Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Cabin in the Woods

OK then.

We've been a full year together on the road. Though I've extended our plans into November as last year the late season light consistently proved the most perfect I've had the pleasure to work with, we're nearing the end of the fieldwork all the same. I've a midwinter coda in mind, but we'll just have to see how that goes when the time comes.

I begin my two week artist's residency at the Porcupine Mountains this coming Monday. Based on the state of things across the region just two weeks ago, we can expect Northwoods autumnal splendor to be peak or just past, depending.

Back in May when this residency was 1st scheduled for October, I expected the timing'd be perfect. And not just 'cause the forest so near the big lake is then typically bathed in elegiac glory. I'd anticipated then that we'd be at this particular point of the journey now and as is it turns out, I was right.

Truth is, I'm well worn. Ridden hard and put up wet, as an old boss who'd occasionally ride me hard used to say through a toothy smile.

Consequently, the landscape's inspiring poetry has recently begun to slip away from me. 

Always damnably elusive to capture, mostly only authentic in the moment, never answerable to any concern of ours that we must somehow translate the world we see and feel so others might see and feel it as we  -- the long miles and constant effort to chase down & capture a spirit have made transcendent engagement with that spirit harder to come by.

That's a mean thing, considering.

So it's exactly the right time for a recharge and two weeks of seclusion at a cabin in the woods should prove just the ticket. Afterwards we'll catch up on outstanding business then tie the disparate threads of this narrative together and finish strong while continuing to do justice to the complexity of this magnificent landscape.

And there's much yet to do. For instance, though we've seen both Omett and Nanabijou, there's another giant of more immediate concern and his footprint upon the earth justifies the word Promethean.

Where I'll be the next two weeks there's neither running water nor electricity. And Internet connectivity is mostly but a rumor. I get that young folk engaged in this sort of project would keep in touch no matter what, texting about this & that, maybe even describing in detail what it's like to use an outhouse on some 24° morning an hour before dawn. But I'm not that guy and figure to be pretty much gone from here. Best to save the charge on my variety of devices for if/when they're most needed.

Not to mention that by definition, solitude means being alone. I'm very much looking forward to that particular aspect of the residency.

It'll be a chance to properly reflect on where we've been, the places we've seen and what we've learned along the way. This late in the season, there promises to be a whole bunch 'o dark, so I'll spend a lot of time writing in longhand & reading by insufficient light.

For decades now, the Porcupine Mountains wilderness has held a special meaning in my life.

Johnny, Heather and I used to bushwhack our way up the steep shaded hills, covered in sweat and forest debris, looking in all the wrong places for Copper Culture artifacts we never found.

And a bit better than 29 years ago, Heather & I honeymooned at the Presque Isle in a campsite that's since collapsed into the lake, make of that what you will. I can't say there's been a year since that I've not had the pleasure of standing beside my river at least once.

Like most photographers not on contract, my chances to spend extended time in a single place with the sole purpose being to translate the landscape when at its finest have been exceeding rare. It's wholly appropriate that I have that opportunity now, at this time, in this place.

I've material prepared that'll run each Thursday while I'm gone, provided circumstances allow. It's my own personal, used to be oft retold Big Story of a single day in the Northwoods. I hope you'll enjoy it.

At any rate, thanks for coming along. I'll catch up with you on the other side. Then over the next few months, together we'll bring it home...

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Truth, the Whole Truth and...

That part of the Superior Basin near what's today called Thunder Bay is where ancient spirit still resides. Where it's lived for thousands of years and does so still, as both the Wolf and the Anishinabe remain on its shores.

Canyon of the Gods

Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park isn't far east out of Thunder Bay or too terribly west out of Rossport. It's a bit of a drive off the highway but well work the side trip. Even though it's generally a positively hellacious place to photograph...

Science tells us this about Ouimet Canyon:

More than a billion years ago magma pushed up to just beneath the surface of the Earth and there ran horizontally, creating what's known as a sill. In time the sill cooled to become hard rock known as diabase. Over eons, the softer material covering the sill eroded away, exposing the diabase. Then a million or so years ago, the weight of a massive glacier broke the thing. Succeeding eons of freeze and thaw carved it out to what's there today -- a great, narrow gorge hemmed in by vertical walls that rise some 300' straight up from the canyon floor.

Because the sun rarely reaches that floor and cold pockets of air are trapped between its walls, Ouimet Canyon is an incredibly rare, remnant ecosystem.  The boulder strewn bottom of the canyon is haven for a variety of arctic and sub-arctic plants that when the region was colder were common but are now found this far south nowhere else. These include a variety of mosses and lichens, along with Arctic Wintergreen.

