Tag Archives: Upper Peninsula

Marquette, Michigan: Pristine Inland Sea

Courtesy of author

Courtesy of author


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project. 

As a lifelong resident of Marquette, Michigan, located on the south shore of Lake Superior, I consider myself fortunate. Wherever I have lived in the city, I have been only moments from the lake, able to see it from outside my front door

Throughout my life, the lake and I have harmonized. As a child, I mimicked its spontaneity, dove in to dodge waves, oblivious to its cold temps. As a teen, I became intimate with its passionate pulse, perfect background for young romance. As an adult, I relived the intoxication of its danger, its wonder, watching over my own child’s fear and wild delight at the force of its storms. As I grow older, I find reliable companionship, the comfort of lifelong friendship in its rhythmic accompaniment during contemplative walks.

Recently, I realized how I have taken this relationship for granted as the result of a trip to the Atlantic coast.

When I first viewed the Atlantic Ocean from a New Jersey boardwalk, I said “It looks like Lake Superior.” This seemed to disappoint my host who knew I’d never seen the ocean, and I think felt deprived of the vicarious experience of my amazement. I explained that it appeared to be not so different from something I see nearly every day. However, as I spent more time getting to know the ocean, I realized the difference.

True, there are obvious similarities between the two bodies, which share vast breadth, unending horizons, but each has unique aspects, better appreciated after experience of the other. The fact that the sea is salt water, the lake fresh, is a difference which is a source of many others, for example, scent. Superior, though it has its own fishy ambience, does not overpower with pungent brine. To the panoramic view, colors differ, the sea being more aqua green than Superior’s robin egg or cobalt blue.

The large turbulent waves of the Atlantic make Superior’s seem clear and hard by contrast.  Under similar weather conditions, breaking waves of the ocean are foamier, spread and hiss a greater distance up the sand, while the sharper-edged waves of Superior seem to shatter and scatter. Because the lake is a smaller body of water, it feels more dense, compact. Ocean water has more space to stretch out, travels a greater distance, seems more diffuse. I hear this in the sounds of surf. While the ocean roars and pounds, the lake glugs, dunks, and gulps. Superior has less predictable shifts in water level, and where the regular tides of the sea litter the beach with shellfish, shells, and sharp mosaic fragments of shells, Lake Superior beaches are awash with pebbles, and agates, and driftwood.

Risks to the swimmer also differ.  There is no danger of jellyfish or shark attacks in fresh water, the most threatening creature likely to be found in the lake a transplant lamprey eel.  More remarkable is the difference in shoreline water temperature. Compared to the oceans moderate temps, Superior’s unmatched frigid bite is a nerve-numbing awakening not for the timid heart. This ultimately protects Superior’s purity, and primarily, it is this characteristic I have most taken for granted.

Marquette may be the most populated area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but even so, its beaches, for the most part, in contrast to those I visited on the Atlantic, are generally open to the public at no cost. No purchased pass is required to spend a day or season of days on Superior’s convenient sands.  Yet, on most of those days, one will not find huge concentrated crowds taking advantage of that. In contrast to the popular East Coast beaches I visited on the Atlantic, the public beaches around Marquette are not massed with people, packed like cliché sardines under miles of striped umbrellas.  There are no troupes of solicitous hot-dog vendors, armed patrol guards, enormous bulldozers at daybreak, turning over yesterday’s garbage strewn surface, no airplanes with flying billboards urging the purchase of dinner reservations, no blocks upon blocks of full parking lots, no rows of expensive clubs playing conflicting raucous music.

On the shores of Lake Superior, one is more likely to find a bike path winding through stretches of sparsely populated beachfront pine forest than commercialized entertainment. Even on the most popular Superior beaches, one can easily wander only a short distance to find solitude, privacy, peace.

Certainly, both the northern “Inland Sea” and the Atlantic Ocean are lovely at sunrise, or under the full moon of a July night. Still I have to admit, my visit to the East Coast of the great Atlantic only deepened my preference for the Great Lake above the Mackinac Bridge. I now more fully understand its unique beauty, and more greatly appreciate the privilege of living with it daily.

Jennifer Stanley is a native of upper Michigan, and has an MA in writing from Northern Michigan University. She has contributed to a variety of publications, including The Marquette Monthly, The Great Lakes Poetry Project Anthology, Above the Bridge Magazine, Country Woman, and The American Poetry Review.

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Seul Choix Point, Michigan: Of Shells and Strata, Time and Terrain

Screenshot 2017-01-29 08.53.27BY ROBERT ROOT

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project. 

I’ve been tracking the Niagara Escarpment, a geologic formation that arcs from Wisconsin through upper Michigan and Ontario past Niagara Falls into western New York. In the Upper Peninsula, Seul Choix Point interrupts a long stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline, between the Garden Peninsula on the west and the Mackinac Bridge on the east. The name comes either from French explorers who thought the point the only choice–“seul choix”—for shelter between Mackinac Island and Green Bay or from a distortion of an Ojibwa word, “shashoweg,” the straight line. As my wife and I approach, I ignore college French lessons and use the local pronunciation, “Sis-shwa.” I want to see the way the Niagara Cuesta slides under Lake Michigan here.

Passing the Seul Choix Lighthouse to reach a path through the trees to the shoreline, we emerge onto a broad flat rock beach, its surface uneven but mostly uniform. Shrubs and grasses grow in crevasses and deeper indentations are filled with either lake water or layers of small white shells. We weave our way toward the water across eroded strata, broken chunks of flat rock lying in small pools or in the midst of shells. Dark mosses spill over cracks and fractures. Just offshore glacial erratics rise above the waves. It’s an overcast morning, and the waves match the grayness of the clouds and the grayness of the rocks.

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Marquette, Michigan: Landing


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project. 

Our lives play out indoors. We are caged animals and mostly we like it t10399593_1074358783762_7630_nhis way. The sensations of earthly dependence have left our bodies but they linger somewhere else, and we resent the wind in the trees for being such a tease. But we had a beach once. It wasn’t exactly ours but we seemed to credit ourselves with its presence. It was ours but we did not buy it and we did not make it. We did not grind the sand that sloped so slowly into the cold Superior. We did not mold the sandstone into cliffs and paint them wildly with mineral powders. We were not here 500 million years ago.  But we have descended the gentle slopes, uncomfortable and exposed, waiting for the water to rise and rescue us from our ambivalence. We have seen the light of our fires thrown against the cliffs. We have kissed each other while the Aurora Borealis blazed above us. And often we were drunk. And on those nights Superior was gentler and we could feel our bare bodies become small and tight beneath the water as we darted from rock to rock. We felt that to fly could not be better than this.

