Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Short Shot of Holiday Cheer...

Splendidly isolated by geography, circumstance & choice, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan remains a world apart.

For a thousand years and more the region played host to native tribes, with the occasional white folk mostly just passersby and latecomers at that. Then came the discovery of mineral riches and hot on the heels of that came the treaties of 1836 and 1842. Those gave the entire place over to capital concern (which was the point) and for the Anishinabe made the land into what's even today referred to as "ceded territory".

There immediately followed wave upon wave of immigrants, who bequeathed to the place a remarkably rich cultural heritage. Swedes. Italians. Cornish, English & French. French Canadians. Latvian, Russian and Jew. Danes, Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, Icelanders, Irish and more. All were drawn to the wilderness by that quintessential American promise of "streets paved with gold", but upon arrival to the U.P. they found little gold and damned few streets, too.

All the same, many stayed and their imprint on the region remains a permanent cultural gift.

Perhaps the most influential of these immigrants were the Finns, who found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a land that resembled home. It's their lilting, musical version of American English that forever colored the U.P.'s distinctive dialect, called Yooper by most and perhaps best exemplified by the bumper sticker seen on cars both far and wide that reads: "Say Ya to da U.P., eh?"

What's true is that once the place gets in your blood it never leaves, even when you leave it.

So if the Upper Peninsula is a nation unto itself (and it is), and if opening day of deer season is its national holiday (it most certainly is) and if the people of the region manage to maintain a robust sense of humor even in the hardest of times (which they absolutely do), then today we'll take a moment out to celebrate Yooper culture with a timely song:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Notes From the Field -- The Freezing Moon

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

Well then. That (as they say), is that.

A week ago I completed the fieldwork in what's become for me a personal and professional Odyssey. Not that we ever met Medusa. Neither did our paths cross with any three-headed dogs.

But last Thursday was also Opening Day of deer season, a holiday second to none in the State of Superior.

As exquisite light faded into evening, every other pickup truck on the road sported dead deer legs rising out the back like so much broken kindling. Many, many deer crossed their own River Styx that afternoon. Boatmen carried them mostly to local taverns instead of Hades, for bragging rights drenched in beer, with the only coins in evidence those tossed upon the bar.

It says up there on the masthead "...over the course of a single year".

The original plan called for this project to run from October 2011 through October 2012, though we've been at this it now some 13 months and a bit. In the field last November, awash in the most perfect light I'd ever seen, the plan changed. I determined to work November light one more time again and last week did just that.

Ojibwa say the world was created when muskrat carried mud from the bottom of the flood to place it upon the thirteen central plates of turtle's back. That narrative is the basis for the 13 moon lunar calendar of the Anishinabe. So depending on one's perspective, a single year it's been.

And if we've seen anything along our way, it's how near to everything turns on folk's perspective.

November is the month of the Freezing Moon, or Gashkidino giizis.

When I left the Range, short water on still water and flat water at the edge of rivers was cloaked in skim ice. Patches of snow left from the inch or so that'd fallen before my arrival held tight to places in the forest where from now until April the sun never shines.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

The long dark season is now full upon the Superior Basin and all that's wanting is for a blanket of white to cover it in Winter's frigid sleep. Freezing Moon, indeed.

During those last few hours in the field I became self-conscious while shooting, perhaps for the 1st time ever. I'm accustomed to being purely in the moment when working, but grew increasingly aware of things drawing to a close. Of opportunities that if wasted then, would never come 'round again.

My portfolio contains many images of scenes around Superior that no longer exist. And I've made plans to return to a site only to later find that the passing of even a single season finally pushed some item of longstanding merit full back to the earth from where it came.

This was different from that. This time it was me being made obsolete. And with every passing moment of a too short day blessed with perfect light.

So in the end I did the only thing I could, the only thing wholly appropriate to the occasion.

I worked alone in the wild through the fading of day. In the midst of the Ottawa National Forest, near the eastern reaches of the Gogebic Range, beside my beloved Presque Isle River.

I chose to be home.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

When light diminished down so low I could work no more, I passed precious time beneath a glorious November sky while looking south along the winding trail of my river, the breath of winter upon the woods and all else in the world fallen silent.

An eagle rose above the river. It dipped its wings over the water then flew off into gathering darkness.

And I was done.


I suppose an accounting is in order:

26,133 miles driven. (Yeah, that's greater than the circumference of the Earth. What can I say? The Superior Basin is a big place and accommodates well to wandering.)

The 77 blog posts prior to this come to better than 60,000 words.

290 sheets of 4x5 transparency film, exposed through the Linhof.

3,330 exposures of 120mm transparency film run through the Mamiya.

And something over 6,100 digital images & movies captured using the Toy Canon, which I bought for dirt cheap at the beginning of this project. As it turns out, this piece of plastic wedded to electronics supplied excellent value for the dollar, as the blog wouldn't have been near so well illustrated without it.

Throughout that great pile 'o film there glistens the best work I've ever done. Should this be my swan song as a photographer, that's a fine way to go out, eh?

If you've read the Artist's Statement you'll know that we started out with the last 350 sheets of 4x5 film convenient to fieldwork left in the entire world. So what about those last 60 sheets?

Glad you asked.

They're in a freezer, awaiting winter's pleasure. My portfolio has always been short the winter season. Sadly, it's still short.

There wasn't much of winter on the Superior Basin last year. The big lake never froze, or we'd have made it to the sea caves off Cornucopia and would've likely run out of film well before now. Then when we went to the Basin in February all the same, winter kicked my butt.

So despite professional film having an expiration date (on my stash that date reads "August, 2012") and even though I started seeing bad effects all the way back in June with each remaining box offering uncertain result, I've saved some to meet the challenges of working a Northwoods winter one last time, opportunity permitting.

This past summer Mamiya stopped making film cameras and in response, Kodak discontinued the film I use in mine. Luckily I have some, still well within its expiration date. So we're covered, regardless.

And don't think you're gettin' off this hook easy, either.

I promised that when the fieldwork was complete, we'd settle in around the fire and talk about what we've seen. We'll do that too, but not for a while yet. With every mile traveled this narrative assumed a life of its own and I've been unable to write my way through where we've been, not even by posting twice a week through the heart of it.

So stretch your legs. Then grab a seat and settle in.

I may or may not ever again be a photographer, but we're some distance yet from being done.


In any project such as this, many people play a role in its success. The generosity of spirit I've been met with as we've traveled throughout the Superior Basin is a life altering gift. There's no bloody way I can thank all of these folk by name and I'll not compile some sort of list to try. That'd be an insult.

What's true is that continuing my life's work and redoubling my dedication to shared ideas will be the best thanks I can give. We're permanent partners now, working disparate threads of a complex natural & cultural mosaic that's touched all of us deeply, each in their own way.

Still, considering today and all the thoughts that came to mind as I took the long drive down from the Northwoods, here're a few items I oughtn't let pass without mention:

I'm thankful for my 2003 Subaru Outback. Though during this last trip the odometer blew right by 117,000 miles, it never gave me a hint of trouble all along our way. And I'm thankful too that we drove those 26k miles for this project without once getting pulled over, not that I ever speed...

Raptors proved fine company during this project and I'm thankful for each & every one -- from Eagles riding updrafts over still water or peering down into it through early morning fog from a high perch atop a tall cedar, to Ospreys chirping in little bird voices before crashing the placid surface of a lake. From Red Tails and Cooper's Hawks to Falcons and Kestrels, whether aloft upon a summer's breeze or standing sentinel still on a fencepost, breasts fluffed against a winter wind, eyes ever keen.

Which, now that I think on it, makes me glad I'm not a fish or a mouse.

Mostly, I'm thankful for Heather and for the Lake Superior Basin -- the two great loves of my life.

Each came into my life during my formative years. For decades now, each has continued to inform and enrich me with their singular spirit & wildness.

What's true is that if I'm a decent artist or a good man or if I know honest, abiding love at all, it's more due to that than to me.

And finally, I'm thankful for you. No one wants to put forth this much effort only to spit it into a vacuum. Later today or, given the distractions of the holiday perhaps early tomorrow, this blog'll top 10,000 page views. 

It's good not to be alone.

So thanks for coming along on this Odyssey through one of the world's great wild places, for accompanying me in this search for perfect light.

Enjoy the day.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Iron Giant -- Footprints

Of the iron ranges along Superior, Mesabi in Minnesota is the greatest. When only Ojibwa lived there, the place was called Misaabe-wajiw, or "Giant's Mountain". And it's here that the Giant's left his largest footprint to date.

I'd no particular desire to visit. But being deeply engaged in the discussion over Gogebic Taconite's Penokee project, I viewed it as a duty.

It's one thing while wandering the untrammeled half of the Gogebic to try and imagine it gone. It's quite another to view the closest approximation -- to fill in imaginings with hard reality and contemplate the real world consequence of an ancient mountain range replaced by a 23 mile long, mile and a half wide, thousand foot deep hole in the ground.

So I ran southwest off Superior's Minnesota shore to track the Giant. That wasn't hard, considering you can see the trail from space:

This is what Earth looks like, when you've removed more than a billion tons of material from its face, nearly half of that waste.

Though you can take a few days to tour the Mesabi Range and Minnesota strongly encourages you to do that, I'd just come off our trip to Pukaskwa and back so relied on my invaluable Gazetteer to cut straight through the heart of the matter.

First stop along the way was the town of Virginia and the popular tourist overlook featuring its pride and joy:

I'm told Virginia is seriously undermined, that much of the town sits atop a cavernous void left by removing great quantities of high quality iron from deep reaches. 

But abandoned underground mines are everywhere along the south shore of Superior, so that makes Virginia MN nothing special. Countless towns and villages are dependent on crumbling pillars of stone or decades old timbers steadily rotting in moist, inaccessible darkness -- all that remains to prevent whole communities from disappearing suddenly in cataclysmic collapse.

With high quality iron mostly mined, today we scrape what's left right off the face of the Earth.

Standing at the overlook in Virginia as dust from scabbed hills in nearly all directions rises to the clear August sky, looking down at water filled canyons where the metal'd played out long ago and only the scar persists, I thought I'd really seen something. And nearly blew off the rest of the day in order to head home to my own sleepy iron range of days gone by -- the long settled, now silent Gogebic.

Duty persevered and I pressed on to Hibbing, childhood home of Bob Dylan and current home to the Iron Giant.

Hibbing seems a charming enough place and reasonably prosperous to boot. Detoured by a car show held on Main Street, I found myself briefly on Bob Dylan Drive. A happy bonus I didn't pursue, as I was then deep on the trail of the Giant, still hoping to make it out of Minnesota, through Wisconsin, into Michigan and all the way back to my own personal harbor of safe refuge before darkness fell.

They make it easy in Hibbing, to find the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine. It's well marked by signage, though I still can't decide whether having the word rust in the name of an iron mine is wholly appropriate or strictly perverse. A free mixture of both I suppose and typically American, for sure.

On the way up the hill to Hull Rust, you first pass the Greyhound Bus Museum  and then a park called "North Hibbing", which even at a glance seems a peculiar place. More on that in a bit.

From there it's only a short drive to a notable tourist spot festooned in genuine carnival atmosphere.

At more than three miles long, better than two miles wide and made deeper than 535 feet with every shovelful removed, the Hull Rust is a National Historic Landmark, said to be the biggest active open pit iron mine in the world and is compared by its barkers to the Grand stinkin' Canyon.

Behold the fabled Hull Rust in all its pictorial glory, viewing from left to right:

Trust me, it's way bigger than it looks here. Truly, the footprint of a giant.

Having seen what I came for and done what I must, I turned for home but on the way out stopped briefly to grab a few images of the curious "North Hibbing", figuring to research that at a later date.

Turns out "North Hibbing" used to be Hibbing MN, until the increasing appetite of the Iron Giant ate it up. Made national news in 1919, it did. Today it's the most strangely evocative park I've seen in all my travels around the Superior Basin, featuring tree-lined streets with curbs bordering sidewalks and stairs that lead to nowhere -- and all beneath old timey street lamps installed to illuminate nothing, except perhaps a faded past and then only in the dark of night.

Exhausted from eleven days on the road and shaken by having at last met the Iron Giant firsthand, I hurtled east through Minnesota. A roiling storm ran parallel to the south. Towering clouds boiled tens of thousands of miles up then down again, for hours throwing perfect light along my way. I never so much as paused.

When I reached the legendary hills upon which we hung Duluth to obliterate all evidence of millennial cohabitation with the lake and give vast wetlands older than collective memory over to Capital concern, I finally saw Superior spread out again before me. Gray light flowed to blue to green and beyond any perceptible horizon, the whole of the world rising and falling and changing with every living breath of the greatest inland sea.

Then the storm broke above me but only briefly, racing ahead to fail through Wisconsin.

In full light I made it back to Michigan and Bessemer, back to the Gogebic's shaded hills and the comforts of home, thanks to the length of days in August.

And with that, the summer season of this year for gathering drew to a close.


OK fine. So there's a big-assed hole in the ground and it's a tourist attraction of passing interest for folk wandering the otherwise rural wilderness of Minnesota. What of it, right?

Well, here's the thing...

For those of you who've followed along, you'll recall Gogebic Taconite's interest in the Penokee Hills of the Gogebic Range. If you're new to this Odyssey or otherwise crave a refresher, look here, here, here and here, then here.

Then look at those images of Hull Rust again. The Cline Group's proposal was to make where the Penokees now rise a hole in the ground a bit less wide, twice as deep and 20 miles longer than the giant's footprint upon Mesabi that you can see from space. Take that Minnesota, with your puny tourist attraction:

Distance from Hibbing to Virginia MN

But you might well ask:

"Wasn't legislation written specifically to allow for Governor Walker's Cline Group buddies to replace the Penokees with a massive hole and dump the 100 million tons or so of resultant waste atop the local watershed so to threaten the pristine Kakagon/Bad River sloughs and through those Lake Superior itself actually defeated by the Wisconsin State legislature?"

And to that I'd reply, "Sure. Along strict party lines, save for a single Republican Senator who broke rank and was labeled a turncoat, as it was his vote alone that scotched the deal."

"So what's the problem", sez you.

On November 6th, the good citizens of Wisconsin gave the their State Senate a Republican majority of two. Soon to be three, pending a special election to be held this December in a solid Republican district.

When first we began this Odyssey, the Iron Giant was stirring, after many years of slumber. Today he's freshly awake.

No matter that at present he's likely vacationing down in Florida within spittin' distance of a yacht called "Mine Games", be assured -- he can see Wisconsin all the way from there.

And needs no satellite to do it, either...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The North Shore™ Cash Machine

Grand Marais MN during high tourist season is like a funhouse Hall of Mirrors, where everything's distorted and little is as it first appears. 'Cept you'll pay way more at Grand Marais and mightn't have as much fun.

Superior's shore in northern Minnesota is a slopping, hard rock place. Government owns much of the land, with the State Parks and National Forests that today blanket the area being the major economic resource of the region, as it's those that draw visitors up from Duluth, down out of Ontario and from all points wherever beyond.

When folk visit all that natural splendor, it's only Grand Marais that exists to service their every need.

Heather & I first traveled there maybe 35 years ago and found the sleepy vestige of a once marginally prosperous community long since slipped in the direction of economic ruin, as so many villages along the lake were then and are still. As perverse as it seems to say, that was essentially its charm.

Very little intruded upon the quietude. Once you visited the tiny but outstanding Sivertson Gallery hard by the harbor, you had your choice of local diners or a couple more upscale restaurants for fresh fish. Then you could take an evening stroll past Coast Guard Station out to the old break wall on the lake and that was about it.

But even then, if you sniffed around a bit a certain attitude prevailed.

Once, having just traveled east to west across the Canadian shore of Superior and back into the States, I found myself amidst a few locals gathered early in the morning at a small establishment -- ordinarily an enlightening, often a pleasant experience. A lady commented about the weather "on the north shore".

Having just been there, I chimed in with fresh information about Ontario's weather.

Instantly, there fell a deep and pregnant pause. It was like being in a cartoon western saloon, where the piano suddenly stops and the whole place falls quiet when the villain walks in. Then this lady peered down her nose at me and with a gaze intended to wither the abject ignorance right out of my poor pitiful self she positively sniffed, "We are the North Shore".

Sure 'ya are, lady. And Marathon's to your south.

As I said, it's not like Grand Marais didn't have its pleasures. For instance, perhaps the finest walleye I've ever eaten was at the Birch Terrace -- a place of impeccable service offering hearty Northwoods cuisine and a great narrative besides. And therein lies a story to illustrate the split personality of Grand Marais.

Crafted of pine log as a private residence in 1898, the Birch Terrace is a stately old building with a rich history, built on a rise above the lake. An Indian burial ground is said to have been in what's now the front yard. Tales were told of the moose that'd swim out from the dock to greet  incoming boats and beg pouches of tobacco from travelers. The proclamation that created the fabled Gunflint Trail was signed by the Governor of Minnesota in the living room, where today meals are served.

When Heather & I first ate there, much was made of this history and that added immeasurably to the excellence of the overall experience. The richness of the place helped make for an evening of Northwoods romance that'll live on forever in our hearts because it was part of what helped make the Superior Basin our destination of choice.

In today's Birch Terrace, you'll find no mention of history. The menu is reduced to standard tourist fare. When there for old time's sake this past August, I've never seen a staff so overmatched, even with the place mostly empty. Orders were wrong. Meals arrived late or cold and then dispatched back to the kitchen for remedy. Apologies were flung like day old fish fritters.

You can still sit in the handsome old dining room but now the place sports a beer garden terrace too, where on a summer's eve you can listen to a mediocre singer cover old Jimmy Buffett tunes.

All the same, when I visited there in May just before the opening of "the Season", Grand Marais was quietly sublime. A whitefish dinner at the Angry Trout as the sun set over Superior was everything it ought to be and then some.

You could walk the town without brushing shoulders with a crowd. The lakefront past the break wall remains a great place for an evening's stroll. While there you'll see what might be the largest collection of balanced rock art to be found anywhere around the lake:

And I stayed in a fine, family run motel a few miles north from Grand Marais, for a good price.

But what you don't want to do is come off the road late on a Friday afternoon in August, as I did when running down from our trek to Pukaskwa and back. Then you'll find a town near to bursting and too proud of the fact by half.

You'll wait an hour & a half to get seated at the Angry Trout, where you can spend time in quiet observance of class distinctions thrown to high relief. Vacationing families, half-drunk hikers and plenty of patricians from who knows where decked out in positively unblemished high end outdoor gear jostle as they down free-flowing sedations of choice and all the while studiously avoiding direct eye contact with each other.

Then when you take that evening walk, you'll not have to worry about being alone:

And if you're really lucky, you'll have the pleasure of paying for the last room in the region as much or more than is charged most nights for a proper room in downtown Chicago -- where there're hundreds of fine restaurants, a veritable cornucopia of cultural choices and a splendid lakefront to boot, though admittedly not Superior.

Grand Marais prides itself on what it offers the contemporary traveler. But there's an awful lot of Superior shore away from it in all directions, including north.

So should you plan a trip to the area, go offseason and enjoy its many authentic pleasures. Or secure reservations well in advance at the Nanabijou Lodge, or some other family run establishment in the region, then head into town at your own discretion.

Otherwise, get your overpriced ticket to the carnival. Then grab a seat -- if you can find one -- and listen to the barkers sing...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Snapshots -- On the Road in Minnesota

The Nanabijou Lodge

When laying out his 1909 Plan of Chicago, famed architect Daniel Burnham declared: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized."

The Nanabijou Holding Company out of Duluth took Burnham's admonition to heart when in 1927 it appropriated the name of a god to sign a 99 year lease on 3,330 acres of wild land along the northern Minnesota shore of Superior. There they planned to build a magnificent private club designed for exclusive use by a membership limited to 3,330 persons of privilege. That's exactly one acre apiece. (Numerology, anyone?)

The plans called for 150 sleeping rooms inside a spacious clubhouse surrounded by a golf course, tennis courts and other amenities. Membership was restricted to friends and friends of friends, with folk actually living in Minnesota limited to 25% of the total. Charter members included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Ring Lardner, though they didn't have to pay for the privilege and you'd have to wonder exactly whose friends of Duluth gentry those famous east coast men were.

At any rate there's no record extant that this trio of notable sporting gents ever actually visited. They were exceptions that prove the rule, I guess.

The purpose of the club as defined in the charter was to allow for members to "Live and learn. Learn why the raspberry follows the fireweed; learn how the fern seed clings to its fronds; learn the ways of the kingbird, the haunts of the wood thrush; learn the pasturage of the moose and the deer and the home life of the beaver..."

In such ways do people justify using the name of a god they don't believe in. But don't scoff overmuch. There's plenty of the same sort of well-meaning back to nature fecklessness in the language of our own contemporary 'New Age' seekers. You can talk the talk but it's tough to walk the walk, when you've driven six hours to your embarkation point...

Much as Burnham's ambitious Plan for Chicago was never fully realized, neither were the Nanabijou Company's plans for their club.

