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?

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