Almost fifty years ago I was a freshman at Michigan Technological University. I did not go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for academic reasons – not interested in philosophy, mathematics, or engineering like almost everyone else. Those years spent way up north – actually on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the heart of an important copper mining region and hence the home of what was begun as the Michigan School of Mining and Technology – were actually a sort of placeholder for my life. There wasn’t much time for studying. The Vietnam War was raging and a lot of the energy that remained after girls and beer was absorbed by our conflicted feelings about the war and a changing society.
My career as a college athlete did not last much past the first football season and since I had only enough interest in studying to get by, any extra time I found during that first snowy winter and all the falls and springs to come found me outdoors. In the autumn, my friends and I hiked for ruffed grouse and sat stone still, staring into the yellow, orange, and red treetops for black squirrels. In winter, we snow-shoed and cross-country skied. In the spring we canoed and fished the Sturgeon River. Years later, when I finally read Hemmingway’s famous short story, Big Two-Hearted River, I was convinced that the Sturgeon River was indeed the Big Two-Hearted River that kept the hero of the story, Nick Adams, sane in the face of war.
Forty-five lightening years passed before I revisited the Keweenaw Peninsula. I was lured back by local fraternity brothers who, like me, had scattered to all corners of Earth but, in retirement, were filtering back into the Copper Country. Jill came along to see if the college stories had any basis in fact and to see the soggy, forested countryside that had had such a powerful effect on this self-confessed denizen of the treeless, dusty Great Plains.
For two days we ate and drank way too much. The stories of glory days gone by were told, edited, and told again. By the morning of the third day I was longing for peace and quiet. I could have sneaked away and re-read those Hemmingway stories or the Upper Peninsula stories of Jim Harrison but had only brought along Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, The Bully Pulpit. It is a great book, but just then, it seemed all wrong. To paraphrase the Cross Canadian Ragweed band – it’s too damned serious and way too long. I needed to get away to the dark, cut-over, white pine forest where there were shady game trails paralleling the Big Two-Hearted River and moss-covered foot paths that might be the very ones that led Brown Dog to the Lake Superior shore. I suppose Jill could see it in my eyes and that is why she came up with a way to get off by ourselves. “We have a Wild Idea customer in Ahmeek.” She said this, seemingly out of context when everyone could hear. “We should go visit them.”
Only twenty miles away was the small Keweenaw community of Ahmeek. It looks like it has seen more prosperous days and that the population has dwindled since the era of big copper. But there are signs of the bustling commerce of yesteryear, a burgeoning tourist trade, and, just beyond the old frame houses, is the wild Upper Peninsula that I hoped had survived the commercial onslaught of the last fifty years. Among the faded houses is the historic Ahmeek Streetcar Station, which features Wild Idea Buffalo meat and delicious, locally-made ice cream. Although the Ahmeek Streetcar Station had always been a small-volume, seasonal customer, they had tenaciously ordered our buffalo meat for years. As soon as Jill and I stepped inside the station we knew why.
Unbeknownst to us, the Ahmeek Streetcar Station is the nerve center for a tenacious conservation group called the North Woods Conservancy. The first person we met was Evan Griffith who had just come indoors from a fifteen mile run. He was a smiling, sinewy, sweating young man who was about to return to Grinnell College to begin training for the cross-country season that would begin in couple weeks. His name rang a bell “You must be the son of the owners,” Jill said.
“I am,” he said. “Jane and John Griffith.” He walked over to a counter covered with literature about the North Woods Conservancy and picked up a familiar pamphlet. It was Wild Idea Buffalo Company’s latest brochure, complete with Jill’s food photography. “Are you Dan and Jill?” he asked.
We sat outside in a cool day that was threatening rain and Evan tried, unsuccessfully, to contact his parents because he thought they would be happy that we came to see them. The meeting didn’t work out, but Evan assured us that they would be sorry to have missed us. After Evan explained that Jane and John were environmental biologists who worked seasonably in California and that they retreated to the Upper Peninsula in the winter, and that they started the North Woods Conservancy to save a few acres of forest and a sizable stretch of Lake Superior lakeshore from development, I was the one who was who was sorry we weren’t able to meet.
We ate buffalo burgers and ice cream and listened to Evan explain that there was very little public land in Michigan. He told us that developers and wealthy people, mostly from Chicago, were buying up the lakeshore and cutting off access to the lake. He brought out pamphlets of the three properties that North Woods was protecting and, as I read about each one, I realized that North Woods was a very small and underfunded conservancy. It was nothing like the multi-billion dollar conservancies that I was familiar with. By my reckoning, North Woods owned or eased only about 230 acres of land – if it was grassland it would be enough for about seven buffalo. Still, it had been a struggle. They had been enveloped legal battles, had a big mortgage to pay off, and their board of directors was made up of only Jane and John. It was the old David and Goliath struggle I had been reading about in The Bully Pulpit – Teddy Roosevelt and a handful of crusading reporters stood up for common men and fought the capitalist trusts. Teddy, and the press that backed him, were a tiny band of souls but huge and powerful when compared to the North Woods Conservancy. North Wood’s had no paid staff, nature-loving volunteers, handled everything.
Evan was bright and passionate about his parents’ battle that he planned to join as soon as he graduated with a degree in Biology. He was earnest and articulate and, even though I knew the complications in his life that would follow his career choice, his energy gave me hope. When we left the Ahmeek Streetcar Station I asked Jill if she was up for a little hike. It was spitting rain but we agreed that we had to drive out to Seven Mile Point, one of the properties that the North Woods Conservancy was working to protect.
We traveled down a gravel road with the U.P. forest closing in a continuous archway overhead. To our right there was nothing but pine trees and ferns, to our right freshly built driveways peeled off toward the shore of Lake Superior. At the ends of those driveways we caught sight of very expensive vacations homes with no sign of life. These were the people that fought the North Woods Conservancy. It was a kind of corruption that stole access to solitude and beauty, instead of the corruption that steals money.
Seven Mile Point was at the end of the road that formed the trailhead for the paths that led to the lake and a cabin that was available to rent from the Conservancy. There was nothing but a clearing in the woods, a portable toilet, and an old woman sitting in a pickup truck. Sandy was a North Woods volunteer and she wanted to know if we had paid our entrance fee at the Streetcar Station. We had not paid but, when told her that we had contributed to the Conservancy, she lit up. We only wanted to walk out to Lake Superior and spend a little time on the beach. She beamed to have a couple customers. “You might see an eagle,” she said. “Blueberries everywhere. Heck you might see a loon, or wolf. Deer, bear, ravens all over the place.” She told us about the fork in the trail and that the right leg led to the sand beach and the left to the pebble beach where agates were common. “No,” she said, “no other visitors today. You won’t run into a soul!” She smiled like she was giving us the keys to a copper mine.
We walked on the beach of Lake Superior between the water and the dark forest. We sat on a huge black rocks and watched the waves crashing against the shore. I thought about Teddy Roosevelt and The Bully Pulpit. At the turn of the last century the railroads, cops, construction companies, and unions were robbing people of their money. Today the descendants of those grafters are robbing the rest of us of some of the things that make life worth living. In the first decade of the twentieth century Roosevelt and a handful of reformers took on the abusers. Maybe change begins with tiny alliances like the North Woods Conservancy, with people like Sandy, and
Jane and John Griffith. Maybe it begins with kids like Evan and Michigan Tech freshmen who need a place to escape to.
For more information on the North Woods Conservancy go to: http://www.northwoodsconservancy.org/NWC/Home.html