Lake-People

In Conversation with Frank O’ Connor

As we neared the end of the easternmost leg of our run, we got in touch with Frank O’Connor, a generous and gregarious local business owner. He offered us a free meal at his restaurant - an establishment that focuses on the bygone lifeways of the French Canadian voyageur that plied the local waterways in centuries past. After our meal we sat down to talk with Frank outside while hordes of beachgoers and summer tourists were in sight all around us. Which was a fitting context while Frank talked about something that many business-owners on the lake deal with - the seasonal swings of tourists and the vital income they represent. Below is an edited transcript from that conversation where Frank shares his relationship with Lake Superior, highlighted both by public tragedies as well as personal triumphs.

How did you end up on the Lake?

Gail and I are from here. Gail is from Batchawana and I’m from Gros Cap. We married then we moved to London, Ontario. I taught school and she worked in business administration. I always had a thing for history - never taught it but always liked it. I read Peter C. Newman’s books. He’s a famous Canadian author he wrote three books one was called Company of Adventurers. The sequel was called Caesars of the Wilderness. I read those books and they really got me thinking about the north shore of Lake Superior. I taught high school business studies - teaching kids to write a business plan to go and start a business, that sort of thing. And here I am teaching this course and I'm telling my kids go and take a risk and some of the bright ones said, “you know what Mr. O’Connor, you're at the front of the room telling us to do that but you should do it!” So we quit our jobs and I gave up a great teaching job and she gave up a great business admin job. We moved our family 500 miles north and we moved into this place on January 30th, freezing cold snowstorm. We had a lot of work ahead of us. My wife is a great cook, you couldn’t do this without someone being from the cooking background. She knew she could handle running a restaurant so we said let's go for it. We dove in head first. We found a bank that supported us.

My kids were supportive I look back and say “you guys could’ve been miserable little bastards but you guys were very good” [laughs].

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do here?

So you’re at the Voyageur Lodge and I'm sure you’ve heard along this shore the stories of the voyageurs and the fur traders. And this is where you are at - the historic pathway of the voyageurs that traded for the Northwest Company (NWC) trading out of Montreal. The group that we replicate and tell the story ofis the NWC. They came from Montreal and they went to Thunder Bay they traded at Fort William and all these waterways were their transport route. So starting in Montreal in the middle of May they would paddle the St. Lawrence Seaway. They went from the Ottawa, the Matthew, the French River, Lake Huron, St. Mary’s River, and then finally Lake Superior and end up at the fort in July for the rendezvous. My wife and I lived here for many many years. Gail is from here, I’m from Gros Cap which is the last point of land before the St. Mary’s River. We met out here and we saw this opportunity to tell the story of these French Canadian voyageurs who paddled their way along this route. So we had a cottage just over there - I was a school teacher for just over 14 years she was a business administrator. This beach was empty, these two buildings were beat up and empty and no one telling these stories.  We thought there’s gotta be a business idea so we formalized it and came up with this name. And we’ve been here for 14 years trying to put together the story of the voyageurs. We do re-enactments.

If you read the menu there are lots of things there that are related to the lifestyle of the voyageur. Bannock biscuit is our biscuit and it’s really just a tea biscuit. To do that the voyageurs mixed water with their bag of flour made their dough baked it on a stick over the fire and that was their bread! We have homemade baked beans - it's all part of the voyageur mystique we’re trying to share with people.

We’ve also partnered with Fort William and we have a lot of artifacts that are original from FortWilliam. These shores were so historic and they were landing places for the voyageurs. They had with them birch bark canoes that could never touch bottom so a sand beach was ideal for them. They could park out there 30 feet, unload and carry the boat in. We talk about that when we do our voy paddle. I have a group called Batchawana Brigade. It's me and eight guys and we dress up like the voyageurs. We bring a big festival in August in Sault Ste. Marie and we’re paddling down the canal and we have a Frenchman on board that leads us in song - we have fun it's just goofing around but we have fun.

The three main companies that traded for fur were Hudson Bay Company (HBC) out of James Bay and they claimed Rupert's land - all the waters that drained into Hudson's Bay were claimed for the King of England. At one point he owned most of North America because most of the continent drains that way. Then the NW company came out of Montreal, a group of Scottish merchants to compete with the HBC. In the northeast it was the American Fur Trading Company and all companies hated each other. They would sabotage each other, they would steal each other’s trading partners, they would do all sorts of dirty things to each other. But all three companies employed the French-Canadian. The French Canadian was short and stout, if anyone was over 5 foot 4 he could paddle. Everybody dreamed of staying short two hundred years ago. You don’t see that happening for grade seven boys today [laughs]. All three companies had French Canadian voyageurs paddling their boats.

When did you start to decide to do more of those community-based group events?

In Canada we celebrate something called Victoria's Day. It’s the week before your Memorial Day weekend. Victoria Day is the Queen's birthday and we light fireworks off. I went and bought a little kit of fireworks and we lit them off on Victoria Day and that was our first community event, a little forty dollar box of fireworks. And now this year my show had about 400 people at it during Canadian Day and I do a full firework show across the bay. We played a lot of Canadian roots music in the restaurant: fiddles, french horns, that kind of stuff. Music was such a part of the voyageur lifestyle, we need to showcase music. So we started with a little music. Now I have a full stage wired for sound, a bandshell and we can put up to 500 people in there for shows in the evenings. And then all the artsy, cultural, crafty kind of stuff just sort of came to be ‘hey we need to showcase the work of Canada's artisans,’ so we started an art festival. It’s all part of having fun and showcasing Canadian roots musicians, Canadian artisans on this shore. There’s so much going on here that so many people don't realize that's happening.

When you’re running down this highway you have to imagine that every 150 feet at the beach front there's a cottage from here to Havallind Bay. Every 150 feet someone has a cottage down there.

What does your season look like here?

We’ve been open year round in the past but now we’re going to a seasonal operation because Gail and I are tired and we’ve been doing it for 14 years. We’re gonna close for Halloween and open for Easter. What happens in the winter time here, you guys are from Wisconsin so you know, so there's a lot of snow and cold here it comes across the lake and blows right in here and it’s whiteout conditions. In the summer the beaches are full of people. In the winter no one wants to be here. They want to be in Sault Ste. Marie or Wawa or Thunder Bay. They want to be in a community where there are hotels, they don't want to be stuck in a snowstorm. The winter time here is done after 3 p.m. So we battled being open for 14 years, its very high in terms of energy. Energy costs are huge, plowing is huge. I'm here at 4 a.m. trying to get it plowed. So we just got tired and said “you know what it's so busy in the summer, let's just focus on the summer.” It's very busy in the fall for the fall colors.

And you know what Lake people are very special people and it's the same on your side. I went around and met so many wonderful people. You live on Lake Superior, man. You’re on the grandaddy, there's nothing bigger, there's nothing fresher, there's nothing cooler, there's nothing deeper.

I was at a silent auction in southern Ontario when I lived there. There was a sign that said ‘welcome to the lake’. I’m bidding and this other couple is bidding all night long. The auction closes and we got the final bid. We paid $100 might’ve been worth $25. The other couple that were bidding, we never knew who they were, we never saw them put their bid down. The other couple comes up and the woman says so you’re the couple that won the bid. So this gal says “well, I certainly hope you have a nice lake to put that on.” Just like that. In a real condescending way. The whole table starts to laugh and I said, “well ma’am we have the coldest, deepest, and largest lake in the world to put it on.” She said “we’re on [Lake] Erie, where are you? And I said ‘we’re on Lake Superior” [laughs].

Its an amazing place. It generates its own weather patterns it does whatever it wants. I've seen it whip up in November, we got walls of water coming at us. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is just out there you're really close to it now. I hope when you get to the American side, I hope you get to do the coastal route and see the Shipwreck museum. The bell of the Fitzgerald is at the museum, it's a special kind of place. The day of the wreck is very close to us here. 1975 is very close to everyone - so many people can still remember the storm, the wildness of it. I was in Gros Cap, I was a twelve year old. And in Gros Cap the waves were 50, 60 feet up the next day after the storm. I was standing up on those bluffs and those waves were crashing over us. That's how immense that storm was.

Could you explain the Three Sisters? It’s something we hear about when people talk about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

They’re three waves. There's a theory that three sisters hit the Edmund Fitzgerald. The first, second and third hits it and sinks it. They say the waves hit it and opened the hatches just by the sheer force. I think it was probably human error. Those boats were designed for water to go right over the decks and not sink but once water gets in then you're in trouble. That’s an Ojibwe theory - the legend of three giant waves - tidal waves in size. That was the captain’s last voyage. He was retiring three weeks later when they got home, after 40 years on the Lake. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the wreck. And I went out to the lake and I played the Gordon Lightfoot song, I play it on the 10th. It was a beautiful morning which was uncharacteristic in November - November here is real ugly. There was no traffic it was quiet and the water was glass, It was beautiful.

She’s the boss. Don’t muck with her. I’ve been in it with a sailboat with my dad. He’s a terrible sailor. He loved the lake and I thought we were in peril many times [laughs]. He’s sailed his whole life through there. But he's made it through and he’s retired now and sold his boat.

Living in This Climate

In Conversation With Cookie and Lu Holmgren

How long have you lived up here in the U.P.?

Cookie: Well, I’ll speak for myself first but we were both born in Ishpeming [Michigan]. I spent maybe six months in the state of Texas back in the 70s. In 1976 I was hired at the mine. First of all, I’m 70 years old. I was divorced in 1976 and I started working for the mine then. I didn’t really know him [Lu]. I knew who he was but we didn’t have anything going on back then. So I was divorced for seven years and I had gotten hired at the mine in that time. I raised two daughters as a single mom. We had good benefits at the mine. The work was very dirty. And at the time when I was hired there were very few women. I think there were seven women hired before me. If you ever have the opportunity to see the movie “North Country,” it was pretty true to life. I didn’t have sexual harassment so to speak but, I did have several men tell me that I shouldn’t be working there because I was taking the jobs away from men who were trying to feed their families. Of course my reply was, “I’m a single mom trying to feed my family.” But I did get a lot of flak from some of the guys.

Generally it was really dirty work. It was hot. I worked inside a lot, in a place called “the mill” where the ore is processed. Where it’s made into the pellets and shipped out. It was hot, hot, hot and heavy. I was general labor. It was heavy work. I worked there for 23 years. During that period of time I met Lu and we started dating. He was separated and we started dating and then we were married.


"And at the time when I was hired there were very few women... I did have several men tell me that I shouldn’t be working there because I was taking the jobs away from men... Of course my reply was, 'I’m a single mom trying to feed my family.'"