A clubhouse was built, with a great hall and 24 guestrooms. The fireplace that anchors the west end of the hall was constructed by a local stonemason from 200 tons of rounded native rock and remains the largest stone fireplace in the State of Minnesota.

The Nanabijou Club opened its doors to much fanfare on July 7th, 1929, with the Governor of the State doing the christening honors. And if you know your American history, you already know what's next.

That same year on October 29th, Black Friday arrived. The world plunged into The Great Depression and the ambitions of the Nanabijou Holding Company fell to naught.

By 1935, the property was in foreclosure. In 1939 it was sold. Then it was sold again. And again. And again. Along the way, most of the original 3,330 acres were sold off too, where today you'll find the picturesque Judge C.R. Magny State Park -- open to all comers, no membership required.

But in some big plans there's a kernel of lasting greatness. And so it was, with the Nanabijou Lodge.

What remains of those grandiose plans is one of the most striking publically available architectural interiors anywhere on the Superior Basin. The great hall of the clubhouse having been long since converted to a dining room, the Cree inspired art deco design by French artist Antoine Goufee was instrumental in the Nanabijou Lodge being named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The addition of a solarium carefully followed that design and it's there that guests can pass the time reading or playing board games or even enjoy high tea on a summer's afternoon.

Today the Lodge is owned by the Ramey Family and they are most gracious hosts. The Lodge boasts one of the better restaurants in the region. The otherwise well appointed rooms have neither television nor telephone and cell signal remains uncertain that far up the shore, so it's a place of quiet Northwoods elegance offering the opportunity for reflection or even just the chance to snatch a few precious days away from a screeching modern world.

Which means that in the end, the greatest ambitions of the Nanabijou Holding Company were met -- though I suppose it unlikely they'd have agreed -- because today the Lodge fulfills its original mission in letting folk step out through its grand French doors and into a world where such magic as wild raspberries and fern fronds and wood thrush song and dozing deer can still be learned from, if you've the mind.

If all that's not enough, the splendid Nanabijou Lodge is also one of the best values on the entire Minnesota shore.

And you can drop in this coming Thursday, to learn something of the alternative...

Vintage Delight

We touched on Smokey the Bear while Playing With Fire and it's absolutely true that fire prevention/control is always a concern in the Northwoods, this year being no exception as wildfire has ravaged both wild acreage and settled places alike.

It's also true that at the core of my work there's always been a fascination with cultural artifacts.

On State Highway 61 along Minnesota's Superior shore and north of Grand Marais, I found this.

A splendid, vintage example of cultural iconography and most unusual in that there by the side of the highway Smokey still stands, though made only of wood and exposed to the vicissitudes of Superior weather, day in and day out for who knows how many years now. I mean, just take a look at those jeans:

Fit That Beneath the Christmas Tree...

Roadside attractions run the gamut from silly to sublime. The path around the Superior Basin is no exception. For example...

In Ishpeming stands 'Old Ish". Made in 1884, originally painted black and sporting three fountains -- one for horses, one for dogs and one for humans. Ish is a local icon made world famous through the writings of favorite son John Voelker:

Outside of Marquette there's Lakenland:

And in my very own Gogebic is the Paulding Light, which mystery has attracted wandering tourists year-round over decades.

But in a week or so when we turn southwest out of Grand Marais to visit the fabled Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota, we'll find that there, these tourist attractions take on a decidedly industrial bent.

For it's on a hilltop ridge high above the massively undermined town of Virginia Minnesota, that you'll find a couple of the Iron Giant's very own discarded Tonka Toys -- tires purposefully flattened no doubt, to keep little boys of all ages from trying to send them hellbent down the hill:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Fur Trade -- Forever in an Amber Glow

Before the residency at Dan's Cabin, we'd visited the resting places of Omett & Nanabijou, then were hurtling off the north shore towards Thunder Bay and our last border crossing together. Let's pick things up there. Then we can dig into Minnesota and complete our circumnavigation of the Superior Basin...

No activity centered on Superior is as celebrated as the fur trade.

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

In part that's due to its antiquity. Furs were exported to Europe from New France in economically significant numbers as early as the 1630's.

Then there're the legendary companies involved -- The Hudson's Bay Company, The North West Company and later the American Fur Company, which secured a monopoly on the American trade. That monopolistic advantage set John Jacob Astor off on the path that made him one of the wealthiest men in the world, and that allowed Astor to become a lasting avatar for what it means to be a successful American businessman. Noblesse oblige, indeed.

