The Paulding Light

The lake that we stay at every summer is just south of Watersmeet, Michigan. A simple little crossroads town in the middle of the woods. As activities go, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Watersmeet that doesn’t involve woods or water, which might explain my fondness for the place. The only things of significance are the local high school sports teams (The Nimrods), the nearby Indian casino, and the Paulding Mystery light.

What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of the Paulding Mystery Light? Well pull up a rocking chair, and let me tell you a story…

I first heard of the Paulding Mystery light as a kid, watching the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not TV show with Jack Palance. In the woods north of Watersmeet, Michigan along a stretch of Old highway 45, a ghostly light appears in the early evenings. This strange sphere of light hovers on the edge of the horizon, near a powerline right of way, and sometimes appears to move closer and change colors.

The Paulding Light

The Paulding Light


The lights have been captured on film many times, and many have tried to hike to the spot where the light appears. But each time when they get close they can no longer see the light, despite others claiming that the light is still very visible from a distance.

Many theories have been offered to the cause of the light. Some claim it is a reflection of highway lights from the nearby road, however the lights have allegedly been appearing since before the automobile was invented. Others have dismissed them as swamp gas, but the lights appear in the middle of winter when the woods are buried deep in snow.

Over the years various legends have developed concerning the lights. One myth explains the lights as the ghost of a railroad brakeman, while other say it is the ghost of an Indian dancing on the power lines, or the ghost of a miner trying to find his way home. Some claim that the lights start over Lake Superior and make their way inland.

USFS interpretive signs tend to take the scare out of mysteries...

USFS interpretive signs tend to take the scare out of mysteries...

The light itself does not do much, but shine. It has no unearthly connection to tragic events of great portent. It doesn’t make sound, or interact with anyway. As mysteries go it is somewhat dull. Despite all the theories the light remains what it is advertised as being. A mystery. Ultimately, it’s enigmatic nature is the thing that keeps people coming back to the end of this old dirt road.

SPOOKY

SPOOKY

This was our 4th year of coming to the U.P., and we pledged to finally get out and see the light for ourselves. So on Thursday evening we drove the 15 miles to the turnoff on Hwy 45, and down the dirt road through the tall dark tunnel of pines. There at the end of the road were 10 cars, and a group of about 30 or so people, standing in the dark, staring at the far horizon. And on the horizon? The ghostly glow of a mysterious light!

The kids were a little freaked out, but they’d have been scared even if there wasn’t a light. The northwoods are something out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale to a 10 and 11 year old. We hung out for about 20 minutes, and watched the light come and go, and change from white to red. We chatted with some very earnest ghost hunter types from Milwaukee.

So I finally saw the light, and sadly I can now offer an opinion on it. They are car headlights and tail lights from the highway cresting a distant hill. Honestly, that was the first, and simplest explanation that sprang to mind when I saw them. If I hadn’t known they were a mystery before seeing them, I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it.

I was a bit bummed out, having hoped for more. Next year maybe we can go in search of the Michigan Dogman.

Advertisements

On Eagle River

There is a lovely breeze blowing in off the lake, here at the Great Camp of the 20 Prospect clan. Sitting on the screen porch, keeping lookout for our resident chipmunk to make sure he doesn’t sneak through the hole in the screen in search of tasty treats, it’s hard to believe that the weather is not always this idyllic. Sad but true, sometimes it does rain on vacation. And sometimes, even if it doesn’t rain, the north wind blowing in off of the lake is chilly, and for all it’s beauty, the deep blue water isn’t very enticing. It’s on days like this when we decide to head into town to break up the exhausting routine of relaxation.

Town for us isn’t Watersmeet, or even Land O’ Lakes, which are the nearest outposts for a thick steak, a cold beer, and a loaf bread & gallon of milk. Town is Eagle River, Wisconsin 30 miles to the south. Eagle River is an old lumber town, that transformed itself into a vacation resort during the later half of the 20th century. Located in the middle of the Eagle River Chain of Lakes, it had enough inherent density to create a sort of gravitational field for the post war tourists that started pouring north in their station wagon’s to escape the heat of Chicago, Milwaukee, in the summer time. Our link to this area extends back to Mrs. 20P’s childhood, when her family rented cabins up on North Twin Lake. Eagle River was the nearest town for them, and the place that her Grandpa would take the kids to buy rubber tomahawks, and penny candy.
3233214116_93a61c107c
I am pleased to report, that it hasn’t changed. In fact, the same old souvenir shops that stood then, are still here today. The mid 20th century signage on Wall Street is worth the drive alone. This is road side America as it used to be. Enter into these stores and you’ll be pleased to see the same faux Indian jewelry, and rubber tomahawks that I remember from trips to Watkins Glen, and Niagara Falls as a kid. Growing up it didn’t seem to matter what State or town you visited. If it was a vacation destination, it warranted a genuine tom-tom or tomahawk, made in China, and printed with the name of the town on the side. In those days kids grew up knowing that all Indians wore feathered head dresses, and war paint, and ran around tapping their palms against their mouths going “woo-woo-woo-woo!!!”. Don’t let the teachers and the history books tell you otherwise. It was only through the efforts of guys like Marshall Dillon, the Lone Ranger, and the Cartwright boys that the west was civilized, and made safe for imported Chinese trinkets. Hop Sing would nod in agreement.

Signs on Wall Street

Signs on Wall Street


If only life and history were that simple. Which is why I can look past the tackiness, and irony of Eagle River’s t-shirt shops, and imported lead-paint covered merchandise, and enjoy it for place it used to be, and still is. A little slice of Americana that has somehow managed to survive without being bulldozed in the name of progress, or loved to death. It wouldn’t be a vacation if we didn’t find a gray afternoon to escape to Wall Street, and browse the shops. Every year I look forward to stopping into Tremblay’s Sweet Shop, and stocking up on salt water taffy, and my own personal weakness, Swedish Fish.
Mmmm... Swedish Fish

Mmmm... Swedish Fish


The kids will ooh and ah over the junk in the shops, trying to decide which little souvenir to buy, and bring home as a memento from their vacation. A reminder of the summer days at the lake, and the sunshine shimmering off the water. The hollow clunk of the aluminum boats against the wooden dock, and the shadows of the pines as they lengthen over the shore line, and portend the coming of darkness and the lighting of the campfire.

Nostalgia is the sweetest drink. Smoother than bourbon, and twice as potent.

The Great Camp

In the time honored tradition of the great Robber Barons, the 20 Prospect is sojourning at our Northwoods Camp.

Great Camp Sagamore of the 20 Prospect Family

Great Camp Sagamore of the 20 Prospect Family

Sure, it’s a bit much. But we’ll have close to 30 relatives, cousins, and inlaws in attendance. We need the space.

Actually, we will not all be under one roof. (Thankfully). This will be our fourth summer in the U.P., after having to say goodbye to the resort in St. Germain, Wisconsin, when it was sold to a developer. Damn developers.

The real cabin

The real cabin


Hopefully this little Mom & Pop place will be around for many years to come, because there is no shortage of Great Camps on the Cisco Chain of Lakes. I am amazed by the money that has gone into some of these places. The gilded age has nothing on our recent history. Yes, you too can build a Northwoods home that would make a Vanderbilt blush so long as you qualify for our easy credit terms…

No thanks. I prefer to rent our little 2 bedroom cabin for a week. Still, the view from the front porch is something a Rockefeller would appreciate.

The view from the Front Porch

The view from the Front Porch

I have to say, I really do love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It reminds me so much of northern N.Y., and the Adirondacks. And the best part is that Watersmeet is far from being some gentrified resort town. In fact, it could use a little bit of $. Home to about a thousand hardy souls, the biggest employer in the area is an Indian Casino. The town is even pseudo famous thanks to their local High School sports team.

You see back in the late 90’s, ESPN decided to run a piece on the “weirdest nicknames” for High Schools. The Watersmeet Nimrods topped the list. Nimrod, despite it’s connotation, is actually a biblical name for “great hunter”. A logical nickname for a school in the north woods. Until Bug’s Bunny decided to taunt Elmer Fudd by calling him a “Nimrod”, which subsequently found its way into our vernacular as an insult. (I wonder if the University of Chicago Maroons suffered the same fate?)