There are other people on our beach now and they’ve had to pay for the privilege, five dollars I’m told. I imagine them removing their shoes, rolling up their pants, and loitering on the threshold, bouncing forward and back with the waves. This makes them feel youthful and they’re grateful for it. They comment on the frigid water and its bigness. A lake and not an ocean! Eventually they roll their pants up even higher, so high that it squeezes their calves painfully. They regret not wearing shorts but what does it matter if their pants get a little wet? Later, at home, they open one of the good bottles of wine. They can still feel the bitter Superior around their ankles. Their skin is tight and cold to the touch, but their limbs are light as they linger in the kitchen, raised, unawares, to the tips of their toes on the linoleum.

Andrea Hoyt is a writer living in Fort Collins, Colorado where she edits several magazines. 

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Upper Peninsula and other Michigan writers take their tales on tour

waynorthMichigan writers and sribes with ties to the Upper Peninsula are taking their tales on tour this summer.

There are 31 events with 32 authors including: Ellen Airgood, Julie Brooks Barbour, Kate Bassett, Elinor Benedict, Jennifer Billock, Julie Buckles, Jennifer Burd, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Clara Corbett, Lisa Fay Coutley, Alison DeCamp, Roxane Gay, Sue Harrison, Barbara Henning, Caitlin Horrocks, Charmi Keranen, L.E. Kimball, April Lindala, Beverly Matherne, Amy McInnis, Nancy J. Parra, Jane Piirto, Saara Myrene Raappana, Janice Repka, Vincent Reusch, Diane Sautter, Andrea Scarpino, Laz Slomovits, Heather A. Slomski, Alison Swan, Keith Taylor, Gloria Whelan

The authors will hit 23 cities inncluding: Ann Arbor, Baraga, Beaver Island, Chicago (IL), Calumet, Copper Harbor, Escanaba, Gaylord, Howell, Ishpeming, Kalamazoo, Lake Ann, Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City, Marquette, Munising, Newberry, Northport, Okemos, Sault Ste. Marie, St. Ignace, Traverse City, Wakefield.

Many of the authors were featured in The Way Northwork collected from the Upper Peninsula by Ron Riekki for the Wayne State University Press.

Jun 17, 7pm, Dog Ears Books, Northport, with Ellen Airgood

Jun 18, 7pm—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Ellen Airgood

Jun 20, 11:30am-2:30pm—Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, book signing only, with Julie Brooks Barbour and Sue Harrison

Jun 27, 4-6 pm—Horizon Books, Traverse City, with Kate Bassett, Alison DeCamp, and Caitlin Horrocks

Jun 29, 7pm—Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Caitlin Horrocks, Alison Swan, and Gloria Whelan

Jul 2, time TBA—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Nancy J. Parra

Jul 8, events throughout the day—Mission Point Resort, Mackinac Island, MRA Summer Literature Conference, with Ellen Airgood

Jul 15, 1pm-2:30pm—Munising Public Library, Munising, reading with Elinor Benedict, L.E. Kimball, Beverly Matherne, and host Jane Piirto

Jul 16, 7:30pm–Women & Children First, Chicago, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Roxane Gay, and April Lindala

Jul 17, 7pm—Bookbug, Kalamazoo, with Kate Bassett, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alison DeCamp, and Charmi Keranen

Jul 19, 12-2pm—Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, Munising, book signing and reading with Lisa Fay Coutley, Sue Harrison, Barbara Henning, and Alison Swan

Jul 24, 3pm—Mackinaw Area Public Library, Mackinaw City, with Julie Brooks Barbour, Julie Buckles, and Sue Harrison

Jul 25, 1 pm—St. Ignace Library, St. Ignace, with Sue Harrison, Janice Repka, and Keith Taylor

Aug 6, 6:30pm (Central Time for this event)—Wakefield Public Library/Municipal Building, Wakefield, reading with Julie Buckles, Beverly Matherne, and host Jane Piirto

Aug 8, 3pm—Butler Theatre, Ishpeming, with Jennifer Burd, Jane Piirto, and Laz Slomovits

Aug 15, 7pm—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Bonnie Jo Campbell

Aug 16, time TBA—Grandpa’s Barn, Copper Harbor, with Charmi Keranen

Aug 19, time TBA—Calumet Public Library, Calumet, reading and signing, with Jennifer Billock and Charmi Keranen

Sep 17, 6:30pm– Escanaba Public Library, Escanaba, with April Lindala and U.P. Poet Laureate Andrea Scarpino

Sep 23, 3:30-4:30pm, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, Munising, with Ellen Airgood and Clara Corbett

Sep 23, 7pm—Snowbound Books/Peter White Public Library, Marquette, with Ellen Airgood, Diane Sautter, U.P. Poet Laureate Andrea Scarpino, and Alison Swan

Sep 24, 7pm—Beaver Island Pub Lib, Beaver Island, with Charmi Keranen

Oct 3, noon—Bookbug, Kalamazoo, with Bonnie Jo Campbell signing copies of her new book Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and also Here

Oct 9time TBA—Schuler Books, Okemos, with Kate Bassett, Jennifer Burd, Alison DeCamp, and Keith Taylor

Dec 12, 1-2:30pm—Kazoo Books, Kalamazoo, Author Hop, with Charmi Keranen and L.E. Kimball

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Andrea Scarpino, new U.P. poet laureate: ‘My desire is to get poetry out into the community’

Michigan doesn’t have an official, state-supported poet laureate.

ScarpinoBut a grassroots campaign has created a position in the Upper Peninsula.

Andrea Scarpino was recently named the poet laureate of the U.P. for 2015-2017. She succeeds Russell Thorburn, the first laureate who served 2013-2015.

The public had a chance to vote Scarpino in as poet laureate at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters website.

Scarpino is the author of Once,Then, a collection of poems published in March 2014 by Red Hen Press and The Grove Behind, published by Finishing Line Press in 2009. She teaches in Union Institute and University’s Cohort Ph.D. Program in Interdisciplinary Studies where she is the Creative Dissertation Coordinator, Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing, and Director of the Master of Arts Program.

