Friday, October 7, 2016


For pretty much the entirety of my adult life I've reaped the benefit of two autumns every year – first in the Northwoods, later a second on the prairie. That won't happen this year. Here's hoping absence really does make the heart grow fonder, eh?

Regardless, it's high time I take care of some long overdue business.

When politicians prattle about "small business owners", it never sounds like they're talking about real people and when reduced to public policy abstraction, mostly they aren't. Well, the two rural enterprises featured below aren't just operated by genuine American folk. They're run so well and by such good people that over the years, the owners have become my friends.

I'm here today to honor the bravery, resilience and most of all the sheer American heart of these most enterprising citizens and to recommend that you give them your business, should the opportunity arise.

A place to stay…

When young, the whole point of our annual treks from the prairie to the Ottawa National Forest and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness was always to revel in the great woods, which one does best by living in them. So we disdained motels. I've pictures from 1978 of Heather and me bathing in Bobcat Lake, using more or less biodegradable camp soap, as it was then called. Sorry, you don't get to see those images but geez Louise we were once young and fit.

In time and especially during those trips that stayed cold and wet, when the need for a shower turned desperate we'd emerge bedraggled from the wilderness and take a room at the nearest motel. Sometimes we'd not even bother to sleep in the room and instead returned to camp refreshed. We were that resolute.

Later, when the point of my trips was to fish, I stayed in an oddly built place more hotel than motel but central to everywhere I wanted to be. Though he locked the lobby door at ten and didn't reopen it until eight the next morning, the old man who owned it lent me a key so I could chase fish as I pleased. That relationship lasted until he died.

Eventually, large format gear made it essential to have somewhere secure and dry to stow it. For maybe thirty years now, in Bessemer that place is the Traveler's Motel, owned & operated by Donna and Mike Maslanka.

Of my many happy memories made there, maybe my favorite is the day during the Odyssey when, following a brutal stretch of travel and after having borne terrible witness to the biggest, ugliest-assed iron hole in the whole world, I drastically changed course in northern Minnesota. Reliant only on sheer will and my Gazetteer to get me the hell out of there, I raced south through the 'North Star State', headed east to Duluth and held on tight across the length of northernmost Wisconsin, until finally making it to Michigan.

When at last I got to Bessemer and Traveler's, Donna and Mike were on their porch taking the evening sun with a glass of wine. I shared the story of my troubled day and the long, long drive. They welcomed me like I'd just returned safely home. Which of course, in a very real sense I had.

By sheer coincidence, Traveler's Motel is just down the bluff from what once was my Uncle John's farm and only a short distance from the final resting place of my UP ancestors. But what matters to you is that Traveler's other sign reads "Squeaky clean rooms". That's no idle boast and I've seen how hard Donna works to keep it true.

Donna and Mike are native to the region, young sweethearts that got married and raised a fine daughter in the midst of a hard land, on the strength of a successful local enterprise. That's a notable life, especially considering the catastrophic failure rate of small, tourist dependent businesses on the Range. They come, they go. But thankfully for visitors to the western UP, Traveler's stays on.

…enough to eat.

Used to be, the Range was dotted with great diners. From Red's in Wakefield to the legendary Scotty's on the road to Ironwood, we took advantage of them all.

Those days are gone. The spot once occupied by the creaky old Bessemer Café's been an empty lot for…I dunno, has to be near forty years. Still, I'd my first fresh walleye dinner in a rural café and relished the best perch fish fry of my life in a hewn log restaurant out at Black River Harbor, a business burnt down so long ago now that few even remember it was there. It's tough, making a living selling good food at prices locals can afford.

Out of Bessemer toward Black River Harbor is the Black River Valley Pub. A few years ago it failed too but now due to the indomitable nature of its present owner and the way she honors her family's heritage, today the place positively thrives.

Like my own family they may have started as miners on the Gogebic, but Kris Rigoni comes from a strong family tradition of good food. Her father's a baker; he makes the great dinner rolls served at the Pub. Two sisters, a brother and her nephew are chefs/cooks. Kris' robust, Wednesday night all-you-can eat spaghetti is based on her grandmother's recipe and Heather tells me her Hungarian mushroom soup is about as good as that gets.

Kris' day starts at the gym or with a run, then she gets down to business. Preparation begins at 11:30 for a 4:00 open and her typical work day stretches anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours. I've marveled as Kris works the grill for Friday night whitefish fry, when the parking lot's full to overflowing from beginning to end. Once a widespread local tradition, hers is the only fresh fish fry I know of that today remains on the Range.

Not to mention that as a teen Kris waitressed at Scotty's. That'd be about when Johnny, Heather and I frequented the place. For all I know it was she who served us that night, when after my trip to the emergency room we took refuge at Scotty's to discuss our limited options during the night of the bear.

