Saturday, February 6, 2016

Wilbo Drives 170 Miles to See a Few Boats, Check the Ice on Lake Superior and Ask a Few Inane Questions in Bayfield, Wisconsin

Thought about taking a ferry across to Madeline Island, largest island of an archipelago called the Apostle Islands, a national park among the waters of Lake Superior. Arrived at the ferry docks and decided against it. I'm fairly sure ferry runs as a van from Legendary Waters casino awaited to pick up walk-ons. The ferry could easily break through the thin clear ice that had accumulated since the last run. I picked up a copy of the schedule, November 30th through freeze-up, and I'm guessing the ferry really runs only one demand now. Who wants to be the only car on a ferry, a car that made a ship risk a crossing for only one car? Even on a calm day, it's a risky cross. It isn't called the Mad Ferry for nothing.

Really, the ferry is a disappointment. Lake Superior hasn't a chance of freezing over this winter, and there's open water between Bayfield and Madeline Island. I had hoped to find a thicker layer of ice, enough for wind driven ice boats to make the run. When I drove around ice covered Chequamegon Bay and noted ice fishermen out on the ice, I had hoped for that thick enough layer of ice, enough to bear up a swift traveling ice boat. I had even imagined an ice road marked with used Christmas trees right and left. The Straits of Mackinaw were open all the way from St Ignace to Mackinac Island Monday, so why should the Straits of Madeline be an exception? I saw a few membership art galleries, a great hotel of pine with a restaurant and Big Water Coffee, and that made me decide to explore on shore.

Six fish tugs moored in the marina near the ferry, and all of them declared "Red Cliff, Wisconsin", in painted letters on their sterns. I go away most weekends during my sojourn in Keweenaw, and it doesn't take much to consider a destination. I had visited Peterson's Fish Market on the top of Quincy Hill, highlands above Hancock. The view from Quincy Hill might not be endless and yet the Huron Mountains near Marquette are visible, nearly one hundred miles away. Peterson's sources its fresh lake fish from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and studying the fishing process caught my fancy.

The walls had exhibits documenting the legal process, monitored by the Chippewa tribes themselves. The whole lake trout in the display case had yellow bands run through mouth and gill, proving the catch as legit, recorded by authorities. I've been down to the docks in Port Stanley, Ontario and Muskegon, Michigan. Port Stanley has about ten tugs moored some days. Muskegon has only two, in service of the Fish Monger's Wife. A trip to see a fishery that sells fish as far south as Traverse City made enough of an excuse to drive 170 miles on a Friday night after work. I saw the boats. I saw the ferry. I'll be back again to see them again, take the ferry, see the boats disgorge their catch.

I have tried to get a day aboard a fish tug in Muskegon. I chatted up the Fish Monger's wife and complimented her on all her educational exhibits. As I know from her poster, whitefish are not so much caught in a net than corralled by their own curiosity. The fish enter a system of nets set up near shore and have no idea how to exit. The fish tug collects the fish captured, and brings them ashore for processing. I suggested to her that my friend, the photographer Dave Johnson and I could ride along, documenting a day on a fish tug in pictures and words. She politely declined, hinting that fisherman are famously secretive. I more than respected that. I understood what she was saying. I had fished and kept secrets myself. Maybe I would be luckier pitching the ideas to fishermen with the Red Cliff band. Pictures from the early days of black and white photography are treasured in the small museums one sees on reservations.

Maybe I'll learn to do this without taking a three hour drive, but I love going to a new place where there's new questions suggested. In Ashland and Washburn, muralists have taken murals to an extreme, painting trompe l'oeil scenes on entire walls, more than one wall, of brick buildings that mimic street life, and sometimes that street life includes dwarves. The question that has to be answered today is, "Who thought of that"?

Early this morning I asked a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, "Is the Bad River really bad, or is it just misunderstood"? He answered me in earnest, "The Bad River has many waters flowing into her course. She is never clear, always turbid". When I crossed the Bad River bridge, I was hugely disappointed to see a complete cover of ice, unable to check water clarity for myself. I walked into an artist managed gallery in Bayview, and I saw the work of a man with a doctorate in Divinity who must turn wooden bowls on a prayer wheel because I couldn't count how many he had for sale. He builds wooden boats, having retired to the shores of Bayview, and measures schooners and wooden boats to make scale models for their owners. Once it was the other way around, a boat builder making wooden models of schooners for customers who wished to commission a custom ship. I spend long days, strolling around, asking questions, collecting character.

A friend of mine in the office loved the idea of an expedition to Bayview. Bayview holds an Apple festival each year. I've seen artisan wells, posters from last week's sled dog races, terraces from old quarries and cliff side marinas that made me think of Sausalito. I had yet to see an apple tree. I asked the artist who was manning counter at the membership gallery, who was needle quilting to pass time. "Go to the top of the hill. That's where the apple orchards begin".

The baked goods impressed me at Big Water Coffee, a coffeeshop with a roasting operation visible through a picture window. Skiers have been coming in all afternoon for après-ski and the most imaginative lattè, made with maple syrup, honey or lavender, locally procured. Islands and apples, ski hills and theaters, fresh fish and good coffee, life on the big lake in Bayview is worth living.

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