Thursday, November 6, 2008

For Sale

There's a constant ebb and flow of goods and services washing through the community bulletin boards and classified ads (we even have a Yooper Craigslist!) in our small town. It's one of my favorite spices in what an outsider may consider a bland stew of rural, small town life.

So, from time to time I'm going to share a taste of the local buy-sell economy from my little slice of the world.

Here it goes:

Guns. There are always guns for sale. Or even guns wanted. They are as much a part of our culture as bread and butter (or Busch Light and large trucks). However, some are more interesting than others, as seen in this recent ad. Two of these are semi-automatic assault-style rifles designed primarily for self defense (or self offense).

But the last one is a muzzleloader, like a new-fangled version of Danny Boone's thunderstick. I found it interesting that there was an assault rifle, with no less than 800 rounds of ammunition, for sale alongside a rifle that shoots one bullet, then must be filled with powder and a new bullet pushed down the front of the gun before it can fire again. Two very different concepts.

But the fact that they are all for sale, means to me that one of my neighbors has now probably upgraded to a tank.

Maybe you're wondering what someone would do with a semi-auto assault rifle and 800 rounds of ammunition. Which leads us to...

Animals: there are ALWAYS animals for sale or to give away to a good home (and a well armed one). This week we have free kittens.

It's one stop shopping. It's a win-win. Two birds with one stone. Three kittens with one...HK91.

Also, notice that poor Fido has gone missing. Hmmm, better count your AK47 shells prior to purchase; there may only be 799.

The reward money is $300, and that's nearly enough for another assault rifle. Did they specify what shape man's best friend was to be returned in?

Disclaimer: I love animals; I also own firearms. This is all in fun.

Monday, October 27, 2008

First Snow

We're getting our first meaningful snow this week. It makes me think about the power of forgiveness.

Only six months ago winter had pushed us to the ragged fringes of sanity, but today, these first flakes are so incredibly beautiful, refreshing--and surprisingly welcome. It's a winter baptism after a short, but hectic summer.

While April snow is an obnoxious guest that refuses to leave, an October snow is a prodigal son, with whom all is forgiven.

At least until April.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Weekend Guest

So, what happens when you cut big holes in your house with a chainsaw on a fall weekend? Well, naturally an owl flies in and spends the night!

A bewildered little sawhet owl, probably migrating through on his way down from Canada, stopped in for a visit recently. Apparently a gap in the temporary plastic covering the hole for a new window was just too tempting to pass by. He made his way up the stairs and perched on a nightlight where he was discovered by guests.

After a bit of pandemonium, and a few flash photos, I punched a window screen out and he flew back into the night.

Exciting time here in the Northwoods.

Home Improvement

So, ever since we bought this old farm, my "real job" of travel writing and photography has slowed a bit as I work to remodel our house. Here's a bit of recent video showing what it takes to install a new window in a 100-year-old log home. Note the blue exhaust from a bit of old gas and the chiming of both the smoke alarm and CO2 alarm at the same time--quite an achievement!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Who has time to blog when fall is falling all around? One thing I'd like to share from the past few weeks is our annual Apple Fest, or Apple Camp, or Sauce Fest or whatever you want to call it. Friends gather and help process several hundred pounds of semi-wild apples from our property and surrounding abandoned farms. Some apples are perfect table fruit, but most look fit only for the deer. All of them get quartered, steamed to a mush, then milled to separate out the skins and seeds. Add a little sugar, maybe some spices, and voila--sauce fit for a king. Or at least a toddler. We divide up the sauce and take it home to can on our own. This year we set a new record of around 40 gallons. Now that's what I call getting sauced.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Simmer Down

I need a time-out. Quiet time. A nap perhaps? Summer in the Upper Peninsula is short and furious, and we do everything we can to take advantage of the long, lingering daylight of the north. This summer has been no exception, except, that we haven't actually been home much to enjoy the short season. We've been on the road since early July with assignments, so it's good to be home now. It's time to simmer down. There's lots to do on the old place, and I'm looking forward to harvesting the garden (if the frost doesn't get it first) and getting the house ready for fall and winter.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Scythe of Relief

My new lawnmower cuts a ten-foot swath and runs on organic vegetables, fair-trade Java and a massive quantity of dairy products.

Let me introduce you to my new hobby: mowing. Hand mowing, that is, with a scythe. Since this spring I've been filleting the weeds and grass on our 40 acres with what has to be one of the most beautiful hand tools ever.

