Thursday, October 25, 2012

Job Creators

I used to like to go to work,
but they shut it down.
I got a right to go to work,
but there's no work here to be found.
And they say
we're gonna have to pay what's owed,
we're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed.

Ontonagon, MI -- October 2011

There'd been a paper mill at Ontonagon MI for something like 90 years. In large part, that's why the community survived the 20th Century when so many other towns around the U.P. didn't.

Ontonagon MI -- October 2012

Smurfit Stone Corporation owned this mill, though they didn't build it and merely bought in late in the game. Right up to the end, the operation at Ontonagon turned a regular profit and was said to be the only paper plant in the State of Michigan to meet or exceed air & water quality standards.

After years of aggressively acquiring other paper companies, Smurfit Stone found itself saddled with crushing debt. When the economy collapsed the Company resorted to Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection, seeking legal relief from it's bad decisions. This reinvention included closing the mill at Ontonagon, the largest employer in the County.

At the time, financial analysts at Credit Suisse wrote that this & another closure in Montana was good business, as the resultant lack of ready supply would help push prices up for packaging materials, thus increasing Company profit.

President and Chief Operating Officer of the Company Steve Klinger agreed, saying:

"These decisions were made to ensure the Company's long-term growth and profitability and do not reflect on the hard work and commitment of the employees at the Ontonagon mill."

With news of the closing, the community rolled up its collective sleeves and went to work, trying to line up investors to buy the facility. In Bankruptcy Court, the good citizens of Ontonagon petitioned the judge to prohibit the Company from destroying the plant and with it, perhaps their town.

"We don't want stimulus money. We don't want handouts. We have potential investors. All we want is for these people to have the right to make a decent living", wrote one.

Their pleas went unmet.

Smurfit Stone exited bankruptcy and promptly sold the mill at Ontonagon to a Canadian salvage company. 90 years of community investment in blood, sweat and tears, sold for scrap.

Two days later, Smurfit Stone announced it had sold itself to yet another paper company. As part of the deal, ex-CEO Patrick Moore received 59.5 million dollars. General counsel Craig Hunt was entitled to 9 million if he found himself unemployed. Senior V.P. Steven Strickland copped nearly 7 million.

Nice work, if 'ya can get it.

Today, where once beat the economic lifeblood of Ontonagon, there're only acres upon acres of mostly empty field surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. This fallow ground is kept watch over by private security, hired by the Company to  protect its remaining interests in Ontonagon, whatever in the world those might be.

What's true is this:

According to law, Smurfit Stone owned the mill at Ontonagon. It was theirs to do with as they pleased, for whatever reasons they chose. And it was widely considered only good business for them to do what they did.

What's also true is this:

They didn't build that mill, they just bought it. And once they decided to abandon the place, by any reasonable moral standard if anyone had right of ownership over that mill, it was the community of Ontonagon, as theirs was a generational investment that can't be measured in dollars.

Now prime lakefront land on Superior stands fallow, future disposition undetermined.

An ex-employee told me there'll never be housing built on the land as before the environmental laws of the last few decades, lime and other toxins inherent to the milling process were dumped onsite -- creating both one more manmade wilderness on Superior's shore and leaving another sure sign of the legacy bequeathed by Capital when given free reign over our fate. Which along with a wide variety of poisons has left an entire region in poverty and despair.

What advocates for 'Job Creators' seem to resolutely ignore is that while (for example) a paper plant processes lumber down to salable product, without a community of workers it'd process nothing, ever.

Without workers, there'd never have been a mill in Ontonagon. Without workers there'd never have been product to sell to finance the debt Smurfit Stone used to acquire other paper companies and dig itself so deep into the hole it could only resort to creative destruction as a last, best resort to reap profit from its poor choices.

Without workers from this community absorbed a fatal hit to ensure some other operation could never come into Ontonagon and compete, the executives of Smurfit Stone wouldn't have emerged from bankruptcy able to sell to another company and secure great piles of personal wealth for themselves in the bargain.

