Thursday, June 4, 2009

From the Shores of Gitche Gumee

I’m writing--and transmitting--this from the beautiful shores of Lake Superior, where my sister and her husband live, happily surrounded by children, grandchildren and an ever-present passel of cats. The ability to zap this directly from her house to Rocky the column chief is pretty amazing to me, though, when you come to think of it, newspaper folks have been using technology to make deadlines since the American Civil War, when reporters filed stories near battlefields from Antietam to Gettysburg.
I was impressed then, too.
It was a nice day for a long drive, with the 500 miles highlighted by a quick stop at Lake Geneva and a long northward trek along the shores of Lake Michigan before the final woods-bound stretch to the shores of Gitche Gumee, and the land of Hiawatha and Nokomis just outside Marquette, Michigan.
The area where they live is part of a bridge-connected section of Michigan called the “U.P.,” which is short for the Upper Peninsula. For lake lovers like us, it’s pure bliss, as it’s bounded by three different great lakes (Superior, Michigan & Huron) and filled with a variety of fresh-water lakes, ponds and rivers that are clear, clean and very, very cold, especially at this time of year.
The Upper Peninsula has been a regular destination for us for years, as Mary and Jim got hitched in 1967 and, soon after, moved to a beach house on “the big lake,” where they’ve lived ever since. Their beach is never crowded, with an incredible view of the water, the Marquette cityscape and Sugarloaf, a little mountain on the other side of town. When we got married, the U.P., and its lakes and beaches, was our destination, too. I had already moved north and started graduate school at Northern Michigan University, while my future bride was living at her parents’ house in Chicago Heights, while working, saving money, and planning our August wedding.
Somehow, through some incredible bit of bad judgement on our parts, I was left with the task of finding someplace for us to live once she joined me after the wedding.
Though the price of lakefront property was not nearly what it is today, I thought it was still way out of our range, until an acquaintance named Smith (names changed, as usual) told me about his “camp.” “Camp” is the northwoods word for cabin or cottage. In this case, it was a genuine log cabin right on the beach just down from my sister’s place. Oh, it needed a couple of minor things, like heat and water, but all in all, it looked like just the place to start a life of wedded bliss. So a deal was made, and I waited in anticipation for her next visit so I could break the exciting news. She was coming in a few days, riding from Chicago, as coincidence will have it, with Smith’s future son-in-law, who had been a high school classmate of hers.
As they neared Jim and Mary’s, where I was staying for the summer, he said,
“Hey, We’re not far from the Smith camp.”
“Oh, what’s that like?” queried my future bride.”
“Just an old shack,” he answered. “Nobody uses it anymore because it’s so filled with mice.”
It’s pretty easy to imagine how the conversation went once they arrived.
Me: “Guess what? I found us a place to live and it’s right on the beach!
She: “Really!? Where is it.”
Me: “Right down the road. It’s the old Smith camp.”
It is a tribute, indeed, to her toughness and spirit of adventure that we spent our first year in that cabin. It was a beautiful place, with enormous interior beams, hand-pounded copper chandeliers and a massive stone fireplace. We cleaned and swept and polished to erase every trace of Mickey Mouse and his friends. Thanks to the advanced handyman abilities of my brother-in-law, we dug a well and installed an anemic propane space heater that just barely increased our chances of surviving the long, Lake Superior winter.
There were times you could see your breath in the bedroom and sometime, when the wind blew really hard, snow would sift through the chinks of the cabin, forming drifts in the corners of the living room.
But our hearts were warm, as was the electric blanket we had received as a wedding gift. And if it still got a little chilly from time to time, there was always this bit of good news:
It was too cold for the mice.

1 comment:

  1. By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
    By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
    Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
    Dark behind it rose the forest,
    Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
    Rose the firs with cones upon them;
    Bright before it beat the water,
    Beat the clear and sunny water,
    Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

    "Gitche Gumee" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha.