Monday, December 17, 2012

Notes From the Field...

Woodspur School, February 2012

Having now gone some 20 months without one, I'd like to say my absence from these parts during the next few weeks is me scoring a much needed vacation, but it won't be exactly that.

Yeah, I intend to take a day off here & there. But on a project like this there's much needs be done apart from making the blog, which in itself has proved quite the thing. For instance:

I scan 4x5 film on a Scitex scanner that in its day was commercial grade imaging gear. Now I fear for any possible repair of what's essentially obsolete equipment and have put off using it until I could scan the large format film in just a few sessions. That's why most of the 'Selected Fieldwork' is from 120mm. 

It's time for me to work on what I love best. Should the scanner crap out in the bargain, so be it.

While 30 years as a commercial photo tech has served me admirably in regards to managing workflow under deadline, with so much time spent on the road some things fell by the wayside. The 'Resource' list is woeful out of date. And I've a bibliography to compile. Literature on the Lake Superior Basin is rich and so diverse it runs the gamut between folk tales and unique geological science. I've tapped a lot of it, to make this blog. You should have access to that source material.

Apart from three pieces for the Penokee show, it's been more than a year since I've printed anything. Not any of the Images of the Month. Not any of the knee buckling stuff shot while sidetracked in Utah. Not rivers not lakes not fog shrouded mornings not abandoned building or manmade deserts, deserted barns, fallen leaves, not big sea shining water. Not a single print struck to date, of the best work of my life.

Not this, which will take a number of hours and the better part of my printmaking skill to print to within an inch of its life, but which afterwards promises to be positively luminous...

Ontonagon County, October 2012

And when I look to the list of subjects I've yet to cover here, it fairly bursts with items requiring research while planted at the computer, not in a car hurtling through dim hours along two-lane blacktop, chasing the promise of light. If I don't work ahead on the writing, deadlines fail.

So I'll be absent from here for a bit and'll try not to worry overmuch that a blog gone even temporarily fallow is a blog feared dead. Won't be the case. Trust me, I'm just gettin' a 2nd wind and will pop back up here on Thursday, January 10th.


One thing already accomplished is that all 15 Images of the Month are now available on a single page, thanks to my invaluable webmistress and creative consultant Tina Leto.

It's bad enough to view film images on a screen. It's worse to view them small. These aren't so small. By all means, please wander on over to the left hand sidebar, click the gateway image & have a look. Window shopping's encouraged.

Speaking of shopping, here're a trio of things you can still get delivered in time to fill out your stocking, hung by the chimney with care...

During 26,000 miles on the road and uncounted nights spent in motel rooms or out under the stars, I was happily accompanied by a great variety of music. These three selections are by substantive artists all and for different reasons, each sustained me throughout. I've hotlinked, for your purchasing convenience:

Driving through mining country or to and from old mine sites, I relied heavily on Kathy Mattea's superb album, "Coal". Sure, I'd have preferred something more specific to the region, but no comparable songbook for copper and iron mining exists. And the almost mythical narrative of our labors to extract coal from the ground for to build America closely parallels that of copper and iron mining from the Superior Basin, as is demonstrated here:

Spending so much time in Ceded Territory and considering the history of the region, Neil Young's work on the Jim Jarmusch film 'Dead Man' got heavy airplay while on the road. If you know and love this film as I do, you can probably guess which notable phrase from it kept popping back to mind, as we explored the complex legacy of the still nettlesome relationship between white folk and their Native neighbors.

The score from 'Dead Man' contains some of Young's most incendiary work, especially as captured through this extended solo:

Finally, all too often I rolled back into some motel room already well into the night, knowing that there'd be a wakeup in full dark just a few hours hence. It was essential that I fall asleep quickly and sleep well once I did. Many nights, I'd douse the lights to Arvo Pärt's magnificent Kanon Pokajanen. Most of those nights I never made it past 'Ode 1', when the exquisite, almost painfully beautiful call & response laid me softly down and the remainder of the first disc played on to inform my dreams:


Here's where I ought wish you all the 'best of the season'.

But I don't believe for a moment, not even a little, that any wish for "peace on earth, goodwill towards men" can be consigned to a specific season and that the somewhat more gracious approach to each other hoped for during this time of year should ever be accepted as being in any way exceptional.

