Storm Approaches
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An unofficial source of Eagle Harbor, Michigan news, views and information.

A Harbor Journal

Winter Storm Approaches

"...when we don't live with birds or weather or waves we lose the opportunity to think hard about ourselves, to discover from nature important facts about human nature."
(excerpted from Nancy Lord's, Fishcamp)

Fall Winter 2005-2006

So Long Till Fall(5/20/06)
A pair of loons is just oofshore from my camp, bobbing about in the swells rebounding off the harbor’s hard south shore, fishing for their dinner and apparently tuckered in for the night as they wait out an arriving northwest gale before continuing their migration to summer homes, perhaps Isle Royale. The male is a champion of the breed, large and bedecked in the spectacular plumage of his specie. I do wonder why the guys in the bird world seem to claim the gussy crown, but perhaps that’s also true among us land bound bipedals as well – it just doesn’t seem that way.

It’s a cool evening, the building off-lake winds bringing ashore air chilled by lake temperatures still in the low forties. It feels like fall, and I have a blazing fire in the fireplace across the room providing psychological, if not material, warmth. I planted my window boxes this week, defying the local axiom of no planting before Memorial Day. The tender plants are looking longingly through the big windows at the warm fire, and seem a bit apprehensive as they await the forecast of a killing frost overnight. They will be ok; the big lake, while cool, is not freezing and its close proximity will protect we shore-huggers from the ravages of a chilling night in the backcountry.

I jumped the planting schedule because Peregrine and her skipper are anxious to get under-way for another summer on the big lake. Like the loons sharing my harbor evening, I’m ready to move north to summer playground. After this big blow, it looks like there might be a window of launch opportunity in the latter part of the coming week. Yes it will be cold, it takes the big lake several weeks to warm up to hospitable temperatures, and June is always a month of big winds, but after being “on the hard” (a term only sailors can properly decipher) for several months, the lure of favorite passages and mesmerizing remote anchorages is overwhelming. I envision a fast (seven hour) run to Isle Royale’s Chippewa Harbor, capturing the wonder of having that beautiful anchorage all to my self (a likely prospect in June), and then enjoying coasting along the island’s wild south shore to Windego, the park’s western outpost, and connecting once again with old Park Service friends. And from there - only the winds can tell.

My fixation on a coming summer of sailing, always present in my life, seems especially energizing, yea challenging, this year. This has not been as easy winter for me, as my absence from my Harbor Web duties likely attest. My heart’s been misbehaving, not without justification, and like others embarking on the last quarter of their lives, I’m having to accept some accommodations in my life-style that are testing my mettle.

Sailing is strenuous, especially single-handed sailing, my heretofore forte. How will it go? I don’t know, and won’t really have a grasp until I contend with winching the big sail up the mast, scramble forward along a heaving deck to collar a wayward sheet or release a block jam, haul out a 100 feet or more of heavy anchor chain to park Peregrine for the night, and spend hours wrestling the helm in a big blow the autohelm can’t handle. Is my judgment intact? Sailing, especially single-handed, requires instant retrieval from the vast collection of experience one stores in one’s brain. And how about memory? Will difficult harbor and anchorage approaches, to now almost intuitive for most of Superior, be at the ready? We’ll see!

I’m not sure I want to leave you with that as I sign off for the summer. Seems a bit overly dramatic and narrowly focused. In fact, I’m feeling pretty foxy. I’m blessed with good family support, especially from my lifetime partner, Carol, and I enjoy the friendship of many who seem to be always ready to give a hand or hug when I need it. I’m blessed.

I should be like my evening friend, the handsome and proud papa loon riding the swells rolling onto my shore – seemingly grateful for any little nourishing morsel that comes his way and conserving his energy for the big day tomorrow – the flight to our mutually beloved Isle Royale. I’m with you, buddy.

We’ll touch base again next fall.

Dog Days (3/13/06)
I intended this Harbor Journal entry to be a muse on the “dog days” of a late winter in the Keweenaw. I know, dog days are normally those days in late summer when hot sultry air stagnates over the land - driving, I presume, panting pooches under the shade of porches (thus dog days) while the rest of us languish about in a state of low activity. Well, thanks to the cooling affect of the big lake we have few such dog days, but our late winter dog days can be as trying. These are the double score or more days between Alberta clippers and spring’s early storms when the handful of folks unable or unwilling to escape to warmer and more populated Mecca’s endure, or embrace, isolation as cool air hovers and hugs, low-lying clouds linger forever atop the gray ridgeline, aging ice drifts aimlessly about in calm slate hued Harbor waters, and the winter’s harvest of pristine, but now blemished, snow slowly withers. This is also a time for pooches to curl up, now on warm hearths, and the area’s winter residents to seek escape from the tedium of place and inactive weather by indoor pursuit, often solitary, of their hobbies or other means of self-entertainment – in my case by revisiting my now often read and somewhat tattered library. This is a testing time – the Keweenaw days that test our steadfastness as winter residents – the days I caution Harbor wannabes they must be able to embrace to enjoy a life up here.

But wait, just as I embarked on my muse I was distracted and delighted as the late winter dog days were shattered by the return of weather, big weather. First a big blow from the south on Saturday that had my place swaying and shaking in 40 to 50 mph winds, producing the noisy beam cracking and under sill whistling that is a bit unnerving, yet exciting. The woodpile toppled for the umpteenth time this winter. All this accompanied by beautiful blue skies, open shimmering waters, warm walk inducing temperatures, and the sudden presence of brown beaches and yards cleared of snow. It felt and looked like spring! It was wonderful. Murmurs of an approaching big time snowstorm seemed surreal.

Yet, here I am on Monday enjoying our biggest and best blizzard of the winter season. My barometer has dropped to 996 millibars, a “perfect storm” category, and the gale force winds off the lake are doing their best to rip my flag from its pole as the whip up the heavy wet snow, reportedly falling at a rate of two inches an hour, into near-zero visibility. The scanner chatter is full of reports of vehicles stuck on roads, making it almost impossible for the big plows to do their thing. The heaviest snowfall began about eight hours ago and I’ve not yet seen a plow at the Harbor. I’m snowbound, and it’s heavenly!

I do worry about losing power. We have not had a power loss all winter, which is reassuring, and even if we do the temperatures remain in the twenties so barring being several hours or days down, I’ll survive. Fortunately, while restacking the woodpile after Saturday’s blow, I hauled a big stack indoors – enough I hope to keep the hearth warm until I can get back outside. (I just noticed that the woodpile has toppled once again – there must be something lacking in my stacking skills.) My larder is loaded with peanut butter and corn beef hash so I won’t starve. However, there is only one bottle of wine in my locker, so if I do have a substance crises, that will be the cause.

Now, at about 5 pm, the plow drivers are being called back to their Mohawk home base until the snow stops. They say they can’t see a thing, are struggling with the abandoned cars and trucks littering the roads, and darkness is approaching. The wind and visibility will get even worse as the back of this low passes by. A wise move – it’s just too dangerous out there. I presume our sheriff’s snowmobile patrol and other local snowmobilers are rescuing the unlucky folks trapped in snow stuck vehicles. None of us have any reason to go anywhere, so we’ll just sit tight until tomorrow.

This is definetly not a "dog day".

February (2/21/06)
The flag atop my flag pole is trying to wrap itself around the top of the pole, the former perch of a bronze eagle that took flight in an another big blow and is now somewhere in the bush downwind of the harbor. This is day five of a massive lake effect snow event – born of near zero artic air masses pouncing down on the icing resistant Superior waters, sucking up its moisture, and spreading LES glee or gloom on those of us, who by default or choice, find ourselves February residents of the Keweenaw.

In the midst of this I receive a call from a snow bird neighbor – a sensible and very likeable guy who has more Eagle Harbor winters and community services to his credit than I am likely to live long enough to enjoy or earn, telling me of his day on the Gulf Coast – pressing his toes in the warm sands as he strolled alongside the rolling surf, clad, I’m sure, in shorts, with a gold chain dangling across his sun bronzed chest. His query? What’s going on up there? I hear all kinds of big decisions are being made while everyone is out of town.

I laugh, are there ever any “big decisions” in this little outpost alongside the big lake? Let’s see, about half of us in town (perhaps a dozen, a majority) decided to brave near zero temps and trek to the Inn last Friday eve for some camp fever fighting camaraderie. And yes, the township fathers did decide to turn on the streetlights – much to the chagrin of we disciples of pristine night skies. A regrettably, hopefully reversible, but probably not impeachable offence. And, thanks to the Township’s wonderful new web site, even Harbor folks on sunny beaches know the Township Board is considering a new recreation plan for our township and taking steps to deal with our county government’s apparent reluctance to put in place the zoning regulations and controls needed to implement the comprehensive town and county development plan many of us worked so diligently on over the past couple of years. And, of course, there is the big fuss about the giant windmills proposed to gather power from the big winds that flow off the lake and over the Keweenaw ridge. We haven’t had as much to get all lathered up about since the big Bohemia ski hill squabble of a few years ago.