The Great Lakes Review had a chance to ask Scarpino a few questions recently:

1. What is your background? Where did you grow up, schooling, etc.?

I’ve lived all over the US, mostly in the Midwest, and one year in France. But I’ve lived in the UP for almost five years.

2. How/when did you first start reading/writing poetry?

I don’t really know when I first started reading and writing poetry, but I have poems that I dictated to my mother before I could write—she typed them on her typewriter—and I remember being in love with Shel Silverstein from a very early age. In high school, I discovered Emily Dickinson and my love affair was official.

3. How does the Upper Peninsula influence your work?

When I moved to Los Angeles, my poetry started containing all of these references to fire and heat and desert—and of course, to the Pacific Ocean. Since I’ve moved to Marquette, I’ve started writing a lot about ice and snow and winter and deer and red pine trees—and of course, about Lake Superior! I’ve always loved the water and have spent most of my life living near big bodies of water, so Lake Superior is probably the most important influence.

4. How did it feel to be named the U.P. Laureate?

I’m delighted to be named UP Poet Laureate! I’ve only lived here for 5 years, so I’m delighted to have been so embraced by the writing community here.

5. What are your plans as laureate?

I have so many ideas! Too many, probably. I’m actually starting a crowdfunding campaign next week to help raise some money to fund some of my ideas. One of the things I’m most excited about is building a Free Little Poetry Library that could move to different locations in the UP. It’s going to launch outside the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette the week of June 20, which is our Art Week, but I’m hoping I can move it to other communities around the UP as the summer continues. Basically, it will be a mini-library filled with poetry that people can borrow from as they please—and hopefully contribute to! My desire is to get poetry out into the community as part of daily life, not as something that only special people can do or understand in special places, but as something that we all can celebrate and read and write. Poetry is a part of my daily life, and I want to help it become more of a daily presence in the UP.  Also as part of Art Week, I’m collaborating on an event with the Children’s Museum, and with the Marquette Food Co-op (were going to be doing food odes!) so that week will be really fun. I have a few other readings scheduled throughout the summer as well, including one at Bayliss Public Library (in the Sault) at 7 p.m. on June 11 with several other UP writers. I’m very excited for my tenure to begin!



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Isle Royale, Michigan: I was an Unexpected Visitor




This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Isle Royale pokes out of Lake Superior in waves of layered rock that curve deep under the lake and emerge again 45 miles away as the Keweenaw Peninsula.  These slanted rock layers create fingers of stony ridges pointing northeast.  It takes a long ferry ride through Superior’s moody waters or an expensive hop on a seaplane to reach this rustic and least visited National Park. On my only visit to the island, I chose the ferry from Copper Harbor, a tiny tourist town at the northern curve of the peninsula. I didn’t really expect to see any wolves or moose during my one night stay. I wouldn’t have time to hike into the undisturbed interior, the regular stomping grounds for those people-shy species.

Approaching the island after three hours on the choppy lake felt something like that first panoramic view of Jurassic Park.  When I remember it now, the theme song plays in my head. Free standing towers of eroded rusty rock guard the main island like a long string of sentries, each with a tuft of pine growing precariously from its flat top. Something here feels prehistoric and I almost expected to see the long neck of a Brachiosaurus to emerge from the tree line.  Maybe it’s the thick undergrowth or the 612 species of lichens tinting the wind-scoured rocks in furry greens and oranges.

After setting up camp at the Rock Harbor Campground, I headed out for my first hike, a four-mile loop along this “finger” of rock to Suzy’s Cave.  The weather in early September was idyllic for someone used to six months of winter; late season sun and temperatures in the 60s without the black flies and mosquitoes that plague hikers earlier in the season.

I’d been on the trail for less than half a mile, Superior peeking through the trees every now and then, when I decided it was already too warm for a hoodie.  I was leaning down to stuff it into my backpack when some small noise made me glance around. It took me a couple of seconds to figure out that the odd brown shape behind some brush was a bull moose staring right at me from less than ten yards away.

I flashed back to the Forest Service Ranger who forced on us all of the dos and don’ts as we left the ferry.  Don’t drink the water without boiling it first, don’t worry about bears (there aren’t any), and if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous confrontation with a moose, find a large object to hide behind.  The logic being that a moose, although huge and powerful, is not particularly agile—they can’t dodge around obstacles to charge you.  I noted a couple of lichen draped trees just off the trail, but otherwise, I was frozen.  I did note that his larger furry ears (which would have been adorable in more controlled circumstances) were pointed forward rather than laid back. Just like with a horse, this was a good sign.

It was probably only a few seconds before the moose shrugged me off and went back to browsing.  I probably should have ducked behind a nice big tree or boulder until he went away, but I didn’t.  I discovered I was shaking when I leaned down to pull my camera out of my backpack. I was terrified.  I was also exhilarated. I’d been hiking the U.P. for years and had yet to see a moose. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.MOOSE

My camera makes small noises, clicks and beeps, but he couldn’t have cared less.  He turned to check on me a couple of times during the ten minutes or so that I trailed him as he munched casually from one shrub or another, and each time I froze until my heart started beating again.  When I looked at the pictures later, they were almost all blurry because my hands never did stop shaking.

Despite his size, and the wide rack of antlers, he moved through the forest quietly and precisely, almost gracefully. I calmed down enough to recognize that I was sharing this time and space with an animal that we consider “wild.” It’s something few people get to experience.  It wasn’t just a fox darting off into the woods, or a glimpse of an eagle’s white feathers.  We had decided together, in whatever basic way, that we were okay sharing this space. I’m not anthropomorphizing.  It’s not like we shook on it or anything. I get that he was there in spite of me. Still, in those moments, he decided that maybe I was okay. I guess I made the same decision about him.

Our interaction ended when another solo hiker strode toward us from the other direction, oblivious to the wall of animal he was quickly approaching.  The ranger didn’t cover what to do in this situation. If I yelled to alert the other hiker, I might also startle the moose in his direction.  If I didn’t he could easily push the moose toward me. The lake was blocking a third side. Before I could decide, the moose bounded away from both of us.  And, yes, “bounded” is the right verb. I began to seriously doubt the ranger’s “lack of agility” argument.

I stopped for a few excited words with the other hiker and did the rest of my four-mile loop to the relatively unimpressive cave. Granted, I was distracted. Later that day I packed up my campsite and boarded the outbound ferry. As soon as I had cell phone reception, I started texting everyone in shouty caps, “OMG I SAW A MOOSE!!!”  Though I knew it couldn’t possibly do justice to the experience, that there was no way to really describe how it felt to be part of something primitive for even a few minutes, to feel like I was walking with, rather than running from something, rather than it running from me.

Rebecca lives and writes from Marquette, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, where she is also an associate poetry editor for Passages North. Before going back to school, she spent thirteen years working as a zookeeper. Once she was run over by a giraffe, which may suggest that she’s better suited to writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Stone Highway Review, Calliope, Dunes Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Yellow Medicine Review, and Manifest West’s Different Roads Anthology. 

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Bestseller spotlight: Ellen Airgood

Ellen_AirgoodEllen Airgood’s 2012 novel South of Superior has come in at numerous slots on the Michigan bestseller list over the past few months.

Tell us a little about your book and how it came to be?

When I started writing South of Superior, I wanted to convey a sense of place–the  place I’ve lived and worked for the last twenty four years, a small village on the shore of Lake Superior–more than almost anything.  I wanted to evoke the mood and spirit of the Upper Peninsula.  It’s a fascinating, beautiful, hardscrabble place, a rare place.  I hoped to share that.  I began work on the novel on a sleety day in April, 2004, and after at least twelve major revisions, in the spring of 2010 my wonderful agent phoned to say that the Penguin Group’s Riverhead Books wanted to publish the novel.

What is your background? Specifically, what are your ties to the Great Lakes region?

I was born in Caro, Michigan, and grew up on a small farm a few miles out of town.  I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and earned a B.S. in Natural Resources.  I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Motor Vehicle Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor for a couple of years after I graduated, in the Air Programs Branch.  Then I took a fateful camping trip to the Upper Peninsula with my sister.  I met my husband on that trip–he owned a small cafe in Grand Marais, at the edge of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore–and six months later returned to marry him.

Describe your writing process?

My writing process is messy and slow.  It’s often agonizing.  I like to work in the morning, very early, when it’s quiet and the day hasn’t yet begun.  I will work whenever I can find the opportunity.  I put in long hours on every project–sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment.   Very rarely, I’ll hear a narrator’s voice in my head.  That was the case with my second novel, Prairie Evers.  I  was sitting on my bed, listening to the rain on our tin roof and Prairie Home Companion on the radio when a young girl’s voice said in my head, Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.  Writing is magic then, and I wish it was always that way, but it isn’t.  Often a small moment sparks a novel or story.  For South of Superior, the ideas that were milling around in my head came into focus when I received a postcard from my sister, an old black and white photo of two elderly women sitting on a lawn, leaned toward one another, talking.  For The Education of Ivy Blake, my third novel (due out this June), the image that kept me moving forward was of Ivy tugging on her braid, frowning, thinking.   I could see how brave and optimistic she was when she had every right not to be; I had to try and discover her fate.

Who is your favorite writer from the Great Lakes region? Why?

This is an unanswerable question!  Many names come to mind, and there’ll be as many I should have thought of and didn’t.

I admire Mildred Walker’s work a great deal.  (Her U.P. novel is Fireweed.)  I’m inspired by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ferocious talent and heart.  I was fascinated and delighted by Ingrid Hill’s Ursula, Under.  I read Gordon Young’s memoir about growing up in Flint, Tear Down, with feeling–much of my family is from Flint–and pleasure.   Joseph Heywood is a great mentor and friend.  This is the tip of the iceberg, there isn’t time to list them all.  I’ll close by mentioning two short stories I reread recently and sort of wish I’d written:  Janice Repka’s “Tug” and  Jonathon Johnson’s “Notes from the End of my Occupational Life.”  (They’re both included in The Way North, Wayne State University’s 2013 anthology of new Upper Peninsula writing.)  Why are all these writers my favorites?  They’re unique, they’re inventive, they’re real without being bleak.


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Munising, Michigan: Chicks with Picks


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

MunisingI’m not a climber.

I married into a family of climbers. Ice climbers.

Ice Fest in Munising, Michigan is their annual family event.

In Pictured Rocks State Park along Lake Superior, there are waterfalls. Water cascades over rocks and trees deep in the woods; water bursts over cliffs and pours down into the largest Great Lake; water spurts beside highways. Water falls everywhere, for half the year, anyway. The other half, the water is frozen solid. Delightful, laughing waterfalls become a thirty or fifty-foot wall of solid, unforgiving ice. Or a round pillar of ice. Or a combination of rock and ice, hanging in large downward spires, threatening to jab you in the head as you walk by.

When I had been dating my Yooper boyfriend for six months, he drove me from our home in Chicago up to Ice Fest. I was overwhelmed by the energy: the whole town of Munising overrun by axe-wielding, Frankenstein-boot-kicking, ramped-up climbers. YAAAAAAAH EEEEEHHHHHH???

I joined the women’s climbing clinic, “Chicks with Picks,” taught by two world-class climbers, Sue Nott and Zoe Hart.

Early in the morning of the climb, we gathered at Ice Fest headquarters: Sydney’s (a restaurant with an Australian theme, which somehow fits the U.P.). I was terrified that I would fall to my death from fifty feet up, or worse – that I wouldn’t be able to get off the ground at all.

We loaded our gear and tromped downstairs to the waiting van. About 20 miles outside of town, we pulled off to a side road next to a fence with a farmhouse and a barn 100 yards beyond. Everything was white. We hauled out gear and started the trek across a large field of snow to where the trees began. The forest was silent with fresh snow on the branches and ground to muffle all sound. We followed a narrow trail, ascending gradually. My confidence was growing by the minute. This was my element. I loved the outdoors in winter. I loved snow and ice and the cold wind. What had I been so worried about?

After a mile, we emerged onto a cliff before a clearing. One by one we saddled up to the edge to look down over the frozen waterfall. It was a long way. The ropes – one purple, one red – wound around trees at the top near us and dangled over, coiling on the flat, snow-covered floor.

At the bottom, Sue gave us a brief demonstration on the ice, teaching the whole way. Make sure to keep three points on the wall at all times. Use your bigger muscles – your legs.  If you hack away too much and try to pull yourself up by your arms, you’re going to tire yourself out.  She pointed out how our bodies are built differently from guys – our stronger muscles are in our legs – so use them. “Keep your hips close to the wall,” she said, “Push with your bush!”

Without a belayer, she climbed the wall with the grace and exuberance of a kid scrambling up a backyard hill. It looked so easy. We watched and cheered when she got to the top.  Then she climbed down and faced us.  “OK, who’s first?”

“I’ll do it,” I said, and approached Sue’s rope. “There you go,” she said.  I took off the down jacket, put on the helmet, tied into the harness and approached the wall.  “On belay?” I called back.  “Belay on,” she replied. “Climbing,” I said. “Climb on,” she answered.

I inhaled and stepped forward. A few inches from my face, the blue ice smelled clean, like wind. I could hear water trickling inside. Panic rose in my chest. I’m climbing a top rope, I reminded myself.  I’m safe.  I knew this was true.  Even if I climbed up halfway and fell, I would dangle in my harness on the top rope.

“There’s a good foothold on your right,” Sue called to me, “Step up on it.” I looked down and saw a natural formation in the ice that made a small step. I’d imagined the wall would be flat, that I would have to use the picks and the toes of my crampons to dig and kick my way up. But actually, the waterfall was frozen with natural footholds and shelves. I followed Sue’s instructions. “Good,” she said, “Now swing your right axe.”  I did. There was a thunk above my head.  “Now your left axe. Kick in with your left boot.”  I did and found myself in a squatting position, with my right foot resting on ice, both axes in the ice above my head, and the toe of my left crampon firmly in the ice.  I had no idea what to do next.

“Stand up,” Sue said.

“Stand up?”

“Stand up.”

Against all logic, I put my weight in my legs and stood. My crampons held. And there I was, two feet above the ground, in the ice.

I’m ice climbing!

I didn’t get to the top that time. My arms turned to butter about ten feet up. I fell a lot groping up those ten feet, but the rope held. I would replace my crampons and try again. Try again became my mantra that day, and eventually I did make it to the top, to the cheers of my fellow climbers below.

Later that afternoon, we hiked out of the woods in the dusk, pink light glowing across the white field. Back at the hotel, exhausted and exhilarated, we celebrated with warm whiskey and the hotel whirlpool and the satisfaction of having ascended the impossible.

 Felicia Schneiderhan used to live on a boat in Lake Michigan. Now she lives on the North Shore of Lake Superior with her husband and three small tsunamis.

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Lean, Thirsty, Hungry: An interview with U.P writer John Smolens


John_SmolensRR: Authors Beverly Matherne, Austin Hummell and Vincent Reusch claim that your opening chapter to Cold is one of the great all-time pieces of literature for Michigan’s U.P.  Why do you think it is so highly regarded by them?

JS:  The relationship between Liesl, a middle aged woman, and Norman, a young man escaped from Marquette’s maximum security prison, is based on a combination of fear, desperation and a deep sense of isolation.  Liesl lives alone in the woods, rather imprisoned by the deaths of her husband and daughter, which occurred some years earlier.  When she sees Norman, who has walked away from a work detail, emerge from the woods during a blizzard, she picks up her husband’s rifle—but she lets him into the house because he’s so cold.  This first chapter was written as a short story, entitled “Cold,” which was published in Columbia:  A Journal of Art & Literature in 1999; the final image haunted me for months, and eventually I began writing the novel.  I couldn’t not write the novel—the characters, the blizzard, they were knocking on my door, so to speak, and I had to let them in.  Place means a lot to me; that, and weather.  When I’m writing about a storm or Lake Superior, I don’t feel I’m just describing weather conditions or a geographical setting.  I can’t imagine writing Cold without having experienced winter in the U. P.

RR: Chapter one of Cold closes with this passage:

After a while Liesl closed her eyes against the incessant flakes.  Cold seeped into her back and shoulders.  Her arms and legs were outstretched as though she was floating on her back, and she tried to imagine a lake with the blue sky of a hot summer’s afternoon above her.  But it wouldn’t hold, and she opened her eyes again to the snow.  The cold had worked its way up into her ribcage, causing her to shiver.  She closed her eyes again and saw bearded men in robes and fur hats.  They spoke a foreign language and watched her with interest.  She smelled grease.  When the sharp thin needle stabbed into her anus, she remembered Gretchen’s birth.  But instead of descending, the pain ascended, moving slowly up through her bowels, her stomach, her lungs, her esophagus, the back of her throat, then finally, as she opened her mouth, the warm steel slid along the end of her nose, its bloody tip stopping right before her eyes.

Can you discuss the techniques you’re using here to successfully build to a powerful poetic end to that opening chapter?

JS:  It has to do with the mystery of images.  Who knows where they come from?  I think this is one reason we write:  because images are out there—they’re as invisible as this thing known as the Internet—and we hope to tune in a few.  A powerful image is a language unto itself; it can speak the unspeakable, define the undefinable.

I read a fair amount of history, and at some point I read about Vlad the Impaler.  He was a ruthless warrior, and the image in this paragraph is based on what he would do to his opponents—those who were unfortunate enough to not to die in battle.  He would surround his camp with hundreds of people—some historians claim thousands—all horribly impaled on thin metal stakes, suffering an agonizing death that often took days.  The sound these people made was said to be utterly terrifying, and it was intended as a warning to others who might consider attacking the camp.

As for technique, it’s really an exercise in description.  What Liesl imagines in this final paragraph is, to the best of my ability, a rather accurate depiction of what Vlad had done to his victims.  She has taken a fall in the woods and been left alone to die; she can’t move and is in pain, and to deal with the pain she thinks about those people impaled on stakes, taking some solace in the fact that there is pain that is more severe than what she’s experiencing.  Sometimes even the most brutal, gruesome act, when described with a dry eye, can lead to a visceral reaction on the part of a reader.  Ironically, this is sometimes considered “poetic,” which says something about the human condition, no?

RR: As far as contemporary U.P. authors, the old school big three are you, Ellen Airgood, and Steve Hamilton.  You probably write about the U.P. the least of those three authors.  Ellen and Steve are operating outside of academia.  Is this the reason why?  I’ve heard it worded that a person stationed on a military base, say, in Spain, is shut off from truly experiencing the country.  Does Northern Michigan University create a citadel so full-time faculty write about the U.P. only occasionally because they aren’t truly getting to experience the people of the U.P.?