Compassion isn't a gift to be given, received or withheld. It can't be bought or sold. It's not parceled out according to merit.

Compassion is instead the breath of life well lived.

As I consider all that we've learned over the last months, this season of supposed grace and the events of the last few days, I wish for you what I tell all fellow travelers met along the road of discovery:

Travel safe.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Annala Round Barn

Sometimes, you just have to get lucky.

Maybe 30 years ago, I went with my friend Will to visit the Annala Barn in Iron County WI. Took a quick tour and that was that.

Wanting to properly work the place, as the years passed I'd regularly drive down that way hoping to find someone home so I might secure the permission necessary to do real work. Each time, the place stood empty behind a locked gate. 

Eventually, the property fell into disrepair. I heard rumors of vandalism and feared that the barn would fall to ruin or be burnt before ever I got to work it. That's happened before.

When this project began, the Annala Round Barn stood second on my list of unique architectural sites I'd determined to finally capture. Last chance, and all.

During the fieldwork of October 2011, I again took the drive into Iron County. This time the gate was open, with a car parked in front of the house.

Turns out the owner was just getting ready to leave. He greeted me warmly and after I explained what I wanted he gave me a tour of the place, including the sumptuous restoration he and his wife are doing on the interior of the house.

Then he kindly gave me carte' blanch to work the site during the course of my project, through the passing of the seasons and in the best light I could manage.

Timing is everything.

From a 4x5 Transparency

Early last spring while shooting the breeze with folk at the Berry Patch in Copper Harbor, I mentioned that my Uncle John had once owned a farm on the Gogebic Range. When asked what kind of farmer John was, I reached for the Yooper's stock answer and six voices replied in unison with mine: "A rock farmer!"

In 1902, the Annalas were among the first five families to settle the rural reaches beyond bustling Hurley WI. Matthew Annala was a Finnish carpenter and stone mason by trade, a farmer and (eventually) father to 12 children, insert joke about long northern winters here.

Back then, round barns were promoted as the most efficient means of working a dairy herd, with feed being stored in the middle of the space and cows spread out around it rather than in rows.

Matthew Annala considered this, looked out upon his field of glacial rock, decided to become a dairy farmer and in 1917 put his better skills to work. It took five years of labor to construct the Annala Barn.

Round barns never caught on, in part because they proved difficult to expand to accommodate growing herds. Few remain in America, with round barns made of stone being exceptionally rare. I know of only one other in the nation.

In 1979, Matthew Annala's barn earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Here're a few paragraphs culled from that successful petition:

"The Annala Round Barn and significant for its design, its excellence in craftsmanship, and its associations with the area's early Finnish settlement and with private dairy farming in Iron County.

Like most of the Finnish immigrants who came to northern Wisconsin between 1890 and 1910, Annala settled there with the goal of farming the cutover stump left from logging days... Early on he discovered that the cutover lands were unsuitable for agriculture since the growing season was too short, the soil was thick with red clay and the fields were littered with glacial boulders. Thus, Annala, like others, switched his attentions to dairy farming.

Annala had taken a farm tour with Gogebic County Michigan farmers to explore alternative farming techniques...Whatever his influences, Annala was fearful of the destructive power of tornados...With the assistance of his neighbors and a few of his sons, he constructed the 24-inch thick stone walls, while using little mortar but relying instead on the mason's skill in fitting the multi-colored rubble together. This process allowed the walls to be raised in a free-standing manner, as the stones were carefully selected for tight binding. The stonework was excellently fitted to resist water, wind and weather and allows a full appreciation of the various colors, shapes and textures of the stone."

The Annalas delivered milk to the region at least through WWII. His barn continued as a dairy barn until 1973, when the property was first sold.


I'm grateful to the property's current owners, not merely for the favor of access but because they realize the importance of what they own and are taking the necessary steps to preserve it.

So the sturdy round barn built long ago of fieldstone by a Finnish craftsman, his neighbors and sons might well stand for another century as testament to hard work, ingenuity & craftsmanship.

And to the willingness of rock farmers everywhere, determined all the same to overcome natural obstacles laid down by nature.

In this case, that'd include tornados too...

