Thursday, August 30, 2012

American Myth -- Hiawatha

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the Big-Sea shining water...

"The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855

The Tahquamenon River at Whitefish Bay

As long as we're visiting 'Hiawatha' territory...

Wadsworth wrote Hiawatha back in a time when the publication of an epic poem penned by an author of note carried a cultural import akin to the release of the latest Star Wars film. Everybody who was everybody paid attention and most others couldn't escape noticing.

Upon initial release, critical opinion on the work was mixed. An anonymous reviewer for the New York Times, after savagely complaining about Longfellow's effort to romanticize the traditions of the ...justly eliminated race... of Indians went on to conclude: Grotesque, absurd and savage as the groundwork is, Mr. Longfellow has woven over it a profuse wealth of his own poetic elegancies...but Hiawatha...will never add to Longfellow's reputation as a poet.

It's truly epic, exactly how wrong this cultural/poetry critic turned out to be.

In fact, if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is today remembered at all, it's as author of "The Song of Hiawatha". It's because this poem went on to exert a profound, lasting impact on American culture that -- as another poet famously once wrote -- there's the rub.

Other artists picked up on the Longfellow work, crafting famous paintings, songs, orchestral works and even parodies based upon it. "Hiawatha" as a name lives on scattered throughout the UP -- including that given to the nearby Hiawatha National Forest.

Following its publication, Hiawatha became and remained required reading in American schools for better than 100 years. It embodied for generations a presumptive notion of Native Peoples that continues to burden both cultures even today.

What's true is this:

Though ostensibly drawn from authentic Ojibwa narrative, Longfellow never visited the shores of Gitche Gumee. He cribbed near to everything contained in Hiawatha from the writings of Henry R. Schoolcraft and so much from the Finnish 'Kalevala' that contemporaries accused him of plagiarism.

Henry Schoolcraft rarely transcribed an American Indian story he didn't think could be improved, so he altered them freely to suit his literary tastes. Longfellow picked from amongst Schoolcraft's stories to mix and match as he saw fit, combining legends, fact, historical figures and select aspects of mythology in order to create his Hiawatha.

Much of the Longfellow poem is based on the important Ojibwa narrative of the deity Nanabozho.

Now, the Ojibwa didn't used to have a written language. Even today, on one Ojibwa website there're thirty different ways to spell this name, along with nine additional alternate names for this same figure in the complex Ojibwa narrative. And you can understand why, while writing under the constraints of trochaic pentameter, Longfellow'd choose to change the name of his hero to an easier fit and, not incidentally, a name that tripped more easily off white folk's ears.

All the same, Nanabozho was known throughout the Superior Basin while the historical Hiawatha was (as Grace Lee Nute put it) ...a minor Iroquois substitute. In other words, not even Ojibwa. As if that made any difference to Longfellow. Or to Schoolcraft. Or to the combined teachings of a Century's worth of American students, for that matter.

The Tahquamenon River, where Longfellow had Hiawatha build a canoe

What's true is that, for all the influence Longfellow's poem had and continues to have on white folk's perceptions of Native Peoples, it's strictly an invention in the Romantic Tradition designed to exploit the notion of the Noble Savage.

Hiawatha has little to nothing to do with the authentic narrative of the Ojibwa People, save that since its publication the thing has served as an abject barrier to understanding between two rich & complex cultures that, while living on the same landscape, often prefer to ignore the merits of the other at expense of clinging to inventions of convenience.

Why make the point of this now, except for its lasting resonance and the fact that our travels brought us through Hiawatha territory?

Well, to the Ojibwa Nanabozho is real. Down the road a piece, he'll become part of our shared narrative, so a primer was definitely in order.

And because then we'll make a visit to where he lives.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Burnt and Rebuilt, Now Faced With Creative Destruction...

In 1798, the Northwest Fur Company completed construction of the 1st navigation lock at the Sault. It was only 38' long but for the first time ever, canoes could bypass some part of the rapids without having to be carried past them. During the War of 1812 the Americans burnt this British lock and once again, everything had to be hauled to and from Superior entirely overland, no matter which country you were in.

In preparation for this trip, a friend mentioned he thought that on the Canadian side there was some remnant left of this canal. I determined to find it.