Due to the astounding rarity of the place and the fragility of what thrives there, access to the canyon floor is restricted. But two convenient viewing platforms from the rim provide ample opportunity to stand in awe of this special landscape, with the narrow walls making for resounding echoes when tourists call out across the chasm. And while you're looking down, see if you can spot the occasional whitewall tire left there from when (I'm told) locals used to push cars off the top of the canyon, just to watch them fall.

That's what science teaches us about Ouimet Canyon, and we must suppose it's largely true.

But being the north shore of Superior, this is also true:

Long ago, the good giant Omett assisted Nanabijou in the raising of mountains and the making of lakes.

In time, Omett fell in love with Nanabijou's daughter, Naiomi. One day, while Omett raised a mountain, the peak broke away and crushed Naiomi. Afraid of Nanabijou's wrath, Omett buried Naiomi's body in a shallow lake and covered it with a rock shield.

When searching for his daughter, Nanabijou strode across that shield and felt vibrations from beneath it. He drew a thunderbolt from the sky and struck it down hard to the earth, which split open into a canyon to reveal Naiomi's body. Nanabijou reburied his beloved daughter where she'd fallen and from her grave grew many beautiful flowers found only there.

To punish Omett, Nanabijou turned the giant to stone and placed him forever on the canyon wall to watch over Naiomi's grave.

Which is where Omett can still be found, even today...

Thar Be Silver Beneath That Thar Lake...

Near the tip of Ontario's Sleeping Giant (Sibley) Peninsula is a tiny island. Unlikely though it seems, at the height of its production, this little spit of wave washed rock was one of the richest silver mines in the world.

History tells us this about Silver Islet:

In 1868 while looking about for mineral riches, John Morgan happened upon Island #4 at the bottom of what became the Sibley Peninsula just east of Fort William.

A tiny mound of stone no longer than ninety feet in length and but six feet or so above lake level at its highest, this was an unlikely & particularly dangerous site for a mine but then Morgan found a vein of silver running from the surface of the island, descending down beneath Superior.

For two long years the Montreal Mining Company failed to build a mine, but as so often happens when our ambition is to scab riches from hard ground, the wonders of human ingenuity were pressed upon the place and progress soon prevailed. The Montreal Co. cut its losses and sold off the property to one Major Sibley of Detroit, who rolled up his sleeves and sent others to work.

Major Sibley's foreman, the engineers and a crew of thirty laborers arrived in September of 1870, late in the season for Superior. Working 18 hour days they managed to construct a breakwater around the island but in October the lake destroyed that. They built a second breakwater twice as large as the first and by Christmas the lake claimed that one too. Meanwhile, the laborers and their families passed the winter in tents along the windswept frozen shore of the big lake.

The next year, houses were constructed on the mainland, a break wall consisting of 50,000 tons of stone was built to expand the sliver of silver bearing rock to ten times its natural size and Sibley's operation on Silver Islet began in earnest.

Though there remained the problem of mining beneath the waters of Superior.

Working conditions were extraordinarily hard, even for the times. Miners made $68.00 a month, less 14 for room & board. At the end of each 16 hour shift they were fined ten dollars if they refused a body search.  Safety measures weren't even a consideration. Whiskey consumption was tallied. Labor unrest was constant, but in its first three years of operation the mine on Silver Islet shipped $1,300,000 worth of silver ore.

It was never again to be as good as that and took the next ten years to double the total. Meanwhile, the difficulties of digging a mine and the terror of working beneath Superior only intensified.

During a particularly brutal storm, the lake smashed the break wall, crashed over the works and poured down into the shaft. Two buildings on the island disappeared. By 1883 after thirteen tears of digging, the main shaft had reached nearly 1,300 feet deep beneath the lake and the number 13 lived up to its reputation.

Winter came on fast, the lake froze over and the coal carrier Tuttle never made it past Houghton. Fuel for the pumps that kept water from the shaft ran short. The company used wood to try and keep the boilers going and even dismantled buildings to feed the beast, but to no avail. The shaft flooded and the mine on Silver Islet closed for good. Eventually, the island reverted to something like its natural size, though even today the entrance to the shaft can still be seen beneath the water that claimed it.

Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant (Sibley) Peninsula is mostly a State Park established in 1948 when the locals became afraid that the place would again be logged over. At its tip is the small community of Silver Islet, a curious place where the remaining homes are built into a sheer rock cliff and where a recently rehabbed vintage general store is now a destination spot.

But being the north shore of Superior, this is also true:

A notable band of Ojibwa once lived on an island off Thunder Bay, which island is today justly called Isle Royale.

The giant Nanabijou decided to reward this band for their fealty to the Gods. He called their chief to Thunder Mountain and  revealed to him the location of a great cache of silver. Nanabijou told the chief that if any of the tribe revealed the location of the mine to white men, the giant would be turned to stone and the tribe would be no more.

