Thursday, February 23, 2012

Notes From the Field -- Working the Edge of the World

I try always to arrive on the Range with sufficient daylight left to go someplace and see what’s what. So it was on Super Bowl Sunday and that’s why through all the adventure I shot no usable film. It was most important to see and simply given that I’d return.

All the same and in consideration of what happened, I spent parts of the next couple days looking at Superior from Saxon Harbor to Ontonagon. Much of it was fine. None of it approached the stark natural beauty and wild isolation at the mouth of the Presque Isle. Only there did the world end in ice; snow riven wilderness behind, ice roiled sea in front and the opportunity to work a hard slender ledge between.

By Wednesday evening I was well prepared. Knew to wear my gaiters. Knew to park at the end of the plowed road and walk in, thank-you very much. A child’s plastic sled bought at winter closeout promised easy hauling of my full complement of gear a mile in and back. I carried water and trail mix and my Zippo lighter. Extra batteries for the Mamiya were warm in a secure inside pocket, nestled next to a cell phone that doesn’t work on the far side of the shaded hills.

I geared up, took a last look down 519, locked the car as much from habit as necessity and walked into the winter wilderness. The sled riding atop old hard packed snow proved gratingly loud. I regretted that but not near so much as I’d have regretted 60 pounds on my back.

At the shuttered Ranger Station across from where there’s supposed to be an emergency phone but isn’t, I paused to examine the official Emergency Plan of the Porcupine Mountains State Park in winter, which amounts to you’d best be able to get your sorry ass the 24 miles down to Wakefield or too bad for you. I’m posting the picture of these procedures below but you can trust me on this and should read the thing only if you’ve a heightened appreciation for absurdity:

I went through the forest to the first set of falls. There I found river appearing and disappearing from beneath shelves of ice:

That was nice but access to the river trail down from there was uncertain and being mindful of light that fails inexorably every minute past noon put me quickly back out to the road.

At the parking lot to the trail head I witnessed the full extent of damage we’d done to the snow. It was like a football game was played there, with tractors. I replaced the shovel we’d inadvertently left in the road back in the outhouse where I’d found it and pressed on.

The path through the woods at the top of the hill was flat with snowmobile tracks. There’s marked snowmobile trail all the way up the east side of 519 and this is well beyond that but the deck where stairs lead down to the river is as far as snowmobiles go. I ditched my sled in the snow behind a fallen tree, shouldered my load and headed down the precipitous stairs.

At the bottom I crossed the bridge, pausing to shoot the frigid river and unbroken snow on its banks. Then I crossed on over to the island. Tracks were sparse and on the way to the shore I marked only Wil’s and mine from Sunday along with a single cross country skier I was sure had come after us, accompanied by a dog.

Mostly, even the deer don’t make it down there.

Then I set to work, for fleeting hours in perfect light. I’d like to say I stole time to sit and stare and listen, but I labored straight through from long light to twilight and missed nothing save the undeniable benefit of quiet repose spent in a magnificent place. Sometimes the gig is a hard taskmaster and mine is only to serve.

After sunset I again shouldered the load to climb back out. At the suspension bridge I paused as a startled otter scrambled to decide which hole in the ice was the right one to dive through to the presumptive safety of a rushing, mostly frozen river.

I slowly mounted the burdensome stairs to happily retrieve the sled at the top, then made my way the mile back to the car in near darkness without incident, stowed the gear, secured my film and shed layers of clothes no longer needed. I’d worked up a sweat.

Finally I paused for a bit, to consider where I was, stepping out onto the road to spy Orion looming large and brilliant through the tops of barren trees. Sometimes, the gig is the best there is in the world.

I raised my arms to the sky and let loose a single primal cry. Not merely for a job well done, but for a life so well lived that it’d brought me to that moment. Only deer and otter and coyotes and red squirrels and maybe an owl or two were there to hear the echo of me fall softly in the night.

Just at full dark a sizable critter bounded across the end of Co. 519, probably a deer but who can say for sure. It headed off down the path of least resistance, a little road west that leads to a handful of cabins on the lake. Where beginning later this year and for at least fourteen years full bore, Orvana’s Copperwoods is intended to thrive.

I returned to the car and drove back towards Wakefield down the middle of the road. Dozens of deer watched me pass, hovering eyes shining red from black woods. I drove at moderate speed. There was no call to ruin such a day with carelessness.

Later I remembered that by this time next year, the forest won’t be so silent, the wilderness not nearly as remote. That the pups of the river otter on the ice and their pups too will live lives through in the company of King Copper and if ever they know silence like that evening, it’ll be only in short snatches between dark and dawn, sometimes not even then.