As on the American side, Sault Ste. Marie Ontario has built a splendid park along its canal, highlighting both the cultural and natural history of the area. Now, you'd think one set of locks on the Saint Mary's would suffice. But in 1870 the paddlewheeler Chicora was on its way to help put down the Red River uprising and the Americans refused to allow the boat through their locks, in what would become known as the "Chicora Incident". Subsequently, the Canadians built their own lock, which opened in 1895 and is today used for recreational vessels.

Anyway, in my search for the rumored remnant, I started at the Canadian  Canal Park's Visitor's Center. There I was told that what I sought is on the grounds of the St. Mary's Paper Co., whose property is up for auction. I was told the park had offered to maintain the site of the historic lock but that proposal was "up in the air". The young man didn't think much of my chances of seeing the thing. Security on the property is tight, as is often the case when a place is trending towards industrial wasteland. It's only after the landscape is completely wasted that security goes lax.

Undaunted, I asked the young man if he knew exactly where the site was located. With a wave of his arm he pointed across the canal and said: "Someplace over there."

I decided to ask around some more. At the International Visitor's Center/Currency Exchange, my question was met with quizzical looks until a nice young lady dug up an old guidebook. In that was both a picture of the lock and a street address, which as it happened was just down the block from where we stood. Once again I sallied forth in my pursuit of historical remnant and lo & behold, there it was, in all its arcane glory:

Turns out, this is a reconstruction of the lock burnt by the Americans in 1814, rebuilt by the Canadians some years later.

This reconstruction of the first lock ever constructed on the St. Mary's River has now lasted more than 8 times longer than did the original and you'd like to think that'd make it worth saving from the creative destruction so touted these days by Job Creators.

But first, the good citizens of Sault Ste. Marie Ontario best figure out exactly where the thing is...


Fish Cam!

My timing at the Soo was good, so I got to take a walk through Lake Superior StateUniversity's Fisheries & Wildlife Management's hatchery, which runs a research station from a portion of Sault Ste. Marie's historic powerhouse. Maybe it's just the fisherman in me, but when I spy a fish hatchery...

The hydro-electric plant on the American side of the Soo is a landmark made of white pine, steel and red sandstone quarried from the digging of the canal. At a quarter mile long, 80' wide and with 74 horizontal shaft turbines to generate electricity, at the time of its completion in 1902 this powerhouse was 2nd in size only to the one at Niagara Falls.

Water flows through the place at nearly seven miles per hour or ten feet per second and while that doesn't seem like a lot when you're stuck somewhere in traffic, as a guy who's waded his share of rivers I'm here to tell you that's some serious current flow. And from the bridge, you can see that in the water is the last place you'd want to be, not to mention ending up being run through those turbines...

But we'd not have paused here together if it weren't for the fish hatchery.

LSSU's Aquatic Research Center is staffed by undergrads working towards their degrees. Along with conducting fundamental research, they raise tens of thousands of Atlantic Salmon each year for release into the St. Mary's River and other places throughout the State.

The tanks are kept covered mighty early in the fish's development 'cause the little buggers have learned they can jump. And when I say Atlantic Salmon can jump:

By the time these salmon have reached a couple inches long, they're also incredibly fast. With the cover of the tank removed, it's quite the thing to see them move en masse from one end of the tanks to the other like dark lightning darting across an opaque sky.

These students at Lake Superior State University's Aquatic research Center represent the next wave of informed citizens that'll help lead us out from the ecological wilderness we've mired ourselves in since at least the birth of the Industrial Age. They need all the support they can get and provided you've the means and the inclination, I suggest you check their website for a way to do that.

Meanwhile, for those of us endlessly fascinated be watching fish do their fishy thing, there's this. The camera is located on the far side of the powerhouse and shows mature salmon congregated in their natal waters.

Go on, wade through the necessary fund-raising advertisement.

It's well worth it, during daytime hours:


Iroquois Point

Down from the Soo and offering a vantage point to view where Superior joins the St. Mary's River is Iroquois Point. Mostly, people visit here while on their way to somewhere else because the spot boasts an attractive lighthouse and grounds, which is a magnetic draw for many traveling along the lake.

From the open waters of Whitefish Bay, the confluence of Superior into the St. Mary's River is a dangerous place, with safe passage being only a narrow channel between the reef at Gros Cap on the Canadian side and the rocks off Iroquois Point on the American. Many ships have foundered there.

Light first shone from a wooden tower at Iroquois Point in 1856, immediately following the opening of the shipping canal at Sault St. Marie and since then, a light station has remained a fixture overlooking this treacherous stretch of lake.

But the place has a more substantive historical importance than first meets the eye. In the Algonquian language, it's called Nadouenigoning, roughly translated into Place of Iroquois Bones.

At least partly provoked by European interests in the fur trade and influenced by the introduction of white folk's weaponry, for a hundred years or more the Iroquois waged war with their neighbors to the west, including the Ojibwa who were firmly established on the Superior Basin. This conflict stymied the French fur trade in the region and many attempts were made by the French to broker peace between the various tribes. Nothing permanent was achieved.

Then in 1662, the Ojibwa settled things pretty much once and for all with the Iroquois, at least along Superior.

A war party of Iroquois and their allies set out to confront a gathering of Tribal Bands at Chequamegon Bay, in what's now Wisconsin. To get there they had to pass unnoticed through traditional Ojibwa territory and they set up camp for the night near the Sault on a secluded beach. Early in the morning a group of Ojibwa warriors surprised the Iroquois while they slept and annihilated them. The Iroquois never again ventured into Superior territory.

The European fur trade on Superior opened wide, while Iroquois bones lay as bleached sentinels upon the sand at Nadouenigoning for years.


What's in a Name?

In most places, the local Sheriff is either a villain or a hero, depending upon which side of the law you happen to be on at the moment.

Still, I had to wonder about the chances of a candidate for local law enforcement whose name so thoroughly fills the bill:

As it turns out, Rambo went down to defeat in the early August GOP primary. Smote by the incumbent Sheriff.

Do you suppose there'll be a sequel?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Notes From the Field -- Along Our Way Through August...

Eleven days on the road, better than 2,500 miles. Four states and a big assed strip of Canada, twice.

Nearly 600 exposures captured on film. And with the Toy Canon? Who the Hell knows. A whole bunch. What matters with the Canon is that what was needed, I got.

And thinking about all of it during every mile, nearly every minute of every long day, you get to feeling like maybe you're really doing something.

Then one evening just after sunset at a remote harbor on the big lake, I meet guy who's six, maybe eight days away from home, depending on whether or not he gets "blowed in". The uncertain schedule is 'cause he's circumnavigating Superior alone while riding atop a piece of canvas stretched between the two hulls of a catamaran sailboat not appreciably bigger than my Outback. Two packs to sustain him: one tightly strapped to each slender hull along with a small guitar, well secured.

Just a guy with barely a boat and even when at full sail, hardly an infinitesimal speck upon the vast expanse of wild water.

Just imagine venturing much beyond here with little more than moxy to keep you afloat...

Curiously complimentary to that, below I offer an image of little fish feeding in the warm, late summer current of the Presque Isle River. For whatever reason, these were unusually brazen. Hanging close to the shadow cast by a bridge but otherwise out and about in the day, cruising the inside edge of waving water grass.

I love to see fish do their thing in the water. They're relentless predators, acutely aware of their surroundings and singular opportunists -- always taking full advantage of whatever the river happens to bring their way, lest tomorrow it bring too little to survive.

On my last day in the field before heading home, I spent quite the while atop the bridge leaning over watching these little fish dart back and forth, to and fro. Midday light perfectly obscured my looming presence so I too might do some gathering, all the time casting no shadow of mine upon the water.

And for a blessed couple of minutes standing beneath the sun I knew nothing but these small fish and was with them immersed in the constant current that carries treasure to us all...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sacred Places -- Agawa Rock

You drive out from the lake at Agawa Bay along a road that climbs sharply as it rides the edge of the great hill that makes the northern end of the bay. Up and round and up you go and you think you'll have to come down again to get to the pictographs 'cause no one's crazy enough to make a sacred place on the lake that you have to walk down to from here, not even Indians who knew a thing or two about walking the hills.

Mostly, now they're in their cars too.

Then there's a sign to the left, "Agawa Rock". It's somewhere down there.

Down and round and down you go, a small road run through close meadow and smallish woods and I'm not sure it's all cut over and grown back different but it's a reasonable bet. Or maybe that's just what it's like along the sides of precipitous hills hard to the lake -- jutting hummocks of stone breaking patches of meadow fringed by narrow trees, everything at an angle, the whole place often shrouded in fog.

Come round a downhill curve and the small road abruptly ends with a forked tail. Right leads to Sinclair Cove and a boat ramp. A splendid natural harbor, intimate and fair protected from the caprice of Superior. It's easy to picture a half dozen Canot du Maitre (MontrealCanoes) put up for the night and a glittering necklace of small fires reflected upon the water, what with camp put up tight on so narrow a shore.

Take the left, to Agawa Rock. No need for imaginings today.

The parking lot is nondescript. A simple informational kiosk. An eco-friendly privy, hidden by trees. But there're no picnic tables anywhere and the lot has ample space set aside specifically for buses, so there's that. This morning, the place is near to empty.

There are two trails. Both lead down.

One is called by some a "shortcut". I've taken it once, which was enough. Having just counted them, a fellow traveler told me how many steps there are -- narrowly cut straight through nearly perpendicular walls of black granite, dripping with moisture. An amazing set of stairs, like steps carved out by an unknown hand at the beginning of history. I don't remember exactly how many the traveler said. A whole bunch, by any measure.

The 2nd trail is more typical in that it follows the natural slope of the place along small switchbacks using stones and roots for stairs, construct relegated mostly to trail stabilization and maintenance. The thing is still steep but hardly precipitous and a damned sight easier to make whether hauling an abundance of gear or just unused to walking the hills.

Down and round and down you go, until you think you must be there because at the bottom where these two trails nearly meet, the landscape turns mad. Funhouse mad, with irregularly sloping ground hosting tilted trees  riding wildly between tumbled stone, everything hemmed in by sheer rock walls.

You've entered the realm of the volcano. And once there, intuitively understand why this place has been sacred pretty much forever.

2.5 billion years ago, molten rock formed these granite walls. One billion years ago, pressure fractured granite, allowing lava free flow through these cracks in the world. There was no lake, then.

In time, this became the place we see today, much the same as the Indians saw when first they arrived some thousands of years ago, to a landscape of such powerful, evident significance that it could only have been the construct of Gods.

And still the trail leads down. Not so steep as before but across the mad terrain, mercifully freshened by the breath of big water. You're close. You can feel it.

Finally, the trail leads to an outcropping of tumbled rock overlooking the lake...

From there, only a few steps remain to clamber down...

Where, once you gain a tenuous foothold on the sloping shelf, along the sheer rock wall facing the lake you find such treasure as this:

And it occurs to you if you didn't already know, our modern perspective is skewed. These were meant to be viewed from the lake, to be visited from the lake. Meant for Superior to see them and for Mishipeshu to see itself, honored in the reflection of human art for as long as art and memory can last.

Superior was the only highway. No one walked down from the hills. When ancient peoples first crossed open water and came to this rock, all they had to do was go up and round just a bit, to recognize a sacred place.


As part of that narrative there's supposed to be a site corresponding to Agawa near the Carp River in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. In Henry R. Schoolcraft's writings appears a drawing by Seth Eastman of those pictographs, copied from birch bark scrolls given Schoolcraft by the Ojibwa shaman Chingwauk. Unlike Agawa, this site has never been 'discovered'.

When Johnny & Heather & I were young and regularly bustering around the Porkies, we determined to find this these 'lost' pictographs. Of course, we never did. When I'm hiking around the Porkies this October during myArtists in Residence stay, I'll at least keep an eye out if not my hopes up, old habits die hard.

But there'll be no road leading down to the site. No parking lot, with room for buses or otherwise. Most folk think that in all likelihood, the pictographs near the Carp River have long since disappeared -- worn with time, grown over by wilderness or committed to rock now crumbled to pieces with time. Maybe even stolen with hammer and chisel by thieves, in some circles called "collectors".

What's known is that Chingwauk spoke the truth about Agawa.

