The Hunting Camp (Essay)

Note: I’m going to try to write at least one biographical essay each month this year.

The Hunting Camp
When my family lived in Ironwood, in the early 1980s, we owned (or, I think, shared, with my dad’s brother) a tiny cabin way out in the woods north of town, about halfway between the farm and Lake Superior. We called it the “hunting camp,” and that name suited it better than “cabin” or, worse, “cottage.” The hunting camp wasn’t much of a building. It was a square one-room shelter with wood-framed walls (probably made from trees cut down to make a clearing for the structure) punctured by three small windows and one clattery door, which opened out onto a narrow porch.

The porch itself was mostly covered by firewood we fed to the big cast-iron stove that stood just inside the door, next to an equally old and wood-fired cooking stove. The two stoves were the dominant feature of the building’s interior. We cooled the hunting camp by opening the door. Northwoods weather being what it is, sometimes we had to use the stove for heat and the screen door for cooling in the same day.

As its climate-control features suggest, the hunting camp was far more rustic than a “cottage” in which a retired couple might want to retire or a family – like my cousins from Ohio – might spend a few summer weeks along the lake. Besides the stove, the hunting camp contained a bunk bed, a bigger regular bed, and a rickety kitchen table with three or four chairs around it (and an ashtray and pack of cards on it). I think there may have been a rug on the floor, and maybe some rough shelves near the stove. Was the floor wood or linoleum? I don’t remember, probably because the interior was always half-lit. The towering trees outside kept much light from coming in the windows. At night, a kerosene lantern over the table provided just enough room to play cards, but not enough – as I recall – to read a book while lying in your sleeping bag. You needed a flashlight for that, and for making the quick, spooky trip to the outhouse in back, under a towering evergreen that often sheltered porcupines. I remember seeing porkies up there, prickly even from a distance, slowly shifting from branch to branch.

The hunting camp was as remote as it was rustic. We could only way to get to the camp by driving down a long trail that started off as a very rough gravel road, mostly used by loggers, but turned into parallel tire tracks through the woods. This track was nothing a car could traverse, so we always took my dad’s gray International Harvester Scout, a sort of proto-SUV. Even the Scout got stuck more than once in a muddy low spot on the trail or blocked by a windfall tree. I would love to know how long we took to make the drive in from the road to the hunting camp – fifteen minutes? half an hour? an hour? I recall it seeming like a long but enjoyable ride, jouncing through the woods. Too, I would love to know the length of the trail. A mile or two? Ten? (Being then deeply fascinated with the military, I always thought it would be fun to rappel from a helicopter down to the camp. Nowadays, I would love to try to ski or bike in to the camp.)

Though I recall once having to turn around and head back home when the track was impassably muddy, we usually made it out to the hunting camp, where we’d unload the Scout and settle in for a few days, mostly spent – as you’d expect, given the camp’s spartan character – outside. A tiny brook – inevitably named “Mud Creek” and pronounced “mud crick” – ran along the edge of the camp’s clearing. At most shin-deep, the creek held no fish except for a few silvery minnow-sized things that were impossibly adept at holding themselves in place against the creek’s current. My sister and I loved to wade in the creek, squishing our feet down into the thick, cold mud along its bed.

And then there were the trees – seemingly endless forest, stretching out in every direction but always up. The track we used to drive in to the camp extended on beyond the campsite, so we could use it to walk further into the woods. I remember that such walks took us over a surprisingly big and sturdy log bridge. The bridge spanned a wider, deeper, and faster creek that I realize now must have connected somehow to Mud Creek. We fished off that bridge, catching fish that were big enough to cook and eat.

Somewhere around that bridge were trees that had strange S-shaped curves in them. My dad told me, at least a few times, that the trees had been kinked by bulldozers or logging trucks, and never straightened out. By the time I saw them, the bends were four or five feet off the ground, but I remember thinking they would be good chairs for giants.

Taking the road in the other direction, back toward the road, we drove past a couple other hunting camps, usually deserted. Once, the biggest one was occupied, and my dad, sister, and I dropped in. My dad must have known the owner, who was hosting a big all-male card game. I remember the players being very loud; they must have been very drunk, too. I also remember the owner/host cursing all the time as he played. I was old enough to recognize the f-word, so this visit must have occurred when I was in late elementary school or even junior high. I remember that the owner/host kept apologizing to my dad for cursing so much, what with my sister – maybe eight years old then – being right there.