Now this isn't the old heavy, curved-shaft contraption with the mass-produced stamped steel blade that broke the spirit and back of your grandfather. No sir, this comes from the mountain valleys of Austria, where folks hand hammer layers of steel into a finely curved blade as delicate and light as pastry crust and as sharp as a carving knife.

Then, good people in Maine pair them with ash handles (called snaths) that are custom fit to customer's dimensions. The whole kit, with a whet stone, holder, instructions (who needs em!) etc. comes in the mail. You assemble it, and then you're a mowing machine.

Well, not exactly. Seems those instructions are useful after all. But after a while you begin to find the rhythm of the scythe. It's often described as dancing, as the mower weights one leg, then rocks to the other leg as the blade sings in an arc, finally laying the mowed grass to one side as the process repeats.

It's a beautiful, meditative thing. It provides exercise and hay to use as mulch in the garden (I've snuffed all the weeds and fought off two frosts already this summer) and does it all in peace and quiet.

Plus, it gives me yet another wacky thing to write about!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Takin' What They're Givin'...

Whoa, over a month since the last post. Yikes. Rest assured, I'm not lazin' away in the hammock. Okay, maybe a little bit. Here's the deal: Three features, two essays, three photo packages, daily photo requests, etc. Biz-E! The "E" is for enigma, as in, it's a mystery how I'm able to make a living doing this---but so far so good. Anyway, here's a fresh essay regarding the topic of work and balance (more like lack of) that's running right now in Northern Home & Cottage, a sister publication of Traverse Magazine. Now, back to work! For me at least...

I saw what was going to happen the moment the angular split of white birch launched from my hand, a chalky flap of bark following like a contrail. The birch bomb smacked the dog's speckled rump, exploding in an impossibly sharp "yiiipe" that pierced the stifling afternoon heat.

Gus, one of our emotionally fragile and frenetic border collie mutts, bolted from the woodshed and dove under the trailer where I was standing. I’d been moving the woodpile in a work-induced trance of pick-up-wood, toss-wood. He’d been sneaking bits of bark to neurotically gnaw, and got caught in the friendly fire.

"What did you do to the dog," demanded my wife, Kristen, poking her head out from inside the shed where she'd been stacking the wood I was tossing.

Things hadn't been going well that day, and it apparently wasn't going to get better. Maybe it was the still air, thick as bathwater. Or maybe it was because from the moment we saw bare ground in late April, she and I had been raking, wrenching, digging and painting our old farmstead back into shape. Over winter we'd happily filled page after page of a legal pad with projects we fully believed would be accomplished this summer.

Here’s the thing: we like work. Or, perhaps it’s not that we like it, but we know it, understand it and draw animal comfort from it, like Gus gnawing piles of bark into splinters. A friend has diagnosed us with “pointy butt syndrome,” the inability to sit still. But everyone has their limits, and now in mid-July and only about ten items into our list, we could already taste murder in the back of our throats.

She scrambled over the pile and out of the shed, sleeves rolled. Her forearms were bruised and cut, it was 90 degrees and humid, she had sawdust in places I’m not supposed to write about...and now I was beating her dog. There was going to be a reckoning. A wood-chopping woman from the U.P. was about to remind me of all the things I already knew about myself, but tried to forget in between moments like this. This was going to involve genetics, and nicknames and intimacies I definitely won't write about. This was going to hurt.

But then she stopped. She was looking over my shoulder, where the south side of the white farmhouse rippled in the heat.

"Look at that," she said, pointing. "There, on the clothesline."

It was a female ruby-throated hummingbird, sitting like a plump long-beaked Buddha, perfectly still on the clothesline in the middle of the yard. We'd seen several hummingbirds since spring, fighting around the feeder or buried eyes-deep in the pink sweet-pea blossoms climbing up the pumphouse. They are pure energy, feathered electrons zipping through flower gardens from Panama to Canada and back within the year. Still, here she is just sitting, an emerald splash of Zen on our clothesline in the mid-summer heat.

If a walnut-sized bird that's going to cross the Gulf of Mexico in the next few months can take a break, well, maybe we can too. It's not like we hadn't earned it. Already this year we'd hand dug a trench 20 feet long for a new water line. We'd painted the house and outbuildings. We'd hacked, burned and hauled away the collapsed barn and tackled dozens of necessary projects we’d already forgotten. For months we'd been throwing ourselves at the all-consuming, bent-back-and-bleeding-fingers work that doesn't hurt until you stop at dusk.

The ability to work blindly is our inheritance, perhaps the only we'll see. It's how our people kept their heads above water, mostly, even while it planted them in the soil before their time. It's how a girl becomes the first in her family to go to college, works two jobs and doesn't stop until they tell her there aren't any degrees left to obtain. It's how we were able to buy this place, but it's not why we bought it. We bought it for the shot gun blasts of chaotic flowers in the yard and the two fat maples where the hammock ought to go, but hasn't yet. We repotted our lives to this place because there are spots like the clothesline, where, if your feet are small enough and you have a belly full of nectar, you can relax—when you make the time.

We sat down in the wide woodshed door, and leaned back against the sun-bleached hardwood splits to watch the hummingbird for what seemed like an eternity. It would blink, cock its head a bit, but otherwise was still. Humless. But I felt this whole green-and-blue globe purring along beneath us, with a couple of people, dogs and a weird little bird perfectly still at the axis.

Eventually Gus nudged me, a wet nose saying all was forgiven--if he could have another stick from the shed. The bird was gone. I started to get up, but Kristen put her gloved hand on my knee. We lingered a while longer, rolling our eyes and shrugging over it all. Sometimes not working, takes more effort than the jobs that need doing. It's one thing to pile wood or dig a trench, but another to bury your instincts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Love in the Air

Well, love is in the air and it's time to hit the road for a family wedding down in the steamy southern realm of Northern Wisconsin. Back to our roots. Bowling alleys and dairy farms. German beer and Polish sausage. So, in the spirit of the season, here's an essay published in 2007 regarding my passion for the farm.

If it were possible to make love to a house, I’d be a cheatin’ man.

For over a year I’ve been engaged in a headlong 100-mph affair with a very mature, white-clapboarded beauty. I’m infatuated with her build, layout and 40-acre dowry, but I think she just digs my toolbelt.

Now, I’m no stranger to romantic notions. As a woodsy type with a gooey center, I end up gaga over something almost weekly. But it’s only been this strong once before, when, nearly twelve years ago, it was a girl wearing a blue and white swimsuit at a county park picnic. It was two weeks after graduation, and I remember a spinning sensation, shortness of breath and that watery, flowery smell of June when spring ripens to summer. Everything was changing and I’d found someone totally familiar, yet tantalizingly unknown, to relearn life with.

Love is dangerous stuff, and that little fling led to marriage. These days my wife and I are as mad about each other as ever, but since finding this old farm, I’ve been rolling head-over-heels down a white-picketed path of debauchery.

I used to read books with plots and characters. Now I just pore over how-tos and house porn—you know, those photo books of scantily clad Tuscan interiors and Normandy knockouts. I’ve spent hours trying to pick out which baby blue French country costume best suits my new mistress.

My family and friends are ashamed. I know what they’re all thinking, “She’s got to be 80 years older than him.” I feel myself changing too, taking on her mature tastes. The weather has suddenly become very important. My favorite magazine has changed from National Geographic Adventure to Mother Earth News. Now, taking a year off and sailing the world doesn’t sound nearly as important as growing fields of basil and really, really big tomatoes.

The most scandalous part, is that my wife totally supports us. This summer the neighbors caught the three of us on the front lawn. The house was semi-nude, with portions of siding and trim laying on the ground where it had dropped during our…project. A car rattling up our gravel road suddenly slowed, as voyeuristic neighbors, drawn by our passionate hammering and the house’s plaintiff groans and squeaks, gawked from the end of the driveway. We simply waved, unabashed at our “household of three.” A nervous hand fluttered back as they sped away.

Some might think this is a midlife crisis, but that means I’ll be dead by 60 so I hope not. Perhaps it’s a quarter-life crisis. Whatever it is, the affair has helped me recapture my manhood, boosted my confidence and helped me open up to trying new things. It’s fair to say my wife is impressed with my new skills as well.

I’m no Casanova, and the house has never said anything, but I get the feeling it’s been good for her too. It had been over ten years since anyone touched her the way I do, and I imagine she is starting to feel young again with all this attention. When I met the house, she was like a centerfold in a snowmobile suit. Underneath the electric blue wallpaper and peach-colored plasterboard was a lady of hewn, dovetailed logs. Since we’ve been together I’ve given her new wiring, windows, paint and lots of other little things a lady her age needs.

Of course it hasn’t all been rosy. The house doesn’t have a central heating system, which can be a problem in a region with a six-month heating season. Plus it makes a lot of strange noises when it’s windy, and then there’s the whole issue of the damp crawlspace. Let’s not go there.
I admit, when things get rough I walk out on her, but a stroll through the woods to think things over always leads me back to the corner of the yard, where I can catch a flirtatious glimpse of her backside. There, standing in the berry patch where a rutted tractor path meets the old orchard, I trace the sinuous line of a blonde woodpile and watch her through a frilly tease of apple blossoms. It’s a view that leaves me red-faced and smiling, shuffling my feet and staring at the ground, like that gangly high school grad blinded by a blue bikini.

Lately my wife and I have been talking about the future, and where this affair is headed. I want wrap-around porches and an addition for the house. She agrees, and even supports the purchase of new power tools. But there’s a catch. Now that we’re settled here, she’d like an addition too. An addition to the family. Maybe even three or four of them.

Time to get my toolbelt, and get back to work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Moving In

Still crazy busy here--deadlines, deadlines, deadlines--so here's another previously published essay about when we first moved into the farm in 2006.

The moving van lumbers up the rough dirt road and hesitates at the end of the driveway where the faded handmade sign declares this property “For Sale.” With a nervous glance at each other, we rumble forward over the gravel curb and scrape through the tunnel of overgrown cedars and apple trees into the secluded yard.

The sign is lying. This place, a 40-acre Upper Peninsula farmstead in western Alger County, is not for sale. It had been yesterday, and for several years before that, but today it’s home. This is the place my wife, Kristen, and I have been dreaming of, a place to raise chickens and children. A place to live and love while our hair gets as white as the lake effect snows the area is famous for.

A few swings of the hammer and the sign flies loose. If we have our wish it’ll never show its face again.

Like us and our blue-collared ancestors—Poles, Germans and Swedes—the buildings are sturdy and straight, but a little rough around the edges. Shingles missing here, siding sagging there, and paint but a memory in spots. The big white farmhouse, part of it made of hand-hewn logs, is surrounded by a sprinkling of tidy red outbuildings. There’s a root cellar, a shed, a garage, the old milk barn, sauna building and woodshed. At the edge of the field squats the remains of the original log cow barn.

But at the center of it all is a familiarity that we can’t explain. A sense of belonging, like a family reunion where you might not know everyone’s name but it doesn’t matter because you share the same laugh, chubby cheeks or hair color.

This farm was built by people with winter in their blood. Swedes came first, around 1900, and hewed the forest into fields and a home. Then Finlanders took over in the 1930s and didn’t let go until the last one passed on in the mid 1990s. Since then an absentee owner has let it fall into disrepair, and only rodents and coyotes have spent winters here.

A convoy of friends roll into the driveway behind us with pickups and trailers heavy with our possessions. Boxes in the house. Tools to the garage. Garden stuff to the shed and root cellar. Skis to the barn.

“Do you know you’ve got, like, ten friggin pairs of skis?” my friend Cameron is asking from somewhere behind his armload of poles and boots.

I’m aware of how many pairs we have, though I don’t really have a justification for it other than that we live for winter. That’s why we moved to this area, a well-known snowbelt that routinely closes schools and highways. Also, with that many skis you need a place that has a barn to hold them all. We needed a ski stable.

The skinny ones are for racing, their flashy blue and white zigzag graphics leave no doubt. They are iced lightning that must be operated only during daylight hours by those in bright shades of Spandex. I have a tendency to miss turns at the bottom of steep hills at excessive speeds when on them; and Spandex doesn’t soften the cold kiss of mature timber. These snow stallions are kept stabled in all but the finest conditions and fed only the purest waxes.

The workhorses are found deeper in the pile. They are wide, with steel edges and heavy three-pin bindings. Mated with equally heavy leather boots these planks pull loaded sleds and packs into the hills for camping. These are Rosignols, but they may as well be called Carhartt or Craftsman. They are rugged tools, but once camp is established they become powder queens, linking telemark turns through knee-deep lake effect pow pow. Kneeling, turning, kneeling, turning like a powder-powered piston through snow of a religious magnitude. These backcountry boards are winter worship at its best and our new home is only blocks from the cathedral.

Of course we have 10 pairs of skis. Everyone who lives in a place where snow flies from October through May should have a solid winter arsenal or they’ll go stir crazy watching the flakes fly.

Cameron is waving from the door of the shed and babbling incoherently. He’s holding a grey and weather-checked board with a familiar shape.

“Skis. You’ve got skis…there are skis in here!” he stammers, pointing up into the exposed rafters where he’s been stowing our stuff. But there, alongside our modern gear and next to an old white door with fraying paint, is a peculiar-looking board that matches the one in his hand.

They are flat on the bottom, tapered from thin at the tips and rising to level in the center. The front tips are pointed, but not curved up. These are handmade, but unfinished, wooden skis.

“I take it back, you’ve got eleven friggin pairs of skis!” Cam stammers.

But this was more than Pair Eleven. It was the passing of two wooden, Nordic batons, and it was the best housewarming gift imaginable.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Favorite Folks-Daisy May Erlewine

From time-to-time I hope to feature profiles or interviews or something on the good folks that warm the north and make it such a great place to live.

It's going to be called Favorite Folks. But also from time to time the manure hits the windmill here at Northstead, and when that happens, I'm just going to reach into the archives of my published writing and post it up like lukewarm leftovers.

This post is the convergence of these phenomena. Enjoy.

This is a Q&A with Daisy May Erlewine, a singer-songwriter from Big Rapids, Mich., that originally ran in Traverse Magazine. She and partner Seth Bernard are much loved in the U.P. and should be sought out and enjoyed wherever they may turn up.

Like a bluebird on a rusted barbed wire fence, Daisy May Erlewine's voice is shockingly beautiful and perched on something darker, sharper and slightly dangerous. With three solo albums and enough indie-credo for a boxcar full of singer-songwriters, Daisy May doesn’t need any help hoeing her row in today’s folk scene. But then anyone who’s seen her partner Seth Bernard perform knows he’s not your average gardener.

Together the pair blend whimsical sentimentality with the work ethic of hand-hewn homesteaders. In 2005 the Big Rapids couple left their southern fields and traveled to the Keweenaw Peninsula where they recorded an album at the historic Calumet Theatre. The album, released in spring 2006, is as rich as the earth the singers sprung from. We caught up with Daisy May during a short break in a busy summer touring schedule.

The new album is recorded in the Upper Peninsula, how are you connected to the U.P.?
Seth’s dad is from Marquette, and his grandma and uncles are still up there, he spends a lot of time up there.

How did you come to record at the Calumet Theatre?
Dear friends of Seth’s family live in the Keweenaw, and we would go there a lot, sort of as a retreat, and write songs. One time the guy who books acts for the theater, and kind of keeps it going, Davey Holmbo, asked us to play there. Later, our bass player had the idea to record there and Davey set it up and gave us a good deal.

How did it all come together?
Davey set aside two days in August 2005—that was the longest open period in the theater’s schedule—and Seth and I, our upright bass player Dominic Suchyta, Drew Howard on pedal steel, cello player Andrea Moreno-Beals and the engineer Ian Gorman all made the trip up from down here. They set up mics all over the theater to get a really live sound. The theater has all kinds of ghost stories, it was a really cool atmosphere.

Did you see any ghosts?
No, not necessarily…but there were definitely some weird overtones in the recordings, we’re not sure if it was just the acoustics or something else. In order to get a really good live feel we played back the vocals really loud one night and recorded it to get good reverb and we were wondering if there was going to be anything else on the track when we came back the next morning.

Up until this point both yours and Seth’s albums have been solo, what was it like to record with a group?
It was really fun to work with other musicians; when you’re writing the songs you have this world in your head and then when you hear it come to life through the other artists, but with different interpretations, it’s really special. It was really a joy to work with everybody. We hope to keep the quintet—that’s what we call ourselves, the Copper Country Quintet—alive for the next duo album.

When’s the next album planned?
Well, there are no concrete plans. We’re both working on our next solo albums, then we’ll probably do the next duo album. So, maybe a year. It’s in the ether.

Both of you seem to put out albums quickly.
Yeah, Seth and I are like recording junkies. We both have trouble continuing to write when all the other songs haven’t been put somewhere. We both love the recording process; as soon as we’re finished with one album we’re excited for the next one.

