Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Tom Wilson powers the cable barge across Kitchi-Ti-Kipi Springs
(Big Springs) at Palms Book State Park, near Manistique, MI

Around Michigan With Our Island Dentist, Friend -

The weather forecast for the weekend was to be rainy and cool.  At the Wilson home in Sister Bay Saturday a baby shower was planned for expecting daughter, Erika.  Tom's wife, Gunilla, had invited  lady friends and relations for the party.  It was a weekend made for getting out of town, or off the island, and that is what island dentist and friend Tom Wilson and I did.

Its a current trend among aging rockers to dust off their amps, tune their guitars, and polish their acts before hitting the road with a "reunion tour," in an attempt to ignite yesterday's memories.  In a manner consequential only to us and those we know, Tom and I hoped retracing old tracks and making a few new ones across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan might rekindle memories from our 1976 road trip to the Iron Mountain Veteran's Administration Hospital.

Tom and I became good friends during island winters starting in 1975, days when our winter ferry made only a single round trip. Tom joined Mary Jo and me, and our kids, for supper, TV and an overnight on our couch Tuesday evenings following island dental appointments.  Once the new and more powerful icebreaker ferry Arni J. Richter began its twice-a-day scheduled service in the winter of 2003-04, those overnight visits ended.   Tom for the first time was able to work a short day on the island and then return to his Sister Bay home in the afternoon.  

Our excursion came in late October, 1976, approximately one year after my discharge from the U.S. Navy. During that year Tom completed extensive dental work approved through the VA.  He drilled away brittle amalgam, one tooth after another, then capped my molars with gold crowns.  Before reimbursement could be made, the work had to be verified by a VA dentist in Iron Mountain, MI.

I suggested we make my dental appointment into a two-day trip.  We would drive to Escanaba, stay with Emma Richter for the night, then drive on to Iron Mountain the next morning by way of Paul Richter's hunting camp near Gwinn.  That was Tom's first foray into the heart of the UP.

Kate's Lake

Paul Richter's Camp 55 was named for the distance from his Escanaba driveway to the middle branch of the Escanaba River where his cabin was located.  The way to camp took us on a series of roads that decreased in size from the 4-lane US-2, down to paved, then dirt county roads, and finally, the last stretch was a seven-mile long, straight-as-an-arrow pot-holed grade road.  You had to know where you were headed and have good directions to find it, because you would never stumble upon it by accident, and there would be no one to ask for directions.  This log cabin was well out of normal traffic patterns, seventeen miles from the nearest black-topped road, built in the 1860s as a surveyors cabin at a time when there were no roads.  A set of railroad tracks not far away that served to transport timber to the sawmills ran along a level bed.  That former rail bed is known as Kate's Grade, a 16-ft. wide strip straight through woodland, wetland and thick bush.

When we arrived at Camp 55 on that 1976 trip, it was around 10:30 a.m. of a late October morning.  Wood smoke curled from the cabin chimney as light snowflakes fell.  Uncle Paul was inside, pumping the treadles of his player piano, singing and entertaining himself.  We heard the honkey-tonk notes through the log cabin's walls.  Not only did it feel like we were home, we felt incredibly lucky to have found this oasis amidst the hundreds of square miles of woods, logged-over swaths and swamp.  We visited with Paul for about an hour before we set off again, this time to the west, following a two-track logging trail he guaranteed us would intersect with a black topped road some 15 miles to the west.  ("Take a left on the blacktop road and it'll take you right in to Iron Mountain.")

Paul spent nearly all his spare time at camp, right up until his death, tending a garden, feeding the animals, observing nature, and playing his piano, either alone or as he entertained camp neighbors and friends.

I'd returned a few times in the intervening years, including last September, 2010, when Mary Jo and I rode over that unforgettable, unpaved approach on my motorcycle.  We found the place successfully, after doubting many times if we were on the right track.  When we got there, Porkey and Marlene Prudhomme, who now own the property, weren't home.  So, we left them a note with a ferry schedule at their locked gate, and I followed up three months later with a Christmas card.  This couple had been best friends with Paul, and now they were the caretakers/owners of this forested camp property.

Porkey and Marlene first lived in an original log cabin neighboring Paul's camp, dating to the 1800s.  Their log cabin was used as a school for children of lumber camp supervisors.  It was about a half mile from Paul's camp, and right on the shore of a small lake.  The first teacher had been Kate, and that was how the nearby small lake was named.  In recent years, with an aging cabin and their own age begging for less maintenance, Porkey and Marlene decided to put up a new home where the cabin had stood.

Prior to this current trip, I had mailed a post card to Porkey and Marlene, hoping they would receive it in time to know of our travels.  As it happened, Porkey drove into town the day before we arrived and picked up his mail, so in anticipation of our arrival, he left the gate unlocked at the end of the long lane.  We were met warmly, first by their two little house dogs, then with refreshments, then supper.  We exchanged stories about the two Richter brothers, Paul and Arni, inquired of the Prudhomme's life in the woods, and related Washington Island events.  Porkey and Marlene had visited Washington Island only once, with Paul Richter.   It also happened to be Porkey's first time beyond Green Bay and into Door County.

"What about mosquitos? Doesn't it get pretty bad out here?" Tom asked Marlene.

Marlene shrugged.  "Nah.  We have them, sure," she replied.  "When I slowly paddle the canoe on the creek while Porkey fishes, that's when you get mosquitos.  But I don't let them bother me."

"Any black bears?"  Tom eyed several framed close-ups of bears hanging on the sitting room wall.

"Those bears were at our other camp, before we moved here," Marlene said. "A couple of miles to the west. We haven't seen many here.  But I've seen a moose several times from my four-wheeler.  I didn't know what I was looking at, at first.  Now, moose, they are big!"

A Richter family air-loom is discreetly passed.
"Wait a minute," Porkey said.  "I've got something for Thor from Paul's camp that Thor said he enjoyed."

Porkey went into a bedroom off the kitchen and rummaged a bit before returning with a box.

"Paul's Pet Fart. Thor will enjoy that, Porkey,"  I said.

Tom was already unscrewing the lid, curious to see what was inside the white plastic jar.

This well-used curiosity had brought many laughs in its day, and it brought back memories of other, less-repeatable gags and plaques that made up the major part of Paul Richter's cabin decor.

I took a few photos of the formal presentation before we departed at dusk.  We dodged young snowshoes that had come out to enjoy green shoots of spring grass as we bounced along the seven mile stretch of grade road.  We hoped returning in daylight would help us to make the right choice at each dirt road intersection on the way to the asphalt county road, then U.S. 2, and onward toward the Straits of Mackinaw.  

Mackinac Straits Bridge
Mackinac Straits and Boyne City

The road to the Straits was new territory for Tom.  As it had on Friday's drive, the time and the towns flew by without our notice as the conversation logjam of the past several years loosened bit by bit.   We discussed families, work, politics, the direction our home towns and county were headed, the status of the state and the nation.   When politics ebbed, it was sports and the NBA finals.

Saturday morning was overcast, lower 50s, wet and windy.  The Mackinac Bridge was barely visible in the fog and rain.  At Mackinaw City, on the tip of the Michigan mitt, tourists jammed shops and restaurants to get out of the weather, and the boat docks appeared sparsely dotted with tourists.  The same, slow boat traffic was undoubtedly being witnessed by ferries at home.

One hour after we crossed the long suspension bridge we were at son Thor's home in Boyne City, a small town on the inland bight of Boyne Lake.  Petosky, Walloon Lake, and Horton's Bay are a few of the place names on the route to Thor's home.  These places were an important influence on Ernest Hemingway's youth, later playing a role in his Nick Adams Stories and other works.

Thor led us on a quick tour of the Van Dam Wood Craft shop where top-end, classic boats are built for clients all around the country.  At this time, many boats were in the completed stages and were ready to be delivered.   One classic runabout restoration project was in progress, and a new hull would be started in the coming week.   These products are breathtakingly fine in line and workmanship, gleaming even under the light coat of shop dust.  From the Van Dam shop, we rounded Boyne Lake and Lake Charlevoix by way of the Ironton cable barge (four car capacity, four hundred yards distance), through the town of Charlevoix, rounding the north side of Boyne Lake into Horton Bay, where we stopped at the Red Fox Inn.

Thor and Tom feign enthusiasm
as I eagerly await encounter with
a Hemingway relative in
Horton Bay.

Typical top quality Van Dam custom craft

The lights in this old hotel turned museum/book store/shrine-to-Ernest Hemingway were burning brightly, and we heard footsteps as upstairs someone got to their feet and clomped down the steps to the former hotel dining room.

I had met James Hartwell before, the present day owner and descendent of the first hotel owner  (it is said by James Hartwell, among others, that Ernest Hemingway was taught to fish by this man.)   Books, magazines and mementos mostly honoring Hemingway were on display or for sale.   James remembered me - or remembered having talked about Washington Island, anyway - from my visit several years earlier.

You need a fair amount of time to catch up on all the news with James.  The new tidbit divulged this time was that it had recently been established, beyond a doubt, that James was actually fifth cousin to Ernest Hemingway.   As my two traveling companions excused themselves from the store, I carried on as polite listener, eventually purchasing two Hemingway books.   There is something about the old hotel and the former general store next door with its doors still open, and the enthusiasm of James Hartwell, that easily takes one back to an earlier time, the early 1900s, when families like the Hemingways spent summers in the north of Michigan, after taking steamers and trains to those rustic retreats far removed from Chicago.  Too, there is the literary connection that is fascinating.

We had a great dinner at an Italian restaurant, newly opened by acquaintances of Thor's, then packed some rhubarb from Thor's garden plot, and we headed back toward the Straits.

Big U.P. - Not nearly enough time

We did our best to cover as many points of interest as possible, and yet we hadn't scratched the surface as we headed back toward Escanaba on U.S. 2 Sunday morning.  We had an early start from St. Ignace which allowed us a quick stop at Big Springs, along the west shore of Indian Lake near Manistique.  The barge on cable, powered by its passengers turning the wheel, floats over the heart of the natural springs, clear waters 25 or more feet deep.  It is an out-of-the-way place, as nearly all U.P. places seem to be, but reward is found again in these locations with beauty, history, and an element of pleasant surprise.   Tom and I were half the tourism compliment floating across the springs that morning.

I couldn't pass up this opportunity to detour southward, toward point Detour, down the Garden Peninsula through Garden, with a quick stop at Fayette State Park and its beautiful Snail Shell Harbor.   It had been 40 years since I'd last seen the old company town buildings there, and the Michigan Parks people have done a great job of restoring and providing interpretive signage.   Fayette is another unexpected gem, and it takes a few hours of time to see it properly.  We did it in 30 minutes, but as I told Tom, "We're stopping, because you never know if you'll get back here again."

As it was, the next five hours included just two stops, for gas and food.   Otherwise, it was continuous driving from the peninsula that resembles Door County - minus people and tourism development - and I just made the 4 o'clock ferry at Northport with minutes to spare.  The car Trip Odometer showed 1000.1 miles at the top of the Sister Bay hill.  When we arrived in his driveway, Tom and Gunilla's home was quiet. All guests had left, and Tom planned to go for a late afternoon run while Gunilla would walk on a favorite  Liberty Grove back road.

This 2011 U.P. Reunion Tour had been nothing really special, but yet everything was special about it, including the memories we added to our first trip.  There would be no follow-up commemorative CD, no final Madison Square Garden bash.  Only this blog.

The gold crowns?   They're in great shape, still protecting the tooth under each crown.  Only one crown came off in thirty-five years, and Tom replaced it with modern epoxy.  I estimate that each crown is responsible for successfully aiding the ingestion of tons of food during those years.  I have Tom to thank for that handiwork.

  -  Dick Purinton

1 comment:

Bill Tobey said...

Thanks for that one, Dick (and all the others too). My wife and I have hit on many, but certainly not all, of the places you touched on. We've crossed the big bridge in our RV in a wind high enough to turn my knuckles white on the steering wheel.

Beautiful country and great people. Unfortunately we're missing our annual 4th of July trip to the island this year but there'll be plenty of the Tobey clan there anyway.

Have a wonderful holiday and summer!

Bill Tobey
Littleton, CO