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.

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