How do you think of your type of music?
I’m a singer-songwriter, that’s how I describe myself. But as far as the sound, there are so many sources of my inspiration, so that’s harder, but I think about my singing as blues and soul. When I’m singing I think of these beautiful black women that sang their hearts out.

The album is put out by Earthwork Music, tell us about that.
Earthworks is a music collective Seth started, a group of friends really, that is trying to enrich Michigan culture on many different levels.

Seth Bernard and Daisy May Erlewine can be found on the web at Visit the Calumet Theatre online at

Monday, April 28, 2008

Fielding Questions

The last of the snow melt has revealed what a long winter had hidden from us: hope.

Hope in the greening meadow grass needling through the brown blanket of last year's growth. Hope in the garlic, that planted last fall with shrugs and doubts, now slices through the straw. Hope in the rhubarb's red alien facing blinking out from warming soil. Hope in the wild leeks, those crazy edible garlic-onion clusters that cover the maple woods floor with a scent somewhere between wet feet and wet farts. Hope in the trout lilly, the song sparrows and the horny lunatic calls of a hundred different critters at dusk.

Besides hope, we've also discovered an impossible amount of dog poop. I guess we shouldn't be surprised, it's simple arithmetic, really: 2 Dogs + 1 Long Winter= 3 Times as Much Poop as Anyone Could Imagine in One Place at One Time. Spring cleaning has a whole new meaning.

But let's focus on hope, shall we? This weekend was the Alger County Conservation District's annual tree sale pickup. We nabbed 250 red pines and four apple trees for the homestead. The apple trees will join the two dozen wizened warriors that came with the farm to add some fresh faces to the old orchard. The pines, however, will go to a windbreak and Phase 1 of a reforestation plan on three acres of pasture.

It struck me today, looking back at our progress of new pines waving like little green flags, that the folks who ripped this farm from the forest 100 years ago are probably spinning in their graves right now. Clearing these fields must have broke the backs and spirits of generations before us, and here we are wiping away their history with a single planting bar and a sack of pines. Green spikes driven in an old Finlander's coffin.

The homesteaders aren't planted very far from this field either, just a mile away at the end of our road in the township cemetery. The possibility of a haunting has crossed my mind. Their tired, calloused ghosts may have understood us if perhaps we'd planted the trees for agricultural profit. "Treeeeeee faaarrrrrmmmm?" they'd inquire.

But I'm afraid not. We just thought there was too much field. Needs more woods, we said. More wildlife habitat for birds and stuff. They're not even planted in rows, just here and there, some single, some in clumps.

Looking across our red pine field my eyes lingered on the stone piles at the field's edge. There's was a season to pick rock, ours is one to plant pines. But it's not like we don't appreciate our fields. We do, and we're keeping the majority of them open for grazing sometime down the road. I appreciate the food our fields give us, but I could feast on a forest forever.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spinter, er, Wring?

It's 60 degrees, but there are still several feet of snow on the ground. Birds of every variety have arrived on a stiff south wind, but squirrels are at the feeder like there's a January storm coming.

Welcome to Spinter. Warmer than winter, but you still need a shovel to take a walk.

Several patches of ground are visible again since the last storms. Big brown circles of dry grass and needles under the red pines on our south-facing hill are simmering in the sun. Over lunch I put on the knee-high rubber boots and thought I'd slop around a bit by the apple trees. Too much snow there, so the dogs and I crawled up under the pines and sat in the sun for a bit. Before long the two black-and-white border collie mutts were panting after soaking up the heat. Lucky dogs. The wind, though out of the south, still has a sting--so no panting for me.

Besides sting, the wind brought us our first raptors today. One appeared to be a rough legged hawk, a shaggy and bedraggled splotch of gray and white wheeling quickly over the yard. Two male flickers are having words over the 10x30 patch of driveway that's visible. Easy boys, more real estate is on its way, day by day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Well, I was all ready to write about spring, but another late season storm whacked us this week. So, here's a wintery essay originally published in Traverse Magazine.

I don’t know who owns the humble log structure, but I sure know I enjoy pretending it’s me from time to time. And I know there are dozens of others who feel the same way.

It’s a cabin on a bedrock bald overlooking a frozen lake in the highlands of the central Upper Peninsula. And we’re an interloping band of roving cabin poachers. Good people, mostly, I think, but not afraid to bend the rules occasionally, now and again, from time to time and over and over. We hold fast to the belief, often found in areas with high unemployment and low wages, that it’s a damn shame when certain things go unused or underappreciated. Oak saw logs that didn’t make it onto the logger’s truck become our firewood. Fender-tenderized venison fills our freezers. Abandoned, or, um, lightly used camps and cottages fill our weekends.

Now, if you’re still reading, and not dialing the authorities, you’ll be happy to know that while what we do is technically…probably…okay, most likely breaking and entering, there has never been any breaking. In fact, there’s often fixing. I don’t know what the sentence for entering and repairing would be, but up here common law and common sense seem more common place, and I’m willing to bet that a judge in Ishpeming or Eagle River would go easy on us.

I’ve heard that the owners are in Texas, or was it Florida? Anyway, they’re someplace warm and far away. I guess they own several hundred acres enrolled as commercial forestland, and probably managed as part of an investment portfolio. I wonder if they’ve ever even seen this rugged pocket of lakes and hills, a good hike in off a dirt road that only connects to another dirt road? What are the odds that they’ve pushed through blowdowns, mucked around impromptu beaver ponds and scaled the massive rock up to the shack?

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say they did make it this far, scrubbed a little circle in the frosty window pane, and peeked in at the generations of candles on the table, wood stacked along the back wall and a collection of red and white canned goods on the shelf. Would they be upset that their abandoned cabin, was being well cared for? In disbelief, would they reach out for the padlock on the front door and realize, like we had, that it was indeed locked, but not actually attached to the door?

If they stepped in they’d find fishing poles in the corner from the cabin’s trout-seeking summer friends. Winter guests, like us, have jammed cracks and crevices with insulation, while steel cables in the rafters keep the sagging old walls from splaying out under a staggering snowload. Tar dabs patch the ceiling like inky stars.

I’d be proud to take credit for all the improvements, but most of them appear to have been made by our anonymous poaching compatriots over several decades. The truth is, my friends and I have only known about the place for a few years. It started when a friend heard a rumor, about a rumor, about a cabin back in the hills. Another friend had a government job combing aerial photos day-in and day-out, mapping soils or looking for boogey men or something. We soon convinced him to put his technical skills to work surfing for our hobo realestate.

Since then our eye-in-the-sky guy has constantly been on the hunt for new prospects. He starts with public lands, or at least lands with public access, then looks for structures, or even just those familiar squares of cleared homesteads that hint a building might still remain. If the access roads are overgrown, it’s a good bet that nobody owns it, or at least nobody will care if we pretend we do. Then it’s into the bush for some old-fashioned map and compass work.

Most of his finds have just been piles of rotting logs framing the hulk of a stove or tangle of an old bed spring. Some were obviously private, and we moved on…after a little peek. One was obviously private, but a guest book made it clear that strangers were welcome. Few are locked.

The ornery old pot-bellied stove is purring now, finally roused from its January slumber. We shed wool and down, watching waves of lake effect snow wash across the valley. It would be quaint to think of this as a charming weekend in a sparkling snow globe. But this is the highlands, where Lake Superior storms tear their bellies open on forested slopes, spilling snow in amounts only quantifiable with body parts: knee, hip, and chest deep. If we’re in a snowglobe, then it’s one that’s been duct taped to a runaway snowshoe hare.

At the cabin, talk often turns to pooling our scraped-up resources for a little piece of land somewhere way back, far in and high up. Maybe we’d clear a rough trail to get supplies in, but once the place was built, we all agree the road should be abandoned in favor of a foot trail. We call it a snowshoe cabin. Just a place to get warm and dry. A winter basecamp, like the one we’re in now—but actually ours. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but if it does, you can bet the shelves will be stocked, firewood cut, and the door open.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Our Trees Runneth Over

Hank Hughes, 82, is wreathed in a sweet-smelling cloud of steam as he dips, pours, measures, then drains off and adds sap to a roaring evaporator.

We step outside the billowing sugar shack on the dairy farm in Flat Rock, Michigan where he’s lived his entire life. He points down the road to the house he was born in, sweeping his arm past the houses of his and his wife Ilene’s children and grandchildren nearby. Holy Family Catholic Church is over there on the hill. Across a field of corn stubble lies the maple woods his family has tapped for as long as he can remember.

Now, among those maples the staccato pinging of sap splashing into pails is accompanied by the chug of a diesel tractor, the clank of silver pails and the voices of the Hughes’ grandchildren as they race against darkness to collect from the 2,400 tapped trees. It’s a Thursday evening and they just got home from work and school, but the sap doesn’t wait for anybody’s schedule. Cell phones ring and ATVs whine as cousins come and go, lending a hand for as long as they can.

When Hank was their age the sounds were of draft horses huffing as they pulled a sleigh of barrels through the spring snow, and a crackling wood fire under the evaporator. But there has always been the ringing of sap-on-tin, a sound that fixes these laborers to this place and this time with roots that would even make the maples jealous.

The last pail is emptied just as twilight rolls across the fields. The last tractor emerges from the darkening woods, a farm dog nipping at the tires in a game only it knows the rules to.

Opening the door to the shack, warm light and steam roll out to reveal a crowd gathered for the night’s work. Sons, cousins, brothers, sisters, great-grandkids, grandparents—they’re all here and ready to work. A big pot of chili has appeared along with a moist maple syrup cake.

Bottles and cans, caps and seals are all brought out of storage from last season and then the finishing begins. Small batches are brought to the perfect consistency and filtered, then bottled one-by-one and handed down an assembly line--son, to brother, to nephew to mother. Friends and neighbors stop by and samples of fresh, hot syrup are sipped out of small cups.

Hank and Ilene sit near each other at the center of the hubbub. This is the first day of the season, but by the end of spring the family will have produced between 300 and 400 gallons of syrup.

Not to mention a few more memories.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Early Birds

A robin joined us a few days ago. She was a cheery splash of orange in a still, monochromatic landscape. Unfortunately, we had little to offer in the way of robin amenities.

Warmth? Sorry.
Leaves? Nope.
Bare ground? Just one spot, over the septic tank, I'm afraid.
Worms? Good luck.

It's tempting to think of the first robin sighting as the turning point in the seasons, but I've noticed that the real signs of spring are the scavengers.

Behold, spring comes on the wings of crows.

Though crows spend most of the winter with us, their numbers seem to slip south as we get deeper into winter. During a melt in mid-March, I noticed their numbers seeming to swell. They follow the pulsing interstates north, necking down to state highways, county trunks and finally slushy township and village roads. With each exit ramp the south fades from them like the tans that those of us who stayed behind lost in November.

They are migrant workers harvesting the season's first crop: roadkill. Fender-tenderized whitetails emerge from snowbanks alongside rabbit-ala-road. Four months of plowing has arranged a steady stack of carrion blooming in the ditches, as the warming temps throw open the door on the north's roadside meat locker. The crows eat their way home on this, bumper crop.

There's been no sign of our robin guest since the blizzard. Gambling on spring is risky business in the north, so sometimes, when the early birds can't catch their worms, they're caught by the weather.

And then by the crows.

White Fang

The blizzard came last night, burying its white fangs in the back of our skulls. It was an attack from behind as we slept, dreaming of warm, far off places--like Wisconsin.

At 3 a.m. I woke to the pacing of nervous dogs, and was able to watch the assault in cinematic fashion, a montage of violence choreographed with the flashing of the motion lights on the garage.

Darkness and growling wind. Floodlight and lilacs doubled over, writhing. Darkness and the staccato kiss of sleet. Floodlight and the propane tank has vanished. The picnic table too. Casualties.

All schools are closed, in mourning I suppose. The state police have issued bulletins to keep everyone off the roads while plows and graders grapple with the beast.

Within a few days it will be subdued, pushed back in banks, scraped into ditches and thrown twenty feet from our driveways. Cut by steel plow and churning auger, the blizzard's flesh will break, spilling into puddles and overflowing the banks on Slapneck Creek down the hill.

We'll overcome this April onslaught, but not before it claims a shovelful of swear words and the last of our shear pins and sanity.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Fools for Spring

We're celebrating the twin holidays of the Vernal Equinox and April Fools Day here in the Upper Peninsula. It seems a "late winter" storm is rolling into the region today, nearly two weeks after Spring officially sprung in our hemisphere.

A blizzard warning has been issued from the National Weather Service, with up to 20 inches of snow and high winds forecast. A fitting joke for the first day of April, but cruel reality on the 13th day of spring.

Our spring, is decidedly unsprung. I fear the green season's coils have been irreparably rusted red; smothered somewhere neath the four feet of snow that still carpets the land. Perhaps tomorrow it'll be five feet.

Happy Spring...and April Fools!