Go Nimrods!

Go Nimrods!


Anyway, the piece resulted in several ironic promo’s poking fun at the “backwards” inhabitants who cheered for their Nimrods. But Watersmeet to their credit, did not shy away from the exposure. They proudly embraced their notoriety. Enter a film crew from the Sundance TV network, who filmed an 8 part documentary during the Winter of 2004-2005 on the Nimrod basketball team, and the life of the town in the Winter months. It was very sympathetically done, and shows as honest a portrait of small town life as Winesburg, Ohio or Spoon River Anthology. The series was called Nimrod Nation and it is now out on DVD. I highly recommend it.

Despite their 15 minutes of fame, Watersmeet remains an unspoiled place. A cross road town on Hwy 2, it’s unlikely to ever see much money from the developers. The main employers seem to be the nearby Indian Casino and the State Highway Department. Most of the properties going up in the woods are private homes that only provide a few construction jobs, maybe some work as caretakers or cleaners for the locals, and some extra $ to the tax base. Not much to feed a family on.

So that’s our summer get away. To be honest, we spend most of our time lakeside.. Fishing, swimming, kayaking, and getting out for a daily bike ride on the back roads.

Night fall ends with a campfire for the young’uns and a game of Kaluki for the old folks.

Paul Smith’s Once! Paul Smith’s Twice!

Holy jumping Jesus Christ!… or so the cheer goes. Why and how that profane cheer sticks in my head, like all my stories, is a long one.

The year was 1979, and my Bratty Big Sister had just graduated from N.D., and was preparing to head off to college. She would be just the third person ever from the 20 Prospect clan to attend college, and that list includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great grand parents, etc. We weren’t exactly college material, what with the long family history of fleeing just about every respectable empire in Central Europe for work in the mines and factories of the new world. But it was the post war years, and the American dream was still alive in the hearts of working class schleps everywhere. Two parents with no more than a high school education, and an hourly wage could plan to send their children to college to advance themselves into the great, golden, middle class of Buicks and Ranch homes in Levittown. Oh, those were the waning days of our great post war economy. In Western New York the dark clouds of depression were already looming by then. Industrial decline, white flight, and crumbling infrastructure were beginning to seem like more than just a short anomaly. Soon they would become the norm, but in 1979, hope still glowed in the distance, and Bratty Big Sis packed up her bags and left Batavia for college.

Her school of choice was Paul Smith’s College, a little two year institution in the north woods of the Adirondack mountains, where she had decided to pursue a degree in Travel and Tourism. (This was back when 2 year Associate Degrees were still worth something.) Paul Smith was one of the original hoteliers of the age of the Adirondack Great Camps, and his legacy and name had been passed on to a little hovel of buildings on the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake, about 20 miles North of the village of Saranac Lake. I will never understand how she came to choose such a place. Perhaps she had an unknown affinity for lumberjacks, as Forestry Majors accounted for about 70% of the student population. Or maybe she read about the 10 to 1 male to female ratio and liked those odds. Regardless, her choice would come to have a big influence on me, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Lower St. Regis Lake

Prior to her Senior year of high school, my Bratty Big Sis had been the bane of my existence. She was my constant tormentor as a child, perhaps because she never really forgave my parents for having me. She had enjoyed the glory of being the baby in the family for a good 7 years before I came along and spoiled her fun. Lord knows she spent the next 10 years exacting her revenge. But for some odd reason, perhaps because I had finally reached an age and size at which I could pin her to the couch and slap her in the forehead, a truce had been declared. In fact, by the time she left for school that Fall I had actually come to miss her. (Please don’t tell her that). So when parent’s weekend rolled around, and my folks went off to visit her, I was disappointed to have to stay behind.

I would not have to wait much longer for my first visit to the North Country however. For just a few weeks later in the fall, we received one of those phone calls in the middle of the night that makes every parent’s blood turn cold. She had been in a car accident coming home from the bars in Saranac Lake, and was in intensive care with internal bleeding, and multiple injuries. Mom and Dad were dressed within minutes, and in the car on their way to Plattsburgh, where the State Police had said she was being transferred for emergency surgery. It was a long night for all of us, as we sat by the phone waiting for the call that we hoped would never come. By morning, the State Police had called back to tell us that she had been rushed into surgery right there in Saranac Lake, as they weren’t sure she’d make it to Plattsburgh. Unfortunately, in the age before cell phones, we had no way to catch my folks and tell them to head to Saranac Lake General Hospital instead. The State Police called the hospital in Plattsburgh, and put out a notice to stop their car if spotted, but it was no use. Mom and Dad arrived in Plattsburgh only to be told that their daughter was not registered as a patient. I can’t imagine their horror at fearing the worse. By the time they got the news, and back tracked that hour and a half to Saranac Lake, she was out of surgery and in the intensive care unit.

Over the coming days, she would stabilize, and the story would be pieced together. She had been out at the bars in Saranac Lake that night, and was riding home with three classmates in a Ford Bronco. Coming around a bend in the road, the headlights shone on a vehicle parked on the shoulder of the road facing them, and the driver mistook it for an oncoming car and swerved. He lost control, and the Bronco rolled, and flipped over. The two boys in the back were thrown clear from the vehicle, and emerged with only scratches, but the front passenger side hit the guardrail and crumpled, and when the car flipped the roof disintegrated. The driver was able to crawl out of the vehicle, but she was trapped inside, screaming, and crying. Luckily she had no memory of the crash, her last memory being talking and laughing in the car before the crash. They had to cut her out of the vehicle with the jaws of life. Hard to believe, but the 18 year old driver of the Bronco was not drunk, and passed a blood test. God bless him, but he was far more responsible than I would someday be at the same age.

Mom and Dad spent days up there at her bedside, and returned home again to pack up, and tie up loose ends before returning. When they did they brought me along to see her. She was quite a mess, with skin grafts to replace the skin lost on the roadway, a cast on her broken leg, and the biggest, nastiest looking scar I ever saw. (Like Madeline, she showed it proudly.) I don’t think I ever loved her more than I did at that moment, and I thanked God profusely that she hadn’t been taken from us like so many other kids were in those days. One of my classmates at St. Joe’s had already lost two college age siblings in separate car accidents in the previous few years. I don’t have the statistics to back it up, but it seemed like the leading cause of death for teens in Upstate New York was car accidents.

As beat up as she was physically, I never saw her in better spirits. She truly seemed to glow with warmth and humor. Maybe it was all those years of being the 2nd youngest, or the scare of a near death experience, but she absolutely reveled in the attention that she received from friends, family, and classmates. She recovered amazingly well, and quickly, but for those long weeks when she was in the hospital, our lives dragged by slowly. To break up the monotony, Dad and Mom would take a few hours each day to take me out sightseeing through the Adirondacks. In those days before the Lake Placid Olympics the North Country was a flurry of activity as people prepared to host the world.

Of course, those 1980 Olympics would be memorable for other reasons as well, but for me it was my first time in the north woods. I fell in love with the Adirondacks during those visits to see her at college, and when she graduated I missed them terribly. The Adirondacks were such a romantic place. In addition to the mysterious, boreal wilderness they also had a ruined history of better times. All throughout the mountains were the foundations, and ruins of burned down estates and great camps from the days of the Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. The whole history of Adirondack Park is one interesting piece of late 18th century Americana. As the forests were felled, and the landscape scarred by the timber industry, it was the rich industrialists of the Gilded Age that stepped up to champion conservation. While their motives may have been partly personal, they were altruistic as well, and the legacy that they left behind has paid dividends for generations. A unique blend of public and private, the land inside “Blue Line” has been a fascinating case study of trying to balance the public good, with personal and economic freedom. While they haven’t always gotten it right, they haven’t quit trying to find that balance.

The Adirondacks were among the first of the wilderness regions to find a life as a tourist haven, after the extractive industries had moved on. And they have been among the first as well, to struggle with life post tourist industry. While they are still under as much development pressure as any beautiful place within a few hours drive of a major urban center, their economy has waxed and waned several times through the years. The result is an odd mixture of public dole, tourism, hard scrabble farms, and small service businesses. What they don’t have is any sort of corporate work for graduates of the great meritocracy. If it did, I never would have left. For it was those early experiences in the North Country that led me to apply to Clarkson University, and ultimately choose to spend 4 years of my life in the frozen isolation of St. Lawrence county.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that the thing I love most about the U.P. and Northern Wisconsin is the way it reminds me of the best parts of the North Country of New York State. The north woods of Michigan and Wisconsin, are as much the hostages of downstate interests as the Adirondacks are. And the rural poor of Burnett County, and Gogebic County, scrape by in just the same way that the residents of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties do. So it didn’t surprise me when I read that rabble rousing folks in the U.P. had talked of succession, and forming the 51st State of “Superior” with adjacent counties in Wisconsin. Of course, they stand as much likelihood of success of breaking free of big money corporate control, as do Upstate New Yorkers. Still, I hope that the independent spirit, and hardiness of the North Country never dies, and becomes absorbed into the great teeming mass of bland, Wonderbread America, like so many other regions of the country have. While they may not have the history of literature, or romantic ideology of the Old South, there is a culture there that is every bit as unique, and rooted in place as there is in Dixie. Like the Northern Lights, those spirits flicker even on the coldest, and darkest of winter evenings, giving hope when it is seemingly lost. Long may they shine.

So it makes sense that I would find the woods of the Upper Midwest to be as appealing to me as the Adirondacks. Like I do every year, I will spend my first few weeks after our vacation day dreaming of a way to move North and make a living in those dark, and mysterious woods. Eventually, summer will turn to fall, and the hustle of life will distract me into forgetting those dreams for another year. I’ll put my nose back to the corporate grindstone, and jet off to Europe and Asia again, losing myself in the great globalization of corporate life. If I am lucky, I’ll teach a few more classes, write another article or two, and add to that Curriculum Vitae that I am slowly building, in the hope that one day I can walk away from suburban corporate life, and find some little college in the wilderness, that is looking for a professor. Who knows, maybe Paul Smith’s is in need of a Business School teacher with a passion for Human Scaled Economy, Social Capital, Community Building, and Corporate Ethics. Stranger things have happened.

Return from the Northwoods

Sunset on Thousand Island Lake

Sigh…

Yes, I decided to return afterall. Even after a week of sitting on the screen porch looking out over the lake and brainstorming ways I could make a living in the hinterlands of the U.P., I couldn’t find any other way. So I have returned to the clutches of my dark corporate overlords, and to my suburban enclave here in the Twin Cities.

Sigh…

One of these years I will find a way, and then there will be no coming back. Just a lifetime of solitude in the Northwoods, listening to the water lapping at the dock, and the call of the loons in the summer time. In the winter it will be the sound of the ice shifting out on the lake, as I watch the snow pile up.

The Lake that we have been staying at these past 3 years is a paradise. It has all that you could want in a lake. Big bays for waterskiing, and tubing. Little secluded inlets for fishing, and channels, and undeveloped portions for paddling and watching the wildlife. A guy could do worse than to live out his days along the shoreline.

Cisco Chain of Lakes


Across the road from our resort is the Sylvania Wilderness, and Ottawa National Forest, with stands of old growth white pine, and it’s own pack of timber wolves. The list of animals we saw in the past week reads like a trip to the zoo. Eagles, Otters, Loons, Deer, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Ducks, Geese, and every kind of fish but the elusive Musky. Alas, no bear or wolves though. Maybe next year.

It's an Eagle, trust me.


I biked, I kayaked, I swam, I waterskiied, I tubed, I boated, and I relaxed on the front porch drinking my coffee and reading a good book. Is there anything more to life than that? Aside from campfires, smores, and a cold beer at the end of a long ride? I didn’t think so.

The kids cried when it was time to leave this morning. They will miss their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and 2nd cousins. This is our 6th year of spending a week together in the woods, and they have come to love these trips more than any others. They look forward to them all year. They were the whole reason for starting them in the first place. These vacations were meant to be a gift to them. A way for them to come to know their family, insanity and all. Mrs. 20 Prospect and I did not want them to be “orphans of success” as Jason Peters has so eloquently written.

In Mrs. 20 P.’s family, these summer vacations to a lake in the woods, were a family tradition. When her Dad was growing up, his father ran a resort on Oak Lake, near Webster, Wisconsin, and he’d spend the summer there helping out. Then, when Mrs. 20 P. was little her family would spend 2 weeks renting a cabin on a lake in Northern Wisconsin, along with her Mom’s whole extended family. She told me the stories of those vacations when we met, and I always envied her for them.

The lake at the golden hour


Vacations like that were pretty rare in Western New York. Sure, some folks would spend time on the shore of a Finger Lake, but the little Mom & Pop resort cabins were few and far between. Instead it was private cottages crammed shoulder to shoulder all the way ’round. And being working class schleps from North Buffalo, just a little removed from Wetsern PA trailer trash, our clan never considered such trips. Instead our money was spent on gas for the family car, and motel rooms in far flung states. That’s just what we did, and we loved every minute of it. But faced with a choice between a car trip across the country and a week at a lake, well… there wasn’t really much choice. So we re-started the family tradition of weeks at the lake, and we haven’t regretted it once. Well, OK, there was that one year when… um, nevermind. (The in laws do read this blog.)

As much as we love these type of vacations, we seem to be among a dwlindling minority. Once upon a time the north woods were full of little resorts like the one we stay at, but over the years they have disappeared one by one, being sold off, and divided up for developers. Now the lakes are home to mansions more akin to Sagamore, than “Karl’s Kozy Kabins”. I understand the economics of it. As the American middle class came to discover living beyond their means, the lake front property soared in value. The tax burden became too much for many of these little resorts that scraped by. As the owners aged, and their families moved away it was far easier to sell out to a developer, and split the cash, than find someone willing to work the kind of hours needed to keep up a dozen cabins, and fishing boats.

Lots of homes, but only 3 resorts...


Still, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something inside of us that has changed along the way. As the FPR article by Jason Peters points out, families are smaller these days, and more inward focused than ever before. Communal events like sharing a resort campfire with extended family and total strangers, don’t hold the same place in our imagination as a week at Disney World. And when we value these things less, economics takes care of the rest.

Another Million Dollar Cabin

I can’t help but wonder where it ends. Will Watersmeet resemble Aspen someday? A playground for the rich, with the “help” bussed in from the trailer parks a half hour down the valley. Or will the bubble finally burst? The baby boomers that have driven up these property values, and built these monstrously large 5 bedroom “cabins”, won’t live forever. What happens when the demographic bubble bursts? Will the northwoods actually become a sustainable local economy, where the locals can afford to live and work? Or when the collapse of the seasonal tourist business brings down the weak service economy that exists there today, will anything rise up to replace it? I can’t imagine what a post boomer economy would be.

The north woods has lived through the extractive economy of the 1800’s, and early 1900’s once already. The tourist economy of the post war years eventually blossomed into the seasonal home, summer resident economy they have today. The schools, and services are only supported by the property tax base. When that base collapses, the infrastructure, and government services will not be able to subsist on the locals alone. Perhaps it will be like the depression years were. Years of scrabbling to get by, shooting deer to put food on the table. Or maybe it will be something else entirely. Lord knows the lumberjacks, miners, and fur trappers, that lived there 100 years ago never could have imagined the playground that we have today.

Too many questions. Too few answers. Time to sit on the front porch and ponder some more. Back home in the Twin Cities, the locusts are in full summer buzz. Time to crack open the last of the vacation beers, and watch the sun set on suburbia.

Peace.

Red Sky at Night

As mentioned in this article, the sunsets over the last few days here in Minnesota have been amazing. Cotton candy pink clouds, spun through powder blue skies, the result of forest fires raging far away in Canada. One of the many works of nature that are simultaneously beautiful and terrible. Nature is kinda that way sometimes, going about it’s business totally ignoring our existence. Try as we might to inflict environmental disaster upon her, I have a sneaky suspicion she’ll have the last laugh.