I like to believe that if the art said to be a 'half day's march" near the Carp river that flows through the ancient Porcupine Mountains ever did exist it still does. Whether in fact or certainly in spirit, as sacred places don't die just because red ochre fades.

And I've come to believe that this sacred place is no need of discovering.

Because (as long as we're imagining) those folk who know a thing or two about walking the hills...they're likely protecting the place already and with the help of their ancestors too, no tourists need apply.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Soo

In November of 1621, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. In January of 1622, the 1st day of the year was moved from March 25th to January 1st on the Gregorian Calendar. In March of that year came the Jamestown Massacre. It would be four years yet before the Dutch bought New Amsterdam from the Lenape Indians and not until 42 years later that the place was renamed New York.

In 1622 (or maybe 1623, no one can say for certain), Etienne Brule likely became the first white man ever to see Lake Superior. He did that from the rapids at the Saint Mary's river. Archaeologists tell us that human habitation at the site goes back at least to 7,000 BCE. Called Bawating by the Ojibwa who fished the river for whitefish, Brule named the place Sault du Gaston after the brother of the King of France. The Ojibwa he called Saulters, or Dwellers on the Rapids.

Lake Superior pours everything it has into the Great Lakes via the Saint Mary's River. From Superior to Huron, the water level drops some 21 feet, mostly through the narrow channel at the Sault. It was an impassible obstacle to commerce and remained so for 233 years following Brule's visit.

The Saint Mary's River from space, with the Soo to the left

Today the place is commonly referred to as the Soo. Through it has flowed more human history than at any other place on the Superior Basin. It's the pivot point upon which exploration and then exploitation of Superior resources turned.

In 1668 the famed Jesuit missionary Father Pere Jacques Marquette built a mission there, between the Ojibwa village and the rapids. It was the first permanent wooden structure built in the State of Michigan which, of course, wasn't yet anything like a state. Father Marquette renamed the site Sault Ste. Marie.

Then in 1671 came my own personal favorite event in the history of the place -- The Pageant at the Sault.

Mindful of being encircled by the English from Hudson's Bay on the north and the British colonies to the east and aware of the potential mineral riches along the Superior shore, a French gathering was held at the Sault that by fiat declared pretty much the rest of North America as New France. So colorful and strange was this event, we'll lean on the estimable Grace Lee Nute, who describes the Pageant in her seminal book "Lake Superior":

...Seventeen tribes (were represented), including all those on the shores of Lake Superior and immediately beyond. The ceremony took place on the southwest shore of the rapids near the palisaded mission and the native village. The gates of the mission opened and out came the black-robed Jesuits, traders in gay sashes, Perrot the interpreter and De Saint Lusson, the personal representative of (the Sun King, Louis the XIV) in the bright uniform of a French officer. From his helmet fluttered the royal ensign, gold lilies on a field of white. The priest's crucifixes were held aloft as a Latin hymn was sung en route to the little hill where the Indians stood impassive in all the finery beloved of them.

Lusson beckoned the natives to approach...telling them that the Great Father beyond the sea was now their father and that he had sent them tokens of his concern for them. At this point, bales of presents were opened and distributed among the Indians. In return they presented the King with furs. Then the standard bearing the royal arms was set up, while the Exaudiat was sung and Latin prayers were chanted. Finally, as part of an old feudal custom, De Saint Lusson bent, broke off a bit of sod and holding it aloft proclaimed in a loud voice:

"In the name of the Most High, Most Mighty and most Redoubtable Monarch Louis the Fourteenth, most Christian King of France and Navarre, we take possession of the said place Saint Marie du Sault, as also of Lake Huron and Superior, the Island of Manitoulin, and all the other countries, rivers, lakes and their tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereto, those discovered and to be discovered, bounded on one side by the Northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea, this land in all its length and breadth."

Pretty nifty, eh?

The accord was signed, everyone raised their voices in song, shot off their weapons at the sky (careful, don't hit that Sun King), then got down to party. Of course, the accord didn't last.

In 1731 the first wooden boat to sail Superior was hauled past the Sault to make the lake, the same year Alexis de Tocqueville visited the place.

 By 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the British dominion over French claims in the New World. British fiat lasted only until 1783, when yet another Treaty of Paris granted control over what then became the American side of the Sault to the fledgling United States of America.

