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.

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