Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Superior Christmas

They say there’re only two seasons in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: winter and a couple of days in late July.  That may or may not be, but illustrates the legendary status of winter around the Superior basin all the same. 

Flush with youthful enthusiasm, I once proclaimed to an aged local my desire to live on the range. His grey watery eyes narrowed. He took a long hard look at the kid then replied, “Well…pretty nice up here. Winter’s kinda long, though.” This from a man who for the duration of the season kept a baseball bat handy to dissuade porcupines eagerly working over accumulated salt from chewing through the brakes lines of his car.

Undaunted by tall tales or the skepticism of old men, Heather and I thought to see for ourselves. Christmas is for family but this once we’d go off to create a living gift for just the two of us. A friend of a friend had cabins for rent along the Montreal River and arrangements were made.

Excited at the prospect of seeing familiar sights radically altered by the season, we compiled a mental list of things to see and do. We rode our old Subaru wagon, which modest ride nevertheless possessed a robust four-wheel drive and having previously driven it without incident along abandoned railroad grades, winter gave us little pause.

Our cabin was rustic, cozy and warm. A vintage outbuilding as I remember it; long converted, nestled in the woods outside Ironwood with a Finnish sauna onsite and a waterfall on the river for added ambience. We were the only tenants for the duration and game for adventure.

A frozen waterfall is an incongruous thing, a frozen moment of current in motion transported out of time. Being inexorable, current finds ways to travel downstream under the ice, around it, over it, through it. The mineral content of the Montreal River made our picturesque little falls look like a root beer float.

Accompanying photos are from vintage 35mm images captured during our Christmas adventure

Snowshoes were provided for use of guests. At first it was tough to find a proper gait, what with oversized tennis rackets strapped to our boots, but once you figure it out they’re a damned sight better than tromping your way through knee-high snow with who knows what hidden beneath. Temperatures headed lower and we set off downriver beside the Montreal, through skeletal trees over snow covered ground. Apart from the occasional deer track, we blazed trail. Before too long, Heather returned to the comfort of the cabin. I pressed forward alone, exhilarated.

Though evening in the woods is exquisite any season, the blue half-light forest of winter leaves its mark. I hiked a fair piece until near full dark then lingered upon a log, listening to the trickle of water over ice, the only sound in the world. In time I returned to the cabin, path plain by the river through the woods, moonlight shimmering over all. High time for a sauna.

Finns settled across the UP during the 19th Century, drawn by promises of “streets paved with gold”, which as it turned out meant work in the mines. When those played out the Finns stayed. Many built farms and some prospered but most ended up as rock farmers -- a hard, unyielding land being one reason that today the basin is dotted with abandoned farmsteads. The ‘Yooper’ accent, pasties and Finnish saunas stayed too.

Our sauna sat maybe 100’ across pure winter from the cabin. Inside, tongue & groove cedar made for a tight seal and benches lined the room. A thick metal basket filled with Lake Superior cobbles adjoined a fireplace, already well stoked. A bucket sat next to a spigot. We got properly naked, poured water over hot rock to raise the temperature beyond steady reckoning, then indulged in the physical and spiritual cleansing properties of abundant sweat.

Tradition dictates a roll in the snow upon leaving a winter sauna. Once done with the heat, I left my shoes and clothes for Heather to carry and stepped naked out into the universe of ice beneath the stars. Snow to my calves, breath hanging in the frigid air, I hurled myself onto the snow and rolled over exactly once, amongst the most deliriously bracing movements of my life.

Then I yelled, “Goodness gracious!!” or words to that effect and beat Heather back to the cabin.

We bundled together to sit awhile, gazing at the picture postcard outside our window. The next day was Christmas Eve. We slept like contented children, secure in the knowledge that whatever gifts winter had in store for us, we’d begin receiving them in the morning.

Snow depth is inconsistent in the forest and travel proved easy. We found our favorite lake asleep beneath a blanket of white then pressed deeper to a high vista over trackless wilderness and a creek that meanders through a tamarack swamp. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to go down there and once hiked alone into those woods to see what could be seen, only to become temporarily bewildered, which is a technical term for “lost” and another story altogether.

The top of the ridge was covered with otter tracks and at its edge snow was tamped to a bright sheen. From there a well worn slide ran all the way down the precipitous hill and across the frozen creek below, ending in a black hole of open water in the ice. Thick waterproof fur covering layers of insulating seasonal fat, a pair of otters had been amusing themselves by climbing up that hill, frolicking around and then sliding back down all the way to that hole in the ice.

Lacking the otter’s fur coat and layers of winter fat if not their sense of play, we soon left them to their games atop that windblown ridge.

Our next stop was the mouth of the Presque Isle River at Lake Superior. County 519 was plowed and clear but at the South Boundary Road such industry ended, unbroken snow on the road into the park proving that no one had recently preceded us. Icy crust scraped the undercarriage of the car as we made our way in to where a trail leads down to the falls.

