"Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story"

An Isle Royale-inspired section of the memoir Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story by Elisa Korenne (North Star Press, 2017), used with written permission from the author.

CHAPTER 47 – ISLE ROYALE


I love to be loved as I love when I love
I’m gonna be loved as I love when I love
If you want to love as I love when I love
You gotta be loved as you love when you love

—“Love to Love”

September 2010

By the time the roadside sumac had turned as red as Oak Hollow’s newly repaired siding, the leaves on the twin woodpiles had dried into husks that crackled in the gusty wind. I paused along the driveway to imagine them ablaze and came to reflect on what had changed since the tornado.

I had finally committed to my new life and the man I had married. I could appreciate Minnesota for giving me the space to create the art I wanted to make. I had a home here with the man I had fallen in love with, but I still wasn’t certain how to make my artistic life fit into my life with Chris. I was about to get some help.

Inside the kitchen, I pressed play on the answering machine. I was half-listening when a man’s voice said “Congratulations.” I pressed rewind.

I had been accepted to an artist residency in Isle Royale National Park, a remote, roadless wilderness island in the middle of Lake Superior where the only full-time residents were moose and wolves. I whooped out loud. Besides the isolated cabin on a mostly uninhabited island in the middle of a Great Lake, there was another unusual perk: Chris could come too.

Chris was the person who had told me about Isle Royale—he had backpacked there years before and spoke about it in tones of awe. I couldn’t wait to tell him he could go back.

He arrived home shortly after me, the back of his button-down shirt striped with car-seat creases like altostratus clouds. “What a day,” he said.

“I know something that will make you feel better.”

“Try me.”

“I got a two-week artist residency on Isle Royale.”

“Hey, that’s great,” he said, wilting into a kitchen chair. “You’ll love it.”

“So will you.”

“Huh?”

“You’re coming with me.” I smiled impishly at him. “Only if you want to, of course.”

Chris’s mouth stopped half-open. His inhale was an abbreviated gust. “I can come?”

“Uh-huh. And we get to stay in a cabin with no electricity and no running water and a pit toilet on a rocky point looking out on Lake Superior. And they give us a canoe.”

Chris rose, his round face split wide by his gap-toothed grin. “I get to come?”

“Yup.”

Chris rushed into the center of the kitchen and rocked me into a waltz. He sang a made-up song as our feet beat on kitchen tile. “We’re going to Isle Royale. We’re going to Isle Royale. We’re going to be artists on Isle Royale.”

I giggled and tripped, my feet all a-tumble. “You’re not an artist.”

Chris didn’t miss a beat. “We’re going to Isle Royale. We’re going to Isle Royale. We’re going to be an artist, and a fisherman, on Isle Royale.” Chris pulled me into a fancy turn and dipped me over his leg, where I promptly overbalanced, pulling both of us down into a pile on the floor, laughing.

#

 
An aerial photo shows a large blue ferry entering a narrow rocky channel from open water
Ranger III transported Elisa and Chris to the island

NPS

It took eight hours of driving and a six-hour cruise on Lake Superior to reach the ranger station, still two miles from the artist cabin on an island with no roads. A park volunteer took us on a 30-minute motor boat ride over choppy seas to reach our retreat.

From the water, the island was magnificent. Jagged shores and cliffs were dramatic rock interruptions to a green expanse of forest.

At the far end of the island, on a thin spit of land, a hobbit house gazed at the boat out of rounded windows. We alighted from the boat at a dock. A narrow path traversed the rocky cliff into a circle of pine trees, where the small house waited. Inside, two willow-sapling chairs faced a stone hearth like a married couple.

The next day, we settled into a simple routine. Every morning one of us would walk two buckets down to the lake to collect water for the gravity filters in the kitchen. It became our daily waking argument. “Your turn to get water,” I nudged Chris. He rolled over and put his back toward me. “Your turn,” he mumbled into the pillows. Most days, I fetched the morning batch of water and then worked on my songs while Chris slept in and cooked lunch for us. Respecting my wishes, he didn’t knock on the door of the room where I was writing until he had a steaming plate of lunch waiting for me on the wood table carved with decades of graffiti.