Reciprocally, because you’re one of the top three authors in the Upper Peninsula and you’re the only one at the creative writing program for the region, I view you as the most powerful writer in the entire Upper Peninsula.  Can you talk a bit about the power that full-time creative writing faculty hold?  “Power” seems counter to your general demeanor as you come across as someone who feels humble, yet I’m interested in the realities of the stature you hold in the peninsula and how you approach the influence you have on future writers’ careers.

JS:  I don’t care for the ranking of authors, in the U.P. or elsewhere.  It may work in sports but not in literature.  For a relatively small population, we have a marvelous literary culture.  If I’m considered a part of that, I’m truly grateful.  And I honestly don’t feel that teaching gives me any real “power”—frankly, what I get back from my students, their energy, their enthusiasm, helps me to keep working.  It’s interesting—and it’s no surprise—how many of our students remain in the U.P. after they graduate.  They love this place because it’s vast and wild and unpredictable, and because it gets inside you.  That’s a remarkable thing, when a place becomes a part of you, when its geography seems imprinted on your soul.  For some, it’s the rivers or the forest.  Then there’s the lake.  I love it when people tell me they have a spiritual connection to Lake Superior because I do, too.

RR: Speaking of, when I read someone like Vincent Reusch, who’s one of the big up-and-coming authors with U.P. ties, I see you hovering in his writing.  Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to read authors who you’ve guided into their careers?  Do you see yourself in their words?

JS:  The last thing I would want to do as a teacher is be an overwhelming influence on how someone writes.  Vincent, who’s from downstate Michigan, wrote a story about a fast-food joint in Kalamazoo.  I remember reading the first draft and feeling incredible excitement.  The sentences rolled down the page, the images were so fresh.  I can’t possibly recall what I said or wrote about each draft, but what I do recall is the workshop discussion.  This is where things come alive:  you get a group of writers in a room and you discuss something one of them has written.  I had my say, certainly, but if I’ve learned anything as a teacher over the years it’s this:  it’s most important to listen.  Listen to what each member of the workshop is saying; occasionally reinforce the things you think are particularly valuable for the writer of the piece to keep in mind.  And perhaps more important, don’t be afraid to express what you don’t know or understand.  I sometimes think I’m doing the best job when I’m the dumbest person in the room.  Ultimately, you don’t “teach” someone like Vinny Reusch.  But you do form a bond, you do try to make it clear that you are striving for the same thing, to produce a story or a chapter that works, that’s as strong as it can be.  This takes time; it’s a slow-cook process.  And this is why when we developed our MFA program at NMU we wanted our writers here with us for three years, whereas most other writing programs are two years.

RR: I’ve asked this question before and have had some great answers when the authors haven’t avoided answering, but do you read your critics?  When you’re writing reaches such a mass audience, criticism becomes nearly unavoidable.  Has any criticism of your work actually helped future writings?

JS: I won’t avoid reading a review, but I doubt it has any influence on what I write in the future, largely because you’re writing something different.  What you did “right” or “wrong” in the last one really doesn’t have anything to do with this one.  What I don’t read anymore is stuff on places like Amazon.  First you’ll see something written by someone who has something to say about a book, and says it well; and then the next “review” is by someone who can barely read, barely write, has an axe to grind, or often all three.  No time for that.

RR: I’m a big fan of medical writing.  Quarantine is in alignment with a genre of narrative I love—I think here of films such as Contagion and Outbreak, which were a bit hit-and-miss.  There’s automatically high drama involved, but it seems the genre would be most successful on the page, where the pace can slow down and the minutiae can increase the suspense.  What drew you to this story?  As you get older, are you drawn more towards themes of medicine, death, survival?

JS:  I suppose all novels are about death and survival.  One of the main characters in Quarantine is a doctor named Giles Wiggins who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1796, when the town was devastated by a deadly fever which was brought into port by a trading ship.  I lived in Newburyport, which is north of Boston, for many years before coming to Michigan.  My first novel, Winter by Degrees, is set there, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I read a great deal of history, much of it about places like Newburyport.  The state of medicine in the late 18th century was dismal, more superstition than science.  The novel portrays two families that are affected by this sudden and mysterious epidemic; more than that, it explores how people respond when they’re threatened by extinction:  lawlessness prevails; opportunists engage in black market activities, while others fall prey to religious fervor.  It’s a novel about how thin the veneer of civility really is; about chaos.

And about mortality.  While writing Quarantine I sometimes felt that people at that time had a greater sense of mortality than we do today; now, we sometimes act as though we’re protected, that we’re exempt.  There’s health insurance, good doctors, good hospitals (if you can afford these things); we can be fanatics about diet and exercise; we can not only live forever, we can remain young and tighten up our abs.  There’s a lot out there to deceive you into thinking you’re immortal.  But then you lose someone to cancer, or whatever, and you realize, despite all these “advances,” we’re still the same human animals we’ve been over the centuries.  People don’t pass or pass on, they die.  Since my wife died three years ago, I don’t know how many times people have avoided using certain words in my presence—they’re afraid to say dead.  I understand and appreciate the fact that they’re being empathetic in some way, but let’s be clear.  People die.  There is no “closure” (nor should there be).  I was raised Catholic, so I’ve had ample instruction regarding notions about the afterlife.  As I said, my favorite poem is The Inferno, even though I don’t think that’s what awaits us.  When you watch your wife die, you simply don’t know where she goes.  You can believe in something, but that’s not the same as knowing something.  The only thing you can really know is she was alive and you can be thankful—very thankful—that you knew her.  She had a soul, definitely, and it still exists in those of us who knew her.

But you have to ask yourself, if there is no reward after this life, if there is no punishment, if only the great Nothing awaits us, why do we behave at all while we’re here?  Why make and observe laws, why open doors for each other, why have a kind word for a stranger?  That’s the real mystery.  I don’t have the answer but I suspect it’s at the core of why we’re human.  Every day we read and hear about tragic, horrific events—war, pestilence, plague, massacres, hundreds of abducted girls in Africa, disappearing airplanes, sinking ferry boats.  Why wouldn’t it make you want to pray for a better life in the next world?  But every time there is a moment of generosity or an act of true kindness, doesn’t it indicate what humans are capable of?  Such acts aren’t performed out of fear or hunger or need, but out of empathy for another human being.  That’s our strength; that’s what we should cling to.  In Cold, after Liesl lets Norman in out of the blizzard, she chains him to the kitchen radiator, puts down her rifle, and cooks him scrambled eggs.  At the end of Quarantine, which I’ve been told is a pretty grim story, a young man named Leander Hatch, who has lost his entire family, takes on new responsibilities which will allow him to build a new family and help his town recover from the horrors of the epidemic.  My hope—my prayer, if you will—is that there will always be such people who show us what we’re capable of, those who will attempt to rise up from devastation and the ashes.  Because we will have the ashes; we will always have the ashes.

RR: As you get older, how is your relationship to story and to writing changing?  Are you a completely different writer from your days of Angel’s Head and My One and Only Bomb Shelter?  What are those key differences?

JS:  For years, for decades, writing has been the center of my life.  I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the written word.  Sometimes I joke with my students about how we’ve all got the disease, that there’s no cure, and it’s fatal.  But none of us would have it any other way.  If I could find something else that helped me cope with the world and my time in it, I’d give it a try, but for me putting words on the page is the thing.  Call it a religion, a drug, a disease—it doesn’t matter.  It keeps me in touch with what’s important, what’s essential.

Yet what’s curious about this thing is that it’s not about me.  I’m not an autobiographical writer.  When I’m at the desk I’m lost, I lose myself, literally.  Call it an out-of-body experience, if you want.  My dear friend and mentor of many years, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, used to say to me, back when I was 20-something, “When I read something good or I’m writing, I forget my own name.”  It’s a good thing, a healthy thing to get lost in the language, the sentences, the characters on the page.  Andre also told me that “Failed writers walk different than you and me.”  He wasn’t talking about not finding success in terms of sales and fame, he was talking about people who quit, who, for whatever reason, stop writing.  They don’t have time; it’s too hard; there are too many sacrifices.  Writers who continue to work, who make the effort—often at a great cost to their lives, not to mention their families—he admired them greatly.  If I hadn’t spent all these years getting up in the early morning, sitting at the desk, and writing well over a thousand pages to find a novel that’s maybe 350 pages, I don’t know who I’d be or what my life would be.  But, ironically, you have to learn to lose yourself in those pages; let them take you where they want to go.

As for how I’ve changed as a writer, there’s an old Paul Simon song that has a line that says something like:  “After changes and changes, we still remain the same.”  Amen to that.

RR: Do you get pushed towards writing sequels?  By fans, agent, publisher?  If so, what character(s)—out of all you’ve written—do you think might come back in future novels?

JS:  Characters?  Probably not, though never say never.  I have great admiration for writers who can keep working with the same characters, but my writing brain thus far keeps finding new characters and new places to write about.  But I am currently revisiting a place I’ve written about before (this is not to be confused with a sequel).  I’ve been working on a novel about four people who are brought together during a fierce blizzard in the U.P.  The working title is Out.  I like the connotation of the word when it’s used in the U. P. to mean that somebody lives outside of town, out there in the primeval forest…they live out, and that little word says it all.

When not working on that, I’ve been writing very short things.  I like the concentration of a short story.  Some days I’ve even written a few lines of poetry.  All this is, really, a form of prayer.  I’ll spend hours working on a few lines, a page or two at most.  Afterwards, I’m exhausted, but it’s kind of like the exhaustion you feel after a good workout.  It makes you lean, thirsty, and hungry.

Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Great Michigan Read and by National Book Award-winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers Series) and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year Award finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book).  His next book will be released by the Michigan State University Press on May 1, 2015. He has also published an essay in the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map series

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Pictured Rocks, Upper Peninsula, Michigan: On The Trail And Near The Edge


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Pic_rocks“If I wasn’t absolutely positive the fall would kill me, I would so fucking jump right now. Oh Christ, I’m talking to myself.”

The truth is I’ve already been talking with no one else around to listen for the better part of five hours. I’ve just finally verbalized it and confirmed to myself that I am, in fact, talking to myself. The madness of summer heat combined with — I don’t even know at this point, maybe like seven or eight miles of walking through a forest alone — leads one to forget the social norms that somehow exist out in the world of concrete and aluminum siding. I am standing, dripping with sweat looking out at the tip of Grand Island jutting up from the endless blue of Lake Superior. Below me, the most inviting waters. I know they are cold. Bluer than the eyes of a girl at the end of the bar who is so pretty you’re afraid to hit on her. Those waters are so clean I could open my mouth and happily drown myself trying to drink the great lake dry.

But, those purifying and welcoming waters are also more than 200 feet below me. And, as much as I hate myself for setting off on this trek — Munising Falls to Chapel Beach and back, 32 miles in two days — I’m not quite ready to die.

The trees wrap around me in the great forest that probably stretches forever southward, as far as I’m concerned. The uninterrupted wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the suffocating green forests that stretches from Copper Harbor to Manistique and Escanaba. And here I am, still another nine long miles from the great comfort of the driver’s seat of a Ford Focus, with a great land surrounding me on on all sides. Yes, I am contemplating a comfortable suicide, but I am home.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a world away from everything. What people call Up North, the area between, say, U.S. 10 and the Mackinac Bridge, is, for the most part, a tourist’s playground. There are a few spots to escape mankind in the summer, but you’re as likely to find a world-renowned brewery up here as you are to find peace and quiet during the latter half of June. The most northern portions of the Lower Peninsula, save for a few spots in Leelanau and the majestic beauty of the Straits, is a lot like the 2005 Detroit Pistons: Underrated so much that it’s overrated. You’ll never have a hard time finding a McDonald’s in those areas, for instance. Every 20 miles or so on Interstate 75, you’ll come to a fairly good sized town where you’ll find actual residents. Hell, you can access most of the area by a damn interstate.

In the UP? Not so much.

Cruising through the upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula as twilight slowly descends on the rolling hills, I barely have time for all these summer hamlets with their downstate residents making their way to weekend cottages. The sight of the Mackinac Bridge — Mighty Mac standing tall against the elements season after season — peeking through a gap in the hills caused by that concrete river that took me northward, ever northward, makes my heart leap. As my trusty Focus rolls up to the bridge, I throw off the restraints of cliche and find “Free Bird” on Spotify. Fuck it, man. It’s time.