As of the 2000 Census, the median annual income of the 786 households in Ontonagon stood at $28,300.  You can bet both the number of households and the income has shrunk since. At any rate, that's chump change, for those who managed to manage this place right into dust.

The good citizens of Ontonagon didn't want charity. They didn't ask for a handout. They simply asked for the chance to keep their town alive by maintaining a facility it's onetime owner no longer cared to own. That opportunity was denied them.

Creative destruction, the Job Creators call that. They say it reflects the best of who we are and is a good and proper thing. They say without we hew to this overarching purpose, we'd no longer be America.

I say it's history repeating itself -- with honest, hardworking folk getting hosed over & over & over again.

And the only real difference between this mill at Ontonagon and the Wolverine Mohawk or Nonesuch or the Cliff location or dozens of other similar sites, left by Capital to crumble where once they stood?

This being the 21st Century and not the 20th, the Company recycled its mistakes for cold cash on the barrelhead.

Which means that 100 years from now no one like me will ever stand near the fabled Ontonagon River amidst the mysterious ruins of long abandoned promises and wonder...

"How did this come to be?"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is...

This is the path through autumnal woods leading to Dan's Cabin, which is the sturdy quarters built mostly by hand, nestled amidst stately Hemlock & now maintained by the Friends of the Porcupine Mountains for their Artist-in-Residence Program.

What's also true is that my path to Dan's Cabin began nearly 50 years ago, when my family traveled to Bessemer while on vacation, to visit my great grandfather in my mother's ancestral home.

Once there, it was from the 2nd story porch outside Martin Shefka's bedroom that I first stood in awe beneath a great expanse of wild sky brimming with Northern Lights.

Then I saw my first wild bear, a cub come down to the edge of the Black River for a drink. Uncle John said I'd best mind my P's & Q's, as momma surely watched from the cover of nearby forest.

That same day during a picnic near the mouth of the Black, I grew bored watching my bobber float static on sun-dappled water so jerked my pole to see if anything was there. With a flash, a magnificent Rainbow Trout leapt into the air, shards of water flying off glistening colored flanks. Then she was gone, unseen by anyone save me.

I wondered then as now -- had I been a bit more patient, would she have bit the worm I'd dangled just for her? Fish have since help teach me patience, but when I close my eyes I can summon this one up as if yesterday and will be able until the end of days, as she became my proverbial 'one that got away'.

Barely old enough to take my first adult vacation, a few years later with Heather I headed straight back. We were little more than kids then and in those bewitching black woods so near the great sea shining water, we began the bond that unites us still.

After that, not a year's gone by that I've not returned. This last year more often than ever and with overriding, often haunting purpose...

The Wolverine Mohawk Mill, October 2012 -- taken from a 120mm transparency


During my residency at Dan's Cabin, I poured myself into the place through my work, which is fast coming to an end.

I learned from a fellow river rat on the Presque Isle that Dick from Wakefield died last year. He greeted Death with the same stoic determination he'd led life.

Snowbirds (Slate-Colored Dark-eyed Junco) arrived early, down from their boreal forest haunts. Displeased by my presence in the woods, great flocks scattered whenever I went walking, only to reform behind.

I lived the season from high autumn straight through to impending winter, a first for me.

One morning well before dawn, I eavesdropped on a lengthy & robust conversation between Barred Owls spread wide throughout the forest and taken on the wing, which lent new meaning to the word "stereophonic".

When I arrived the weather was warm and bright, the fancy dress of the forest full. Then came a blow and after a couple days of gale force winds followed by eight days of persistent chill & intermittent rain broken only by the first bits of fleeting snow & skim ice, brittle yellow death blanketed the woods.

Pool on the Union River, October 2012 -- taken from a 120mm transparency

During that time, the Little Union River that runs past the cabin gained strength in voice. It went from a parched whisper to something more resembling the proper song of a stream running downhill over hard rock. It sang softly all day and proved especially beguiling after dark.

At night when the air was finally still and with no moon for guidance, I heard individual leaves drop to invisible ground.

If I learned anything about myself during the stay it was only confirmation of what I'd always half expected: in me there is a 'woodsy', the guy who townsfolk see only a couple times a year, come into town for supplies. I'd have happily stayed, even through the winter.

Late the night of my public presentation at the visitor's center, when all was quiet and I was again alone, I stepped out to look over and above the cabin for a peek at a clear glittering sky. That's the only place amidst the towering Hemlock to present an unobstructed view.

Just then, a shooting star blazed right there. I could only whisper thanks.

When I left Dan's Cabin to drive the South Boundary Road back towards Bessemer, the woods spoke plainly of coming winter, with long light casting dim shafts through mostly skeletal woods. And if there'd been any doubt, any pining hope remaining that a rush to the heart of seasonal darkness could somehow be delayed, Superior disabused that notion. By the time I reached the Presque Isle a wind howling straight out of the north hurled horizontal rain from over the farthest reaches of the big lake.

That stripped the last of autumn from the forest nearest its shore and the detritus of a most splendid season was scattered to the winds.


I'll come back 'round later, to extol the virtues of the people I met and the program I was honored to serve, as well as the Porcupine Mountains, which is likely the crown jewel of Michigan State Parks.

In the meantime, two days before my presentation, an article in a local newspaper reminded me that I was to give a reading, which in the interim since being accepted into the program in May I'd inconveniently forgotten.

So I spent a sunny afternoon sitting at the table in Dan's Cabin, writing this:

A Landscape of Perspective

I’m told that in most native languages there’s no word for Wilderness. That what we please to call “Aboriginal Peoples” never got around to shearing their cultures off from the landscape they live on and to them, wilderness is simply the world.

Somewhere along the line, encouraged by our increasingly inventive construct, emboldened by a destiny we held as manifest and driven by a compulsion to define everything in strictly human terms, our culture decided different.

I think that’s because as we banished the cold and the wind and even the night from our lives, we beheld these monuments to human ingenuity and basking in our achievement couldn't tolerate the fact that the world remains utterly indifferent to all human ambition, even to human life itself.

So we invented the concept of wilderness -- a beast to be subjugated or failing that destroyed and as our greatness grew so too did our separation from the world, which is -- after all -- everything in creation that sustains us.

As it turns out, for all our ingenuity, we've chosen an unsustainable path and in that choice have been proved most unwise.

So emblematic of wildness, the Superior Basin is littered with evidence of that lack of wisdom.

A difficult place to live, mostly we've come here to take. When we could take no more, we left. And as each resource played out, hard times replaced good.

Trappers took pelts until there were too few beasts left to skin, then they moved on. Out of the northeast lumbermen of story and song swept down and the great forest once thought inexhaustible fell like in a slow motion nuclear blast. Now the massive pine and sturdy Hemlock remain mostly only in sanctuaries, like this one.

And because this landscape is ancient and of surpassing geologic significance, we came to mine. Which interests have come sniffing around once again, hoping to claim the last of the region’s mineral riches.

With each passing wave of taking, this magnificent landscape altered the spirit of some who came and those who stayed put down roots in the rocky earth to raise families of their own so that their children and their children’s children might also live life with a spirit made large by being one with the world.

This place leaves no other choice -- you can accommodate it or die trying to bend it to your will -- there’s no third way.

Once again we live in hard times. And shrill voices ring in our ears that we must do this that or the other thing lest our culture is doomed and the Republic fall.

Well, no one can predict the future and anyone who pretends they can isn't to be trusted because it’s not your best interests they serve with the pretense.

What’s true is that the future is ours to make and what we make of it begins with what we believe. If you believe that darkness and despair fast encroach upon us, then you've chosen to help make it so.

I believe that in my lifetime we've turned a critical corner. That as a culture we've begun the long, slow journey away from the unwise view of the world we once clung to so fiercely.

Now, belief without evidence is merely faith and no good proof of anything.

I’m here to tell you that while traveling this Superior land over the last year, I've found it’s chock full of good folk who've stopped trying to bend the landscape to their will and are instead learning to live and to prosper having made their peace with this difficult place.

From artisan bakers in small towns to the new outfitters in Grand Marais whose owners spent three years and everything they had to convert a forlorn structure into the first ‘green’ building in Alger County. To artists and craftspeople and industrious folk of all stripe, I say there’s ample evidence that our ingenuity is at long last being balanced with overdue wisdom.

So I choose to believe that our future will be brighter than our past.

And you, you Friends of the Porkies, with your Dan’s cabin built not just from wood but from a profound generosity of spirit fueled by devotion to a wild place -- I hold you as evidence that what I believe is true.

And I’m proud to have made your acquaintance.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Show & Tell -- August/September

I'd been resistant to the idea of using the Largo from Antonín Dvořák's 'New World Symphony'.

While the piece speaks eloquently to the rich gifts of a summer season, it's theme later became the classic spiritual 'Going Home'. And that's become  ingrained in the general consciousness as a song identified with the American south, which is quite the cultural distance from where we've been.

But my notion of 'the New World' has broadened considerably while on this journey. Then the work brought home from our August/September travels changed my mind altogether and Dvořák's evocative tune now seems wholly appropriate.

Set to a cut taken from a classic recording made in the 50's by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and under the estimable direction of Fritz Reiner, here's a selection of fieldwork culled from what we gathered late this summer, traveling along the Superior Basin while In Search of Perfect Light...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bear Story, Part 2

Manicured for civil use, forest preserves sport trails. With an easy walk you've passed on through back to the picnic, the car, your house and comfy life.  Wilderness marks no such paths. A vague deer trail near to the river was the best we could find.

I took the rear of the canoe and Heather the front as we set off into the woods.  It's absurd to haul such an elegant craft through thick forest.  So swift and sure on the water, fully loaded it's deadweight clumsy over land.  With each step, our gear shifted inside the boat.  The terrain was typical -- patches of wet ground winding through thick walls of trees, broken by glistening bedrock and every step uncertain.

We lifted our burden over boulders and a mad tumble of obstacles, dragging it when we couldn't carry.  I swear we bent that canoe to go 'round trees where it wouldn't fit.  Heather blazed trail while carrying her end with scant complaint.  We weren't too far in before I made a queer noise and she paused to ask what was wrong.

 "A branch went through my foot,” I said.  "Keep walking.”

I’d stepped square on the sharp tip of a fallen pine branch.  It slipped straight through my sneaker, pierced the flesh of my foot, struck hard against bone then reversed the process when I lifted my foot in stride.  I felt every bit of it and knew precisely what it was.

The distance between placid water and rock-strewn hazard wasn't much when floating downriver, but seemed a great piece trudging back up through the woods.  After a time, we again came upon our dead stinking friend and gratefully put the canoe back onto the river where it belonged.

We were both cold and damp.  My foot hurt like Hell.

The trip upstream proved easy and we made it back to the dam.  One of us had to head off and find Johnny.   He might be at camp, or perhaps at the bridge, wondering where we were.  Maybe he was even nowhere, lost in the woods like us.  Heather drew the short straw, as her foot didn’t sport a hole.

 I later learned that as evening closed in and the forest grew tight to the road, she sang softly to whatever bears might be there, to reassure them she'd be just passing through and would be gone in a moment, if only they’d peacefully allow. It never hurts to be polite.

I needed to pass the time so standing flat upon a rock, pressing down hard with all my weight to keep my foot from bleeding too much, I fished.

Near the boat ramp on the flowage an older man parked a small pickup truck. He bent over the rear of truck’s covered bed and prepared a meal from inside.  After a while of catching no fish and seeing as how the man was done eating, I hobbled on over.

Years of weather and wind made his face a well-worn map, crisscrossed with memory and resolution.  His outfit was dirty and torn.  Maybe fifty, maybe eighty, here was a hardscrabble gent who’d spent ample time in out of the way places.  The truck’s bed was jammed with gear and enclosed by a rickety fiberglass top.

The old man seemed happy enough for the company, though I suppose he’d have preferred someone closer to his age, given the choice.  He was a bear hunter up from Detroit and after a couple weeks in the woods, his tag remained unfilled.  Upon learning where I was from, he proceeded to vent his spleen at the relative merits of Richard J. Daley, the late, legendary Mayor of Chicago.  This old Detroit native was near to exhausted with bitterness.

I took no offense.  All kinds seek solace in the woods, for as many different reasons.

Standing close, I was distracted by this bear hunter's appearance.  His teeth were mottled yellow-green and looked soft to the touch.  Tight around his head there hovered a living cloud of gnats and flies.  Every now and again he’d wave a gnarled hand past his face.  The cloud dispersed a bit then quickly reformed, drawn like scattered iron filings to a powerful magnet.  If the insects bothered him, I saw no sign of it.  I shuddered at his indifference.

Years later I'd recall this old man, the morning on the Presque Isle when I became indifferent to flies.

The light grew diffuse and provided poor warmth as the afternoon turned gray.  The bear hunter cleaned up from dinner and I returned to fish.  I caught a northern pike of fair size and nasty disposition, holding it aloft for the old man to see.  He grinned broadly with those teeth but after I’d released the fish, shook his head at me as if I were addled.  Only tourists or crazy folk throw away good meals.  I've no idea which he thought I was.

I finished fishing and secured everything into the canoe.  The old man drove away.  I sat, disconsolate  upon my rock, wondering where Heather could be and whether she’d found Johnny.  Were they coming for me even now, or had Heather been spirited away by some beast of the forest, never to be found?

A day begun so pleasantly turned bitter as it edged toward nightfall.  Winter lurked just beyond the horizon as if to pounce. It's scent filled the evening air.

Finally, welcome headlights turned into the lot and my rescuers arrived.  We loaded the car, put the canoe up top and returned to camp.  Under the bright beam of a flashlight I easily found the hole in my foot, despite deep pruning from all the moisture that'd soaked through my shoe.  I couldn't recall my last tetanus shot, so we’d take the drive to Ironwood and the hospital, not wanting to be any more foolish than we’d already been.  It felt good to bind my foot into the dry snugness of a fresh boot.  We piled into the car. I drove.

With full dark and at some point between Wakefield and Bessemer, the dreaded lights of a state patrol car flashed behind us. I’d been speeding but the officer was sympathetic to my tale of woe and sent us on our way with a only word of caution about traveling too fast for conditions.

The hospital at Ironwood was quiet.  We approached the receptionist.  I told her my story in brief and that it seemed prudent for me to receive a tetanus booster.  She agreed, then apologized.  I'd have to wait, as the doctor on duty was busy.  Not long before our arrival, a man was carted into Emergency.

He’d been mauled by a bear.

Our adventure became suddenly small.  We wondered over the circumstances of the incident and made nervous jokes before falling silent so I could complete the requisite paperwork.

I was shown to a room off a hallway, the door left open.  Across that hall, inside another room with an open door, a drawn curtain shielded a gurney.  On the floor shone bright pools of fresh blood.  Moaning rose from behind the curtain -- a low lament of genuine regret and profound discomfort.  I guessed the man was sedated, sorely wounded and beset by nightmare visions of the sort most of us never dream.  I sat in dread fascination at the shrouded spectacle.

Eventually, along with my tetanus shot, I got the story.

There're different methods to bag a bear, with hunting over bait the most common means in Michigan. At a likely place in the woods, over a period of some weeks the hunter leaves a smelly pile of bait.  Bear claims bait.  Hunter supplies more. Bear comes to depend on bait. Bear season arrives and the hunter kills himself a bear.

Seems unsporting, I know. But there it is.

This is what the man was doing when catastrophe claimed him: he sat in a tree near his bait.  The light dimmed and he stayed put.  After nightfall, when prudent men are gathered 'round the fire drinking bourbon from tin cups while spinning tales of heroics past and yet to come, something ambled from the dark forest.  The man shot it then climbed down to claim his trophy.

A bear cub lay dead at his feet.

Momma bear came roaring down on him like the wrath of Hell.  She shattered his arm, broke his leg and smashed any number of ribs.  She chewed on his face and shoulders.  He managed to put two shots into her and she tumbled off into the woods.  He crawled his sorry ass back to camp and his buddies rushed him to the hospital.

We'd be spending a long night alone in the woods, where a  wounded bear is important and wondered exactly where this thing had happened.  The only person present who knew was this ravaged hunter of bears. And he wasn’t talking.

It grew late and bitter cold outside.  I finally got my shot. We left the hospital and went over to Scotty’s for dinner -- a 16 oz. Porterhouse steak, potatoes, salad, coffee -- everything most excellent and all for only  $6.25 American.

Together we reviewed the state of our affairs.  I felt all right. The foot still hurt but food proved a tonic. A couple of tables over, a group of young folk hashed over the haunting of an abandoned local hockey rink. Everything considered, we tried hard not to listen.

Our options had winnowed down to two: find a motel  or head back to camp.  The Ottawa is something like 1,000,000 acres of woods and the hospital at Ironwood the only one in the entire region. Odds were overwhelming that the wounded bear wasn’t anywhere near our camp.

An ambulance streaked off west on U.S. 2 -- lights flashing, siren silent, whisking the hunter to Marquette and a surgically rebuilt face.  We piled into the car to make the long drive to Marenisco, followed by the short jaunt through the woods back to Bobcat Lake.

Typically, they rolled up the sidewalks in  Marenisco long about 9:30 every night, save for the taverns.  By the time we turned off the highway and onto the main drag into town, it was 11:00.

Which is where we found all the bear hunters and State Police in the world.

Flashing emergency lights reflected from buildings.  Men with rifles milled about in groups.  We drove slowly through the crowd, there being no need to ask anyone what the problem was.

At camp, a couple of miles and a world away from anyone who cared, we went over our non-existent options one last time.  Crawling into the sleeping bag, I placed my axe on the tent floor, lay down, put my hand around the handle of the axe and fell to fitful sleep.

Morning dawned gray and wet.

While preparing breakfast, we heard the shots that killed the bear.  If she’d looked for trouble, we'd been ripe & ready.  Instead, wounded and distraught, she’d sought refuge in the woods.  That was something we understood.

Later, Heather and I waited in a short line at the checkout of Leo’s woeful insufficient grocery in Marenisco.  In front of us stood a woman fully three years older than dirt.  She was tiny, wrinkled and bent.

We all paused to listen as a voice on the radio recounted the story of the man and the bear.  Then the hunter spoke from his hospital bed in Marquette.  He talked like Daniel Boone and told how he'd held closed the jaws of certain death with only his bare hands.

The story finished. We stood silent for a moment, contemplating what we knew and what we’d just heard.

The old lady shook her head and said to no one in particular:

“Son of a bitch should've died.”

While he'd survived the wilderness with quite a tale to tell, of course we thought then she was exactly right.

Though over the ensuing years, I've come to realize and appreciate the elegant truth of this magnificent landscape. In fact, that's essentially what draws me back again & again, to test my fast aging mettle against the mighty indifference of wilderness to all human concern.

It's a truth so simple and pure we've turned it into an aphorism:

Some days you get the bear. Other days the bear gets you.

To which wisdom I'd append only slight qualification:

Save for those exceptionally rare times during autumn -- with death brilliant upon the woods, when winter throws an awakening breath over a magnificent landscape and prompts youth to dare reach beyond its grasp -- occasionally fortune intervenes. Then the contest between who we are and what we dream comes to a brief, uneasy rest.

And so it goes...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Bear Story, Part 1

Lulled by the whisper of a breeze through the trees, comforted by warm nights spent beneath a blanket of stars and invigorated by days with skies so blue it hurts your eyes to look, it's easy to forget that the landscape along the south shore of Superior is a great wilderness.

Pause in the midst of the place and it matters little that the original forest once fell fast to our hand and what's there today is nearly all 2nd, even 3rd & 4th growth woods, with different species of trees besides.

