemptively partnered with the government in order to put you off your own land by writ as needs might arise. And it’s not like the mining company pays these folk’s property taxes either. Which would seem only fair, considering.

I suppose that’s emblematic of the central dilemma we’ll explore together over the next year, when we’re not otherwise telling tall tales and having fun in the woods. These folk who live in splendid isolation, who sustenance hunt and fish, who burn wood and propane for heat, who invariably wave to you after you’ve given them wide berth with your car as they walk the gravel shoulder of two-lane blacktop, these people have always just wanted to be taken as what they honestly are. They’ve long since earned that respect and deserve no less, for past services rendered.

Instead they just keep being taken. By outsiders who don’t live here permanent and never could.

Along the Underwood Grade, Gogebic County, MI