Thursday, April 26, 2012

Notes From the Field -- A Spring Not Sprung

Middle of April on the Superior Basin is only nominally spring, the average high temperature being all of about 46°. March was unusually warm and some of that spilled over into April. With rumors of apple blossoms fully a month early, I headed north to see for myself.

I’d jumped the gun and knew it but planned to make a go of things, starting on the Gogebic Range then heading east along the lake to Grand Marais and the three shipwrecks that lay in the sand near there. When shooting those, low water and an offshore breeze are helpful. Otherwise it can prove a long way to travel for slender reward:

Prepping for the trip, near perfect conditions were promised for the week ahead. By the time I’d arrived on the Range the thing had turned and a day later it was plain my ship’d been sunk in the near certain prospect of high winds and roiled seas beneath leaden skies at Grand Marais.

That’s the way it goes with fieldwork...

So I stayed around the Range and covered nearly 1,500 miles over five days, scouting for spring. Mostly the woods were like November except duller and with harsher light. In April, rich colors left from the previous autumn are everywhere leached out to a resolute dull brown. Then you round a corner coming down a hill and lingering winter suddenly relents:

Bluebird skies don’t often deliver anything like perfect light, though it was good to work beneath a warming sun all the same.

Birds were active throughout the forest. Especially turkeys, which this time of year are consumed with courting & contest and don’t care who knows it. Frogs sang in hopeful chorus sometimes even during the day but all through every night, save for during the dark of the morn when temperatures dropped to freezing and the need for warmth trumps even the desire for love.

Many years ago during a September afternoon cloaked in cool mist, Johnny, Heather & I ate lunch while resting on a bed of pine needles covering the rock knob above a cascading waterfall. An eagle flew close over our heads and the day was memorable. The fir that shed those comfy needles is fallen now and the pine needles gone. Hard rock is covered with a cushy green moss, still a fine place to sit and listen to water rush by. While there I shot this:

Reindeer Moss (lichen), with a spring of Wintergreen

Track left by the imminent changing of a season is often subtle and easily missed. You must look beyond the immensity of the wilderness to nooks & crannies in order to find it. While land looking I spotted these, peeking up from heaps of winter’s detritus and reaching towards the sun:

Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Those Spring Beauty blossoms are no bigger than the nail on my little finger and I felt lucky to spot ‘em.

I’d have returned home pretty much straightaway, but the threat of tornadic thunderstorms over the entire route kept me on the Range an extra day and as sometimes happens, unplanned fieldwork proved providential.

Cruising down a road I’ve rarely traveled, I spied an old car hard beside the ruined stone foundation of a barn on an abandoned homestead. Behind that car stands an old wall, propped up by a few aged timbers. Behind that wall hides this:

Such treasures from the past are fast becoming incredibly rare, even along the Superior Basin where there’s much that’s long abandoned and left undisturbed. Though the light wasn’t near to optimal, now I know where the thing rests. I’ll return with the Linhof during high summer early one morning, when I suspect this faded American icon will come alive in perfect light. That is, provided the protective wall hiding this prize doesn't first collapse in the swell of a fierce spring storm and finally crush the thing.

It’s sadly not uncommon to make plans to shoot some exquisite remnant only to find upon your return that time and the seasons have conspired to relegate the object of your ambition to wistful memory.

I did spy the apple tree rumored to be in bloom, by the way. A single tree not quite half in flower, having also jumped the gun in hopeful March now holding on for all it’s worth through cold, damp and windy April. It too awaits the bright days and warm nights of May when the promise of rebirth will almost certainly be fulfilled.

And somewhere in that field behind that wall while picking over the rusted but remarkably intact shard of cultural antiquity, I also picked up my first wood tick of the season. On my pants leg not my leg but still. If ever there’s a sure sign of spring…

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick, from Wakefield

I’ve fished at or just up from the mouth of the Presque Isle River into Superior for a long time. Near to 40 years, I figure. That’s fair time gone even without bragging. The place whipped my ass for maybe half that, then in tantalizing stages relented to my enticements. Or maybe I learned better how to romance a river. At any rate we've reached rough accommodation, this river and I. And as an old married man, I recognize a key to true & lasting love when I see it.

Though the signage is specifically for vacationers, it offers a word to the wise all the same.

I’ve no need to beat the Presque Isle and would prefer it not to beat me. Careless tourists are occasionally carried by watery sinew down from the falls and offered up to the cold embrace of Superior, where one’s mortal remains might remain forever lost. I’d be of mixed mind, as to that.

