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Of Woods and Words

Ada Igoe

Ada Igoe is proud to be homegrown on homegrown radio. Her radio career at WTIP began at an early age. As a child she tagged along to many of the meetings and fundraisers that lead to WTIP's formation. From 1999-2003, during her teenage years, she co-produced WTIP's Ragamuffin Radio, a weekly children's program. After graduating from the College of St. Scholastica in 2007 with a B.A. in English and Communication, she punted about the globe, temping in both London, England and the Twin Cities before realizing the woods and community of Cook County would always be home. She lives on the Gunflint Trail. Her commentary, "Of Woods and Words" can be heard on WTIP's A.M. Calendar program and on North Shore Weekend Saturday mornings. You can also subscribe to a podcast.

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:

Of Woods And Words: Gold Diggers

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You can call me a gold digger, but a little bit of my heart sank when I heard that Prince William finally popped the question to Kate Middleton this past week. You can say what you will about society’s strange relationship with British royalty, but I think pretty much every girl born in the 1980s at one point fostered the delusional hope that she could possibly be the Queen of England, just maybe. I kissed those princess dreams good-bye a long time ago, but I’d be lying if I said the green-eyed beast didn’t make a brief visit when I saw the ginormous sapphire wreathed in diamonds on Miss Middleton’s ring finger.
The pursuit of sparkly things has been on my mind lately.
A couple weeks back I hiked the Centennial Trail for the third time this season. The U.S. Forest Service established this new hiking trail last year, which makes a three-mile loop near the historic site of the old Paulson Mine on the upper Gunflint Trail. At several points along the trail, you can look into some of the test shafts where miners dug for iron ore before the financial panic of 1893 brought the operation to a screeching halt. The Paulson Mine is now hypothesized by many to have been nothing more than a scam. Even if that’s so, it was a scam only because there were enough people who wanted to believe there was mineral wealth in the Gunflint Trail region that they were willing to back the operation.
There’s a place where the trail takes a drastic tip down a cliff, through a gully, and back up another cliff. This is where the railroad trestle stood so the Port Arthur, Duluth, and Western Railroad could transport loads of ore out of the mine. When I stand in the gully, I can almost here the scream of a train passing over my head, squealing against the steel rail and carrying away the area’s dreams of mineral riches, at least for the time.
Because the Paulson Mine may have failed, but people remain convinced, even to this day, that some great yet untapped mineral wealth lies in the depths of Cook County. This past week I had a chance to listen to an interview with the late Russell Blankenburg. Not only was Russell a major entrepreneur along the Gunflint Trail who started multiple businesses and sold numerous residents property in the area, he also prospected a bit as a hobby. At one point, Russell was among many Gunflint Trail residents who claimed to have found a gold vein among the upper Gunflint’s granite hills. 
In the interview I heard, Russell admitted that the gold was too low grade to bother mining it. But a geologist had done studies on the iron ore in the region and had determined that the land contained a high amount of cobalt. Most cobalt was imported from central Africa when the interview was recorded in 1979, and at that time cobalt prices were rising due to conflict in the Congo. Russell speaks about Cook County’s mining prospects with a passion and it is clear that he truly hoped a mining operation would bring wealth to the county. But it never did.
All that sparkles is not gold. And Cook County’s mineral wealth may be a half truth distorted by more than a century of time into a bit of a fairy tale. But we seem chronically drawn to things that sparkle and glint and which seems to offer a life larger than the one we currently live.
Why do we think our lives would be better if we just married a prince and got to drape ourselves in crown jewels? What do we think mineral wealth beneath our feet would really bring us? Early prospectors, so intent on what might lie in the ground below, overlooked the lakes and woods right in front of them that would really be the region’s economic boon. And I have to admit, any more, being a princess sounds like a lot of really uncomfortable outfits and not a whole lot of privacy.
With it being Thanksgiving, it seems like a good time to pause in our pursuit of all things sparkly. Time to stop pretending life would be so much greater if we had some diamonds or sapphires or iron ore. Now is the time to be happy for food on the table and happiness in our homes. Now is the time to think about what we are thankful for in our lives just as they are.

Airdate: November 24, 2010 



Of Woods And Words: The Drama of Deer Scouting

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 I may wax poetic about grouse hunting, but when it comes to deer season, I have to admit, I don’t quite get the allure. It seems like a lot of blaze orange, a lot of camouflage, and a lot of sitting very still in not very warm weather. And I just haven’t heard great things about the general tastiness of venison. 