I’ll tell you a funny story. We met in the unemployment line. There was a big layoff at the mine. He was a mechanic and I was a general laborer, so we never worked together. But we both had the same reporting date for our unemployment. Before our unemployment [collection] I would go down to this little Mr. Coffee place in town and have a cup of coffee and then go out for my unemployment check. He had the same digit for his last reporting number. So he would be down there having coffee and that’s how we kind of got together. After several weeks of us just having coffee and him going to his car and me going to my car, he finally asked me, “Why don’t we just ride together? We’re going to the same place.” So that’s kind of how we started dating. So I always joke that we met in the unemployment line.

So we were called back to work. He also has two daughters from a previous marriage. So we combined our families and had to try and raise teenagers on unemployment. We had to go on state aid for a while. That was no fun trying to feed the family on food stamps. We could only have assistance for our children, so we couldn’t have adult aid. We weren’t entitled to any adult help. In order to get what we got for food stamps he did volunteer work – we were given an option on how to earn that money, he worked at the Salvation Army and cut wood. He was working cutting wood for people who needed wood fires. I was an unpaid teacher’s aide. I worked with special education kids. That was fun.

Anyway, in 2001 he had 30 years at the mine so, he’s gonna get his full pension. I only worked 23.

Lu: And she wouldn’t work any longer. I only asked her once. Only brought it up one time!

Cookie: He didn’t dare say it again! I still would have had seven years to get my retirement. So I retired early and we have since been enjoying camping all summer every year. Our kids are grown. He has two daughters and I have two daughters. We have six grandchildren between us and four great grandchildren. The great grandchildren live down in the Milwaukee area. The rest of them live in lower Michigan and the others live up in the Ishpeming area.

What was the mine that you both worked at?

Cookie: It was the Empire Mine. It was an open-pit iron ore mine. It was the making of the steel industry, basically. So we used to say all the time that people who drove cars and parked in the parking lot, if they were foreign cars you really caught it. Because we were making steel for cars. So you didn’t dare drive a foreign-made. You didn’t dare! And I have always wanted a Toyota Rav-4 ever since they came out. I didn’t get one until four years ago because I wouldn’t buy one if I was making the steel for cars. The steel industry is a big thing. Although there are things happening at the Empire where they’re threating to close. They were supposed to close back in August.

Is that still one of the biggest employers in the area?

Cookie: In our area. In the Ishpeming-Negaunee area. Marquette has the college.

Lu: And the hospital and the prison. And there’s a lot of people employed in the logging industry. You’ve seen lots of logs going by. The majority of that is for paper mills.

I’ve never worked in a mine. What’s it like? How did you get started working there?

Lu: I was working at a job when I applied for work in the mine. You had to fill out an application and then they gave you an aptitude test at the time to determine what you would be suited for. I didn’t hear anything for quite a while. Finally I got a call and then I got hired. I didn’t have a choice of where I was gonna go. There was one underground mine open yet. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go under, if I had the choice I would have wanted to go to an open pit. I went to the Humboldt [Mine]. That was the first fairly good-sized open pit operation that they had with a pelletizing plant. There was another open pit mine smaller in size in Michigamme. So I worked five years at the Humboldt mine, in the pit driving truck.

Then there was a gas station in Ishpeming and the owner was retiring and I thought, “Doggonit, you know, maybe I wanna try that.” Well, I did. I quit the mine and my grandfather, oh boy, he didn’t want me to do that. He told me, “I’ll buy you a new car if you don’t quit.” Well, he worked in the mine his whole life and, it was always a good living. But the way things were going with my generation, you were laid off and then maybe you were working and then you were laid off. When I got hired they had just gotten done calling back – this was 1964 – they had just got done calling back the people who got laid off in 1959. So I was fortunate to get hired. I had the gas station for a few years and I was starting to get kind of tired of it. I was putting in a lot of hours trying to do everything myself. Working weekends too. One of my customers was a boss at the Hercules Powder Mill – explosives. “Hey Holmgren!” he says one time when he came in. “Know anyone looking for work?” I said, “Maybe, yeah! What kind of work?” He was that kind of guy. I said, “Yeah, maybe I might try it.” “What do you mean?” he says. I told him, “I’m thinking about giving this up.” “Well! Come on out,” he says. I got tired of that too. I was driving semi and working around the plant some days. I thought, when I quit the mine they told me, “If you ever want a job again, you let us know.” I had a good work record. So I called them and two weeks later I was back. I did get laid off again in 1982.

Cookie: That’s when we met.

“…the way things were going with my generation, you were laid off and then maybe you were working and then you were laid off.”

Lu: That’s when we met. I went back in ‘84 – I did, she didn’t get to go back. And ‘86 I got laid off again. Then I got a job at a gold mine, north of Ishpeming. I worked there two years and then I got called back to the mine but it was only for a temporary job, four to six weeks. My two years seniority was gonna be stopped. That part time work from four to six weeks ended up being from 1988 to 2001. I never got laid off again. That’s the history of my work.

Cookie: If you’re familiar with northern Minnesota – the Mesabi range, the Hibbing area with pit mining – that’s pretty much how it was where we worked.

Did you see a lot of changes at the mine – in the type of work or way it operated – throughout your career?

Cookie: Not so much in the way it operated. They’re probably still processing things in the same way that they did. However, the attitudes of the people have changed. When I first started working there there were like 1500 people at the Empire. I think right now there are 600. When they went to a computer system, for starters, they started automating a lot of things and a lot of people got laid off. Year after year. And now that there’s talk of closing it, last week they laid off 56 salaried people.

I should tell you that I was a third generation miner. My father worked in the mine for 46 years, underground. His father before him worked at an underground mine. I’m third generation. The youngest of our four girls has been at the mine now for 24 years. She’s fourth generation mining. That kind of tells you that the industry has been there for a long time.

Lu: Over 150 years.

Cookie: So if the Empire does close down – there are two mines – there’s the Empire and the Tilden. Tilden is a smaller operation, however, range-wide if they shut down the mine the people with seniority, like my daughter, don’t have to worry about losing their job ‘cause they’ll get shipped over to Tilden.

There’s gonna be a lot of people hurting. The young people – I hate to use you guys as an example – but your age group when they get hired at the mine they don’t know how to live. They know that they’ve got a good income so now…“I’m gonna go get that new truck! Gonna get that camper! We’re gonna buy a new house! We’re gonna buy a snowmobile! We’re gonna buy a motorcycle!” There so deep in debt! And those are the people who are gonna lose their jobs first. So right now everyone is kind of running scared because they’re deep, deep in debt. When I got hired at the mine I went out and bought a new truck, simply because I needed wheels to get to and from work. But I knew how to handle money. I had been on my own for seven years, basically without any income. I had learned how to budget. He [Lu] was raised the same way. Our generation was raised that way. But the young people that are there now, they’re selling their trucks, they’re selling their snow machines. They’re getting rid of their toys.

Lu: They’re getting repossessed.

Cooke: The mining process itself hasn’t really changed. At the time when we were both still working it was actually fun going to work. We enjoyed the people we worked with and we had fun at work. He was telling me about this one time when they took a Styrofoam coffee cup and superglued it to someone’s hard hat and he walked around all day with it.

If the bosses walked by and I was using the firehouse to clean up a mess I would take that hose and spray them. Just enough to get them just a little bit. But you can’t do that by the time we retired. Everyone was unhappy with their jobs. It wasn’t a fun place to go anymore. And now my poor daughter could just pull her hair out. She trains people for the different jobs and the attitudes are really bad right now.

Lu: Morale was sour by the time we left there.

Cookie: Everyone is bad-mouthing each other now and out to get someone.

And this has been influenced by the fact that everyone is stressed about losing their jobs?

Cookie: I think so.

Lu: Well at the time though we were threatened by layoffs but management was different.

Cookie: Yeah… if I had done that, flipped the water at one of them presently, I would probably get fired.

Lu: I don’t know why their ideas of how they should treat us changed. I don’t know why but, all of a sudden you were expected to be working every minute. It wasn’t like that before. When you’ve got someone looking over your shoulder while you’re working you don’t feel like doing it right. Most of the time they hire a young guy that don’t know the job that he’s bossing and he’s trying to tell guys who have got 20 or 30 years how it’s should to be done.


“Morale was sour by the time we left there.”


Cookie: Or engineers who come fresh out of college and have never worked in a mine, they never had that environment. They think they know it all. I always remember my dad coming home from work – after 46 years in the mine he knew everything there was to know about the job – I always remember him coming home one night and saying, “Those damn college kids!” Some college kid would move into a position and he’d be telling my dad what to do. My dad was a captain at the mine and there was a 22 year-old was telling a 65-year-old man what to do or how to do it.

Yeah, so things are different but, the times have changed. People are different nowadays.

Lu: You kinda didn’t have any respect for the boss you were working for. The first 20 years weren’t like that. Your boss would come through the process just like you. He would know about each of the jobs but he would listen.

What would you tell your grandchildren now? Would you tell them don’t go in the mine – take another path? What do you see for their future?

Cookie: Well, our grandchildren are all on different paths. Our youngest grandchild is now in nursing school. His sister is already an RN. They’re downstate. One of our granddaughters just graduated from Northern [Michigan University] in Marquette and she’s now working downstate in a children’s hospital. We have another grandson up at [Michigan] Tech in a forestry program. So none of these kids are probably ever gonna live around here. If the mines collapse there aren’t gonna be any jobs for the young people anyway. Ishpeming is kind of a dying town because all of the young people are moving away. We’re kind of a ghost town. All of our downtown businesses are gone. We have more antique stores than we have anything down there.

Lu: We had more than 12,000 people in Ishpeming at one point and now we’re under seven [thousand]. Yeah, but there were a lot of underground mines running too. There were 10 or 15 underground mines right in the Ishpeming-area alone.

We’ve heard that story often since we’ve been traveling around the lake. A lot of towns are facing these challenges. When these things happen to a small town people end up moving. Would you say that has been one of the main challenges living in this area? Are there other challenges?

Cookie: All we really know in this area is the mining industry.

Lu: Mining and logging.

Cookie: As far as other things go, it’s really popular for skiing and winter sports. We get a lot of snowmobilers. Downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing. When you’re living in this climate you learn to go with whatever’s happening.

Wild Shore of an Inland Sea

Hattie Cove Campground, which is nestled in Pukaskwa National Park, was a long anticipated stop on our journey around Lake Superior. So much so that we walked nine miles off route to get there. Our time spent there quickly became one of our most rehabilitative breaks from the road. We made sure to hike the trails and eat lots of food and enjoy the quiet of being far from the highway. We also got to sit down with Nicole Dupuis, Pukaskwa’s Interpretation Coordinator. She shared a detailed and fascinating side of Pukaskwa that we would have otherwise not seen. In the following edited transcript, Nicole puts Pukaskwa and its natural denizens in a historical context that helps us understand how better to love and protect wild places.  