After lunch, we searched for adventures together on foot or by canoe. At dusk, I sat on a bench by the side of the house over a sheer cliff, watching Chris fish the mercury-colored water below me, the shadow silhouette of his body balanced on a sliver of canoe against a sky lit up with pink and orange fire. Some evenings, he convinced me to join him and paddle the canoe so he could concentrate on fishing. When he came back after dark—with steelhead or lake trout for the next day’s meals—we snuffed out the bouncy yellow flames in the propane lanterns and went to sleep in the double bed under the eaves.

On the first cold and windy afternoon of our stay, I fed logs to the fire I had built and read a thin, yellowed Agatha Christie mystery a previous artist had left in the cabin. Outside the windows, the trees flickered in the wind. Chris stepped out of the kitchen. Books rasped off the bookshelf and the weight of them dropped one-at-a-time onto the mystery novel balanced in my lap. The Elfin World of Mosses, Michigan Lichens, and The Mushroom Book. Chris’s hands slid the Agatha Christie out from under the book pile.

“Time to stop reading,” he said, closing the book.

“Chris!” I wailed, drawing his name out long, and wriggling my arm out from the blanket I was using as a shawl. “Give it back!” I leaned the rocking chair forward and reached out.

Chris placed the book, closed, on the table. “We’re going on a field trip around the cabin to look for lichens, mosses, and mushrooms.”

I groaned loudly. “I want to read. Give me my book. It’s cold and wet and rainy. I’ve been looking forward to reading all day. I don’t want to go outside. I want to sit here by the fire.”

“You are always reading or writing. It’s time to go out and do something. You complain now, but I know you’ll like it.”

I grunted and huddled deeper under the blankets, hip bones digging into the willow dowels of the seat. A gust of wind whistled into the cracks around the leaded glass windows.

Chris’s tone hardened. “We’re going to do this whether you like it or not.” He added, as was his wont, “So, my advice is, you better start liking it.”

I pulled the blanket off my shoulders and dumped it on the plank floor in defeat.

“Are you wearing your long underwear?” he asked.

I nodded begrudgingly.

“Good. Now put these on.” Chris handed me a thick furry fleece pullover, a waterproof coat, and fleece gloves.

I rose with so much force the blades of the rockers clattered like a weather vane in a storm. I swiped the clothing out of Chris’s hands and put them on, grumbling audibly. Doubled over to tie my hiking boots, I spoke to my feet. “For the record, I don’t want to go outside.”

“So noted,” Chris said, as he opened the rough-hewn wood door and held it for me. “But you’ll be glad you did.”

I made another multi-syllabic groan and pushed myself over the threshold and into the damp gray chill of the outdoors. The entire circle of pine trees was gilt in silver damp. Each plant, leaf and stem was covered with tiny globules of dew. Rivulets of water flowed along the footpaths. Chris held up the books. “Which one do you want?”

I took the lichens book and read from the introduction as we stepped along the narrow dirt path. “Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae.” I skipped ahead. “Hey, did you know Isle Royale has more species of lichen than any other place in the United States?”

Chris didn’t answer, but his bemused smile was light in the heavy air.

Once I started looking, lichen was everywhere. Every version of it a new fantastical creature. Some carpeted rocks in swirls of orange, gray, and green. Some hung from tree branches like the beards of old men. Some jutted up from the ground. I knelt next to whimsically-shaped Dr. Seuss lichen trees and brought my face as close as I could. I wished I could shrink us down so we could walk together through the elfin forest.

“Honey, look!” I yelled from farther down the path. “Reindeer lichen has fronds like antlers.”

I had never stopped to pay attention to lichen before. I wondered how I might write a song about lichen. Chris knelt by a mushroom that looked like it came out of an Alice-in-Wonderland cartoon.

“Amanita Muscaria,” Chris announced, not even needing to consult the mushroom book under his arm. “Also known as the Yellow Fly Agaric.”

We passed the outhouse and I held my breath to keep out the stench. I sprinted down the rocky path and sipped the cleaner air by the shore. It tasted of pine needles and rain-soaked leaves.

Our feet made satisfying clumping sounds and an occasional squelch and splash. The faint trail wound through dense wood, offering peek-a-boo views of big lake. We paused every few steps to name the lichens, mosses, and mushrooms we passed, giving our verdicts on which were the best examples of their species. The path ended in an old boarded-up cabin overlooking another bay, and we turned around to wind our way back to our cabin, our feet kicking large pebbles which tumbled into the lake.

Our cabin’s air welcomed us like a warm bath, the embers of our depleted fire as orange as the lichen on the rocks. Chris stepped down to the kitchen to pour water from a bucket into the kettle, and I added wood to the fire from the pile by the door. When the flames were dancing again, Chris handed me a mug full of steaming hot chocolate. We sat together in the willow rocking chairs and let the heat of the fire lap over us.

#

 
A photograph shows a rustic cabin with a large stone fireplace, chairs, and a couch surrounding a large circular rug
The fireplace inside their cabin

NPS

The next day, it was storming, the wind so strong we could hear branches cracking and waves slamming into the point. The middle of the morning was dim as dusk, the sky dark as lead. Thunder shook the walls of the cabin. The park volunteer who had charge of us radioed to cancel the field trip we had planned for the afternoon. “Waves are forecast to rise to eighteen feet. You two ought to stay inside and sit tight till the storm passes.”

I stuffed the fireplace full with wood and settled into my nest of blankets on the rocking chair to write. Flames spiraled around logs surrounding them in yellow-blue light. Soon orange flames licked the hearthstones.

Chris emerged from the bedroom dressed in fleece.

“Your turn to get water,” I said.

“Didn’t I do it yesterday?”

“Nope.”

“How about the day before?”

“Nope again. I’ve done it for the last four days.” I gave him a smug smile. “It’s your turn.”

Chris groaned. He pulled on a jacket, went into the kitchen, and hung one brown plastic water pail on each wrist. He minced out of the kitchen, holding the handles of the water pails up as daintily as a milkmaid. I kept my focus on my notebook. Chris detoured across the cabin to stop in front of me. In my peripheral vision he tilted his face to the side and pursed his lips like a princess. He posed with both buckets up in the air, right higher than left, one knee bent to show off an ankle. My eyes stayed focused on my notebook. Chris switched his buckets, now left was higher than right. I stifled the giggles that wanted to bubble out of me and kept my head down. Finally, Chris skipped into motion, his feet prancing and lifting in a neat jig while he twirled the empty water pails in loops around his wrists.

I raised my head, smiling. Stifled laughter made my voice start with a snort. “Thanks for going to get water, honey. You are my hero.”

Chris batted his long eyelashes at me, then leaped, with a Leprechaun hop and heel-clicking kick, out the front door into the roaring wind.

A few minutes later Chris’s footsteps sounded on the rocky path, now slower with the weight of the water. “Honey!” The screen door slammed. “It’s incredible out there! You’ve got to come out and see.”

“No. I’m writing.”

“No, really, you have to come out.”

I sighed exaggeratedly. “Honey, I went outside with you yesterday.”

“And you loved it. But, really,” his voice held awe. “I know you’re working, but you’re not going to regret this. You have to come see. This is something you can’t miss.”

Chris sloshed the water pails onto the kitchen floor and held my coat out to me. I lumbered out of the rocking chair and stuck my arms into it. Chris led me twenty feet down the rocky path to the small bay where we collected our daily water from Lake Superior.

Pine branches slashed through the air, but offered a modicum of protection against the storm. As soon as we left the cover of the pine tree circle, the storm surrounded us. Winds bellowed; waves crashed. The very earth vibrated. Sea spray whipped my cheeks to a chill and, before they could warm, spray-laden wind chilled my skin again. Waves piled into the small cove in attack formation, phalanxes of them driving toward shore. When the gray-green waves hit the rocks, they erupted in gushing columns of white spray.

Chris led me into a hollow between two boulders where we could hide from the bite of the wind. We had to yell to be heard. “It’s amazing!” I screamed into the roar of air and water. Chris took my hand, and I turned to look at him. His eyes were as full as storm clouds, swirling with color.

I finally understood. As gale fused wind and water into a powerful, earth-shaping force, it was Chris who gave me the strength and stability I needed to reach higher and go deeper in my music.

The waters of the cove churned and boiled, as if there were a giant flame underneath. Chris placed his hands on my cool cheeks, and pulled me into his chest. He kissed me, the heat of his mouth like embers from the hearth. I kissed him back. An orchestra of elements buffeted our bodies. Waves crashed against rocks. We were artist and fisherman, and each of us was stronger when we were together.


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Last updated: January 28, 2020

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