Apparently the tribe found the mine, as they went on to be famous for their workings in silver.

In battle with the Ojibwa, the Sioux found these splendid ornaments on wounded Ojibwa warriors and tried mightily to wrest from them the secret of the metal's location. The captured Ojibwa stood firm. Even torture and death couldn't pry from them the sacred secret.

Sioux chieftains devised a plan. They'd send their best scout disguised as an Ojibwa into the Anishinabe camp. The plan worked and within a few days the spy learned the secret of the silver. Sneaking into the mine at night, he stole away with several pieces of the precious metal, to prove he'd gotten what he'd came for.

On the way back to his own camp, this Sioux scout stopped at a white man's trading post to buy food. Having no money to pay for it, he produced a chunk of silver. Excited, the white men persuaded the scout to lead them to the secret mine.

When almost in sight of Silver Islet, a fierce storm roared down over the Cape. The white men drowned and the Sioux spy was later found properly crazed, floating alone in his canoe.

And the most extraordinary thing happened during that storm -- where once was an open bay there now appeared a great Peninsula in the shape of a sleeping man.

Which is where Nanabijou can still be found, even today:

And the Ojibwa? They no longer live on Isle Royale...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Snapshots -- Along the North Shore

Then who does one listen to?

So I'm hurtling east on 17 along Superior, towards Terrace Bay on the way to Pukaskwa. The sky grows active, ominous. Then rain pelts down in something just short of sheets and continues for the next 120 km or so of steeply cursive road. Periodically I tune to Environment Canada, whose radio voice informs me that it's partly cloudy at Terrace Bay and likely to stay that way for the remainder of the day.

Later I tell this story to a fellow traveler and he says with just a hint of you should know better in his voice: "Don't listen to Environment Canada. Even they say not to listen to Environment Canada."

Right. Now they tell me.

But a fair piece east of Nipigon I captured this and made it safely to Pukaskwa, later in the day. All's well that ends well, I suppose...


Really, really big fish don't swim here anymore...

Lake Nipigon is called by some the "Sixth Great Lake". I'd not go that far, though it's mighty big indeed.

And as the largest tributaries into Lake Superior, the Lake and the Nipigon River that flows from it deserve respect. But that's not why, when Heather & I first traveled the north shore, I insisted on driving all the way up the river to see a place I didn't realize no longer exists.

We went there 'cause it was up on the Nipigon that during July of 1915, Dr.J.W. Cook enjoyed a couple of the best days in perhaps the entire recorded history of freshwater fishing. You don't get so close to a place like that, without you go have a look-see...

Now, if you don't know Brook Trout, you might think "So?" Truth is, most folk are tickled pink to have caught a brookie of 13' or so. This hallowed emblem of the Northwoods isn't noted for size, but rather for delicacy, beauty and the finesse it often takes to coax one to the net.

Dams have forever altered the Nipigon River. That's not a fish ladder, to the right. It's a log chute, added to the dam just before the rails made running logs down the Nipigon obsolete:

Today in Nipigon as in other areas around the Basin, populations of Coaster Brook Trout are on the rebound from near oblivion, thanks to the efforts of communities, fishermen, naturalists and others committed to the continued health of Superior.

And, as it turns out, there still are wild places where really, really big fish swim, though both the times and the fishermen who catch 'em, they've certainly changed:


Any Port, Near Dark

The first time Heather and I went up and over, it was September and we'd not made a plan. Used to traveling in the States, while charting our way we'd seen the Provincial Parks as they appeared on the map and figured to hop from one to the other as we went. We'd figured wrong.

The wakeup call came just east of Rossport Ontario, when at the end of a long day we went to pull into Rainbow Falls Provincial Park only to find it closed. I don't mean closed as in no services please self-register then drop your fee in the slot near the empty kiosk and have a good time kinda closed, a fairly common offseason affair around other parts of the Basin. I mean Katy bar the door closed, as in gated and locked, too the Hell bad for you.

There we were, at a total loss and more or less in the middle of nowhere as darkness fast approached.

Which is how we first found ourselves at the famous Rossport Inn.

Built in 1884 to service passengers on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Inn is the north shore's oldest surviving hotel. We once spent an evening on its rooftop deck, sipping brandy to forestall the effects of a chill mist off the lake while visiting with two Canadian Wildlife & Fisheries guys. They regaled us with stories from their job, which was to apply the then nascent technology of digital mapping to the bottoms of all the bodies of water in Ontario. That was quite the night as you'll imagine. And once again I realised I'd missed a true calling.

Anyway, at the time of our last visit the Inn boasted a very fine restaurant indeed, featuring a full menu and the fresh catch of the day, whether whitefish or trout. Which leads me to a small tale of my own...