What do you do at Pukaskwa National Park? How did you end up here?

I grew up in northern Ontario all my life. I went to school at Lakehead University which is in Thunder Bay. When I started to look more into indigenous learning stuff, I kind of strayed my degree and ended up with two degrees - a natural science degree and an indigenous learning degree. When I finished school back in 2012 people asked me at the time, ‘What are you going to do with these things that you have?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know!’ I actually have an uncle that works in the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area and he was telling me about a job that was coming up in Pukaskwa for interpretation and I applied. That was in May 2013 so we’re going on my fourth summer.

When I came here they were doing a lot of revamping. The Visitor Center used to be full of lots of stuff from 1985. They got rid of a lot of stuff and it was like coming into a blank slate. At the time it seemed very overwhelming. You know, first big huge career job, I can do whatever I want and the pressure is on. So then it was just basically trying to figure out what the message is of Pukaskwa.

What would you say is the message of Pukaskwa?

The theme here is ‘Wild Shore of an Inland Sea.’ Did you guys do the Southern Headland Trail hike? That hike, to me, symbolizes what a wild shore of an inland sea is. It’s rugged and it's cold and then it's like a big huge air conditioner and you're walking on Canadian Shield, the oldest rock in the world and seeing so many geological features of when that rock was formed. You can see where old river beds were. You have these plants that just know how to adapt to very severe environments. They get into the little cracks in the rock and then have basal leaves that lay on the bottom that are hairy so when there's a fog that comes in its condensed water on to them so they're able to suck as much water up as possible. That's something that's very unique to Lake Superior - to have those types of plants and on the shoreline.

"Pukaskwa is an 1,800 square kilometer chunk of land, there is still industrial things all around… Even though you have these parks that are supposed to preserve and protect, there’s nothing we can do about it."

Our old symbol used to be a caribou. There used to be a family of caribou that lived here. That was before there was moose, before deer. The ungulate in this area would’ve been caribou. For the longest time Pukaskwa was well known for having this unique caribou that hasn’t been here since moose have encroached. We consider it the ghost of Pukaskwa. That itself I think is a good conservation message for a couple reasons. The most direct you could say is competition. With the moose coming in, they bring more predators with them. There’s another reason caribou dwindled. Even though Pukaskwa is an 1,800 square kilometer chunk of land, there is still industrial things all around. You got forestry companies,  you got a highway, a hydro line. Mainly the forestry segregates the land. When you're talking about a species that's supposed to migrate all around, no matter what protection efforts you have, this isn’t a sustainable place for caribou to be anymore. There’s still a population, a healthy population on the Slate Islands.

Even though you have these parks that are supposed to preserve and protect, there’s nothing we can do about it. These are the type of messages in my job as an interpreter that I hope you get. For national parks our mandate is to ‘preserve and protect for all time the natural and cultural heritage of Canada and foster understanding and appreciation for its visitors and to maintain that ecological and commemorative integrity for present and future generations.’ What is important is to be able to tell the stories of the past and of the present and to keep these stories and to keep this area not just for us to enjoy, but for our kids to enjoy and our kids’ kids’ kids.

The biggest part in our job more so than ever is that connection, making that meaningful connection with place. The cool thing about Pukaskwa is that there are not many people here. It’s a really quiet park. That's actually something that I find all across Northwestern Ontario, it’s forest! Forest forest forest! It’s rock and forest and river. There's not much development. It's a very wild area. It’s funny because my job is to get those messages out. But I found Pukaskwa does its job by itself just by being what it is. You can really experience that solitude here because you don’t hear trains, you don’t hear transports. You don’t hear anything here except for the birds and the waves.

"The biggest part in our job more so than ever is that connection, making that meaningful connection with place."

You mentioned that part of your job is interpreting cultural heritage. How do you purvey that in your job?

Pukaskwa itself is not necessarily considered an established national park. That’s because it’s actually under a land claim right now. This area here from Thunder Bay Fort William area to just the other side of Michipicoten is called Robinson’s Superior Treaty Group. In Canada, this treaty was signed prior to all these numbered treaties. It’s different here than in America where land was signed to share with hunting and fishing rights and that kind of stuff. Now the interesting thing about Robinson’s Superior [Treaty Group]  was that it was actually prior to confederation. It was actually signed by, must’ve been the Queen! When Robinson’s Superior Group was signed over, they went to talk to each [native] band individually. They would not have been called bands at the time, more like community groups. They went to each one of the chiefs and talked about forming a treaty and had all the chiefs sign. The chief of this area, near Pic River, didn’t sign that treaty. By not signing that treaty they didn’t really cede over the land. That’s an interesting point in this area. Basically Pukaskwa is very much Anishinaabe territory. This is their land, there’s a lot of cultural heritage here. When we talk about cultural heritage, when we say that, we’re talking about the Anishinaabe people.

"Basically Pukaskwa is very much Anishinaabe territory." 

They’re doing a reconstruction of an Anishinaabe camp over there right now. What we’re building are wigwams and a cookhouse. So those would be historical houses or traditional dwellings that would be lived in in this area. The Anishinaabe people were traditionally semi-nomadic people. They would have a summer home and a winter home. And in this area the summer home would be more around the mouth of the Pic River. They would have winter homes all along they would all have their their hunting territories in the park and deeper in the interior. They would have their permanent wigwam there and their permanent wigwam at the mouth of the river.

The birch tree was considered the tree of life because it gave a lot of means of survival. Birch bark is really awesome because unlike the the bark of other trees that fall off after time, it doesn’t rot. Even though most people think of birch bark tinder is good to start fires with because it’s paper thin but the inside is very fire resistant. So when you’re making a birch bark structure you’re having the inside bark on the inside and you don’t have to worry as much of burning. A birch bark structure can stay up for up to 8-10 years with a little maintenance along the way. Birch bark doesn’t soak through either so that it could be used as a waterproof vessel. And that was really important for survival because being a semi-nomadic people travelling along the waterways was the fastest way of transportation to get from point A to point B. And this area as well is a big fishing area. They have a lot of caribou and they also ate a lot of fish. That’s the traditional sense of the Anishinaabe people.

Another message we’re trying to get across too is this contemporary one. Just like animals and other things evolve over time so does culture. Looking at the traditional sense and the evolution of the Anishinaabe culture is kind of another theme that we’re going into too.

"Another message we’re trying to get across too is this contemporary one. Just like animals and other things evolve over time so does culture."

Josh, the Cultural Interpreter here, does a woodland art program. You were in the visitor center and saw that big huge mural? It actually tells the whole story of Pic River, of when European contact first happened. But that type of art structure is called woodland art. Have you seen any pictographs before? Woodland art is an evolution of culture from that rock painting style, taking those kinds of images. It tells the story of the people here. That’s definitely a good symbolism of the evolution of culture. Or even powwows. That wasn't a traditional thing that was done but now it’s a celebration of culture that happens.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of living on the lake? Either present or future?  

The biggest challenge that lives here is the isolation. This whole area used to be all industrial. The slogan of Marathon is “built on paper laced with gold!” So mining and forestry are big here. Nipigon was a forestry town - it had a plywood mill. Red Rock was a pulp and paper mill. Terrace Bay was a mill as well. This whole area is based on the industrial revolution. It’s basically using the land for resources. All the mills have gone down now except for the Terrace Bay. There has been a very massive change in the economic growth in this area. And being a northerner and never wanting to leave around this area, you ask how does it sustain itself? I honestly think it’s in tourism. Look at how beautiful this area is. The lake is inland, it’s a sweetwater sea.  I had kids on the trail yesterday and they were like ‘This reminds me of Newfoundland’. That’s because it just has water all the way to the horizon but it’s not an ocean. So it has a lot of unique appeal to it. The water here is crystal, crystal clear. It looks tropical but it’s freezing. It could be a driving force but changing the mindset from that boom and bust cycle to this slower growth tourism is key. I would say they’re trying and there’s definitely a lot of appeal and a lot of talk in this area in becoming more tourism based. Even at this park here we’re trying to get out of the 80’s. Its definitely a challenge, because otherwise these towns they have to find jobs and jobs aren’t always here.

"The biggest challenge that lives here is the isolation."

In a park sense, the challenge of being on the lake is that it’s very attractive for tourism - it’s a paddler’s dream! - but it’s very dangerous. That lake definitely requires respect. It could literally kill you. It also is  beautiful as they come. It’s just like fire. You can sit by a fire all night but don’t leave it unattended. You have to show it respect. Don’t jump over because I mean it could burn you, same thing with the water. Those are challenges as well, to know safety.

Another big challenge with the water on a more general level is water, more so than ever, is very, very precious. Being in first world countries we can take for granted how accessible water is for us all the time. You can put on the tap and you have water. If you want a shower no problem. But in other places in the world it’s not like that. Water is a scarce resource and there are other places in the world where it's privatized. You don’t have access to water, you don’t have the right to water. In this area and the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area it is important to have respect in that sense. We have quality water. We have freshwater. We are lucky to have such a body of water here because it’s not like that anywhere else.

"Being in first world countries we can take for granted how accessible water is for us all the time." 

How do you see yourself getting that message out?

Do you have Lake Superior day? That’s the time to get messaging out. I believe that message should come from there and that should be their main message. As for myself here - one of the hikes that I do is called ‘Gifts of the Earth’. I talk about the traditional and medicinal uses of plants and animals in the area. Part of that message of gifts of the earth is talking about the water and its importance. Part of that is the idea that there is an Anishinaabe prayer, that I sing, as an appreciation and saying thank you to the water. So those are some of the ways that I kind of interject that messaging into my programming on a  grander scale. I still think it’s gonna be the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area that’s gonna have the larger messaging.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There are these special mounds of a rock. They were first identified and found in Pukaskwa and that’s why they’re called ‘Pukaskwa Pits’. They’re actually all around Lake Superior and many other places.  So the way Lake Superior works is that it used to be way, way higher and as time went it on the water level got lower and lower.  Consequently, on different parts  of the shoreline you have different places where the shore historically was. And the Pukaskwa Pits tend to happen on big cobblestone beaches. They’re a mystery, honestly. It’s unknown how old they are. They could be between two to five thousand years old. There is even questions of the uses of these things. There are some that look like rock cairns, to mark a trail. There are others that are literal pits that could be old fire hearths and old dwellings. There are even ones that looks like a huge fortress. In this area the Anishinaabe people know that these pits can have a spiritual use. A lot of the areas that are documented are spiritual places for naming ceremonies and midewiwin lodge. They’re the type of thing we don’t promote to the public. It’s one of the cultural integrity things that we’re trying to keep intact. Also just because of that spiritual connection to these pits - ancestors put these up so long ago that  we don’t actually talk about them too much. There are well over two hundred of these pits documented in Pukaskwa alone. It’s like this massive mystery.

That Which Moves You

In Conversation with Ellen Airgood

Ellen Airgood is simultaneously an author as well as a character within her own novels. In her book South of Superior, she writes about the reality of living on the shores of Lake Superior. As the co-owner of West Bay Diner in the small town of Grand Marais, Michigan, she lives that experience. We came into Grand Marais after a handful of days running in isolated and sandy backroads in the Upper Peninsula. After getting camp set up we made sure to head over to the diner to eat our fill of biscuits and gravy. While there we asked Ellen if we could sit down and talk to her about her experiences. She shared with us about small town life next to Lake Superior as only a novelist could - with emotional clarity and acute place-based specificity. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation in which Ellen shares her thoughts on the power of isolation, the importance of storytelling, and the prevalence of extremes on Lake Superior.

How did you find yourself here?

I found myself here in 1990 when I came on vacation with a girlfriend from work. I worked at the EPA, in the motor vehicle emission labs. My degree was in science so I was working in environmental policy. I already knew that I loved the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). My sister and I came camping and went to Pictured Rocks. We camped at Twelvemile Beach. We had a great time. It was cold and rainy one day. So rather than camping or hiking we came into Grand Marais, just to see it. We ate at a little cafe on the main street. I got a chocolate malt and a cheese sandwich. Back then you went to the counter and ordered. The guy who took my order, we had this instant head-to-head fun. I wanted soup and he said it was too hot for soup and I said your sign says soup and so I married him six months later [laughs].

That's a true story. We walked out of the shop and I said to my sister ‘I’m going to marry that guy.’ It was very ill-advised [laughs]. If I had been my mom I would’ve been concerned because we were really strangers to each other. He rented a building up on Main Street in those days. I married into the food business and I had no idea what I was getting into. Then we built this place [West Bay Diner] together. And we’ve been here 18 years, and in town for seven, and he was there for seven years before. So I came here on vacation and kind of never really left.

Were you writing before you came up here? When did writing become more a part of your life?

I wanted to be a novelist since I was ten years old. My parents were readers and we didn’t have a TV when I was a kid. My grandparents lived nearby and they had a TV so it's not like I didn't see anything, it just wasn’t a priority of my parents. They were busy with our little farm, my mom was a nurse, my dad was teacher and there was a farm and there were always a million things for them to do. They loved to read and I think that had a lot with me turning out to be a writer.

"If you’re a writer maybe you’re hoping you have, in this one junction, in this one moment, one small piece of insight or something to offer."

In fourth grade Mrs. Keebler gave a lot of creative writing assignments, and it just hit me and I was just hooked. It hit me first really consciously that somebody some human person wrote all those books I loved to read. They were just magical things before, I never gave them much thought, I took them for granted. But when she assigned us stories I was like ‘Holy cats! One can do this in the comfort of one’s own home!’ I always wanted to be a novelist, I studied science and I don't regret it. Writing was always a dream that was deferred. After I moved up here after a couple years I was like ‘It’s time.’ So I started writing seriously. I worked at writing for 18 years before my first book came out.

You’ve talked about how living up here has inspired your writing. Can you speak more to that?

I wanted to write about what life is like up here. The book was already written before I collected stories from the older folks of the community. In my many years of revisions on it, they helped me to inform those characters and how I wanted to try to convey the spirit of those people I talked to. They gave me a reason to keep on when it's really discouraging to write novels and publish. If I can capture something of what they’re like and share it with the world then it's worth all this misery and agony.

And I really love it here. I think it's a very unique spot on the earth. It also happens to be where I am. I really think you can write about where you are. Specificity is what makes writing interesting, right? It’s a very special world. It’s not just beautiful. It’s also very hard, it’s very harsh year round. The economy is very punishing, it’s boom or bust. It’s remote so it gets really lonely, at times in a way that's not all that attractive. There's this great community that I don’t always appreciate. It's like the extremes on either side. It’s the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. This place can be so small and backstabbing and mean, and it can be so huge and supportive and warm. It’s very interesting to me, those conflicts. And when it really boils down to it, people are here for you. I’ve never really lived anywhere else as an adult. I grew up here, I was 25 when I moved here, I had been to college and I had traveled but I would really say that I grew up here. I became a more mature adult here.

"If I can capture something of what they’re like and share it with the world then it's worth all this misery and agony."

I don't know how the rest of the world works but I like extremes - the weather is extreme, the wonderfulness is extreme. I love the tourism in many ways, it brings people like you here. I don't know if I would like it as much if this was a place that didn’t get people flowing from the outside all the time. I meet the most interesting people all the time. I’m not sure I would love it as much if I didn't. But I also love, love the locals and I’m fascinated by people that grew up here and are older. And then I look forward to the dead times when there's nobody here and nothing. I like the extremes. I like the contrasts.

What are some of the challenges to living in this community?

This is a retirement village, really. When I moved here there were eighty children aged K-12, now I think it’s like twenty-five. I’ve been here 25 years in that time its decreased that much. Its very hard to make a living here. I feel very fortunate in so many ways between my husband and myself to manage and make a go of it here. I feel really fortunate but I’ve paid a steep price. We've worked really hard. 10, 12, 16, 17 hour shifts in the tourist season, seven days a week. Even in the off season you’ll still work 8-10 hour days. It’s a little bit easier now. I’m 50 and my husband is 60, our crew is teeny. They are wonderful, I love them. There’s not enough of us to go around anymore. So that’s a challenge.

It can be lonely, it can be really, really lonely at times. You can’t do anything without getting talked about in the community. There's just not enough going on in a small town, people see everything. People might really wonder what I’m doing out on the deck talking  to you guys![laughs] Small town life is that way anywhere.

"I don't know how the rest of the world works but I like extremes - the weather is extreme, the wonderfulness is extreme."

I miss my family downstate. The bottom line is I never went back. I come from a close family and missing things like Christmas because the weather's bad or because I’m working is really kind of heartbreaking the older I get. Did I do the right thing? I’m still here, I’m still happy but it’s still a high price to pay. The older I get the more I realize the people you love is what you have in life. And there's a lot of people I love here but there’s nobody like your family of origin, there's no one like that. So I paid the price and I’m becoming more and more aware of what that means.

And there's something about the water. It's not just beautiful, there's something about the big horizon that can give you a big perspective. I get quite anxious after just three four five days away. I just miss it, I miss that big water, there's something very spiritual about the big lake. I don’t know, it’s even more than spiritual, it’s like food or water, you get used to it and it’s very hard to be away from it for very long.

For all the times I’ve thought that I should have more secure work or less strenuous work or maybe I should be nearer my sisters and brothers….here I am. I'm not unhappy about that either, there's a price to pay but I'm not going anywhere. The air is clean. How much is that worth in terms of your health and well-being?

Why the impulse to tell stories? Why do you feel the need to write and share?

I’m sure for a lot of novelists it's probably a humanitarian impulse, it's an impulse to try to make the world better for somebody for some way. With South of Superior I so wanted to share the spirit of this place and the spirit of the people I see as survivors in the most positive sense of the word. My second book Prairie Evers is about a little girl who moved from North Carolina to New York state. She has always been home schooled, she doesn’t want to go to public school but her parents said she should. Prairie came to me as a voice in my head talking.

The book I’m sure in retrospect was inspired by a student, a fifth-grader who I met who had just a really tragic story to share. So Prairie makes a friend named Ivy in the course of the story and their friendship is very central to the story and Ivy is very inspired by the boy who had a tragic life event to share. He seemed so gracious and courageous at age eleven, I could never forget about him. I met him when I was doing a writing workshop in a school in Ste. Sault Marie and it was just one of those life moments that you don’t forget about. And I’m sure that that's where the propulsion for the voice that started talking in my head came from.

 
"Look for that thing that moves you so much that you can't turn away from it."
 

I read a lot of times for help in figuring out how to cope with life and if you’re a writer maybe you’re hoping you have in this one junction, in this one moment, one small piece of insight or something to offer. Must be that urge to communicate. I think we're hardwired to look at stories and live vicariously and wonder if that happens to me how would I deal with it. Sometimes you get great ideas from what you read like ‘I never looked at it like that.’ I think it's that quest to express something in just the right way.

Do you have any advice for us as storytellers as we go around the lake?

Look for that thing that moves you so much that you can't turn away from it, the specificity of the moment. I'm trying to teach myself to write about what people did more than what they thought, if that makes any sense. My agent gave me some advice - she said, ‘Just love your character.’ I can see how that helps me novel-wise, as long as you truly love your character things will work out in the end. And I think telling stories and telling others stories helps you live your life more deeply. Even if you don’t write it, if you’re just thinking about really experiencing the moments.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry since the spring. I really think that poets are very important to the human race. It's the worst paying, worst benefits job that is the most important to have. Poets are really boiling our experience down and getting at what really matters a lot of the time. They’re unsung heroes in my book.

A Subtle Wilderness

In Conversation with Rob Gorski and and Andrew Ranville

Before our trip even started, Andrew Ranville reached out to us and asked “Would you like to stop by our island?” We happily said yes. As we ran through the southeast of the Keweenaw we met up with Andrew who drove then boated us out to Rabbit Island. Usually, during the summer months, the island is home to any number of artistic residents from around the world. But when we stopped by for a night it was a downtime between activity. Once on the island we met up with Rob Gorski and some of his visiting friends from around the country. What started for Rob as a desire to own a little bit of land back home has now blossomed into an international artist residency program as well as successful attempts at land conservation. During our time out there we explored the island by boat as well as foot. After a couple relaxing saunas we sat down with both Rob and Andrew to talk about art, conservation, and, of course, water. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did you find yourself here?

Rob Gorski: I’m a fourth generation Finnish descendant. My mom came from two Finnish immigrants. My mom is 100-percent Finnish - card carrying member, flag-waving. She went to Calumet High School and, after college, ended up downstate and met my father who is from Ontario. They settled in Detroit. Growing up we’d come up here every summer. My grandfather would tell stories of how the lake was cleaner, clearer, the sky was bluer, the trees were greener, the fish were bigger. I was probably four or five. This place became my Hemingway spot, culturally but also experientially. Throughout college I always wanted to come back out here. My last year of college I got a job on Isle Royale. I got to really know the lake, I remember looking down in a boat and the water was so clear and so perfect and so blue. It really got in the blood from way back.

