Thursday, July 28, 2011

Miles from Nowhere

We first visited the Keweenaw Peninsula when we were near-newlyweds, almost 39 years ago, and we always said we'd go back again someday. But we were foiled by time and circumstance and by the knowledge that it is a place that is absolutely on the way to nowhere. It is a wilderness of water and deep woods that pokes straight upwards into Lake Superior on the western end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You can get there from here, but you can't get anywhere else once you've arrived. You can only turn around and head home again.
And while its existential beauty and magnificent ruggedness made it a place we've yearned to see and experience again, its sheer remoteness has always made it a tough call in a life filled with other responsibilities, desires and opportunities.
In the past couple of years, though, we've started making a little more effort to revisit some of those special places and people we've known in the past. It's not exactly a "bucket list," because we are re-experiencing rather than trying something new. I guess I like to think of it more as a reunion tour, where we, like a pair of "experienced" rock-and-rollers, go and revisit our greatest hits of the past.
But anyway...
We found ourselves with a little time on our hands last week. It was too hot to do some of the outdoor chores that have been tweaking my conscience, especially those involving tall ladders, brushes and oil-based exterior paint. We had been wanting to visit my sister and her family, who live further east and south along the Superior shore, so we packed the little red tent and the small mountain of gear that accompanies it and hit the road north.
Our first camping stop was at the south edge of the Keweenaw, in the aptly named Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, a 60,000-acre old-growth forest that includes endless stands of ancient trees, rivers, hidden lakes and waterfalls, plus a bevy of wild critters like moose, deer, porcupines (naturally), beaver, coyotes, foxes and wolves. Oh yeah, and lots and lots of black bears.
"Rats," I thought. "I was going to invite them over for s'mores."
We didn't encounter any big furry mammals first-hand, but were lucky enough to do the next best thing.
We met Ranger Bob.
Ranger Bob is a big, good-natured, bear-loving naturalist who took a bunch of us campers on a "bear hike" through a rough-cut wooded trail that featured an actual winter den and some visible bear tracks.
"Go ahead, stick yer head in dere," said Ranger Bob in his hearty north country accent. "Dat's his tracks."
These bits of information sort of alarmed me, as it was starting to get a little dark and we were, after all, in what Mr. Bear might well have considered his living room. But Ranger Bob seemed confident that all was well, so I stayed calm and bear-free. While we were all taken with his knowledge regarding the local bruins and their activities, we were even more impressed by Ranger Bob's ability to ignore the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies that attacked the rest of us as soon as we entered the woods.
Me: Say, (slap) Ranger Bob, don't these (bzzzz) bugs kinda (ouch) get to you after awhile?
Later on, my nephew Jamie, who has spent considerable time in the deep woods himself, shared the secret.
"Most of those guys have some kind of special bug dope going for them," he explained. "And it helps not to bathe too much."...which goes a long ways towards explaining Ranger Bob's mostly solitary life in the deep woods.
After a glorious Lake Superior sunset, we fixed a quick campfire meal and set about getting ready for bed.
The heat wave that was broiling central Illinois had wandered into the north woods, too, so I wasn't anxious to mount the rain-resistant fly on the top of the tent, preferring to sleep under the open air mesh that forms the domed roof.
She: Do you think it will rain?
Me: Naaa, look at that sky.
She: Do you need to put that pole thing in the rain fly, just in case?
Me: Naaa, that thing just gets in the way.
The first rumble of thunder woke me up at about 3 a.m.
Cursing softly as the rain began to hit the mesh, I crawled out of the tent and searched around for the rain fly. The aforementioned "pole thing" was nowhere to be found, so I slipped the fly over the tent, crawled back inside and drifted off to sleep.
The tent started leaking in earnest at about 4 a.m.
In a humorous bit of circumstance that I totally failed to appreciate at the time, it was only dripping on my side. This was only fair, as it was the lack of "that pole thing" that was allowing the water to pool up on top of the tent before dripping in on me. Cursing a little louder, I scooched her way in an effort to stay at least partly dry until morning.
"Did it rain last night?" she said in the cheery-dreamy tones of one who has enjoyed a dry, comfortable night's sleep.
"Not so YOU'D know it," I muttered, as I headed to the bath house for my second shower of the new day.
After exploring some more of the trails and upland hills of the mountain forest, we packed up and headed further north into the actual peninsula--the region known as the "Copper Country," so named because the area was the world's greatest producer of copper from its heyday beginning in the 1840s well into the 20th century. Despite its remote location and hard, lengthy winters, the area boomed, becoming one of the first western destinations for easterners looking for work, fortune and a new life.
Eventually, most of the copper petered out, and the northern extremes of the region became a thinly populated area again, where the highest man-made structures are the old stone chimneys from the steam engines that powered the mines and the Keweenaw Snow-mometer that helps to measure an annual snowfall that can easily average over 250 inches.
"You live here, you're making a real commitment," she said as we traveled the winding, wooded highway.
We camped again. It rained again; this time with a ferocity that had us huddling in our car until it settled into a long night of wind and rain that finally broke the unnatural heat and humidity for good. We stayed dry that night, and in the morning we explored the army post established way back when copper was king and an army presence was thought to be needed to keep the peace between the miners, the settlers and the Native Americans who lived there first.
We drove a little further north along U.S. 41, a historic north-south route that goes all the way to Miami and has always been one of my favorites to drive.
Then it ended.
The highway just stops in the middle of the woods, with a simple turnaround and sign that announces the fact that you've come to the end (or beginning) of a 2000 mile stretch of highway.
There's just a woods road path leading to the big lake at the tip of the land.
"I guess we're here," she said.
And we were.
Miles from nowhere.
But it felt like home.

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