Heather and I'd taken a cabin at the Inn and were spending a lazy afternoon in the Adirondack chairs beneath a late summer sun. Suddenly, a great commotion rose from the kitchen of the restaurant.

Cursing and yelling and crashing ensued. Then a young man burst out from the kitchen, fairly falling on his face from forward inertia. The screen door slammed behind as he hopped on a bicycle and tore off to parts unknown.

We wondered if murder hadn't occurred in the kitchen.

Turns out, the local fisherman whose job it was to bring in the catch of the day had gotten drunk the night before and hadn't made any catch that day, leaving the restaurant empty handed.

To have no trout was a sore disappointment, but as the chef made up for it by serving the finest lamb chops I'd ever eaten, it was all good.

I can't vouch for the place these days, so should you decide to go, do your research. And opt for a cabin instead of a room at the B&B, trust me. But I can vouch for the quiet charms of Rossport, which remain as ever unchanged.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Notes From the Field -- Sky Show!

One of the things I dearly missed when not camping due to the inconvenience of lugging around large format photo gear was the rich experience of being alone in the woods at two o'clock in the morning. That's a perfect time to give yourself a serious case of the heebie jeebies, lemme tell 'ya. But as it turns out, between chasing light with predawn wakeups and the lateness with which I've generally crawled into the tent after a day's worth of fieldwork, when camping this year I've mostly slept right through.

Still, staying up late has had occasional advantages...


The advent and ongoing development of digital image capture revolutionized photography and is well on the way to fundamentally altering our approach to the visual world.

I'm no Luddite and though this gig is pretty much all about the film, as a one time member of the 1st commercial digital imaging department in a major metropolitan industry, I learned long ago that resistance to technological change is ultimately futile. The only way to survive is to get with the program. Many businesses didn't do that and now an industry is forever gone.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot not to like about digital photography. For one thing, the ease of use has excised nearly all the necessity for craft. Then fundamentally, the way we view the world through our pictures has changed from the tactile, translucent experience of standing awestruck before an image captured via natural light through emulsion and printed in continuous tone, to that same light translated by numerical approximation and via hard-edged pixels then thrown backlit through a screen.

I can't help but think this has made smaller, what once was often inspiring.

And if what I've seen at art galleries & such during my travels around the Basin is an accurate indication of the public appetite, then as a photographer I'm truly one dead duck. That's 'cause mostly what I've seen offered for sale is imagery so heavily processed, so intensely manipulated as to have lost any real connection to both our natural world and the authentic moment in time when the shutter's released.

This stuff isn't really photography at all, but rather graphic art. And with that I can't compete.

If that's what pleases the image buying audience these days, then in a short span of time, the distinction earned by working in large & medium format film will no longer even be recognized. And to the extent a thing goes unrecognized, appreciation of it becomes that much more unlikely.

So it goes. And that's why we're together on this road to begin with, after all.

But contrary to what it may seem, I'm not here today to bury digital, but rather to praise it. Along with all the lousy stuff that most revolutions bring and that none of us are gonna forestall for more than a moment anyway, digital has allowed for some truly amazing things.  

I mean, just trying doing this with traditional film and good luck with that:

Now, I don't imagine you'll capture the like of these with your stinkin' phones, but my Toy Canon's merely a consumer grade, entry level SLR sporting crappy glass, which means that anyone out there with even a decently equipped digital camera can do this too.

So here's digital photo tip number One and Only, straight from an old film dog to the rest of you out there in the modern world:

Secure your camera to a tripod. Manually set the thing to f5.6 (depth of field being unnecessary as the Universe supplies all you'll need), ISO 6400, 25 seconds exposure. You'll have to experiment some with the focus, as auto focus won't cut it and most cheap lenses aren't actually sharp at infinity when ratcheted down to the symbol that designates it.

And, of course, you'll have to put yourself someplace where you can actually see the night sky in all its glory.

Then point that digital magic wand of yours to a favorite place in the heavens and shoot...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

True North (With apologies to Jim Harrison)

In common parlance the Superior Basin is divided like this -- The UP (Michigan), the South Shore (Wisconsin), the North Shore (Minnesota). And Canada.

Regardless of convention, any dummy with a map knows Minnesota's claim is specious. And then when you actually go there...

This is the north shore and most of it bears little resemblance to anything in Minnesota:

Manitou dwell here, as do Thunderbirds. And Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx. It's where Nanabijou sleeps, consigned to stillness through disobedience but a sentinel still and for all the days of men, until there are no more left of days or men.

For First Nation Peoples and Voyageurs alike, the canoe route across the top of the lake was especially arduous. More often than not a  vertical landscape rises straight from the water, making safe harbor tough to come by. Prevailing winds frequently hurl Superior in crashing waves against that hard rock. Sudden storms rake the place, roaring either unexpectedly down from behind  the brooding hills or reaching from the horizon across miles of open water so fast that by the time you think maybe it's best to turn around, it's too late.

Even today, the drive up & over can be epic. Trans-Canadian Highway 17 is one of the great drives in North America. Whether leaving from the Soo and traveling west or from Grand Portage east, the northern half of the Lake Superior Circle Tour is the sort of journey that should be undertaken at least once in a person's life.

Heather & I have 'done' the north shore multiple times. The 1st by winging it during September, which uncertain delight I'd not recommend. Services can feel slight even in summer and with some of the Provincial Parks closed for the season come mid-September, making a plan sure helps ease the way.

For this project we've bit off the journey in two redundant bites -- first to Agawa then back they way we came, now from Grand Portage MN all the way to Pukaskwa National Park and back. We've done it this way 'cause while making the entire trek is a really cool thing to do, when hurtling straight through what you've missed along the way is irrevocably left behind  -- there're no 2nd chances to get things right.

North of Superior is a wildness so remote that most folk don't imagine such vastness of untrammeled space still exists within a day's drive of millions of people. And the Queen's Highway ribbons right through it, up over and around every magnificent kilometer, nearly all of it staying within rough spittin' distance of Superior.

Except, that is, for where the road arches like the back of a Halloween cat to work its way around massive Pukaskwa, which is where we'll start this leg of our journey. I choose this place because I love it. And because, with the exception of White River where still lives Winnie the Pooh, when we head out of here and by the time we make Minnesota, the circuit will be complete and we'll then have visited the length & breadth of the Superior shore.

PukaskwaNational Park is the largest contiguous preserve on the Superior Basin, no matter which direction. Inexplicably, it's pronounced Puck-ah-saw. By any name, it's gifts are many. If you wish, you can take a canoe out of White River and run the 52 miles down to the lake, between 9 & 18 portages included, depending on your expertise. But make sure you build a few days slack in at the end, in case the open waters of Superior prevent return to anyplace that'd accommodate a car. Or you can pack it in -- put it all on your back then cross the new suspension bridge and hit the trail into the interior. All that takes is a permit. And moxy.

Or you could take the challenging Coastal Trail to see the world famous Pukaskwa Pits, but if you do kindly treat the sites with utmost care as the passing years aren't doing anyone any favors in the effort to figure out who made these, when and for what purpose.

But most folk content themselves with the fine campground near Hattie Cove and the Park's visitor center, located in the one tiny space of the entire place that'll allow for creature comfort and with a honeycomb of day trip trails leading off across a remarkable landscape.

For me the highlight of the place is the chance to camp amidst the boreal forest, hard by the lake.

At some 4.4 billion square kilometers of mostly wilderness, the boreal forest of Canada is considered the largest intact forest on Earth. The north shore of Superior is the southernmost reach in North America of these distinct woods and the differences between it and the rest of the forest that surrounds Superior is instantly recognizable -- there're far fewer species of trees and almost no broadleaf, but with a dizzying array of other plants including wild orchids. 

Visit here and you'll know you're altogether someplace else, even compared to the rest of the Superior region.

Typified by dunes and long sand or cobble beaches frequently broken by sudden rises of massive rock, the area plays host to what's commonly called "Old Man's Beard", a parasitic symbiosis of lichen and algae that resembles Spanish Moss and drapes from the conifers, lending them a singular appearance. Considered an exotic, destructive species outside its native range, Old Man's Beard has long been recognized in folk medicine to be an effective antibiotic.

To get to the camp you'll skirt the town of Marathon, a paper mill company town that you shouldn't count on for much. Then you'll pass through Pic River First Nation territory. Unlike too many areas along the south shore, at Pukaskwa the Ojibwa play a role in the management of the Park and maintain a strong ancestral presence in the region.

Upon arrival at camp, I set up and kicked back a bit to shrug off the long day on the road and sink into the place. No sooner had I gone quiet than a jackrabbit came to visit. He noodled around for maybe half an hour, working over the small shoots of tender grass along the edges of my campsite. Occasionally I'd speak softly to him and he'd look at me with liquid black eyes and twitch those long ears in response, then return to munching. Nanabozho is often depicted as a rabbit, so I took him for a good sign.

Stayed three nights. One morning brought storms, which is why the improvised rain fly built the night before. 

We went this way when we have because there'd be no time to go back and it's during late summer when the weather is most stable. Sadly, the harsh August light paid the fieldwork scant favors, but those three nights spent in the embrace of this amazing landscape remain for me one of the highlights of the year.

Then it was back on the road, knowing that the coming months will bring shorter days and the most sublime light, even if the places in which we'll find it won't be quite like this again...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Art, from a Crucible of Fire

Image Courtesy of Doug Schmeltzer

I first met Amanda Szot when she was still in high school and working at the legendary Pine Tree gallery in Ironwood, MI.

After later returning from college she became a dear friend while serving nine years as gallery manager for that institution, right up until the day Philip Kucera retired by throwing a party that still reverberates across the Range. Pine Tree is missed by all who knew the place -- as a valuable resource for lovers of fine art to be sure -- but particularly as safe harbor for artists adrift on wild waters that frequently roil the Fine Art World.

As I hurtle towards both photographic obsolescence and my own personal dotage, I can look forward to watching up close as this already accomplished artist engages creative maturity and the halcyon days of her career. That's something I'll treasure and have already taken advantage of:


Amanda arrived on the Range at a young age, when her family relocated from Milwaukee to Ironwood MI. There she was struck by the same wildness of place and complexity of culture that changes so many of us, even at first glance. Both the landscape and the history of the region have informed her work ever since.

Interested in the arts even as a child, ultimately dissatisfied with constraints imposed by working in only two dimensions, it was when Amanda first joined the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that she was handed a list of artistic disciplines to choose from. Near the bottom of that list was "Sculpture".

I always sorta thought that mostly meant bearded guys with chisels making chips of marble fly. Shows what I knew.

Image courtesy of Amanda Szot

Coaxing art from iron is a massively inconvenient, inherently complex process fraught with opportunity for disappointment and not just a little dangerous besides. It involves toxic fumes & chemicals aplenty. You might make the perfectly realised pattern but then on the pour something doesn't go exactly right -- the sand isn't quite ideal, the temperature or timing's off a bit, or maybe the Iron Giant decides to visit you with just plain bad luck -- then all the work, all the preparation all the anticipation leading up to pouring molten metal comes for naught and you might never know for sure what went wrong.

Then of course, there's the hot truth that molten metal isn't exactly friendly to human flesh.

All that makes the sometimes chemically noxious process of photography look like patty cake by comparison:

Today Amanda operates out of her Dancing Raven Artworks studio in Ironwood MI. The name was given her by a raven, while Amanda worked an art installation along the shores of Superior. The creature rode as a shadow out from the forest behind her, then down over the waves of the lake, where it turned and hovered on the winds, observing her closely. Eye contact was made, as it sometimes is with ravens.

When things like that happen in the field, artists sensitive to their surroundings pay attention and make of the gift what they will.

Amanda works not only in iron, but also in non-traditional materials to make traditional sculpture. Found objects -- curiously formed pieces of wood, beach stone or cobbles and other natural materials -- are combined by her with iron castings or silica beadwork to make a thing uniquely hers, heightened by the juxtaposition of the natural world and ours of construct.

When you've forged metal to a shape of your conception, place it with precisely the right rock and the right wood found on the landscape, then adorn it with carefully woven silica, you've drawn art from the world.

All that might be enough, you'd think, for any one person. But it's not. Amanda crafts jewelry too. And gives classes in beadwork.

Most of all, Amanda Szot gives back to her community. When I asked about her long term artistic goals, she didn't hesitate to reply: "Community service through art". And in the finest tradition of citizen artists, Amanda lives up to the ideal.

Her first volunteer work for a community arts program came while she was still in high school and the template for service was set. Over the years Amanda's sought public engagement through continuing education outreach, after school programs for kids, volunteering in schools where the arts programs have gone under the knife, leading public arts workshops and contributing her many talents to public works of art as well, such as creating the iron tiles and six finely worked iron benches soon to grace the new library garden at the Ironwood Carnegie Library.

So this November, when some demagogue solicits your vote with the cry "Vote for me or America will fail", know that they do it for reasons of their own, which is to reap profit from your despair.

People like Amanda disprove their cynicism. And I'm here to tell you she's hardly alone.

In small towns and rural regions everywhere across the Basin, I've seen that every minute of every day regular folk reach out to their neighbors in ways large and small to honor their collective past and strengthen their community, all the while working together to help assure its future.

This Superior region has long served as emblematic for what America is, both good and not so much. These people who live on this land know something about what it takes to prevail through hard times, too.

And hard times are here again, for certain.

But any politician who says we're failing is flat out lying.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hemmingway's Foxy Fib

As long as we're in the neighborhood, we'll hang a right out of Oswald's Bear Ranch and travel the road north a piece to take a moment beside the waters of a genuine American literary legend near the end of its run...

There's a robust library of fine literature to be made from works set around the Superior Basin, specifically the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Notably, this includes titles by John Voelker (who wrote as Robert Traver), Jim Harrison and...Ernest Hemingway.

Yeah, I know. Poppa's most famous for stories set anyplace other than the UP. Florida. Kilimanjaro. Spain and the bullfight arena -- can't hardly be any farther away from the UP than that.

