Thursday, January 26, 2012

Northwoods Follies -- Johnny

Years ago, I enjoyed the company of a friend named John. A smart, energetic fellow and sympathetic to my character at the time, which sympathy I suppose is the basis for most friendships, lasting or not.

Johnny’s grandparents lived in a splendid vintage home on the shore of a fair-sized lake over in Wisconsin. It was too near the big fiberglass fish and the tourists of fabled Hayward

Heather, about to be eaten by a giant Musky

…but was a nice spit of wooded land all the same. Once while walking the beach we spotted a bear track big as a pie plate in the sand and cast glances over our shoulders the rest of the day.

For some years running, Johnny, Heather and I tempted the wilderness together. Mostly in late season when the air is cool, the light sublime, weather persistently variable and the whole world knows exactly what time of year it is. That is, time to prepare for a cruel, dark season or suffer the consequence.

It’s said there’s strength in numbers. That isn’t always true, though it’s sure nice to think so when deep in the autumn woods at two in the morning and a serious case of heebie jeebies suddenly arrives. But numbers also sometimes breed false confidence, which often leads to foolishness. And that then leads to everywhere from serious fun to serious injury and/or death, depending on the quality of foolishness.


I don’t remember John’s gear but he was proud of it and I’m sure it was fine because that’s the kind of guy he was. After a couple years of rather steep learning curve, Heather and I’d purchased a new North Face geodesic dome (1978), a tent that at the time cost more than my car. Being a big guy, I’d lusted after the sort of thing you could sit in behind a desk to review the Union troops, but Heather thought the pair of drawstring openings in the back of the dome would make for ideal escape hatches in the event a bear politely entered through the front, so we left the tent store with a revolution in gear nestled in my arms and have never regretted it, regardless of bears.

That tent led directly to foolishness like the week it never got above 45 degrees and rained for five straight days. Sheets of rain, mostly. We dug a trench in front of the fire pit to divert the running water. Spent the week huddled together beneath a makeshift tarp, clutching coffee cups in trembling hands, peering to the angry, sodden sky to offer feeble prayers like “It seems to be letting up a bit”.

Then on the six day it snowed. Four inches.

Back in the city, when family and co-workers asked after our vacation and we told the tale, their response fell squarely along the lines of “What kind of vacation is that?!?”

We just thumped our chests, low grade foolishness well survived and proud of it.


We were young. City life was brutish and cruel to our youthful sensibilities. The Great Spirit of the Northwoods intrigued us. It ain’t Disneyland up there, that’s sure.

So we constantly prodded the wilderness of Superior to respond to our interest and whether or not it ever did, we generally got what we asked for and sometimes a good bit more.


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