Running away from the road were faint but discernible paths. I always thought of them as Indian trails, but of course they were probably deer paths. Following them, I never had any sense of being in danger of getting lost. I wonder if I’d feel that way now. My favorite paths ran north away from the hunting camp and to a big hill that we called, with what must have been Finlander irony, Mount Ilola. We climbed Mount Ilola a few times. From its peak, we could see exactly what you could see anywhere: the forest. I don’t think “Ilola” had any special meaning, but Googling the word now, I find this on Wikipedia:

Ilola (Swedish: Gladas) is a city district of Vantaa, Finland. It is located in the northern part of the administrative district of Koivukylä

Not very informative, except to indicate what sorts of people had the notion to put up shacks in the woods around the hill.

The hunting camp’s name was not a misnomer. In the fall, we did use it for hunting – mostly deer, I think. Others hunted in the woods too. I remember being at the camp one time when a group of bear hunters walked past, barely controlling a big group of hounds. I think my dad went out to talk to them for a few minutes, since that’s probably what you do when hunters cross your land. My mom was disgusted by hunting in general, but especially by the use of dogs to track and kill bears. Her basic anti-hunting argument – “What did those animals ever do to you?” – resonated with me after seeing the bearhunters.

That’s not to say I didn’t like hunting itself. I liked the few times I went with my dad into the woods to find deer, and I still recall the weird pleasure of actually bagging a buck once, somewhere in the general area of the hunting camp. Even more than hunting, I liked shooting guns, which was a big activity at the hunting camp, whether we were hunting anything or not. We would stand a few steps off the porch and fire our .22 rifle or, even better, our .22 pistol off into the woods, aiming mostly at empty cans and bottles. I usually had my BB guns along, too – a pistol and a rifle. These were less satisfying to shoot (less power, less noise) but I could fire them off without supervision as long as I still had BBs, which were sold, as I recall, in little containers that looked like milk cartons.

If walking around and shooting guns were the main outdoor activities, eating was the main indoor activity. My parents did most of our cooking on the cooking stove, and a bit on a green Coleman kerosene stove that we hauled in with us. I remember being slightly amazed by the fact that my parents could toast bread simply by buttering it and laying it in a pan on top of the stove, right next to the bacon. It tasted awfully good.

Circus Truck Crash

Growing up in Houghton-Hancock, we kids talked a lot about the mythical “circus train crash,” in which a circus vehicle lost control and crashed into the canal, drowning – in various tellings – several people and a bunch of animals. The real story is pretty horrific:
3 Killed in Wreck
Three men were killed early on the morning of April 29th when the Carden-Johnson-Clyde Bros. Circus prop semi slammed into a railroad bridge at Houghton, Mich. Three other men who were also riding in the truck were injured, one seriously.
An eyewitness said he heard a semi coming coming down the hill on Bridge Street in Houghton – faster and faster it came — people were screaming – it crossed busy US 41 – and crashed into a Soo Railroad bridge. One survivor said the last thing he remembered was the sound of leaking air — then awful silence.
A borrowed truck was used to bring what props could be salvaged to the show’s engagement at Menominee, but gone were some sections of the ring curbs, the organ, drums, amplifier, the PA system and lights, plus some props and rigging.
A turnaway crowd was on hand to greet the circus for both shows that day, as local citizens welcomed the circus in its moment of tragedy. It was a sad show, but a good one, is the way one spectator expressed his reaction.
Killed in the accident were Carl A. Nordin, 43, of Lubbock, Texas, driver of the truck; Anthony Gilio, 61, of Corona, New York; and Wayne Lee Sater, 38, of Springfield, Mo.

Stephenson, Michigan

Thanks to the web, I can keep up with news about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula pretty well via the newspaper websites and new media services like Upper Peninsula Second Wave, a business-oriented website. Today, my jaw dropped when Second Wave published a short piece on two tiny towns that I knew as a very little kid: Wallace, where my parents lived when they had me, and Stephenson, where they taught in the public school. (When they taught in Stephenson, we were living in an even smaller town, Daggett, just up the road.)

More than just that coverage was the photo of the Tivoli movie theater in Stephenson, a place I (think I) remember pretty well. I’m fairly sure that I saw my first movie at the Tivoli, and I’m even more sure that just to one side of the theater was (is?) a clothing store where I got my first baseball hat, a Minnesota Twins hat that I loved to death. Good memories…

Tivoli Theater; Stephenson, Michigan (Image by Sam Eggleston, Upper Peninsula Second Wave)
Tivoli Theater; Stephenson, Michigan (Image by Sam Eggleston, Upper Peninsula Second Wave)

R.I.P. Old Red (Or, Me in My Underwear)

Getting dressed for skiing tonight, I accidentally tore the cuff off my favorite pair of “baselayer bottoms,” Old Red. (Yes, I called them that – but only in my head.)