The Copper Rush hit the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1845. As a result, the Independence was hauled over the Sault to become the first steamship upon the waters of Superior.

By the time iron ore was discovered near Negaunee in 1851, the necessity to alter the Saint Mary's River to allow for commerce was pressing. So in 1852, Congress conferred 750,000 acres of public land as compensation for the building of a set of transportation locks. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which had extensive mining interests in the UP, took the bait.

The State Canal opened on the St. Mary's River in 1855. Copper, iron and other goods flowed freely.

The rest, as they say, is history.


The canal immediately assumed critical national importance. The Army Corps of Engineers quickly took over the thing and remain in control to this day. The locks have been expanded many times and commerce passes through them free of charge. All costs associated with the locks are born by you and I.

Not so the International Bridge, which this year celebrates its 50th Anniversary. Drive across that and it'll cost 'ya, coming and going. 'Course, you're no Job Creator...

The problem with covering Sault Ste. Marie today is that despite a memorial here, an old house there and commemorative plaques all around, being the prime conduit for more than 150 years of industrial activity on the Superior Basin has pretty much destroyed the place for any other purpose.

On the American side is a splendid park and while that highlights the history, its main attraction is a viewing platform immediately beside the locks. It draws all manner of visitors, especially those most wanting to catch a close up view of the mighty freighters that ply the lakes.

In the Visitor's Center is posted the arrival time of the big boats, both up bound and down. After hours there's a hotline you can call for the schedule and no matter day or night, when one of these massive boats pulls through, there're folk on the platform to greet it.

During recent years, our somewhat more inclusive cultural views have allowed for a renewed presence of the Ojibwa in their native home. The ancient burial ground along the river is once again treated as a sacred place, even if it is hard by an industrial canal and next to a river no more.

On the Canadian side, the South St. Mary's and Whitefish Islands are being reclaimed from post industrial wasteland and nudged back towards their natural heritage. The morning I walked the place, I savored the first wild raspberries of the season:

And it's here that you can get a close-up view of what remains of the fabled St. Mary's Rapids.

All the same, neither the Canadian nor the American side of the Soo presents a particularly attractive face, though in the long run the Canadians seem to have gotten the better part of the deal, as Sault Ste. Marie Ontario is a city of 79,800 souls, compared to the American's 14,253 and steadily shrinking, as populations are all across the U.P.

For me, the significance of Sault Ste. Marie is exactly what it was in 1622 and for all the explorers, missionaries, fur traders, armies, Captains of Commerce & Industry and tourists that followed: to get to the north shore of Superior from the south, you must cross it.

And as it's the north shore where Agawa is found, across the Sault we go...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Show & Tell -- June/July

It's said that summer in the U.P. is three days around the end of July. Everything else is either headed into winter or hoping to survive it.

Along the Superior Basin summer is an opportunity too fleeting to waste. A brief season to sleep easy and be warm. A chance to flourish. Belly up to the bar, boys. Everybody eats.

This being August, already days grow steadily shorter with the sun daily dipping ever lower in the sky.

Visually, summer is my least favorite season in the Northwoods. With riotous growth the whole place goes damnably opaque. And irreducibly, blindingly green. Now, there's nothing wrong with green in dabs, but as a palette...

This is selected fieldwork from June & July, captured mostly in the Keweenaw and along the eastern shore of the lake in Ontario during the height of summer. I've set it to 'Spiegel Im Spiegel", a quietly evocative piece by the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Part.

During this Odyssey, whether at the end of hard days spent in the field or after hundreds of miles driven, Part's deeply introspective choral works especially help smooth the way towards my own easy sleep -- for four seasons on the road and now inevitably, inexorably, counting down...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Northwoods Follies -- Playing With Fire

When younger, we camped in the Northwoods as a matter of course. Over the years, in jerks & starts we segued from young & stupid to being fairly adept in the woods and only occasionally stupid. That we favored late season when bugs & tourists are mostly laid down but wilderness is wide awake meant each trip came with some measure of misery. It was simply part of the deal, so we evolved to embrace the challenge.

