“I Need More People”

Alice, Steve, and I were lucky enough to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak at Michigan Tech some 20 years ago. We found his talk very interesting, and were also lucky enough to be able to attend an informal gathering with Kurt after the talk in the Memorial Union Building. I’ll never forget what he said that night. He was talking about living in Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, and complaining that he needed more people. He was talking about community, and how even in the midst of the crush of all those people, that a small group of people that one could rely on, and that could rely on you, were indispensable to his well-being. A group of people bonded by something larger than themselves, and that made the sum greater than its parts.

I don’t know how much of this sunk in at the time, but during this last week, his words resonated with me. It all started a few months ago when I got a note from my good friend and Isle Royale buddy. A trip to the island was in the works, and one of the six people planned for the trip cancelled. Would I like to come?

I asked for more details.

voyager1It seemed that Project Lakewell, part owner of a 25′ replica birch bark voyageur canoe, had received free passage for the six members of the crew, plus free passage for the canoe on the Ranger III, the National Park Service boat that takes passengers and freight between Houghton MI, and Isle Royale. In exchange, the six agreed to put on 2 programs about the voyageurs. “Sign me up,” I told him, and that was that.

voyager2I’d made arrangements for the crew to stay the night before the boat ride at the Feedmill Cafe in Tapiola. We all met there for dinner that night, and in the morning when I arrived, the boat and crew were ready to make the trip to Houghton for the trip across Lake Superior to Isle Royale.

The boat’s name was Gabagouache, which means, “Big Mouth,” in honor of the place where the Grand River in downstate lower Michigan empties into Lake Michigan. We called her Gabby for short. I’d never paddled anything like her before, and was looking forward to learning the ropes. The trip to Isle Royale was very nice. The summer had been cold and overcast for much of the season, but this day the sun was out and the temperature was moderate. Before we knew it, we were at Mott Island, the only stop before we were to disembark at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale.

I stepped off the boat at Mott to stretch my legs, and was pleased to see my friend Dr. Rolf Peterson, who happened to be meeting the boat on other business. We had a nice visit. I looked around and saw another dear friend standing on the dock waiting to go to work, and had a very nice visit with her. This trip was really shaping up!

All too soon, the Ranger III gave a short toot, and it was time to board for the short trip to Rock Harbor. After unloading and securing Gabby for the night, we hauled our gear to a campsite we were sharing with a french couple, set up the tents, and settled in for the night. We were up early the next morning, struck camp, and hauled our gear back to the boat. We worked well together to get the gear properly stowed, and then headed out into the harbor for our first paddle. Our destination was the Daisy Farm campground about 7 miles away.

voyager3By this time, we were really coming together as a crew. The most important position in these boats is the Avant or bowman. This person ran the boat, kept a sharp eye out for rocks and other obstructions, and set the pace for the rest of the paddlers. The gouvernail, or steersman, sat in the back of the boat, and was responsible for steering the course. The rest of us were the middle crew, responsible for providing the paddle power for the boat.

After a beautiful paddle along the wooded and mostly empty beaches of Isle Royale, we arrived at Daisy Farm, unloaded, and went hunting for a shelter. We were lucky enough to procure a shelter very close to the shore. We set up camp and started exploring our campsite. We had a day to get ready for our first program. That allowed us to organize ourselves for sleeping, food, water, and all the other things necessary for life in a wilderness setting.

voyager4On the afternoon before our first program, I walked around the campground and told everyone I saw about it, and encouraged them to come. In the end we had about 25 people for our first performance. Since I was a late comer to the program, I had no role in the program, other than to look the part of a voyageur. In this picture, the gouvernail is talking to the audience about the life of a voyageur, as our half-french and half-indian or mixed blood actor looked on.

voyager5Our mixed blood closed out the show by doing a very moving monologue about a native american flood story in which the lowly muskrat saves the world by diving to the bottom and bring up a bit of earth, which the creator magically converts into all the dry land the plants and animals can live on. After that he picked up his hand drum and did a chant. The drumming and chanting really moved the audience.

The following day we headed back to Rock harbor. The gouvernail took us across the harbor to Mott Island for a quick break, and then through Lorelei Lane, a beautiful sheltered passage between islands that took us most of the way to Rock Harbor. It was a windy morning, and we all needed to keep paddling steadily in order to keep the canoe moving forward enough for the gouvernail to be able to have enough way for steerage.

The avant began chanting something I didn’t quite catch in the front of the boat, but that really seemed to help keep the number of our strokes high enough to be efficient. Although I didn’t understand any of the words, I chanted my own version along with him, and found it a very effective way to keep my strokes constant and efficient. Once we reached the end of Lorelei Lane, we had to make a dash across some windy open water with whitecaps. The boat and her crew performed admirably, and we were soon tied up at our dock at Rock Harbor.

voyager6We were becoming proficient at unloading and moving our gear. We found a shelter, squeezed in (six adults in a shelter is about the max that can fit) and prepared for our program that night. This time our audience numbered about 75 people, and we did some running around to arrange the performance area to the best advantage and gather as much seating as we could. Again, our mixed blood closed out the program with a drum/chant. This time I felt compelled to do a native american dance step as the drumming continued. I motioned to the audience members to join me, and one young person did. We made a couple of circuits around the area, and ended just as the drumming stopped. I felt as exhilarated as I can remember feeling in a long time. There is something about the drum and the simple dance steps that touches one.

voyager7The next morning we were up early so we could be on time to get Gabby loaded onto the Ranger III. Before we knew it, it was time to board for the 6 hour trip back to the mainland.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I suggest this crew of six bonded in the few days we were together on Isle Royale. Our message was one of respect for the planet, and respect for the days when these amazing travelers hauled tons of freight in flimsy birch bark canoes in conditions that kept them just a notch this side of disaster. When we returned to the mainland with our cars, houses, and financial worries, we all felt we’d experienced something special as a group. For the duration of that trip, I was content enough that I didn’t need more people.

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