The Man Behind the Dairy Doors
I see you as you grocery shop.
I hear your conversations as you open the doors to my lair.
You may have seen a vague shadow lurking behind the milk before.
You may have even wondered what’s causing all of the creamer to suddenly slide forward on the shelf.
Maybe you’ve never thought much of those things. Maybe you’ve really never wondered what’s further past the meticulously displayed products behind those mysterious clear glass doors.
But sometimes there is a moment when all is revealed. Those rare, fleeting moments when, in the gap where the organic soy milk normally goes (but which is somehow inexplicably always out of stock), we make eye contact.
Yes, I am the man behind the doors. I am the one stocking the dairy cooler.
I will spend my whole shift in the quiet confines of this cold concrete bunker. Chilled to 40ºF, the pallets of milk, orange juice, and yogurt provide my company.
Each day in the dairy cooler is an intense game of whack-a-mole: stock the specialty milk products and non-dairy substitutes before any of the popular milk gallons or egg cartons run out. The work never ends. By the time I finish re-stocking the fat-free milk, I can look back at the whole milk and see just how many gallons have found their way into a customer’s hands already. Indeed, I can judge how busy foot traffic is on the sales floor based on how fast the milk disappears. A busy day, and I’ll have to restock the milk gallons twice in a shift. I can go through more than two pallets of a single variety in a day—and that’s 288 gallons per pallet.
I can tell when the store opens based on when the slams of the dairy doors begin. Like an impending thunderstorm, it starts with a few sporadic slams before the deluge of banging doors betrays the intensity of early morning shopper traffic.
In between door slams, I hear snippets of cell phone conversations, commentary about our current stock, and intense deliberation on which product to buy. I listen silently as I work to replace what is running low. Most of the chatter is not intended for me, though I hear more than you are aware of. Most of you don’t know I’m back here working—or that I’m quite amenable to help you with your dairy.
But some of you know the secret. There are the bold few who pop their heads in through the door, eye me through the gaps in the dairy, and ask me to find a product. Milk, I’m an expert in. Cheese and yogurt I know a bit about too. But please don’t ask me about dry goods. I am happy here in my dairy cave. I feel a bit like a hermit crab out of his shell when forced out onto the sales floor.
My job is to keep you happy and to give you dairy. You may never see me, but if the milk is well stocked then you know I’m there, always eavesdropping and spying on you behind the dairy doors.
Seeking Spring Ephemerals
In early spring, well before the trees and shrubs send forth their leaves into the skies above, a fleeting class of plants emerges from the ground to live their brief, wonderous time in the unhindered spring sunlight. These flowers speckle the forest floor with patches of bright whites, yellows, purples, and reds, atop their brilliant fresh green foliage, in a welcome contrast to the subdued hues of winter. The ephemeral show lasts for a few short weeks before the flowers fade away and the lush greens of the plant wither away to wait the remainder of the year hidden secretly underground. In May 2020, I went off as a flower-hunter, spending time scouring a few local parks and preserves in the greater Holland, Michigan area, looking for native wildflowers. I found some ephemerals in bloom, was too late on others, but everywhere saw a diversity of early-blooming wildflowers. I encountered a much greater floral diversity than I could reasonably post here—so get out to your local parks and go seek your own wildflowers!
A sure sign of spring in the forest are the large brilliant blooms of the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) Melantiaceae. Single stalks with leaves of three and flowers with petals of three (it is the TRI-llium, after all). The showy white flowers gradually turn to pink.
A personal favorite of mine is the swaths of Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) Liliaceae that blanket the forest floor. Bright yellow lily-like flowers nod from a stalk that emerges above their one or two leaves. Brown mottling on the leaves is said to resemble the skin of trout, giving rise to the plant’s common name. Their peak bloom in West Michigan is in April, but I was fortunate to catch a few late flowers in May.
Forming dense clusters of large, deeply-cleft umbrella-like leaves is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Berberidaceae. The fleshy stalks emerge in April, and a single white flower blooms in May. The ‘apple’ that gives the plant its common name (also called a ‘forest lemon’) does not ripen until June, and all green parts of the plant, including the unripe fruit, are poisonous.
Found abundantly in wet, marshy areas is the aptly-named Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) Ranunculaceae. This bright-yellow flowered plant grows in colonies and steadily blooms from April to August.
Another bright yellow flower, although this one with only a single bloom and being found in more upland the woods is the Hispid Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) Ranunculaceae. The word ‘hispid’ means covered with stiff hairs or bristles, and references the flowering stalk of the plant.
Dense colonies of 5-sepaled flowers growing up to one foot high in woodlands is an indicator of the False Meadow Rue (Isopyrum biternatum) Ranunculaceae. A true spring ephemeral, False Meadow Rue blooms for only a few weeks in May, then completely withers away to its roots.
Another flowering plant of moist woodlands, this one purple in color, is the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Geraniaceae. The geranium is popular with gardeners, and several domesticated varieties can be found in cultivation.
An incredibly brilliant and uniquely-shaped flower is found on the Wild Columbine (Aquilegea canadensis) Ranunculaceae. Several flowers, with five red-spurred petals and protruding yellow stamens, hang from the plant above its deeply lobed leaves. Nectar is stored in the flower’s spurs, providing food for pollinating hummingbirds.
Multiple globe-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers emerging from a single stem on the forest floor indicate Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) Araliaceae. Not far from the flowering stem are the leaves of plant, deeply divided into typically 5 leaflets. Young Wild Sarsaparilla with three leaflets and a glossy purple hue can sometimes uncannily resemble poison ivy. The roots can be used as a substitute for real Sarsaparilla flavoring, though the plant is not closely related to the True Sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.) of tropical climates.
A single palm leaf-like plant with a spiked cluster of small white flowers is the False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) Asparagaceae. It grows in the same habitat as the true Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum sp.), which will have several bell-shaped flowers hanging under the stem. The origin of the common name ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is unclear, though it was perhaps named in reference to the plant roots resembling a signet ring or Hebrew characters.
Not only were the wildflowers blooming, but some trees were in bloom too. I came across this small native understory tree, the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Fabaceae. The Redbud blooms profligately with bunches of pink flowers, making it no wonder it is popular as a landscape tree as well.
Showing promise of fruity treasure to come in June is this diminutive white flower, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) Rosaceae. Wild strawberry plants sprawl across sunny open patches by spreading with runners. The thimble-sized strawberries are juicy and flavorful, and are quite popular with this flower-hunter.
The field guide I used in identifying these plants was Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide © 1977 by Little, Brown and Co.
On Discerning a Pattern in the Music Played at the Meijer Supermarket
As the Coronavirus pandemic has upended nearly everyone’s lives from the old normal, I too have found my projected course of life disrupted. My planned employment for this spring—teaching environmental education and canoeing with schoolchildren in California—has been cancelled out of concern for spreading the virus. Fortunately, just as shoppers were starting to panic-buy toilet paper en masse and wiping supermarket shelves clean, I was able to snag a seasonal job at my local Meijer grocery store as a stockperson. Maybe it is due to my penchant for organization and my affinity for boxes, or maybe its my curiosity at how the modern food system works, but secretly deep down I had always been intrigued about working at a grocery store. Having done the job for a while now, I’ve found that stocking shelves of food product isn’t too complex, and the entire process can actually be quite meditative and satisfying at times (aside from the frequent waves of aggressive shoppers). So, with much of my mental capacity free to wander, and being in-store for 40 hours a week, I’ve turned my recent attention to more academic pursuits—that is, I’ve been trying to discern patterns in the background music being pumped-in through the intercom at Meijer.
It has long been known that music affects peoples’ moods. More recently, psychologists have undertaken studies to see how music affects behavior, particularly the behavior of customers in retail stores. For example, scientists have found that slower-paced music causes shoppers to move and browse more slowly, ultimately leading them to purchase more items. In contrast, faster-paced songs and songs that are familiar to the customer will cause shoppers to pick up their pace and spend less time in-store—items will be selected more quickly, but not as many items will be purchased. And what about streaming in some high-brow classical music? In contrast to pop music, playing classical in-store causes people to buy more expensive products. The amazing thing about this ambient background music is that shoppers often don’t draw it into their focused attention—the music enters the brain at the subconscious level and affects the shopper’s mood and spending behavior without their active awareness. Think about that the next time you’re getting groceries.
My conscious attention has been focused on the music played in Meijer, and having spent five weeks working there already, (which equates to about 200 hours of listening to their playlist), I’ve tried my best to discern any type of pattern or underlying psychological agenda I can pick out from their musical selection. The only conclusion I’ve come to is that the reassuring voice of Dr. Norman Beauchamp of Michigan State University, Executive Vice-President for Health Sciences, comes over the intercom on the hour, plus at 15-, 30-, and 45-past as well. In his most appropriately midwestern inflection ever, Dr, Beauchamp’s voice slips into our subconscious, reminding us to wash our hands often, and please, don’t touch your face.
Even though Dr. Beauchamp repeats himself often to drive home his message of public health, the songs at Meijer don’t, at least not in an eight-hour shift. Though I’m almost guaranteed to hear a certain set of songs each workday, the time of day each song gets played is still a daily surprise. There is no discernible song order, and some tunes are played frequently while others only on a rare occasion (when the exceedingly rare Brandi Carlile or Pearl Jam song comes on, I pause and think to myself, ‘hmm, this is quite atypical’). As to the customer behavior that corporate Meijer is trying to achieve with its musical selection, I am still baffled. the musical genres that are played seem to run the gamut. Here I’ll just give a brief survey with a few musical highlights of the sonic diversity experienced at Meijer.
The first few songs I actively noticed while working were because they were throwbacks to the summer of 2006, the year I turned sixteen and would sing out while driving by myself. Songs like Smash Mouth’s “Story of My Life” and Hoobastank’s “The Reason” have weathered the test of time a fair bit better, but Ashlee Simpsons’ “Invisible” and Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door” have been left behind in the mid-2000’s, well, except at Meijer.
Of course Meijer would be remiss if they only played mid-2000’s pop without also playing some bad contemporary pop songs as well. Selections like “Perfect” by One Direction, “Tattoo (How ‘Bout You)” by In Real Life, “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber, and “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” by Panic! At the Disco are the more recent earworms I unfortunately can’t get out of my head.
While the soundtrack at Meijer is primarily pop and light rock, R&B and Hip Hop get a little shake as well. Vanessa Hudgens sings “Come Back to Me” (talk about more mid-2000’s hits!) and Montell Jordan sings “This Is How We Do It” for a 90’s throwback.
And even Reggae fans aren’t even left out of the mix. Though infrequent, listen closely and you might hear a tune like Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.”
Stores want customers to be in a happy, upbeat mood to increase consumer-spending. So it should be no surprise that Meijer pumps in upbeat feel good songs like Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” and Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” every single day.
Does love cause people to buy things? Meijer must think so, judging by the vast amount of love songs they play in-store. They seem to particularly favor slow, sappy love ballads and duets, like A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” or Landon Pigg’s “Falling In Love At A Coffee Shop.”
If slow love songs aren’t your thing, it won’t be too long before you’ll hear an 80’s synth pop ballad to pick up the mood and to make one reminisce about the days of hair bands. I am probably most intrigued as to why Dead or Alive’s “Brand New Lover” is on the playlist. Though upbeat and catchy, the lyrics do describe wanting to have an affair. Another song I still haven’t figured out what mood Meijer is trying for is Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls.”
In the mood for more 80’s? You’re in luck at Meijer. For an upbeat hit with an impossible number of key changes, try Sheena Easton’s “My Baby Takes the Morning Train.” I love this song every time, except when I’m just groggily starting work at 6am. Can’t get enough of key changes? You’ll eventually hear Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” too.
And if you get the impression that Meijer’s musical selection is only poppy and mainstream, just keep listening and you’ll hear an occasional song from the alternative music scene. Examples include Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,” and a very quirky “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants.
It seems like the corporate music engineers at Meijer have me stumped. I can’t discern any subliminal messaging behind the song selection. Take a listen and see if you can find a pattern in this musical survey, and the next time you’re in a supermarket, stop and listen to the audio overhead.
A Royal Walk: Hiking across Isle Royale
It was the middle of May 2018 when I first landed on Isle Royale. That storied island—that mass of rock isolated in northern Lake Superior. So far away it seems logically like it should be part of Canada, yet it belonged to Michigan—the only National Park in my home state. The mystery of that island beckoned me from maps with its geography and isolation. Long had I wanted to discover what this coveted gem had in store.
At long last, I finally visited the island after spending a winter and a spring teaching environmental education in northern Minnesota. By that time, I had become quite familiar with the boreal northwoods from all those hours teaching kids in the wilds. The northern forests, hence, were not all that different from my everyday existence.
Given my years of anticipation, Isle Royale was bound to be something exceptionally different than what one could experience on the mainland, I believed.
As it was, my first trip to the island was a simple, short overnight stay, ferrying in from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Visitors Center on the western end of the island. As far as landscapes go, the flat, forested, mixed-conifer forests of Windigo are not spectacularly different than the Minnesota Northwoods I had become accustomed to.
I was a bit underwhelmed.
I didn’t even bother to take any pictures (incidentally, my camera had broken earlier that trip).
I left Isle Royale that trip convinced that I had seen the island in the wrong way. A simple overnight trip was no way to do the island ecosystem justice. If I was ever to return to Isle Royale, I thought, I would do it in the right way: I would hike the island from end to end, slow enough to absorb the ecological transitions, to understand the essence of what makes the place, and to enjoy immersion in the vast isolation of Isle Royale.
As chance would have it, in the summer of 2019 I was selected to take part in a volunteer restoration crew on Isle Royale’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse. I would be returning to Isle Royale sooner than I had thought, and this time, I would be staying on to hike across the island afterwards.
I started my hike on the western end of the Island, at Windigo, the widest part of the island. Here the forest commands the land and the coastline is smoother, less jagged. I made my way to the Greenstone Ridge trail, the hiking path that transects the middle of the island. Despite its name, the Greenstone Ridge at this point isn’t much of a ridge at all. The trail slowly climbs uphill under the cover of a mixed-forest—conifers, but also maples and even the warm-and-dry loving oaks. I spent my first night at the interior campsite of Island Mine, the site of an 1870’s copper mine that peaked and was abandoned in only a few years.
Mining history would be a big theme of the hike, and copper was the resource of value. It wasn’t just white Euro-Americans who were mining the island either: the Ojibwe, the indigenous people of Isle Royale, had mined the island for thousands of years. Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 4500 years ago, indigenous people harvested copper by using stones to hammer off chunks of native copper from outcroppings in the bedrock. As their technology progressed, they began to mine deeper in the bedrock by building large fires over ore deposits, then quickly dousing the fire with water in order to crack the bedrock. Small indigenous mining pits can still be seen throughout Isle Royale today. By the 1840’s the Objibwe had been duped into ceding their lands to settlement and development for the resource-hungry Americans. Speculators flocked to the island to make their riches, but mining on Isle Royale was always boom or bust. Island Mine organized in 1874 and extracted over 200,000 pounds of refined copper. Three years later, the company went bust. All that remains now are scattered pieces of rusting equipment and mounds of tailings.
Day two saw me continue east along the Greenstone Ridge. After a few miles of hiking through the shady canopy, I began to get my first views from the ridge: small, rocky clearings at first with scrubby oaks and small shrubs partly obscuring the views. First the clearings were few and far between, but then they became more abundant. From the ridge one could begin to see some of the inland lakes that dot the island, including the scenic Lake Desor, near the summit of Mount Desor, which at 1,394 feet is the highest point on the island. From clearings further along I could even see Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake, the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake.
With the gradual opening from shady forest to open ridge, another fun thing happened: berries. Up on the ridge, the sun beats down and the soil becomes dry. The seasons progress quicker than by the lakeshore where Lake Superior tempers the weather. Whereas the thimbleberries at lower elevations were still hard and green, up on the ridge I began to encounter a progression of ripeness: first, an isolated red berry, then a few on a bramble, and finally whole thickets of the bright red berries. Thimbleberries are a thornless, velvety cousin of the raspberry, with shallow bright red berries which are so soft and juicy that they can only survive the journey from the hand to the mouth.
After gorging myself on snacks of thimbleberries and taking a mid-afternoon swim in the cool and clear Lake Desor, I made my campsite at Hatchet Lake.
The clear summer weather finally took a turn for the wet on my second night. It was a constant heavy rain that slowly drenched me. I awoke (did I even sleep?) with about an inch of standing water in my tent. I later learned that at Windigo they recorded nearly two inches of rain in that overnight.
I would start my third day soggy. Today I would be leaving the Greenstone Ridge trail for the north shore of Isle Royale and the infamous Minong Ridge. I reached Lake Superior at Todd Harbor, a picturesque cove with a mélange of water-smoothed rocks. I took a short side hike to the former open pit of the Haystack Mine, and then followed a trail just a little bit further to find a small waterfall that was the cause of some bubbling noise off in the distance. From Todd Harbor I took the Minong Trail towards McCargoe Cove. The Minong Trail, though it never reaches as high elevations as the Greenstone Ridge, deserves its reputation as a knee-destroyer. The Minong Ridge is a series of exposed escarpement ridges: a rocky, uneven gradual climb up the bare basalt, followed by a steep dropoff on the backside. Then repeat, again and again. On a hot day, it wears you out, as it wears out your knees.
I reached the deep and slender McCargoe Cove by mid-afternoon, and after such a soggy night, I was eager to rest and dry out. This afternoon, I finally got a shelter at one of the island’s campsites. They are spacious lean-tos, screened-in, and with the perfect combination of both scenic views and isolation. I dried my clothes off and basked in the sun.
Though McCargoe Cove was my favorite campsite of the hike, there were not many people there at all. Isle Royale consistently is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states. In 2017, this National Park had only more visitors than Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, all sites in remote interior Alaska. With only 28,196 people even paying a visit in all of 2017, more people visit parks like Yellowstone in a single day than all of Isle Royale in an entire year. The great benefit of Isle Royale’s lack of popularity is its solitude. The trails and campgrounds never feel crowded. With fewer folks around, you also develop good connections with your fellow travelers quite readily. At McCargoe Cove, I spent the evening around the campfire chatting with our only neighbors: a group of fishermen from Chicago and a pair of ladies from the Twin Cities. Trail community seems to come easily here.
McCargoe Cove was also the harbor used for the Minong Mine, the most prolific mine in Isle Royale’s history. Like other island mine sites, indigenous people had harvested surface copper deposits here first. In 1872, modern mining operations had commenced at Minong. This mine produced some incredible finds, such as a 5,720 pound nugget of almost pure copper. Finds like this nugget, and several other massive nuggets, added fuel to the mining fire. Two shafts were dug, up to 300 feet deep, as well as several drift tunnels that followed the ore veins. As tunnels were dug, tailings, or waste rock, began to fill in the adjoining marsh that leads to McCargoe Cove. A boomtown known as Cove sprang up at Minong, housing upwards of 150 people at its peak. Along with its railroad, stamp mill, and blacksmith shop, Cove even boasted a post office. Indeed, the prospect of permanent settlement on Isle Royale seemed so promising that Isle Royale even became its own county in 1875. By 1885, however, all mining operations on Isle Royale came to a halt for good. The grade of the ore dwindled and the price of copper fell; Isle Royale proved to be too isolated and the winters too harsh. Eventually, even though over 4 million pounds of refined copper were removed from the island, all mining ventures proved too non-economical to continue. Island boomtowns were abandoned. By 1897, with no permanent population left, Isle Royale County was re-absorbed into Keweenaw County.
On my fourth day, after very much enjoying my single-night stay in the shelter, I was off to hiking again. This time I decided to traverse the island from north shore to south shore, hiking astride several interior lakes along the way. I had been told that these interior lakes were hotbeds for moose activity. As storied and prolific as the moose population on Isle Royale has been, I had yet to see my first moose on the island. I knew they’d be around, as I had already seen plenty of moose scat and browse sign.
The scenic and shapely-named Chickenbone Lake proved of no avail for moose, though it was a Mecca for giant dragonflies. The next lake over, at Lake Ritchie, I got my first far-off glimpse of a moose browsing in the aquatic vegetation far across the lake. With the gradual decline of the predatory wolf population, the numbers of moose on Isle Royale have skyrocketed in recent years, with an estimated 2,000 moose inhabiting just over 200 square miles of island (learn more about Isle Royale Wolf-Moose dynamics here). I would only end up seeing one other moose on my trip. After losing the hiking trail on some bedrock, I wound up following a moose trail into the woods. The moose trail petered away until I reached a swamp. Suddenly, a large startled moose crashed away from me through the brush!
Though I had seen two moose, as far as their illustrious predator the wolves went, I had yet to see any. When I had visited previously in 2018, there was just a pair of wolves left on the island, simultaneously a brother-sister pair and a father-daughter pair (you do the math on that inbreeding!). In the winter of 2018-2019, four more wolves were introduced to reinvigorate the existing wolf population. For anyone, seeing a wolf is a rare treat. Alas, I never had a wolf encounter on the island; the closest I got to seeing the wolves was the island cabin of well-known wolf-moose researcher Rolf Peterson.
Once at the south side of the island, I camped at the large harbor of Moskey Basin. Completely different from the small, sparsely-filled campgrounds I had been staying at, Moskey Basin was filled to capacity with both families and large groups, and its vast expanses of exposed bedrock and its picnic tables made this site feel luxurious and tame. But I should have expected that, visiting in high season after all. Even in high season, though, Isle Royale is not that busy, and getting all of that wilderness ambiance while hiking was a treat not to be taken for granted.
The cove at Moskey Basin was a sight to behold—layers of exposed bedrock outcroppings running right into the water. I hadn’t noticed it too much before, but the island was becoming rockier and rockier the further I traveled east. The exposed rocks left plenty of good places for sunbathing and also proved to be a prime habitat for blueberries (thimbleberries, unfortunately, had all but disappeared after leaving the Greenstone Ridge). Also without my noticing, the broadleaf tree canopy had disappeared too. Thin soils could no longer support the large broadleaf trees seen more westerly on the island. Instead, the forest was becoming more a stunted array of firs and spruces.
With a clear night ahead looking promising, I made a commitment to staying up to see the stars. This being mid-summer in the westernmost Eastern Time Zone, the sun did not set until near 10pm, and the stars did not emerge until well afterwards. After a full day of hiking, I was usually in my tent well before the stars came out in their full glory. But I stayed up tonight and was treated to a show on an absolutely moonless night. Being miles away from any human settlements, the stars on Isle Royale are absolutely amazing!
My last day on Isle Royale would take me into the primary tourist outpost at Rock Harbor. Rather than hugging the shoreline trail to my final destination, I once again went inland to take the Greenstone Ridge home. The trail up to the Mount Ojibway Fire Tower was never too steep, provided uninterrupted views, and proved to be premiere blueberry habitat. The whole climb up I had a constant handful of blueberries as a power snack. The Mount Ojibway Fire Tower, unlike its much squatter kin at Mount Ishpeming, actually provides visitor access to the base. Climbing the tower provides views of the entire island from north to south.
The Greenstone Ridge continued its path northeast across exposed rocky and grassy balds. By the time I reached the Mount Franklin lookout, it was clear I was encountering a different area. The overlook was populated with day-tourists hiking up from their various Rock Harbor lodgings. I left the viewpoint and went on the downhill to Rock Harbor and my hike’s end. At the eastern end of the island, Isle Royale’s tilted geology splits the island into many narrow peninsulas and long bays running towards the northeast. I walked along these deep harbors right along the trails by the edge of Superior’s turquoise waters.
A sign for campsites signaled that I had made it into Rock Harbor. I could now bask in the luxuries of this tourist depot. Modern settlement at Rock Harbor started with a few unsuccessful mining ventures in the 1840’s, then moved into the realm of commercial fishing, as Scandinavian immigrants built their fishing shanties after the copper booms. By the early 1900’s, these fishermen were guiding pleasure-seekers around the island and accommodating throngs of tourists in cabins. Several resorts eventually popped up, having their heyday in the 1920’s. The Great Depression and changing societal tastes caused a drastic decline to tourism in the 1930’s. By 1940, Isle Royale had been declared a National Park, and the National Park Service began the process of buying out and shutting down the remaining tourist resorts and removing fishermen from the island. Gradually, this formerly logged, mined, and settled island would be transformed into a 99% wilderness park with no permanent population.
Today Rock Harbor boasts a store where one can buy fresh vegetables as well as craft beer, hot showers ($6 for a five-minute shower), laundry, a restaurant, rustic cabins, and even a few hotel rooms. For this wilderness traveler, it was a world apart from the Isle Royale I had just experienced. The development at Rock Harbor was a foil to the isolation of the island. Though I milled about the Rock Harbor Village for a while, it just wasn’t what I needed. I made off to a quiet edge of Lake Superior and took a long, cleansing swim in her waters. For me, that is what Isle Royale is about.
A Week on the Rock: Restoration Volunteer at the Rock of Ages Lighthouse
Northwestern Lake Superior, May 27, 1933, 6pm—The passenger steamer George M. Cox plies briskly through the frigid waters at full steam ahead, despite a heavy fog having settled over Lake Superior. On her maiden voyage after an elegant and expensive refit financed by New Orleans businessman George Cox, the Cox is bound for Port Arthur, Ontario carrying a load of 127 prominent guests, passengers, and crew. The captain and owner of the Cox need her to make good time on this voyage in order to impress her passengers and to show the Cox’s viability against other steamer lines in the lucrative vacation travel business. In the heavy fog enveloping the lake, Captain Johnson and First Mate Kronk can hear the fog signal from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse—they know they are near Isle Royale, but continue onward at 17 knots. Suddenly—a jarring jolt and the sound of scrapping metal. The George M. Cox runs full speed into the Rock of Ages Shoal, lifting 110 feet of her bow out of the water and giving her a dangerous list to port. The command to abandon ship is immediate.
On watch from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, head keeper John Soldenski hears the crash and lowers the rescue boat to race off to the scene of the wreck. Though the wreck of the Cox was spectacular, there were no major injuries and Soldenski is able to tow all the life rafts safely to the lighthouse. At this cylindrical lighthouse on an isolated rock outcropping no bigger than 50 by 200 feet, all 127 passengers and crew onboard the Cox would spend a bitter and cramped night. The rescued crammed into the spiral stairwells of the Rock of Ages, or alternatively took turns huddled against the cold on the rock itself to avoid the overcrowding. The next day, rescue ships removed all George M. Cox passengers and crew with minimal injuries sustained and no loss of life in the wreck and subsequent rescue. As for the Cox herself, insurance declared her a total loss and she sat beached on the reef for months. She became a tourist attraction in her own right, and local Isle Royale fishermen brave enough to enter found many luxury goods to plunder. October storms later that year broke the Cox in two, and she slipped quietly to the depths of Lake Superior.
Despite this history of heroism and lore of rescue on the high seas, technological advancements and automation eventually led to the end of the keeper era at Rock of Ages. In 1978, the light was automated and the final keepers said their goodbyes. The lighthouse itself was prepped for its abandonment—windows were filled in with cinder blocks, doors and fixtures were removed, and all the interiors were coated with semi-gloss white paint—even the remaining light bulbs. In 1985, Rock of Ages’ magnificent 2nd order Fresnel lens—a lens that allowed a flame to shine for 29 miles—was removed and replaced with a much smaller solar-powered lantern. The door to the lighthouse was locked. The magnificent beacon that is the Rock of Ages was left to weather the elements alone.
But such an iconic and storied lighthouse could not be left alone to weather away indefinitely. A group of citizens, concerned with the fate of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, formed the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation society with the mission of restoring the lighthouse to its 1930’s appearance and to opening up the light to public visitation. Restoration work has been undertaken on the light since 2014. In July of 2019, I was able to join in these restoration efforts for a week of volunteer service at the Rock of Ages itself.
