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.

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.

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.”

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.

We Need to Clean This Up

In Conversation with Samuel Pegg

During our time in Thunder Bay, we met up with Samuel Pegg of Infosuperior, an environmental non-profit based at Lakehead University. Samuel had reached out to us prior to the run when he heard about the microplastics research we were planning. As we spent a rest day navigating the biggest city on the lake, he met up with us to talk more about microplastics issues as well as the work he does with Infosuperior. What follows is our edited conversation from that day.

So how long have you lived up by the lake, and what brought you here?

I myself have been here actually about five years – I used to live in Arizona of all places. Which is about as far away from water as you can get. But that’s one thing I missed, I missed the connection to the lake, I missed kayaking, I missed being somewhere that was green. And not unnaturally green. And that’s why I moved back here to Lakehead [University]. We have a program here for water resource science, and I enjoy doing that. I wanted to be back and looking at our precious water resources.

And now you live in Thunder Bay, the biggest city on the lake.

For myself, I’m used to Arizona, I’m used to Phoenix where cities are six million. Thunder Bay is 110,000. For me it’s a small town. I know the lake itself is so spread out and the communities are so spread out widely, but in a way that’s why Infosuperior is working to connect some of these communities to work together on some of these issues. I’m sure you all have seen that on your run so far, as to how big the lake actually is and how far some of these communities are from one another. They’re eight hour drives, let alone running.

So since moving back here five years ago, you’ve been at Lakehead. Can you tell us more about the studies and work you’ve been a part of with Infosuperior?

I started at the college here doing environmental technology. I’ve spent some time there involved with the organization, which works with areas of concern kind of like superfund sites in the US. There are actually areas of concern around the Great Lakes, and I got involved with that as a public advisory committee member. So Infosuperior is kind of developing out of this idea, which is basically historic contamination. [Instead of] ‘we need to clean up this, once we clean it up its done’, it’s more to try to bring together people who are interested in Lake Superior and the stories, connecting it to policy, education, research, and the social aspects that go together with environmental cleanup. Trying to connect people around the lake, and treasure and share the lake, preserve it.

Have there been challenges with this work at Infosuperior?

Yeah, there are always challenges no matter what. For the most part people are excited and interested for it. Our office is in a weird position, in the sense where we represent the public interest and serve the public advisory committee, but we also have the challenge in that we are also funded by the government. So we have to play the role of making sure the public has their voice while kind of having the government message of ‘cleaning up’; so we do get caught sometimes in between. Making sure there is a great public voice, and then the government is [also] able to have their message, and that’s how I see our organization, making sure everyone gets a voice, gets a message, and trying to foster that communication. Because I think communication is the most important thing. And that’s kind of why we have Infosuperior, to foster that communication on the issues that are challenging. Someone somewhere else may have a solution or at least discuss possible solutions.

What are you most concerned about, in terms of the future of the lake?

One of the biggest challenges we’ll face is climate change, and its different avenues and aspects too. Not just warming temperatures, but we’ll be facing rising water levels and increased precipitation, which will require us to build more infrastructure because we have all kinds of decaying and decrepit infrastructure. So that’s an aspect of climate change that’s not really talked about, but I think these connected issues are gonna be the problem, or what’s gonna be the challenge for people to work on. And I think it’s gonna be a big challenge. I think there’s the capacity, and I think people are going to work towards it, but you have to make sure people don’t get burned out. I think people are up for it but it’s that transition between being up for it, and where we need to go. And how much pressure we actually put on it. Once our backs are up to the wall humans can do great things.

Right now Thunder Bay is working on a climate adaptation strategy, and putting in a plan for it. What the timeline is it’s hard to say. Because the more pressure we feel and the more connected we feel to it as an issue, the more likely we are to work on it. If we don’t see it, well it’s not that big of a problem, then we don’t continue to work on it. But if we see the impacts of it, like how Duluth had significant flooding a few years ago… storm water management plans are becoming easier to connect to when people say, wait a minute, we should do something about that. That’s why I think work like this is great because it’s getting people to connect to the issues they need to, and actually being able to work on them. And it’s hard to do with these climate change issues because often times you don’t see the direct impact of climate change, because it happens on a global scale.

So what does climate change look like regionally to you?

You can say climate change will be rising sea levels, but if you tell someone your dock will be underwater in five years, then they can make an easier connection because then it becomes local, it becomes personal to them rather than something that’s a global issue. Most people are like, I don’t care what happens halfway around the world, but once you connect it to them and their dock they start to care a little more. And I think that’ll be the biggest challenge and the biggest connection and the way to go forward, is connecting it to the local as well as the global.

To end on a lighter note, what’s your favorite part about living up by the lake?

The summers. I love it. The midnight sun, it stays light, you can go out at nine or ten o’clock at night. I’ve got a little kayak and I just throw it into the lake and do a little paddling. It’s great to be out at ten in the evening, enjoying the lake. Winters not so much, but the summers are perfect.

"Do you even stop to breath?!"

Week 10 – Munising, MI to Baraga State Park

Ever since we got here, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has felt like one big, embracing hug. After our long trek through the more remote areas of the lake, this leg of our journey has been filled with some creature comforts that we haven’t experienced in a while – mostly home-cooked meals, ice cream and the open arms of the folks that we have had the pleasure to stay with.

Once we left the warm hospitality of Barb and Charlie in Munising, we set out to run halfway to Marquette. It seems that the summer has finally rounded a corner in the season and things are starting to heat up on Lake Superior. It was hot as we headed up the hill and out of Munising that day. I think the summer heat has given our bodies a bit of a surprise the past week as we’ve felt our appetites diminish and our pace slow as we take more time to rest in the shade. We traveled 18 miles out of Munising to a spot that we dubbed Lake Danger Beaver, a small inland lake tucked off the highway next to the larger Deer Lake. After we set up camp and let our systems cool down a bit we cooked one of our largest and most favored meals, which we consider a sort of Thanksgiving (sweet potatoes, spiced quinoa and our cranberry turkey stuffing from Camp Chow)! Before we tucked into bed for the night we walked down to Deer Lake to rinse off the sweat of the day. Dusk was coming to an end as we waded into the black water. We splashed and laughed as we looked out across the lake to the line of silhouetted trees quietly stretching towards the transitionary hues of burnt orange, deep blue and imminent black of a star-speckled sky. That night we fell asleep to the sounds of a lone beaver paddling around the lake, periodically slapping its tail on the surface of the water.

We rose early the following day for our much-anticipated run into Marquette, a destination we were looking forward to for a long time for it meant time with close friends, needed rest and good food. Despite an early rise, the heat of the day set in quickly as we ran the 25 miles to the home of our good friend Devin and her parents Mary and Joe. We continued to follow the highway for the first half of the day until we were able to turn off and follow a well-packed gravel section of the North Country Trail (NCT) into Marquette. It may have been hot but at least we had a chance to get off the highway and run through the woods for a while (thanks for the tip, Barb!). We followed the gravel NCT until it became the paved Iron Ore Heritage Trail. Paralleling the lake, the trail took us into downtown Marquette where we eventually turned off and headed for our home for the next couple of days. As we approached our destination we were welcomed in by the cheering of Devin, Mary and Joe. We had made it! Mary had prepared a huge lunch that afternoon that would set a precedent for the meals to come in the following two days. We sat in the shade of their back patio, eating lunch and getting caught up on the specifics of each other’s lives. Already the feelings of rest were starting to settle in. Joined by Andy’s parents and some friends of the Butters, we had a dinner party that evening filled with more socializing and amazing food. We couldn’t have asked for a better welcome into Marquette. After a full day of running, socializing and eating, however, our energy was mostly depleted and we eventually turned in for the night.

We took our time the next morning, sleeping in and slowly eating breakfast. As we wrapped up the morning we packed a few supplies and headed to a traditional U.P. camp out on Fish Lake, complete with a log cabin and sauna (pronounced sow-nah!). The camp is owned by some close family friends of Devin, Mary and Joe, who had invited us all over to their weekly Sunday family lunch. We spent the day in good company as we swam, took a sauna and ate more great food. We even paddled out to a small island on the lake to pick blueberries.

We have only had back-to-back rest days a few times during this expedition so waking up to spend another full day in Marquette felt marvelous. We were all able to relax in a new way. Our second day in town was a productive one, filled with interviews with local news outlets as well as some time to catch up on writing and reading. Some fellow Northlanders, who are biking around the lake this summer, were also in Marquette that day. We met up with Olivia and Laura and chatted about how our journeys were going so far and what we were looking forward to. Later that night Mary and Joe treated us to one last meal when we went out for our last night in town.  

We had a hard time leaving Marquette the following morning after receiving so much hospitality from Devin, Mary and Joe. We enjoyed one last meal together and slowly packed Rig up – a bit awkwardly, seeing as we hadn’t done it in a few days and had a resupply of food to rearrange – to head west out of town towards Ishpeming. Our run that day was hard in new sort of way. The day was short but we had to run along a very busy Highway M-28 through the western sprawl of Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming. The busy road and intersections added a level of stress to the day but once we arrived at camp for the night – Country Village RV Park – we were pleased to meet a friendly woman named Deb who had driven passed us as we ran along the highway. She got us setup with a spot for the night at a discounted rate “for all of our efforts on the road.” Later in the day we were sitting in a pavilion of the park cooking lunch and talking with a young and enthusiastic boy named Draper. Deb had told Draper all about our travels, of which he had many questions about. “Do you even stop to breath?!” he asked us as we causally lounged about the pavilion, cooking lunch. Yes, Draper. We stop every once and awhile. Before leaving Marquette, Mary had informed us that right next to the RV park is the Country Village Cinema (in case we wanted a break from another hot and humid day). After lunch that day we scoped out what was playing and read some reviews. It turns out that The Secret Life of Pets is a “fun family diversion” for weary, overheated ultrarunners too.

Our run the next day, from Ishpeming to Beaufort Lake State Campground, was an exciting one because we knew we would be passing our 1,000 mile marker! One thousand miles of running. Holy shit. Before getting to the lake that evening we made sure to swing by a gas station and pick up some celebratory drinks to ring in our achievement that night. We swam and celebrated that night before tucking into the tent for the night… which, by the way, our tent’s name is Carol. We consider her more than a tent. She is our gray space pod that we’ve actually been using to travel around the lake. “Running” is simply a ploy to distract you all from our discovery of interdimensional travel.

Anyway… We rose early to depart from Beaufort Lake. The orange and pink splatters of the morning sky were brilliant and did not go unnoticed as we manically swatted swarms of bugs over breakfast and coffee. Once we ate and packed up we headed down the road with Baraga State Park in our sights. Some days we run amidst all sorts of conversation, sharing ideas with one another as we trot passed the mile markers along the road. There are some days, however, that we spend mostly in silence. Our run to Baraga was one of those quiet, contemplative sort of days. We even took a chance on a shortcut that would match the tone of the day, a quiet forest road, dappled with sunlight and the occasional deer fly. Once we got to Baraga we were informed that there was a Christmas in July event going on in the park all weekend. Christmas lights galore! From Baraga we head north into Copper Country. The Keweenaw awaits!

“Any of you ever been arrested at any time, for any reason?”

Week 8 and 9 – Pancake Bay Provincial Park to Munising, MI

During this journey, it often seems like milestones whiz by far too quickly as we try to find moments to reflect on them. Or, maybe in the moment it’s too hard to wrap our heads around those milestones and what they mean, so we let them zoom by and hope we can find time to reflect on what they mean. These past weeks have held more than one of those moments, and as our feet continue to carry us the miles, it’s hard to fathom how far we have come.