Along our trip you’ll not escape this river, as others sometimes have. If we return here often, that’s because this glistening ribbon that rises in lowland to inform a great forest before tumbling through a hard rock cut at the end is my river and its terminus at big water my anchor in this wilderness.

Spend quality time over decades in a place and you’ll meet other folk who feel about it much as you do, often for reasons entirely their own. Then, whether generous of spirit or jealous in their prerogatives, time erodes most things down to the nub and so it is with people too. Years of watching someone’s approach to fellow travelers, wild waters and especially the creatures that thrive in those mightn’t leave you with a person’s proper name, but it will provide a decent window upon their character.


On the lower Presque Isle you could mistake Dick’s last name for Wakefield ‘cause the appellative came so firmly attached, as in: “Dick from Wakefield’s upriver. He’s got fish.” And frequently when no one else had fish, which puts a mark by a man’s name. I’ve known two people who’ve gone into the Presque Isle during heavy water and lived to tell the tale. Both were fishermen. Dick from Wakefield was the second.

Dick was taciturn in the way of men most at home in the woods and on waters. I say “was” as I’ve not seen him on our river for a few seasons running and suspect Dick’s story is likely well and truly told, some bit of it now only retold here with affection by me.

Already well along when first I encountered him, his keen eyes would flash from wary to twinkling and back again at moment’s notice. I never saw him without a Duluth pack, an old camo jacket hung comfortably from his sharp shoulders and a sturdy fly rod with battered old reel in his hand, mostly with a length of line expertly played out so his bait’d ride through cauldron hole and maelstrom alike, always face to face with fish.

For years we nodded to each other across our river or offered a quick “How’re ‘ya doing?” when our paths crossed. Almost always he did better than me; evidenced mostly by his bulging Duluth pack, no braggart he. Except for one glorious, bitingly wet morning when from across the river Dick stood agape as I returned an in-season trophy walleye unharmed to the water. Though he’d grown accustomed to my releasing fish, I suspect he’d never seen anyone do that before.

One morning I met Dick from Wakefield along the narrow trail that runs close under the bridge then down to a deep, fast run between the final set of falls.

Dick headed up and I was going down, which meant I’d arrived too late. We paused together on the narrow path. Everything about him was as ever save that instead of a fly rod he held the exact same outfit as mine, a fairly upscale pairing of rod & reel rarely seen on our river. Dick cast a glance down at my gear. One’s choice of tools carries particular weight with certain men and our shared judgment went in my favor.

As we exchanged pleasantries I was a trifle embarrassed, caught by the old river rat while wearing an inflatable pfd. That’s my sole hedge against the vicissitudes of loving as fickle a partner as a wild river and the funny thing is, I never wore one before that affair matured.

Then, like no time before or since, Dick from Wakefield told me a story. It went like this:

Dick was fishing his favorite spot -- upriver beneath the suspension bridge and hard to the edge of a shale shelf just below the last set of falls. One foot found empty air. Dick’s balance shifted, aged reflexes proved slow and before he could draw a breath, Dick plunged into dark, swift water.

The river carried him downstream. Dick realised that a tourist on the bridge saw him go in. When the startled man tried to run to the rescue, his legs went out from under him and he fell flat upon the bridge.

“That’s that”, Dick thought.

The old man tried to swim out but the river had him fast. He said it tried to yank his boots off. I’d heard that before, though didn’t interrupt to tell him when or why. All the way down to near the mouth, Dick from Wakefield desperately tried to pull himself from the river. Like the sign says, rock is slippery when wet and all he managed was to delay what seemed to him inevitable.

On the east side of the river at its mouth, cut rock falls steeply away and current gains strength with depth to make a final rush into the big lake. As Dick approached the point of no return, he spied the tourist waiting for him with outstretched arms. As he hurtled by, Dick from Wakefield reached out for one last time and didn’t miss. The tourist held strong. In a moment, Dick was again high, if not dry.

The dappling sun along the trail seemed to dim in response to Dick’s story, which was startlingly familiar to me. The old man looked downriver and far, far away.

 “I dream about it every night”, he said quietly.

There was in his voice a hint of sad betrayal, that a lover he’d devoted himself to so well for so long sought finally to claim him completely. We stood silently together for a moment, each of us caught in private current of terrible memory.

Then the old man did something extraordinary. A slow smile spread over his craggy face. He reached for the zipper to his camo jacket, which was closed tight about his throat. Then he slowly slid it down a piece to offer me a peek.

Hidden securely from the prying eyes and summary judgments often leveled by tough old river rats, men who’d known him for decades and whose respect was long since granted under any circumstance, Dick from Wakefield wore the exact same inflatable life vest as I.

Our river had claimed him and he’d barely escaped. Only a fool would count on a second chance and Dick was no fool. Unwilling to abandon his river and no matter that he’d first have to unzip his jacket to use it, the old man now possessed a secret weapon. And that morning he chose to reveal his secret to me.

I say thee godspeed Dick, from Wakefield. May your pack always brim with fresh fish and your boots remain forever dry.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sidetrack -- Full Moons over the Colorado

We boarded the legendary California Zephyr at Union Station in Chicago. Took a sleeper car and headed west, with Heather a reasonable approximation of Eva Marie Saint and I, sadly for Heather, what passed for Cary Grant.

Bridge repair across the Mississippi forced a detour straight out of Chicago. We ran non-stop all the way to Omaha NE on Union Pacific rail, the 1st time passengers have ridden that track since 1955, or so I was told. Should you think that unimportant or obscure, try telling it to the folk gathered at odd spots along the way to record the event for digital posterity.

We disrespect the railroad in America. That’s extraordinary, considering its outsized role in our history.

Most old depots have long since fallen to decrepitude, with shells of some now retrofitted into sparkling cloaks for shopping malls promised to revitalize faded downtowns. From track level, the old Union Pacific Station in Omaha is a rusted derelict hulk, though I hear it remains magnificent inside. I’d have happily shown you a haunting image of the thing except both times we paused in Omaha it was but briefly and in dark of night. Still, I saw enough as we went to know that riding the rails expressly to pick over the bones of Railroad Barons’ grandiose monuments to themselves would be an interesting gig.

America’s collective back is turned to the railroads that built the larger part of it. Instead of stopping near city squares first brought to existence ‘cause the train stopped there, rails course past backyards and junkyards and endless remnants of once vital industry, offering a ghost tour through the echoes of an America much different than today’s.

Even with all that, the Zephyr lives up to its legend.

Climbing through serpentine switchbacks out of Denver, the train then traverses once all but impassible mountains. And amidst such wild magnificence are found cultural curiosities, like this whimsical fence near the station in Fraser CO.

Along the way there’s much to marvel at, not least the incredible ingenuity it took for folk to cut track through mountains. Notable is the Moffat Tunnel, completed in 1927. At 6.21 miles in length and topping out at an elevation of 9,234’ it’s the highest elevated, third longest passenger tunnel in America. And should you think that unimportant or obscure; by turning a key in Washington D.C., President Calvin Coolidge set off the final blast that “holed through” the Moffat Tunnel while from the heart of the mountain that signal event was broadcast nationwide via radio.

Once the Zephyr deposited us in Salt Lake City, we rented a car and toured a bit. In Park City we saw more old hippies, new hippies and wannabe hippies gathered in one place than at any time since 1974. It was there I wandered into the shop of Michael Fatali and there was reminded that for all the antique craft applied and the various trials that inform my own field work, when put next to an authentic Master Photographer/Printer, I’m a documentarian.

Humbling aesthetic context aside, the next morning we headed off to our cabin in Zion National Park.

I have to think that when white folk first wandered up the Virgin River and found themselves in its great canyon, some fell straight to their knees with the sight. Towering above the river and the elegant Cottonwoods that flourish beside it, great towers of rock rise to the sky like mighty sentinels celebrated by Greeks in ancient myth.

Of the ‘Big Three’ critters that roam Zion, I saw two: the BighornSheep, of which by the 1950’s there were none left in the Park and a California Condor(!), of which there remained only 22 free flying in the entire world as recently as 1987. Today the sheep are returned home and some 130 California Condors again soar over the vast American West, including the one I saw off Angel’s Landing.

The 3rd beastie of that aforementioned Big Three is the Mountain Lion and as I’m not anxious to meet one face to face whether in Utah or the U.P, it’s all good.

In a robust day and a half I made 200 exposures using the Mamiya. Later I learned that Kodak’s discontinued the film I used. Thankfully, there remain other good options on the market. But like the railroad during decades past, what practical cultural value film retains is fading ever faster. And with that my creative obsolescence gains speed by rolling downhill.

I can’t burden Zion with interpretation. That’s a task best left to poets and painters. But in honor of having ended more than 40 years association with Kodak product while there, here’s a short shot of spring at Zion National Park -- captured with a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II D shooting 120mm Kodak E100G transparency film, requiescat in pace:

I closed my stay in Zion by shooting ancient petroglyphs in high desert on a sparkling morning. We found these courtesy of a fellow traveler’s detailed instructions. All roadside signage is removed, due the casual disrespect shown by tourists when signage leads them too easily to sacred places.

Then after a fine weekend passed in the company of creatives gathered together in Salt Lake, we boarded the train home. Of everything we experienced, perhaps the most curious was cultural.

For a lengthy stretch, the California Zephyr follows the path cut by the Colorado River. This includes through canyons inaccessible except by kayak, raft or train. For reasons inscrutable, it’s long been the habit of river rats both male and female to moon the Zephyr (brief partial nudity) as it goes by.

Don’t often see wildlife like that along Superior…


The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was once honeycombed with rails. Trains hauled poor folk into the region for work then hauled out the product of the work those folk put in. Resources exhausted, people were left to fend for themselves. Rails that once fed the region have been scavenged, there being only poor folk left to haul and there’s little profit in that.

Heather fondly remembers that on our first northwoods trip together, the call of trains beguiled the forest through the night. Now the railroad is just another cultural memory like the axmen and the miners, with old grades serving for rough roads or snowmobile trails. Having ridden the Zephyr out to the western wilderness and back, I suspect we’ll now pay a bit closer attention to those remnants we find along our way.

For all the wonders of Utah and the greater American west, the thing that struck me most about the place is how arid it is.

They told me there’s a swamp in Zion, but it’s a postage stamp of moist land off the Virgin River otherwise hemmed in by hard rock. My home turf of the Ottawa National Forest is ‘round about 100,000,000 acres of forest and maybe a quarter of that is real swamp -- the sort you can too easily get lost in if you’re careless.

All the time I was out west, increasingly with each passing moment and no matter how much in awe of my surroundings or how good a time was had, I positively yearned to be near water. 

Especially big water, as in Superior. And when the wind is hard out of the north, I can smell that from here.

It’s good to be home.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Opening Day

Opening Day of the baseball season is like no other American holiday save perhaps the 4th of July, when one also has cause to look to the past, anticipate the future and gather together to have a blast all at the same time.

Though many might disagree, baseball remains the quintessential American pastime. Its roots are rural and agrarian, being played on a planted field. The game is intensely collaborative yet absolutely dependent upon individual contribution for success. And nearly anyone can play. These days it might seem that exclusion and winning at any cost are the only American virtues, but that’s not reflective of our traditional character and we needn’t believe it is, no matter evidence to the contrary angrily offered up by hectoring malcontents.

Baseball is who we were and, I maintain, reflects the best of who we are.

Most small mining or lumber towns in the Superior region had their own baseball field and many of those had teams to play on it, often sponsored by a local merchant or company. It was welcome relief, to leave your cares and troubles behind and attend a game with your neighbors beneath the summer sun.

I’m blessed because having been born a Cubs fan, any expectation of winning was shorn from me at an early age so I need never get unduly excised over short result gained from good effort put forth, whatever the endeavor.

Opening Day is also a sure harbinger of spring. With it, the world has once again turned. Even when they have to shovel snow from the field to play, we’re assured. The cold back of winter is broken.

I’m back from Zion and parts west, where the stark richness of the landscape is beguiling and oh so deadly ‘cause what a body needs first and foremost is water and that’s what they ain’t got much of, out there. Along the way I met with a diverse group of vaguely like-minded creatives and found both a sense of community and mutual respect. That’s quite the thing.

And for once, the promise of a season’s turning with Opening Day is no mere symbol of hope. This year spring in the Northwoods is a good month early and regardless of cold nights and brisk days from here on in, even around Superior winter’s sturdy grip is already well loosened. A friend’s neighbor has apple trees coming into bloom and that’s that. It’s time to get at it.

Back on the road is where I’ll be by this time next week, when I’ll post of trains & deserts and mighty Zion, home to the stone thrones of gods. That’ll be our last diversion.


In the interim, ‘cause I’m not yet caught up from travels to Utah or near to ready to take off for Superior next week, I’m beggin’ your pardon for this off topic indulgence but I’m conscious that a blog ought not remain fallow for too long…

Steve Goodman was one of the finest singer/songwriters of my or any generation. He wrote many great songs, both evocative and humorous, including what some say is the greatest train song ever -- “The City of New Orleans”.

Steve died too young but not before he left his fellow Cubs fans this. It’s said they spread his ashes at Wrigley Field. Sorry there’s not a better version on video, but this is the only one I found. He was already ill with the disease that claimed him and not in the best of voice, but boy, he could sure still pick it.

So here’s to you Steve, on this Opening Day -- a day made for reflection, hope, a dogged, positive persistence and especially a healthy dose of wry humor -- the exact stuff that's long defined America for the rest of the world: