Saturday, February 13, 2016

Wilbo Takes a Weekend off from the Upper Peninsula, Relaxing in Antigo. He Remembers His Big Fat UP Bucket List.

The Ice Age pushed glaciers down the land mass that became Wisconsin. Imagination allows us to feel glaciers endlessly pushing, advancing. A glacier wall pushed as far as Antigo and no farther west. A hiking trail marks the edge where these glaciers ceased pushing southward and began melting, retreating, leaving moraine hills and pockmark lakes over the land. All of these lakes are usually blamed on Babe the Blue Ox, whose hooves left deep impressions until Paul Bunyan caught her again. The glacier got to northern Wisconsin before Babe and Paul went logging. Paul lopped down trees that grew up after the glacier drew back north.

Antigo seems to remember the glacier's surrender. Antigo is also where the wilds extending from the Artic to the Canadian Shield south through the Upper Peninsula cease. The farmers corralled forests into woodlots and set cows to munching on the greens, keeping the wild suppressed, munching on the wilderness arising in the shape of timothy grass and weeds. Antigo begins the land where the energy of the land is channeled into cheese and meat and milk. Yards on the north end of Antigo accept the double loads of logs that endlessly progress south along US-45, timber cut from the seemingly inexhaustible groves of the Upper Peninsula. The pulp wood takes a turn west for the paper mills of Wausau and Mosinee. What I see stacked up in Antigo yards looks hard, maples and oaks that will make great furniture, floorboards for the piano conservatory.

I had an errand that brought me to town last night. Snowmobile enthusiasts are bunked up four or six to a room because the hotel stands on the trail head for almost six hundred miles of groomed trails. I fled the UP as I have every weekend this winter. The snow is continuous, lake effect snow, inches every day. During the week, my go-to hotel holds a room for me at my corporate rate. On the weekend, my humble room goes for twice as much as four guys in a room can split a big rack rate. Literally, there's not a cheap hotel room in Houghton - Hancock or any town on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Making a virtue out of necessity, I drove south. I finally found a place where I wanted to get my hair cut. One of my co-workers, also a consultant living in hotels, threw up his hands and got his hair cut at Walmart. It looked pretty good, really. I had asked him if his wife had cut it, his wife a traveling companion. He had his hair cut in preparation for a business trip to a client in Florida, an astounding trip given that the first leg from Keweenaw's airport to Chicago has frequent cancellations.

I find myself thinking about the land only one hundred and forty miles north of here by car. I could say three hours by car but that's when one can drive normal speed. The UP is a great, immense land with a speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour, throttled to thirty or forty when the snow flies. Driving here as lake effect snow accumulated, a pair of Ontonagon County officers directed traffic as wreckers cleaned up an accident between a semi and a PT Cruiser, the driver's side impacted until the crumple zone claimed the driver. The young officer's illuminated cone waived me through the mess, about twenty miles north of Bruce Crossing. Further down the road, a Sprinter van had plowed into an eight foot high snow wall and the tow truck was attaching a chain to a front tire as I cautiously rolled onward. I finally achieved normal speed on the cleared roads south of Eagle River. I set out for Antigo at Six and arrived at Ten, which was really Eleven in the Eastern Time Zone, three hours elongating into a five hour trip, quite the norm for winter travel in the UP.

I talked with a man at a pizza place where I often go for lunch. He was waiting for Houghton Public Transport, transport dispatched like a taxi rather than a system with routes. He once drove his own truck and he had junked it. He had the frame welded several times until the frame couldn't beat back the rust anymore. The transport gave him access to the pizza place, where he could eat off a large pizza for several meals and converse with staff as they made it. His home stood a mile outside the service area and he had to walk a mile and a half back from the line with that pizza box held between his hands. I wondered how he arranged a pickup on a cold day, calling from his house phone and then walking the distance before the driver called him a no-show. He was single, alone, and he had paid for the pizza with change. I wanted to give the bus driver a lecture when the bus finally showed up, asking for a door to door ride on a day with wind and subzero wind chills.

I had read about James Oliver Curwood's cabins in the Upper Peninsula when I visited his castle on the Shiawassee River in Owosso, really a French chateau styled building with a turret, a turret that held his writing room. I sat at his desk in the turret, saw the extensive hand typed notes he worked from as he wrote books and screenplays, and wondered about his cabins. I've always wanted to build a cabin and I love thinking about staying in one during the weeks coming up in Keweenaw. 

I thought I had a lead to a Curwood cabin when I saw a picture of Curwood and his family resting at a cabin near Leatherby Falls, a cabin owned by a friend named Leatherby, a hunting and fishing guide. Curwood and family were on their way to their cabin nearby. They all had packs. 

I went looking for the cabin in a park owned by the village of L'Anse and failed to find it. I scanned every foot of ground and even found a monument to the first trading post in L'Anse. Steve Koski, owner of Indian Country Sports, had told me to look there. I went into his store to report back and we looked at the satellite view to find a bare pad of cement. His wife Karen knew the rest of the story. The cabin had been moved back to its original location. It had been moved while the land was clear cut is all I could guess. I have told myself that the road back to Curwood's cabin couldn't be accessible by car. I wonder because there's real estate listings for lots near Leatherby's Falls. I really can't give up on the UP until I have knocked on the door of Curwood

After spending an evening with Ruffled Grouse hunters in Houghton, I began thinking about Jim Harrison, the still kicking author who hunts quails for breakfast, roasting them in his fireplace, seasoning the plucked birds with lemon, salt and pepper. I started ordering quail when I visited Greektown, where two roasted with lemon juice and oregano can be purchased for a good price at Pegasus. I horrified my daughter once, and never mentioned ordering quail again. "Why not find Harrison's farm while I go looking for Curwood's Cabin". A New York Times article by Harrison gave plenty of clues, fair directions to a cabin on the Sucker River near Grand Marais, Michigan. Not a farm and yet a destination worth visiting. I also thrilled when he wrote about grouse hunting near Ironwood because he loved the old Italian restaurants founded by early migrant Italians, most of them peddlars with cooking skills. I had remarked upon three Italian restaurants during my morning visit to Ironwood last Sunday, happy to learn my path had unwittingly crossed that of a literary lion.

Or had I crossed again the path of Harrison the literary wolf. One of my favorite films, Wolf, took inspiration from Harrison's novel of the same name. I read with amazement that Wolf chronicled the story of a man who repudiated civilization and went to stalk wolf in the Huron Mountains. Stalking lead to confrontation which led to contact, nature red in tooth and claw drawing a little human blood, again. Damn. I had frolicked in the mountain range of the Hurons in October and November, although no one gets near the five main peaks without an exclusive membership. The wolf left his blood in the man's blood, heightening his senses, making him a predator to other men. That novel, a false memoir, deserves a rereading.

In the seventies, when Harrison wrote his novel, the wolf had dwindled to less than several thousand. Now, the wolf faces predation from men who pursue them during sporting events called predator hunts. I heard the rise of the wolf decried during the Ruffled Grouse meeting, wolves blamed for gobbling up beavers and depleting deer herds and sneaking chickens. How can I come face to face with a wolf without risking Licantropia, the werewolf disease?

It didn't help to read a woman's account of looking up a bear's den in the Porcupine Mountains, the bear amused but too contentedly cozy to make a fuss to scare off visitors. Can I tap out of the UP before I've left a pot of honey for a black pooh bear outside his den?  

I booked another week at my go-to hotel in Houghton, getting the last room for the week. Recruiters have flocked the twin towns, career week granting a chance to talk to the technology tigers of Michigan Tech. That week on the canal and another chance to explore the Mighty Keweenaw awaits. I just hope the snowbelt ceases long enough for me to make a normal commute in four hours of less. 

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