Thursday, January 31, 2013

Snapshots -- The Bayfield Peninsula

Peninsulas are blessed with special properties. Surrounded by water, they're generally cooler in summer, warmer in winter and often receive more moisture than the mainland during the course of any given season.

Wisconsin's ancient Bayfield Peninsula is today noted for apple orchards and berries. In springtime the place is positively riotous with blossoms. Each fall the Bayfield Apple Festival draws visitors from far & wide to fill up motel rooms all the way to Bessemer, MI and that's a fair piece.


Cornucopia WI is at a place on Superior so splendid that if it weren't resolutely remote we'd have long ago surrendered it over to mansions on gated acreage.

As it stands, State Highway 13 cruises right through the place.

The sea caves near Cornucopia is where we wanted to be long about this time last year and where we ought to be long about now. It's where I'd hoped to make my last trek as a large format shooter -- a mile or so across Superior ice to capture even a mean representation of natural wonders I suspect would weaken my knees on first sight.

Except that last year extraordinary seasons of temperate conditions combined with ongoing drought to make the ice unsafe all winter through.

Then this year, when the ice path has already been intermittently open, I've been unable to get there. Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you, which is the way it goes in fieldwork & in life, too.

All the same, should I ever remake myself as a full-fledged digital imager, a visit to Cornucopia would be high on my list. In addition to a commercial fishing museum, pleasant marinas, a great beach, Halverson's Fisheries and those aforementioned sea caves, there is in Cornucopia a collection of old fishing vessels, permanently beached.

These too, have mostly defeated my every effort to capture them...

Cornucopia is the only place I know where a photographer with a keen eye can work from gentle distance the ragged interiors of boats like these. And what makes the sight so extraordinary in even perfect light doesn't translate to film.

Can't translate to film, really.

To properly capture these requires the full dynamic range of pro digital capability, processed through the finest software via the deft touch of a digital artist.

To make these old boats sing their faded fisherman's songs requires the application of a new aesthetic.

So if that interests you, by all means go see for yourself. Regardless of season.

And if in the interim winter remains what memory says it should be and I grow suddenly younger in the bargain, look towards the horizon for a dark speck trailing a sled across a craggy desert of white.

That'll be me on one last quest in this search for perfect light...

Frog Bay Tribal National Park

It's not often you get to visit a one of a kind, first of a kind kinda thing.

Out of Cornucopia, take WI 13 east across the Bayfield Peninsula to the town of Red Cliff, which from Buffalo Bay faces a Superior archipelago called the Apostle Islands.

Hang a left on to Blueberry Lane at the Legendary Waters Casino. Now you're on sovereign territory of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and if your penchant is to cheat the speed limit, don't do that here.

After a piece, turn right on Frog Bay Road and take that to the end. Park at the small lot freshly carved from the woods. Walk the old road on down until you come to a trail marker.

Then step in to the first Tribal National Park in America.

At 89 acres of boreal forest rising from a quarter mile of pristine beach protected from the big lake by a clutch of Apostle Islands, it's barely a sliver of land. But outsized importance resonates from the place like the call of a loon carried on a freshening breeze after a long, hard winter.

Used to be, all the land hereabouts was Indian land. The journey of the Ojibwa People led them directly to here. They planned to stay forever and so far, have.

After treaties and reservations and white folk's claim to all things American, Indian land hereabouts was reduced mostly to the 14,000 acre Red Cliff Reservation. Through the years and for a variety of reasons, today nearly 50% of reservation land is owned by someone not Ojibwa. Including the Frog Bay estuary and traditional Ojibwa rice beds, apparently.

And most of what remains of Indian land is landlocked, so a proud people whose spirit is fed & replenished by great waters are withheld from their natural heritage and made the poorer for it.

Frog Bay Tribal National Park changes that. Because of where it leads, as much as for what it is.

Home to a century of regrowth undisturbed, this snatch of primordial forest hosts all the critters emblematic of northern wildness, including bear and wolf. It's safe haven to some 90 species of birds. And in the shaded ravines of the place there thrives a community of rare plant life.

Once again owned by the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa and with a conservation easement held in perpetuity by the Bayfield Regional Conservancy, the story of this repatriation is perhaps best told here.

It's a narrative of multi-cultural, public/private cooperation between people who've always known and those who've of late come to know that the landscape of Superior informs those who live on it and when we try to bend this land to our will, we degrade not only it but ourselves in the bargain.

Frog Bay Tribal National Park opened to the public in August, 2012. On that occasion, tribal Vice-Chairman Marvin Defoe said this:

It's an environment that is conducive to practicing solitude. I'm hoping that users of this park will practice the art of listening. Listen to the water. Listen to the trees. Listen.

The creation of this Park demonstrates that today we're listening better to each other, which is a good and necessary start.


Image courtesy of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce

My favorite small towns on Superior are those that once were fishing villages. The ones I'm most drawn to are those few that still run commercial boats.

As headquarters for the Apostle Islands, Bayfield has long since been given over to recreational concern. But they still run commercial boats out of there and there're times in Bayfield when near everything's like it once was and the town breathes deeply with the ancient rhythm of men setting off through the dark in small wooden boats, to ply fish from big water.

When Heather & I first visited near to 40 years ago, Bayfield was cozy if shopworn. It's more prosperous today and probably not as cozy either, but neither is it as frenetic and expensive as Grand Marais MN nor as isolated as Grand Marais MI, from where they no longer run any boats anyway.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

And Bayfield overlooks that magnificent archipelago, a sacred place where human habitation goes back to when there was only oral history, where later in the story all the foibles and venalities and glories of modern history are on regular display, ever since civilization first visited the place.

I like Bayfield most in the morning, before the first light of dawn.

Rouse yourself maybe 4-ish, depending. Do what's necessary to get even marginally ready for the day. Wander down to the center of town and walk the dark streets near the water. When you see where folk are already gathered for coffee and breakfast, go on in and get something for what ails 'ya.

With the first streaks of light in the sky, go back out to the water. Likely, you'll hear the big diesel engines cough awake.

Secure comfortable vantage along darkly glistening Superior as folk turn to it to feed a people. It's a form of worship as old as man. Seagulls trail in loud celebration behind. Watch the procession until it's but a speck on the sea or otherwise lost around the far edge of a dark, bristling island.

Turn around to find Bayfield proper stretching in its bed, and you already a full day ahead.

Some hours later, pass through the bustling tourist traffic to walk back over to the working mariner's side of town and greet the boats as they return to dock. Marvel at the great boxes loaded with ice and freshly caught fish, lifted to the dock in the strong, weather-worn arms of fishermen.

Then when evening approaches and the long day is near to over, visit one of the places in town that serves local fare and indulge yourself.

Rarely will fresh fish ever taste better.

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