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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives on a 116 year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities years ago. She shares this special place with five goats, three dozen or so hens - bantams and full size, three talkative geese, an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, two angora rabbits, two house cats, a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo with plans to add a pet turkey or two just for comic relief.

When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, makes felted and thrummed mittens for folks, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or more likely, a sit-com.  

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



What's On:
Sea Smoke Photo by Lorie Shaull via Flickr.jpg

Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs-Anderson February 13, 2019

Magnetic North 2/4, 2019
Phantoms in the Mist
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the big lake is releasing her captive droplets of water in spectral tendrils of mist on these below zero days. Their eerie beauty is a reminder of the past, one in which only the First Nations’ people were witness to the spectacle on the horizon.

For, according to Minnesota Sea Grant data on the big lake, the average drop of water entered Lake Superior 191 years ago. And that’s just the average droplet. Much of the vast water we admire today is made up of rains and snows and rivulets flowing long before the first immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland came. 

The enchantment of the mist dancers on the lake is one of many things that more than make up for the rigors of deep winter, for this modern day resident. Like what? Well, my front storm door was snatched in the teeth of the big wind that came roaring in after New Year’s, leaving me with a leaky sieve of a wooden door covered with a quilt for over a month. Frost formed on the inside of the door as we went into double digit minus temps, a reminder that money poured out as cold poured in.

Other than that, Polar Vortex, aka the Mommy Dearest side of Mother Nature, sucked the life out of my car battery three times in four days. The last deadening rendered my shift useless and, being nose into the garage, my friend Jay Messenbring from Superior Auto Service, had to tow it out to jump start it. But first we had to consult the owner’s manual to see how to disable the shift lock when there is no power. 

Unfortunately, the manual was frozen to the floor of the back seat, having been tossed there next to a glass jar of water which burst in the cold.

It took a good four minutes on high in the microwave to thaw out the manual. Jay said he’d had many odd experiences in his line of work but this one was a first. I told him that it’s stuff like this and folks like him that make living here year ‘round so rich. Plus, it gives me stuff to write about besides goats and chickens.

Many folks have asked me how said critters faired in the week of the Polar Vortex. “Fine, thanks to me,” I usually answer, but on that one truly terrible day, when the winds whipped up swirling snow tornados across the meadow and the temps plunged into the minus 40 below NOT counting windchill, I couldn’t have been so sure.

The five goats did not come out for their hay that day, even as I bleated in my best “goatspeak,” Bunny! Bosco! Biscuit! Poppy! Bitsie” Not a sign or sound of them. And so I went to bed and woke up worried. The wind had covered up their hay ration from the day before, so I hauled a full bale out and over the fence just after first light, all the while calling to them as I walked back to the house. I dared not look around until inside and out of my coat and mittens. but there they were All Five! “Yes! Cheated death again!” I called to them through a crack in the door and  was rewarded with a full throated goat chorus - each one does have a distinctive voice - as if to say, “You got that right maaaaaaamaaaaaa.”

With all of these challenges in winter, it’s small wonder we have so many so-called “snowbirds” here, folks who stay as long as the living is easy, then take off for second homes, campers, or freebie squats down south or out west.
That’s not for me, if for no other reason than a love for my dogs, cats, goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and -Lord help me- geese.

My daughter, Gretchen says there is an even larger reason why I had no wish to leave, even in the face of the worst winter throws at me. She says, “This is where your heart is, where you and Paul lived. It’s who you are, Mom.”
How lucky am I to have such a child.

As for the snowbirds, I wish them well wherever they choose to perch. And for the rest of us - often referred to in popular culture as the 98 percent - thanks for sticking around, for staying here, even when your doors blow off and you batteries die and your water pipes freeze for a time.

And yes, even when you, like me, go to bed and wake up worried about what the weather is doing to someone or something you love. You are not crazy. You are community. And I for one am in your debt.

Thoughts like these drift though my mind as I park down at the now inaccessible turnout to Paradise Beach, watching those writhing phantoms of mist forming a ghostly danceline on the horizon.

Finally, after possibly centuries of gestation within their mother, Superior, the time traveling, shape shifting droplets float upwards reentering a far different world than the one they left. 
And as they do, I look east and west on Highway 61 to see not one other driver stopped to watch and wonder. And I am both grateful to be an audience of one, and sad that so many are missing what to me, at that moment, is the greatest show on earth.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.