What a sight awaited us at the bottom!

All was ice and snow, a world frosted over in white. The river ran high and roily, most of it pushed angrily beneath a shifting, groaning ceiling of ice. Never had we seen treachery and beauty so freely interwoven. A dangerous river along its lower reaches, the Presque Isle that day invited disaster, as even the slightest misstep would mean certain death and burial at sea.

We explored thoroughly, ever careful of our step. The hour grew late. As we hiked back up to our car the wicked cold and bitter wind increased its grip on a wild world. Light flurries turned to moderate snow. No sooner did we make it out of the park and onto County 519 than the car balked and coughed, still deep in the wilderness and seventeen miles from the nearest phone with winter bearing down hard.

We were reasonably well prepared, the backseat piled high with city folk winter clothes just in case. This was in the days before cell phones but even today those don’t always work so well on the far side of the hard rock hills. And a forced hike through a nighttime blizzard is an uncertain endeavor under any circumstance.

Though the car grew worse with every passing mile, we limped all the way to Ironwood. Then, late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, smack dab in the middle of the region’s only truly busy intersection, the little Subaru sputtered and died. No amount of coaxing made it start again.

We stood beside our car in the street, feckless and perplexed. The temperature continued to plummet as the wind grew stronger. A State Trooper stopped traffic and helped get us out of harm’s way. Then he stayed with us while we tried to come up a plan. Time was short, with slender services shutting down by the minute, as people went home for the holiday.

Heather and I worked the phones amidst a steady stream of last minute shoppers in front of the local Kmart. A car dealer in Hurley stayed open late to provide a tow. A used car lot with the only rentals on the range stayed open until Heather could secure the single taxi that worked the area. Strangers stopped to offer help and advice. Everyone bent over backwards to see that we’d be safe.

In the mechanic said he’d never seen a carburetor so badly frozen. Somewhere along the way I’d purchased fuel with excessive moisture content and the brutal weather proved more than our old car could withstand. Once thawed they’d fix it, though with the holiday on a weekend that wouldn’t be ‘til three days later, when we were due back to our jobs in the city and a full day after our cabin was spoken for by others. Still, everyone agreed that had the car died just an hour before it did, there was no telling how or whether we’d have made it out of the woods alive.

Heather pulled up driving a well used mid-seventies land yacht, a lifeboat to us. With best Christmas wishes all around, we guided the beast back to our cabin. After telling our tale of woe to our host, he offered us the comfort of his mother’s home for Sunday night as she was away for the holiday.


We’d made reservations at a local ski lodge for Christmas dinner. Warm in the cabin and bathed in relief over a narrow escape, we made ready for our big date. Outside, the weather deteriorated even further.

In the woods it’s sometimes tough to tell just how bad the weather is. A forest acts as a windbreak, trees catch their share of rain or snow and shelter might be found beneath the canopy. Full dark when we left our cabin, we’d traveled only a mile out onto blacktop when we realised exactly where we were, which was again adrift. This time in seventeen degrees below zero with a forty-five mile an hour wind hurling snow every which way across a howling world of fury.

Out on the highway visibility proved all but nil. Then the red glow of brake lights flickered through the white and we came to a halt. A car had come down off a hilly side road and slid across the highway. The resultant four car pileup had the road completely closed. Emergency crews were at the scene. We sat and waited, gleaning the story off local radio, land yacht rocking side to side in the wind.

Time for discretion to be the better part of valor, I doubled back across the closed highway to pick my way through side streets towards Hurley, hoping to find someplace open for a suitable Christmas Eve dinner.

Walter’s Café in Hurley was one of the periodic attempts to bring fine dining to the range. It probably did fine business in peak times, but fancy eats are expensive and outside the reach of many locals, so such places don’t much last. Today the site is home to an antique/resale shop, more suited to the traffic that passed its door. But on that memorable Christmas Eve, Walter’s Café served as welcome haven for two weary travelers who enjoyed a meal of which Walter should forever be proud.

When we left the Café, a full moon hung in the sky south of Hurley and just to the north roared the Arctic. The Superior snow machine was on full bore and outside the woods the demarcation between comfort and risk stood plain in the night. We returned to our cabin and spent the last of Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire, music of the season playing softly, a bit of fine wine and gifts exchanged between us while outside, winter raged.

If the most precious gift is that of giving and Christmas is the special season for that, then we were made rich indeed that Christmas Eve. In the very best tradition of the northwoods, no one is a stranger in time of need and all folk are neighbors, never more so than when thrown to the mercy of the wilderness.

And two hapless tourists could hardly have been more grateful for a gift so selflessly given.


  1. When the name Frank Hutton fires some lonesome synapse, I always remember rich language and a colloquial wisdom that is no longer common in my world.

    Thanks for sharing the experience in the way only you do...

  2. These days it sometimes feels more like misfiring synapses… Thanks Stan. Your attention and kind words are greatly appreciated.