Sunday, August 9, 2009

We Go to Camp

Wolf's Echo, Shank Lake

August 5-9
We are in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, visiting friends Jan and Jim (and their lovable dog Morgan and schizoid cat Electra) at their wilderness retreat, Wolf's Echo. To get here, we left civilization behind in Crystal Falls (pop.1,649), and traveled a 13 mile long maze of dirt logging roads that became rockier and rougher with each turn. (We were amazed to see these roads show up, by name, on our GPS, even though most did not have street signs.)

Wolf's Echo is tucked in the woods overlooking tranquil Shank Lake.
Jim and Jan's home, which they call a "camp," was built using lumber Jim harvested from their eighty acre forest. Even though it is surrounded by trees, their home is remarkably bright, due to a dramatic wall of windows two stories tall overlooking the lake that lies through the trees to the west. The walls inside are lined with a wood people around here call "popple," from aspen trees, and the floors are a mix of maple and birch. All the wood inside is sealed unstained, its light color adding to the bright beauty of this camp that lies so comfortably in its natural setting.

We are staying for four nights—the longest we have been in any one spot all summer. So, our time here feels like a special vacation within our vacation—just like going away to summer camp. Jan and Jim even give us Wolf's Echo camp tee shirts!

On our first full day here, we all hop on ATVs for a jouncing tour around the lake on logging roads and woodland trails, with frequent stops to check out the camps of neighbors and to learn about the logging history and natural history of the area. We pick a few raspberries at the edge of a clear cut that was planted in larch trees just nine years ago, and marvel that the trees are already over twenty feet tall. We meet Jan and Jim's across-the-lake neighbor, who graciously gives us a tour of his luxurious log cabin (complete with hunting trophy animal heads lining the walls) and his lakeside sauna. Later that day we take kayaks out on the lake for a long quiet paddle. There are no other boats out on the lake, as we paddle along the shore, into a windless cove, around an island, and home again, just in time to pick up our cameras and attempt to capture the beauty of the sunset.

The next morning dawns clear and cool, so after breakfast we don our fleece jackets and ride off on another ATV adventure.
Today, I drive, which increases the adventure level for both me and my passenger, Dick, who whispers helpful hints in my ear, like "It would be good to avoid going over a big rock between the wheels that might scrape bottom." If fifteen miles per hour felt fast when riding behind Dick yesterday, it feels absolutely meteoric when I am at the controls.

After lunch we head to the Iron County Museum in nearby Caspian (pop. 914) to learn more about local history and culture. Jan and Jim have had property in Iron Country for about a decade, but this is their first visit to the Museum, which, it turns out, has over twenty buildings to explore. We have underestimated the time necessary to do it justice, but try to take in as many of the highlights as possible in the two hours we have until closing time.

The museum is built on the site of the Caspian Mine, which opened in 1903. The mine's engine house is the core of its indoor exhibit area, and its headframe, built in 1921, rises high above the outdoor settlement complex. An octogenarian woman working the front desk gets us started on the history and culture exhibits inside, then turns us loose to wander a rabbit warren of little rooms with an awesome variety of exhibits drawn from the attics, basements, out buildings and failed businesses of people all across the county. There is a large mining hall, where we learn about ore mining through thoroughly labeled artifacts provided by retired locals, all recognized by name next to the items they donated. A memorial panel contains the names of 562 miners who lost their lives in local mines in less than 100 years time. This miner mortality rate seems disturbingly high.

We are fascinated by the Monigal Miniature Logging Camp. Believed to be the largest work of its kind, the camp is populated by at least a hundred tiny lumberjacks. All the little men, their horses, the buildings and logging equipment in the camp are carved from cedar telephone poles. They are arranged to illustrate life and work in a 1920s winter logging camp, and to show how logs were floated to the mills in spring. Mr. Monigal spent eight years creating the camp after he was disabled in a saw mill accident in 1931.

A large gallery is dedicated solely to displaying the work of Lee LeBlanc, a 1931 Iron River High School graduate who went on to become an animator for Loonie Tunes and an artist for Twentieth Century Fox and MGM. He retired in the 1960s, only to begin another career—as a wildlife artist. He won numerous awards for his work--one of his ducks was chosen to be the federal duck stamp in 1973-74, he was National Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year in 1980, and his state and regional awards are far too numerous to mention. We stroll the gallery admiring his depictions of birds and the natural beauty of this area during every season of the year.