This project came along in 2009. My brother and I were talking about our relationship to the Keweenaw Peninsula and the lake and we thought we would get a little piece of property some place. Maybe 40 acres or something like that. In the process of looking for that we came across the listing for this island on Craigslist. I sent it to some friends and my brother. He said “that’s cool but that’d be crazy, you can’t get insurance for that. What if you have a fire? It’s gonna be hard to get to.” So I kept looking for more property but finally decided to call and got in touch with the realtor. He said, “Well son, you’re the first person that’s called.” That was in May in 2009 and shortly after the financial crash, the whole world was freaking out, and nobody had any appetite for risk. Shortly after, a year and a half later I was introduced to Andrew. He was finishing up art school and said he’d love to do some work out here. And that’s the birth of the residency. Since then it’s been nothing but great. People are really giving some critical thought to wilderness and how they relate to something larger than themselves. And the relationship of creation to consumption, conservation and the ethical tenets that underlay it all. But it started out with the stories of the trout and the lake and the history that was in my blood.

Andrew Ranville: We both grew up downstate. I remember coming up north since I was a little kid. We did a few trips to the Upper Peninsula but we usually stopped a little bit before the bridge, historically where our family vacationed. But I worked for one summer as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I was working with a bunch of self-described degenerates. It was a job I took because I thought you could choose it but up to 70% of the people I worked with were there because they got some kind of minor possession or something like that.  

After, I moved to Ohio for undergrad then London for graduate school. I didn’t expect to spend 10 years in England. I always came back to Michigan and my artistic practice took a turn, not a big turn, I was already focusing on the landscape and outdoors and outside. I started to challenge these ideas of form and function. Just because something is aesthetically considered doesn’t mean it can’t have a functional use. And just because something is functional, doesn’t negate it as an artwork as well. I finished grad school in 2008, had a studio in London. In 2008 I was invited to build a treehouse in Finland for a friend that was half-Finnish half-English. She had this amazing property in Finland spent a lot of time on the lake there and just sauna culture and people there are just incredible. It reminded me so much of the UP. I guess that’s why so many Finns ended up settling here. I think they stuck around because it was so similar.      

Rob and I met in winter 2010 and put a kickstarter together that was first denied because it was curated back then. So we just decided to make a video anyway, got one of Rob’s friends to help us make a video and put it up on Vimeo and sent that in again. Then they were like “Oh, these guys are legit.” So we got accepted for those early Kickstarter years. We raised $14,000 to help kick it off. That helped pay for just a few materials to complete the infrastructure, power tools, a boat that ended up not working. And yeah I’ve been coming back each summer to help administrate, help build and run the place.

Can you speak more to the overall vision of this island?

RG: It’s easy for the mind to bounce around and get overly complicated. But you know, out here, if something doesn’t get used for a few weeks, then it gets taken away. There have been several iterations of how we solved living out here. And it’s kinda exciting what it entails. Its an exciting metaphor for life in general back in civilization. It's not entirely uncivilized, but it has a light touch.

This whole project is social project work. Its lead to some conservation in the mainland. We’ve got kind of indirectly about 1,500 acres preserved. Think about it, every drop of water that falls on this island with the exception of the 100 square feet of the shelter and the 120 square feet of the sauna, hits the ground exactly where it's hit the ground for 10,000 years and goes into the lake undisturbed. I think about the function of this island and what it's always been. It’s completely intact so we come out here and we learn from that and celebrate that and interpret it and we have different opinions and some of them are conflicting. Some of the projects we bring out here are great and some are less successful but all in all if you were to test for water quality, when you guys test for your microplastics, there won’t be a single piece of plastic in the lake that came from this island. 

There’s such a grand idea that’s happening now. These individual projects that are forming everywhere, they’re like little sparkling stars in the sky. And if you get enough stars you get a beautiful starry sky. If you look east here there’s about 8 different groups doing conservation work and each one is small but additive. It’s becoming a very beautiful thing. It’s a transition from complete wilderness, to a native population, to colonial population and then a mining industry that completely pillaged the land and then went bust because the economic downfall. And because of circumstance it was allowed to grow back. Now, 15-20 years ago, people started saying “Wow, this is beautiful, we should start to preserve it.”  It's part of this larger narrative that’s happening out here. So to come out and more formally celebrate that with artists from all over the world who may even come from places that don’t have any wilderness. So what does it mean to come out and live in wilderness, to live next to this lake, to drink the water right from it? It’s important. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never seen it.

AR: It’s funny how many people we have visit that call it the sea or the ocean just because it’s a lake on a scale they’re not used to.

RG: You know we have this idea of a North American wilderness. And the people we have that have visited from Europe relate to the wilderness in a completely different way which has re-affirmed and re-inspired this cultural heritage of wilderness that we have as Americans. Things that John Muir and Edward Abbey and all these wonderful people wrote about way back when.

One saying that has come from the island is “Wilderness is civilization,” meaning wilderness needs a constant act of restraint for it to exist because if you don’t protect it it gets developed. There’s a higher economic purpose for every piece of land, including here. If you wanted to you could sell it and subdivide and and build houses on it. You can make a lot of money. But in order to protect the wilderness it has to be a conscious thought. It’s an idea that doesn’t come naturally to people who are concerned with the bottom line or profit.  

Another idea is the way civilization is organized. We’re not saying civilization is bad, that’s not what we’re saying at all. Like in Thunder Bay there’s a lot of industry on the lake front which at one point served a purpose but now doesn’t make any sense. The way things are organized makes a huge difference and we can change that. We can think about how we want to organize ourselves to protect what we have to form the littlest watershed to large ecological areas where mass migrations like caribou or the salmon spawn happen. 

Why is art important to all this?

AR: Artists and arts practice, we use that term widely. We have had writers, choreographers, even chefs out here. I think art is one of our kicking off points. Sure, Rob is a doctor in New York but all of his friends are artists.  I always tell people if he wasn’t a doctor he probably would be a photographer. I think art was a good starting point for this platform because there's often people who point the finger at situations that can lead to social change through creative methods. If we give artists who are in these situations who are on the edge of something but are also in bubbles. We can really challenge their practice by not having access to certain conveniences to creation. They’ll start to think about themselves as a node in a network of material. It's a privileged thing to engage in art, to engage in it and consume it and create it. Its an important place as any to say “What’s my role here?  What can art do outside of itself, outside of its own world?”

RG: Its multi-level, multi-layered, this whole project. There's the questions of how do we live out here? What types of tools do we bring out? The practicalities of living remotely. But then there's also specifically what have we done to the island?  There is a conservation easement regarding development out here. Then, what about, who do we choose as artists and why?

We get about 200 applications every year from thirty-seven countries. That’s pretty wild. It’s a great group of very interesting thinkers. And what does it mean when we then broadcast that back to the mainland? Not just the Keweenaw I mean, but the modern world? Culture, and I think that's a nice word for what we’re doing out here, it's the sum product of what we want.  Yet it’s a drop in the bucket of what’s bouncing around in the world. It’s still something that influences people to say “Oh, if I buy this property what should I do with it? Maybe we could do nothing with it or maybe we could act a little more socially-minded.”

I think about what flies as art and culture in New York, in the Met or the [Museum of Modern Art] and the opera, what is curated there is often times stuck in this tradition that has been handed down to us. I think about it like a scientist. If you think about a doctor that was thinking about medicine in the 1800s and you think about a doctor in 2016. A doctor in 2016 has benefit of the knowledge of DNA and blood testing and the microbial world within us and around and the ramifications of it. So to practice medicine like you were in the 1850s in the modern world would make no sense. I think the art world is still stuck in some traditions that are rooted in the pre-science understanding of the consequences of our actions. This history is based on politics, money, social connections, social relevance, it's completely missing the point of modern responsibility; this modern ethic that we’re all developing this sensitivity for. Art, for some reason, is not quite there.

AR: It’s starting to change though. We hope we can be this blip on the radar for the artists that are trying to engage in a different way. I think we’re starting to understand that we’re not in bubble materially.

RG: There are people working on it but there’s no institutional response to it. There’s no wing in the Met for environmental art.

AR: Right, but I’m saying there are grumblings out there. There can be programs out there that are integrating art and science. Almost like fieldwork but come from an aesthetic framework and help people communicate the data and help engage a public that might not usually engage in that. They might not read the most recent scientific journal but maybe they would see something in the museum or gallery. Institutionally, out west, I think there are maybe three organizations doing work like this that I really respect and there’s no reason that the Great Lakes Watershed can’t have something like that. And there are organizations and universities that could start to become part of this growing network of artists working on science and art in the field.  

As creators of this residency, how have you seen folks that come from around the U.S. or even internationally, be affected by Lake Superior and this experience?

AR: I think some of them become ambassadors, champions really. And they come back. We have this artist Nich McElroy, he’s from [British Colombia] and he’s gonna be coming back through for his third or fourth time this fall. He says that his practice of art isn’t the same. My practice isn’t the same either! When I think about making things I find that my practice is becoming increasingly non-material. I don’t have to create an object to have made the work. Sometimes the process of this expedition is more about the experience and communicating the idea - a landscape, its remoteness, its sensitivity to humans from the outside. Now you don’t necessarily have to make a thing that can have a price tag and be hung in white-walled gallery. And that’s the last reason I make art anyway.

RG: There’s this woman named Josephina [Muñoz] that came from Chile for 28 days - solo -  and she said “I don’t want to talk to anybody I don’t want anybody to come out and visit me. If I see a boat I’m going to run into the woods.” She just sort of sat here and meditated on the island, all day every day. She said that when she left she felt like she had blown her mind. But you know, some people have had trouble with the elements, with the remoteness of the island. And that’s fine because when it comes down to it the lake is boss, the weather is boss. We’re sort of just transient fixtures here and we respect all that.

AR: And there's this certain realization that happens after a while of being on the island, of being in nature, that it doesn’t even matter if you’re here to witness it or not. This place has been here for so long and it will be so long after which is really humbling. This island will just continue to be this island.  

RG: Extending on that idea -  this island is picturesque from a distance. And there are a lot of beautiful places here but it doesn't have the grandeur of some more noted wilderness spaces. It doesn’t have the Grand Canyon, the giant Redwoods, the big bear, the salmon run. It's a subtle wilderness. I think because of that it was overlooked for development for so long. For us to come out and say “This is beautiful,” not just because of its physical beauty, but because of its functional beauty. I’d rather spend time in an ecosystem that appears mediocre aesthetically but is completely intact instead of being in one that is beautiful but comprised. It's kind of like wilderness 2.0. The real beauty of wilderness is in its function.

Like the drop of water falling, how many places can you say when the drop of water falls it goes through the same amount of soil, it doesn’t go through soil that has been torn up by a logging operation or doesn’t go through a sewer or hit a piece of pavement. It just hits the ground and goes back into the lake like it should. There are very few places where that happens. I think we recognize the symbolic power of doing this on an island that's surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater lake.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges to starting this program and living here?

RG: It’s like your running trip. Maybe it's not just about what you choose to do but how you choose to do it, how you pare down what you have until it's only what you need. The beauty is in that act, that process. Being simple. I think that has happened here too.

Of course there's always the problem of not going where we want to when we want to because when it comes down to it, the lake is boss. And of course too there's the difficulty of telling our story. How do you sell an idea over social media? Other people are using Facebook and Instagram as a marketing tool to sell a product but we’re selling an idea.

We started talking about how this is a lifestyle choice, and not in a cheesy way like we’re trying to sell something. There’s a distinction between a lifestyle where someone is trying to prove something or gain social notoriety and a lifestyle where you live for a reason. We’re five years in now and it has turned into a lifestyle, not something that will be in a magazine. It’s something unique and there’s always this force of thought that brings you back to this place and informs everything else you’re doing. Also there’s a yearning for it when you’re away from it for a while.

Remote Locations

In Conversation with Johanna Rowe

We met with Johanna Rowe a couple of months back as we passed through the town of Wawa, Ontario. At that point, Wawa had been in our sites for a long time. Not only would it be our first time back on the shores of Lake Superior after several days of following the road as it turned away from the water’s edge in Pukaskwa National Park, but it would also offer us a much anticipated respite with some folks that we were excited to meet with. Johanna was one of those people. We were lucky enough to spend a long morning in conversation with her over coffee as we gazed out passed the mouth of the Michipicoten River towards the Big Lake. What follows is our edited conversation on the history of the northern shore and what it means for a small rural community to move forward from the past’s tough lessons.

You’ve been introduced to us as “the historian.” What is it that brought you to the lake and how is it that you came to tell the story of Wawa?

Well, I guess you’re sitting in the reason that I’m associated with the lake. My grandmother really was the one who would sit on the deck with my brother and I – here at the camp – and point out where the history was and we would take the rowboat over to the sandbar. We would find bits of china or Native artifacts. Even here along our beach and behind the cottage. She would talk about how the archaeologists came and they told us about the history of the area. My grandmother moved here with my grandfather in the late 30s and there were still old-timers here then that moved here when there was a gold boom, and the First Nations people that were involved in residential schools but who were more connected with their family history. So she listened a lot. She’s a very social person, and you were back then. There was no highway, you took the train in here. She would tell us stories about the “good ole days.” So growing up I’ve always been interested in the history of the area and when I had to decide where I was gonna go to university I thought, “Well, I don’t really know but I’ll just take something I’m interested in.” So I took history. I did my four years at university. I had to write a paper in my fourth year and I chose to write my honors bachelor paper on the Michipicoten area. As a part of that I had to travel to the archives in Toronto and I went to Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay Company archives because there’s a Hudson Bay post just up the river here. I went, “Oh my god! There’s a ton of history here and no one knows about it!”

So when I went to the different archives there were these huge sections along the shelf of original documents from factories, from the bosses of the post from the 1700s and the 1800s. They documented everything like the weather every day, and how many natives came in and the “poor little Indian kid who was sick”. Or the explorers that came up like Alexander Mackenzie or Louis Agassiz, the scientist. One of them would be sick or hurt and he would go get the local medicine man and they would come. That information is still there and it hasn’t really been pushed yet. So I’ve just kind of grown into supporting that. I used to work at the tourist information center and the lady who is still in charge of the promotion and marketing and tourism, she moved here and recognized the wealth of what Wawa has. Everything from the lake to snowmobiling to ice fishing to hunting to the history. She’s really great at getting grants and funding for promoting the local history and recognizing that that’s what cultural tourism is, it’s a growing trend. People are interested in that A.Y. Jackson painted here or that Louis Agassiz came through here and Alexander Mackenzie and Étienne Brûlé and [Pierre-Esprit] Radisson and [Sieur des] Groseilliers. All those people. There’s been different projects and different interpretive plaques that we’ve put up around the area.

Extractive industry is a huge part of how many communities around the Lake were built. As we’ve seen in places like Wawa, however, that’s a boom and bust cycle. That cycle has the potential to become a story that we tell people to bring them back though, part of the cultural tourism you mentioned. We’re wondering if you have any perspective on how that looks for the future of places like Wawa?

It’s tough, right? Cause it is boom and bust and all of these communities are based on resources and resource extraction. There are some big scars on the land, so now do we take advantage of those and say, “Okay, we’re gonna interpret that or, can we reinvent that?” Like what Sudbury is doing with the old INCO [Creighton Mine] stuff. They have a neutrino laboratory underground in the abandoned shafts. It’s this amazing scientific lab now that is collecting neutrinos coming from the universe.

That’s not happening here though. I think that it’s a long transition for community memory to get away from that “We need another mine!” or “We need that next mill!” It’s a tough one. Those industries are kind of going by the wayside and they need to reinvent themselves.

David [owner of Naturally Superior Adventures] is on the cusp of providing a different Wawa. Their jobs are seasonal though, you know but, it does add an extra element to the community. There’s a gentleman in town now harvesting blueberries. That’s renewable, much more renewable than forestry and he’s getting into strawberries and raspberries.

It’s probably the same in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Everyone is kind of going through that... Don’t focus on what people can help you do or what people can help you fund to do. Focus on what you can do and prove that you can do it and that’s when you’ll get surprises.

I did a cultural mapping contract for the town and I really enjoyed it. It got the community to come together to tell us what they think all the assets are of the community. Like, what’s our authentic story? The waterfalls, the mining history, the goose, Lake Superior, the hiking, the hunting, the snowmobile trails. So we broke it down into six different cultural components: natural, history, the tangibles like the arena, the marina, stuff like that. Then the social stuff like the churches, the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Clubs, the support networks, the hospitals. I think people really got a look at how much stuff we have here. But then there’s the other side of the coin, like, there’s a lot of infrastructure here but there’s 2,000 less people paying for that infrastructure. Okay, we can’t maintain all of this so what do we tick off the list and try not to piss off as many people as possible. There are six or seven playgrounds but the population is so small. There are some playgrounds that I didn’t even know about but, there’s like 3 or 4 people that use them.

The commercial fishing industry was huge, fur trading was huge, mining was huge, the harbor was huge. But it’s not there anymore, so what do we do?

It’s probably the same in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Everyone is kind of going through that. But you can’t be worried about stuff you can’t fix. Just try to be positive. Focus on what you do have, not on what you used to have or on what you don’t have anymore. Don’t focus on what people can help you do or what people can help you fund to do. Focus on what you can do and prove that you can do it and that’s when you’ll get surprises.

Such a large part of loving the Lake is recognizing that there are these things that happen to it – mills, mines, industry, etc. – that have changed it irreversibly. But you have to love it as it is and move forward with that.

You will learn the lessons. You can’t just sit in your house and wonder, “Oh, where are all the fish?” It’s all changing. The commercial fishing industry was huge, fur trading was huge, mining was huge, the harbor was huge. But it’s not there anymore, so what do we do? What did we learn from having that? There are abandoned lighthouses… but in Canada the lighthouses aren’t being maintained. The government is maintaining the light and the horn but they’ve asked the public to maintain the buildings. But how are you gonna maintain all of these remote locations? It’s great that there are bed and breakfasts down in the states, there are communities right there, but who’s gonna do that here?

As a historian you’ve studied past challenges of the communities around here. What are some of the current challenges of living up here and, looking ahead, how might that landscape change and affect these communities and the lake itself?

We touched on it a little bit… the economy, right? What is it that will maintain or attract new tax-payers and businesses? I think we’re in an exciting time, a transition time. We’re getting away from those big factories and mines and industries that are massive and can pay huge pensions and benefits. People are gonna have to figure it out on their own but they can do it with technology wherever they wanna do it. Maybe not as much with physical labor but the more with things like teaching online… I work at a college out of Thunder Bay and all of our students learn everything through the computer. So they’re all in a virtual classroom. They get their diploma all without ever seeing their teacher. I think the sky is the limit as far as getting the word out goes. Even places that are remote, all of these communities around here, can get the word out about these kind of tools. Whatever people are marketing, you know, blueberry barbeque sauce. They get it on a website and off it goes.

A lot of these communities were built when there was 5,000 people. Now there’s only 3,000… if that. There’s a lot of infrastructure costs that are hard to maintain.

Certainly the remoteness and the cost of living is expensive. We have six hydro dams upstream but we pay the highest transmission rates in the province. It’s a little ridiculous. A lot of these communities were built when there was 5,000 people. Now there’s only 3,000… if that. There’s a lot of infrastructure costs that are hard to maintain. Plus that mine or that mill aren’t here anymore to pay huge levies to the town. There are five schools but it looks like we’re gonna be closing one of those. So that building is gonna be up for grabs but, who’s gonna move into that? I don’t know. So there’s gonna be another abandoned building in town. Can’t tear it down though because the landfill site is full and we don’t have the money to pay for an environmental assessment to build a new landfill. It’s cyclical. It’s costly. You count on business and industry to be a part of communities but I also think that the new norm is maybe gonna be if you want to live in a remote location you’re gonna pay more in taxes and for hydro and for food but, perhaps the cost of living is less because you have everything within your community. It’s whatever your quality of life is in your mind and what your priorities are. If a community can attract those people that are looking for a quality of life where they are out in nature and they live in a safe community then they might move to a town like this. We have classically trained pianists, some kids in this community that can knock Bach off the table and these professional dancers, it’s so cool. So… don’t knock it until you try it.

We think about this kind of thing often as young folks just out of college, trying to balance work and family and also the place we love and want to live. It can be so much harder to do it in a small, remote town. We have to make a choice between moving 2,000 miles away to take a job in Seattle or settling for something else here so we can be closer to these other important parts of our lives.

Again, it depends on what you want access to. If you want to be close to theater and court orchestra and national libraries then sure. But I’d argue that people need access to this kind of nature more than they realize. You can set up a little feng-shui corner in your condo but if you can’t get out and hug a tree within five minutes then, wow… I think that’s a part of the off-kilterness of human society. People are trying to return to their roots.

I read an interesting article about the difficult time First Nations are going through right now in North America. So quickly they were ripped from their roots. It’s so fresh, it’s still in them. They’re trying to desperately get back to it. But Western culture, over centuries, has left Stonehenge and the Celtic ways and the traditional customs and ways of doing things with nature as a part of your decision-making process. But it’s that much harder for our First Nations because it is so fresh. It’s been taken so quickly.

In closing, do you have a favorite historical tidbit that you like to share with people?

The lake was travel, right? This spot right here was instrumental in settlement because the First Nation was here. They were here because they could go up the Michipicoten River, or the Magpie River. They had their transportation route all the way to James Bay. So when the Europeans came looking for that route they stopped here and the First Nation said “Yeah, we can go from here to here to here.” So they put up a post to trade here. This was the transportation route but you don’t see that as much now because of the highway. But the lake used to be so instrumental in getting back and forth along the water. So when the fur trading post setup here it was the only hub, the only main supply depot until Sault Ste. Marie. So anyone who was anybody traveling across the way would have had to stop here.

So these little pockets of communities are based on where the First Nations stayed. It really became the pockets of when gold was discovered. This became the supply depot for the shovels, the mining licenses, the post office. When commercial fishing started it was because the Hudson Bay Post was here so they got into commercial fishing because they weren’t making a lot of money on fur trade. It’s all connected to the lake. The first discovery of gold was a First Nations person who brought the prospectors here. It’s all connected to the people who were connected to the land and now we’re all connected with the land and the lake.

 

 

“You guys are tough guys!”

Week 11 and 12 Baraga State Park to Wakefield, MI

At the end of another week we’re asking ourselves where the time went. The duration of running up and back down the Keweenaw has been spent in the company of friends, family, and folks that have reached out to help us. Instead of wrapping up our nights with our journals and books, we’ve been watching the setting sun while sharing some beers and conversation.

From the noisy barrage of traffic sound at Baraga State Park we started running toward Houghton, where we met Evan’s parents and two younger brothers, Aaron and Matthew. Partway through the 29 mile run we came across a gravel path that we could eventually take into the city of Houghton giving us a reprieve from the noise of speedy automobiles. Coincidentally we landed in the same exact spot as Evan’s folks just as they were getting out of the car from Minneapolis. After a round of sweaty hugs we grabbed some food and beer before driving up to Calumet to spend the night. The next morning we woke early and giddy to hit up the continental breakfast at the hotel. We tried to keep our cool as we helped ourselves to as many as hard boiled eggs we could imagine. While the Floms were in town we made sure to check out the sights – we drove up to Copper Harbor, a route we would soon run. We trucked through the Estivant Pines and also headed up to Brockway Mountain, two locales that would otherwise be much too far off the road for our poor tired feet.

The next day the Floms drove us back to Houghton to start our running day. Their kindness and thoughtfulness helped us push on toward what would be high mileage day. From Houghton we ran more than 30 miles to a sandy bay we dubbed Dragonfly Bay. We decided to spend the night without a tent and instead just tucked in our sleeping bags on the beach. There were no clouds and the moon was hidden that night. What unfolded above us was a shocking display of light and hidden texture millions of miles away that fell down into our expectant eyes. We fell asleep to a galaxy above us and the occasional mosquito near our ears. We decided to name that beach Planetarium Beach.

The next morning we woke bright and early to make the push to Fort Wilkins State Park where we were excited to meet up with our friend, Courtney. One thing we’ve learned during our run is that sometimes it’s harder than you had anticipated to carry on for absolutely no particular reason at all. The run into Fort Wilkins was relatively short but by the end we were scuffling, grumpy, and overtired. Oh well. After setting up camp we waited a few hours until Courtney arrived. Courtney recently came back from a Peace Corps posting in South Africa. An old friend from college, none of us had spent much time with her in over two years. To help us catch up she brought New Glarus beer and cheese curds. The next day was a rest day for us. We spent the morning with Courtney before she headed home. Later that day our friends Liz and Nathaniel came to crash with us for the rest of our down time. They also brought delicious, delicious beer and, holy of holies, green veggies. The next morning they sent us off for our run down to Mohawk with pancakes topped with thimbleberries and maple syrup.

That day, August 4th, we decided to splurge and get a motel room in Mohawk because it was Allissa’s 25th birthday. Happy birthday, Lis. We enjoyed pizza and squishy beds for the big quarter-century celebration.

Waking up in a motel the next morning had the added benefit of not having to take down camp. This allowed us to get up and going early so we could head to Lake Linden. Once there, we met up with Andrew Ranville who took us to Rabbit Island. Rabbit Island is a 91 acre island off the southeast side of the Keweenaw peninsula. Along with co-founder Rob Gorski, Andrew has created a summer artist residency for artists all over the world. Early on in the planning of our trip Andrew reached out to us and invited us for a stay. Andrew picked us up and drove us to the boat launch where we headed off on a 3 mile boat ride to the island. Once there we got a quick introduction to the lay of the land and to the folks currently residing on the island. Andrew had radioed ahead to get the sauna started before we arrived and in short order it was ready for us. Andrew told us to hop in and abide by Finnish rules which meant two things: clothing was optional and we were going to get to know these folks we just met much better very quickly. We spent the rest of the day exploring the island, fishing and sharing stories with the other interesting souls on the island. After dinner, some of us even got ready for a nighttime sauna. We heated up in the sauna and ran into Lake Superior under a speckled night sky.

The next morning, after some tasty pancakes of course, Andrew took us back to the mainland and back to Lake Linden. We said goodbye with a promise to stay in touch and keep up with the happenings of Rabbit Island.

Because of our visit to Rabbit Island and the lay of the Keweenaw we had to run through Houghton again on our way further west. Luckily this time we were invited into the house of Kyle, a kind stranger that had heard about our trip and decided to help us out.

Our time running after Houghton has reminded us of our stretch travelling through Ontario: less visitors, more rain, and more hills. But we can’t complain. The landscape has become more and more scenic in the full ostentatious display of late summer. As we ran further and further west, closer to our home waters of Chequamegon Bay, through Ontonagon and then through the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, the world has taken on a deeply familiar tinge – we’ve been here before. And if we don’t have an exact recollection of being here in these places we’ve at least been close or had friends who have regaled us with stories of these places. Just before entering Presque Isle Campground in the Porkies a truck-full of folks stopped to question what we were up to. They showered us with compliments about how intellectual and tough we were before rolling on down the road. Thanks, stranger!

And now we stay for the night at Eddy Park in Wakefield, Michigan, roughly 60 miles from being done with our journey.  We can’t wait to get back home and see our friends and family and, for once, take it easy and not run all day. Also we're excited to not smell really weird. 

You Can See it Like Snow

In Conversation with Chuck and Danielle Hutterli

As we were finalizing the microplastics research element of our trip we heard about a train derailment on the northern shore of the lake that subsequently led us to meet Chuck and Danielle Hutterli. The train derailment dumped around 100 tons of small plastic pellets into the water and they’ve been washing up on Chuck and Danielle’s beach for the past eight years. The incident galvanized Chuck into action and for years he has been working on spreading the word and trying to solve the issue. Chuck and Danielle invited us into their home for a night to share some food, stories and rest. Below is our edited conversation from that evening.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the current situation on your beach?

Chuck: I live on the north shore of Lake Superior, east of Nipigon. On January 21st, 2008 Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had a [train] derailment near Caver’s Hill, which is near me. This is a pristine shore, we drink directly out of the lake. It is filtered only with charcoal filter. Like you’ve seen, the water looks like air in the glass. We have evidence of plastic pollution on that shore and it shouldn’t be here. It’s been on ongoing issue for the past eight years.

These plastic pellets – nurdles , 5mm white pellets – are used for manufacturing plastic goods. They escaped through a 4-bay hopper car with 100 ton capacity, or 5,000 cubic feet capacity – one of those cars was breached. It was 2 o’clock, I’ve got the incident report here, they saw just nothing but a big pile of these pellets and a loader came to the site right away to get access to the main part of the derailment. They thought it was snow, looked like snow, it was white and it went off into the lake. They pushed it off into the lake. There was kind of a ledge where this derailment was. He pushed vast amounts of it off into the lake. Looking like well over 100 tons of it. The incident report is very confusing. They’re not sure at times which car had the pellets, how many cars had the pellets, I’ve counted up to 4 in that report there. We believe that one of them is missing, semi-submerged in Lake Superior, and that’s why eight years later we’re still getting these beads on our shore. CPR claimed, I’d like to see some paperwork, they’ve spent a million dollars on remedial. Sometimes we’ve had pretty good people here, Accuworx was one of the best, they were very, very good. They took their time, it was a crew of five and they had a big device with a screen. They actually physically screened and shoveled and screen and shoveled very tediously for five days, maybe ten days. It can be cleaned up but you need some dedication. The president of CPR, I don’t think he’d like to see this in front of his place down in Florida. I don’t think he’d like to see these plastic beads at his place and I don’t either. Hopefully someday somebody can reach out to him and say, “You’ve got a mess up here and you should clean it up.”

We peck away at it, clean it up. I made an aluminum scoop shovel with a screen on it and I do my stretch of beach down there. Before you came I had it pretty well cleaned up there were only like two or three pellets. It took me ten hours to do that stretch. Ten hours. You saw the bags I had, I couldn’t lift the bags. I gotta go out again as soon as it dries up. It won’t be too bad. I can at least clean up my area. I wouldn’t mind doing the whole thing if I could get like $100,000 or something to clean it up. I mean, if they already spent a million I wouldn’t mind having some of that coin. It’d be a great job for the summer, I wouldn’t mind doing it one bit!

Danielle: Not just in the summer but as well as in the fall. The worst storms are in October and November. In the past many big ships have been sunk in Lake Superior.  Those big waves come and bring tons of those pellets. It should be cleaned until it’s all filled with snow.

Chuck: That’s a great point, Danielle! And it’s always at a 140 degree reading on the compass from here that a significant amount of the nurdles come when we have these heavy fall storms. You can count on it, if that storm lasts longer than twelve hours, and a lot of them last 48 hours or longer, you can count on it that you’re gonna see snow out there, and it isn’t gonna be from the sky. You can visually see it look like snow.

Danielle: It’s funny because every time the wind is from the east, the wind brings all these pellets. It never comes from the west. So it’s obvious there’s a truck –a tank– there. Maybe somehow it’s underwater but it’s stuck somewhere that when there are big waves it moves the tanker a certain way, maybe there’s a crack [in the tanker] and that’s where they come from.

Chuck: Transportation of plastic is constantly on the railroad, which is a good thing. That’s the most efficient way of transporting it. I’m not demonizing the rail. I’d rather see it on the rail than in a truck transporting it up and down the highway. It’s just an unfortunate accident. It’s the best way of transporting these beads as long as they follow best practices on all kinds of things like shipping and receiving and clean sweep-up. American Plastic Society knows that the public out there is really getting pissed off about plastics escaping from their manufacturing, their sources and their trans-shipping. So they have a plan called “Clean Sweep”. It’s a manual, it tells the manufactures and the trans-shippers the best practices to use. You can imagine these hoppers might leak this way when you’re filling them and so on and so forth and it’s all on the rail. And when they get to where they’re dumping them some big spill happens or whatever and it just gets hosed down. Well, according to this “Clean Sweep” that’s not happening anymore. So this is an unusual event out here that we’ve got, that we’ve got this many [nurdles] out here on the beach. That’s very unusual for this area in this remote part of the lake. This is about as remote as you can get, this stretch right here, that has access to the water.

How long have you been living here? What brought you to this spot in particular?

Chuck: I worked for Kimberly-Clark. They had just started up with heavy equipment and it was a job just coming up and I got it. I took a ride into Rossport one day and there was a sailing regatta going on, there were a bunch of sails up, looked like butterflies from up on the road, different colors, blue and yellow. I pulled in there and bought a place and now we’re 22 years later. Then we moved here, closer to the water.

But, anyway, I’d finally like to say, I always say this in a lot of my letters and writings and stuff, I read this someplace and it says, “The path to successful resolution of the crisis clearly appears as we are the problem and the solution.”

The World Is Alive Then It Is Not

Written by Ditch

As I near the end of this expedition, I’ve started to look back and reflect on past events – both the joyous and that which has proven most difficult. Typically what are thought of as the most trying moments during an expedition are when the external physical factors prove to be too challenging or overwhelming. We have our boundaries and they, willingly or not, get crossed by a rainstorm, a spilled pot of food, an incessant injury. Dehydration, exhaustion, and hunger round our rough edges, give us fortitude, put hot sauce in our spaghetti. The aim is to pass through the eye of these experiences and come out on the other side, more aware of limits, more humbled and awed by the power of the natural world. These experiences are thought of as building blocks to accomplishing harder challenges. These experiences, as Calvin’s dad from the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes so often declares “build character.”

But what I’ve found on this journey is the moments that leave me guileless and desperate, are the moments when it seems the world – as well as every biotic and abiotic constituent contained within – has been blindly robbed of its sense of animacy.

Maybe you know the feeling? Clouds only seem to be the ragged and lost pieces of a puzzle you don’t remember starting. Dandelions loll at the top of their stalks. Either the sun blares too loudly and bleaches all the color from the landscape or a veil of gray hangs over a listless wind.

Seemingly in an instant the sense of aliveness that was once so abundant in the roadside plants, the amethyst strewn cliff, that was so apparent in me and Crane and Specs is, quite simply, gone. I’m only left with the faint recollection of why I wanted to run around the lake in the first place. I’m left with a vague notion of what it means to be a human, friend, brother. I tap my fingers on the glass of mystery and nothing resounds. The present I despairingly asks the past I Why?

Most disturbingly, perhaps, is when these moments strike when I have gone to the lake for solace of any kind. I amble down to the shore, expectant, hands folded, ready to hear or see something. But alas, I arrive and it is only a crash of noise and hue, a meaningless swath of water and sky. Dumbfounded, shell-shocked, I turn back. All I can do in these moments is reinstitute my faith that these seconds will pass. All I can do is reassert the hope that the chittering of a black-capped chickadee will be paired back up with it’s devoted singer, that the scent of Mayberry floats from an actual living plant.

Moreover, during these moments when the world has been turned around and I have been shunted to the role of unwanted guest, I have to ask myself, does the calculus of all living things require a human eye in its equation? Is it that something is broadcasting a signal that I’m temporarily unable to receive? Or is the whole project of trying to make sense of the movement and sound around me doomed to fail from the start?

Regardless, as unsettled as I become by these trying moments, like a cloud passing, they scoot out of my sight and out of my life. I will be running and unexpectedly it feels like I have crossed through the threshold of some unknown door. The room I have come into is full of light and meaning. Nothing stands isolated. All is exalted. I’m back. Seemingly the world is not alive but then, by the careless twist of some unseen jester’s hand, it is unabashedly, frighteningly, irrevocably, heartbreakingly back in shocking force, full of color and sound.

Perplexedly Yours,

Ditch

 

Increase the Peace

In Conversation with Steve Moloney

After our time in Thunder Bay, Ontario we continued on to camp at a roadside rest stop that we thought we would have to ourselves for the night. Coincidentally, Steve Moloney had the same idea. Steve is walking from the westerly most part of Canada, starting on Vancouver Island and headed to St. John’s, Newfoundland. We sat down and talked with Steve about what it means to travel such long distances on foot, as well as his perspectives on living a healthy life. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Photo from Steve's Facebook page.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re doing and why?

There are two main reasons why I’m doing the walk. The first is purely selfish, I just wanted to do this bucket list thing for five years. I was working a boring job and it just came to me as I was working, it percolated from there. I’m attached to this land so I thought it’d be neat to walk from one coast to the other. There are a couple people that have inspired me. First, Terry Fox. Another guy a year or two later named Steve Fonyo similar type of leg thing, he actually ran the whole thing. And also Forrest Gump. The movie Forrest Gump kind of inspired me as well. He just started walking somewhere, and I like walking. That’s the selfish side of it. And the benefit from it is, it’s a force of will, it’s a huge challenge.

Second, I call myself a bit of a freedom activist. To me walking is an expression of freedom - there’s the old saying, “if I don’t get my way, I’m going to walk.” It is an expression of freedom. I wanted to attach that to my walk to inspire conversation about the importance of freedom. Freedom to me is multifaceted and there are at least a couple key components. One is individual freedom that we have in terms of our inner world. And then there’s the outer world of interaction we have amongst other people. If we’re living our lives full of social anxiety, full of early childhood traumas, early life traumas, then they are holding us back. The more we can work on ourselves to become as healthy as we can and the more we can learn about ourselves, find out about our real selves and be that as much as we can, we get to lead the lives closer to what we want. So that’s the individual side – to get over the fear and anxiety and all the things that hold us back inside.

The intercommunal relationships side of freedom is if we can be friendly with people we can create peace and when we create peace we can create greater freedom. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed if you are really friends with someone - the greater the degree of friendship the greater degree of freedom within that relationship. Because then we don’t have to skirt around and try to hide ourselves, we can actually come out and be honest. It doesn’t matter what we say as long as we say it with dignity and respect. Friends don’t attack friends. Friends are helpful and they want the best for the other person. That is an example of peace. It’s not violence. Violence is when I want you to be a certain way but you don’t want to be and I’m going to force my will through a surrogate or through myself, that’s violence. The peacefulness means that you are ok the way you are. In that way we have a greater degree of freedom. I look at politics. Politics to me is just an expression of a bunch of different people and the way that they’re thinking. It’s always a fight. The extreme of that fight is war and that’s been going on since the dawn of humanity. If we can become more friendly with each other we can increase the peace and reduce that tendency to have verbal or violent war. That’s my input. I just share that idea and ask other people what they think.

Earlier you mentioned the connection between health and personal freedom. Can you speak more to that?

To me freedom is about health. If you look up the word freedom and its etymology it’s actually related to the word love. Love is that connection or that desire for connection. Connection with something real. When we’re healthy as we can, we’re connected with ourselves. Healthy in terms of mental, physical, relationship, spiritual, and emotional health combined. We create a more complete true self. That true self I would posit cannot be anything but friendly with others, at least initially. The attempt has to be made to be friendly. A healthy self does not go attacking others. Someone who is attacking is an emotionally triggered individual. A healthy individual is calm and looks at things, tries to get a picture of things first. They’re not flaring up with anxiety. That individual is more free.

Have you ever heard of that book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl? He mentions in there how freedoms can be taken away but not completely – Our attitude can’t be taken away. Our attitude is always ours if we will it to be. That is a very important component of freedom, it’s essential. I think it is core.

Photo from Steve's Facebook page.

As you travel and start these conversations about freedom and health have you had an interaction with someone that has stood out as especially remarkable?

My brother was with me when I started the walk on Vancouver Island. His idea was that instead of taking the ferry we’d kayak across. He’s got this two man [kayak]. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before and it was really cold. It was a great bonding experience.

He has a group of friends in Vancouver, they have this group, it’s called the Junto Group. The Junto Group was started by Benjamin Franklin and they still exist in certain cities. They talk about deep ideas and what can be helpful. They invited me to share with them about this walk. They had a million questions and to this day I’ve modified my pack on the suggestions they had. Some of the questions they had, I didn’t have answers for but I’ve thought about them and they’ve made a difference on the walk.

The biggest thing I’ve discovered about this walk is self-knowledge. Just getting in touch with self and realizing how powerful the mind is. The mind, though not separate from the body, sometimes seems to be separate from the body.

Could you explain further?                                                             

I actually experienced a walk at night I did, it was 83 kilometers – which would be about 50 miles – straight. The only reason I did that walk was because it was through grizzly [bear] country, I didn’t want to camp, it was getting dark, there was supposed to be a hostel in the bush. It was in Banff National Park. I couldn’t find the thing and had no number. I saw the sign that said 30 kilometers to Banff and I already walked 50. So I walked overnight 30 more kilometers. I got into kind of a zone, it was almost a trance of walking. And it seemed like I had control of dial and I could turn the body up or down. The body had no pain, I could hardly feel the backpack and I walked quickly, just straight. When I got to Banff, I kinda had to bring my awareness back into the body and then I could start to feel the pain in my legs, it was really brutal. I had to take a day off. That’s one thing you learn – the power of the mind is so powerful, it could actually kill the body. It could drive the body to the point of exhaustion. That was very profound.

A friend of mine from Saskatoon, he calls me once in a while and he was trying to encourage me to do something. He said “all you’re doing is walking, you got all kinds of time to spend you should be doing something productive you should be planning something!” I asked him, “have you ever walked 83 kilometers through the night?!” There’s no need to think, it’s such an intense activity as it is. Sometimes I’ll be listening to a podcast and I’ll realize I don’t want this podcast anymore, I just want to enjoy the meditation and not have the distraction. There’s actually music going on anyways with the trees and everything. It’s kind of like a mediation to become aware of the whole body and what it’s doing.

Do you have any experiences from this journey that you’d like to carry on in the future?

Back in Saskatoon I’ve run this discussion group called Coffee Chat for a number of years. Our tagline is “sharing ideas on improving the quality of our life experiences”. I’ve done all sorts of jobs – construction and whatever else. To me what is important is health. So I’ll write a book for sure, I’ve already written a couple of books. All my books are health-themed because that’s the most important thing for me, is health. In fact the origin of the word health means whole. The more whole we can be, the more alive we can be, the more we can know ourselves the more honest we can be. The more in touch we can be with ourselves and those around us. The more we can understand the relationship between emotions and mentality and the physical body and what is this spirituality thing all about. The more clarity I can have on health, I would like to share as insights – not as ultimate truths but more as “hey what do you think?”

I’m involved with public speaking, with the Toastmasters. I try to encourage people who are so inclined to get involved with public speaking. One of the greatest known fears is public speaking. I hope we can challenge fears that are not really legitimate. It’s okay to be fearful of an angry grizzly bear in the bush but the fear of getting in front of a friendly bunch of people and saying a few words is really just the result of some trauma or some innate tendency to not want to be shamed by the tribe. If we can challenge ourselves with fears and realize we can get past them, it helps us to be freer within ourselves.