But as a youth Ernest Hemingway spent quality time in the Northwoods of Michigan and from that experience he drew his Nick Adams stories. These are considered by many as pivotal to the greater understanding of Hemingway. Not the least reason I suppose being that they're so chock full of Nick's repeated declarations that he intends to make of himself the Greatest Writer on the Face of the Earth and so much for the common if too often commonly tissue thin wall between fiction & the writers who write it, eh?

The most honored of these works, at any rate the one that edged Hemmingway into consideration as a writer about freshwater fishing is his story Big Two-Hearted River, widely considered one of the gems of this rich & curious genre.

Except that there's no "Big" Two-Hearted River in Michigan. What's there is simply Two Hearted, no Big, no hyphen.

And it wasn't the river Hemmingway wrote about, regardless.

In Voelker's classic collection Trout Madness is an essay titled Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted Secret. Originally published in 1974, Voelker questioned in print the veracity of Hemmingway's title in the manner typical to his body of work, which is to say cogent, wry and deeply informed. Voelker's essay should be read alongside Hemmingway's famous story as compliment to the piece, one famous trout fisherman to the other, and especially as answer to the waves literary detectives who endlessly parsed the original.

After lacerating the aforementioned academics...

For, invariably following their summer pilgrimages, there presently flutters upon the world a new spate of annotated papers, inevitable as the falling snow, uncovering brand new layers of neglected symbolism found lurking in Nick's story as well as usually unveiling another route he took to get from Seney to his Shangri-La.

...Voelker describes the costs of literary fame, levied on the Two Hearted River:

Today...the once remote and obscure Two Hearted River has become a sort of combined literary shrine and tourist mecca.

It's a clear case of a story making a river famous in fact that steps are being taken to save the river from the clutches of those modern brigands (who, with our helpless passion for kidding ourselves, we ever so elegantly prefer calling developers) bent upon demonstrating their unappeasable hunger for literature by lining the river's banks with everything from prefabricated cardboard fishing "lodges" to sylvan trailer courts on down to canoe liveries and only God knows what else.

Then, after thoroughly laying out the case, almost offhandedly he beats all those literary trail hunters at their own game, by pointing out a simple fact they'd not cared to notice:

Nick several times says he hiked northerly from Seney and hit the river by bearing left, whereas the Two Heart would simply have to be many miles to his right.

In his essay, John Voelker only nods towards the actual river of Hemingway's story, which is today commonly acknowledged to be the Fox, mountains of earnest literary analysis aside. He remained discrete because there's a code amongst the best fishermen, shared by Hemingway and Voelker alike, in his essay summed up by John Voelker thusly:

Finally it strikes this fisherman as requiring no very profound insight to guess that the author of "Big Two-Hearted River" would no more publically expose the identity of his own precious trout water than he would that of an adored woman he'd slept with.

Well, maybe Voelker didn't have quite so much in common with Hemmingway after all, eh?

Anyway, if you read Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River and pay close attention to the writer's evocative descriptions of landscape which are, after all, the heart of the piece and then take the time to actually visit both the Two Heart and the Fox, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that only one of these rivers fits Hemingway's description and that it ain't the Two Heart.

Indeed, the pine barrens river lyrically described by Hemingway as surrounded by wet meadows and broken by beaver damns while he camped happily amongst the remaining pines so near the once famous logging town of Seney remains relatively untrammeled and along its way you can find places very much like where Nick stayed:

Kinda makes one wonder exactly what it was all those literary scholars were looking at, once hot on the trail of Hemingway Myth and hot to make an academic name for themselves on the back of the writer's fame.

What's true is that reading for comprehension wasn't their strong suit. Not the reading of literature and certainly not the reading of the landscape upon which they once descended in droves.

I get that truth isn't often allowed to get in the way of ambition, academic or otherwise. Evidence of that is scattered throughout the Superior Basin.

But still...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Rescue Bears

In the olden days (but not so long ago that I don't remember 'em), among the most popular tourist attractions in the Upper Peninsula were the local garbage dumps. On a typical summer evening, cars jostled for parking, lawn chairs got dragged from the trunk, beer cans were popped and shutters on cameras clicked furiously as all across the region tourists gathered to catch a glimpse of that most favored resident of the great Northwoods, the American Black Bear.

Then the dumps were replaced by modern landfills. But bears are nothing if not opportunistic and that didn't quell their taste for easy pickin's, what with campgrounds all over the region still offering garbage bin buffets. 

For example, one day at the edge of dusk we returned to camp at the Presque Isle. Near the entrance to the campground a dozen or so disparate folk were seated on lawn chairs, children cavorting in front.

"What the Hell?" we wondered.

A glance to our left supplied the answer: a mother bear busily taught her two cubs to retrieve food from a screened trash container, wildly entertaining the tourists in the process. We just shook our heads and drove on into camp, not wanting to see what'd happen to those fine family folk if they discovered how fast momma bear could cover the spare 30 yards between them. In that event they'd have had barely a chance to get their butts up out of those chairs, with no chance at all to protect their kids.