Outside, there is a whole settlement of buildings with farm machinery and tools, a firehouse with vintage engines, a blacksmith shop, a school, and so on. The most unique building we visit is the home and studio of now deceased local artist and school teacher Brandon Giovanelli. It looks like an unassuming little 1950s ranch house from the outside, but is described as "the Museum Jewel" in our directory and a "must see" by our octogenarian guide, so we seek her out to unlock the door and let us in.

Our jaws drop as she closes the front door behind us and shines a light to illuminate the tooled copper sheet that Giavanelli fashioned to cover the door. The copper door facing is etched with amply endowed nude figures cavorting in a most lively fashion. Our guide admits she is "a bit embarrassed" when she brings school groups through the house. We proceed to the dining room which has an eight foot ceiling which Giovanelli painted with Renaissance-style murals featuring about twenty cherubs and at least that many naked revelers. The women are more busty than Botticelli's (think gas station calendar girl), the men more lusty than Leonardo's. We imagine the Bacchanalian dinner parties that Giavanelli must have hoped to inspire by those classically rendered ceiling murals. Next we see his studio, featuring beautiful stained glass he collected, as well as a photo album of the house as it looked fully furnished in all its over the top Italian Baroque splendor. As it is, unfurnished, every inch of wall space seems to be covered with murals or framed artwork in a variety of media. We see his mother's room next, adding a new wrinkle to the story. (He lived with his mother? What did she think of his art?) All Brandon did to decorate her room was to sculpt two Grecian columns onto one wall. Brandon's room features more naked murals, as we guessed it would. (We bet you wish we included a photograph here, but unfortunately Dick took the request that he not photograph artwork in the galleries a bit too seriously, and failed to document this home tour.)

We end our Museum visit with a stop at the Catholic Church which has been placed next door to Giovanelli's house, an intriguing contrast. The basement of the church houses a gallery filled with the eclectic art collection of one couple who donated it to the museum. They like twentieth century representational art in a variety of styles, and we like looking at their collection. We stay until after closing time, then reluctantly leave, knowing we probably missed some really good stuff.

Our next stop is an old Iron River railroad station which has found a new use as a neighborhood bar, where we have a drink and chat with the locals, before driving on to Crystal Falls, where they are celebrating their annual Humongous Fungus Fest.
The organism for which this festival is named covers 38 acres beneath a nearby forest, and is believed to be somewhere between 1,500 and 10,000 years old. Festival promotional literature claims it is "perhaps the largest and oldest living organism in the world."

Seeing no festival activities at the moment, we go to a popular restaurant and order the Friday Walleye Fish Fry, which turns out to be outstanding regional cuisine. Just as we are finishing dinner, the police cars leading a festival parade cruise past the front door, their sirens blaring. We rush out as soon as we can pay the bill, but the parade is over within about fifteen minutes, the biggest attraction being the candy thrown from the emergency vehicles and floats in such prodigious quantities that all the children watching leave with bags that will tide them over until Halloween.

It rains overnight and is overcast in the morning. Heeding warnings of severe hail, we pull our car into the garage, and hunker down indoors with our computers and books. Nothing violent has happened by midday, so we decide to take the kayaks out and explore the end of the lake we didn't visit on our first day's paddle.
We circle an island and startle a kingfisher as we round its point, sending him complaining across the lake to the opposite shore. Then a bald eagle rises from a tall pine, and we follow its flight down the shore. As we approach the tree where it landed, the eagle and its mate rise from the tree and soar far from sight. We agree that while this is not a Great Lake, it is a great lake—secluded, lightly populated, not conducive to jet skis and big boats, and perfect for exploring by kayak or canoe.

We while away the rest of the afternoon on the screened porch, and around the piano, practicing the anthem for church tomorrow morning. We are going to join Jan and Jim at their UU Fellowship in Marquette, have lunch together afterward, then go our separate ways, as we continue our journey, and Jim and Jan return to Wolf's Echo for just a day or two of solitude before their family members start arriving for summer vacations.

Jan has fed us well with her wonderful cooking; Jim has fed our minds with his diabolically twisted mystery story manuscripts. They have guided us on new adventures, and provided us with a perfect place to sit back and relax. We loved the loud bouncy racing about on ATVs, and our quiet paddles in the kayaks.
Wolf's Echo is a beautiful and peaceful place to relax and refresh--now we understand why our friends insist on staying here most of the year, only coming to Savannah after winter sets in hard.

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