Until this year, I'd not camped for quite the while. Staying outdoors isn’t friendly to large format gear and the issues are many. I dearly missed the dark of the night in the forest and am quickly making up for lost time as we travel the Superior Basin together. The gig demanded it, so I've evolved yet again.


Along with camping comes the opportunity to play with fire, both literally and metaphorically. On the 2nd night of my Honeymoon I put a dull ax into the back of my hand when chopping wood for a fire to keep my bride comfy, which makes the point in one fell swoop. And when still a Boy Scout I was honored as a hero for helping extinguish a fire that consumed a canvas cabin tent then jumped from there to lick hungrily up a nearby tree. That we’d inadvertently started that fire proved no matter after the fact.

Fire is essential to the health of wilderness. It beats back the encroaching shadow of age, throwing windows open to the sun while clearing the way for fresh life to supplant old. In the woods, fire is both destructive and rejuvenating. Where once our management effort was focused strictly on prevention/containment of all fire in the forest, our knowledge of the ebb and flow of natural processes has deepened sufficiently so that now fire is now recognised as a critical partner in forest management, whether through controlled burns or in not expending herculean effort and expense to extinguish a blaze when folk and their stuff aren’t in danger of burning.

All the same, Smokey the Bear became an American cultural icon for good reason and if some of my stories about fire seem like nothing more than good clean fun it’s only because things didn’t get so out of hand as to cause conflagration and that’s never a sure bet with open flame. These days, careless use of fire in the woods often leads to criminal/financial penalties of the first order and rightly so.

In other words: best do as I say not as I’ve done. And kids, don’t try any of this stupid stuff at home…


My favorite fire story involves my friend Johnny, as it must. We spent the better part of a decade camping hard together in the Northwoods -- beset by cold & wet, often mired in mud. Without fire and the means to readily make it, we’d maybe have taken vacations on a beach somewheres in south Florida and lucky for us our fire skills, eh?

From the beginning, our ambition was to start a campfire using only a single “Strike Anywhere” kitchen match, itself now mostly a remnant of an earlier, less safety conscious time. I suppose if we were really intent on being Masters of Woodcraft we’d have managed flint & steel and lit our fires using no matches, but our ambition fell short of that.

Late autumn brings with it short days and typically we’d return from bustering around the woods near or after dark, having wasted not a bit of daylight on camp chores and the like. We feared no darkness, as we came armed with our “portable sun”, a Coleman double mantle lantern fueled by white gas, which is a ready incendiary of truly awesome proportion.

It’d been wet that day and we returned in full dark to a muddy mess of a camp. The first order of business was eating so while Heather and I engaged in meal prep, Johnny handled the cooking fire. We went about our business at the picnic table, backs turned to the fire pit and Johnny.

There’re few things more frustrating than building a fire with wet wood and though we always covered the woodpile with a tarp, days on end of rain left the air sodden and our cut timber was damp inside & out. We kept an ancient tin cup on hand for just such an occasion -- a well stacked pile of wood with a dash of white gas met by a flung lighted match and… viola, instant fire.

Johnny tried a couple of times to light the thing, to no avail.

Then all at once there came a great whoosh and in a flash the entire forest was bathed with brilliant light that eclipsed even our portable sun. I whirled and Johnny was in midair, arms and legs flailing wildly, leaping backwards while yelling “Shit!” The can of white gas lay on its side next to the fire pit. From the tiny, uncapped opening raged a fifteen foot high column of swooshing white flame.

At that moment we needed a direct line to Red Adair.

In his frustration, or perhaps unable to locate the tin cup in the dark, Johnny’d poured a drop or two of white gas directly from the can over a seemingly inert woodpile. Somewhere deep in the muck there waited a barely smoldering ember. White gas kissed ember, flame shot instantly to can, Johnny flew through air, fun with fire ensued.

It took some effort to secure the flaming can. But in all the light the old tin cup was easily found and once the can was set upright with the help of a long, sturdy stick, it proved an excellent cap. Even today that cup remains in my camping box, though I no longer carry white gas.

Our fire was well and truly lit and without us burning down the forest too, which that night was something of a bonus. Dinner was served hot, as I recall.

Should you care to see what no white gas left in a can is capable of, take a look at this. Start at around the 1:10 mark and just imagine what a can half filled would accomplish: