Thursday, May 31, 2012

Citizen Artists

On a grey, wet day last autumn, a disparate group of citizens gathered beneath a shelter at a public park in Melon WI. You know somebody, they know somebody. Word gets around. Interested parties show up at the appointed time & place.

At issue was Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal that we should sell the Penokee Hills lock stock & barrel to the Cline Group out of Florida to do with pretty much as they pleased and sell it damned cheaply, too. Not to mention the wholesale abrogation of 40 years of Wisconsin environmental legislation thrown in to seal the deal.

The question was: how might we respond to this, using our own special gifts lifted together as voice to speak for these Hills? Every citizen has a right to speak. With artists, that’s what we do for a living, one way or the other.

“Penokee: Explore the Iron Hills” is one result from that initial gathering. The exhibition will receive its preview this Saturday June 2nd in the Rotunda of the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Opening reception is from 11:00am to 1:00pm.

As space constraints in the Rotunda prevented us from mounting the entire show, I’ll defer speaking about it at any length ‘til when the whole thing takes up an extended residency at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland.

But for this show to premier in this place on this date is exquisite timing, as next Tuesday the good citizens of Wisconsin will decide whether or not to recall Gov. Walker in part because too many of his supporters think a middle finger thrust in the air passes for adult conversation:

Traveling through northern WI over the last weeks, it’s obvious that there’s a hotly contested election going on, as signs touting Gov. Walker or Mayor Barrett sprout everywhere.

For instance, in Ashland I couldn’t help but notice the local Pawn emporium’s property was festooned with signage declaring that they “Stand with Gov. Walker” and I’m thinking, “Yeah, as well you ought, considering”.

On a personal note, the very 1st traveling shoot I ever did with the Linhof brought me to Madison at the end. That would be autumn, early 90’s. As you can see, the concept of perspective control escaped me.

I went on to master my craft and gained that control, which mature perspective now happily brings me ‘round full circle back to Madison.

I’m told the Farmer’s Market in Madison's Capitol Square is quite the thing. If you’re in the neighborhood, please drop on by…

Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes From the Field -- From Grand Marais MI to Grand Marais MN

Fifteen days, 3,400 miles. All three of these United States along the big lake, no Canada. 340 120mm exposures with the Mamiya, 27 precious sheets of 4x5 transparency put through the Linhof. A few thousand mostly rough hammered words, in my spare time. I guess that’s why it’s called fieldwork.

After such a succession of long working days, it’s easy to run ragged.


May 23rd

I’m hard by the darkening harbor of Grand Marais MN, belly full of fresh Lake Trout expertly grilled. It’s a day of rolling storms pretty much all around ‘cept exactly wherever I’ve been, which means I’ve been able to work regardless. A low wind regime and soft light leave me hopeful.

All along Minnesota’s shore folk gear up for the summer season that begins with Memorial Day weekend. The place is still largely empty and that’s how I like it. Even with some stuff unavailable or closed, offseason travel is aces.

It’s 46° and raining a bit. I’ve stopped for frozen custard all the same, which I eat outside. The owner ladies are glad for the business, however modest. In a couple of days they’ll be dealing fancy pants wood-fired pizzas to tourists. From the sound system inside, a sweet woman’s voice sings a plaintive tune.

“I don’t know about the weather for the weekend. Supposed to be wet”, sez I.

“We really need the rain”, sez she. Indeed they do. From Grand Marais MI to Grand Marais MN, the most obvious constant along the south shore is that everything’s bone stinkin’ dry. I’m still trying to rid myself of dust from the Kingston Plains.

Even with the welcome rain I’ve somehow managed to keep from getting soaked though storms have raged all around. Thunder rumbles in back of me, where clouds troll so low the Gunflint Trail and the Sawtooth Mountains are cloaked in them. Before me over the big lake, lighting pierces the veil of rain shafts.

I wonder if the rain’ll make it all the way to Grand Marais MI. That’s some 400 miles of open water southeast of here. Save for the Keweenaw Peninsula, which in the old days you’d have to either paddle around or portage over, but that can now be sailed right through.

400 miles between here and there doesn’t seem like much to a storm, but weather on and around the lake is a peculiar thing and only rarely does it do what you’d expect.

Exactly here it’s rained hard only while I ate the trout. Then it let up. Geez, it’s almost like I had a plan.

Averaging over 200 miles a day for better than two weeks is enough to tire most anyone. It’s easy to run ragged and I am, a bit. I miss Heather. Between now & November I’ll spend more time away from her than ever I have since first we met. That’s near 40 years now, all told. Truth is, the separation is way harder than the work, which is invigorating until the moment I pause, then it’s exhausting.

Not to mention that the issues facing the Superior basin are as daunting as they are numerous, which becomes more evident to me with every passing mile…

Still, I’ve got about the greatest gig in the whole stinkin’ world:

And when I sleep tonight, Superior’s waves and the rolling thunder over them will inform my dreams…

The next day was more of the same, with me being able to work between the storms. Then long about 4:30 while running south down 61 back towards town and along a stretch that offers a good view of the shore, I got stopped in my tracks.

All day the fog rolled in and out along the lake. From this vantage I saw the shimmering white of a fog bank being near to overwhelmed by some of the blackest clouds you’d ever hope to see. I doubled back to the vantage point, hauled out the Linhof, quickly set up and exposed a single sheet before hurrying back to the car as the storm broke above me.

No, there’s no shot from the Toy Canon to show you and treating large format photography like a pocket camera doesn’t often work so well, but sometimes it does and we’ll see if this was one of those times.

When I made it into Grand Marais, the streets were flooded. I ate a quick bite of decently deep-fried walleye along with a slice of pie, then made it back safely to my motel where, for the briefest moment it seemed as if the storm would pass. It didn’t.

Snapped this after I blew a roll through the Mamiya, thanks very much.

That night, near to three inches of rain fell atop the Arrowhead of Minnesota and if you’d like to see what all that water running off a land of hard rock looks like in the Cascade River the next morning, get a load of this:

Later I learned that the rain didn’t reach to Grand Marais and that just east of the Kingston Plains the land was aflame.


My last day on the road I retired my eyes for a day and put the canoe out on my favorite lake to see if I mightn’t engage in some conversation with fish. The fishing wasn’t so hot but when all was said & done I had my hands on five different species, which should be a good day in any man’s book. Still, every fisherman I talked to said the same thing: “Weird year”. And so it’s been.

As I took the canoe from the water, a couple dozen Tiger Swallowtails flitted about, happy in the sun. Later, as the first clouds of the coming night’s storms gathered, three Trumpeter Swans flew low overhead. I remember when there were none of these anymore and then when the only ones you’d see were banded. Now wild birds inhabit the Range, which is a good thing ‘cept Trumpeters are damned contentious critters and I once had one try to knock me from my canoe, but that’s a story for a different day.

Spring was remarkably brief and suddenly, it's summer.


With the holiday I won’t see my film until later in the week and that’s when I’ll know what’s what. There’s no instant digital gratification, that’s sure. Gathered an awful lot of material along the way, which we’ll cover during the coming weeks.

Right now it’s catch a quick breath and a fast turnaround for a trip to Madison, where on Saturday I’ll be honored to attend a timely special event held in the State Capital building.

I’ll preview that on Thursday.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Kingston Plains

Unlike copper or iron, timber is a renewable resource. Modern forest management practices demonstrate that, though the concept is curious 'cause without we first intrude ourselves upon it, forests manage to manage themselves quite well, thanks very much.

By the 1880’s white folk had been picking over the shores of Lake Superior for better than 250 years. Etienne Brule first saw the big lake in 1622 or 1623. Father Marquette established a mission at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668. The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed in 1670 and out of their northern headquarters came to control the fur trade around Superior for nearly 100 years. From there the fabled Voyageurs roamed the big lake far and wide.

Yet save for Indians who lived there, almost no one dared venture far from shore. The wilderness was considered an impassible wasteland fit only for animals and savages, which were taken by many as mostly one and the same. Then in 1841 Douglas Houghton documented copper in the Keweenaw and soon the rush was on.

When white men finally did wander inland, what they found there filled them with awe: a region so vast and rich as to be “inexhaustible”. This they believed, even as they proved it untrue and damned quickly, too. At the same time and for a variety of reasons that destruction was mythologized.  These were indeed mighty men engaged to tame the wilderness, which was both us doing God’s work and (happy coincidence!) essential to commerce and the building a great nation.

West of Grand Marais MI and south of the Grand Sable Dunes, on the Kingston Plains a vast forest of old growth White Pine stood on sandy ground. Then Thomas G. Sullivan came to town and in three years his crews removed 50 million feet of white pine from the Kingston Plains and areas nearer the lakeshore. Often this work was accomplished during winter when the heavy logs were sledded over to the base of the Dunes to await the first barges of spring.  At night men sprayed the snow with water to make ice roads to facilitate transport of the next day’s work.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Come ice out on Superior, crews then hauled their treasure right up the backside of the Grand Sable Dunes and dropped it piece by mighty piece onto a constructed wooden logslide leading some 500 feet down to the water and barges gathered there to haul logs to mills in Grand Marais and Munising. Sometimes, the logs went down the slide so fast the thing caught fire. Sometimes, instead of bobbing around on the water at the bottom, the massive logs skipped as much as 200 feet over the surface of the lake and occasionally crushed those men tasked with their retrieval.

From the top of the Grand Sable Dunes Logslide

Just like the copper and iron folk want to mine for today is mostly targeted for sale to China, much of this timber was shipped off to Europe, though a bunch of it went down to Chicago, which was then being transformed from a devastated town into a great city after the Fire of 1873.

Others followed Sullivan. The Plains were logged over again and again, finally abandoned in 1909 and left piled high with “slash”, which is vernacular for branches and fast drying scraps of wood with no commercial value. All of it full of resin.

Then came fire and like the loggers it came repeatedly, caused both by lightning and the hand of man. The last big fire on the Kingston Plains occurred in the 1930’s. After that the barren landscape fell to rest.

No one knows absolutely why this forest failed to regenerate. Probably the fires burnt so hot they cooked the resin in the wood and left no seeds to germinate. Certainly, the poor soil of humus and peat that nevertheless once supported a mighty old growth forest burnt right down to the sand. What’s true is that more than 110 years after the last logger left the Plains, the landscape remains a stump field.

During recent decades, some of the place has been replanted, which accounts for those lines of trees you see on the horizon. But most of what grows there of its own accord are lichens with the occasional scrub bush thrown in for good measure. Perversely and/or appropriately, the morning I worked the landscape the only vehicles to kick up dust along the Adams Trail were logging trucks, rushing from somewhere to somewheres else. There’s no need for them to stop anymore, along the Kingston Plains.

Still, for all the evident devastation that surrounded me, I found sights like this:

And most amazingly, these tender spring flowers finding life from within a flower pot that’s been stone cold dead for better than a century:

It’s said that “life finds a way”.

No matter how heedless our intrusion upon it, regardless that a given landscape isn’t what it once was and might remain forever altered by our inveterate ambition to bend nature to our will, life does indeed find a way.

And on the Kingston Plains, there is proof:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Notes From the Field -- On the Road

You’re right, this isn’t Thursday.

But by then I’ll be hard by the lake in territory that’s as remote as any along the south shore, made famous in literature first by Ernest Hemingway and later by Jim Harrison. Better by Harrison I think, as Hemingway was too concerned with making himself the World’s Greatest Living Writer, as he explicitly was with his ‘Nick Adams’ stories. Anyway, this writer’s ability to access the Great Grid while traveling this storied region remains an open question, especially as services there aren’t quite “Open for the Season”.

The past winter on the basin never was what it’s supposed to be, though perversely it managed to hold tough until May, which is about right for most years.

There wasn’t a single day with ice on the big lake sufficient for a trek out to the ice caves of Cornucopia, which was planned as the cornerstone for my winter’s fieldwork. That’s a desultory thing, but any lack of opportunity on my part is insignificant when compared to the wholesale cost of a mild Northwoods winter. When a lake doesn’t freeze, it evaporates all year long. Superior is meant to be sheathed in ice for months on end and it hasn't been that, not for some years now.

I’ve been on the Range for three days. I like to start on home turf, to get my bearings. It’s amazing just how drastically things have changed over the three weeks since I turned tail and ran home in the face of recalcitrant winter. The rumor of apple blossoms that brought me in April remains a rumor, only this time they’ve come and mostly gone in the blink of a seasonal eye. The woods that in April were still asleep aren’t only now wide awake, they’re quickly gathering the green veil of summer to obscure what’s held within.

I turned my back for but a moment and spring exploded.

It’s a good year for Marsh Marigolds:

And the best year I’ve seen for Trillium:

Early this morning I drove up County 519 to visit with my river and do a little fishing, all work and no play and all that. The river was low but heavy. In good shape, I thought.

Yeah, we’ve seen this before, but not in spring

While there I kept company with an immature eagle, who hadn’t quite earned his white feathers. The bird hunted the same water with the same results as I, which was nada, zilch, nothing and so it goes. For a little while he sat perched atop a tree across the river and struggled mightily to keep his grip on a slender branch waving in a freshening breeze out from the west. I let him go unmolested. Sometimes, you have to just look and not work; else you see things only through the lens of your ambition and that ain’t the real world. A notion Hemingway might have profited from...

Eventually the eagle flew off in search of breakfast. I took the clue and did the same.

Imagine my surprise when I got back to the South Boundary Road and found a barrier erected in the interim. “Road Closed 2.5 mi” it read. I drove around it and sure enough, in 2.5 there was an impassible barrier and down a piece from that, heavy equipment completely blocked the way.

I’d noticed that trees along 519 had been marked for cutting, step one in widening a road. It was also plain that work crews had been pickin’ around the culverts that run beneath it, but there was no signage when I drove in. If there’d been any hint I’d have demurred, as what ought to have been an easy jaunt of 17 miles to breakfast turned into a 70 mile drive back home in time for lunch.

Funny sort of business, all this work for a mine whose permits aren’t yet let. Sure hope the State got Orvana to pony up their minority split of that heralded “public private partnership” in advance. And if the “bonus” to the ruination of a splendidly scenic drive is gonna be a spiffy new road for the convenience of future travelers, then you’d like to think Orvana’s lackeys in the Gogebic County Road commission would pay better mind to said convenience of travelers today with a little handy signage strategically mounted in advance.

And so it goes. We’ll see a whole lot more of this sort of thing along the way, past & present. It didn’t ruin the day, as it was along the South Boundary road that I found the most robust field of Trillium I’ve ever seen.

Which tells us the season of darkness is well & truly over. Winter is gone now even from our rear view mirror and (with the exception of 519) we can hope the road ahead is clear.

So let’s get back on it. Seatbelts strictly optional for everyone but me.

See ‘ya again on Thursday. Or maybe not…

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Animal Stories -- Channeling Dr. Doolittle

The great northern wilderness comes stuffed with wildlife of all sorts or it wouldn’t be wilderness. From the notable bear, wolf and cougar down to a host of tiny creatures unnoticed, all manner of beasties bring character to the woods. Even the smallest is critical to the health of the place and in ways we might never suspect.

Over the last few decades, many species once lost to the Superior Basin or winnowed down to the significance of rarity are resurgent. That’s due in part to what we’ve done but more to what we’ve stopped doing. That is, mostly we no longer harvest, poison and otherwise destroy with abject abandon.

We’re better these days at recognizing hard choices and the information necessary to make those wisely is more readily at hand, so the real world occasionally holds the argument over relentless construct. These are comparatively better days for wilderness and everything that prospers from it, to be sure.

Forty years or so ago it’d have made your trip, to see a single eagle. Today our national symbol is busy feasting on fresh road kill off the shoulders of highways, with your trip well and truly made should you happen to drive off the road while trying not to hit one. And there’s a bit of a story to tell about just how long it was locals knew the cougar again roamed the shaded hills before the State finally confirmed the popular consensus. We’ll get to that sometime later.