And I wondered -- in our rush to create temporary jobs in order to claim minor victory over ongoing Depression that’ll never yield to transient endeavor, corporate ambition or the wishful thinking of desperate, angry people -- who speaks for these?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Northwoods Follies -- A Dangerous Game

Or, Boys Will Be Boys…

I drove to the Gogebic Range on Super Bowl Sunday and by 2:30 was roughly settled in. That left a few hours of light in the day, waste not want not. Ate a quick pasty for fuel then phoned my friend Wil to see if he could come out and play. At 3:30 we headed for the mouth of the Presque Isle River to see what was what. Planned to be back in the motel sixish, grab a hearty supper at the local pub and catch the 2nd half of the Big Game, proper work to begin bright & early the following morn.

Last time I tried something like this it didn’t go so well but the afternoon was bright and with nary a breeze the winter woods warmed to an almost balmy 38 degrees. I figured that for good luck. Geez, it was a lovely afternoon.

County 519 is plowed to the South Boundary Road and then no farther. No problem. The way to the trail head was barely a mile of six/eight inches hard pack and smooth sailing. We drove in, parked and walked down to the river. I packed light, it being more important to see than to shoot.

And what sights we saw!


Wil at work at the edge of the world

Just after sunset and happy for a couple hours well spent, we climbed back up to the car and promptly ran afoul of the physics of snow. Turns out, warm air and steady sun did us no favors and the hard pack we drove in on was flimsy veneer over powder, sheet ice lurking beneath all. The wheels on Wil’s car gained no traction, save to dig clear down to ice and crazily spin.

We pushed. We pulled. We jacked the car up and piled sticks beneath the tires, jammed blankets atop those for traction, no matter. Three hours later and the only thing that’d changed was we’d moved maybe fifty feet -- the entire way trashed with wood debris and deep powdery ruts from which there was no escape. That and the nearly full moon rose on a gorgeous night to light our plight.

Cell phones don’t work on the far side of the hills and there’s supposed to be an emergency hardline at the ranger’s station. We walked down to find the box intact but the phone missing in action, fat lot ‘o good that did us and so much for contact with the outside world supposedly maintained by the State in case of emergency. We returned to our vehicle and tried again to extract ourselves, to no avail.

We talked of hiking the eight, maybe ten hilly miles to the nearest cabin and maybe a phone. We even began the hike but not half a mile in it was plain the day had taken its toll on me. Underfed and overworked, I’d simply not make it out. Neither would I let Wil leave me to press on heroically alone, as that’s what characters in movies stupidly do so the narrative can thin the cast of no name actors leaving only the stars to sally forth. There being just the two of us, I didn’t much like that scenario.

On the occasion of trouble in the wilderness, I ask one question first: Is the situation potentially mortal?

If not then it’s just one more in a string of adventures, all other considerations dependent on the quality of foolishness that led there to begin with. Such was the case on Sunday night. Prudence demanded we stay put as the car had a full tank of gas and we could pass the night safely in it if it came to that.

I thought it likely that when I didn’t phone to say goodnight either Heather at home would raise the alarm or that as the night grew long Wil’s wife Emily would mount a search. We again walked the mile down to the South Boundary Road to leave a sign for any potential rescuer and post a warning that driving father was at risk of being stranded. In the middle of the road we built a tripod of branches maybe eight feet tall, attached two handkerchiefs near the top to draw attention and stuck a note to the thing that read: “Stop! Don’t drive in. Honk and we’ll come out.” Wil also left an arrow of sticks on the blacktop to point the way, just for good measure. As his old Indian friend would have said: “Good idea”.

The moon lit our path and we returned to the car. Content that what could be done had been done, it was time for a bit of play. After all, we’d found ourselves stuck in a sublime place of shimmering shadow awash in subtle sound, a wondrous world not often freely enjoyed because who drives out at night to stand the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter and just for the Hell of it?

Call it an opportunity.

Bathed in silver light we played with our digital cameras, to only modest effect. Soon spent, I retired to the car. It’d grown cooler and the heat from the blower felt good. From Wil I greedily took my dinner; a curiously strong Altoid mint, wintergreen and one of three left in the tin. Wil then regaled me with the tale of his last winter camping trip, an authentic adventure taken some years before and for which bedtime story I was grateful.

Moonlight streaming through the skeletal forest had earlier deceived me but when Wil abruptly leapt from the car I knew it was headlights cutting through bare winter woods and no trick of the eye. Potential rescue had arrived! By the time I’d roused myself Wil was running across the snow while waving his arms to stop Emily from coming any farther in the family van.

She’d driven right past our warning, so much for well constructed wood craft.

I ambled over to the driver’s side and weakly said “Hi Emily. Thanks.” In reply she shot me that withering ‘Momma’ look known to all men and apparently congenital to women, whether mothers or no. As we preceded her back to the carnage of the parking lot and our stranded car I whispered to Wil: “Boy, you’re in such trouble”.

Emily came up, sternly surveyed the situation and insisted we try once again to extricate Wil’s car. With vaguely renewed vigor we got the thing to move a few feet. The temperature had dropped just enough to reform the hard sheen atop the powder. Though we dared not try to turn around, we proceeded with high caution to back down the winding snow packed road, Wil at the wheel of the van, me in Wil’s car guided only by the headlights of his van. Emily led the way by walking, to prevent us from continuing our adventure in a ditch.

We finally managed to right the vehicles at the South Boundary Road. Will looked at the clock and said, “It’s 11:11”. So it was. On the way back to town, he finished the winter camping story.

Safe in the motel, I first called Heather to allay her fears only to find that she didn’t remember whether I said I’d call again that night or in the morning so she’d just gone to bed, no potential savior there.

At midnight I sat shivering while chewing over a pepperoni stick washed down with a chunk of fine Appenzeller cheese and handfuls of Heather’s homemade trail mix. From the TV I learned the Giants had won the Super Bowl in an exciting game marked by missed opportunity.

Somehow, I was unimpressed.

Three nights later I went back in to work the mouth of the Presque Isle River, this time alone.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Hard, Splendid Season...

Beauty often obscures danger.

That’s sometimes true of women, certainly. But we’re talking wilderness here.

When masked by the inestimable beauty of winter in the northwoods, danger is immediate and exaggerated ‘cause maybe there’s no getting out of it short of being carried by others after the fact.

Never a place for fools, the wilderness frozen is damned inhospitable. I get that skiers, snowmobilers, ice fishermen and businesses built around all that see things different. To them I wish winter in abundance ‘til sometime late in March when it’ll be getting around to my turn and about stinkin’ time, too.

I’ve been in the field all week and am traveling today so you’ll just have to wait until next Thursday to hear why I wasn’t among the billion or so people watching the Super Bowl.  ‘Cause as it turned out, winter was singularly unimpressed by my plans for Super Bowl Sunday.

In fact, you might even wonder whether the Gods of Ice & Snow enjoyed a good laugh at my expense. That is, if the real world can be said to take any notice of us at all, which it doesn’t. Such monumental indifference is a double-edged sword, let me tell ‘ya.

Until then, please enjoy these bits of winter's singular beauty and from the comfort of your own home, no less…

While the dark season is cruel to us and we'd not survive it without the comfort of construct, Other Nations press forward all the same. What falls dead and fast frozen to the forest floor, ravens eat. And if you'll look closely, you'll see the snow on both sides of the river is littered with tracks. Those are left by otters who dive through holes in the ice to course the barely liquid river beneath and feast on trout the winter through.

Life goes on.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Uncommon Perspective

For many of us, life in contemporary America is defined largely by our immense technological reach. Distracted by the complexity of modern construct, increasingly alienated from our neighbors and adrift in community freshly unbound, we forget that most of America remains wide open landscape: sparsely populated and lacking ready access to what the rest of us take for granted. For some, a trip to the Superior Basin is at least in part a means to reconnect with the real world and reclaim healthy perspective.

Of all the memories I savor from the northwoods, the most revealing turns out not to be a tall tale at all, but rather a single phrase uttered by a child in a moment of youthful wonder.

Black River Harbor

Black River Harbor once was a thriving fishing village and is now a park complete with marina, the town having long since been moved lock stock and barrel away from the lake and into the woods where there’s no fish at all, which is a story for another time.

Across the bridge and east from the harbor is a long stretch of sandy beach backed by steep red cliffs where miles of forest abruptly end at the shifting boundary of the big lake. An easy drive from Bessemer, in high season it’s a favorite place for families and tourists alike. Then as the sun sets on warm summer nights, young folk gather in groups to make beach fires in hope of burning lasting memory by doing what young folk do when under cover of darkness and left to their own devices.

On the hottest days even the forest sweats. When the sun climbs high there’s no better remedy for it than immersion in the chill waters of Superior.


Heather and I were at the beach and the day was fine. Seagulls lent staccato accompaniment to a soft wash of gentle waves over sand. A man walked past toward the glistening water, his nearly adolescent son in tow. Together they stood silently at the edge of the world and peered off into the gauzy horizon, each dreaming private dreams.

Suddenly the boy pointed to the bottomless blue of the summer sky, arm stretched straight, finger fairly quivering in extended excitement.

 “Look Dad, a jet!”

And sure enough, across that shimmering sky, riding so far above and beyond mighty Superior that the roaring engines weren’t even so much as a whisper, there was indeed a contrail wavering through the upper winds. And for the young boy, in that moment all the forest and lake and marvels of the real world that surrounded him fell away. You could see it. Like a serpent wriggling free of its skin, all at once.

Born to the wonders of wilderness, the siren song of human construct flung across the heavens caught this boy’s imagination and the glittering promise of contemporary America must have seemed very real to him indeed.

While certainly possible, it’s unlikely that any temporary job scabbing metals from the hard earth will keep him long from its embrace…