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Distance hides it a bit but not too much. I checked the rearview and braked hard to turn south on Forest Road 513. An afterthought, but the sun was out, and I had all day to get home.

Little Stonington hides itself south of the Jackpine flats, south of most of the paradoxically known “rich conifer swamps” and south of the cedar-log home that used to be a builder’s model out on Highway 2. That’s how you know where to turn. It’s just somebody’s house now, near as I can tell.

I knew the cedar swamps hiding themselves from it all, back when. Behind the old farmsteads now in a semi-permanent state of transition back to swamp wild forests where a sort of stasis is baseline, stuck there in their improbable memory. As a young man, I dead reckoned myself to dozens of survey points chosen randomly from surveyor landmarks established a century ago to learn how a century of logging and a late flush of deer have impacted the forest. Following my compass, counting my steps. Iron-flavored water and granola bars in the pack. A headful of impatience, a latent imagination tuning itself slowly, an impressionable soul.

I take it all to the end of the road and climb the Peninsula Point light for some perspective.

Farming winked in and out on the transition from relative dependency on local settler farms to fresh produce from points south trucked into the IGA in Gladstone. Doomed economics, given the thin soils and short growing season. Likely a casualty of Big Mac spanning the straits. Like the little town itself. Never incorporated, a few town-like buildings remain, a former store with a squared-up facade, a long-decommissioned gas station. Stuck there in their own improbable history south of the Jackpine flats.

Even the cedar swamps seem second-hand, worn, and passed-over forgotten. You see evidence of the cedar strip-logging they used to do to try to offset the deer browsing. I’ve often wondered why the foresters lost their nerve. I’ve walked those old cuts. They came back to tanglefoot tag alder, balsam fir and popple which is maybe why they gave up. One of the Forest Service pubs called it “puckerbrush” and promoted a hare-brained idea for making it profitable. It’s a term I heard my dad use once, no idea where he heard it. But you can see them from space on google maps, still.

Even the mature cedar forests are hardscrabble scruffy, intermixed with popples, balsams and white spruce. Nothing really big enough or rich enough for a cedar house on highway 2. The overstory trees grow slowly, die or blow over without growing big (slowly), and melt back again to the swamp soils slowly.

But a persistence story emerges, whispered, etched in memory. Deer migrate here annually from up to 10 miles away to wait out the long winters. Even biologists call it a “tradition.” Deer learn it from their mothers and pass it on to their fawns. Here in the U.P.’s banana belt. Here where the peninsula juts south into the relative warmth of The Big Lake (always capitalize) and the highlands north of highway 2 hold Superior’s snow shadow off in a relative sense. Here where the swamps swallow sound and greenstick dreams of dark welcoming wilderness seem plausible — if I lose my way. Here where the chickadees are everything.

It’s the way of all things here. This wet place. During short summers, every gray piece of raw wood gets a little punkier. Giving in incrementally to the fungi and lichens which bloom rich and slick in the humid mornings and probe their mycelia ever deeper. Buildings fall in on themselves without someone to fight for them. In the middle of the day when the bay isn’t socked in with ice, fog sometimes ghosts in off Little Bay De Noc occluding the sunlight and coating everything.

Old Tom’s red cabin was already fallen in when I heard his story thirty years ago. Story was that he was a Black man which would be unusual here, making a living as a trapper. His cabin in the popples on highway 2 was half gone when I worked up here. I couldn’t find it driving over just now.

I made my bones here too, slicking off a story of deer and winter and cedars from layers and layers of stories underneath. Selling it as my identity in all earnestness. I learned the language like a child, repeating the things I heard until it felt comfortable in my mouth. Writing it tersely. Unaware or ignorant of a language of trees, and fish, and forests with history whose whisper emerged later. There’s walleye on the limestone reefs in the bay, whitefish in the pelagic depths beyond that. Native people, no doubt knew the richness of the bay, knew the richness of the forests beyond cedar logs. Those stories still whisper too, but you need to dig. The bay itself is named for a native group. There was a village at its head, where the Forest Service office is, where the Whitefish River emerges from the woods.

I wish with all of me, that I could walk in again, that I could nap in the cedar duff, that I could know that quiet again. The limestone is Ordovician. The language of fish and trees emerging from an even older language of sediments from the dawn of existence for both. Long before deer. A passed-over grace, echoes of echoes of echoes of a tropical sea rich with soft little creatures building and rebuilding from the calcium chemistry I’m standing on. The peace of the roads that double back on themselves, not really going anywhere. I have a whitefish wrapped in paper on the back seat. I’m taking it home with me.

Stonington sits on the southwest side of the peninsula named for it, over the low cliffs that fall into little Bay De Noc. You can see Escanaba across the bay. If I frog around here a bit, I can hit Escanaba around lunch time. I can hit Dobber’s for a hot pasty on a picnic-pliable paper plate.

The low cliffs are limestone. Lying off the arc of the Niagara Escarpment only not as famous. The geology of the Great Lakes Basin is that of a collection of stacked bowls of strata. The older ones stack at the bottom. The Garden Peninsula to the east is the geological celebrity everyone knows. This is just another thin-soil outcrop on a rim of the Great Lakes Basin. It’s an older bowl nested under the Niagara’s. Peninsula Point is where a glacier-gnawed irregularity in its own rim pitches into Lake Michigan. The old light is a lonely tourist spot at the end of the road. Only the light tower remains. The keeper’s house burned down in the 50s, not that you could tell from the lawn and the regulation picnic tables.

Paul and I were driving along the low cliff one raw winter day when a ginormous white bird rode the updraft wind off the bay, flaring its four-foot wingspan over the breadth of our windshield. Paul stopped the truck in the middle of the road and turned to me slack jawed as we rocked in the wind. He’s an expert birder, a Forest Service biologist. “That was a gyrfalcon!” he said, incredulously. A lifer, a supreme rarity. A creature of the vast winter wastes, “An aerial hunter of the high arctic…”, he recited the description from one of the guidebooks, “… a bird that measures its distance by the horizon.”

I’ve treasured that phrase for thirty years.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


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