Yes, the pot’s being stirred and some folks are up in arms, but for me and I suspect many of my fellow mid-winter harbor neighbors, it’s business as usual –the simple but important things, like pacing the runs to the woodpile to accommodate a weary heart, escaping the chilling drafts flowing around old camp doors and windows by cozying up to the warm hearth, scooping away the snow piled around our vehicle each morning by the snow plow, venturing out for exercise and a taste of the trail or bush whenever the wind and temperature permits, and keeping our minds alive with projects, books and good conversation. These are hardly survival strategies, at least not in the context of my winter place heroes Shackleton and Scott, but if you have spent a dark winter on the shore of the big lake, you know they tend to take priority over fusses about park shelters, zoning enforcement and windmill farms. Maybe we are too close to the action to have perspective.

Meanwhile, this parade of lake effect snowstorms, dumping over two feet of fresh snow over the past few days, is welcomed by me, but probably not by the folks up in the copper towns. Yes, the snow bank pushed up in front of my place by the snowplow looks pretty impressive, but it and the other piles around town are not as awesome as they usually are in mid February – thanks to our January thaw. Our copper town neighbors, however, smothered under the bigger drifts that come with residing in the snowier “higher terrain”, are as usual running out of places to push the snow they clear away from their front yards – the only place to park a vehicle on the old mining company small lots. Some of their snow piles dwarf their houses. Eagle Harbor types seeking breakfast and gossip at Slims, the copper towners' popular eatery and reputed court house Tammany headquarters, do well not to mention what an “easy” winter we are having down along the “banana belt”.

I’ve not ventured out much this winter. No moonlight trips around our world class cross country ski trail, no wintertime jaunts up to Baldy, and no falls through the ice and snow into the lake or abandoned mine shafts. Pretty tame stuff – part of the reason I’ve been so derelict in sharing my winter adventures, or lack thereof, with entries in my Harbor Journal. Even my camera, except for periodic photo views out my front window, has been little used, although a bit of rare sunshine today did temp me up to the lighthouse for the umpteenth shot of my favorite pile of red bricks and another panorama of the silent but constantly moving ice crowding the harbor entry.

Instead, I’ve hunkered in, coming to grips with the realities of embarking on the fourth quarter of my expected ten score tenure on this planet, and focusing more on the blessings of the mind and soul rather than on the for too long abused ligaments and muscle. The latter I’ll use more sparingly, conserving them for jaunts about the big lake aboard Peregrine and easy strolls in the pine scented bush, both activities that so nurture me. Perhaps this changing perspective of life is why I get so wrought up about the loss of some of the simpler and more meaningful pleasures of life, like scanning a clear dark nighttime sky in search and awe of the timeless constellations and our magical northern lights.

As evening falls, another burst of February lake effect snow swirls across the ice-covered harbor, masking the darkening hills that define the boundaries of our special place on the shore of the great lake. A fire burns lazily in my shore rock fireplace across the room. Its flickering flame dispelling the gathering darkness - encouraging me to gather by its glow and warmth with a good book for another cherished time of escapism, contemplation and comfort. I can’t resist. Could you?

Harbor Camp Fever Rampant (2/06)
Well, apparently so. Those of us spending the mid-winter months in Keweenaw relish the big snow and big winds but the seemingly 24 hours of darkness or near darkness does get a bit tiresome. A few, I've done it, go over the edge, losing all perspective and engaging in activities we later regret. That's the only explanation I can envision for our town fathers, responding to a handfull, albeit about half our February residents, anti-darkness conspirators call for brighter streetlights - sort of a collective "light box", the usally prescribed remedy for "camp fever" - called in the power company (not too busy this tame winter) to replace our delightfully aged and very dim street lights (many not working) with state-of-the-art, high powered, big city lights. It's ghastly!

Followers of the Harbor Web journals know how I feel about "pesky street lights". They are, in my view, in the same league as clear cutting, spraying wild berry patches, banning beach fires, gating time honored hiking trails, and posting beaches - simply foreign to our culture. A few years ago a national publication named Eagle Harbor as one on the nation's best places to view the wonders of the night sky - spectacular constellations and mesmerising northern lights. No more! The excuse for shutting this down? Crime prevention and traffic safety. Gimme a break! This is Eagle Harbor! Most of us in our saner moments, after the camp fever passes, know that the sighting of Orion in the southeastern summer sky and watching the soul pleasing colorful wavering auroras out over the lake are what makes this little rocky outcrop on the big lake so special - why we are here.

Wouldn't it be great if our town, responding to what is really important in life, would become the first town in America banning street lights - making access to night skies, not brightly lit streets, our priority.

So, I'm on a rant. I must be feeling better.


Yikes! What a Blow That Was (11/11/05)
Followers of these word snapshots of life at Eagle Harbor, at least as it seems through my admittedly limited and certainly biased sensors, know what a happy camper I am when a big blow pounces on us. Well, it’s all sane and tranquil out there now, but the wild storm that moved quickly across our big lake a day ago was Christmas, the 4th of July and my birthday all rolled into one glorious and oh so satisfying event.

You’ve patiently tolerated my rhapsodizing about howling winds, creaking camp timbers, singing door transoms and roaring waves, so I won’t dump another load of my propensity for abused adjectives on you now. Let’s just say that for this symphony of sights and sounds, the full orchestra was on stage. Composer Moussorgsky, whose biggest hit was the frenzied A Night on Bald Mountain, would have loved it.

Our hams, you know the radio guys still carrying the torch for Samuel Morse, once again came to the rescue. Neighbor Dennis Royce is our representative in this fading fraternity of the old vacuum tube dabblers. Dennis, AKA. K9GIR, and his talkative Copper Country buddies, the source of much interesting and often amusing scanner traffic, were called in by our high tech Coast Guard to provide emergency communication with all ships at sea when their radio relay tower atop the old radar station on Mt Greeley toppled over in the big blow. Turns out there was only one ship underway on all of Lake Superior during the blow, the rest apparently not wanting to be a source for another Gordon Lightfoot gold record and hiding in the lee of places like Keweenaw’s Bete Grise and Whitefish Point. The laker underway, whose skipper must have been down below watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island when the storm flags were raised, reported battling with 60 to 70 knot winds and 20 to 25 foot seas. Sure glad I wasn’t out there.

The best news is that our power stayed on. .Folks down in the Keweenaw Bay area, one of the REA holdouts, nervously watched their refrigerators thaw and shivered in cooling camps for eight or nine hours as tree branches played tag with power lines. We too often lament as we witness lovely trees being given army haircuts by contractors brought in by our local power company, but, as our parents told us, prevention pays.

Not much observable wreckage at Eagle Harbor. I nervously watched my woodpile sway to and fro, but it stayed upright. The big stately poplar alongside my house, too old and crippled to be out in such a storm, complained noisily, but except for some pruning of its most withered body parts stayed erect – a fact that I’m sure my gone away downwind neighbor will be glad to hear. Stuff was flying around. A 55-gallon metal waste can, which I carelessly left outside, was last seen trying to mimic Peregrine in a sail across the harbor. I’m sure the bears up in the bush behind the harbor crawling out of their dens next spring will find a nice assortment of lawn furniture for their summer abodes. Old Glory is tightly wrapped around my more southerly leaning flagpole, stubbornlylresisting my attempts to rescue it from its embarrassment - seems as if I should know by now to take it down when a big blow arrives. Oh well, at least the lawn is shed of its leaf blanket.

So now that things have settled down a bit, at least until the next gale of November arrives, two days out they say, we are getting ready for our national holiday, gun deer season. You know deer hunting season is at hand when you drive into a gas station and can’t find the pumps, buried as they are in the humongous piles of apples, corn and other deer goodies the hunters use to avoid having to play Daniel Boone. Another sign is the sudden proliferation of a Wisconsin Dells like array of beer company sponsored signs adorning every hunter rest stop, “Welcoming Deer Hunters” to our hunting grounds. They are especially prevalent around Phoenix’s Cliff View tavern and Vansville Inn, the site of the premier social event of the season, the Deer Hunter’s Ball – an event no self respecting orange clad hunter would miss.

The lead flies freely during the hunt – it’s dangerous time for the innocent bystander, if not the hunters. I’m pretty safe, living as I do across the width of the harbor from the shooting range. But if I lived close to the bush, as some of my Harbor neighbors do, I’d be thinking about tacking up the plywood, like the folks down in hurricane country do when that season rolls around. “George”, I can hear you say, “you’re getting carried away – into another of your flights of fancy.” Perhaps, but the next time you are at the Harbor, hike back to the town’s water pump station near Eliza Lake and count the bullet holes in the side of the building housing the pumps that keep our toilets flushed. Just wait until after deer season before you go.

I have a better idea, I’m leaving town until the last buck meets his demise. Well, that’s not really why – I’m going to spend some much cherished time with my family – a big pow- wow (I’m the chief, so I think) of my clan out in hopefully sunny California. The only instruction I have from my family is to not bring my Eagle Harbor clothes – bring something “decent” they say. What should I make of that? I thought California was casual – doesn’t that mean I should be OK in ripped jeans and saggy sweats, topped with an orange stocking cap? Why do people think we dress so funny up here?

So, dear reader, I’m going to miss a few big blows and the chance to chat with you about them. But, just think, by the time I return the snow should be flying and then we can really have some fun

No Season (11/06/05)
Tis the season that is no season. Stranded between “color” and “snow”, our magnets for post summer frolicking in this, the land of bush, berries, bears and beaches, the cool, gray and wet days of late October, November and early December are not the stuff of legend – just a big empty page in the promotional gushings of our local drum beaters. What seems like perennial darkness descends, at least sparing us the sight of hardwoods struggling with the embarrassment of their growing nudity, and the ugliness of pristine summer beaches now marred by decaying debris dug from harbor and bay bowels and washed ashore by the waves slapping across their shores. The big lake is restless, its frightening dark waters nosily churning as the sparkling and warm waters of summer are pushed by northerly fall gales to the Soo, replaced with the chilling cold rising from its depths. Yes, for the discerning eye and accepting mind there is beauty and comfort to be found in all of this, but for many it’s cause to stay away, and go away.

For me, and my few remaining Harbor neighbors, it’s a busy time. There is firewood to be cut, split and stacked (and restacked if one is as inept at stacking as I), summer toys to be tucked away for the eight months they are but fond memories or eager expectations, guest quarters to be shuttered and bled of anything that might freeze, camp cracks and leaky doors and windows to be stuffed with anything that might foil winter drafts, and, of course, snow removal tools to be dug from their short summer sleep and made ready for the avalanche that is sure to come. It’s also a time to catch up with all the projects and obligations we set aside as we basked on warm beaches, wandered about the big lake, picked our berries, or just enjoyed the lazy days of summer. I, for instance, am busy cooking the books of the Historical Society (I’m treasurer) and digging through an embarrassing backlog of Society membership renewals.

But as these tasks near completion, and as we wait, some eagerly, some not, for the snow season and its promise of outdoor frolic and/or frustration, we are hunkering in the warmth and brightness of our cozy camps, ignoring as best we can the “no season” out our door. Some, like me, are dusting off libraries, sharpening writing pens, gathering in little groups to share a meal or bit of “tea”, and, this year, venting our frustration with our seemingly hapless Packers. Others are busy with projects – planning for the big 2007 gathering of the Cornish Cousins here in the Copper Country, laying plans for trapping even more unsuspecting summer tourists into the lure of our shops and museums (this was a bad year), or cranking up woodworking shops to craft yet another bird house, yard chair or walking stick. There are, for sure, some diversions – carving crazy pumpkins to brighten a cold and rainy Halloween eve, and stoking deer camp bait piles for the upcoming and ongoing quest to bag the big buck. We’re busy.

As I end this much belated musing about the doings in our little outpost on the big lake, the scene outside my window is much as it’s been since the first leaf fluttered down from the much aged and creaking oak that is my summer shade and fall glory. Dark waves are rolling in off the big lake, pushed by a seemingly ever present whipping and cold north wind, washing in long sweeps of white foam up against the Harbor’s rocky south shore, then rebounding to slide across the bay and slap against the debris strewn town beach. Mist shrouds the now graying hills that shoulder our existence and its wetness can be felt in the cool air sliding under my door transom. The weather gurus say there might be some snow flurries later today. Perhaps up in the hills, but I doubt we will be so blessed down along the lake.

Yet, in camp it’s cozy. I keep a good fire blazing in the fireplace (now into my second full cord of firewood), the music box sings softly, and a pile of good books are stacked on my rocker side table, ready for a quiet and lazy afternoon of reading. (Now enjoying Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga.) A pumpkin pie is in the oven, its sweet smell adding to the lure of ending this little writing effort and retiring to the fireside. I won’t last long – my ongoing struggle with the growing fatigue of congestive heart failure ends my days early, but it will be bliss.

Season change is always an exciting time, especially in the lee of the big lake. Our “no season” is not an exception – it is in many ways the most interesting of all, certainly the most unpredictable. And as squirrel busy as we are with winter preparations, and blessed as we are with cozy camp retreats, its blandness can be tolerated. I just wish it wouldn’t last soooooo long.

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