Photo credit Vicki Biggs Anderson

Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs-Anderson January 30, 2019

Magnetic North 1/24/19

A Message from Inside the Great White…
Welcome back to Magnetic North, which makes me think of how the view from inside the mouth of a Great White Shark must look, all those long, sharp icicles lining my roofline and practically touching the deck railing. Ugh!
Icicles are good examples of what poet Thomas Gray meant when he wrote, ”Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”
When I was a kid, I loved icicles. Hey, free popsicles! Tasteless, true, but free and also useful for poking friends in the back. 
Now that I am grown, icicles represent only a poke in my budget; Heat loss through the ceiling and extra expense when my electric bill comes. Not to mention creating ice dams and the resultant leaks and stains on my beautiful cathedral ceilings.
But, with luck and additional outlay of cash for insulation, I will get that problem solved....someday.
The arrival of The Great White, as I call this winter of 2018-19, has already wreaked havoc on one of the many structures on this 116-year-old farmstead. The chicken run is now missing its wire cover and crossbeams. Viewed from the driveway, it does appear as if some giant creature had just touched down long enough to bring a 10 by 10-foot section down. That first load of cement-like snow we got right before the first of the year.
When first I saw the mess, I just stared at the damage, resenting the ruined work of my Paul and his friend, the late Jack Halvorson back in 1991. Together they made a gorgeous run of stout cedar posts and well stitched together wire, with barbed wire dug in all around so those burrowing predators would be stymied. 
It’s rotten to lose something made by those you love and have also lost. But then I realized that perhaps The Great White had done me a good turn. I let the hens out to free range in good weather anyway, so why not just turn the run into a big veggie and flower garden? The sides are already there. I know Paul would agree. As for old Jack, well, he’d probably give me one of his dubious stares and say, “It’s your time and sweat.” 
So far no damage has been done to my body by The Great White....but then there are still a few more months to go before I can be sure of that. The first time out of the shed with my little red electric snowblower was a near miss, though. Pushing and pushing that contraption through that wet, heavy snow was nigh impossible. I grunted, I strained, I panted like a dog, and I swore like a sailor. Frankly, I used muscles not engaged since I gave birth to my darling daughter.
And so I did the wise thing. I retired the blower and called for help. Now my paths are smooth and chiseled things of beauty that are just wide enough for me to ride around on my Norwegian kicksled with buckets of grain on the seat.  Happiness in chore doing restored.
I will admit that I take doing chores in double-digit below zero weather quite seriously. I always have my phone and when the weather report is particularly alarming, the critters get double rations just in case going out the next day proves to be foolhardy. But who is to say what and when is foolhardy?
That thought occurred to me while kick sledding to the chicken coop last week in below zero weather. I was remembering an old colleague of mine at the News-Herald, back when Steve Fernlund owned the newspaper. Duane Honsowetz was his name and he was an old-school journalist AND woodsman...Crusty, principled and feigning a fed-up with life attitude - mostly a cover I think.  We got along just fine. I thought of Duane last week because he died in weather such as this on his trap line, somewhere off in the woods - certainly not a foolhardy thing to do, as he had done it hundreds of times before.
The story was that Duane had suffered a stroke while checking his traps in the deep winter woods.  And although I wished he had not been alone out there, I couldn’t help but be grateful that my old comrade didn’t breathe his last covering a county board or city council meeting, I hoped he was at peace, under the sky lit with stars, instead of the glare of fluorescent lights.
Morbid? Not a bit. For a kid whose favorite book of poetry was Robert Service’s Spell of the Yukon, the white landscape of the far north was a brilliant backdrop where the shadow of death danced and teased those prospectors and vagabonds wanderers who dared to venture inside her lair… Here’s a stanza I committed to memory long, long ago, I find it quite appropriate as we once again face below zero temps in the coming days.
From Service’s poem The Spell of the Yukon, from the book of the same name,
“The winter! The brightness that blinds you!
The white land locked tight as a drum/
The cold fear that follows and finds you/
The silence that bludgeons you dumb/
The snows that are older than history/
The woods where the weird shadow slant/
The stillness, the moonlight/the mystery/
I’ve bade ‘em goodbye......but I can’t.”
I whispered this stanza on my way back from the chickens that night last week, breathing each word in frosty vapors into the night. And while there was no prospectors gold ore in my basket, there were riches. My hens gave me seven big brown eggs and one greenish blue, beauty. 

Mercury and Venus blazed in the clear Eastern sky over the old White Pine and Duane’s spirit and Service’s poetry rode the sled with me, good companions that night and throughout this winter of The Great White. She is a ferocious, yet mysteriously seductive mistress known well by both men.  And by me as well; blissfully ignorant, but ever so grateful.
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North



Magnetic North - January 10, 2019

Magnetic North  -  by Vicki Biggs-Anderson 
January 10, 2019

"Too Much of a Goat Thing"

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where all creatures, great and small, have been dutifully preparing for deep winter snow and below zero cold for months. Oh, not by stocking up on flashlights, or making sure there’s a shovel by every door, but by physically preparing to meet and beat the elements  - I speak not of exercise, but of the age-old custom of carb loading, handed down to us from our elders, who looked upon being slender as a sign of either poverty or illness.

Thank goodness times have changed. From hot dishes to pasties, to pasta and breads in all shapes and sizes and textures, we consume what we must to survive the elements.

And for those of us who tend critters, thought must also be given to their diet, along with deeper hay to sleep in and heated water buckets for all. 

As luck would have it, carb loading for critters doesn’t mean that I have to prepare hot dishes or bake focaccia for them daily. No, it just means adding something called “scratch” to the chicken, duck and goose feeders. And....until this winter, offering a handful of the stuff to each of my five goats as they push and shove each other around their daily ration of hay.

Scratch, for those of you who are not conversant in farm-speak, is a toothsome combination of cracked, rolled, or whole grains such as corn, barley, oats. Sounds rather dull to us, I know, but to a chicken or goat, scratch is akin to what we humans call “crack.” One beak full of the stuff and you have created a glassy-eyed addict. As for the goats, more than once I’ve been caught in a  goat vortex while doling scratch from a bucket. 

So, why not just pour it into a feeder? Simple, unlike birds, for goats, too grain doesn’t make them fat. It makes them dead.
Sadly, grain is inherently foreign to a goats’ fiber loving digestive system, which consists of four stomachs, the first of which is the rumen. Hence, goats, sheep and cows are......ruminants! 

As anyone with tummy trouble can imagine, having four stomachs puts goats at major risk of eating the wrong thing, like grain. They can have a bit of it to add calories to their fibrous hay diets in winter, but  too much and they develop a fatal condition called bloat. Sadly, my milk goat, Hart, died of it some years back, after she sneaked into the garage and nosed open the feed can filled to the brim with scratch. 

Nevertheless, this year, I decided that instead of handfuls of scratch each day, the goats would get Goat Chow, an all purpose grain and fiber in pellet form. My motive; to avoid dealing with 60 bales of hay in the garage.

And so it was. I set out three big feeding tubs on the other side of the backyard yard fence and poured enough goat chow int each to feed five goats. And doing so,  nearly killed my big boy goat, Bosco.

You see, Bosco is Boss, King, Almighty Goat God to his four does. And, as such, he eats first. That meant that he gobbled most of the grain in all three feeders, the equivalent of four coffee cans full of food. I knew his piggish streak, but for whatever reason, I didn’t’ monitor the new feeding system thinking that  I’d placed the tubs far enough apart to allow the does to feed uninterrupted by Bosco. I couldn’t have been more wrong...

The next morning, when I looked out on the meadow I saw something amiss immediately. Four goats, not five, were nibbling on the dried grasses sticking up through the snow. Bunny, Bitsy, Biscuit, and Poppy, but no Bosco.

After calling and calling him, I hoofed it out to the barn only to find the big link sitting down. The old adage, “when a goat goes down, they stay down,” went through my mind as I petted his head and put my head next to his belly.  The usual gurgling of a healthy rumen was barely perceptible. Bloat.

So I did what 28  years of having to vet goats myself have taught me to do. I grabbed a Sven saw and headed for the willow swamp off the driveway, where I sawed down a smallish tree -and hauled it out to Bosco. The other goats followed behind me into the barn, and I expected to have to beat them off the tree en route, but not one of them tried to steal the medicine tree away from their guy. 

When Bosco took that first sweet twig into his mouth and began to eat it, I held out the slimmest of hope that he would pull through.

And pull through he did. As if to allay my worst fears, Bosco was standing at the fence at sunrise the next morning, a bit early for him to be up but I figure he was after more of that grain. Fortunately, I was able to get a special delivery of sweet, green hay that afternoon and Bosco and his girls have had their fill of it each day ever since. There is no way a goat can OD on hay.

The other critters are tucked in for winter properly, with some comfort additions to the coop and the shed attached to the garage. The bantam chickens have a heated water bowl this winter and an anteroom all to themselves - no ducks to muddy the water. The ducks and geese have a ten-gallon heated water bucket, too massive for even Thema and Louise, the big Buffs Geese to knock over. These two heated additions may drive up my electric bill, but doing a cost/benefit analysis, so crucial for women of a certain age like myself, I decided that avoiding lower back strain from carrying frozen water buckets is worth every penny spent.

At least, it WAS until my big lab/golden mix tore his left back ACLl AND tested positive for Lymes. Apparently, ticks live and bite all year long now. So one visit to the vet and two to go, plus meds to clear up the Lymes, is making me reassess the cost of heated water buckets. My core could definitely use some work and as for those upper arms, well, three months of bucket workouts should whittle down those flab flaps just a bit.

My world is complicated by such ups and downs because I chose to share the place I love most of all with so many domestic critters, who, like us, get sick or gimped up on occasion.

But for my trouble, I get fresh eggs, cashmere fleece from the goats, angora fiber from the rabbits and love approaching worship from the two dogs and two cats. From my perspective, that’s one heck of a deal and far more interesting and joy-filled life than I ever dreamed would one day be mine.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.



Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs Anderson

Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs Anderson                   10/23/18
When a Tree Falls
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where recent high winds took a toll on nearly every road and property. I was out of town during the storm and got home so tired from travel that it was almost a week before I notice the 60-foot poplar lying along the back edge of the yard... And but for my five goats clambering among its limbs, I might well have missed it until the spring.
The poplar, which stood throughout its life in obscurity among the spruce and jack pine by the old dog kennel, now became a fabulous treat for a small herd of bark loving goats.
Watching the goats clamber among the now-reachable branches of the downed tree made me think about how, depending on a tree’s place, either in the landscape or one’s history, it’s falling can be cause for so many emotions, from annoyance, to fear, to grief. And for goats and deer, celebration.
During the 28 years that I’ve lived, nestled on three sides by typically tangled Northern woods, and looking out on a six-acre meadow to the south, only once has a certain tree fallen to earth and left a permanent bruise on my heart by its absence. It wasn’t even the most iconic of the trees on the acreage; The one where all the critters are laid to rest when their time comes. It stands at the East end of the meadow. One towering White Pine, which is, as far as I know, the only one left standing by the subsistence immigrants who claimed this land, living by logging, fishing, hunting and farming little more than root vegetables.. And although I call this lone giant “mine.”  I know better. So many times over the years, wind, fire and even human carelessness let me know that all I call mine is merely on loan.
The big pine came close to being felled by a lightning strike during a ferocious storm right before 9/11. Paul and I watched a pin cherry tree take a bolt of lightning and burn like a torch, even in the pouring rain, The next strike was within feet of the white pine, but a birch took the worst of the fiery blow, while the pine to this day bears a scar over 30 feet long on her trunk. “If that tree goes,” one of us said watching the smoke across the meadow that night. But that night, it stayed and so did we.
The first fallen tree that truly hurt my heart was a gnarled and spreading red pine that stood behind the chicken run. The axle and wheels of an old buggy were so deeply sunken in the loam around the tree trunk, that roots had begun entwining the buggy wheel spokes. Paul and I would sit there watching the chickens - chicken videos we called those times - stroking our barn cat Mitten, one of the East County14 six-toed clan. I think Mitten got taken by an owl one winter night, but the tree survived her for years ....until one night, it fell. 

The morning after it fell, I carried water and feed in buckets to the coop as usual, only realizing that the massive branches and trunk were now horizontal behind the run, instead of standing guard and swaddling it in its limbs. 
I know Paul would have grieved with me that day for the loss of the chicken video tree, but his time had come too,  just months earlier.

Of course, when most trees fall in a place like this, no one notices and only a few feel bereaved by the absence of any one of them. And then there are ones like the Washington Pines white pines, senselessly downed by vandals, that everyone seems to know and care about deeply. The chainsaw downing of some White Pines in the beloved stand on the Gunflint Trail was grotesque and senseless. Some saw it as a finger in the eye to all “tree huggers.” Others chalked it up to intoxication. And though the perpetrators were caught and punished that didn’t put the trees back. That didn’t take away that hurt.

All this happened in the year before North House Folk School had their first class, a kayak building, taught out in the Coast Guard building off Artists Point. I covered the class for the local paper and discovered that the butchered Washington Pines trees were being used. Instructor and folk school founder, Mark Hansen, salvaged much of the wood for use in those first handmade crafts. The pines got a second life, many second lives, really,  through all the people who used that beautiful wood in their kayaks. The sheer perfection of that outcome still makes me smile.

However, sometimes in a county of trees and can-do folks, a tree falls and someone gets hurt... Earlier this month, this is what happened to a friend of mine and many others, as he tried to cut down a poplar behind his workshop in the town of Grand Marais. The results were many. For our friend, a brain injury and physical pain for a man used to great health an agile mind. For his family, the absence of normalcy, of just another day-ness. Precious things taken for granted, until normal seems like something only other people enjoy... With hard work and time, the prognosis is good for our friend. Best wishes for all good things to Jeff and Jenny and their beautiful boys in this new, unexpected journey.

John Lennon lamented back in the day, that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans. So it was with my brilliant idea to use a downed tamarack branch to make a wreath for the front of the house. Making it took me three hours and wire puncture wounds on both hands, but at last the big golden circle was done and I hung it between the garage doors, a thing of beauty and a joy forever; Forever, in this case being one night. My five goats found it and finished off their poplar lunch with a tamarack late night snack. But did I get angry? Not me. I got even. I made another Tamarack wreath and doused it with hot sauce. Let’s face it, Mother Nature isn’t the only one who can dish out the surprises.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North. 


Vicki's Chanterelles

Magnetic North - September 5, 2018

Magnetic North 9/4/18
Time traveling around Mother Superior

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where even we who live in heaven on earth take to the road with bags packed and baskets of junk food and tourist trinkets and found treasure stashed front seat to back. And sometimes, we take and make memories that can surprise us.

It takes either a health emergency or unavoidable family gathering to tempt me away from the farm and lakeshore in midsummer, but the latter of the two did just that in late July.

My dear friend, Cilla’s son was getting married on the opposite side of the big lake in Houghton, Michigan. Cilla, aka The Lady and the Scamp, introduced me to her son, Arthur a few years ago and won my heart by bonding with my favorite goat, Bosco; so much so that Arthur actually ended up nuzzling the big goat. Nose to nose. Quite the reaction to a creature with curling 20-inch horns I’d say. 

So when the invite to Arthur’s wedding came, even though the date was late July, I RSVP’d right off and made plans to go with Cilla.  She, of course, hitched up her beloved Scamp trailer and booked herself into a state park for five nights. I took the easier, softer option - a posh hotel overlooking the Keewanaw Waterway bridge that was smack up against a little marina I had sailed into during the summer of ’76 on my sailboat, Amazing Grace. 

The waterway is a part natural lake and part dredged canal that severs the landmass of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from the rest of the state. Moving copper ore and supplies was the motive for such a drastic and expensive amputation when it was done in the late 1860’s. A lift bridge was added for travel by land between the two cities, Houghton and Hancock. Nowadays, tourism and Michigan Tech feeds the two cities and the waterway is a route, not for copper and miner supplies, but for pleasure craft and family camps. This I learned when I first sailed under that bridge on a blistering hot summer day 42 years ago and blithely hopped off her bow to tie up on the Hancock side of the waterway. Yes, there was a time when I could hop off the prow of a boat and land on my feet without so much as an “Uffda!” or “Call 11!”

That all came flooding back into my memory when I looked out the hotel restaurant window the morning after our arrival and saw the bridge and marina across the waterway. It was as if a movie was running in my head, superimposed on the sunny scene across the waterway. There I was, wearing a yellow madras blouse, jeans and Docksiders, rope in hand and leaping just in time to land on the break wall and turn to prevent a collision with Grace’s bow. Then the film ended as abruptly as it started and perceived, with amazement and some embarrassment that fat tears were plopping into my coffee. 

Apparently, I thought, as I scolded myself for putting on a public display, there was more packed in my bags than finery for Arthur’s wedding. Those dang memories had somehow burrowed in beneath the frilly scarves and support pantyhose and were demanding my attention. They didn’t care that I was alone at a table with strangers peering nervously at me, wondering perhaps if I was about to be sick. No, they’d caught me out, without the trappings of chores and hobbies and endless distractions to remind me of certain truths; to wit, that I missed terribly my little seven-year-old girl, Gretchen, now a mom herself living half a continent away, and that the couple on that boat that summer still loved each other, probably always did in the end, even though being married to each other proved to be impossible. How I wished at that moment I had savored those days more when they were mine to savor.

t was just one of those flashback moments that lie in wait, springing to life when I am as unaware as a stone monkey 
Thankfully, the bittersweet blast from the past faded by the time my coffee was downed.  But it left me resolved to pay attention to whatever joys the coming days and festivities might bring.

And so, when I picked Chanterelle mushrooms at Cilla’s campground, I also made sure to gather pinecones for a Christmas gift wreath for the newlyweds. And when I tagged along to gramma’s house where the elegantly casual ceremony took place on the lawn sloping to the water’s edge, I tucked my introvert’s ego in my purse and took dozens of pictures for my friend and her son and new daughter-in-law

At the reception, my friend chose a quote, from C.S. Lewis, in framing her toast to the bride and groom. “When the most important things in life are happening, we almost never know exactly what is going on.”

As I packed my bags to head back to the North Shore, I tucked in some new memories of the Keewanaw, I decided that one of the great things about aging is that, like C.S. Lewis, most of us eventually wake up to the fact that even the most ordinary day might put us on the path of extraordinary joy. “So pay attention,” I told myself.

As Cilla and I drove back down the south shore of the lake, we talked over the past five days for a bit, then shifted into a topic that only those of us of a certain age would understand, having just been to one of the two most propitious occasions in one’s time on earth.

I’ve decided that I definitely do not want to be cremated,” I declared, as we escaped the blazing sun under the canopy of the Scamp at Brighton Beach just outside of Duluth. “Oh?” Cilla murmured as she poured out two cups of tea. You might have thought I’d said that I preferred half-and-half in my tea rather than milk.

“Yes,” I went on.” You KNOW how much I hate hot weather.  Hate is really too puny a word. Loathe, despise, detest, abominate, abhor hot weather - it’s why I live where I do!  So why on earth would I choose to be immolated after I die? Plus, I have the perfect dress, the one I wore when Paul and I got married. Who burns their wedding dress?”

That tea-time declaration and the giggling that followed is a funky memory of the wedding weekend that came home in my bags, along with the pine cones and pictures. And, who knows what else hitchhiked in memory when to paraphrase Lewis, I had no idea what was happening.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North



Magnetic North - July 6, 2018

Magnetic North 7/1/18
Isle Royale Saga Part 2
Welcome back to Magnetic North and the follow-up to my sailing saga of forty years ago. As I said before, time spent tied up to the wall by the Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais was all too short. My husband, our daughter, Gretchen and our young medical intern and friend, Pam, were on a quest, not a looky-loo sightseeing excursion. We’d crossed Lake Superior from the Apostle Islands in a dense cloud of fog, motoring most of the way until we made land and slipped through the narrow slot into the town harbor. It was merely a pit stop - ice, grub, and shuteye - before the Big Push to Isle Royale’s Washington Harbor. And the July morning brought the clearest skies of the summer, a gift from a major high-pressure system tied in a bow with 30-plus mile per hour winds.

And that was just at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Landlubbers will look out at the big lake dancing to the music of winds like that and crow, “What a great day for a sail, eh?” 
But anyone who has ever hoisted a sail in such conditions might well differ. Sure, you wouldn’t have to touch the motor, but you also would have to seriously consider attaching your lifejacket to the rigging during the voyage. Sailboats keel to one side under much lesser wind power, and that day, we would be sailing parallel to the waves which were growing taller with every passing hour.

After a brief, too brief for this kid, conference with our sailing friends in a 33-footer, we opted to set out well before noon for the island, sticking as close together as possible. And so we did.

I am guessing that before we’d even passed Five Mile Rock, our friend, Pam, Gretchen and I had consumed the maximum dose of Dramamine, as much to settle our nerves as our stomachs.

That sideways wind was the kind we had that day going to Isle Royale; One side rail of the boat just about even with the water and stomach lurching drops from the top of wave thoughts to their bottoms... Up. Down. Up. Down. And never a letup in the wind.
Not that it was boring. Anything but.

At one point, I looked up at the cabin door to see Gretchen holding her knitting needles in one little hand -they were of course aimed at her eyeballs. Soon after that, I looked across at our sailing friends in their much bigger boat, only to see their mast disappear in the troughs of the waves separating our crafts.

I will say this. There were no biting flies that day.

Thanks to the ferocious wind, we made Isle Royale just a bit after noon, coming up alongside Rock of Ages Lighthouse, still in huge waves. I was instructed to keep my eye on the depth finder and report if we were about to see the wreck of the America closer than planned. 

“Ten feet,” I croaked as the famed lighthouse loomed off our bow. That’s ten feet from the tip of the keel, mind you.
“Eight feet....five!” I squawked, “Will you for the love of Pete put he blasted sails DOWN?!” It was less a question than a command. I tend to get bossy when death nears.

“Well, cheated death again,” my husband cried over the roar of the motor, as we tied up to the dock. 

A gaggle of teenage campers stood ogling our two sailboats, oblivious to the conditions beyond the harbor mouth…“Wow, what a great day for a sail,” one yelled enthusiastically.  My reply was -mercifully - muffled by the shouts of my husband and our young physician friend who had just seen Gretchen and the pug fall off the bow into the lake.

Both dog and child wore life jackets. It was not the first - or last - time for such drama.

It was three more years before I refused to sail on Superior ever again and another 14 before I got my heart’s desire and moved to the North Shore, at long last, happily aground at the end of a gravel road. Aside from a few humbling experiences with goats and geese and assorted critters, I have not once since ended my days here with the phrase, “Well, cheated death again,”
As for the young woman who gamely made the trip with us to the Isle, her experience seemed to have forced her to question where her life was going, at least now that it was not ending on the rocks of Superior. Within months of returning to the cities, she quit medicine and became a Buddhist monk. I kid you not.

It is ironic that having endured forced marches into the BWCA and near death experiences on the big lake, I still felt drawn to this place. And over the years I’ve come to find enough to fill my cup in just being here. Not covering kilometers in the wilderness. Not circling the lake on the highway or crossing it on water. Just being in a place where I can look out the window and see a doe licking her newborn fawn clean, or ride a kicksled at midnight down my snowy driveway under Northern Lights, or know who is related to who and where to find help when a newcomer needs a plumber, electrician or even get a skunk out from under one’s porch.

It’s not high adventure - nothing Robert W. Service would have written poems about. But for me and for Paul, it was and is more, much, much, more than enough.

For WTIP this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.