Nevermind that in its many lakes and rivers, hatchery fish swim beside native stock. Or that the narrow roads that bisect the landscape like an undifferentiated nest of gravel arteries are there solely to facilitate a search for wealth; from resource extractors to sportsmen to casual tourists, hermits and more. Hunters, all.

Forever altered by our attempts to tame it, wilderness remains resilient -- unbowed by our efforts to destroy it and utterly indifferent to any ambition of ours. To the forest, a human's greatest value is as one more dead thing struck down upon the forest floor, 'cause once there we're no different than a crumpled leaf, a broken stick, a fallen bird or a bear.

I once spent seventeen consecutive days tent camping in the Ottawa National Forest. That's time enough to sense these things, to indulge the rhythm of the woods and forget consuming construct like politics and other cultural contentions. Long enough even to forget you'll have to return to a job in the city, too. That is, at least when you're still a fresh kid caught full up in the boundless wonder of the landscape.

It's a place that marks some folks. Back then, it marked me but good.

Johnny, Heather and I fancied ourselves capable when it came to outdoor life.  In good years we caught fine fish, ventured ever deeper into the woods, sat agape at the northern lights and did our best to spend our time in concert with what we imagined to be the integrity of the landscape. Youthful enthusiasm met a profound foil in the forest and our spiritual inclinations feasted off its complexity. We yearned to be there when we weren't.

That year the weather proved fair for late September.  Eagles flew, fish jumped, we ate well and slept soundly.  I think perhaps it’s just simple human nature, that we ask for more even when our plate is properly full...

From a 4x5 transparency, captured during September, 2012

Bobcat Lake is a mere seventy-eight acres and its campsites turn to mud in the rain.

A humpbacked ridge rises across the lake, opposite the campground.  In late season that goes royal with color and the little lake spreads before it, playing the trees out atop blue waters.  In the morning, eagles often float over its shallow flats.  They glide above the place then rise on an updraft and are suddenly gone to some other place.  Osprey visit too. Their sharp little bird chirps whip snap the air while they hunt in pairs. Then with great wings folded tight to dive for prey, they penetrate the lake at speeds that'd snap our spines.

Loons herald evening, when bats come out to lead the night shift and everything begins all over again, only in full dark.

I’m entranced by Bobcat Lake.  I've done things I might otherwise never have attempted, had I not been in thrall of the place.  And so it was that year in September, when Heather and I decided it'd be a fine idea to canoe the Presque Isle River.

As it runs through low woods, the Presque Isle is gentle and inviting. It curls slowly through the forest in crazy tight switchbacks, with quiet wonders around every bend. During periods of high water, it spreads through the woods to leave bounty behind.

We put the canoe in just downstream from the dam at the Presque Isle Flowage, a weedy impoundment whose upstream end we'd often tried to explore 'cause in the flooded timbers of those obscure reaches were said to lurk Musky as long as your leg. Each time, a prevailing southerly wind prevented us from paddling all the way to Esox Valhalla. I'm ashamed now to admit, I've not made it back there still.

This time we'd go with the flow until a couple of miles past the little town of Marenisco and the bridge at US 2, where Johnny'd pick us up. It promised to be a pleasant trip on a perfect autumn day.

The eighteen-foot beast of an aluminum canoe held Heather and myself, our fishing gear, my photo equipment, fresh water and whatever else we thought necessary. Which as it turned out not much of it was.  I sported sneakers so that should we go over in the river, I'd not be burdened by boots. 

We bade farewell to Johnny and pushed off.  If the 'Kick Me' signs on our backs had glowed green neon and shot purple sparks, we'd still likely never have noticed.

Slipping into the sluggish current, it took only a few paddle strokes before the forest closed in from both sides of the river.  It seemed we'd traveled back in time.  The waist-high water grass, the birds in the trees, the dark water that swirled around the canoe, these didn't know us and we didn't recognize them.  Alone in this world and well outside our experience, we were as voyageurs.

After a bit, a pair of river otters joined us.  Curious and playful critters, they'd glide beneath the surface of the river then appear beside us to keep pace.  Disappearing again, they'd pop up in front of the canoe and swim backwards, supple bodies arched high above the water in the way of otters, providing us their undivided attention.  This was why we’d come to the river -- to sip at marvels and catch glimpses of things we'd never known.

The otter's gruff voices sounded like a reproach.

Distracted by our unexpected companions, I suppose the hissing of white water was audible well before it grabbed our attention.  We shook ourselves free from otter song and pulled hard to the right, landing the canoe at the river’s bank as soon as the forest along it allowed.

Woods are typically thick with scent, but here they smelled downright bad, as the odor of death hung from the place like rancid syrup.

At exactly that point on the riverbank where woods retreated sufficient for us to land, some late beast had died.  By the time we came upon it, the thing was well on the way back to primordial ooze. All that remained was an indeterminate slagheap of muck, matted fur and raw stench.

We secured the canoe and being careful where we stepped, pressed on downriver to see what we could see. The river curled hard to the left and the sound of rushing water grew louder as we followed along.

In just a few well hidden yards, the Presque Isle turned fierce as it funneled between steep bank and a massive boulder through a boiling chute that plunged something like six feet.  The river then emptied into a long flat, which surface was layered with distinctive ripples that betray the presence of submerged rocks.

It'd never occurred to us that our river might prove impassable. Nor did we expect to invite on our outing the poetry of physical danger.

Still, Heather & I didn't tuck tail and retreat.  Together we mentally marked the path to a successful conclusion and headed back to the canoe.  We reviewed what little we knew about whitewater safety, climbed in, hunkered down and back paddled out into the river.  I pulled my hat down tight as we moved into the current.

The otters were gone.  When the city kids chose to compound their error, they did so with only the great, dark eye of the forest as indifferent witness.

The chute was quick upon us.  With a great whoosh we passed into the rush, boulder hard to our right.  Airborne for the briefest moment, the canoe pitched downward at a precipitous angle but we flew right through it.  This moment of glory proved brief.  Spit out upon the flat, in an instant we turned completely around, facing dead-assed backwards and still riding the swift current.

“Shit!” I said. Or words to that effect.

Paddling furiously to force the canoe to turn downstream, we twirled halfway 'round like on a carnival ride, careened into an underwater pile of rock then slammed to a sudden halt, stuck sideways and rocking back and forth in the rushing river.

At least we were no longer backwards.

I tried to pry us off the rocks using my paddle, but our momentum wedged us solid and the current worked hard to keep us there.  Unable to free the canoe and after due consideration we decided the only course was to lighten the load. I'd step from canoe, get a good grip then pull us free by way of the anchor rope.

I climbed into the rushing water.  It reached to my thighs and did its best to force me over.  Carrying the anchor, I played out rope and carefully made my way to the bank.  Once there, I meant to pull with all my might.  I wasn’t sure the river wouldn’t rip the canoe from my grasp, casting Heather to an uncertain fate.

I swore to myself that if the canoe headed off downriver, it'd be with me clinging to the rope and trailing behind, like a played out fish on a stringer.

With a tug, the canoe came free.  Swinging on my fulcrum and riding the surface of the water like a mayfly, boat, load and Heather too came across the current to rest against the riverbank, a long rope’s length from where I stood. We’d navigated the chute, survived our brush with calamity and again stood upon firm ground, wet but completely intact.

The river ran a shallow shift over a crowded, rocky bed for as far as we could see.  Did it deepen somewhere past the next bend?  Was it once again the gentle cradle of otters and small-mouthed bass and foolish tourists in rented canoes?  In spring, we’d be half way to Lake Superior, rushing along on ice-cold water swollen by three hundred inches of fast melted snow.

Faced with the short water of autumn and with the river no longer inviting, we’d had enough -- knowing full well that the afternoon would quickly chill as the hour grew late.

We pulled the canoe from the water and prepared to portage the beast upriver, past the point of our brief success as white water canoeists. Then we'd paddle back to the landing, where our day would come to a premature and disappointing end.

Little did we know...