Old Red
Old Red

Old Red was real “long underwear.” I got them in 1994, when my parents, in what must have been a huge splurge, gave them to me as a gift. I had just started cross-country skiing then, and the polypropylene fabric was a huge improvement over the white cotton waffle-knit long johns that were then ubiquitous – but that were (and are) awful to wear during exercise.

I dunno how many kilometers of skiing were eased by wearing these long johns over the last 17 years, but it must be in the thousands by now. I wore Old Red both times I skied in the Michigan state championships, and in a dozen other races. Through it all, Old Red held up very well, getting a bit thinner every year but always doing its job.

Because of all that, I am a little bit sad to have to retire Old Red. My sadness is mitigated by three things, though. First, I’m going to cut Old Red up and use the strips to clean my skis when I wax them. Second, I still have Old Red’s partner, a great “baselayer” turtleneck that I wear when skiing in the coldest temperatures. Third, it’s very silly to be sad about long underwear.

Grandma and Grandpa

I’m having a surprisingly hard time writing up a post about my late grandfather. He was a complicated guy, and I have complicated feelings about him.

So while I overthink and under-write that post, here’s another picture of him, this time with my grandma, Lenore, on what must have been one of her birthdays: she was born on the Fourth of July, and for a long time had me convinced that her small Michigan town was holding a parade just for her birthday.  I love their smiles and the jaunty way he’s flipped up the brim of his hat.

Grandma and Grandpa

(I only have this picture because my aunt and uncle took the time to comb through their photos and scan some of the best. Thanks, Barb and Greg!)


Soon, I’ll finally get around to writing a post about my late Grandpa, but for now here’s a great picture of him with two of his workhorses. The man was a teamster in the original sense of the word, and his love for the animals is obvious. One of the best moments I ever had with him was an impromptu sleigh ride around his property with him and a bunch of cousins and Shannon at some long-ago Christmastime…
Grampa Jauquet

Houses Past and Way Past

While up in Hancock earlier this week, I passed by the house where I lived from 1988-1991, at the corner of two steep uphill streets.

Elevation Street House

It is, I think, a nice little house – though the current owners could be taking better care of it. Apart from the view to the south (a view I cannot remember ever admiring, even though it’s pretty good), the area around the house has been dramatically transformed since I last saw it. The scrubby woods on three sides of the house are now mostly gone, having been replaced by many new houses and office buildings, new high and elementary schools, churches, and a hospital.  This isn’t the first time the area has been transformed, though. Here’s what the neighborhood looked like in 1911:

Elevation Street House

The towering structure behind the house is a mine hoist, working one of the many copper lodes that made Hancock (temporarily) prosperous and populous. Between the cows in the foreground and the house in the middle ground is a trolley car, running up Ingot Street to mine locations further east. None of that is there any more, of course – except as ruins: heavy concrete foundations hiding in the woods, a few scary-looking openings in the earth, that kind of thing.

A Few Moments with My Sleepy Daughters

10:30 p.m.

Vivi moans in her bed. “Woofy! I need Woofy!” She’s dropped the tiny plastic toy dog that she keeps clenched in her left hand (almost) all night. This happened just a few minutes ago, so I run upstairs and go into the nursery, hoping to get to her before the moaning wakes up Julia.

“Did you drop Woofy Woofy, honey?” I whisper. She immediately shrieks back, “NO! I DI’N’T DWOP WOOFY WOOFY!” I roll my eyes (it’s dark, so she can’t see me and get annoyed at this) and ask, “What’s wrong, then?” “I NEED MY BWANKETS TIGHTER!” I crouch down to tuck her more tightly into the heavy winter quilt that she insists on sleeping under every night.

After cinching it down to the near-suffocating levels that she prefers, I whisper, “There: is that okay now?” She exhales angrily and yells, “YETH, BUT I NEED WOOFY WOOFY!” I laugh a little bit and whisper, “I thought you had him in your hand, honey.” “NO! I DON HAVE HIM! HE’S ON DA FWOOR!”

