Thursday, June 27, 2013

I'm no fisherman, but I'd love to be fishing, man

This memory of mine does not take place at Lake of the Clouds, pictured above. That lake is some miles west, in the Porkies.

The point of fishing is rarely ever about the fish themselves. Granted, the taste of pan-fish in the fryer after a long day is enough for me to toy with remaining north of the Bridge for the rest of my days. Expansive, clean, clear woodlands lie in the U.P., constantly calling to trolls such as myself.

One of many chances I've been given to explore the exquisite north was during high school, on a fishing trip with a good friend of mine and his father. Outside of traveling and camping with my family I hadn't spent much time with friends or classmates on trips. The feeling of being invited was fantastic in itself, pristine location notwithstanding.

Typically, when traveling long distances, my constant companion was the Gameboy Advance--an electronic siren. Our drive through the lower peninsula consisted of copious amounts of Advance Wars 2 and Super Smash Bros. thanks to a robust cigarette lighter. This combo got us through much of the nondescript farmland in mid-Michigan. Until you get roundabout Cadillac, there's not much special to observe on the interstate, but boy-o does it increase in majesty northwards. There is something magical about the drive up north. I've done it with many people over the years: family and friends, during the summer, winter and spring, but each time it feels like I'm going back to a place of special belonging, where more exists than can be observed. The unseen is the history and lore, the French, Natives and British, our family's camping over twenty years, the experiences that pile high and anew, during each unique foray...and the Gameboy.

The energy, building in the aether, climaxes at a very specific point, some miles south of the peninsular apex. Necks crane, non-driving activity stops and eyes strain to behold the sight of sights. We've been trained over the years for one task alone--to see the Bridge first. I have it down to which overpass I need to start paying attention at, and wait patiently for this concrete signpost to show me the way to victory. It rarely fails (provided you remember which overpass it is). I remember craning to see the bridge on this particular trip and being overzealous in my prediction of when it would appear. So anxious to show that I knew the area well, I fell flat on my face. The feeling faded quickly though, because while I was wrong, we were still on the way north.

We passed through the city fairly quickly, stopping briefly for some KFC, before our passage over the deep-emerald, diamond encrusted waters that are the Straits. The shoreline is rocky and sandy, beige in color--clean and transparent, sand covered over completely by myriad stones. It deepens near the first tower, changing from jade to malachite and back again, passing over the span, beneath which barges and freighters travel on their watery highway.

The land rises quickly into St. Ignace proper, the last bastion of civilization and ubiquitous fast-food, before the vast nothing, dotted by towns named after French explorers, missionaries and colonialists. Mere minutes on the road and the city is left behind, miles of pine bordered highway ahead to gaze at, and wildlife to scan for. The trees rise as sentinels along the road, home to bird nests and cover for deer to bed under during the heat of the afternoon.

Once you're in the U.P. and driving along, the miles tend to look alike, and you drive along very, very straight stretches of concrete. The car sets a constant, ceaseless beat as the tires pass over each separate segment of road. There's very little to cause the road to bend along its trajectory. The occasional lake and pond will cause some deviation, but little else is in the way of whatever destination you might have in mind. And it's flat. Until you meet the Porcupine Mountains in the west, you might confuse the U.P. for a Nebraska, producing large Christmas trees instead of corn and grains.

Towns (more properly villages) dot the road, appearing just when you think you had already passed the last bit of tamed land in the world an hour ago. Many are merely collections of hunting and fishing cabins, but true Yoopers you will find in and among those who call civilization in the south home.

We walked into a tiny diner in town to "pay da Yooper who mows da lawn in da summer, before headin' to da house, eh?". My friend's dad asked to whom he owed money, and the whole diner lit up, each man there making the same claim to the money. There were no women if I remember correctly. Yooper women are like the Entwives, they cannot be found.

We could have been doing anything at all in the U.P. for those few days. It so happens that of fishing, hiking, disc golfing, biking, swimming, canoeing or any of a host of pursuits common to the area in the summer, we had chosen to fish. Fishing, of the sort we did, consisted of sitting in a boat on a beautiful lake all day (often falling asleep), in the sun and in the shade, waiting for bluegill, bass and other sun/panfish to happen upon our lines. We would routinely bring in 15-30 fish per outing, from the littler lakes, and have delicious fried supper of them at night. I can't underscore enough how delicious some fresh perch, bluegill and bass taste, after you've spent the day catching them on an inland lake in the U.P. with tall pines rising up next to you on shore, and a fresh breeze cooling your sweat covered face on a sunny afternoon.

The spruce, jack and white pines unfurl their spiny umbrellas and carpet the ground with prickly rust that feels soft beneath your feet. It's carpet for a king and queen and whole court of woodland creatures.

The big lake has fish in abundance as well, and different customs by which she's approached and fished in. We go north to Superior for the day to catch walleye in a bay near the Keweenaw peninsula. Walleye are a completely different animal from the small panfish we were hunting before. They're larger and live nearer the bottom, in deep water. Not caught merely by dropping down a line and hoping they'll see it, we troll for them. Our boat constantly, slowly, smoothly moves, back and forth across the water. The surface is grey, like the clouds above. The overcast sky is welcome to burned skin, though the life preservers still chafe, even over shirted backs. Our lines go deep, weighted by a variety of sinkers in all sizes and shapes, to keep the thin translucent cord in the deep water. Again, I fall asleep. At the time I'm a little ashamed to be falling asleep, but my future self wishes to be back there, asleep in the boat, floating on one of the greatest lakes, without a care.

My friend catches a walleye that day. It's exciting! The fish is much greater in size and feisty on the line. It took a few tense minutes of fighting and clever line work to reel in and must have been 5 feet long! The aquatic craniate's will is not honored that day and we pull it into the net alongside the boat...success! (In addition to the success that having the time to spend fishing for fun already is.) We spend hours out on the water, but have only one big hit, one dose of excitement to punctuate the wonderful monotony. His dad later filets the finned beast to freeze at home for delectable winter meals.

After a few days, our time north comes to a close and we must leave. We must go back to our lives and our jobs, the suburbs and the cities, the cars and the noise. However, no matter how far south one may go, the North, her fish, her timber and her lakes ceaselessly beckon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

the day when everything fails

That day sneaks up on you in seeming delight. It finds you after you've actually eaten breakfast, maybe worked out a bit at home. The day lies in wait above your head as you sit in group meeting, giving advice to a new graduate student, about their candidacy presentation they'll give in August.

First, the air conditioner isn't working in the cell culture room. "No matter" you think, we'll just flip the breaker like usual. "Aha!" shouts the day, "not so easily, this time."

"Well" you muse, "maybe I can use the hoods later if the humidity decreases..." Responding before you can catch your breath, the refrigerator/freezer cries out "I'M NOT GOING TO WORK TODAY!! YOU NEED TO EMPTY ME AND LET ME THAW! H4H4H4!"

That escalated quickly...suddenly a day of work turns into damage control. "Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!" you shout, as your feet leave the ground, leaping into the air from atop the precipice of productivity. And you pray for an updraft. And wings. Pray for the wings first.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We were never millwrights

The sun's rays penetrate the oak's boughs into the glade, and play gently with the pine needles carpeting the ground. Their edges gleam dully as though they are tiny chipmunk foils. My brown leather boots, scarred by close calls with saws and hammers, brush aside leaves from past autumns now forgotten. They scuff the dirt, pushing aside soil transplanted here from receding glaciers.
Yellow-green leaves look down on me, batted about gently by the breeze, waving as though we were best friends. The land here lives and breathes the stories of forgotten men and women. It has lungs but no tongue, leaving me with the sense of great untold history. The loam tugs at the strings holding the purse of history, tied tightly by men too afraid to share.

I feel a connection to the wide sweeps of timber before me, harsh mistresses that have no ties to the soft middle class boy, naïvely tramping about. Don't regale me with tales of your camping, the living you do in the luxury of your warm portable houses, pulled about by monstrous machines.
The stones can tell you stories of men and women camping for months in the deep snows relying on naught but layers of birch bark and thatch. You reside here now, but it was not your hand that tamed the land. Your ancestors were not even here to see the timbers fall and industries rise from grassy fields.
Take my admonitions gently, coos the Old Mother. The trees spreading their limbs are for you to take shade from and rest beneath. I ask only that you think of, and remember, your place. Remember those before you and think of those that will come after. You all rest on my bosom.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Beards are relentless. A bearD is just a bear standing ferociously on your mouth, daring those around you to look you in the eye.