Yesterday, we saw a black bear running across the road in front of our car on our way to put in our canoe at the Sable Lake boat launch so we decided this morning to go looking for more bears running across roads or standing in the forest close enough to the road that we could see them without getting out of the car. I was momentarily put off hiking.
Other people might not be disturbed at seeing a fairly large black bear but I was. While I appreciated the luck of nature at the sighting, I worried a little during our paddling around Sable Lake that I’d look behind us and see the bear gaining on us, the icy water of Sable slicking back the fur on his face.
The route for this bear hunting was east of us on the very thin web of dirt roads that appears after the paved H-58 out of Grand Marais ends. The roads have numbers – 412, 414, 423, 500, and 501 – but not all the numbers are on the very detailed map of the U.P. that we have. And the roads represented by dashes don’t have numbers, either in real life or the map.
It was not very long before we were close to the Two Hearted River, a legendary place of Ernest Hemingway’s youth and, in so many ways, an emblem of the Upper Peninsula and the backwoods. We came up to the Reed & Green Bridge where we had been before and we stopped to pay our respects to the Two Hearted River, a curious thing to say but that’s what it felt like.
It was a few miles after we crossed the river that we saw the acres and acres of damage from the 2012 Duck Lake Fire. Black, branchless trees, thousands of them, millions. You’d think a fire of such scope and intensity would burn everything to the ground, not so, trees still stand but they are horribly scarred and dead. But the ferns and the ground cover are green and flourishing. The fire destroyed a popular backwoods place called Rainbow Lodge.
Having had a beloved placed destroyed by fire, I felt for the owners and the people who went to Rainbow Lodge every year and I wrote about it in an essay called Somewhere Over the Rainbow. We decided to go to the mouth of the Two Hearted River and see whether Rainbow Lodge had been rebuilt. And it had, parts of it but not much. It was open. That was something. There were a couple of new cabins and a new Chapel of the Two Hearted River sitting on a hill overlooking a valley of charred trees, and at the mouth of the river, the parking lot was crammed with people, SUV’s, ORV’s, RV’s, and families carrying fat babies and fatter blankets.
It just reminded me that a beloved place is a people’s beloved place even when it’s damaged and ruined. It’s not ruined to them. They feel like they always did there, I’m thinking. Free and in the wild. After a year of going to work every day, watching Life Below Zero on TV, and rearranging their camp gear in the garage, they are finally on top of the world and they think they are in heaven. And they probably are.
I pondered this for a bit, why people get so attached to physical places. How do they know that the place they love will heal them and set things right? Time after time. Even when they change and the place changes? When all the trees are charred sticks and only ferns are growing? What set that in motion?
They were healed the first time, I think. That’s all it takes. Just once. The rest is reflex, muscle memory. I know that from my own treasured places and believe it to be true.
So no bear today on our journey in the U.P. but other things just as good.
#29/100: 29th in a series of 100 essays in 100 days