Insect life is particularly robust in the wilderness. Worth a mention, as you’ve not lived ‘til some five inch bug drops from the night and lands on your bare flesh to pursue unknown intent...

Spend enough time in the home of myriad critters and your paths are bound to cross. In the midst of such abundance and diversity, that intersection will range anywhere from sublime to ridiculous and sometimes all at once.


The Barred Owl

Barred Owls are at home in the northwoods. Their distinctive voice is often heard at night and conversations between birds can carry on at length.

The woods that on three sides surround the Presque Isle campground in the Porkies are as good a place as any to hear these. It’s tall forest sporting a dense canopy over sparse understory and much of what falls is annually picked over by a steady stream of tourists gathering wood for fire. On clear nights the light of those fires is seen a long way out over Superior.

Towards the forest away from the lake, light fades fast and when you venture out at night home fires fail completely. We’d walk those dark woods with flashlights turned off because when needs be your feet have better vision than they generally get credit for and once you figure that out it’s only natural to press it, just to see what’s what.

Sure we’d bump around some or now and again take a fall, though not so often as you’d expect. And walking the woods at night without construct to preserve expectation is primal, which can be an exercise in fun. So off we’d go, the occasional minor injury proudly worn as a badge for time in the woods well spent.

The Barred Owl’s voice proved simple to imitate reasonably well. That’s rare opportunity for me as I can’t whistle worth a damn and typical bird calls are well outside my reach.

One night at Presque Isle a particularly incessant bird rang out from the woods. No answer forthcoming, it called from near the same spot again and again. Inspired, I went off into the forest to talk with it, partly to pursue the aforementioned pleasures of blindly stumbling around at night and mostly because when you make weird noises while sitting in the dark at your picnic table in an otherwise crowded campground, the neighbors tend to look askance.

Maybe fifty yards or so into the night and no calamity having claimed me, I found a likely tree to lean upon and commenced as best I could to talk bird.

I called once…twice. A third time, then went quiet to listen. The owl of my ambition maintained place and pace. We parried like this for a bit. By all evidence, the bird was unimpressed. Eventually I slipped down to the forest floor, content to sit and listen to the owl.

Wilderness works in shifts. If anything, nightshift is more active than day. It’s fine to be in the woods in the dark with your back against a sturdy tree and the world around wide awake. Sit still enough long enough and all sorts of things might come to visit -- some even that you can hear and not see, which is quite the thing.

After awhile my owl fell silent. I grew chill in the night and missed the companionship of friends and fire. I stood slowly, all but defeated. With desultory effort, I made one last stab at talking owl before returning to relative civilization. My voice croaked off through the night, “Oout, ‘o oout, ‘o oooooo…”

No sooner had the sound cleared my throat than the genuine article answered back from my tree, not twenty feet above my head. Reflexively, I ducked.

“Geez Louise!!” I cried aloud, or words to that effect. That's strictly human talk, but I'm bettin' the owl got the gist of it.

I’ve often wondered and of course there’s no way to know, whether I’d managed to call that Barred Owl to me in the dark or whether he’d just wandered over to see what the stupid human was up to, sitting in the woods at night, pretending to talk like an owl. Not to mention the chance to startle the stupid human right out of his skin, a sport that animals sometimes engage in just for fun, trust me.

Doesn’t matter. When I returned to the comfort of the campfire, it was with a tale to tell.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


The late Sydney J. Harris was a splendid writer and educator who served as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and later for the Chicago Sun-Times. As a writer he lives on in the Ether primarily via a mountain of quotes both entertaining and wise, which combination is regularly achieved only by the most deft and insightful writers.

I first became a published essayist through the direct intervention of Mr. Harris and I’ll not forget his kindness towards a young writer. Harris ran an occasional column called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things”, a fascinating compendium of fact, curiosity, and whimsy.

These Snapshots are things we’ll gather while on the road gathering other things; items that’ll run the gamut from useful to weird. The banner up there leads with “eclectic” for good reason.

And I get to kick things off with happy news…

Hot off the Presses

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Artist's in Residence Program has granted me a residency during the upcoming season. I'll spend the first two weeks of October there in a cabin in the woods. This invitation is an opportunity to greatly enrich both the catalogue of images and the narrative of the field project. My sincere thanks to the selection committee, for granting me this splendid opportunity.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

The Big Red Hat

Like ancient Egyptians, foreign potentates, Railroad Barons and Captains of Industry, regular everyday Americans build monuments too. Mostly those aren’t self-aggrandizing piles of stone, but rather enthusiastic notations of personal and/or cultural significance, often with a wink & a nod to commerce. This is America, after all.

From cars hoisted on spikes to Corn Palaces arisen upon an ocean of prairie, these quirky monuments to a varied American character were more common yesterday than today. Perhaps that’s due to a culture awash in undifferentiated noise and the resultant homogenization of collective character beneath the onslaught. And when anyyone can build monuments to themselves in the Ether for everyone else to see forever, why make the effort to construct an actual physical thing few will ever see that’ll eventually rust, crumble and fall to irrelevance?

Still. What tangible treasures remain serve in ways both small and large to remind us at least of who we’ve been, if not exactly what we are.

Coming out of Ironwood east on U.S. 2 is a monument to a hat. At the base of it there’s a full recitation of the hat’s genesis, celebrating its longstanding importance to regional culture and with a little bit of corporate pride thrown in for good measure.

Simply put, the Kromer is a woolen baseball cap with brim reduced and flaps attached. Fed up with hats that blew off in the wind, this hat was invented by one George Kromer, a baseball player and railroad engineer. The earliest versions of the hat were sewn by George’s wife Ida.

George did what he’d set out to do and an American success story was born, in the bargain helping to inform a culture. Field & Stream even inducted the Kromer into its Outdoor Gear Hall of Fame. Then during radically changing times, the hat was discontinued by its manufacturer. Now the story’s resurrected, benefit of local devotion to tradition and with an able assist lent by corporate daring during hard times.

Some years ago, my great friend Wil gifted me with a Kromer of my own. I don’t wear it. Can’t abide a bill of any kind, while sighting through a camera. All the same, I took it for a rite of passage and as a symbol of my having come to belong on the Range.

Researching on the Internet I found this video essay, which is way better than anything I can create. Please take a few minutes out to discover just how it is that a roadside monument to a hat isn’t only wholly appropriate, but quintessentially American too:

Watch Stormy Kromer Hat on PBS. See more from In Wisconsin.

How Much for Sausage, with Extra Cheese?

The town of Hurley, WI is Sin City of the Northwoods and always has been, there’s just no getting around it. In 1885 the Iron Exchange Bank of Hurley became the first bank on the Gogebic Range and the town was long noted for its splendid Burton House Hotel, but the simple truth is that on the Gogebic Range and for hundreds of miles around, those certain needs of hardworking folk who party as diligently as they work have always been best found in Hurley.

During the 1880s Silver Street was lined with taverns and so it remains today. The only strip clubs in the region conduct their business in Hurley, down by the Montreal River and hard to the border with the decidedly more sedate town of Ironwood, MI.

Defending his arrest of a dancer for indecent exposure due to faulty adhesive on a pastie, the Sherriff once famously declared: “I know a nipple when I see one!” and if that’s not qualification for slam dunk reelection to local law enforcement, I don’t know what is.

At one end of Silver Street is found Larry’s Goodtime Saloon Restaurant, a 24 hour a day, “BREAKFAST ANYTIME” sort of place -- a handy thing for those who keep hours distinctly different from what most consider routine. Enter Hurley from the southwest on County 77 and Larry’s is at the very head of Silver Street, a gaudy guardian of the entrance to good times. As any business should, Larry’s has erected signage to let you know exactly where you’re at.

Now, I’ve no intention to impugn Larry’s undoubtedly excellent “cooked” pizza or pizza in general, a most excellent food group. Nor do I mean any disrespect to exotic dancers whether individually or as a group. Or whores either for that matter, whose skillset predates even that of writers and whose general reputation is roughly equal.

Which multiple disclaimers bring us to Larry’s most curious signage: