Friday, February 7, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, Part 1

Following my stay at Dan's Cabin courtesy of the Artist in Residence Program run by the Friends of the Porkies, it became my business to do everything I can whenever I can to promote the interests of the place and of its most devoted Friends.

It's an ancient landscape that encourages profoundly personal connections that last a lifetime. My love for the place trails all the way back to the quick dimming years of my largely misspent youth. My adventures there gave me something precious to hold on to year after year and you'd think things couldn't get much more connected than that.

But during the penultimate trip of the fieldwork and due in no small part to the people who serve this magnificent land, I found much, much more. Through those couple of weeks spent as a guest in splendid isolation, the land and its people enriched me in ways I could never have anticipated.

With a new year's Artist in Residence Program submissions deadline approaching, the steep hills still shrouded in snow, Superior blanketed with an expanse of ice greater than she's seen in years and no end soon in sight, the time is ripe to dig back in to one of the most splendid places on the Superior Basin.

And to honor those good, hardy folk who devote their lives to its continued wellbeing. Because through their labors they honor the real world that sustains us.

So if you've never been to Superior's Porcupine Mountains, this is the year you should go. If you're an old lover of the place, start dreaming now of spring and making plans. And if you're an artist in need of solace and support, awash in an undifferentiated landscape of noise, read on over the next month or so while I fill you in on what riches to look forward to, gleaned during a visit to one of the region's authentic and lasting treasures...

The Porkies (Revised)

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 first 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.

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 then have to clean up after a critter savages the jug for to get at the bounty of tasty goo.

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

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...

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 reengaged in killing them for sport, as we are again today.

This particular wolf 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 was no sign of fear or aggression, though they fairly shone with awareness and make no mistake.

In response, Heather rolled up her window.

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

I've not again been so close to a wild wolf until autumn of 2012, during this Odyssey. To be sure it was under entirely different and unhappy circumstance, but again at the side of a road.

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 the template for our continued wedded bliss was set.

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

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, but it's Promethean nature has never been in doubt.

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 standing on an undercut shelf. I swear she never moved a muscle of her brightly colored flanks and was simply one with the current so that when the 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...


  1. I really enjoy reading your updates, having come late to the lure of the Porcupine Mountains and the Penokee Range there is so much I don't know. I cannot wait until spring to visit again. I'm watching in horror, the machinations of GTAC and the Wisconsin Legislature in their quest to decimate one of the most beautiful places that I've ever seen. I can only hope that their bulk sampling brings bad news for the mine. If not, I will lend what help I can to make sure this mine never happens. Knowing so many locals in the area I'm amazed at their total ignorance of what the mine represents and how it will forever change the beauty of the northwoods. They only see the possibility of bringing $$$ to the area and the promise of jobs. I tell them to look at White Pine, both the town and to view the mine area itself (a look at Google Earth should be sufficient)! There needs to be and has to be more education about what the mine will really mean to the area, and how it will damage forever the beauty of northern Wisconsin.

  2. Beauty is always the hardest sell, as the dollar value of it can't be pinned down and those people who judge such things strictly in dollar terms are quick to condemn those who don't as fanatics.

    Still, with operations in Minnesota cutting back due to market forces that've nothing to do with beauty, I wonder what GTAC hopes to get out of all this. Or if they and their political partners aren't just trying to make some sort of political point, for an unknown future advantage. Ultimately, I still think what I've thought from the beginning, which is that this thing won't ever get built. And if it doesn't get built, it'll be because citizens of conscience put themselves squarely in its way for the betterment of all of us.

    Thanks for the kind words, to be sure. But thanks so much more for being involved. That's what it takes -- for each of us to do what we can, in order to push things forward against those who only ever tell us that what used to be was better, even though we can plainly see with our own eyes that it never was that. It was only different. What they're peddling once again as the region's salvation only ever led to poverty and despair for those hardy folk who stuck around to see the promises of prosperity revealed for lies...