Living here in the Upper Midwest, we have come to take for granted our security from fire and the wrath of nature. It wasn’t always the case. Read back through the history of settlement in Minnesota and Wisconsin and you will be struck, and horrified by the scale of the “natural” disasters that seemed to befall us with eerie regularity.

There was the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. (154 dead)

The Cloquet Fire of 1918 (453 dead, 250,000 acres burned, 39 communities destroyed)

The “Big Blow” of 1913 in the Great Lakes. (250 Dead, 19 ships sunk, another 19 stranded)

The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. (between 400 and 800 dead)

The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. (500 dead) Named for the heartbreaking stories of schoolchildren caught out in one room schoolhouses on the plains, becoming lost in the whiteouts, and freezing to death.

And the biggest, of them all, The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. An event so large in scale, and horrifying in it’s details that I am astounded it has become just a small footnote in American history.

On the night of October 8th, 1871, the same evening as the Great Chicago Fire, a strong cold front blew through the upper midwest. Coming at the end of a drought filled summer, many small forest fires that had been burning in the area of Northeastern Wisconsin were whipped into a conflagration of epic proportions. The slash and burn method of land clearing, and the left over slash from timber cutting provided fuel for a explosive wildfire. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people died in the firestorm. The written accounts by survivors of the disaster are chilling, telling of flames over 4 miles high, and tornadoes of fire descending upon the village of Peshtigo.

Here is an excerpt of a letter written by survivor Martha Coon…

Dear Sister:

I have bad news to tell. Charlie and his two little boys are gone. Oh! What a horrible death. There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village, it came on us very suddenly; Charlie and his family started to flee. They got about a half mile from home when they went into a little pool of water, Charlie had the two children and some things he was trying to save. He passed through the water thinking to get farther away from the fire. Grace turned back into the water and was saved. In the water were brother William and his family; his wife and baby and his wife’s sister; they were all that remained to tell the tale. Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror, it rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come, Mary — my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace’s, and three of brother Walter’s, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy, one can hardly keep one’s senses together to write you anything.

here’s a link to the full letter

I cannot fathom how a human could live through an event like that and find the courage and strength to continue on. We are such a spoiled society. Our complaints are so petty in comparison to the experiences of others. Here in the U.S. we have become so insulated from the potential of disasters of this type and magnitude. Sure, we have our Tornado’s and our Hurricane’s, and an occasional Earthquake, but science and technology have succeeded in reducing the risk, and damage from such events. The result is a false sense of security that we have developed. Natural disasters are things that occur to other countries, who are less developed, and sophisticated as us. I think that was half of the shock that resulted from Katrina. Not “how could this happen”, but “how could this happen to us“. We have come to believe that our wealth, power and technology has made us immune. As a result many resort to claiming “divine retribution” to be the cause. For surely, if God’s hand were not behind the disaster we would have avoided it.

Ultimately, this is just another manifestation of our hubris. Claiming the ill that befalls us to be the result of the hand of an all powerful deity responding to our own sins. Pffttt!!!!

Nature doesn’t care about us, or our sin. The fact is that it is totally indifferent to us. We like to think that our environmental pollution has harmed nature, but the reality is nature will long outlive us. We are no different than those pioneers in Peshtigo. Living precariously on the edge of the wilderness, not knowing our own vulnerability until it’s too late.

Snow days

Another snowy morning on the porch. Nothing major, just a few inches overnight to freshen things up a bit before the temperature drops back into the single digits. This one should guarantee an aesthetically pleasing, White Christmas. You’d think that in a place like Minnesota that would be a given, but statistically, 1 out of every 4 years is a snow less Christmas. I really need to consider a move to the U.P. I’m thinking Houghton, and it’s  200 inches of annual snowfall.

Doesn’t this look just like Winter is supposed to?

Merry Christmas Bedford Falls!

Of course, I have no reason to live in Houghton, Michigan, or any other place. No, like it or not, (and most days I like it) my place is right here in the Twin Cities. My home in Bailey Park may not have the front porch I would like it to have, but it’s home none the less. The more years that pass, the harder it becomes to imagine living anywhere else.