Kris Rigoni purchased the failed Black River Pub during a time of national economic crisis. I'm in awe of the bravery that took. I once asked her why she'd do that and her answer was at once both simple and complex. She couldn't find work as a scratch baker because local bakeries are often under such economic pressure that they're compelled to buy and sell commercial product instead of hiring local labor.

Black River Valley Pub's given Kris the opportunity to labor mightily so that at the end of their day, others who work hard or play hard choose to come and see her, both for comfort and community. More than just a place to eat good food at a fair price, the warmth and hospitality Kris brings to her job simply can't be faked. That too sounds a lot like family, to me.

Because I camped and fished, I always believed the peak travel season on the Range ran spring through fall. I was wrong. From color season to snow melt is when most local businesses make their nut for the year. First come the hunters, followed by leaf peepers and late in fall, steelhead fishermen. Then winter sets in, when snowmobilers and skiers hold the fort until spring when the seasons of life begin again.

No politician will keep these good folk going. That kind of thing's on us. It's always on us, small business owners being our neighbors no matter where we live and finally, our friends.

So if you're thinking of a trip up north this year, by all means stay at Donna's, eat at Kris'. And if you weren't thinking of heading north, then think again. You could do a whole lot worse in the Superior wilderness and would be hard pressed to do much better anywhere, anytime.

And for all you digital imagers out there, the long light that typically bathes the Northwoods starting in October and lasting through November is simply the most perfect light I've ever seen…


Notes From the (very small) Field…

Or, in honor of my favorite season, this month we're offering two for the price of one.

Perhaps I should've better engaged any number of important tasks this past summer. Instead I spent much of it in close observation of life on our little patch of prairie. In any year featuring more regular business I'd have been on the Superior Basin multiple times. This is no ordinary year. Still, when not in direct touch with the real world I wither.

Absence from the landscape I love best encouraged me to look closer at my native prairie than I have in a long time. There was a lot to see and no small share of good news. Like life in general, one only has to look.

In past years, Heather's Blazing Star carried only a couple of blooms. This year it threw more than a dozen and little Blazing Star babies are already in place for next spring. It's finally happy and that made us happy too. No less so because that meant Heather let me harvest one for work…

Despite their ongoing troubles, we hosted more Monarchs than any season since we've been here. By the time those reach us in late summer and early fall, some are already near a thousand miles into the perilous journey to their winter home in Mexico. Starting in August we saw bright, healthy Monarchs most every day through September and even a few stragglers this week including no fewer than three earlier today. I get that's basically meaningless in the great Monarch scheme of things, but still.

There were numerous Swallowtails, both Black and Tiger. Dozens of tiny Skippers danced daily in the sun, including the only Spotted Skipper I've ever seen. Commas, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies regularly visited. Whites and Sulphurs as well, more of the latter than I've seen since my youth.

We allowed one of our garden boxes to go wild and were gobsmacked by the richness that brought. Maybe a dozen varieties of bees and wasps, including a Great Golden Wasp and a host of active spiders working deep cover beneath all. The highlight was a Great Black Wasp, the first of those I've seen since I was a kid. It started with a single massive male and in time his family grew to five. Who knew that oregano left to flower was such an attraction?

Great Black Wasps are non-aggressive because they don't colonize so haven't any turf to protect. That's some wisdom to live by, eh? I miss the Great Blacks, now that the season's turned.

And because we grow sunflowers for Goldfinches, we've a clutch of mighty happy field mice too, which hardly goes unnoticed. This young Cooper's Hawk spent a full forty minutes on the prowl and never seemed to mind us watching:

But the very best news? It was a bad year for Culex mosquitoes, around these parts a prime distributor of West Nile virus. That meant for the first time in more than a decade, Blue Jays and Crows were again a living presence upon the prairie. Those are ancestral voices I've since come to associate primarily with the Northwoods and happily, they brought a bit of that joy down here to me. Long may our new residents live.

Anyway summer's over, whether up north or here. Most of our visitors are gone, with residents preparing to lay low. During my exceptionally purple adolescence, autumn was a season for richly indulgent melancholy. Annual visits to the great northern wilderness fixed that in me. Now I'll get to see if that took.

Over the last two weeks, hummingbirds down from the north have daily visited our feeder. The Monarchs continue to come then go, intermittently now. I expect the first overhead skeins of raucous Sandhill Cranes any day.

What's sure is that up north, autumn is already ablaze. That means soon, the prairie will turn golden. There're already hints of that in the trees. Indian grass will wave beneath ever lengthening light cast from soft blue skies. Willows will weep yellow tears. Cattails and milkweed will throw their seed to the wind while Woolly Bear caterpillars take desperate chances along blacktop roads. Even now the field mice cache sunflower seed like they know there's no tomorrow.

Then once all that seasonal glory is well spent and perched just at the edge of fleeting memory -- when the more mindful among us have done all we can to prepare -- winter will come roaring down from the north, sure as hell.

And so long as I needn't spend it weeping for my country, that'll be all right by me...

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