Heading south along the eastern shore, Pancake Bay marked the last Ontario Provincial Park where we stayed. This also signified nearing end of our trek along the Canadian coast. We began the week by closing the remaining distance to Sault Ste. Marie, the biggest city since Thunder Bay. At a private campground at Harmony Beach, we were invited to enjoy the campfire of some seasonal campers named John and Carol, and had the opportunity to learn more about the history of the city they had lived in most of their lives. The next day we woke up early to run to the Soo. Ever since our entry into Canada in the beginning of June, the road signs had reminded us of the incredible distance we had to cover to Sault Ste. Marie. 697 kilometers, 423 kilometers, 212 kilometers, 20 kilometers, the numbers had ticked down slowly. In an experience that felt slightly unreal, we ran into the city and made our way to our destination for the night. Velorution is a local bicycle and ski shop with a free campground for bike tourists. While not exactly their usual tourist, we were welcomed warmly and had the chance to meet other cyclists spending their summer bicycling across Canada. The next day we said good-bye to our new friends and our last Canadian city, and caught the International Bridge Bus which takes pedestrians across the bridge to the United States.

Border crossings remain strange and less-than-welcoming.  To cross the border we were asked questions about our possessions and criminal records. We dubiously glanced at each other as we answered the brusque customs officer.  After being asked the usual questions, we and our stroller were allowed re-entry into the United States. Not only is it a strange experience to cross these constructed, imaginary lines and end up in another country, but all of a sudden all the details were different too. Snickers! Fahrenheit! Miles! Being in Canada for over a month, we had become quite accustomed to these different day-to-day details. Just like that, we were back. Did we really run up and down all those hills and through all that rain and bugs?

Feeling strange to be instantly back in the United States, we made our way to the town campground for the night. The day after that was a long one, twenty-nine miles to Bay View Campground. With fresh legs we woke early, hit the road, and got to the campground in record time. Our campground host, Gilly, treated us to incredible hospitality and stories of life in the Upper Peninsula. In sharp contrast to our experience in Canada, the UP so far is enjoyably flat and bug-free. From Bay View we headed to Tahquamenon Rivermouth State Park, where we snagged the last remaining campsite. In the spirit of this summer, we got rained on. Again. We have become so accustomed to cold precipitation, but it can still be annoying when it surprises you.

Tahquamenon marks another strange milestone for our trip. On our drive around the lake to drop off supply boxes, we traveled from Ney’s Provincial Park to Tahquamenon in one day. On foot, it’s taken us almost a month. Yep, still wrapping our heads around that one.

From Tahquamenon Falls we headed to Pike Lake State Campground, in one of our longest days yet. We turned off the highway onto forest roads, complete with some well-packed gravel and some quite sandy patches. Pushing Rig uphill through sand is a whole other kind of workout, we soon found out. Thirty-three miles and a couple handfuls of wild blueberries later, we made it to Pike Lake. While the State Parks off of the highway are packed this time of year, Pike Lake was a tucked-away gem. Feeling wiped, we went to bed early and slept in a bit the next day, and were even treated to pancakes and jam from our neighboring campers. We were going to be entirely on forest roads that day, headed to Lake Superior Campground. Feeling tired but appreciative of the quite wooded roads and blueberries along the way, we made it to another hidden gem of a campground right on the lake. We felt blessed and fortunate as we watched the sun set over the lake and put our tired bodies to rest.

We ran back onto paved roads and into Grand Marais the next day, where another resupply box as well as our new shoes(!) awaited. Feeling pretty dang tired and proud after covering about 120 miles in five days, we treated ourselves to lunch at Lake Superior Brewing Company. Grand Marais will be remembered for its food, as we also treated ourselves to breakfast at the West Bay Diner the next morning. Grand Marais is one of the gateways to Pictured Rocks, and we enjoyed a much needed rest day as we prepared for an early start into the National Lakeshore.

When summer is in full swing, so is tourism. The road through Pictured Rocks was slow and meandering, and we’re always grateful for stretches away from busy highways. Deciding to spend a large chunk of the day relaxing at the beach, we napped and swam and read and enjoyed the crystal clear waters of the aptly named park. As the evening crept closer, we added another fifteen miles to the day and made it almost through the park.

Although the Upper Peninsula is quite flat, we have definitely been adding some high mileage days. Looking forward to a rest day in Munising, on the other side of Pictured Rocks, we pushed on the next day through some intense heat. After spending some time at the Falling Rock Café, we were graciously welcomed into the home of Barbara and Charlie Isom, who had reached out to us during our planning process. Living on the shoulders of the road and in our tent for so long, our hearts are warmed by the incredible hospitality and support along the way.