Archive for October, 2016

White Dogs

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

I spent a long day at the Estivant Pines (near Copper Harbor) yesterday. Earlier this summer, I embarked on a project to rebuild a bridge crossing a creek on the main path at the pines. The old bridge was a series of planks screwed into some fallen trees perpendicular to the creek. My idea was to elevate the bridge two feet above the creek bed, and to make the treads four feet wide so people could walk side by side as they crossed. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

As I visited the area and started doing calculations, I came up with a plan to build the bridge in 12′ sections. It would require 2 – 12′ sections to cross the wet part of the creek. However, on both sides of this 24′ corridor, there were areas that are prone to muddy slop during wet times of the year. On the back-of-the-envelope I used for my calculations, I determined 36′ of approach were needed on one side, and 24′ on the other side, making this 4′ wide bridge 84′ long.

pinesbridgeThe next part of the project was back at home, where I loaded cedar logs on the sawmill rack and in order to cut the lumber. I wound up hauling a pretty good truck load of lumber up to the pines, and enlisting the help of some very good people to help carry it up the trail to a stash point in the woods near the bridge site. We spent one day this summer digging the holes, setting the 4×4 posts, and building the first 12′ section. That day there were 6 of us working.

Once that part was completed, I had a better idea of the additional lumber needed, and spent a couple more days on the sawmill. Another crew was assembled, and the 4 of us spent several hours hauling additional lumber up the hill toward the site.

As the fall weather moved in, I realized that if I wanted to dig dirt that wasn’t frozen, I’d better make another trip up north pronto, so yesterday was the day. The sanctuary is about 70 miles from home, so I schedule an hour and a half for each leg of the drive. Yesterday I arrived around 9:00 am. I loaded my tools up in the wheelbarrow I’d brought, and headed up the hill. It was damp and muddy, but the air was crisp and pure. The twang of fall leaves made me gulp for more as I wheeled my load up the steep path to the project.

Anyone that has dug a hole knows they all have personalities. Sometimes the dirt leaps out of the hole, and sometimes you hack it out in tablespoon slices. The 4 holes I dug were all different. Roots that crossed the space were my especial nemesis. These roots appeared to be made out of rubber bands. Since I had so much trouble slicing them out of the way with the shovel, I tried to work around them. They’d lay there benignly until a shovelful of hard won dirt had almost cleared the lip of the hole, and then they’d snatch the dirt and fling it back into the hole. But gradually, each hole surrendered its precious cargo and the hole was dug.

The next step was to place the 10″ diameter concrete doughnut, as level as possible, into the bottom of the hole. Next a 4×4 post was placed in the hole on top of the doughnut. In order to seat the post and doughnut, I’d lift and smack down the 4×4 several times until it felt right. As you can imagine, all this time I am working in some pretty slimy muddy terrain. Swampy creek crossings are fairly well know for this sort of thing. Holding that thought, I’d like you to imagine that most of these holes with the doughnuts in the bottom had quite a bit of water in them.

Now I pride myself on being a fairly smart guy, but every time I smacked that 4×4 into the wet hole, and muddy water splashed in my face, jacket, and pants, I felt surprise. “Hum,” I’d think to myself. And then I’d smack it down again. In fairness to me, sometimes the muddy water didn’t go all over me, but usually it did, because I was standing pretty close to the hole when the water shot out of it. “Hum,” I’d say over and over.

It rained on and off while I was working. After the 4th hole was dug, the 4x4s in place, and the cross pieces installed, the bridge was really starting to look like a bridge. “Picture,” I said to myself. I got the camera out, and the battery was dead. I got the spare battery out that I always carry, and it was even deader. I put the spare battery back in the compartment in my belt pouch along with the dead cell phone battery that was also in there, forgot to zip it up, and they both promptly fell out and sank somewhere in that swamp.

I went to work on the 5th of 6 holes to be dug full of confidence that I was going to accomplish what I’d set out to do that day. The shovel had other ideas. About 6″ down into the hole, the shovel blade bent over. Having no spare shovel, I knew my digging hours were numbered. I soldiered on trying to go easy on the shovel, but it was no use. My shovel was broken, and that was that.

This shovel and I had another encounter this summer. I was digging something with it, and flipped it around for some reason, and bore down with all my weight on it. The blade bent near the place where the handle attaches, and broke. I like this shovel. Not to be deterred, I took it into my shop, set up the welder, and proceeded to fix it.