From 4x5 transparency

From 4x5 transparency

These images of the interior are all digital capture from the Toy Canon, as I've not yet scanned the film...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paddling the River of Memory

A few years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of river where Heather & I long ago shared our greatest youthful adventure. This essay is what I came back with. Call it a coda, written 30 years after the music ended.

Should you like, you can read about the original adventure here & here.

No warranty given or implied that it'll help you any with this...

Presque Isle

Autumn is full upon the ground.

Burnished bronze through brilliant gold are fallen. The world breathes ragged at the edges, cut by the wind. Season and spirit are unbound. Resonance withers and what remains stinks of nostalgia.

Repelled by the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent; entreaties saved for ears more fresh with inclination to listen. Water over rock murmurs in muted voice. With winter just beyond a fast dimming horizon, effort lent song now would prove ill spent later, when darkness runs long and flow goes cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and rising fresh throws a thin veil of grey over an otherwise radiant afternoon.

The sun dims in acknowledgement. Long shadows mark the land, no matter midday.

Buzzards ride updrafts, alert to failed spirit. They crane on the fly and peer straight through thinned forest, down to the moist maze of color at its floor. There nothing stirs save yellow death upon the breeze. Great black birds with dried blood heads peel off on a gust, soar sideways to the south and are off to richer fields. In a moment, they're not even specks against the sky.

That's not easy to do, when one hasn't wings.

Once, we knew how to fly. Or thought so anyway and the two are not so far apart as to make for critical distance.

We drew full the nuances of autumn and soared upon its spirit. Owners of time, we pleased to call Death arbitrary. Then the future was whole with the past, Janus-faced and vibrant. Awareness made us weightless and at liberty to soar. Should a salamander live in a fire pit, the great owl stand guard at the gate and otters disdain foolishness with gruff rebuke, we knew the way those signs pointed. Or told ourselves we did, which is all the same.

And in a moment, we weren't even specks against the sky.

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, prerequisite to intimate relation with the Earth. Flight is made the province of dreams -- lest memory invite that acid of old age and slayer of spirit no matter the age, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.

Slow black water assumes a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. Wind abated, reflection is a real as real can be, but with heaven overturned. Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across a liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silent moment then with a visible shiver reform behind. Shining blue pierces dark current. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches through the sky, waving with revealed rhythm.

At its center, the world meets upon itself. Distinctions of perspective are healed. Stones hover, weightless. Grasses weave in every direction. Forest rises from forest, reaching clouds above and below. The wind points nowhere and everywhere, no compass need apply.

A great heron rises from the river and takes a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. Somewhere unseen, but near to where recall resides.

Memory is writ so large that sometimes actuality disdains to contain it. A remembered torrent is a trickle, distance becomes squeezed and youthful courage long tamped down by the weight of perspective turns tremulous.

It's not that memory lies. In its time the moment was true and so remains. There the dead thing was, life reduced to muck and ooze. And here is the spot where determination forced decision and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and blazed with fortitude as darkness fell. Thus is narrative created.

Memory is a stain indissoluble. And if the size of it doesn't fit the present, it's only that history has grown so large as to make the past seem small.

The day turns late. It's no trouble to move upstream. Only occasionally does facing current urge to the side and course correction is easily achieved with a bit of will accompanied by a gentle push. A pair of tiny ducks lead the way. Their delicate, duplicate forms effortlessly maintain safe distance.

An otter appears. Its smooth fur throws river on the rise.

The injury of time fades. If scolded for daring, convergence would be complete, old acquaintance made fresh, the past resurrected. Instead, the otter is playful and curious. Repeatedly it dips behind the clouds then reappears to make inquiry with a melodic string of delicate chirps and whirs. A slipstream in the sky marks its underwater path.

Then the otter is gone. As happened long ago, in a heartbeat unnoticed, an invitation is withdrawn. Some secret briefly there for the asking is withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The worlds of otters and of men intersect and memory is rendered irrelevant. The present is a promise that can be forsaken but not broken. Knowledge is no better excuse to deny what's true than is ignorance.

Autumn is full upon me.

The trip upriver is leisurely. Air and water are one. Earth and the heavens are indivisible and firelight streams through all.

Season and place are reflected whole in the richness of moment. All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in a freshening breeze. The river runs as deep as heaven is high. Winter is at the horizon, with night just beyond.

