The tension point in nature is where two spaces transition. The fringes and margins stitch the forest and the meadow together. A path trod by backpackers dissolves into birch and sugar maple. The water of Lake Superior laps against the rocky shoreline.
Isle Royale is a place of transitions.
For three weeks, I lived on the edge of a craggy cliff in the historic Dassler cabin, which overlooks the transition point between Tobin Harbor and Lake Superior. Here, calm skies turn overnight into wild thunderstorms. Waves crash against the rocks where the cabin has gained a tenuous foothold; man building dreams in the wilderness, then watching the wilderness return to claim his work. Balsam and alder spring up and are cropped back by moose. In the evenings in Tobin Harbor, I watch from my kayak as a mother moose and her calf swim from the mainland to the tiny island of Minong. There, they will be safe from the wolves looking for their prey. The moose transition from land to water to land again; from fear and vulnerability to an uneasy feeling of safety. Small Minong itself is an island in transition: from wilderness it briefly evolved into a resort island; now only the ghosts of the old tourist cabins remain.
At Isle Royale, mornings melt into afternoons, then chill into evenings. And as days transition into weeks, into the seasons, we are changed.
Isle Royale Nights are for Poetry…
“Weren’t you afraid?” asked my friends back home, later. I’m a 43-year-old woman who lives in the Chicago suburbs with every hospital, restaurant, and amenity only a mile or two from my front door. I had rarely spent the night away from my husband. Here, I faced three weeks of nights on my own. No one else in this neck of the woods. Alone. All that stood between the dark and me was the cabin door, unlockable from the inside, which often popped open during the night in a strong wind. I propped a chair underneath the knob. Leaned a rock against it from the inside. For reasons I’m still unclear about, I slept with my Swiss army knife in the pocket of my fleece pullover, worn over my pajamas and long underwear for warmth.
Yes, I was afraid.
Sometimes I’d wake in the darkness, hearing crashes and snuffles outside the cabin window. “Itsamoose, itsamoose, amoose, amoose, amoose,” I would chant, soothing myself back to sleep, and sure enough, in the morning I’d find their brown marble scat piles dropped by the porch.
Every night during the three weeks, I would set my internal alarm clock to wake myself at 2 or 3 a.m. Mostly, it worked; occasionally, I would surface vaguely out of my dream-laden haze, turn back over and go to sleep. And sometimes I was jolted from sleep when raging winds shook the cabin like a cat shakes a mouse. I’d cower deeper into my sleeping bag, shutting out the wild.
But most nights, I woke as planned and braved my fear of the dark outside. Why?
Because Isle Royale nights are poetry. One midnight, I pick my way down to the cove and settle in the brush by the beach. Overhead, the sky is alight with a million fires - shooting stars, satellites, constellations, the northern lights. The Dassler cabin, small and remote, suddenly seems a flimsy framework of sticks. The vast soup of the universe spills into the dark.
Imagine shattering a crystal vase across a swath of black velvet. Now, let some of those crystals catch light and reflect it, flickering on the northern horizon. Let Dassler Cove lie still and silent under the starfields, a mirror of the universe spread out above. Let the Northern lights, dim yet still present, shoot fingers of fire across the horizon. Let the constellations, invisible back in Chicago, become visible; confuse the familiar sky I’ve known until I am dizzy, dizzy, untangling all those glorious chips of luminosity.
A star falls. Another glitters blue, newborn.
Sitting on the rocky beach under the cold night sky, I sense the invisible. Somewhere on the island - perhaps close by - wolves sniff out the night, padding quickly down paths on errands whose urgency only they understand. There are greater things at work that I can’t see or comprehend.
The rocks underneath me anchor me to this moment in time. They’ve seen nights come and go for a million years. What was God dreaming about the night sparks flew from his fingertips and ignited this vast upheaval of spewing lava, puddling into this lake of rock, forming the immense basin that we call The Lady?
I scribble longhand in my journal by lamplight in the cabin, pondering the glacial ice that once striated the rocks on the beach. The marks on stone. The words in my journal. Both leave an impression that will record a short moment in time. Both will eventually wear away.
Outside, I hear the waves in the cove, moving in a meter charted by the moon sliding out of the east. Is there rhyme or reason to what happens here? Or only random scribbles? The questions come thick and fast in the dark, keeping me from sleeping. And so I write far into the late night hours.