Still, when I moved in with Andy, it was pretty clear that deer hunting was what you do in November and I thought, okay, fine, I can deal with that. After all, deer season only stretches across three weekends. What I didn’t count on was the amount of deer reconnaissance that goes into the weeks leading up to the opener. I didn’t know you devoted time every evening in late autumn to going on “deer drives.” I didn’t even know what a deer rub was.
This deer season pre-work seems to start when the shadows start growing long. To my displeasure, deer scouting is often dovetailed with grouse hunting expeditions. While grouse hunting mostly entails wandering down established woodland roads and paths, deer scouting seems to be more along the lines of finding the youngest, thickest patch of aspen trees and attempting to crash through the forest in a straight line while supple dogwood branches bend back and smack you across the face while you simultaneously plunge your entire foot into an unexpected puddle of cold standing water.
I realize I’m pretty wimpy for having spent basically my entire life in northeastern Minnesota. And my tolerance for bushwhacking is pretty low. When it becomes clear that all the stomping through the woods, which often results in me becoming lodged sideways in the crooks of a pussywillow, is done to find the elusive scrape on the ground or tree rubbed free of bark, which indicates male deer activity, things start to feel futile. 
Maybe it was more fun before the blowdown happened and there weren’t so many trees to pick your way over. Maybe it was more fun before the forest fires, when there weren’t so many pokey trees or as much charcoal to wipe off your pant legs. And no matter how you spin it, you can’t convince me that setting up a deer stand in the middle of the woods is just like setting up a tree fort.
Needless to say, I get a little cranky about the whole “let’s go look for the deer” attitude that picks up momentum in the middle of October and continues right up to the evening before deer opener.
And yet . . .
My getting snarky every time we started following a deer trail in the woods this fall and ended up in the middle of nowhere really just wasn’t helping matters. Then one bright golden afternoon, when we parked the truck and set off to follow a deer trail over the granite outcroppings, through the river, and among the young jack pine forest, I remembered something a theater teacher had told me a long time ago: that if you focus your senses on a particular thing, your awareness of that thing will become increasingly pronounced. 
All I’d really ever focused my senses on during similar ventures was how much I wanted deer scouting to be over. So I thought maybe I could expand that focus a little bit. Sure enough, when I stopped thinking “when is this going to be over”, I started to feel the weak late afternoon sunshine on my face. I heard chickadees and grey jays chirping and squawking in the trees. A squirrel chattered in the distance and a chipmunk scampered across the granite outcropping we stood on. With the wind whispering past my ear, and just the occasional rumble of a car passing on the far-off road to interrupt the noises of the natural world, I realized just how still and quiet the world we live in becomes in the late autumn. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all, if we hadn’t been out deer scouting.
Of course on the way back to the truck, my jacket got tangled in a balsam tree, I didn’t quite manage to jump across a small stream and at least three branches whipped me in the face. But with my senses focused on the larger world around me, it hardly seemed to matter.  

Airdate: November 10, 2010



Of Woods And Words: Snowsuit Halloween

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 I have Halloween memories prior to the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, but they are hazy, half memories. I know my mother dressed my brother and me up as hobos the Halloween before I started school. I know my mom sewed me a homemade dairy cow costume for kindergarten. But when I really think about Halloween, it seems all my memories start with the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. I was in first grade and dressed up as a puppy dog. My little brother got to be the dairy cow that year.

In the early evening of Halloween 1991, my brother and I pulled on our costumes in our dimly lit living room. Outside the large picture windows, the snow howled and swirled outside the windows. A foot of snow had already accumulated outside in the teeny tiny town on the edge of the Minnesota tundra where we lived at the time. By some fluky coincidence, the café across the street caught fire, an electrical fire I think, completely gutting the building. As ash mixed with the snow falling past our windows, my father announced we would not be going trick-or-treating. Amazingly, despite the odd occurrences of Halloween 1991, I don’t associate Halloween with disaster. But I do associate it with snow.
Still, the omnipresent snow of my childhood Halloweens always lent a mildly disastrous quality to the holiday for me. To understand what I’m saying, let me explain that in my early childhood, I believe that little girls could be two things when they grew up: an elementary schoolteacher or a ballerina. I was sold on the whole teaching gig, but I did desperately want to be a ballerina. In the years before realizing my bone structure would conspire against my ballet aspirations or that the only dance I could really pull off was called “frog in the blender,” I’d use my library card to check out books on Maria Tallchief and the Nutcracker Suite, hoping that through some sort of literary osmosis, I too would become graceful and coordinated.   
Since Halloween was meant to be the one day of the year when you got to be whatever you wanted to be, once I was old enough to decide on my own costumes without fail, I chose to be a ballerina for Halloween. I thought it was a great idea. I got to run around in a leotard, tights, and tutu at the school Halloween party, back in the days when they had school Halloween parties. But when it came to the actual trick-or-treating portion of the holiday, I started realized why my parents had urged me to think of a more ‘snowsuit’-appropriate costume when I announced my ballerina plans. 
In Grand Marais, where we had moved by the time my true ballerina aspirations took hold, the average high temperature on Oct. 31 is 39 degrees. And even when you’re little and start your trick-or-treating right at sundown, it’s down to the low 30s if not upper 20s by the time you’re out masquerading. Wanting only to deal with cranky, sugar-high children that were not frostbitten, my parents insisted we bundle up for the event.
But when you’re dressed as a ballerina, you can’t really pull your tights over your snow pants. And if you’re wearing snow pants, you’re also going to need a bulky jacket, which effectively covers up your leotard and pretty much disguises the frilly tutu you’ve managed to squeeze up and over your snow pants. By the time I was dressed for trick-or-treating, I looked like the kid who couldn’t bother to get a costume together but just goes out looking for free candy.
“What are you?” people would ask when they answered the door with a bowl of candy after the troop of kids my brother and I trick-or-treated with rang the doorbell.
“I’m a ballerina,” I’d tell them.
“Oh really,” they’d say, a look of bemused disbelief on their faces. There’s foreshadowing, if I ever saw it.
After all, I’m not a ballerina. That dream faded away long ago. But from those chilly, snowy Halloweens come some of my warmest childhood memories. Even as I carve pumpkins this Halloween and pull out the holiday decorations for the cabin, I can still feel the weight of my UNICEF box growing heavier as we collected change along with treats, I can feel the cold nip of the breeze against our cheeks as we trooped up and down the streets of west Grand Marais, and I can remember the excitement of dumping out our bags of fun-sized candy on the living room floor. And every once in a while, I still find my mind wandering to the topic of snowsuit-appropriate costumes. 

Airdate: October 30. 2010



Of Woods And Words: What Winter?

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 I’m prone to seasonal amnesia. In the dark, coldest bits of winter, I become convinced that spring will never come. Likewise, in the midst of summer, when I’m splashing in the lake on hot afternoons or taking advantage of the abundance of daylight by spending evenings out in the fishing boat until the sun dips behind the horizon, it’s hard to believe that someday not too far off, winter will come and the world will freeze.

To be honest, sometimes in the middle of summer, I wonder just how we can stand such long winters. How do we do it?
I know I’m not alone in my disbelief about the changing seasons. A few years ago I told someone how hard it is for me in the summer to imagine the trees without leaves or frozen lakes. “I know,” the other person said. “I can’t remember what it looks like from one season to the next.”
I wonder if our tendency to throw ourselves so hard into the current season that we forget any other time of year says something about northern Minnesotans. We may pretend not to remember one season from the next, but we do know that each season is fleeting in its individual wonder, and that be it winter, spring, summer, or fall, each season deserves to be enjoyed fully, without wasting too much thought on the seasons that have been or are to come. We’ve seen too much snow in May and September not to spend our Julys saying, “What winter?”
Deep down, I know soon it will be second nature to stomp across the frozen bay outside the cabin. It just seems so utterly ludicrous that this will soon be a reality. If I were to attempt to tromp across the bay today, I’d just get really wet and cold. With the tamaracks blazing yellow and orange along the roads and trails, it seems silly to think about winter when there is so much beauty to soak up in this very moment.
I always assumed my seasonal amnesia meant I was longing for a more temperate climate with less capricious seasons. One winter in England quickly cured me of that assumption. In London, winter is nothing more than a dark, grey, rainy, dead five-month period of time. By the time March rolled around that London winter, I longed for a good blizzard to break the bleak monotony. There was value, I realized, to being able to structure your life around a whimsical four-season system. 
Still, I don’t always profess to love the four-season system. Today, as the days grow shorter and the mornings darker, I call on my seasonal amnesia to prevent any thoughts of the approaching winter. As much as I want to cover my eyes and plug my ears, as much as I wanted to pretend that the new woodstove we bought last month was for dealing with the hypothetical, I know winter will be here soon.
Because I can see the seasons changing before my eyes. It seems that in one great sigh, the trees all shook off their leaves, and now walks in the woods are punctuated by their crackle underfoot. Around our bay, the docks are coming in. The summer neighbors have said their good-byes and now ours is the only light shining out over the bay each evening.
Watching all the neighbors pack up reminds me a little of that saying we used to yell when we were little: “Last one there’s a rotten egg.” It seems everyone around here has shaken their seasonal amnesia to make all the necessary preparations for the encroaching winter. But it’s not that we’re rotten eggs at the cabin. We know winter’s coming. I just can’t imagine it yet.
Airdate: October 20, 2010


