Musings from the North Woods

June 23, 2008

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted as much for the past week. That’s because my wife and I are back at our cabin on the lake in northern Wisconsin, the place that provided much of the inspiration for Five Short Blasts. Our only internet access here is dial-up and the only numbers available for such access incur long distance charges. Thus, the drop-off in my posting activity. It’ll be this way for a couple more weeks. I thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts from our north woods retreat.

It’s not entirely certain when this little cabin was built, but 1923 appears to be a good estimate. I found bits of newspaper in the wall many years ago, when we were renovating the bathroom. They were dated 1935, but I’m told that that was the year that indoor plumbing was added. The cabin remains much the same as it was built in 1923. The windows are single-pane, wavy glass. The original wood siding remains, now bearing many, many coats of paint. The kitchen sink is porcelain-coated cast iron – probably original. The stove is an old Roper, fired by propane gas and the refrigerator is a Philco, probably dating back to the ’50s or ’60s. The cabin is heated by a Coleman wall furnace. Upon arrival, you’re immediately transported eighty years back in time to a much simpler world, a time when the population of the U.S. stood at about 100 million (one third of today’s population), when travelers arrived here by Model A Ford over dirt roads, a time when the cool north breezes were the only respite from the summer heat in Chicago, since air conditioning had yet to be invented.

But it was also a time of transition for the north woods. The forest was regenerating after decades of heavy logging and clear-cutting in the late 1800’s. Much of the lumber taken in the early 1890s provided lumber for construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. The oppression of the native Ojibwe Indians went on relentlessly as the federal government employed a new tactic to assimilate them into the white man’s world – encouraging them to sell off parcels of their reservation, usually to logging companies who, after clearing the land, would lease it back to the Indians for farming. But it was poor land for farming and God never intended for the Ojibwe to be farmers. This practice was finally halted in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which forbid any further selling of Indian land.

Today, my wife and I hiked the same trails that I described in the Epilogue of the book. Much of the land, about eight hundred acres, is owned by a trust which operates a camp for underprivileged kids from Chicago. It’s mission is to provide them a retreat from their urban jungle into near-pristine wilderness, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them. The camp used to be operated by men who cared deeply for the pristine nature of the place. But the newer generation of caretakers doesn’t seem to share the same values and relies upon logging revenue to help support operation of the camp. So, sadly, the stand of old growth forest described in the Epilogue was logged a few years ago. It wasn’t clear cut, and part of it was left untouched (so far), but it really ruined the nature of the place.

This year the logging operations have moved to another section of the forest, along the same path that we hike, spoiling this section as well. I know that it will recover with time, and I’m grateful that the area isn’t sold to developers. But it’s still a shame to see it happen. I suppose that there isn’t any place outside of state and national parks that is immune to such harvest.

On a different note, the fishing has been pretty good this year. I have one of those “peel and stick” yardsticks attached to the boat, making it easy to determine if a fish meets the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) requirements that define a “keeper.” It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when such requirements didn’t exist. You didn’t need a license to fish. You could catch and keep as many as you wanted, judging the size by whether or not it was worth the effort to clean the fish. Many people put food on the table this way without over-fishing being a problem. I wonder: could this have been the “canary in the mineshaft” to warn us of overpopulation, when state governments found it necessary to place restrictions on fishing to prevent the collapse of fish populations? Were it not for the fact that many now practice “catch and release” fishing, our lakes and streams might be nearly devoid of game fish. If it wasn’t for the fact that this particular lake on which I’m located is very lightly fished (due to very limited public access), I’d probably be releasing my catch as well.

Up here, I’m hyper-sensitive to the effects of overpopulation and development. Perhaps other people would be more sensitive too if they could experience what it’s like to live amid (mostly) unspoiled wilderness like this – if they could sit in a little row boat at sunset and watch a beaver glide through the water while the mournful cry of a loon echoes in the distance, without another human or sign of civilization in sight for miles; or if they could watch bald eagles soar above the tree tops or watch otters splashing and playing in a quiet lagoon. It can’t be experienced by an afternoon visit to a park. You have to live it. Only then can you realize that no man-made creation can come close to matching the ability of nature to refresh the soul. The world would be a much better place if there was a lot more of this kind of place and a lot less urban jungle.