At Isle Royale you are humbled. You sense the faint flicker of your life in the vast span of time. Any illusion of your own importance fades away.
Isle Royale Mornings are for Dancing…
A more penetrating question came from a close woman friend, a successful writer who struggles as I do with depression. When I told her of my planned trip to Isle Royale she asked, “How can you be alone with your thoughts for three weeks?” And this turned out to be the biggest question.
When you eliminate the e-mail, the telephone, the fax, the home office, the errands to be run, the cable television, fast food, friends who are ready to go to lunch at the drop of the hat, work assignments with deadlines… it’s just you and your thoughts without distractions. Sure, there is the park staff, the backpackers who wander nearby, the dayhikers, a few older life-lease folks who once homesteaded Isle Royale and still live in the harbor cabins. But mostly, you are alone.
What I found in my aloneness was myself. My natural rhythm. Perspective. Room to breathe. And a realization of what is essential.
There is no running water at the cabin. Getting a drink requires daily planned choreography. In the mornings, I wake to the sound of the white-throated sparrow outside my window. Day comes early on the island and at 6 a.m. the red-hot fireball of sun burns a hole through the curtains hanging on the east cabin windows. I push open the cabin door and pick my way down the moose trails limned with daisies, swinging the water bucket. Below is Dassler Cove and the black volcanic rock that serves as wave-pounded beach. Pitted and laced with lichens, the rock is impenetrable, shaped by unseen forces beneath me unimaginable years ago. The tangerine sunrise kindles rock pools filled by the raging storm of the night before.
I reach the edge of the cove, then balance carefully, scooping the cleanest looking water into the bucket. I try not to think of the moose and her calf wading in this same spot the night before; ignore the waving strands of algae and minutia of the aquatic life roiling the water. It’s a ballet of sorts, a plié… dip, swoop, then a heavy-footed waltz back up to the cabin, my arms tiring quickly. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. It feels like 15.
Pushing open the door to the cabin, I dump the scummy water into the kitchen canister filter. Flotsam and jetsam float on the surface. Then, it slowly drips out the bottom, crystal clear. Drinkable water. I watch it continue to drip, idly planning my day. The island is filtering out my tension, my minor obsessions, my fruitless anxieties. The scum that has formed on my too-busy life, my sense of what is important, my idea of what is valuable and what I must let go of. What will be left of me?
Drip. Drip. Drip. Transitions.
Later, I do laundry in a plastic tub in the kitchen sink. I swirl in my hiking pants, long underwear worn for June and July’s chill nights, the pajamas infused with wood smoke. Wool socks go in next. The water blackens. Rinse and repeat. The rinse water is still dirty, but I’ve made some compromises with perfectly clean laundry here. It doesn’t seem to matter much. A lot of the things I thought were important have changed. My priorities are shifting, in flux.
The cabin’s clothesline lies in shade; the island’s humidity mists anything hung out to dry. I quickly learn to peg clothes out on the rocks in the cove, just out of reach of the waves, and anchor them flat with beach stones. The hot sun heats the black basalt as the wind gently kisses each item. Water leeches out of my laundry, leaving a damp imprint on the rocks when I flip pants and shirts like pancakes. My long underwear and pajamas scattered across the beach are an announcement --- someone’s living here! --- to the hikers who appear on Scoville Point, wondering about the “deserted” cabin, or to the fisherman who make the turn around the point.
Later, I slip on my swimsuit and plunge into the cove. Scalding cold water numbs me; shoots pain into my sinuses. Gasping, I go completely under. My legs give way—I can’t feel them. I quickly stagger out to the black sheetrock and spread myself flat to soak up the sun, arranging myself to catch every ray. Goosebumps prickle my arms and legs in the cool air. Slowly, the heat absorbed by the rocks percolates into my body. I’m drawn into the earth. The earth pours itself into me. Mineral and bone. Star warmth. This landscape, once oozing sizzling liquid lava and now slick and hard, captures and releases heat into my frozen body. The heat I receive is from Precambrian rock, which was formed by forces set in motion millions and millions of years ago. What is my 43 years in the face of this abyss of time?
I peel off my watch. Time here is measured by the sun, the good morning and goodnight songs of the white-throated sparrow, the slant of shadow on a cabin wall. Island time is not measured in minutes. Island time is measured in moments.