The crew was led by two-time lighthouse volunteers, the Nebraska couple Josh and Heather: odd-job experts, and woodcraft miracle workers. Joining them were me and Dakota Dirk, a professional historical restoration carpenter from Minnesota and an avid collector of antique oddities. For five nights, we stayed at the Rock of Ages itself. Our project goal for the week was to finish installing the 3rd floor hardwood flooring and to install window, door, and baseboard trim on the 3rd floor galley and the 4th floor keepers’ quarters. I would be staying in the unfinished 5th floor assistant keepers’ quarters.
The Rock of Ages Lighthouse is located more than 20 miles off the North Shore of Minnesota, and another five miles southwest of the Windigo Visitors Center on Isle Royale National Park. Upon arriving at Windigo on our first day in service, we immediately took a smaller, former NPS patrol craft to the shoal on which the Rock of Ages sits. Seeing as how Lake Superior is rough and unpredictable, and how the lake has claimed many larger ships throughout the years, the length of our stay would be determined by when the weather was favorable to access the light. It is a situation still the same as the keepers of old; during the active years, the keepers’ tours of duty would be subject to the mercy of Lake Superior. Keepers could often be stranded for days or weeks until weather would allow a ship to remove them at the end of the season. One crew of keepers was down to a single can of tomatoes for provisions when they were finally removed from the lighthouse. Hopefully our restoration crew would not suffer the same fate; we packed plenty of extra peanut butter just in case.
At the dock on the Rock of Ages
Our first day on the Rock of Ages was spent exploring the place that would serve as our home base for the next five days. The rocky reef on which the Rock of Ages sits is a jagged piece of basalt that emerges from nowhere and drops precipitously off into the azure waters of Lake Superior. No wonder this place posed such an immanent threat to shipping traffic. The Rock of Ages Light was built to mitigate the hazards of this reef. Construction began in 1908, when workers blasted a 50-foot diameter hole in the rock down to water level, in which the foundation of the lighthouse would be laid. The first two levels of the lighthouse, encased in steel and concrete, were finished in 1908 and served as storage areas for the Light. Being at water level, these two levels were constantly battered by waves and exhibit a characteristic clammy dampness. The remaining eight levels of the Light were completed in 1909. The main floor of the lighthouse was the third level up, and contained the engine room. From there, the spiral staircase leads past the 2nd floor lounge and office, 3rd floor galley and mess hall, 4th and 5th floor keepers’ quarters, 6th floor watchroom, 7th floor service room, and finally the 8th floor lens room. A journey up the lighthouse’s 149 steps will take one past various unrestored levels with peeling paint and blocked-off windows, as well as a few freshly finished and yellow-hued rooms. From the panoramic views of the lens room, 117 feet up, one can look out on Lake Superior and see the buoys that mark the wreck of the ill-fated Cox, along with the 1877 wreck of the Cumberland and the 1898 wreck of the Henry Chisholm.
Our volunteer work focused on installing flooring and trim work in the 3rd and 4th floors. Restoration crews in prior weeks and years had previously demoed and painted these levels in order to make them habitable for work crews staying out at the lighthouse. Our job was to wrap things up by installing the finish trim. This was no simple task, as all our trim pieces were straight, and the entirety of the lighthouse is circular (not to mention that water damage and exposure had rotted out much of the underlying structural wood we were nailing into). Using a variety of construction techniques, some woodbending, lots of trial and error, and perhaps some voodoo magic, we as a crew were able to finish most of the trimwork on these floors. Adding the trimwork really tied the rooms together. And being period appropriate too, all the trimwork was a fancy compilation of early 1900’s-style solid oak. Despite being such an isolated lighthouse, the keepers at Rock of Ages were blessed with quite ornate woodwork.
Even though the restoration crew put in long hours on the restoration project, there was still plenty of time to enjoy spending at the lighthouse itself. With so much restoration work actively going on, the lighthouse was a great place to play architecture sleuth. One of my favorite down-time activities was roaming the floors of the lighthouse trying to piece together its history—its construction, its changes, and its restoration. Hanging out in the lens room was the best location to feel the immensity of Rock of Ages’ isolation. To the east is a view of the entirety of Isle Royale; to the north is Minnesota’s North Shore and the Sleeping Giant of Ontario; to the south the endless expanse of Lake Superior. My favorite spots to watch the sunset were in the lens room and on the 7th floor catwalk. With favorable weather most of the week, we were always treated to spectacular sunsets and to watching seagulls fly in the wind.
Blow Ye Winds!
Despite the lighthouse’s isolation, we had several visitors stop by throughout the week. Maintenance workers from NOAA stopped by to maintain weather equipment, and the National Park Service had groups of protection and maintenance rangers stop by. Our daily break was also timed around 2:20, when the Sea Hunter III would pass by with day-trippers to Isle Royale who all took pictures and waved.
Our friends also included the many seagulls who called the Rock of Ages home. Their calls intermingled with the wind to provide the constant background music of Rock of Ages. In high winds, from the lens room, we would watch as the seagulls had a heyday soaring in the breeze. There were also several fledgling seagulls born on the Rock that we watched in anticipation, waiting for their first flights down to the water.
Our other constant friends were the midge flies. Every object outside the lighthouse was coated thickly with a layer of midge flies and other insects taking shelter from the constant wind. On the few occasions that the Lake Superior winds ceased to blow, the midges would take flight, forming an airborne swarm. I, as well as everyone else, inhaled too many midges to count.
At last, it came time to leave the Rock of Ages. The final two days of our volunteer period had thunderstorms in the forecast; we would need to leave the reef while we had a good weather window. Though I find it disappointing that we never experienced the extreme weather that the old-time keepers had experienced (with waves crashing up to at least the 6th floor ), it was a spectacular week on the Rock nonetheless.