Of Woods And Words: The Groceries Dilemma

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 Maybe all kids from the country go through this, but almost as soon as I became aware of a larger world around me, big city grocery stores began to fascinate me. As soon as I stepped through the automatic doors into the fluorescent glow of overhead lights reflected in the polished floor tiles, I felt I’d emerged into a new world. Before me I found laid out more produce than I knew was possible to gather in one place, endless aisles of cereal, cheese, and even whole sections of the big box stores devoted to items that weren’t even groceries. Who knew you could pick up Christmas ornaments and a gallon of milk not only on the same trip, but in the same store? From an early age I was hooked on big grocery stores and I clamored to help my grandmother run errands when we visited her in the Chicago suburbs.

As a teenager I grew intrigued by the concept of 24 hour grocery stores. Accustomed to the rhythms of small town life where grocery shopping and banking must happen during set hours of the day on set days of the week, I couldn’t get over the fact that if I wanted to pick up a box of cookies at three in the morning that I could actually do that. When I told my college freshmen roommate that, she laughed.
“Oh Ada,” she said. “You’re never going back are you?”  
At the time, I assumed she was right. Flying high on the convenience of large town living, I couldn’t imagine returning to the often inflexible lifestyle of my hometown.
But much of what we assume our freshmen years of college proves false in the long run. Even the great friendship we have with those first roommates often fizzle out in a few short years when it grows apparent that the only real thing we shared was the 10 by 15 room we crammed ourselves into that first academic year. 
I haven’t spoken to that roommate in years. Today, I live 55 miles away from my childhood home and all my grocery shopping is completed at a small store that’s absolutely nothing like the big 24 hour box grocery stores that I still have a soft spot for.
Lately we’ve been spending our free time at the cabin stacking wood and installing a new woodstove. The geese have taken to their honking journeys south and the loons haven’t called out in weeks. We know winter isn’t too far off and that means it’s the time of year when you become acutely aware of the distance between you and the grocery store. Groceries are an almost constant quiet worry up here and as the winter progresses that worry increases as the Gunflint Trail grows snow-packed and slick.
I now live a life completely devoid of three in the morning cookie runs. Instead, we spend a lot of effort trying to keep our cupboards from imitating Mother Hubbard’s, with varying levels of success. I mean, who hasn’t eaten a dinner of frozen spinach, mixed with a can of black eyed peas and served over herbed couscous? 
The worst supply crisis we had was when we ran out of toothpaste during the busiest time of this past summer. We spent a whole week ransacking every travel kit in the cabin, squeezing every possible bit of toothpaste out of teeny tiny toothpaste tubes before finally running to the canoe outfitters down the road to buy two more teeny tubes of toothpaste. At long last, Andy made a special trip to town after to work with the sole intent of coming home with a couple of full-sized toothpaste tubes.
This life of mine up in the woods: it’s not convenient at all. It requires special planning for even the most mundane tasks and often we fail on the most basic levels. But how else were those big grocery stores going to hold onto their charm after all these years?  
Airdate: September 29, 2010


Of Woods And Words: The Grouse Season

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 While growing up, my brother and I ate far more tofu-dogs than we ate actual hot dogs. Our vegetarian upbringing directly influenced our outdoor experiences. While other kids spent their time outside fishing or hunting, the experiences my brother and I had outdoors were far more ‘Transcendentalist’ than ‘sportsman’. Our parents had no greater purpose beyond a belief that “it was good for us” when they took us on hikes, paddles, and camping trips.  

There’s no telling which elements of your childhood are going to stick with you through life. How else do you explain how this tofu-dog eating child grew up into an adult who spends the late summer months looking forward to grouse hunting season like a little kid counting the days until their next birthday?
In a world of hunters and gatherers, I’ve always lumped myself with the gatherers. I grew up viewing hunting with a mixture of ignorance and apprehension. Last fall when Andy suggested we go grouse hunting, I looked at him like he was crazy.
Remember how Ron Burgundy in the movie, Anchorman, describes jogging as “basically running for an extended period of time?” That same logic can be applied to grouse hunting. It turns out that grouse hunting is basically just walking around in the autumn woods for an extended period of time.
Last fall I learned that grouse hunting is all about coming around a bend in the path to come face to face with two moose, the musty sweet smell of rotting leaves rising up under your feet, and the hasty pause and breath-holding that occurs when a grouse struts across the path in front of you. At the end of the day, grouse hunting isn’t really about coming home and making some tasty grouse pot pie or homemade noodle soup. Regardless of whether or not a bird is even spotted during a grouse hunting expedition, grouse hunting is always a success because it offers an opportunity to enjoy the world during nature’s final beautiful burst before winter.
While my parents took my brother and me outside simply for the sake of being outside, it seems anymore we need some sort of excuse to get ourselves out the front door. I don’t know why that is. But as we grow older, our lives start to center around a perception of productivity, and time outside often only seems acceptable if we can somehow squeeze a purpose into the outing.
This outdoor delusion seems to infuse our outings all year long. In the spring we go out under the pretense of hunting morel mushrooms when in truth we just want to check on the spring wildflowers. In the summer, the promise of blueberries lures us into the woods.
Maybe I’m not really looking forward to grouse hunting this fall. Maybe in actuality I’m looking forward to shutting off my email program, closing my laptop, and heading out to spend time in the woods with one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. If a grouse hunting expedition happens to lead to a pot pie baking in the oven, that’s just a happy bonus. 

Airdate: September 15, 2010




Of Woods And Words: How to Meet Your Neighbors

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In the summer, in the woods, solitude can feel like an illusion. During the winter, just a handful of people live on our bay and life unfolds quietly, as if on your own whim. But come Memorial Day, all the cabins along the road fill to capacity, boats come whizzing in and out of the bay and each week brings a new barking dog in the neighboring rental cabin. As everyone gets away from it, we end up in the middle of it.
Neighborhoods are funny things in a rural area. As soon as I reach Grand Marais on a drive back home from somewhere, I consider myself home although I still have another hour drive before I reach the cabin where I live. People who live 25 miles off from us are called neighbors. Yet the people who live on the same bay, literally next door to us, have largely remained enigmas. Truth be told, we’re never down at the beach roasting weenies and marshmallows with actual neighbors; instead we hang out with people who had to travel a distance to see us.
Over the course of this summer, I learned the names of our neighbors, even learned to recognize them, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever had a conversation with any of them. We all exist in our own teeny, rarely overlapping worlds. Sometimes in the North Woods it takes something momentous to pull people together.
Take the events of last Monday, for example . . . . 
It started out as just another hot, muggy day. When Andy called to see if I wanted a ride home I jumped at the chance to be spared yet another sticky trek back to the cabin. It was the end of the work week and I putzed around getting everything in order, waiting for Andy to arrive. Then the phone rang. “I can’t come,” said Andy. “There’s a semi-truck stuck in the road.”
The road we live on is kind of the epitome of cabin roads which have been grandfathered in. The road cuts far too close to the lake in several spots, there are hills like rollercoasters on it, and there’s barely space for two cars to squeeze past each other on the gravel road, let alone room for a semi. But building materials had to get into a site on the road last Monday and so the 18-wheel truck came barreling up the road. The truck did all right for a while, but then the driver attempted to turn around and ended up getting wedged up one of the road’s small hills.
The truck was still decidedly stuck when I walked past on my way home from work. For a while all the neighbors tried not to gawk. But the driver and his companion appeared in fairly good spirits about the whole predicament, and one by one we all emerged from our houses to go stand in the road to watch just how they were going to get this massive truck off our tiny road.
By the time the semi was finally freed three hours after it had gotten stuck, the peanut gallery of neighbors had grown to six members, not to mention the two other neighbors helping free the huge vehicle. We watched with unchecked interest and, at times, disbelief, as the truck’s trailer was unloaded, the truck was pulled forward with chains and two vehicles and eventually the trailer was righted on the road using an ancient road grader. Interspersed with each peanut gallery member’s personal commentary on the whole situation were introductions and handshakes. By the time the semi roared off, it had turned into a regular neighborhood meet and greet in the middle of the road. In the end, we each headed off to our own place around the bay thinking, ‘That was kind of nice, we should do that again soon.’ Well, except for the part that involves a semi-trailer blocking off all traffic on our road.
Airdate: September 1, 2010


Of Woods And Words: Learning To Dive

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One night in late June, a pair of loons in the bay outside the cabin took to caterwauling. They whooped, yodeled, and called all night long.

The next morning the loons still swam in the bay, calling out occasionally. An inky, fluffy blob popped out from under the wing of one of the adult loons. Suddenly all of the loons’ noise from the night before made perfect sense. They’d had a chick hatch.

You’d have thought no one had ever seen a baby loon before. Within a couple hours, everyone living around the bay had spotted the little guy swimming about in the bay with his parents and had made a point of pointing out the chick to other neighbors. After a couple summers without any loon chick sightings, everyone saw the little guy as a hopeful sign of natural normality.

We’ve kept tabs on the loon family. They’re hardly pets, but we feel a certain responsibility for the world they live in. We pointed out when we spotted the family swimming in the distance. We pulled out binoculars and spotting scopes to watch the loon family feed. We took countless blurry pictures of the family when they swim into the bay. And more than anything we worried about them.

We worried when the loon chick was tiny and his parents would leave him bobbing on the lake’s surface when they dove underwater for supper. We worried if the tiny little guy would grow big enough to be able to make his first winter migration. Now, as the summer grows old, the loon chick has grown into a sleek grey shadow of his parents. He’s big enough to ward off most predators and we’ve begun to worry about what sort of world our loon baby will find when he makes his first winter journey south.

When the loons first arrived in the bay this spring, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was just unfolding. We welcomed the sight of the loons with a sigh of relief. Somehow, it felt as though we were keeping the loons safe from harm. As the disaster of the oil spill morphed out of comprehension and the baby loon emerged, it became apparent that the loons were just experiencing a temporary safe haven from an environmental disaster that would no doubt affect a significant number of loons. We won’t know if our loon family

Lately the chick has been practicing his dive. He hasn’t quite mastered his technique. He comes popping up to the surface long before his parents reemerge. Soon he’ll have to practice flying so he can make the long autumn flight to an ocean coast.

In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes about monarch butterflies who make a wild jog in their migration course when they cross Lake Superior. It’s believed the butterflies are remembering where a large mountain once stood. "I’d like to be it," says Dillard. "To feel where to turn." We can’t tell the baby loon to fly somewhere, anywhere besides the Gulf of Mexico this fall when he senses it’s time to leave this original home place of his. But we can hope as he flaps across the great Lake Superior that he’ll feel where to turn.

Airdate: August 18, 2010



Of Woods And Words: Don't Get Around Much

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When I stand on our deck, I can look always way across the lake to spy the sign for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a tiny island way out in the distance. The storied wilderness that plays a central role in so many people’s summer vacations is literally a very looong stone’s throw off. In fact, there’s a canoe outfitters on the next bay over, and every morning I watch troops of canoeists paddle past our bay, either heading out or returning from canoe trips.

Lately we’ve gotten into a habit of heading out in the motor boat each evening to do a few minutes of lake trout fishing. We motor right in front of the Boundary Waters sign and kill the motor. We hook the ciscoes on, throw down our lines and sinkers, and wait for a nibble. One night as we bobbed about in the boat last month, I realized it had actually been over a year since we’ve gotten to see the other side of that Boundary Waters sign. Luckily that embarrassing little fact was quickly put right with an evening paddle down the lake.

Still, there’s an assumption that people who live here year-round must spend their free time out in the woods or on the water, enjoying the vast plethora of outdoor activities this area offers. But in this summer-driven economy, I find my dog days of summer are more frequently spent behind a desk than lazing about on rock outcropping in the Boundary Waters. Days off are devoted to laundry, groceries, errands, and other to-do list items that have slipped through the cracks of the work week. The Minnesota land of summer vacations lies within eyesight from my front door, yet it often seems very far away.

They say youth is wasted on the young. Wilderness cabins might be wasted on the young too. It always worries me that the visitors here might actually know the land better than I do. But maybe that’s a worry that plagues a lot of people, no matter where they live.

When I worked in London, my coworkers were consistently amazed by all the things the Yanks did on their days off. Inevitably the group of temporary American workers that I belonged to spent their weekends doing all sorts of touristy things like visiting historic buildings, going to the theatre, or taking weekend trips to the countryside and the continent. "We never do anything like that," the Brits would say whenever we Yanks reported on our weekends at work each Monday. My British co-workers, on the other hand, spent their weekend doing the mundane things that I now do at the cabin on my days off. Not participating in the activities that supposedly personify your home might very much be part of being, well, home.

But please don’t assume that means we locals don’t realize the beauty of our home. We don’t mean to have our lives swallowed by work and routine. There’s always part of me that longs to be part of the group that does all the fun stuff in the woods.

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay beautifully summed up the urge for travel and change when she wrote: "Yet there isn’t a train I’d rather take, no matter where it’s going." Sometimes, as I watch the canoes pass from left to right across the bay, I think, there’s no canoe I’d rather take, no matter where it’s going.

Airdate: August 11, 2010



Of Woods And Words: The Berry Season

FinalCut_OWW_20100722.mp38.14 MB
I have tried several times to write about berry picking, never with especially great success. Maybe the visceral nature of berry picking makes it difficult to form firm, full thoughts about the joy I find in feeling my berry picking container grow heavier with each plunk of berries. After all, any outdoor summer activity that causes me to completely ignore the mosquitoes and black flies buzzing around my head and the bitey flies taking big bites of my calves has to be pretty profound indeed.
But then, I come from a long line of berry pickers. Years ago, the backyard of the house I grew up in was a tangle of raspberry bushes that my great-grandfather tended with some help from my parents. The berries were Great-Grandpa’s retirement project, something he did partly for hobby, partly for supplemental income. He was set in his ways for tending the berry bushes and he could be a difficult employer. One of his best tricks was taking phone orders for berries from Mrs. Johnson, but not bothering to take down a first name and or address. Grand Marais has always been a small town, but it’s always had its fair share of Mrs. Johnsons. This little lack of foresight on Great-Grandpa’s part made delivery of the berries such a tricky thing.
By the time I came around, the raspberry patch behind our house had been significantly downgraded, but berry picking was still firmly entrenched in my family’s psyche. For as many amusing berry picking incidents as have popped up in my family’s history – like the time a garter snake crawled beneath my mother’s car seat after one blueberry picking trip off the Lima Grade – in the end, berry picking feels less about activity and industry and more about a state of mind. There is unmanufactured contentment and happiness that infuses my memories of driving to Canada to pick strawberries or of having a fox creep quietly into the blueberry patch I was crouched in off the Magnetic Rock Trail.
At its heart, berry picking isn’t terribly glamorous. During evening pickings, I often have biting insects chomp down on my skin through a layer of clothing. I’ve picked berries in downpours. Most often though, I’m out picking in the heat of the day, sunburning odd little red strips on to the top of my legs while sweat beads on my face.
Despite the perceived unpleasantness of the task, something deep runs beneath the gentle monotony of gathering of berries for jam and pies and muffins and for freezing or the winter months. While most of my thoughts while out berry picking center around what I’m going to do with all these berries and wondering if there’s a better spot just over there, I’ve also found that time alone spent berry picking brings a confidence in the quietest of your thoughts. Some of my most productive thoughts have been accompanied by the sound of a blueberry plunking into a plastic container.
Whenever I pick berries, the words of a woman I never met ring through my mind. When I first began helping my mom pick in our small raspberry patch, my mother passed down my great-grandmother’s advice for berry picking. Great-Grandma said to pull gently on each berry as you pick. To let the ripe berries fall into your palm. To not tug on the under-ripe berries which resist your pull. That gentle advice of great-grandma’s has served me well through years, both in berries and in life. It always fills up my bucket with only the ripest and plumpest of berries and lets the not-quite-ready berries have just a little more time in the sun.
Airdate: July 23, 2010