It is the way of people to find a place of splendid simplicity and beauty, to proclaim it so and commence its conversion into something else. To tame it, reduce it, bend it, use it, and subsequently complain, it ain’t what it used to be, lamenting the fact the good old days are gone. To some degree, such can be said for a northern Wisconsin lake I have visited off and on for many years.
Several years ago, while searching for a vacation rental, my wife and I discovered a little cabin with classic Northwoods charm and feel. The last of a few old timey places on the lake, its red painted exterior with white trim is reminiscent of the cottages of Sweden. Another smaller cabin nearby suggests a past when these two dwellings were part of something together.
A couple hundred yards to the west, exists a tiny island upon which a few white pines can be found. They rise slightly above the other trees, yet are dwarfs compared to what stood there 150 years or more ago. On the backside, just out of view, is a perch where eagles frequently hold vigil. Nearby, their nest.
The original owners and related past occupants of the cabin, along with their accumulated memories are long gone and lost. Yet as moss slowly grows upon the shingles, the cabin endures and resists, slowly yielding to what the years have given and taken away.
Visitors likely see it for what it is, a base camp and bunk house for those that have come to play. However, the cabin has another, under-appreciated function. Less sophisticated than the conjuring of H.G. Wells, the cabin is a time machine, activated by sound, sight, smell, and powered entirely by one’s imagination and the mind’s eye. It will only travel back in time, never forward, and if you understand where you are, your place in time, and what has come before, anyone can find enough parts and pieces to access its power. You just need to know where to look and how to see, and not see.
From my pillow through the west facing window, I can see and not see the bright light across the lake; an annoying security light erected by an owner who likely lives in a city and fears the dark. I can see the faint red and green lights of a slow-moving boat, hear the droning hum of its motor as it moves into position near another, and the dull voice of a man speaking. Fishermen working rocky points for walleyes. A loon yodels nearby, mournfully, and its’ call echoes low over the water and across the lake. A loud slap ker-plunk is heard; a single beaver dives past the wooden dock into the bay behind the island. I doze off to a deep sleep, a Hudson Bay blanket pulled up around my neck and chin.
It’s still dark when I awaken to sounds in the kitchen. The smell of coffee fills the cabin. I slip into my camp mocs and head out to the privy. Headlights are coming up the road. Gordon was going to join us today, making his way over from his place on the Middle Eau Claire, about an hour or so away depending on conditions. As I walk back, I hear the boys greeting one another and the smell of bacon floats out the window.
There’s a definite chill in the air this morning and the water is like glass with a shallow fog lifting. The hunter’s moon is slowly setting as the yellow and orange of maples illuminate in contrast to the silhouettes of nearby pine trees. A pair of does slip through the nearby alders, both with cropped ears. A reminder that winter’s cold in the Northwoods can be brutal and unforgiving, but they are survivors. I’ve seen them before.
The evening dew left the Alumacraft boats and cushions wet, so a quick wipe down was necessary before loading the gear. Swede and Gordon would fish together. During our last gathering they talked a lot about the fish of ten thousand casts, so we figured muskies would be their target on this day. Jack and I would be less specific. Walleyes would be nice if the bite was on, but we would take anything we could get. A stringer full of yellow perch would make us all happy, especially at dinnertime.
Jack retrieved his gear from the trunk of Swede’s Nash and headed down to the boat, grabbing the box of crawlers and container of leeches off the stoop as he passed by. I followed behind pulling up the minnow bucket hanging off the side of the dock. By the time we got things loaded and the old Evinrude started, Gordon and Swede were already around the point headed to Chief Namakagon Island. Gordon thought the hunter’s moon was a good sign and the spirit of Old Ice Feathers and Gitche Manitou would provide, however, we were pretty sure the odds were still one in ten thousand.
As we shoved off, we could see only one other boat on the lake, a single fisherman heading out of Lakewoods Resort, slowing down at the drop-off along Paines Island. As the sun broke above the trees, a slight southwesterly breeze pushed ripples across the water that would later develop into a healthy chop. October means irregular weather, the exact conditions that call to the hunter and fisherman while at the same time causing tourists to migrate to their winter dens. Only those who understand and embrace what is here at this place will remain. We and a few more related souls would own this lake today. The fishing was good.
Back at camp later in the day, the sun lowered a little closer to the western tree line and Swede and I handled fish cleaning duty. Gordon and Jack cut potatoes, onions, got the oil going, and made a beer batter. Coleslaw and baked beans would be the side dishes. Yellow perch would be tonight’s fare with a little northern pike thrown in for good measure; an Esox that requires far fewer casts than his big brother. The walleyes we caught would go on ice for tomorrow’s dinner.
As I hauled a bucket of entrails down to the lakeside, I could hear whoops and hollers from a not-too-distant boat as a couple of musky fishermen celebrated a successful catch. As I turned to get Jack’s attention, a couple grouse scurried into the brush followed by an explosion of wings as another flushed from my path. Nothing like the sound of ruffed grouse to make one consider trading the fishing rod in favor of a shotgun, but there were still too many leaves on the trees and plenty of time in front of us for walks on the old tote roads before deer season and deep snow.
After dinner we watched twilight settle in over the lake and a few boats heading in or out. Some brandy and a cribbage board appeared on the table, along with a homemade apple pie Hazel sent along with Swede. Gordon went out to his car to retrieve a book he promised to loan me, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. After all his years hunting, fishing, and trekking in the woods, Leopold had changed Gordon’s thinking about conservation. He held it in front of me like a preacher with his bible and said it would open my eyes. I promised him I’d read it soon, Amen.
I walked down to the dock to retrieve bait and gear from the boats. As the sun vanished, so did the breeze, and a slight chill could be felt rising off the water. There would be no horde of mosquitos as there was the night before. Temperatures would dip into the 30s with a guarantee of heavy dew and frost in the low spots. I found Jack puffing his cigarette standing at the end of the dock, watching a pair of loons watching him. He told me once that sunsets over a lake and the memory of loon songs were a place where his mind would go during the quiet moments while serving in Italy during the war. A better substitute I’m sure for the sight of soldiers and sound of howitzers. I gathered items from the boat without speaking and saw him glance back at me with a smile of contentment.
It was nearly midnight when Jack and I put away the brandy and cards and called it a night. Gordon and Swede slipped off to their respective bunks a couple hours earlier, exhausted from swinging musky plugs all day. From my pillow through the west facing window, the only thing I could see and not see was the dark silhouettes of nearby trees barely detectable through the impenetrable darkness of a night in the Northwoods. Tonight, the hunter’s moon was hidden behind a mass of clouds rolling in with a front out of the northwest. I left the window cracked to listen to nocturnal sounds and fell asleep quickly as an owl hooted in the distance.
It’s completely dark and soundless in the cabin when I awaken. I slip on a hoody, adjust the thermostat to 68, and head to the kitchen. I fine-tune the dimmer switch over the sink to a medium setting, just bright enough without offending my eyes. I fill the coffee carafe with water and pour it into the Mr. Coffee as the well pump kicks on with a thump and grinding grumble. I start the coffee maker and slowly it begins purring and gurgling. After a few minutes I pour hot coffee into an ironstone mug and wrap my hands together around it, allowing the warmth to penetrate the joints of my aging fingers. I sit down at the kitchen table and open the cover of the book lying there and begin to read: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”
I know these words well and I know which person I am. There are some who can live without wondering about the past, and some who cannot. This essay is about what might have been by someone who cannot.