Steady against the current and with memory tucked safely again into its bed of dreams, flying proves instinctive.

And from this vantage, one can see that the Evening Star will find its proper place upon the river so to be cast by it back to the sky, as once was a midday sun.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Show & Tell -- October/November

Here's a selection of images captured on 120mm film during the final two months of fieldwork. We spent half that time in and around the Porcupine Mountains as Artist in Residence, with a side trip up to the Keweenaw. The rest was on my home turf, on or near the Gogebic Range.

Once again, we've seen autumn change to winter.

I've set this collection to a few minutes culled from near the end of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony #11. When Johnny, Heather & I spent our autumns at Bobcat Lake, this music often floated up from camp then over the water before trailing off into the far woods beyond.

The Symphony is played here by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of the inimitable Leopold Stokowski

It might seem hard to believe now, but in his prime Stokowski was a controversial cultural superstar of rare standing -- women swooned, men wanted to be him and the culture at large fiercely debated his relative merits, both personal & professional.

He outlived most of his critics.

This is the most evocative rendition of the 11th I've yet heard and it's absolutely appropriate that we close out the fieldwork with it...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Short Shot of Holiday Cheer...

Splendidly isolated by geography, circumstance & choice, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan remains a world apart.

For a thousand years and more the region played host to native tribes, with the occasional white folk mostly just passersby and latecomers at that. Then came the discovery of mineral riches and hot on the heels of that came the treaties of 1836 and 1842. Those gave the entire place over to capital concern (which was the point) and for the Anishinabe made the land into what's even today referred to as "ceded territory".

There immediately followed wave upon wave of immigrants, who bequeathed to the place a remarkably rich cultural heritage. Swedes. Italians. Cornish, English & French. French Canadians. Latvian, Russian and Jew. Danes, Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, Icelanders, Irish and more. All were drawn to the wilderness by that quintessential American promise of "streets paved with gold", but upon arrival to the U.P. they found little gold and damned few streets, too.

All the same, many stayed and their imprint on the region remains a permanent cultural gift.

Perhaps the most influential of these immigrants were the Finns, who found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a land that resembled home. It's their lilting, musical version of American English that forever colored the U.P.'s distinctive dialect, called Yooper by most and perhaps best exemplified by the bumper sticker seen on cars both far and wide that reads: "Say Ya to da U.P., eh?"

What's true is that once the place gets in your blood it never leaves, even when you leave it.

So if the Upper Peninsula is a nation unto itself (and it is), and if opening day of deer season is its national holiday (it most certainly is) and if the people of the region manage to maintain a robust sense of humor even in the hardest of times (which they absolutely do), then today we'll take a moment out to celebrate Yooper culture with a timely song:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Notes From the Field -- The Freezing Moon

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

Well then. That (as they say), is that.

A week ago I completed the fieldwork in what's become for me a personal and professional Odyssey. Not that we ever met Medusa. Neither did our paths cross with any three-headed dogs.

But last Thursday was also Opening Day of deer season, a holiday second to none in the State of Superior.

As exquisite light faded into evening, every other pickup truck on the road sported dead deer legs rising out the back like so much broken kindling. Many, many deer crossed their own River Styx that afternoon. Boatmen carried them mostly to local taverns instead of Hades, for bragging rights drenched in beer, with the only coins in evidence those tossed upon the bar.

It says up there on the masthead "...over the course of a single year".

The original plan called for this project to run from October 2011 through October 2012, though we've been at this it now some 13 months and a bit. In the field last November, awash in the most perfect light I'd ever seen, the plan changed. I determined to work November light one more time again and last week did just that.

Ojibwa say the world was created when muskrat carried mud from the bottom of the flood to place it upon the thirteen central plates of turtle's back. That narrative is the basis for the 13 moon lunar calendar of the Anishinabe. So depending on one's perspective, a single year it's been.

And if we've seen anything along our way, it's how near to everything turns on folk's perspective.

November is the month of the Freezing Moon, or Gashkidino giizis.

When I left the Range, short water on still water and flat water at the edge of rivers was cloaked in skim ice. Patches of snow left from the inch or so that'd fallen before my arrival held tight to places in the forest where from now until April the sun never shines.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

The long dark season is now full upon the Superior Basin and all that's wanting is for a blanket of white to cover it in Winter's frigid sleep. Freezing Moon, indeed.

During those last few hours in the field I became self-conscious while shooting, perhaps for the 1st time ever. I'm accustomed to being purely in the moment when working, but grew increasingly aware of things drawing to a close. Of opportunities that if wasted then, would never come 'round again.

My portfolio contains many images of scenes around Superior that no longer exist. And I've made plans to return to a site only to later find that the passing of even a single season finally pushed some item of longstanding merit full back to the earth from where it came.

This was different from that. This time it was me being made obsolete. And with every passing moment of a too short day blessed with perfect light.

So in the end I did the only thing I could, the only thing wholly appropriate to the occasion.

I worked alone in the wild through the fading of day. In the midst of the Ottawa National Forest, near the eastern reaches of the Gogebic Range, beside my beloved Presque Isle River.

I chose to be home.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

When light diminished down so low I could work no more, I passed precious time beneath a glorious November sky while looking south along the winding trail of my river, the breath of winter upon the woods and all else in the world fallen silent.

An eagle rose above the river. It dipped its wings over the water then flew off into gathering darkness.

And I was done.


I suppose an accounting is in order:

26,133 miles driven. (Yeah, that's greater than the circumference of the Earth. What can I say? The Superior Basin is a big place and accommodates well to wandering.)

The 77 blog posts prior to this come to better than 60,000 words.

290 sheets of 4x5 transparency film, exposed through the Linhof.

3,330 exposures of 120mm transparency film run through the Mamiya.

And something over 6,100 digital images & movies captured using the Toy Canon, which I bought for dirt cheap at the beginning of this project. As it turns out, this piece of plastic wedded to electronics supplied excellent value for the dollar, as the blog wouldn't have been near so well illustrated without it.

Throughout that great pile 'o film there glistens the best work I've ever done. Should this be my swan song as a photographer, that's a fine way to go out, eh?

If you've read the Artist's Statement you'll know that we started out with the last 350 sheets of 4x5 film convenient to fieldwork left in the entire world. So what about those last 60 sheets?

Glad you asked.

They're in a freezer, awaiting winter's pleasure. My portfolio has always been short the winter season. Sadly, it's still short.

There wasn't much of winter on the Superior Basin last year. The big lake never froze, or we'd have made it to the sea caves off Cornucopia and would've likely run out of film well before now. Then when we went to the Basin in February all the same, winter kicked my butt.

So despite professional film having an expiration date (on my stash that date reads "August, 2012") and even though I started seeing bad effects all the way back in June with each remaining box offering uncertain result, I've saved some to meet the challenges of working a Northwoods winter one last time, opportunity permitting.

This past summer Mamiya stopped making film cameras and in response, Kodak discontinued the film I use in mine. Luckily I have some, still well within its expiration date. So we're covered, regardless.

And don't think you're gettin' off this hook easy, either.

I promised that when the fieldwork was complete, we'd settle in around the fire and talk about what we've seen. We'll do that too, but not for a while yet. With every mile traveled this narrative assumed a life of its own and I've been unable to write my way through where we've been, not even by posting twice a week through the heart of it.

So stretch your legs. Then grab a seat and settle in.

I may or may not ever again be a photographer, but we're some distance yet from being done.


In any project such as this, many people play a role in its success. The generosity of spirit I've been met with as we've traveled throughout the Superior Basin is a life altering gift. There's no bloody way I can thank all of these folk by name and I'll not compile some sort of list to try. That'd be an insult.

What's true is that continuing my life's work and redoubling my dedication to shared ideas will be the best thanks I can give. We're permanent partners now, working disparate threads of a complex natural & cultural mosaic that's touched all of us deeply, each in their own way.

Still, considering today and all the thoughts that came to mind as I took the long drive down from the Northwoods, here're a few items I oughtn't let pass without mention:

I'm thankful for my 2003 Subaru Outback. Though during this last trip the odometer blew right by 117,000 miles, it never gave me a hint of trouble all along our way. And I'm thankful too that we drove those 26k miles for this project without once getting pulled over, not that I ever speed...

Raptors proved fine company during this project and I'm thankful for each & every one -- from Eagles riding updrafts over still water or peering down into it through early morning fog from a high perch atop a tall cedar, to Ospreys chirping in little bird voices before crashing the placid surface of a lake. From Red Tails and Cooper's Hawks to Falcons and Kestrels, whether aloft upon a summer's breeze or standing sentinel still on a fencepost, breasts fluffed against a winter wind, eyes ever keen.

Which, now that I think on it, makes me glad I'm not a fish or a mouse.

Mostly, I'm thankful for Heather and for the Lake Superior Basin -- the two great loves of my life.

Each came into my life during my formative years. For decades now, each has continued to inform and enrich me with their singular spirit & wildness.

What's true is that if I'm a decent artist or a good man or if I know honest, abiding love at all, it's more due to that than to me.

And finally, I'm thankful for you. No one wants to put forth this much effort only to spit it into a vacuum. Later today or, given the distractions of the holiday perhaps early tomorrow, this blog'll top 10,000 page views. 

It's good not to be alone.

So thanks for coming along on this Odyssey through one of the world's great wild places, for accompanying me in this search for perfect light.

Enjoy the day.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Iron Giant -- Footprints

Of the iron ranges along Superior, Mesabi in Minnesota is the greatest. When only Ojibwa lived there, the place was called Misaabe-wajiw, or "Giant's Mountain". And it's here that the Giant's left his largest footprint to date.

I'd no particular desire to visit. But being deeply engaged in the discussion over Gogebic Taconite's Penokee project, I viewed it as a duty.

It's one thing while wandering the untrammeled half of the Gogebic to try and imagine it gone. It's quite another to view the closest approximation -- to fill in imaginings with hard reality and contemplate the real world consequence of an ancient mountain range replaced by a 23 mile long, mile and a half wide, thousand foot deep hole in the ground.

So I ran southwest off Superior's Minnesota shore to track the Giant. That wasn't hard, considering you can see the trail from space:

This is what Earth looks like, when you've removed more than a billion tons of material from its face, nearly half of that waste.

Though you can take a few days to tour the Mesabi Range and Minnesota strongly encourages you to do that, I'd just come off our trip to Pukaskwa and back so relied on my invaluable Gazetteer to cut straight through the heart of the matter.

First stop along the way was the town of Virginia and the popular tourist overlook featuring its pride and joy:

I'm told Virginia is seriously undermined, that much of the town sits atop a cavernous void left by removing great quantities of high quality iron from deep reaches. 

But abandoned underground mines are everywhere along the south shore of Superior, so that makes Virginia MN nothing special. Countless towns and villages are dependent on crumbling pillars of stone or decades old timbers steadily rotting in moist, inaccessible darkness -- all that remains to prevent whole communities from disappearing suddenly in cataclysmic collapse.

With high quality iron mostly mined, today we scrape what's left right off the face of the Earth.

Standing at the overlook in Virginia as dust from scabbed hills in nearly all directions rises to the clear August sky, looking down at water filled canyons where the metal'd played out long ago and only the scar persists, I thought I'd really seen something. And nearly blew off the rest of the day in order to head home to my own sleepy iron range of days gone by -- the long settled, now silent Gogebic.

Duty persevered and I pressed on to Hibbing, childhood home of Bob Dylan and current home to the Iron Giant.

Hibbing seems a charming enough place and reasonably prosperous to boot. Detoured by a car show held on Main Street, I found myself briefly on Bob Dylan Drive. A happy bonus I didn't pursue, as I was then deep on the trail of the Giant, still hoping to make it out of Minnesota, through Wisconsin, into Michigan and all the way back to my own personal harbor of safe refuge before darkness fell.

They make it easy in Hibbing, to find the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine. It's well marked by signage, though I still can't decide whether having the word rust in the name of an iron mine is wholly appropriate or strictly perverse. A free mixture of both I suppose and typically American, for sure.

On the way up the hill to Hull Rust, you first pass the Greyhound Bus Museum  and then a park called "North Hibbing", which even at a glance seems a peculiar place. More on that in a bit.

From there it's only a short drive to a notable tourist spot festooned in genuine carnival atmosphere.

At more than three miles long, better than two miles wide and made deeper than 535 feet with every shovelful removed, the Hull Rust is a National Historic Landmark, said to be the biggest active open pit iron mine in the world and is compared by its barkers to the Grand stinkin' Canyon.

Behold the fabled Hull Rust in all its pictorial glory, viewing from left to right:

Trust me, it's way bigger than it looks here. Truly, the footprint of a giant.

Having seen what I came for and done what I must, I turned for home but on the way out stopped briefly to grab a few images of the curious "North Hibbing", figuring to research that at a later date.

Turns out "North Hibbing" used to be Hibbing MN, until the increasing appetite of the Iron Giant ate it up. Made national news in 1919, it did. Today it's the most strangely evocative park I've seen in all my travels around the Superior Basin, featuring tree-lined streets with curbs bordering sidewalks and stairs that lead to nowhere -- and all beneath old timey street lamps installed to illuminate nothing, except perhaps a faded past and then only in the dark of night.

Exhausted from eleven days on the road and shaken by having at last met the Iron Giant firsthand, I hurtled east through Minnesota. A roiling storm ran parallel to the south. Towering clouds boiled tens of thousands of miles up then down again, for hours throwing perfect light along my way. I never so much as paused.

When I reached the legendary hills upon which we hung Duluth to obliterate all evidence of millennial cohabitation with the lake and give vast wetlands older than collective memory over to Capital concern, I finally saw Superior spread out again before me. Gray light flowed to blue to green and beyond any perceptible horizon, the whole of the world rising and falling and changing with every living breath of the greatest inland sea.

Then the storm broke above me but only briefly, racing ahead to fail through Wisconsin.

In full light I made it back to Michigan and Bessemer, back to the Gogebic's shaded hills and the comforts of home, thanks to the length of days in August.

And with that, the summer season of this year for gathering drew to a close.


OK fine. So there's a big-assed hole in the ground and it's a tourist attraction of passing interest for folk wandering the otherwise rural wilderness of Minnesota. What of it, right?

Well, here's the thing...

For those of you who've followed along, you'll recall Gogebic Taconite's interest in the Penokee Hills of the Gogebic Range. If you're new to this Odyssey or otherwise crave a refresher, look here, here, here and here, then here.

Then look at those images of Hull Rust again. The Cline Group's proposal was to make where the Penokees now rise a hole in the ground a bit less wide, twice as deep and 20 miles longer than the giant's footprint upon Mesabi that you can see from space. Take that Minnesota, with your puny tourist attraction:

Distance from Hibbing to Virginia MN

But you might well ask:

"Wasn't legislation written specifically to allow for Governor Walker's Cline Group buddies to replace the Penokees with a massive hole and dump the 100 million tons or so of resultant waste atop the local watershed so to threaten the pristine Kakagon/Bad River sloughs and through those Lake Superior itself actually defeated by the Wisconsin State legislature?"

And to that I'd reply, "Sure. Along strict party lines, save for a single Republican Senator who broke rank and was labeled a turncoat, as it was his vote alone that scotched the deal."

"So what's the problem", sez you.

On November 6th, the good citizens of Wisconsin gave the their State Senate a Republican majority of two. Soon to be three, pending a special election to be held this December in a solid Republican district.

When first we began this Odyssey, the Iron Giant was stirring, after many years of slumber. Today he's freshly awake.

No matter that at present he's likely vacationing down in Florida within spittin' distance of a yacht called "Mine Games", be assured -- he can see Wisconsin all the way from there.

And needs no satellite to do it, either...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The North Shore™ Cash Machine

Grand Marais MN during high tourist season is like a funhouse Hall of Mirrors, where everything's distorted and little is as it first appears. 'Cept you'll pay way more at Grand Marais and mightn't have as much fun.

Superior's shore in northern Minnesota is a slopping, hard rock place. Government owns much of the land, with the State Parks and National Forests that today blanket the area being the major economic resource of the region, as it's those that draw visitors up from Duluth, down out of Ontario and from all points wherever beyond.

When folk visit all that natural splendor, it's only Grand Marais that exists to service their every need.

Heather & I first traveled there maybe 35 years ago and found the sleepy vestige of a once marginally prosperous community long since slipped in the direction of economic ruin, as so many villages along the lake were then and are still. As perverse as it seems to say, that was essentially its charm.

