Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Porkies

Though coincidentally home to porcupines, when viewed from the east this range of ancient mountains resembles a crouched Kag, or Porcupine. That's why they were called Kag wadjiw by the Ojibwa. The name stuck.

Due to years of citizen advocacy, this magnificent place was first secured as a park in 1945. With further protections since gained, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness became the crown jewel of the Michigan State Parks system and today ranks among the finest relatively undisturbed landscapes on the Superior Basin. At its heart stands nearly 35,000 acres of virgin northern hardwood forest, said to be the largest such tract to remain in North America.

From a 4x5 transparency

After near to twelve hours on the road and well past dark, on the first night of our first trip together to Superior, Heather and I arrived at the Presque Isle campground that marks the western end of the Porkies. We set up camp and devoured a stack of hastily prepared Bisquick pancakes slathered with rich currant jelly made by Heather's dad. Then we fell asleep to the whisper a big lake offers at its shore.

The next morning brought our first Northwoods lesson: leave a plastic jug of dough on the picnic table overnight and you'll later clean up after a critter ambles along and savages the jug for to get at the bounty of tasty goo while you're otherwise oblivious.

That morning also revealed that we'd pitched our tent at the forested edge of a high bluff looking roughly west out over Superior, so it was all good.

Heather, from a vintage 35mm negative

Our relationship with the place now stretches near to 40 years and is indelibly personal.

In the Porkies Johnny, Heather and I bushwhacked over the hills searching for evidence of Copper Complex people, to no avail. Likewise our always half-hearted hunt for the crashed B-17, artifacts of which can be found in collections scattered throughout the region.

We didn't actually look for the legendary pictographs as told to Henry Schoolcraft by the Ojibwa shaman Chingwauk, but always hoped we'd somehow find them anyway. To date, no one has.

Me & Johnny, from a vintage 35mm negative taken by Heather

It was on the South Boundary Road at dusk where we encountered our first wild wolf, many years before those were properly reestablished and long before one could even imagine we'd be engaged in civic conversation about hunting wolves, as we are again today.

This particular wolf instead worried over road kill just off the shoulder of the road.

We slowed and pulled alongside.

The wolf lifted its formidable head to address us with the most sentient eyes I've ever seen. In them could be found no sign of fear or aggression, though they fairly shone with a remarkable awareness and make no mistake.

In response, Heather rolled up her window.

After a while the great beast took a step back and drew itself in to the darkening wood. We left the wolf to its meal and returned to camp exhilarated.

I've not again been so close to a wild wolf until last autumn, during this Odyssey. To be sure it was under entirely different circumstance but again at the side of a road, which is an unhappy story for another time.

Heather and I spent half our honeymoon at the Presque Isle. On my 2nd night of marriage I managed to bounce a thankfully dull axe off the back of my hand. Heather fixed me then and there and our template for wedded bliss was set.

Of all the fish I've ever tussled with, by far the finest of 'em swam the Presque Isle.

Heather fishing the mouth of the Presque Isle, from a vintage 4x5

I once fought a fish upriver and down for more than forty minutes, tethered to only 6# test. Finally I gained the upper hand. At last I brought the behemoth to dark water at river's edge. In another moment, I'd need come to grips with a monster from the deep.

Then with a sharp thwipt no doubt heard all the way to Isle Royale, the line snapped. My knees shook while I used my left hand to pry loose my right from the rod. The name of the beast remains a mystery.

Then there was the time the biggest Steelhead I've ever seen rose from beneath my feet as I retrieved a spinner through fast water while perched upon an undercut shelf. I swear she never moved a muscle of her brightly colored flanks and became simply one with the current so when that spinner reached just there she was there too, to kiss it softly as it passed. And the fight was on.

For... I dunno, maybe three seconds. Seemed like forever then as now, so amazing the sight and rich my memory of it.

Funny, how often fisher folk's greatest tales involve no fish at all or the one that got away. Best leave that to ponder for people who don't fish...

And did I mention that the South Boundary Road is my favorite drive anywhere? Miles of classic two lane blacktop rolling up and down and all throughout the naturally indistinct boundary between governmentally sanctioned wilderness and not.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness is wonderland. A complex, richly rare landscape ideally suited to adventure and quiet contemplation in turn and at your discretion.

It's for that and because I take the place so personally, that we'll spend some bit of time there over the next few weeks...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Treasure Trove

Heather and I share a love of books.

Because our interests are broad and run deep or may be obscure, we especially love old books. And while compiling the bibliography for this project, it struck me again how valuable that love is to learning, as a significant number of titles on the list are out of print but all I had to do to avail myself of the knowledge in 'em was to reach over to the shelves and dig in.

For myself, I've always loved fishing as much or more than catching...

When you walk into a place with rows of shelves stacked full with books from floor to ceiling and the scent of old paper and bindings and wisdom wafts from the walls like incense in a gothic cathedral, the sense of anticipation is palpable because you just never know what wonders you'll find.

Maybe it's a vintage paperback of Traver's folksy Small Town D.A., only tricked out with lurid cover art better suited to Mickey Spillane and too lurid at twice the price to pass up. Or a first edition of Barry Lopez's towering achievement, Of Wolves and Men. Or a moisture bowed and somewhat beat but otherwise sound copy of Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Days, signed by the author.

Maybe you leave the store content that for all you've seen and tried but came up empty anyway, every day in the field is a day well spent, regardless of outcome.

The best of it is when you reach for a title you don't recognise to discover something you never knew existed and it turns out to be essential. Then when you get it home and settle in to read you find a note or news clipping or pressed leaf left by someone else who thought so too, a gift along the trail to learning. Then you gently put it back where you found it, so someday another like-minded traveler will open the book and wonder at the same gift.

Stores where you can hunt the treasure of used, rare or out of print books are fast fading from the landscape, victims of rapidly changing technology and the cultural mores that change with it.  Sure, you can shop on the Internet and I do, but the experience is never quite the same. It's not tactile.

Luckily for travelers around Superior, there remains a better option.

Chequamegon Books is a mainstay in tiny Washburn WI, near the base of the Bayfield Peninsula and hard by fabled Chequamegon Bay. It's one of our favorite stops around all the lake.

Richard & Carol Avol owned Avol's Books in Madison WI from 1979 until 1994. This last summer we traveled to Madison for the first time in years and went looking for our favorite bookstores in town but didn't find them. I wonder now if Avol's wasn't one of those, the timing's right.

Pretty much everywhere but especially true of big cities, the last few decades brought fundamental change to Madison, including steep hikes in the costs of living and/or doing business.  Unable to buy a building despite repeated attempts and though they were making a go of it, in the face of regular rent increases Richard & Carol weren't enjoying their careers as booksellers as much as they ought. So they decided to move on.

With friends from Madison who'd helped start the Big Top Chautauqua and having visited the place in all seasons, the Avols chose the Chequamegon Bay area for their new home. It took some years to find exactly the right building and a couple more to sell the business in Madison. Finally, they put down their stake in Washburn, at the eastern base of the Bayfield Peninsula and hard by Chequamegon Bay.

The search for a better life brought them north, as it has so many others. It's a path many more desire to follow and those of us who haven't yet take heart from those who have.

Folk don't get rich by selling books. For Richard & Carol it's their sole means of support, which is unusual in the book selling business these days. They've renovated their building, live upstairs from the shop and spend long hours at the business.

From Richard Avol:

Most of the visitors who come into our store are amazed such a store exists in this remote rural area. Many are book lovers and are very glad we are here. Most wish they could leave the cities they reside in and do something like we have done. It gives us pleasure to provide a bookstore for them that has real books in all fields, in large quantities on the shelves for visitors to handle, and we hope buy.

Heather & I do our part -- sometimes by the armful -- each & every time we visit the region. We build extra hours into any day planned for the Bayfield Peninsula because there exploration doesn't end when headed back towards Bessemer and we know just how rich the rewards might be, with one final stop made in Washburn.

Today Chequamegon Books is a fixture along a revitalized main street in Washburn. The day I visited in November, their coffee machine was on the fritz and that was the talk of the town. Must be some mighty fine coffee...

Of bookstores, Novelist Richard Russo wrote: ...they're the physical manifestation of the world's longest, most thrilling conversation.

Nowhere around the Basin is the truth of that more evident than at Chequamegon Books, where Richard & Carol Avol continue to honor that conversation through their life's work.

So stop on by and dig in 'cause though you never can tell what treasure you'll find there, you're absolutely assured of being in the very best of company while fully immersed in that most thrilling conversation that never ends...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Guest Shots -- The Sea Caves of Cornucopia

The fieldwork for this project was originally scheduled to run a single year, like it says up on the header. As it stands, we went 15 months.

With each passing day it grows more unlikely that I'll manage a coda. I'm good with that 'cause if the fieldwork ended at the Presque Isle River in November, then that was an entirely appropriate place for it, during some of the most perfect light of the entire gig.

While I've spent this winter largely housebound, others have been out and about. So this week we've turned things over to friends.

Photographers Philip J. Kucera & Betsy Wesselhoft recently walked Superior ice to work the fabled sea caves off Cornucopia and have generously agreed to share.

We'll let Phil go first:

Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft

Betsy & I have traveled the south shore of Lake Superior for a little over two years, gathering material for a photo exhibition. It's a collaborative effort to present two perspectives on the overlooked and secret sites of Superior's basin.

I'll admit we're an odd couple with the tying bind being our love of photography, the wonder of discovery...and the never ending quest for a decent noon meal on the road.

Betsy & Phil about to enjoy a decent noon meal at Maggie's in Bayfield

A friend of Betsy's sums us up with "You guys should title the exhibit The Lady and the Curmudgeon". Maybe she's right.