Eventually, critter resistant trash receptacles were invented, made of metal and requiring a thumb to open. Being creatures of habit and with the ready grocery store of our waste finally removed, that went hard for the bears.

Today our ursine friends are back to foraging the woods for a natural diet and are, by and large, no longer dependent upon our trash to live.

So the question is: what to do, when visiting the Northwoods and you want to see a bear? While it's certainly possible you'll meet one in the wilderness along any number of trails, trust me -- that's not only poor odds, but might prove way more of a thrill than most tourists prefer.

Your best, safest bet is to visit Oswald's Bear Ranch, centrally located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. And as a bonus, you'll be helping bears when you do.


Dean & Jewel Oswald have devoted their later life to the welfare of bears.

Dean's the sort of Northwoods guy for whom you're inclined to feel an instant respect. Sturdily built -- one might even say "a bear of a man" if one were inclined to lean on apt cliché -- he's possessed of clear eyes and firm handshake. During the brief time I spent with him, Dean was gracious & easy to speak with.

I asked him how he got started with the Ranch and he said: "I wanted a bear. Back in the 80's that was still legal, so I got one."

And of course, as is true of any rich narrative, there's more to the story than that.

Born in Bay City Michigan, Dean saw his first bears at the dump, while on vacation near Newberry. Now, most folk were content to go home and show off blurry snapshots of bears seen in the 'wilds' of Michigan, no matter that they had to visit the dump to do that. But in Dean, something about these complex, avidly curious, often gregarious creatures struck a resonant chord.

Dean Oswald raised his family while working as a fireman in Bay City, so an inclination towards service was well established before he ever got that 1st bear. You can't say Dean "retired" to the UP as so many ex-tourists do, 'cause nothing about the Ranch speaks of retirement, but rather a calling fulfilled.

With State & Federal restrictions on private ownership of bears gradually tightened, Oswald's Bear Ranch came into its own.

Today the Ranch is a rescue center, operated under authority granted by both the State and Federal Governments. The facility consists of four separate habitats that at present serve as refuge for more than two dozen bears, many of which would be dead had Oswald's not been there for them. 

Typically, the call comes in to Dean from the DNR -- they've found a dead sow with crying cubs, or maybe they've confiscated an abused bear from illegal private ownership. Those are the bears that come to the Ranch.

Now before we go any farther, I'll anticipate the question: "Wouldn't these creatures be better off taking their chances in the wild than to spend their lives in an enclosure?"

What's true is that while a cougar or wolf might need more than a hundred square mile territory in order to prosper, part of the innate charm of the American Black Bear is just how content they can be. With water, a ready food source and the company of other bears, our ursine friends tend to get way comfortable and go about the serious business of enjoying themselves.

What's true is that for a variety of reasons, many of the bears under Dean's care are unlikely to have survived on their own. At Oswald's, they flourish. I asked Dean about the free roaming bears of the region and whether those gave him any trouble. He told me that for a while they'd come sniffing around the fencing, but he thought his bears told 'em to "Go away" and mostly, they did.

Man, that's bears for 'ya, if you didn't already know.

Once the bears at Oswald's lay in to hibernate for the winter, Dean & Jewel travel the country to visit other wildlife sanctuaries and learn ways they might make even better, the lives of those bears who've come under their charge.

When I visited the Ranch the bears were out & about enjoying the summer sun -- playing with each other, clambering up trees and happily feasting on the occasional apple. Doing all the things you'd want to see a bear do, only unburdened by dependence on what humans leave behind and living long, healthy lives in the loving embrace of a family devotedly giving back to a creature long iconic to the Northwoods, the American Black Bear.

So while you're on the road across the Superior Basin and if one of your ambitions is to see a bear, don't stop off at the dump, those are closed. And don't foolishly wait around by the garbage cans at camp, our inventiveness has finally outmatched the legendary ingenuity of bears.

Instead, visit Oswald's Bear Ranch, where you'll find all the Northwoods memories of bears you can properly wish for -- at no risk to you and no more risk to the bears.

'Cause when you don't know the story and all you've seen is a flyer at a kiosk or a blurb in a brochure, you might at first glance confuse Oswald's with the sort of crude 'Wildlife Zoo' once common to the "northwoods" of Wisconsin; those dumps by another name, with their sad displays of sadder animals penned up for the edification & amusement of tourists and now mostly just roiled memory, fast fading.

Turns out, Oswald's is the antithesis of those.

What's true is that the Ranch is in keeping with the finest of contemporary concerns for the Great Spirit that nourishes all denizens of the wilderness and Dean Oswald himself is a modern man indeed.