Home is Where My Shit Is
Our tale of two norths begins in 2017, the first summer in our little house in the north woods of Wisconsin.
It was late March when we moved in, just as winter began its messy transition to spring. When we first met our land, it was stark dark lines of naked trees against cold, smooth white. Beautiful, but mostly hidden beneath winter’s camouflage.
As we became more acquainted with our land, we watched the forest blush with the pastels of spring, then slowly unfurl in to the lush, verdant green of summer, revealing new wild secrets to us with each passing week. Our land is abundant with raspberries. With sections logged 10 or so years ago, large areas had been open to the sun and the voracious plant overwhelms many open areas. Sandy eroded trail edges where logging roads had originally been cut were dotted with tiny strawberries. Later in the summer, blackberries revealed themselves.
The topography illustrates the glacial history of this region, with hills and marshes, even a small pond. There is ample wildlife: deer, coyote, bear, chipmunks, squirrels, flying squirrels, ducks, hawks, eagle, turtles, frogs, muskrat, porcupine, fisher, turkey, even bobcat. Bird sightings that first summer included chickadee, nuthatch, sparrows, sapsuckers, hummingbirds, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, and a vast array of woodpeckers and finches.
We had spent the previous summer (2016) rangering together at Mount Rushmore and living in South Dakota. Upon our return, we hoped to establish our home base in northern Wisconsin from which to plan our adventures. We wanted a place of our own, somewhere we would always want to return to, no matter where our travels took us. We were thrilled to have finally found our spot in the north woods. It felt like our own up north national park, and just as wild and beautiful.
For my birthday at the end of July, we decided to take our first trip to a national park we had never visited. One that was, ironically, closest to our home: Isle Royale. Located in Upper Michigan, Isle Royale is even further north than we are, in the northern-most area of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, otherwise known as the (da) U.P.
To get to Isle Royale, we took Isle Royale Queen IV out of Copper Harbor, MI and stayed at the Rock Harbor Lodge on the island. Any time we spend a special day in a national park (birthday, anniversary, etc.) we make sure to get a passport stamp with the date in my journal and our park passport. I was pleased to be able to add not only a new park stamp, but one with my birth date as well.
Here is a glimpse into my journal to give you an idea of part of our first experience on the island:
July 27, 2017 – At 9:42 p.m. and it is light on the shores of Isle Royale. Mosquitos pick across the screen as I stare at Superior – her waters calmer today than expected.
The loons call and echo across the harbor. Superior laps the craggy lichen-spotted rock line. A break in the water from below – some unknown creature hunting. Today, we sat in the stern of the Isle Royale Queen IV for a four-hour trek across Superior’s open, frigid waters. What a massive and wild span of waves and water – an incredible openness without any solid ground or footing, until we reached the slender stretch of Isle Royale. Some of the last true wild wilderness east of the Mississippi, they say. We treated ourselves to a superior view lodge room. Our room was near the trailhead to Scoville Point where the land was first loved and championed by someone who wanted to act toward protection, salvation, preservation.
It’s berry season on the island. I snatched wild blueberries as we hiked. Berries are the only physical item one is allowed to take from the island. Tiny wild strawberries, the size of a marble. So sweet, juicy, and warm from the sun like only wild berries are. We clamored down the black rocks to dip our sore feet in the frigid water that merely lapped at our feet, on the very rocks we sat in – the calm superior that many miss. Or at least, cannot be counted on. A sure soreness in my joints, part disappointment in lack of strength, part evidence of valued and valid use. We shall sleep well tonight, rocked into slumber by the rhythmic splash lap of the waves on the rocks.
July 28, 2017 – 7:20 am – Sitting at the window at Rock Harbor Lodge Superior View room.
Loons and surprising sandhill cranes break the morning quiet of Isle Royale. Superior quietly laps the rocky shore. The sun glows the land golden. A lone gull glides through the frame of the window to wild superior. Tiny breaks of fish beneath the surface. The rocks stand like ancient memories beneath the cold clear.
“Happy birthday” you say. “I didn’t forget.”
“I know you didn’t,” I say and climb back into bed. The cool air spilling through the screen, we drifted back to sleep.
9:37 pm – Many loons echo over the muted grey blue of Lake Superior. Another calm day. Superior laps the shore faithfully, like petting an old dog – steady. Birds chirp and bring in the eve of a beautiful day of hiking, canoeing in Tobin Habor, hiking up the Lookout Louise and seeing the long view of crooked shore lines of Isle Royale. A beautiful day – dinner at the lodge and hike back to Scoville point (via the short cut. Heard a moose or something maybe in the trees. Saw a snowshoe hair in the trail, long and velveteen he looked like an illustration…
We vowed that the next time we returned to Isle Royale it would be to go backpacking. Of course, we didn’t know then that not only would we backpack the Greenstone trail that runs the spine of the island, but that when we did, it would be the following year, at the end of Derrick’s first season rangering at Isle Royale.
In March 2018 I surprised Derrick by reserving a cabin along the shore of Lake Superior for his birthday. It was a little red house located near the town of Calumet, adorned with local maps, mining paraphernalia, and vintage ski and snowshoe equipment. We enjoyed a lovely weekend relaxing, traversing the snowy shoreline, jagged and watching sunsets and sunrises over the still-frozen lake. Keeping with tradition, we stopped at the Isle Royale Houghton Visitor Center to get a passport stamp with his birth date. Less than a week later, Derrick was offered the position Interpretive Boat Ranger for Isle Royale National Park. His season would start May.
In April, we took blacksmithing courses at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN. (Our Christmas present to each other.) The two courses stretched over a week’s time, so we booked an Air-B-n-B, once again, along Lake Superior. The location was incredible, with a porch that jutted out over the shoreline, a fireplace, and tons of windows. Every night after class we headed back to our house to sit on the porch, look at the lake, watch for barges, and talk. Often, we talked about the new job he soon be starting. Having only taken one trip to Isle Royale, and not on the Ranger III, the boat he would be working on, we didn’t really know much about what his job would look like. It certainly would be different than rangering at Mount Rushmore in a multitude of ways. Not the least of which being lots of time on the open water of Lake Superior.
Halfway into our blacksmithing course, the weather changed from sunny and blue skies to wind and rain. For two days strong storms churned Lake Superior into a froth of rollers and whitecaps. The roaring wind and crashing waves created such a din that we had to yell at each other to be heard on the porch. Laughing at the ridiculousness of our shouting, we moved back inside. Derrick look at me, out the window at the tumultuous waters, then back at me.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he said, his tone bordering between irony and anxiety.
Neither of us had never really spent much time on big water and had no idea if Derrick would get seasick working on the Ranger III. Aside from our honeymoon cruise through the inner passage of Alaska, our time on water was occasional fishing and pontooning in inland lakes of northern Wisconsin, and some kayaking and canoeing. (Except for that time at Voyagers National Park when the motor on our 16-foot rowboat stalled and the oars of boat busted as Derrick desperately rowed against an October wind…but that’s another story…) Would he get seasick on the Ranger III? We hoped not.
Lodging for Derrick’s first year rangering was a bit of a cluster, to say the least. For a variety of reasons I will not get in to, we were not able to secure stable housing for his entire season. So, while Derrick started his new job, I combed the internet and local periodicals and postings for short-term rentals.
During his 4-ish month ranger season, Derrick moved 9 times. The first month he lived in a tiny cabin that slouched toward Portage Lake. It was part of a short-term vacation rental setup, which meant a seemingly constant carnival other lodgers parading past his windows. A bike path also stretched between his cabin and the water, directing a steady stream of bikers, scooters, and walkers several feet from his front door.
Hours after he finished moving out of this cabin and into his next temporary home was the Father’s Day Flood. Houghton County saw more than 7 inches of rain in a three-hour period, devastating the region. The storm was considered a 1,000 year-rain event. When we returned to drop off the keys the following day, there was a quarter-inch layer of rain-washed soil covering the floor of the cabin. The property owners said there had been at least 4 inches of mud in the property the night before. A very close call. The cabin has since been bulldozed.
Next was the first of three upper apartments in Calumet. Two were in a historic building located within the boundaries of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. They were somewhat novel to live in, one displaying historic photos of the actual apartment in use at the time of the cooper boom; a parlor with ornate lace, a table set with a spread of jams, biscuits, and dainties.
The building itself had been kept in its, uh, “historical state,” without much renovation outside of the apartments. (Though as a registered historic building, I’m not sure exactly what kind of renovations can be done.) Climbing the stairs to the second and third floor apartments solicited an overture of incredibly garish groans, moans, creaks, squeaks. Someone in the building owned a karaoke machine and practiced faithfully and daily. Through the open widows (which had to be open as it was a sizzling summer) we often overheard drama unfolding outside the tattoo parlor across the street or from the bar up the block. Today, the partial view out those windows is a pile of burnt rubble as there was recently a large fire in Calumet that sadly destroyed an adjacent stand of historic buildings.
The third Calumet apartment was very nice. Clean and well equipped, we made good use of the kitchen table working on projects. In our collective memory, it is “the one where we painted the Ranger III.” Derrick made a collection of props for his ranger talks that summer, including a cardboard cutout of the Ranger III. An artist and serial crafter, (and someone with a budding love for the Ranger III) I volunteered to help. We traced the outline of the Ranger III on a large piece of cardboard using an old school overhead projector and I took great joy in painting it to as much accuracy as I could. (Yes, we have an overhead projector. Don’t you?) My work of art currently hangs in a prominent location in our garage in Wisconsin. Because no. We can’t get enough of the Ranger III. (#teamRIII)
With each move that summer, Derrick was either piling his condensed selection of belongings into his truck to move out, or lugging them out of his truck to move in. The move in and move out days were dictated solely but availability, meaning they didn’t always coincide with a weekend or day off. There was more than once he would need to have his car packed up the night before, to move out the next morning, the go to work with his life in his truck. Then, after work, he would need move in somewhere else. Though interesting at times and certainly a unique and singular summer, it was a tiresome vagabond existence.
Where was I you ask? When I couldn’t be in Michigan with Derrick, I was at our home in Wisconsin as I was working part-time from home and part-time at a non-profit arts center in Wisconsin. It was nice to be able to be at our home in Wisconsin that we loved so much, but hard at times to be enjoying new discoveries in our land without Derrick. But when I could be with him, I was. (Though unfortunately, I was not always there on moving days.)
Derrick had a wonderful week-long stint in an A-frame cabin with a small pond, though I was only able to enjoy it for one night because I had to get back to work. There were two less than ideal stays in a hotel, though he did enjoy reliable internet, unlimited access to the work out room, pool, and jacuzzi, an amiable relationship with the woman who ran the continental breakfast, (“Can I get you something else that’s not out here, hun?”) and the free cookies displayed under the chin of a grizzly bear mounted in the lobby. (There are no grizzlies in the U.P.)
Probably the most ridiculous place he lived filled a three-day gap in his short-term stay schedule. It was over one of his three-day weekends. (That was the other thing that made constantly moving even crazier that summer. His schedule was super bizarre, vacillating between one day, two day, and three day weekends throughout the season.) This particular three-day weekend I came up to Michigan to join him, informing him I had found somewhere “fun” for the weekend.
I had booked a one room cabin on 276 acres with 1.3 miles of river frontage. It was located near Conglomerate Falls in the Keweenaw Natural Area which touted hiking trails, bird watching, and fishing spots. There was a fire pit, solar lights, a propane heater, and a wood stove. (Neither of the later would we need since it was August.)
Oh, did I mention there was no electricity or running water? The check-in instructions also stated, “bring your own drinking water and food with cooler, extra bedding and cookware.” No problem there since Derrick had all those things in his truck every time he moved! We did grab a few extra jugs of water however.
We did enjoy our “fun” weekend, even though it rained almost the entire time. We explored the trails and enjoyed looking for the river and the falls. Being experienced campers and backpackers, we had no problem sustaining ourselves for three days in “rustic” accommodations. However, our cooler was certainly the finally stages of “cooling” by the time we left.
The last place Derrick lived was in Hancock along the Keweenaw Waterway. It was probably the nicest place he stayed all season. Very nice and clean, it had good internet, free coffee, access to laundry, and a porch with a view of the Houghton Lift Bridge.
When Derrick was not living in one of these nine places, he was relishing time at our home in Wisconsin or aboard the Ranger III. During his two-week-at-a-time Ranger III shifts, he overnighted on Isle Royale twice a week and slept aboard the boat.
2018, more than any year that would follow (so far anyway) home was where Derrick’s shit was. (Oddly enough, Derrick actually had a t-shirt that said, “Home is where my shit is.” when we were in college. His mom, who worked as a screen printer at the time, made it for him. I love my in-laws.)
There are many other stories to tell from that season, and the seasons that followed. But this is just part one of “A Tale of Two Norths.” I hope to be posting a new blog every couple of weeks. Wish me luck.
Until then, please consider signing up for my newsletter if you have not done so. If you do, it means occasional emails from me with glimpses into life in the north (Up North Wisco and da U.P. of Michigan) photos of the wildlife roaming our land, and info about upcoming events and readings from my poetry collection “To the 4 a.m. Light” released in March by Finishing Line Press.
I will also share some go-to spots in the greater Houghton/Hancock area in forthcoming blogs for anyone who is interested.
In the meantime, here are a few recommendations in Grand Marais, MN: