column By: Tom Carney | November, 19
Once, staring down at Lake Superior from a cliff in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, writer Jim Harrison witnessed the collision of a fog bank and a thunderstorm. He scrambled back from the cliff’s edge and began “searching for cover in a fog so dense I was running into solid whiteness. I tripped into a deepish sand pocket blown into an oval by a millennium of strong winds.”
Lightning struck so close that “my body tingled in the sandpit and the air smelled like the fog was on fire. At that point I gave myself up as dead meat …”
He concludes with, “Nature can be some fun …”
But the thing is nature is not fun in those specific moments of misidentified dominion when matching wits with her seems like a good idea. As Harrison displays, though, she is most enjoyable — and sizzles with details — when you relive the scenes in which she decided to let you off the hook.
Like that time in 1988, on an island in the Boundary Waters’ Basswood Lake, when my father-in-law Charles and I found ourselves rocked by storms that toppled trees for several miles along U.S. 2 in Wisconsin, about 150 miles away.
Sleepless, we broke camp and at first light started paddling toward the takeout spot several miles south.
Facing a big stretch of open water, I favored just following the windward shoreline; it was close and seemed the route least likely to cause any mayhem. He, on the other hand, insisted we head straight across to the far shore.
“Shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” he announced with a confidence I felt incapable of shaking.
As we bounced and rocked across the churning bay, I had to keep reminding myself he had grown up on the banks of Michigan’s St. Clair River, spending countless hours in canoes with his brother and pals when they were kids. He must know what he’s doing. Only after we safely banked the boat on the opposite shore, however, did he reveal they didn’t pilot the canoes much back then.
“Mostly, we tried to tip ’em over.”
The post-stress of having made the crossing might have caused us to have words.
Then there was Oklahoma in 2014.
James Dietsch, the Advertising Sales agent at The Upland Almanac, had tempted me to visit with promises of “as many birds as last year, which was the best in a decade.”
How could I say no to my first wild bobwhite trip ever? I had also never been to Oklahoma, let alone hunting there, but how tough could it be. Quail in the wide-open landscape of Oklahoma could be no match for grouse in Michigan’s north woods.
Quail erupted from the parching, almost desert of western Oklahoma more dizzyingly than any grouse ever imagined it could. In early December, as Michigan’s woods reached a balmy 28 degrees, we wilted beneath 83 degrees before noon. Well, at least one of us wilted.
Just before starting out, James had shaken open the map of the wildlife management area we were hunting and pointed to a tiny speck at the south end.
“That’s the stock tank,” he said. “They dug a well there, installed a windmill and there’s always water. We’ll head in that direction.”
“OK!” I chirped, but I couldn’t see any windmill in the distance. Not even by squinting.
Well, the heat got to me, as usual, but I drank freely from my 750 ml bottle with the assurance of a man who knew he was headed to an oasis.
Nearly two hours later, and after crossing two low ridges, we reached the tank. As I leaned in to rehydrate, James warned, “I wouldn’t drink that. The water’s not safe.”
A two-mile hike back to the truck in desert-like conditions for an overweight, heat-intolerant man is not a pretty thing to behold. Whatever birds we found gave me no delight. About a half-mile short of the vehicles, I bottomed out and beached myself in the short grass.
Fortunately, James, a native to these parts and this climate, calmly and confidently strode on toward the trucks to retrieve a canteen. Abbey, my faithful hound, refused to leave me and stood sentry until he returned. Like the dog in “To Build a Fire,” however, Lizzy the fickle hussy abandoned me and followed James to water, shade and comfort.
Me, I sat there, chest heaving and leg muscles twitching, as I squeezed as much of myself beneath the shade of my cap’s bill as possible.
Nature was a cat and I, the swatted mouse.
Not until two hours later, in an air-conditioned restaurant with a frosted mug of dark Mexican beer in front of me, could I see things from her point of view.
I’m sure I saw her grin.