Very little intruded upon the quietude. Once you visited the tiny but outstanding Sivertson Gallery hard by the harbor, you had your choice of local diners or a couple more upscale restaurants for fresh fish. Then you could take an evening stroll past Coast Guard Station out to the old break wall on the lake and that was about it.

But even then, if you sniffed around a bit a certain attitude prevailed.

Once, having just traveled east to west across the Canadian shore of Superior and back into the States, I found myself amidst a few locals gathered early in the morning at a small establishment -- ordinarily an enlightening, often a pleasant experience. A lady commented about the weather "on the north shore".

Having just been there, I chimed in with fresh information about Ontario's weather.

Instantly, there fell a deep and pregnant pause. It was like being in a cartoon western saloon, where the piano suddenly stops and the whole place falls quiet when the villain walks in. Then this lady peered down her nose at me and with a gaze intended to wither the abject ignorance right out of my poor pitiful self she positively sniffed, "We are the North Shore".

Sure 'ya are, lady. And Marathon's to your south.

As I said, it's not like Grand Marais didn't have its pleasures. For instance, perhaps the finest walleye I've ever eaten was at the Birch Terrace -- a place of impeccable service offering hearty Northwoods cuisine and a great narrative besides. And therein lies a story to illustrate the split personality of Grand Marais.

Crafted of pine log as a private residence in 1898, the Birch Terrace is a stately old building with a rich history, built on a rise above the lake. An Indian burial ground is said to have been in what's now the front yard. Tales were told of the moose that'd swim out from the dock to greet  incoming boats and beg pouches of tobacco from travelers. The proclamation that created the fabled Gunflint Trail was signed by the Governor of Minnesota in the living room, where today meals are served.

When Heather & I first ate there, much was made of this history and that added immeasurably to the excellence of the overall experience. The richness of the place helped make for an evening of Northwoods romance that'll live on forever in our hearts because it was part of what helped make the Superior Basin our destination of choice.

In today's Birch Terrace, you'll find no mention of history. The menu is reduced to standard tourist fare. When there for old time's sake this past August, I've never seen a staff so overmatched, even with the place mostly empty. Orders were wrong. Meals arrived late or cold and then dispatched back to the kitchen for remedy. Apologies were flung like day old fish fritters.

You can still sit in the handsome old dining room but now the place sports a beer garden terrace too, where on a summer's eve you can listen to a mediocre singer cover old Jimmy Buffett tunes.

All the same, when I visited there in May just before the opening of "the Season", Grand Marais was quietly sublime. A whitefish dinner at the Angry Trout as the sun set over Superior was everything it ought to be and then some.

You could walk the town without brushing shoulders with a crowd. The lakefront past the break wall remains a great place for an evening's stroll. While there you'll see what might be the largest collection of balanced rock art to be found anywhere around the lake:

And I stayed in a fine, family run motel a few miles north from Grand Marais, for a good price.

But what you don't want to do is come off the road late on a Friday afternoon in August, as I did when running down from our trek to Pukaskwa and back. Then you'll find a town near to bursting and too proud of the fact by half.

You'll wait an hour & a half to get seated at the Angry Trout, where you can spend time in quiet observance of class distinctions thrown to high relief. Vacationing families, half-drunk hikers and plenty of patricians from who knows where decked out in positively unblemished high end outdoor gear jostle as they down free-flowing sedations of choice and all the while studiously avoiding direct eye contact with each other.

Then when you take that evening walk, you'll not have to worry about being alone:

And if you're really lucky, you'll have the pleasure of paying for the last room in the region as much or more than is charged most nights for a proper room in downtown Chicago -- where there're hundreds of fine restaurants, a veritable cornucopia of cultural choices and a splendid lakefront to boot, though admittedly not Superior.

Grand Marais prides itself on what it offers the contemporary traveler. But there's an awful lot of Superior shore away from it in all directions, including north.

So should you plan a trip to the area, go offseason and enjoy its many authentic pleasures. Or secure reservations well in advance at the Nanabijou Lodge, or some other family run establishment in the region, then head into town at your own discretion.

Otherwise, get your overpriced ticket to the carnival. Then grab a seat -- if you can find one -- and listen to the barkers sing...