On my hands and knees, I hurriedly pat all around her bed, trying to find the the elusive toy, which falls out of her hand two or three times a night – on a good night. “I can’t find him, honey. Are you sure you don’t he’s not in your blankets?” I ask, just as I finally find him stuck between two rails of her headboard, not on the floor. I hand him back to Vivi, who clutches him in a hot, sweaty little hand. “WHY DID YOU YOU COULND’T FIND HIM, DADDY!” she yells. I can hear the sneering in her voice.

I chuckle a little more and whisper, “Let’s try to be really quiet so we don’t wake up Julia, okay?” She raises her head and shouts even louder, “SHE NOT SLEEPING, DADDY. SHE AWAKE!!” Hitting her cue, Julia groans from across the room. “Too loud!” she says.

“Okay, honey,” I tell Vivi, “now you are tucked in and you have Woofy. Time to go back to sleep, okay?” She yells again, “OKAY, I WILL!” and recites the little mantra that must must must be said every time you leave a room in which she’s sleeping: “NIGHT-NIGHT LOVE YOU SEE YOU IN THE MORNING!” I whisper it back, kiss her and Julia, and sneak out. As I reach the door, she shouts one more time, “I SAID, ‘NIGHT-NIGHT LOVE YOU SEE YOU IN THE MORNING!'” I whisper it again, a bit louder so she can hear me, and shut the door. She’s immediately quiet.

Black River Harbor

Maybe the recent trip to Iowa has activated my travel jones, but I’m dying to get up to the U.P., even though such a trip is pretty much impossible this summer. I particularly want to see the great New Deal-era suspension bridge over the Black River, north of Ironwood at the far western tip of the Yoop.

If I’m recalling things correctly, the bridge connects a small campground to a beach along Lake Superior – one of the few sand beaches on the lake. I distinctly remember the thrill of walking over this bridge: the gaps between the planks, the shudder as everyone stepped on it, the view of the water below…
Bridge At Black River Harbor
“Bridge At Black River Harbor,” by Siskokid via Flickr

Where the Hell Are We?

Thursday morning, I headed out to the garage to get on my bike for the ride to work. As the garage door opened, I could hear someone outside, talking pretty loudly. This doesn’t happen in our neighborhood: (Rosewood Estates: Passersby Free Since 2001™), so I glanced out: two young reversed-cap bros, strolling down the sidewalk across the street. Whatever, I figured: someone’s grandkids visiting or kids home from college.

I took a minute to get myself ready to ride, and then headed out. I came to the end of the block just as the two perambulators did. I glanced over and gave them a hey-how’s-it-going nod. They were both pretty scruffy, but in an underemployed-hipster sorta way. On seeing me, one of them yanked his cigarette out of his mouth and blurted, “Dude, dude! Can you help us? Where the hell are we? Which way is downtown?”

I came to a full stop, studying them a little more carefully. Up closer, the misspent-minimum-wage scruffiness now looked like it was up-all-night-drinking scruffiness. “Downtown? It’s a couple miles, but the easiest way to just to head out to the walking path there and walk till you get to Division. Where downtown are you trying to go?”

The second one gave me a look that suggested that the all-night drinking might have been all-night smoking up. “To the, uh, Rueb ‘n’ Stein,” a restaurant-bar downtown which I kinda doubt is open at 7:45 a.m. “Oh, yeah, I know that street.” He sucked on his own cigarette, saying to No. 1, “Dude, I can totally know that street.”

At about this point, I got a powerful whiff of B.O. coming from one or both of them. “It’s a good morning for a walk!” I said, getting ready to roll again. They said, a little too cheerily, “Yeah, man, sure is! Thanks!” and crossed the street to find the walking path.

‘What the hell was that about?’ I wondered as I rode away. ‘How do you wind up in our residential subdivision on a Thursday morning and not know where you are?’

Summer, 1981

A while ago, I waxed nostalgic for the woods, and specifically, for the evergreen swamps of the Upper Michigan, forests that made my hometowns – Daggett, Ironwood, and Hancock – into tiny islands in a sea of taiga.

Right next to those forests, and no more than a few miles away from any of my hometowns, is a real sea: Lake Superior. And it’s Lake Superior that really says “summer” to me. As long as I can remember, my family (such as it was) went to the lake for picnics, cookouts, even, once in a while, camping in a tent or in our cousins’ tiny cottage. For me, the defining image of my childhood’s summers is hanging out with those beloved cousins, the Mattsons, who came up from Ohio a couple times a year to stay in that cottage, which was near Little Girl’s Point, outside Ironwood and just a few miles from the Wisconsin border.

In this photo from summer 1981 (or so), my sister (age four or five) and I (about age eight) are sitting on our cousin Andy’s lap on the shoreline below their cottage. That’s my grandpa right behind Andy, wearing the wool cap, flannel shirt, wool pants, and undoubtedly the longjohns that were the unofficial attire of “Finlanders” like him. It takes sisu to wear longjohns in August.
Summer 1981 1

Some “beach,” huh? We called it that because we didn’t know any better: I’d only been to a sandy beach a few times, so this rocky shoreline was far more familiar. All those wave-scoured stones were brilliant for rockskipping, a skill which Andy and his brothers practiced frequently. Sitting here, we were almost literally below the cottage. You had to use steep, slippery wooden steps to go up or down the sheer cliff between the cottage and this “beach.”

Here I am again, sometime that same summer (I think), dressed for swimming in the lake. The shirtless guy behind me is my dad, then about the same age I am now. My grandpa, his dad, is the enflanneled man between us. While you totally dig my swimsuit, keep in mind that Lake Superior’s average August temperature is around 55°F – not exactly bathwater. Note also the swimming goggles. Even back then, I loved the gear.
Summer 1981 3

So did we swim? We did swim. Though the cousins would go some distance from shore, to some rocky outcrops, I stuck closer in – and enjoyed it a lot, as this shot (again, from sometime in the 1981-82 period) shows. Yes, my pecs now look exactly like my pecs then.
Summer 1981

When the sun started to set, the real beauty of the lake emerged. The sunsets were so gripping that even little kids like my sister and I would pause to admire them:
Summer 1981 9

Those were good times.

Sky Blue Sky

Packing our traditional Memorial Day haul of flowers into the car this morning, I looked up at the wide-open sky, a dome of blues that ranged from the pale robin’s-egg along the horizons to a deep navy straight above. The only break in the blue was a single cloud, a rectangular mass with lateral corrugations. By the time we got home, twenty minutes later, even that interruption of the sky had dissipated.

I love the dominance of the sky here in Northfield: the blue skies are wonderful, the massive cloud banks are magnificent, and we see some incredible sunsets. But I’m still not used to seeing so much sky above me. Growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I only saw this much sky when I was near Lake Superior, and there the sky was overmatched by the lake, which itself was bounded by an evergreen wall.

Inland – in and around the towns where I lived, Daggett, Ironwood, Hancock – the sky was mostly something you either saw in ragged shards through the trees, if the trees let you see the sky at all, or at vertical swatches of blue at the far end of the highway, the powerline cut, the train tracks…  If I had to distill this experience to a single memory, I would choose the time I was sitting, as a little kid, outside our one-room “hunting camp” north of Ironwood and looking through the gap in the trees over the cabin at a small patch of nighttime sky that was equally starry and blue-black. The rest of the seen world, all around, was composed of black and gray trees, swaying in the winds off the lake, not too far away. It was scary and thrilling and comfortable all at once.

Even though those boreal experiences were now half my life ago, I still feel like I should see trees when I look up, and that I should see masses of trees – stands, copses, woods, forests – when I look around, not flat or rolling fields and this prairie sky. This is one of the reasons that I love Carleton’s Arboretum so much. Not much of it is truly wooded, but there are at least a few places (especially way back in the northeastern corner, as far from campus as you can get) where you can feel, at least for a few steps, overwhelmed by the trees – conifers that aren’t native to this area but that remind me of the expanses of forest at home.

Magic Treehouses

Julia’s fascination with the Magic Tree House books has reminded me of treehouses I have known. Growing up, lots of my friends had tree houses that ranged, in later elementary school, from a wooden pallet temporarily nailed to some low pine-tree branches to, in early elementary school, an elaborate room permanently fixed high in a huge leafed tree. That latter tree house was practically archetypal: it had a door that actually closed, “windows” on all four sides, a roof, a ladder of boards nailed into the tree trunk, and even a “No Girls Allowed” sign. The sign was useless, since my friends’ sister climbed up there as much as we did.

All that, and the view was great. Tucked in a back corner of my friends’ yard, we commanded a panoramic view. In one direction, we could see down their driveway into their front yard and beyond it, the town’s elementary school, where my mom taught. In another direction, we could watch traffic buzz up and down on the side street. Opposite to that, we could look down both sides of a massive hedgerow that separated their yard from the neighbor’s. It was heaven – a sniper’s nest, a library, a castle, a spaceship…