Sunday, August 07, 2005

By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee


"By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them; Bright before it beat the water, Beat the clear and sunny water, Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water. There the wrinkled old Nokomis, Nursed the little Hiawatha, Rocked him in his linden cradle, Bedded soft in moss and rushes. Safely bound with reindeer sinews; Stilled his fretful wail by saying, "Hush! The Naked Bear will hear thee!" Lulled him into slumber, singing,"Ewa-yea! my little owlet! Who is this, that lights the wigwam? With his great eyes lights the wigwam? Ewa-yea! my little owlet!" From The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Many of the names in Longfellow's epic poem (over 200 pages), Nokomis, Wynona, Pipestone, Minnehaha, Escanaba and others are familiar in the north central states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. My mother loved poetry and sometimes read passages to me when I was a young child. From the time I arrived at our vacation destination, near the small town of Ontonogan in Michigan's "Upper Peninsula" or "U.P." Region, I was thinking of the first lines of Longfellow's famous poem. Gitchee Gumee means something like "shining big water"but is plain old Lake Superior nowadays. I like Gitchee Gumee better.

The picture above is just like a beach we discovered, driftwood and all. Behind the beach, only a few yards from glistening white sand, is a forest, deep and green and lovely. Just like the poem!

References to Gitchee Gumee were everywhere in Ontonogan (pronounced Ottenoggen by the locals). UPers or "Yoopers" have a distinct accent. It is a Midwest accent such as you'd hear anywhere in this region...halfway between a drawl and a twang with a Scandinavian lilt added...but much more so. They really do say "up nort." The townspeople were very welcoming to all of us.

We were camped in a large meadow, surrounded by woods, participating in a Midwest Rendezvous of the National Muzzleloaders Rifle Association. Yes, there are a bunch of folks who like to get together and reenact the fur-trade era of 1690-1840 (I blogged about that in May, "Going Back in Time")--including firing off replicas of ancient weapons. So there we were, Singing Owl and Bearded Eagle, camped in our lodge by the shores of Gitchee Gumee. Well, almost on the shores, really only a couple of miles away. Our daughter and her husband (Kris and Daryl, aka Happy Otter and Two Foxes) came too, and another friend, Janis, arrived a few days later.

There were some miserable parts to the week. The most significant was the oppressive heat (over 100 some days!) coupled with high humidity. We all thought we'd go to the U.P. and get cooled off. Not so. We steamed in the sun like so many lobsters in a pot and longed to shed our "outfits" for shorts and tee shirts. On the worst of the hot days, we headed for "Gitchee Gumee," found a lovely beach and headed straight for the water. We gave each other looks of encouragement and a "thumbs up"--and plunged bravely in. Whoo! The water looked crystal clear; the wave patterns beneath our toes were clearly visible. Lake Superior is said to be the coldest of the Great Lakes, but after the initial gasp of shock it felt fabulous--and probably saved our bodies from heat stroke and our tempers from exploding!

I won't blog about the negative things though. Instead I'd like to share little impressions and joys that came throughout the week.

I want to recall:

Looking out over the camp on our first night

There were at least 450 people in our little impromptu "village." There were many styles of white canvas dwellings, of course. Pretty French Marquis lodges with their decorative scalloped tops, wall tents, one pole tents, little "lean to's" and more. Tepee poles with their fluttering streamers reached high into the sky. It was cold the first night, and many of the tepees glowed from the fires burning inside. Candle lanterns, ours among them, glowed in a heavy, low fog that blanketed the meadow. Above the fog, the twilight glowed pink and blue on the horizon, and as the sky grew darker the flog disappeared and we watched in awe as the stars appeared. I haven't seen stars like that in many years. It was magnificent! We pointed out the various constellations, gazed with wonder at the Milky Way...and then there were northern lights! I stayed up late just looking at the sky till I got a crick in my neck! I thought of God speaking to Abraham about how his seed would be as numerous as the stars and recalled the words of an old Phil Keaggy song, "...can you count stars, Abraham? Do you believe I AM?" The cool weather was short-lived but lovely while it lasted!

A light show of another kind

One evening lightening began to flash all around us. North, south, east and west, it was everywhere. Some forked, some sheets of light; it never stopped for over two hours. It was the most amazing display of power I have ever seen, and I've lived in many places and seen some awesome storms. This was phenomenal. The sky was full of enormous fluffy clouds in many shades of gray, and the lightening flashed behind them, illuminating the gorgeous banks of clouds in white light -- I cannot begin to describe it. There were no pauses between flashes--constant brilliant light and the distant rumble of thunder. People all over camp stopped what they were doing and pulled up chairs or lay down on their backs in the grass and just stared heavenward. Oooohs and aaahs around me made me smile. It was just like the sounds heard at a fireworks display, but this was more beautiful than man-made pyrotechnics could ever be. Eventually, wind began to gust sharply, and everyone ran around covering things, and tightening ropes and then disappeared into their lodges. Ken and I climbed into bed, pulled our quilt up around our chins, and lay quiet to listen as the rain finally came, a deluge of water--and hailstones. Nothing like being in a tent hoping the hail doesn't come right through the canvas! I thought about the many sailors who had been on Lake Superior in just such storms; many lost their lives. I fell asleep humming Gordon Lightfoot's famous song, "The Ella Fitzgerald."

Sunday morning worship service

About fifty buckskinners gathered in front of Father Thomas' little chapel set up. Father Thomas is a Jesuit priest who is also a historian of the first order. I wish I had a picture of him wearing his vestments in his little makeshift chapel. He is a sight to see with his moccasins, flat-brimmed hat, large French pectoral cross with his brown cassock flapping around his legs. I don't know how he stood the heat in that get up! On Sunday he added a lovely old white vestment that I'm sure was correct to the period. He was joined by Muskrat Jack of something called "Buckskin Ministries." Muskrat and his wife, "Dances With Bees" (yep, it happened, she says), flew a Christian flag in front of their tepee, along with the colonial version of "Old Glory" (the one with 13 circular stars). We have one of those flags too. Ken...er, Bearded Eagle that is, won ours in a tomahawk throwing competition. Anyway, I thought of Dr. P. as I listened to Muskrat's sermon and then received bread and wine from Father Thomas. He didn't do a Mass, exactly, so I suppose that made it all right for all of us to share communion together. A man dressed in a frockcoat and breeches stood by his wife (in chemise, bodice and long skirt) as Father Thomas led them in renewing their vows. He made a strong point of telling the wife that she was to "respect, not obey" her husband. And reciting "The Lord's Prayer" in a group that looks to be straight out of the 18th century was a bit surreal. What an interesting worship service!

Cooking in cast iron.

There were three cooking contests. Cooking over a campfire can be a challenge, but it is one of the things we like to do--trying to see just what we can come up with from a cast iron dutch oven. We often make biscuits or corn bread or pie. Once we made pizza (not exactly correct to the period)! Anyway, the first competition was for soup. Daughter Kris and I made a chicken vegetable soup together, and won second prize--edged out by a wild rice stew! Next days' entry was supposed to be a one pot meal, and we had purchased all the fixin's for two entrees, but it was so hot we couldn't stand to think of lighting a fire to cook it. We all skipped out and went to town for an ice cream instead (next entry). Ha! But the nex day the competition was for desserts. Ah, dessert from a campfire is a challenge! We gathered at "Baby's Fry Bread Kitchen" for the judging. It was so fun, observing all the women, and a few men, arriving at the large canvas lodge with heavy black kettles, placing them on a long wooden table, then sitting by pretending indifference to the outcome. What a mix! A woman on my left wore a beautifully beaded and fringed buckskin dress, another stood nearby in a French gown with a very low neckline (very proper to the period!). Another, dressed as a Metis, wore an Indian calico plains dress and a fancy French hat, complete with feathers! And the men! Ken in buckskins, another next to him in the knickers, long striped socks and jaunty knitted cap of the French voyaguer, another in nothing but a breechclout (that was my son in law) and another in a kilt. I could write an entire entry about the differing styles of facial hair alone--quite interesting and amusing. The judges were very serious about it all and took a long time, coming back for a second and third look at the entries and not a few extra tastes of pie, fried apples, or whatever. We won FIRST place for a cherry-strawberry dump cake. It was delicious, if I say so myself. Afterwards, we passed out samples to Muskrat Jack and our other neighbors, and then we sat by our campfire eating the remainder and congratulating ourselves on our victory.

I think that if some people we know from the rendezvous circuit saw us in our "regular" clothes they would likely not recognize us. Sometimes when someone looks familiar but I can't quite place them I wonder, "Are they a rendezvouser?"

A "Glacier"

Not the geographic kind, a sweet-frozen-treat kind. There was a little ice cream stand in Ontonogan. When we were dripping in the humidity and could stand the heat no longer, we headed for town and discovered a new taste sensation. The Glacier is some sort of slushy, fruity ice cream mixture that tasted like Heaven to me. Mine was pina colada and full of tiny bits of ice. Ahhhh! Nothing like cooling off from the inside out. Then we headed for a beach and took the aforementioned dip in the icy waters of Lake Superior. I could have stayed in the water all day. I imagined the shore as it might have looked as the real-life versions of Hiawatha or Minnehaha came in for a refreshing swim on just such a day. How unusual to stand on a white, sun drenched beach and look at a deep, green forest in the background.

The Porcupine Mountains

I wouldn't call them mountains, exactly. But then I grew up surrounded by California's majestic Sierra Madres. How I miss the mountains! Well, they were small by my standards, but they were lovely. Ken and Janis and I drove along the lakshore till the forested hump (looking like a quilled porcupine back) came into sight. After spending time in the visitor center looking at flora and fauna and listening to recorded samples of owls hooting and wolves howling, we headed for the hills, so to speak. We hiked into the largest "old-growth" forest in the midwest. The old maples, hemlocks and other trees were impressive. They have been there for many years, just saplings at the time of Lewis and Clark's trek west with Sacajaweah and Charbonnoe and the others in the Corps of Discovery. The river bottom was flat, sharp, shale and this rock, along with the brown flowing water and the many small waterfalls, seemed to me exactly like California's great Kern River. It brought back some of the happiest memories of my childhood; times spent outdoors in the mountains were the best occasions for my family. My favorite sound in nature is water rushing over stones in a river or stream.

It was a difficult day for me. I ended up bruised and weary and rather sad. People in braces should not try hiking over such rough terrain. Sigh. Without a good stout walking stick and a good stout husband ;-) to haul me up the very steep hillsides covered with rocks and large old tree roots...well, I never would have made it. I wouldn't do it again, but having done it I am glad for the experience. The bright sunshine above the canopy of deep green, the occasional grassy meadow filled with wildflowers, the rocks, the river--all were so very mysterious and beautiful.

The Music.

One of my favorite things about "rendezvous" is the music. Only at a buckskinner encampment is one able to hear a fiddle, a mandolin or banjo, a penny whistle, an Indian flute or perhaps even a bagpipe in the same evening. I purchased a beautifully handmade, cedar Indian flute and have been practicing a bit since arriving home. What a lovely mellow sound--like wind in the treetops! I hope I can learn to play it properly.

The Dog Soldiers.

These are the men who enforce, if needed, the rules of the camp, watch for modern items on trade blankets (a no-no) and do a multitude of odd jobs. Each day after any public visitors had exited the encampment, they tooled around with a four-wheeler and a trailer to deliver ice or pick up bags of trash. Not a thrilling job, but these guys made it fun by shouting things like "Douse the driver and win a prize" or "Bring out your dead." They had the camp looking forward to trash pickup time. Silly guys.

The American Bald Eagle.

One day we sighted a bald eagle over the encampment. The sun glistened on his white head as he spread his great wings and glided on the wind. He soared above us in a deep blue sky for some time.

How I wish I'd had my good camera!

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Now THAT was worth waiting for! You describe everything so well that I felt like I was there too. (grin) I especially would have loved the lightning show...that sounded magical. Like you, running water (falls, stream, brook, river, waves lapping the shore) is my favourite sound in nature. When I was young our cottage had a stream on the property and I loved to spend hours rearranging the stones in it to change its song. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience..and congrats on winning the dessert contest! Maureen

SingingOwl said...

I am grinning at the thought of rearranging stones in a stream to change the "song." I would have done something like that! :-)

KeyLawk said...

Delightful. Going in as Hiawatha and Nokomis, and coming out with a song.

Sue said...

Your recollection of the Midwest 5 years ago brings back fond memories. I bunked in with friends for the event. My anticipation is hightened as it is 58 days till we get to do it again. This was the first time I ever saw a waterfall (aged 50 at the time). I sat right beside one and felt the water rush by me, dangling my toes in the cool water. I am the Scribe for the 2010 Midwest and, this time, get to help plan everything, including a trip to Lake Gitchee Gummee. I sure hope you get to come to the Midwest at Ontonagon this year. Besides the exceptionally beautiful, crisp, clean area, the townspeople are great!!They are just as happy we are coming as we are giddy to get there.

SingingOwl said...

Sue, how did you find this post after five years? I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm sad to say that my husband will be there (He's Bearded Eagle and Father Tom has him on trash detail or something) but I probably won't be able to come. I may be able to show up for a few days, but it is a loooong drive for a few days.

I discovered about a year after I wrote this that Father Tom is Catholic but not a priest. Just portraying one. Ah, that explains it!

I hope I'll see you. Have a wonderful time!