Arc welding is an art and a science. I’ve observed men lay down a bead so pretty you’d swear they were using modelling clay. I would call their technique “Euphrates” because of the consistent gentle ripples artfully following contours like the Garden of Eden. I’d call my own technique “blob and void.” Once I strike an arc, I get momentarily distracted and linger long enough for a hill of molten metal to form, then move the rod too far, creating the first of many voids. Noticing this, I linger too long again, perhaps thinking that the average of blobs and voids will equal a Euphrates. It doesn’t. The weld neither looks very good, nor does it hold that well. My repaired shovel did hold throughout the summer, and through some heavy use on the first 4 holes at the Estivant Pines, however.

Still having some daylight and some reasonably good weather, I covered over the part of hole #5 I’d started, and set the stringers for the 2 – 12′ sections I’d completed that day. I then placed the pre-cut treads on the stringers, and put a screw in each board to hold it in place. I could have put more screws in, but I was running low on battery power for my cordless drill. I’d brought about 6 spare batteries along, but had been a bit careless about being sure all 6 were fully charged (hint: they weren’t.) It was not a great battery day.

About 4:00 I was on my last cordless drill battery, splattered with mud, cold, tired, and hungry. I decided to load up the tools and make my way back to the truck. It was a long hard day, but I was content that I’d accomplished most of what I’d set out to do. One more adventure still awaited me before I left the parking lot.

One nice thing about working up north this time of year is I have the sanctuary mostly to myself. One jogger came through when I was up there, and she and I had a pleasant chat as she passed through. She said she lived in Copper Harbor and that she came to the pines often to run. I told her Alice and I were the long-time volunteer stewards for the pines, and she thanked us for the work we do. It does feel good to hear that now and then.

As I was loading up my truck with the tools, I heard a car door close. Although not visible from where I was parked, I figured some more hikers had arrived. I’d just gotten in the pickup and started the engine when they came into view. I think my jaw must have dropped open. There were two young women that were dressed as though they’d just stepped out of a Fifth Avenue boutique. They had no hats or gloves, footwear probably not appropriate for this time of year, and each was walking a dog. These dogs were husky-type dogs, both looked alike, and were *white*. Judging from what I could see, they spent more money on the dog’s fur in a month that I’d spent on my hair in my lifetime.

These two young women were probably tourists in Copper Harbor, which does have accommodation for some pretty fancy folks. After the initial shock wore off from seeing them heading towards the parking lot, I noticed they saw me and my truck. They both immediately looked away and started walking down the Burma Road and away from the pines trailhead. “Hum,” I thought to myself. Then it became clear to me they didn’t expect anyone to be out there, especially a pretty beat up looking guy in a pretty beat up looking pickup truck.

Since they were walking down the Burma Road the same direction I had to go, I had no choice but to drive past them. They pulled their dogs off the road. Neither looked at me or acknowledged my presence as I passed. They were clearly uncomfortable with my being there, and I guess I can understand something of how they felt.

As I was driving away, leaving them to their solitude, I thought about what I would have liked to say to them given the chance.

“Just because I’m dirty and drive an older truck doesn’t mean I’m a threat to you. In order for you to be able to walk the trails of the largest stand of virgin White Pines in Michigan, someone has to take care of the trails. Where the trails get muddy, in order to build the bridges, someone has to stand in the mud while they go up. Dirt doesn’t necessarily make a person scary, but I understand why you were scared. You’ve been taught that dirty people in isolated places are to be avoided, and there is probably nothing I can say that will change your opinion. I honestly hope you and your beautiful dogs enjoy your hike in one of my favorite places in the world.”

The UP

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

On a recent trip to the Lansing Michigan area to visit family, the t-shirt I was wearing started a conversation. That t-shirt had been given to me by my neighbor for helping him pull his truck out of some ruts he’d gotten himself into. The shirt said, “Copper Country” in shiny copper colored lettering. When my new friend saw it, her whole demeanor changed. She said she visited the UP as often as she could. In fact, she said she was taking the next 2 days off to make a long weekend of a fall color trip to the Tahquamenon Falls area with her two sisters.

As we got talking, I told her about our 160 acres, 2 ponds, and maple syrup operation, and she had that unmistakable look of sheer envy in her eyes.

I can understand her thinking. I grew up in the Lansing area. It is flat there, and the summer weather is muggy. The rivers flow sluggishly. It snows in the winter, but the snow doesn’t stay white. Human activity tends to turn that snow grey. Up here, by contrast, there are hills, valleys, rivers with rapids and waterfalls, and Lake Superior right in the neighborhood. Folks travel from all over the world to visit the place we take for granted every day.

This got me thinking about the importance of wilderness, and about our wisdom in preserving some of it. Flat muggy land is good for growing grapes and corn, but just doesn’t move the soul like a rushing river. We seem to need to believe there are still places in our neighborhood that have not been spoiled by civilization. Some of us never escape the place where we grew up. Some of us have been lucky enough to find a life up here. It’s not for everybody, but then it it was, there’d probably be condos on the hillsides instead of trees.