Magnetic North - June 20, 2018

Magnetic North 6/11/18
Barking dog navigation; Isle Royale Part 1
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where visitors now stream up the narrow highway from Duluth, braving detours and cavalcades of RVs, rubbernecking drivers, and excruciating miles in-between rest stops to get to Cook County. Once here, they crowd the restaurants and shops, take pictures of the Beaver House walleye and soak up the history and beauty of our little piece of heaven. 
But there is another breed of visitor whose primary reasons for coming to the county, specifically the town of Grand Marais, revolve around three fairly mundane pursuits: finding ice, a laundromat, and groceries and pumping out the effluent they carry onboard. These seekers come - and go -by water. And having spent a fortune on their mode of travel are less interested in land than in riding the waves of the big lake and taking home tales of having “cheated death again,” to their friends and families. 
I know this because I was such a one in the late 1970’s. For seven years I sailed the waters of Superior and for most of those years only spied the town where I live now. When I crossed the big lake from the Apostle Islands off Bayfield, Wisconsin, the homeport of my sailboat, Amazing Grace.
Looking back I realize now that, just as I had longed to be on the shore instead of slogging through the BWCAW years earlier, I was just as hungry to stay ashore whenever I tied Grace up at Grand Marais. Not because I dislike sailing - although there are about a hundred things I’d rather do -but because my inner compass always pulled me to the land where I live now. And, like many who have sailed in the troughs of high waves on Superior, I have seen her teeth close-up and respect them and her enough to keep my distance.
It was July of1976, our bicentennial year, when first I crouched on the bow of our sailboat as my then-husband, Jack pointed her towards land; at least the map and compass said there was land off our bow. Fog completely shrouded the harbor of Grand Marais. Nothing, not a building or tree or light could be seen.
But we were in luck. Friends who made the harbor before the fog moved in were on the break wall with an air horn, providing audible navigation in lieu of the usual sighting of lights at the harbor entrance or the radio tower on the hill above town. Sailors call this “barking dog navigation.” As in, you know you are about to go aground if you can hear a dog bark. Although, usually it was hearing waves lapping on rocks.
That foggy day we couldn’t have been more than 20 yards off the breakwall, following the compass and the blaring of the air horn, when we could actually see the wall, then the town... As usual, but not always, fog meant no wind, so we entered the harbor “flying the Atomic four,” the name of our diesel engine, -then tied up alongside the Coast Guard building at the foot of Artist’s Point.
As with my previous visits to Grand Marais, two arduous backpacking trips to the BWCAW, I longed to explore the town, to just lallygag on the shore and stare out at the lake for no good reason. And who knows, maybe even find a cove where the water temperature didn’t make my bones ache before I’d even dived in all the way.
But again, this was not to be. This was a quest, just as the backpacking trips were forced marches. The object of our adventure was Isle Royale. Washington Harbor, to be exact; the famed graveyard of sailing vessels like the America off Rock of Ages lighthouse.  Sure, why not go there on vacation? 
We divvied up tasks with our friends - they got the blocks of ice for our perishable food lockers and we got the grub. We didn’t need a laundromat or pompous yet. 
Our crew numbered three and a half, not counting the dog. A young intern who worked with Jack was along for the ride. She was tall, strong, brilliant and keen to experience sailing. Good, I thought. More naps and fewer dishes to wash for me! Our daughter Gretchen, just seven years old, had our Pug, Spanky, to entertain her, plus she was learning to knit. Jack, of course, was captain and I was navigator/cook/and chief complainer.
I think we saw only one square block of the town. So different then, except for the Blue Water Cafe and Ben Franklin. Mostly, we stayed aboard our boats - our friends had a 33 footer and we had a Pearson 30. - cozy spots on a chilly July night in fog. I remember that we sat up comparing notes on the crossing from the Apostle Islands; coming way too close to an ore boat, and hearing their chugga-chugga engines as we prayed that they were watching their radar. 
Little did we know that the day ahead would be the real test of our mettle. That the sunny day’s wind would whip up twenty-foot troughs between waves and threaten to send one or both of our boats to rest beside the America at the hungry mouth of Washington Harbor.
But I’ll save that tale for next time.
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North



Magnetic North - June 6, 2018

Magnetic North 6/1/18

Love at First Sight
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the woods and lakes and portages draw folks of all ages and abilities, like me. Or, I should say, like me 48 years ago. 
Today, it would take Jaws of Life to get me out of a canoe and there isn’t money enough in this world to make me hike uphill in the dark, surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, to pee at 3 a.m.
But my attitude, and my body were far different in June of 1970. My husband at that time, Jack, and I had been white watering canoeing for a few years on the rivers of Ohio, where we lived before moving back to Minnesota. Jack loved canoeing and as much as he enjoyed rivers, he had his sights set on the Boundary Waters, and so insisted on getting a lake keel on our 18 foot Kevlar canoe.  Jack had been on a Boy Scout trip in the BW and remembered it in a dreamlike way, replete with aurora borealis, more stars than one had ever seen, glistening fresh water lakes and stunning forests. And, because he knew my weakness for animal life, he promised that if we went there I’d see eagles, moose and deer.
And thus we set off for the North Shore in June of ‘72, leaving baby Gretchen with my parents in the cities. All the way up to Duluth, Jack lectured me on the wonders ahead, never guessing that his wife was about to fall head over heels in love with.....a place she would one day live without him.
I remember still how my breath caught and stopped as our car rounded that curve above the Duluth harbor where first you spy Lake Superior. Not since leaving my home on the East Coast ten years before had I seen so much water. An inland sea. It was love at first sight. And so it went, all the way up the narrow highway to Grand Marais. I craned my neck to take in each glimpse of the lake as Jack lectured about the Precambrian shield on the high side of the road. So when we finally got to the Gunflint Trail and took that sharp left turn uphill, away from the lake, I protested. “Where are we going?”
“Round Lake,” he said. “That’s where we put in.” 
And we did, in a Biblical deluge, right behind a scout troop of about two dozen young boys, all with old aluminum canoes. I mention that only because the kids dropped the canoes so often, with the resounding clatter of a garbage can hitting a brick wall. Wet boy scouts, it seems, are tone deaf. 
Since this was our first backpacking venture into the BWCAW, we packed poorly and thus had to make two trips over each portage to get all of our gear to the next lake. But for that first day, just staying on our feet in the mud was the top priority. That, and beating the scouts to the choice camp site we wanted on the next lake. I still remember passing one poor boy, lying on his back off trail, pinned by his heavy pack, kicking his mud caked hiking boots in fury as he brayed for help.
The trip now is something of a blur in my mind. I don’t recall having seen any wildlife, perhaps a beaver swimming back and forth off Ellis lake, where we were camped for two days on a lovely little island. Not out of liking the location, but because Jack sprained his ankles trying to keep our canoe from blowing out into the lake. We never stayed that long anywhere else. It sticks in my mind as a “forced march,” indicative of the difference in temperaments between Jack and myself - a difference that would eventually pull us apart.
Each night, I would fold myself into the sleeping bag, listening to the drone of millions of mosquitoes, loon calls and the distant clanging of the boy scouts dropping or turning over their blasted aluminum canoes,  and replay that drive up the shore. The shore.  That is where my heart was, not in the woods. 
Still, upon our return, we immediately began planning our next trip in the “B-Dub” - this time smart packing, with a red hard sided pannier, ultra lite packs and tent, and a meticulously planned route with even more portages and lake and campsites than on our first outing. It would be in late August, a month with little rain, warmer lake water and, the gods willing, fewer scouts.
And so we returned in August of ’72 and this time we nailed it, at least on paper. The missing element, I now realize. was that we did not factor in the love of nature, only the conquering of it. Our success on the second trip was all about reaching goals, such as the number of portages and lakes tallied in ten days. Now that I think about it,  we were more like decathlon racers, than lovers of woods, trails, and waters. Smug hares zipping by the lumbering tortoises who had packed poorly, strapping toilet seats and other badges of shame to their bodies and packs. And the result was that our victory over nature did not bring us back to those trails and lakes. Ever again.
I say bring “us” back ever again because I did come back. This time with someone who, like me, relished being close to the big lake. So much so that Paul and I scoured the real estate ads for two years until we found a home we loved, loved probably as much as we loved each other. Our farm was homesteaded in 1913 by Scandinavian immigrants, probably much like both sets of Pauls grandparents. 
We had no plan, no goals to accomplish when we packed up and moved here. We just felt that it was where we belonged.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis goes something like this - that when the most important things in our lives are happening, we often have no idea what is going on. I think that is so true of how I came to be here, spinning tales for you some 48 years after I fell in love at first sight with Lake Superior and with the little town pinned to its shores. I had no idea what was going on. None at all. 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North


Maple Hill Church by Bryan Hansel

Magnetic North - May 23, 2018

Magnetic North 5/14/18
Cemetery Competition 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter’s grip is but a memory, albeit one leaving a few bruises. Just when green grass and the melody of spring peeper frogs at dusk enters our world, so too does the annual search for the stuff we put away last fall - or did we throw it away or donate it? You know, the rakes, gardening tools, bug hats and so forth. 

Living for years with a fastidious man of Norwegian descent only made my seasonal treasure hunt more torturous… Mr. Take-and-Put was my nickname for Paul. He relished packing up gear to a fare thee well, with yards of duct tape encircling boxed items in the style of Egyptian mummies. The parcel would then be labeled with black magic marker in big uppercase letters. “GARDEN TOOLS: TROWEL, HAND RAKE, DANDELION ROOT GRABBER...” and so on. But then came the fatal flaw in his otherwise brilliant moves.

He stowed the boxes and promptly forgot where they were. The barn, the garage rafters, the back forty cabin, any one of five sheds? One year we replaced 75 feet of garden hose before finding the neatly coiled, taped and labeled sections in the old outhouse next to the chicken coop. Why there?  Why not there, he asked, adding that his Norwegian grandmother always said that “When you come to where a thing is, you find it.” Clearly, something had been lost in the translation.

And, even though it has been five years, this past week since Paul’s passing, I still have not “come to where” certain things he stowed away are on the farm. .So when I visited his grave last week, I hoped for some insight or clues as to where certain missing items might be tucked away. Paul’s and my parents' graves at Maple Hill Cemetery are in a lovely spot tucked under the sloping branches of a thirty-foot red pine and overlooking the picture postcard old white clapboard church.

Every big day, like birthdays, holidays and such, I visit and leave a box of DOTS candies, his favorites on the marker stone. The stone is nothing fancy. Flush with the ground, as is required for grass cutting, with Paul’s name and dates of birth and death and the inscription, “A life well loved”. It’s a place of peace and memories for me. And sometimes answers. Both large and small.

This year, as in years past, I wondered aloud about the location of such farm items as the fence tightening tool. But before I even got out of my car on the steep little hill running by the gravesite, I was struck by two things that irked me. First, the shepherds crook plant hanger was gone and second, Paul’s plot looked positively naked in comparison to the plots to the left and right of his. Both of these had been planted with daffodil bulbs, now in full bloom. All Paul’s and my parents’ monuments had for adornments were dead pinecones and a box of candy. And just like that, my sweet nostalgia morphed into the green-eyed monster of envy, accompanied by her faithful sidekick, resentment.

Bad enough that someone swiped the plant hanger, I stewed. But what really got my nanny were those oh-so-perky and delightful daffodils. It was all I could do to refocus on the reason I’d come to the place, even as I slurped down Paul’s favorite, strawberry malted began reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet, one hundred sixteen - now an annual ritual for birthday visits. You know, the one that begins, 
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove”

But not even the bard could restrain my thoughts from fastening on the stolen plant hanger. “What kind of person would rob a plant hangar from a grave?” I fumed mid-stanza. “The kind who had never heard of karma, obviously!” 

But back to Shakespeare…
“O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
“Oh Yeah,” my resentful little mind butted in. “TAKEN is the word, alright. Maybe I should install one of those remote cameras.  On the red pine and catch the miscreant in the act.”
And then, back to the sonnet,
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

And with that, I blew my nose, finished the strawberry malt and said my farewells. Three days later, though, I was back, with a lavish basket of shade tolerant indigo blue flowers that I know will bloom their little hearts out all summer long.
I chuckled as I place the basket on the headstone-the shepherd’s crook hanger is on order. “I’ll see your daffodils,” and raise you one cascading extra-large lobelia basket.”

Then, I watered the ridiculously lavish basket, just the kind Paul would have splurged on, and finished Shakespeare’s lines about what love is and is not. 

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Driving out of the little cemetery this time, I was smiling with pleasure, even as I wondered aloud where my Mr. Take-and-Put stowed that fence tightener.  Ah, well, when I come to where the thing is, I’ll find it. Right?
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.



Magnetic North - April 25, 2018

Magnetic North 4/23/18
Of Mud and Memories
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where memories trickle, then rush through our minds like the thousand streams returning to Mother Superior.

While away last week, I planted flowers in my California daughter’s garden, even as I shivered knowing that soon I would be in for another month of frozen ground and maybe even a snowstorm before I could do the same at the farm back home. From six to twelve inches of snow fell hereabouts as I basked in sunny warm weather.

Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of the car at the end of my road and sank into, not snow, but a good five inches of wet clay. Worse than mud, clay fastens to our feet, as gravity weren’t enough to bind us to the earth. Ordinary shoes turn into clay platforms on which to teeter around on. Still, I was thrilled. This meant that the stream surrounding the meadow and running into the pond would soon be roaring under and then over the ice. The little spring under the tamarack tree on the driveway would open it’s arms to my remaining mallard ducks and drakes, with new ducklings sure to follow. Best of all, the fence I’ve been dreaming of all the long winter nights can now be staked out. After 27 years of suffering goats eating my roses and the small crops I plant in raised beds, I think I’ve got them licked.

Chuckling at my brilliance and the goat’s chagrin, this weekend, I stomped through the soggy grass around the house with lengths of orange baling twine - saved in my ‘string too short to be saved’ box  - tied end to end. And as I went, I found the usual assortment of flotsam, small hints of lives lived and lost, even as I sat inside by the fire, snug and unaware.
There was the expensive monogrammed dog collar for Jethro, worn only once after Christmas, then gone, forever I thought. But no, there it was just off the south deck, intact with tags, where his sister dog, Zoey must have gnawed it off his skinny neck. 
Nearby, the evidence of a less funny encounter. Tufts of deer tail, hunks really, with bits of hide, the edges ragged. As I paced off the fence line farther into the yard, more deer hair and hide. Enough to fill one pocket of my barn coat. Did the dogs bring these trophies in from the meadow and was the carcass still near  -  near enough to attract predators close enough to endanger the goats?

The irony of these thoughts wasn’t lost on me. Here I am fencing the goats out, while worry nagged at my mother’s gut imagining slavering wolves in the night feasting on goat meat after polishing off the poor deer they’d taken down. So far, twenty-seven years of having goats and not one lost to a predator. Still......
As I made my way around the corner of the deck, a bath towel sized shadow on the steps down to the basement entry caught my eye So that’s where that throw rug I hung out last November got to! Next to reappear. a carved bit of deck railing winked at me from beneath the spent hay by the woodshed. And so it went. Found objects and memories of other spring thaws showed themselves, one by one. 

The most unpleasant discovery this year is the sinkhole over an old dug well is caving in again, despite the load of rocks piled into it last summer. I know Paul would never allow such a hazard to exist and probably would build some structure over the depression before tackling anything so optional as a fence. He also would have replaced the fallen clothesline poles, big cedar jobs that surrendered to the pull of the clay beneath two years ago. And that old outhouse by the coop? Set originally on two cedar skids, it now lists crazily to one side, making for a precarious perch inside, to say the least. He would never have tolerated such a wanton waste of a good biffy. And then there are the shards of green rolled roofing that left the roof of the coop last month on a wild night of even wilder wind. Wasn’t the roof red when we bought the place? Paul and his friend Art put the green on in an afternoon. Or was it his friend, BJ?

By the time I’d rounded the house, tying the last length of twine between the coop and dog kennel, I was ready for a large mug of coffee and spring. The stream was, as hoped for, growling awake across the road, promising the pond breakup within the week and spring peepers serenade perhaps by month’s end. All in all, a Sunday very unlike my last, planting flowers in Los Angeles. Still, just as fine in its harvest of found objects and fond memories.
I found this little poem by one of my favorites, Edna St. Vincent Millay, that captures the essence of such a simple day in early spring. And while it’s too soon for butterflies and flowers here, the same vivid sense of what is coming and what is past shines in her words. Here ’tis.
Song of a Second April
April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago,
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Of dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
There rings a hammering all day,
And shingles lie about the doors;
In orchards near and far away
The grey wood-pecker taps and bores;
The men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.
The larger streams run still and deep,
Noisy and swift the small brooks run
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
Go up the hillside in the sun,
Pensively,—only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.