If you are interested in learning more about the Rock of Ages Lighthouse restoration project, volunteering, or donating to the cause, please visit the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society website.
Aboard the Good Sloop Clearwater
After serving four months aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, it is incredibly difficult to summarize the experience in any amount of words. I served as a crew member as the good sloop plied the Hudson River from the post-industrial valley town of Kingston to the bustling shores of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Along the way we sailed past historic bridges and lighthouses spread out over ninety river miles of the scenic Hudson River Valley. We enjoyed rain and rainbows, sunsets worthy of a Hudson River School painting, and city lights off in the distance of many unique Hudson Valley towns. The crew busied ourselves with teaching fourth graders all about their river ecosystem on schooldays, and with entertaining guests on chartered sails on evenings and weekends. Our crew played music together, played games together, slogged through the rain together, and all made sure that this 50 year-old replica of a historic cargo vessel sailed safely from dock to dock and would keep sailing for 50 more years. Mere photos of the ship can never do justice to the myriad of tasks that are involved in operating a historic tall ship, or to the vibrancy of the community aboard the vessel. But as my tribute, here is a photo montage of the fine and splendid sloop Clearwater that has served as my workplace, my home, and my community for the spring and summer of 2019.
For those of you interested in some of the irregularities of state political boundaries—for instance, why Michigan is separated into two large peninsulas, why Oklahoma has a panhandle, or why Colorado is just a boring old rectangle—there is a great book to read. That book is How the States Got Their Shape by Mark Stein. In detail, Stein explores each state’s border—explaining the various social and political forces, many oft-long forgotten, that went into the making of each state’s boundary. It’s an easy and entertaining read, and it is quite surprising to learn how often petty disputes (i.e. Missouri’s southeast corner) or rudimentary surveying mistakes (i.e. the Kentucky/Tennessee border) made America’s state geography much more complicated than it ideally should have been.
For some folks, it is simple enough just to read about peculiar political boundaries. For others, it is necessary to visit them (think about the 4-corner intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, which is a modern-day tourist attraction. The allure of being in four states at once is well worth the three dollar entrance fee!)
And, as American political boundaries rarely follow logical physical geographical boundaries, the result is some absurdities in state physical geography extremes. Recently, I spent a weekend exploring some geographical oddities near me; in particular I went to Mount Frissell, a mountain in Massachusetts which oddly enough is also the highest point in Connecticut.
What drew me to this particular non-descript mountain in the extreme southwestern corner of Massachusetts? Well, it was a form of geographical tourism known as highpointing. Simply put, highpointers are people who try to reach the highest point in each state or region. Now personally, I had previously climbed the tallest mountain in a few states before, but I had never really made highpointing more of a goal until I picked up a guidebook of state highpoints at a library used book sale last year. Being somewhat of a geography nerd, I thought it would be a fun travel project to undertake (at least to all the highpoints in which ropes and glacier travel are not required!)
And hence I learned about Mount Frissell. Though the mountain has its own scenic merits and was quite a lush walk through the deciduous Connecticut uplands, I would have had incredibly little reason to ever visit otherwise.
My approach to Mount Frissell came from the Connecticut side of the mountain, where an inconspicuous town road out of Salisbury eventually leads to the trailhead destination. I drove northwards out of town, up a narrow dirt road lined with verdant shrubs and trees. Immediately after hitting the state border marker with Massachusetts, I was at the trailhead. Oddly enough, I would not enter Connecticut on this trip again until I emerged at its state highpoint!
The trail to the summit begins deceptively flat and effortless. A quarter mile in, though, as East Coast trails are prone to do, the path shoots straight up the bedrock slopes of Mount Frissell. Fortunately, the trail was short enough, the views rewarding, and in less than an hour I was at the summit of Mount Frissell, elevation 2,454 feet.
Though I was at the summit, I still had not accomplished my highpoint goal for the day (nor was I at the highpoint of Massachusetts. That honor belongs to Mount Greylock at 3,489 feet, just a couple hours’ drive north.) Fortunately, my climbing portion was done. All I needed to do now was to descend about 300 yards down Frissell’s south slope until I reached the Connecticut border.
A rock cairn and a humble state survey marker are the only evidence that you’ve made it to Connecticut’s highpoint, a modest 2,379 feet. The area itself looks little different from the surrounding forest, and, being on a slope, the views are fairly obscured by vegetation. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being the highest person in the state of Connecticut for awhile, as I rested and perused the trail register notes left by fellow highpointers.
For geography bonus points, continue walking west on the trail for a few more minutes. Soon you will come upon the tri-state boundary for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. As you stand there deep in the woods, maybe you’ll wonder to yourself ‘why in the world did people bother to put this giant stone obelisk in the middle of the forest?’ Well, that’s geographers for you.
Other nearby state superlatives of note: Bash Bish Falls, measuring nearly 200 feet in a series of separate cascades, is Massachusetts’s highest waterfall. Well worth the visit.
Nature’s First Green is Gold
It was an inconsequential day, about ten years ago now. A fresh, bright, day in May; the sun shining kindly and the air full of perceptible warmth for the first time since winter.
Spring fever had struck. We were a group of high school seniors, expectantly awaiting the impending days of graduation, summer freedom, and the privileges of adulthood. Academics, that lynchpin of education, were no longer the most important thing on our minds. Conversations instead turned to commencement and the life beyond. Mrs. Aupperlee’s 4th Hour AP English class reflected this sentiment: though it had been a particularly social class all year, the excitement of spring days had amplified its gregariousness.
We enter the classroom early, each filing into his or her own chosen seat to commence the pre-class banter. Fourth Hour was the last obstacle before lunch. Attention spans would wane, and the classroom atmosphere would become casual. Typically we would have to edit essays or practice for the upcoming AP exam, but our class knew what subjects to broach to get Mrs. Aupperlee off on a class-long tangent about things little related to English literature.