I'll try to describe us.

We met while covering a January 42k cross-country ski race in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's cold up north in January, know what I mean? We're working the finish line as the skiers limp in. I'm shooting close-ups of bearded faces turned icicle white, eyes almost frozen shut, aid workers manhandling the afflicted. 42k in the snow and cold and wind chill well below zero. I don't know why I was out there.

And Betsy? We warm to a cup of coffee at a greasy spoon after the race and I scan through pictures on her LCD screen. Skiers approaching the finish line with poles flailing -- you can almost hear the triumphant shouts; smiling faces in every shot, couples hugging -- caught midstream and jumping for joy.

Looks to me like The Agony and the Ecstasy, I tell her. You must watch a lot of movies is the reply. Thus are partnerships born.

But the subject for today is the sea caves of the Bayfield Peninsula. After three long, warmer winters, we're finally able to photograph the amazing caves in January. With global warming stirring the waters of Superior, these days the big lake doesn't often freeze over.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

You reach the cave area on Wisconsin Hwy. 13, a few miles east of Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Watch for the Meyer's Road sign. It's a one mile-plus hike on snow and ice from the plowed parking area to the first of the caves. You'll walk on frozen water and the footing can be treacherous. We carry climber's crampons and use them when the ice is bad.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

The caves come under the aegis of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You can call the park hot line (715)779-3398, extension 3 for info on ice conditions and access to the caves. For a live view of the lakeshore from the sea caves webcam atop the high cliffs go here and click the "Pictures" column on the far right. The web view changes every few minutes and runs summer and winter. Enjoy!

It's an adventure for the hardy and the cautious. If you've the spirit, you'll find yourself in wonderland.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

I'll turn it over to Betsy to tell you about our recent walk out on the ice...

Image Courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

At the bottom of the stairs to Meyer’s Beach, we encountered a family of four returning from their walk to the iced over sea caves.

Seeing the two young daughters beam with the pride of conquering the caves triggered a random memory. An Olympic coach told his adult gymnasts before competition: “If little girls can do it, you can”.

I had my mantra for this excursion.

Left foot, right foot, one step at a time. This isn’t so bad. I can tell we're walking the shore as there's dirt in the snow. It’s cold, but I'm dressed for it and at least in this one regard, I’m comfortable.

After about twenty minutes we're on the ice. It’s lumpy but solid and my photography partner says it's eight inches thick.  He doesn’t know just how much a chicken I am at heart. Or maybe he does.  He mentions that I shouldn't let noises heard out here bother me. Check.

Imagine if you will a suburban-raised woman of a certain age smack dab outside her comfort zone.  Having heard about the beauty of the sea caves, I've anticipated seeing them for years and have often envisioned myself on the wrong side of the ice. It’s not a happy thought.

Enough of that. I’m on the right side of the ice and am actually breathing normally, though my senses are on full alert and my heart is grabbed by the very first turn we make.  I start shooting and don’t want to stop. Can I capture this? Can I bring a piece of this home in my black-camera-wonder?

Phil beckons me on to the next area. Keep moving, says he. There is so much more.

He’s right.

Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft

We encounter more folks on the ice and everyone is filled with goodwill. We're out together in this magical place where the only price for admission is a bit of bravery and a $3.00 parking fee, paid on the honor system. For this place where jaws drop and eyes widen with each new view. For this place where danger lurks all around, in the caprice of ice and the winds it shifts with.

"Look in here," Phil says. "Hoarfrost".

There are millions of ultra fine strands of ice inside the cave. These ephemeral beauties evade our ability to capture without the benefit of ground-hugging tripods. We take memory shots and walk on.

After a bit, Phil wanders while I stay grounded where I'm at. I take a deeper look all around, allowing this other-planet view to settle into my soul. It's like nothing I've ever experienced.

The sun goes down behind the overcast sky.

Phil waltzes back through uneven ice in his normal deft manner as I anticipate the walk back. He never slips and refuses any kind of a walking stick. Earlier, I took a quick digger even with mine.

On this day of days, we're last to head off the ice.

I follow Phil around the outer edge of an ice ridge and that takes us a significant distance from shore. I wonder how we'll get across this high ridge to reach the shoreline. A wave of anxiety rolls through me.

"If little girls can do it…"

Breathe. Left. Right. Left. Right. A few long minutes later an opening appears and a clear path is presented. Gratitude resonates throughout my being as I glance upward.

Let the light seep away I think to myself, since we're now at the base of the stairs.

Soon we're back in the warmth of the car. Contentment fills time and space as we journey back to Ironwood.

If women can claim notches on their belts (and of course we can), I’m claiming this one. I’ve faced my fear of the ice and returned with evidence of the day to share. That night as I drift off to sleep, my gratitude goes out to all little girls who inspire us to take risks.

And to Phil, who knew not only that I could walk the ice, but how enriched I'd be once I had.

Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft