Monday, September 17, 2007

12. Sasquatch & the Quest for Fire

(20 June)
Now I had a full day to spend at the Lost Forty. I was going to camp somewhere nearby, work all the next day, and meet Jean-Paul back in Rapids that evening. On my way out of town, I stopped at the camping store Jean-Paul had recommended: Glen's Army/Navy, where I bought an enameled cooking pot and bowl, dark blue with white speckles.

I forgot to take Hwy 38 up, to experience it from the other direction, and I was on 46 again. I planned to go claim my campsite before going to the Lost Forty, but something made me reconsider. I'd figure it out later. Since it was Wednesday, I was confident there would be campsites available, even if I didn't claim one until evening.

I found The Spot, framed my compostion on paper, and then blocked it all out on the plate, which was covered with hardground. I left with plenty of time to encamp before dark. Tomorrow would be the longest day of the year-- the summer solstice-- and I wouldn't have even remembered that if my friend Sarah hadn't texted me, "Happy first day of summer!" which I received in the virgin pine forest! I usually celebrate the solstice, but since I hadn't had a job all June, I never had any idea what day it was.

On my way to the van, I greeted a bearded man standing with some equipment by the white pine with the green rope. I asked if he was doing research. He explained that he was part of a group from Bemidji State, the tents were theirs, but only two of the twelve cars from the day before had been theirs. They were researching why trees increase in girth with age, but max out at certain heights. It is commonly thought that this is because trees can draw water up from the soil only so high. This research had never been carried out on white pines before, so these guys were up 120 feet gathering data. He said the strong winds of the past few days made the tree really sway, but that it felt pleasant, and it kept the mosquitoes away. Mosquitoes do attack that high.

I asked about camping in an SNA, and he said that because this one is within a National Forest, there are fewer restrictions than if it were managed exclusively by the Minnesota DNR. I told him all about my grant project, and he seemed really excited and smiled.

Back at the van, I looked at the state highway map, because I knew the closest campground (a private one on Dolores Lake) was probably aimed more at RVs, meaning all the sites would be right next to each other in a clearing. Not my idea of camping. Aha! The map showed, quite nearby, a red tent symbol: a State Forest campground! Those are my favorite places to camp. Unlike at State Parks, in a State Forest you're allowed to gather firewood, and if the campground's full, you're allowed to camp anywhere, as long as you practice Leave No Trace.

I took off and headed there. It was right by Wirt, and turned out to be a National Forest campground: Noma Lake. The campground lay between Noma Lake and Clear Lake, the latter preferred for fishing, I would later learn. Three other campsites were occupied, and the one I was compelled to choose was right next to one of them, where there were a couple of pickups parked. From my site, I could not see the other through the brush and trees.

After pitching my tent, I had to go about gathering firewood. I needed it for cooking, and I had a little over three hours to find some before sunset. The campground appeared to be too heavily trafficked for there to be much wood lying around, so I set out to buy some.

Minnesota has recently enacted new regulations prohibiting campers from bringing in their own firewood. This is intended to prevent invasive species, such as the emerald ash borer from destroying our parks. According to the DNR, "To date, EAB has killed more than 20 million ash trees and infested over 40,000 square miles in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and parts of Canada." Now we must gather our wood on site, if allowed, or buy it from an authorized dealer. Although this restriction will inconvenience many campers, I admire the DNR's foresight.

I drove to a resort I had passed, just outside the campground, on Clear Lake. A little sign also designated this as the local fire warden station. Seemed like a logical place to buy firewood. Inside the lodge was a vacant bar, lots of taxidermy, and a woman sitting with her back to me, facing a computer screen. She didn't even turn around to look at me as I entered, so I examined a stuffed beaver and bobcat, thinking she'd greet me any second. When no acknowledgment came (was this a place of business?), I greeted her.

She didn't know if they sold firewood. "I'll have to go ask my husband." So we went outside to the boathouse, where he and two boys were managing a tank of live bait. He said they are no longer authorized to sell firewood, because of the new regulations. Strangely, he didn't know where I could buy any, nor did he know what roads to take to the nearest stores. His wife offered to call a couple places for me, so she and I returned to the lodge.

While she looked up numbers and called, I looked around at the wooden walls. Right next to a deer head was another piece of taxidermy, with two human-like eyes staring back at me through a furry face! The sasquatch! I told the woman I'd be right back, and I grabbed my camera from the car to covertly document this discovery.

No response on the phone. It was 6:00 pm. Maybe everything was closed. The husband had given me vague directions to Bigfork, so I headed there in the van. On the way, I passed one of the many tamarack bogs of the North Country. Most of them are filled with standing, dead tamaracks; in this one, they were all cut down. I decided that if I didn't find any wood for sale, I'd stop back here and load up. I continued on toward Bigfork, drooling as I passed fenced-in farms with massive piles of cut logs.

I drove for a really long time. Bigfork was worthlessly far away. Being used to distances of blocks or a handful of miles between destinations in the city, matters of minutes on a bike, I was already becoming accustomed to the spread-out proximity of things in the country. But this was ridiculous. To make matters worse, the roadsigns leading to Bigfork had troublesome gaps in continuity.

When I finally arrived, the general store was closed, so I went into the live bait & auto repair shop. A man and woman stood in the back room with the bait tanks, while the proprietor scooped something out. When he walked by, holding a clear bag full of water and minnows, he did not acknowledge me at all. I had to assertively inquire about firewood. He stopped and looked up toward me with demented, Peter Lorre-like eyes. His back was somewhat hunched, and the bottom half of his face was completely gray with dirt. (Or was it a strange stubble?) From one tear duct grew a quarter-inch long piece of skin.

"You might try the general store," he said, "but I don't think it's open."


Was I suddenly in a David Lynch film?

I drove over the dinging hoses, three buildings down, to the only other open business in town: the gas station. An old fisherman in overalls and a straw hat sat against the wall outside and spat into the road. This couldn't be real.

There was no wood at the gas station either, so I headed back toward Noma Lake. The sun still shone golden, just above the treetops. My mission was to fill the van with tamarack. That lonely highway had no shoulder to speak of, but when I arrived at the bog, I was able to turn around and park halfway off the road. I worked quickly, somewhat worried about drawing attention from the nearest farm, which was just barely in sight. There were no property signs at the bog, and only one vehicle passed me while I gleaned: a motorcycle, whose rider stared at me with his hand shading his eyes as he passed.

I loaded the van with logs and sticks, and with each armload I learned better how to walk in a bog. Don't step through or between the reeds; step on them, so that they bend down in front of you, and you can walk on them like a mat. I was not worried about the firewood transportation rule, conservationally speaking, because I was still in the Chippewa National Forest.

After returning to camp, I built a fire, boiled water and cooked potatoes, heated chili in the can, ate them together in a bowl, washed my dishes, and it was still dusk. In the distance, I heard loons calling.

A biker emerged from the woods. My neighbor. His name was Bud, and he just stopped by to say hey. We chatted a bit. He said he was camping alone, but I couldn't help referring to "you guys" because I swear I saw multiple vehicles in his site (and throughout the night I heard him speaking). Bud had been playing classic rock radio, and before he came over, I was gearing up to go inquire if he'd be listening to the radio very late. So, I asked him, and he said, "No, I'll turn it down after a while." I told him I didn't really mind the music, but the commercials are what I go camping to get away from. He seemed like a decent fellow.

After he left, I went down to the shore of Clear Lake to catch the sunset. The scene was gorgeous. I instantly wished I had remembered my camera, but I was witnessing the final moments of sunset, so if I had left again, I would have missed it. After the colors faded into twilight, I returned to camp, built up the fire, and had tea.

Bud did turn the radio down after a while, but I could still hear it, and he kept listening until at least 1:00 am, when I fell asleep. However, I must say I actually preferred his music to the primal fear.

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