Isle Royale Afternoons are for Music…
The last question I came to the island with was one that I asked myself. “Will you let your fear keep you from risking?”
I launch my kayak one afternoon, and almost immediately the bottom of the lake falls away into a chasm of stones. The view is clear in the nutrient poor water- a watery oligotrophic window, I feel vertigo as I look down, down, down, down….
Suddenly dizzy, I focus on the horizon and begin paddling. The water of Lake Superior is moody, changeable, fathomless. Living on the island alone has been my first fear conquered. Now, I turn to the water. The choppy waves slop the sides of my kayak as I move between caution and sheer exuberant joy.
I respect The Lady. I know how long I’d last if I tipped into her frigid embrace. Ten minutes. Fifteen maybe.
The taste of risk helps fuel my joy.
Afternoons are spent skimming quickly around the islands in my kayak, a movement of legato. I look up. Pearled cumulous clouds like boulders float above me, newly-minted with the morning. I look down again, and this time my gaze is steady. The frigid water of Lake Superior is green glass. I marvel at mammoth rocks 50 feet under, unmoved since the Ice Age.
The trip from Tobin Harbor to Blake Point is smattered with islands, chunks of the layered sheets of volcanic stone pushing up beneath the water. Isle Royale is a symphony of rock, a pebbled concerto. No island is the same. I coast up to Red Rock Point, and understand where the stones that make up the Dassler Cabin fireplace began. Its color, I discover later, comes from iron. On Mott Island’s south beaches, I sift through pebbles and find chlorastrolite or “greenstones”, their turtle-shelled pattern coming alive when I lick them or wet them in the water. Each beach, my Isle Royale friend Mary tells me, is unique. You can look at a rock and tell what spot on Isle Royale it came from. Each rock is the outcome of a thousand different transitions.
I shoot down Merritt Lane, allegro, then turn into Porter Island’s inner cove to go ashore and eat my lunch. Otters, Mary told me, used to sun themselves and dive here. What transition made them disappear? I wonder. Then, back in the kayak, up to Merritt Island, and home by way of Lover’s Lane, the skinny channel between Porter’s and Long Island.
The southern islands are small chords in this archipelago. One afternoon, I picnic on Raspberry Island’s huge south-facing ophitic rocks, waves crashing, my hiking-sore feet soaking in a water pool. On another hike, I realize the ancient lakeshore lines are etched over my head, under the water, depending where I am on the path. I take my first solo backpack trip and trek to Suzy’s Cave to see its wave-cut hollow, evidence of ancient shores. Later, I spend a large chunk of the afternoon at Three-Mile Campground, watching the sky and water from the scoured rocks that lean into the water. I become part of this shoreline, ignored by a mother duck and her five babies which march by me on their way to their next swimming spot.
Another hike finds me scrambling up the slope to Lookout Louise, where nearby the towering chunky Monument Rock is an echo of the old Minong shore. The north side of the island drops sharply away. The tilt of the layers of rocks that formed this island are suddenly no abstract concept; I begin to grasp the transitional mystery that left a mirror image of these rocks hundreds of miles to the south in the Keweenaw Peninsula, millions of years ago. From my high vantage point, I watch clouds traced in gold and orange pass in the north. Lightning flashes. No thunder.
My Isle Royale friend Dick told me once that if I didn’t like the weather I could wait five minutes - and it would change. Weather transitions on the island keep you on your toes, your radar always attuned to the shift of wind, the shape of the clouds, the little drops in temperature. One afternoon as I’m out in the kayak, tendrils of gray roll in like smoke from the south. I panic as the fog curls into the island, and I paddle hard for the cove. Visibility ends. I’m feeling my way. Fog silently smothers the cove, the sun burning a faint yellowish haze through a veil of gray. Newly-spun spiderwebs string iridescent pearls of water into sticky necklaces festooned from every tree. I beach the kayak and climb into the gray. At the edge of the cliff where the cabin sits, there’s a drop into silken nothingness. I look down, wondering if the plunge would be as soft as it looks.
A transition into deep nothingness.
I listen, but hear only silence.
It’s in moments like these that the island works its way inside, percolates through you. Returning to the mainland, you realize you will never be the same. A certain slant of light - a bird call - a wildflower and you are back in another place and time. You leave with the soft echo of the island inside you that will reverberate throughout the rest of your life.
The poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem about a certain place, “Once you’ve been there, you’re there forever.”