As you cross the bridge, getting closer and closer to St. Ignace, you see a sign getting clearer: “Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.” The sun is setting on the Straits of Mackinac and I am doing my best to take in the view, but that sign makes my chest warm and makes me smile wide. The towering forest along the coast stretches back to the interior and it feels like you’re opening the door and walking into the welcoming arms of a lover.

I pull up to the toll booth, turning down the wailing solo, and am struck by the beautiful Native American man working that Thursday night. I hand him a twenty and hear him mumble something.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I ask, leaning out the window.

He looks up at me and grins. “Welcome back, young man.”

Chills shoot down my spine and I don’t find the words to reply. I want to tell him it’s good to be home. I want to tell him how I’ve missed this empty place. Instead, I drive off into the majestic embrace of U.S. 2. The northern coast of Lake Michigan unwinds in front of me, all sandy beaches separated from the darkened forest by a simple two-lane highway. My goal is a campground 30 minutes west, where I manage to beat the sun, the bugs and the nagging fear that inevitably comes with being all alone in a great forest, to watch the sun dip behind the trees and drop gracefully into the deep lake.

I wake up to sunlight pouring into my tent and mosquitos parked on top of it. Also on the sides of it. Really, just about anywhere but inside of it. I’d convinced myself they wouldn’t be so bad, but what the hell do I know. In 20 minutes, I’m changed, packed and driving west again heading back to a place where I felt I was reborn into this world. Pictured Rocks, the stretch of Lake Superior coastline between Munising and Grand Marais, was my first thru-hike, 47 miles of forest, beach and stunning cliffs. Hiking was a hobby in the months before that trip, and afterward became a passion. Michigan was a place to escape before I walked those four days. It was a place to love in the years since.

One might pray for a coffee shop while driving in the Upper Peninsula’s interior, but all you’ll find are lonely gas stations in one-stop-light “towns.” Sometimes, you just have to make due with some beef jerky and an energy drink before walking 16 miles, but the crisp northern Michigan morning made up for any lack of food or drink. By the time I park at the trailhead in Munising Falls, I feel like a horse in the starting gates waiting for the sound of a gun.

At a pace that can comfortably called “Death March,” I blitz through the first eight miles, arriving by lunchtime at Miner’s Castle, which I’m sure is beautiful when it’s not full of fat people eating lunch. This is where their trip into one of Michigan’s most beautiful landscapes would end. Me? I have a date with the cliffs.

A few more miles later, and I realize I am minutes from what I’ve been longing for. The first sight of the grand lake hundreds of feet below you steals the wind from your chest. The trail bends around some trees and, quite suddenly, the only thing between you and Lake Superior’s icy blue waters is three steps and Michigan air. The sandstone cliffs jut in and out, never sheer, the erosion wearing lines in the rock like smiles do to a beautiful woman’s face. The base of the tan rock widens at the water line, the outline clear in the shimmering water. Some trees lean out over the chasm, their leaves gently slapping the cliff face.

The mosquitoes swarm and the promise of more beckons. Along the next five miles or so of trail, there will be a hundred such overlooks, every turn in the trail bringing a new point from which to ogle Michigan’s great rack. Every now and then, the blanket of the forest envelops the trail again only to spit you out onto a lonely beach a hundred feet above the lake where the water is invisible and only the horizon is there to greet you. I’d happily live on those beaches enduring whatever nature could throw at me.

But the summer heat holds me and is starting to wring me dry. My clothes are damp, my feet hurt and my eyes long for the sight of a tree growing out of a rock outcropping with the center somehow  — as if by cannon blast and missing. When I reach it, the sand of Chapel Beach is comforting and the lake is calm, but the swarms of infernal mosquitoes seem destined to ruin this fine dinner of re-hydrated chicken fajitas. The tent becomes home and I fall asleep listening to the blustery winds whipping through the trees.

I wake the next morning knowing I would soon face one of the sternest tests of my life. Another 16 mile walk back to the car awaited me and I curse my decision making.

“Why the hell didn’t you just park at Miner’s Castle and save yourself 16 miles?” I ask, starting the soon-to-be-troublesome habit of speaking to myself while alone on the trail.

In short order, my crippling fear of heights was washed away by the slightly dehydrated and completely fatigued urge to float on my back in the ice-cold lake. Within the first hour  — a relatively straight forward hike to Mosquito Beach  — I begin thinking there is, in fact, a difference between things you can do and things you should do.

But, there is no where else to go. And nothing else to do. So, I keep walking.

Apparently, the wind in this stretch of the southern Lake Superior coastline has Saturdays off. The sun rises high in the sky and the wind barely ruffles the leaves of the ancient trees that thankfully provide me shade. The heat falls on me. My mind grows tired, which always means my thoughts speed up. My mind is like the rapids of a river, moving fast but incredibly shallow. I lose myself in the drumbeat of my feet, moving ever onward.

It is a short time before Miner’s Beach, a sandy portion of the trail unprotected from the sun’s rays, when I stand over the beautiful cliffs and contemplate jumping. The greens of the trees contrast with the yellows of the sandstone; the reds, blacks, blues and greens of the minerals bleeding out inside the cliff face give the appearance of a master tossing paint on the earthen canvas. I pant like a dog, desperate for cool water and a respite from the June sweat.

“God it looks so good,” I say to myself, apparently no longer concerned with the two-way, one-person conversation.

The blue of Lake Superior, from that spot, can almost reach up and grab you. The depths of the freshwater sea are unfathomable. You stare at it and wonder who’s gone to rest there forever, what lives has she claimed and would it really be so bad if she claimed yours?

“I mean, what if you didn’t die? What if it was just really cold and nice?”

“Well, then how the hell would you get back? Are you going to flag down a tour boat? You’re sure as hell not swimming to Munising.”

“Yeah, and I’d lose my pack and all that too. If I lived and managed to get back to Munising, I’d have to come all the way out here and get it.”

“Exactly. Not worth it, man. Keep walking. Keep talking.”

And so I did. All the way back to Munising Falls, once again not bothering to take the side trail to see the actual waterfall because I was too exhausted, too ready to drink a Gatorade and get into sweatpants. Time goes by, but some things never change. The minute my boots hit the pavement and my eyes saw the Focus, waiting patiently as any good horse does, a smile crept across my face. I looked back into the forest – the place that tried to steal my breath away from me, the place that wrang me dry of damn near every drop of water in my body, the home of a place that pictures can’t do justice – and I missed it immediately.

Kyle Feldscher is a reporter and writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

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