Today was just going to be another ordinary school day to get through, once again.
The bell rings and Mrs. Aupperlee takes attendance. Unexpectedly, she announces that everyone should get out of their seats and follow her. Today we would be going outside. We follow, through the double glass doors, out onto the lawn that surrounds the school. Mrs. Aupperlee continues on, in the bright May sunlight, to the very edge of the lawn. She pauses at a tree which, until now, none of us had ever given particular attention. Standing still to draw us in, she produces a piece of paper and proceeds to read: Nature’s first green is gold,/Her hardest hue to hold…
We listen to the poem as we stand outside. The tree’s freshly budded leaves wave golden in the light breeze. Some of us notice this, as the verses of poetry glance past our ears and the wind tussles our hair. Yet, standing there, some of us also wonder inaudibly why we came out here today. The poem was simple enough. Was the arboreal visual necessary to understand Robert Frost’s words? Isn’t it more expedient to just read poetry indoors? And who even really cares about looking at trees anyways? Our English class, to this point, had only been taught in a classroom. And besides, what even did Robert Frost have to do with our curriculum at the moment? Personal erudition, as lofty as it may be to high-minded intellectuals, has little to do with the forthcoming world of AP Essays and standardized tests. Why were we spending our class time this way?
As that high-schooler, I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking in that specific moment. Being the ambitious, productivity-minded student that I was then, I was likely questioning the value of walking around outside during class period. I had enrolled in this course, after all, primarily because it was an additional AP credit, and not from an inherent love of literature or poetry. English was one of those necessary evils of high-school education, one I had long endured with much chagrin. My future, too, was headed in a different direction; I had been accepted into an engineering program in college already. I expected AP Literature to be my final English class and that I would leave writing behind altogether. I saw little need then for the frivolities of poetry.
And now here I am ten years later. Though the particular details of what I thought on that late May morning have distinctly vanished from memory, our class’s spontaneous visit to the budding tree, along with the poem we shared, still remains clear. In retrospect, all the other things that I thought relevant and important ten years ago—homework assignments, AP test scores—are now antiquated and defunct memories. What remains with me now is the fact that we did go outside and that we did read a poem while crowding a tree. That single small classroom exercise, though it lasted just a few trivial minutes in duration, was influential enough to hold fast in my memory even a decade later.
From time to time, I find myself pulling out that memory, particularly when the first leaves of spring emerge. Without much conscious thought, I’ll suddenly be quoting Robert Frost, if not to my traveling companions then internally to myself: Nature’s first green is gold…
In the ten years since high school, I have changed substantially from the person who I thought I was then becoming. It was small events like reading the poem by the tree that slowly molded me into the person I would become. There was no way I could have realized it at the time, since the poem had no immediate impact on me. However, the power of the poem shared by the tree would lay latent in me for years, until, slowly, it would compound with other life experiences until I realized just the direction I had been traveling in and the person those events had been shaping me to be.
In part, thanks to that high school English class, I take notice of the trees now. Whereas before trees to me were mere background scenery, common and forgettable, I now take notice of their delicate intricacies. The changing of the seasons has become vitally important to my inner well-being, and poetic works like Frost’s serve as reminders to pay attention to the daily acts of beauty that are occurring all around us. I now can’t see the first leaves of spring without also thinking of Robert Frost.
In the time since high school, I have also found my niche in the work of environmental education. My primary occupational duties fall along the lines of educating and exposing individuals to the outdoor world—biological, geological, ecological. To those who I instruct, I primarily give facts and explain complicated ecological interrelationships in the most scientific sense. But more than just a rote recitation of facts, I aim to use my capacity as an educator to teach people a new, ethical perspective of how we relate to the natural world just as how we relate to each other. In my job duties, I now take individuals outdoors to different environments—to the world outside of the classroom where didactic instruction may not be as practical but the lessons learned become all the more memorable and valuable.
As I have now become an educator myself, I think back to the point that Mrs. Aupperlee was trying to impress upon us by taking her 12th grade English class outside on that May morning. More than teaching us facts about grammar or even exposing us to a new poet, I now believe that Mrs. Aupperlee was teaching us something of higher accord. She was trying to affect our ethical bearings, educating us to be observant, to notice things, to be citizens of the world. Inevitably, facts fade. But who we are remains. That day, on the lawn surrounding the tree, ours was not a factual lesson in 20th century American poets or even in tree biology. It was a core lesson in paying attention. It was a practice that told us, as young people, that indeed we should be able to notice the significance of the world around us, and that indeed we can stop and reflect in its beauty and be all the richer for it. It was a lesson in how we need poetry in our lives. In my capacity now as an environmental educator, this is the ethos which I try to cultivate in my students. This is not part of an education of facts and figures, but of a higher order of education, an education for citizenship.
Ten years later, I still remember that day in Mrs. Auperlee’s English class. It’s testament that a single lesson, no matter how small, can leave a lasting impact.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Minnesota Winter Time-lapse
A compilation of time-lapse sequences shot in winter in Minnesota. Enjoy!
Sunrise at Grand Marais Harbor, with the schooner Hjordis. December 2018.
Total lunar eclipse of the Super Blood Wolf Moon, January 20, 2019, as seen from West Bearskin Lake, Minnesota.
Sunset at Camp Menogyn Sauna, with Fisheye Lens. January 2019.
Temperance River. December 2018.
Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge at Night. November 2018.
Nightfall over the City of Duluth. November 2018.
Sunrise shadows across Hungry Jack Lake, as seen from Honeymoon Bluff, Superior National Forest. February 2019.
Hooking up the dog team during Fall ATV training at Amarok Kennels. November 2018.