There's also the sheer longevity of the enterprise. The fur trade ran some 250 years, give or take. No resource extraction around Superior has lasted even near so long or made so many fortunes. And that primarily due to the fecundity of the humble beaver, whose fascinating and most provocative impact on world economic history can best be explored by delving into the thoroughly researched Fashionable Felted Fur: a World History of the Beaver Hat, by Kelly Feinstein-Johnson.

Trust me, what you likely don't know about beaver hats is a whole bunch.

Major nations battled over the fur trade. At white folk's behest, Native tribes warred to displace each other from ancestral homes, only to facilitate the removal of what once was theirs. Due to the world's insatiable appetite for fur, the cultural character of the entire region changed, not once but many times in succession.

But I think the reason the fur trade lives on in our memories even today is due to primarily to the Voyageurs.

Their robust approach to life and work bequeathed an incredibly rich narrative fueled by a litany of story and song, which were celebrated during legendary Rendezvous'. This narrative recounted deeds of authentically heroic nature and made the Voyageurs emblematic of both what we truly were and  -- of more importance -- what we still prefer to see in ourselves.

Even when most all of us reside in cities a universe removed from the ancestral trials of life led in the wild.

No matter our daily struggles, few among us today must do anything like paddle 30 miles into a rising sea to reach safe harbor, make camp in freezing rain, then wake up the next day and carry not one but two 90# packs on our backs while traversing a rough-hewn portage. And do it all again the next day and the day after that for an entire season.

Thiers was, as they say, a time when men were men. I thought of that some, when as many as four times daily I hauled my sorry self with my piddling 100# of gear up & down the short but steep hill to make the quarter mile to and fro between Dan's Cabin & the car...

I'll not try to distill the history of the fur trade here, as it seems a hopeless task and the resources available to those of you who're interested are rich. Rather, let's do the tourist gig for a bit, as the finest 'Living History Museums' on Superior are both dedicated to the legacy of the fur trade and the legend of the Voyageurs.

So here're a few brief sentences on each, accompanied by select images...

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

Fort William Historical Park is in Thunder Bay Ontario, its present site a few miles up the Kaministiquia River from where the original fort once stood. You can't miss it, as signage from both directions but especially when driving up from the States is positively ubiquitous.

It's a large place, wonderfully done. When the presence of tourists is slight, it's easy to succumb to the notion that you've been transported to another time. Especially when sitting in the shade beneath a tree in the sun-drenched open square, enjoying a positively splendid late summer morning and you're unexpectedly greeted by such delights as this:

I freely admit that having just come down the north shore from Pukaskwa and considering everything we've seen and done over the past year, to hear this song in this place at that golden moment misted my vision. For a moment at least, I could almost believe...

Then later that morning a lovely young Ojibwa woman graciously introduced me to the joys of wild rice popped in bear fat. Can't beat that with a stick, eh?

I've worked Fort William a few times over the past 20 years or so and the Canoe Shed is my favorite place. Not merely because it's there that fine craftspeople still build canoes by hand just as craftsmen did 200 years ago, though that'd be reason enough. In addition, the light in this building is some of the most exquisite light I've ever had the pleasure to work:

Taken from vintage 35mm transparencies

Fort William Historical Park is a visual and educational delight, the people who work there as warm and welcoming as any you'll meet at similar sites anywhere. It's well worth the visit whether traversing the big lake by boat or car. Give it a whole day and see if you too can step back in time...

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

Across the border back in the States and just 30 miles over water from the original Fort William is Grand Portage National Monument. A much smaller facility, it nevertheless rivals it's larger cousin in excellence of presentation.

The Grand Portage around the falls of the Pigeon River were in use by Native Peoples for millennia before white folk discovered it's utility as a passage from Superior into the great Northwest. There may have been a trading post at the site as early as 1718, but with the formation of the North West Company in 1799, the Grand Portage came to lasting economic importance.

And today that crucial role in a Nation's development is recognised through the site's designation as a National Monument of the United States.

Should you find yourself in nearby Grand Marais MN and need an escape from the distinctly mixed blessings of a once sleepy harbor town since transformed into a contemporary tourist trap, be sure to take the short drive north and pay a visit. It'll be well worth your time.