I spotted Kirsten, finally, in the cafeteria line. She was between two nurses wearing the neonatal uniform of blue scrubs, face masks under their chins, stethoscopes draping their necks. As an aide in the department, Kirsten wore street clothes and a lab coat. I watched her smile and chat for a second with her mother, a server in the hot food line. Sault Ste. Marie is a small town and War Memorial is a small community hospital. It would have been easy for her mom to get her a summer job in the OB department which is what Kirsten was studying. Funny, isn’t it? She goes to Wayne State medical school in Detroit to join, what the folks in the Upper Peninsula call the trolls—down below the Mackinaw Bridge while I come up from Detroit for Michigan Tech’s medical engineering program. The difference is, I had to beat out three other guys for my internship.
She picked up her tableware and turned, spotted me and smiled. Cool. I smiled back. No surprise that two of us college students would connect over the summer. What surprised me was how she got to me. I never realized I would like the kind of woman she is. She’s a broad, in the classic sense. Taller than me. Heavier, by a bit, with room to fill out her frame and still carry it well. Her direct, unblinking hazel eyes can make you think you’re the only person in the room when she turns them on you. Her thick auburn hair must have to be bush-whacked periodically to keep from overrunning her face. Just then, it could be a hoodie framing her high-colored cheek bones and peaches-and-cream skin.
But what really intrigued me about this woman—she’s so utterly at home in the wild. Maybe if I had grown up around here, I’d know how to fish and hunt, to canoe and shoot like she does. But the first time she invited me to fish the flats behind the rock cut in the St. Mary’s river, she blew me away. She put me in the bow of her Old Town canoe and just powered us between the freighters chugging their way from the Soo Locks to Lake Huron. I’ve never been outdoorsy. But she really got me excited…beyond just being with her…the time she took me to little Naomikong Lake near Whitefish Bay. She deftly plucked the canoe off the cartop, popped it on her shoulders and led me along a barely visible path to a shallow stream just a little wider than the canoe. We barge-poled our way for two hundred yards or so before we burst through to the lake. It was the size of a soccer field. No beaches. No cottages. Trees to the water’s edge. Kirsten and me. Alone. Together, but out of reach. And it was all going to end in ten days when we headed back to school. Damn.
“Hey, Mike,” she said, setting her tray across from me. That’s another thing I like about her. Everyone back home calls me Michael. Kirsten calls me Mike. She’s onto another me. “Do you know Hank Meintz in maintenance?”
“Uh-huh” I replied around my mouthful of burger.
“My mom and him are…‘seeing each other’.”
She hunched forward, excitement in her eyes, “Well, Hank knows this guy who runs a fish camp from an island in a three-mile-long lake up behind, Agawa Canyon…do you know it?”
“It’s this canyon about a hundred miles north of the Canadian Soo. There’s a tourist train goes there and back each day. Lets people off at this park and then takes them back later. It’s really pretty.” I watched her jab at her mac and cheese. Talk around a mouthful. No wimpy salad for this gal. “So, anyhow, Mac…Hank’s buddy…could use a hand over the weekend to replace the boards on his dock. Hank told him about us. What do you think? Wanna go?”
What’s not to like. Fish camp means one notch above camping—warm cabins, a kitchen, no bears and lots of Kirsten. I nodded eagerly. She grinned, reached over to fist bump. “Can you get off Friday? Make it three days?”
Friday morning, 10:00, we were parked at the mile 102 train station waiting for Mac. He left word for us to drive up QE 17 instead of taking the train from Soo, Ontario which would make for a shorter, cheaper ride to Canyon Park at mile 114. So, there we were leaning against the blue quarter panel of my otherwise silver 2005 Corolla which was in top mechanical shape despite the rust and dings—function over form for me.
Over a cup of coffee from her thermos, Kirsten told me a story she had heard from Hank. Seems Mac used to tell anyone who would listen, especially his fish-camp clients, that he would never shoot a moose unless it was blocking his road. But then, one day, he got off the boat at the mainland and a bull moose was standing right behind his Gator. So, he turned right around, roared to the island, grabbed his gun and a chain saw. And when he got back, the moose was still there. So, he shot it, quartered it with the saw and hung it in his root cellar where he had enough meat for the whole winter.
“Hope he isn’t planning on serving us moose stew,” I only partly, joked.
Kirsten chuckled. “That was years ago. But that tells you what kind of guy he is. A Northwoods man. The kind of guy I grew up around. Like my dad used to be. My kind of guy.”
I suddenly hated the guy’s guts and I hadn’t even met him yet. But was about to, as a beat-up Ford pickup skidded to a halt in the parking lot. A solid, compact man clambered out, shorter than me but somehow radiating the power and energy of a sparkplug hockey player who makes up in ferocity what he lacks in size.
“You Hank’s kids?” he shouted at us.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Give me a quick hand unloading these boxes. Train’s due any minute.”
As soon as the cardboard boxes filled with food, hardware and tools were lined up on the platform along with our sleeping bags and backpacks, we paused for introductions. The way Mac drank-in Kirsten, it was clear he approved of her. They both held each other’s eye for a little longer than I would have liked. He had spotted a fellow woodsman. His eyes glanced off me as soon as he felt my keyboard-soft finger tips. Well, I thought, it’s only three days.
As soon as the train stopped, the door to the baggage car slid open to reveal a hulking man barely contained by his Algoma Train uniform sporting a name badge—HENRY. “Hey, Mac,” he called, “your kids?”
“Not that I know of,” Mac deadpanned before adding, “Nah, just some help with the boards you dropped off last week.”
“For your dock, eh?” the conductor said as he slid our freight on board. “You dragged ‘em all the way to your camp by yourself, huh?”
“Who else was gonna do it?”
“Gotta tell you,” he continued after tugging on his cap and looking to see if anyone was listening, “me and the missus really enjoyed them grouse you give us on the way down.”
“Sure enough,” Mac replied. “Hey, think we can scare these kids with a couple moose in here when we come back Sunday?”
Henry chuckled. “I always get a kick outta showin’ the fudgies, the couple or three moose the hunters drag onboard. Look like dead horses with rocking chairs on their heads, eh?”
For the next twenty minutes, Kirsten and I sat in silent admiration of the steep walls rising on our left and the roiling river below on the right. We slowed to a stop in the park and downloaded our freight onto Mac’s six-wheel Gator which Mac apparently parked there between trips. We were about to take off when a man wandered over and asked if we had a tire iron. Seems his stake truck had a flat tire and while he had neither a jack nor a tire iron, he did have a spare. Mac never questioned the man. Just went to his tool box as if this sort of thing happened all the time out-back in the highlands…folks got some things, not others. A young mother stood back nonchalantly playing with her baby. She either knew what her husband was going to do or trusted in his ingenuity to get the tire changed. The husband grabbed three chunks of firewood from the back of the truck, snugged them under the axle and with a broken-handle shovel, dug a hole under the disabled tire. He unloosened the lug bolts, yanked off the spare and mounted the fresh tire. Then he kicked the dirt back into the hole and drove forward a few feet before returning for firewood and family.
I have to admit, I was impressed at the paradigm shift I had just witnessed. Instead of raising the vehicle, the guy had lowered the ground. I caught Mac cutting a sideways glance at Kirsten to catch her reaction. She was unmoved—just another local, thinking outside the box, cleverly getting things done. I admired that kind of imagination. After all, I was studying ways to solve medical problems with innovative tools and equipment. And this trip was a chance to observe off-the-grid tool makers in the wild.
Soon, we were on the logging trail for the six-mile trip to Mac’s lake. Kirsten sat in front. I was scrunched with the boxes in the carry-bed. A mile along, Mac braked suddenly and ordered, “Hand me the gun.” Turned out, I was sitting on a gun case. After some gymnastics I handed him a 410 shotgun. He grabbed a cartridge from the glove compartment and loaded. Kirsten held out a hand for the gun. Mac looked surprised but nodded with approval when Kirsten aimed at something in the tall grass. I couldn’t spot her target until she shot and a grouse flopped and fluttered. “Go get it,” Mac ordered. It took me a second to realize he was talking to me, and another couple of seconds to scramble out. I paused beside the dead bird. We never had pets at home and I had never gone hunting. I had never touched a dead animal. Well, fish, yeah. But not a wild, warm-blooded animal that would become my supper. I used my thumb and forefinger to pick the thing up by one leg and just before I dropped it between the boxes, I caught a shared smirk between Mac and Kirsten.
We had two more such stops. Both times, Kirsten poked Mac to stop and then shot. After the last one, she jumped out to retrieve the ‘pat’. As she climbed back in, she gave me a ‘isn’t this fun’ grin. Yeah, I thought, if you’re playing the coach’s son and I have to sit the bench. I said, “One each for supper, huh?” Mac shook his head.
“Nah, gotta hang ‘em in the root cellar till their heads fall off. Cures the meat so it don’t taste gamey.”
“I’m glad we won’t be here when you dress them out,” Kirsten said.
“Clears your sinuses, eh?” Mac said.
All right, I told myself. When you’re in college, it’s the professor’s world. On the job it’s the boss’s world. And, here and now, hard-as-nails Mac, 60ish, ex-bush pilot, wilderness guide, is in his world and I’m his guest…sort of. There are limits to what I’ll put up with but I can also learn some things. Which I did a few minutes later when we stopped before a steep-drop, fast flowing stream maybe twenty-five feet wide.
Two planks extended the logging trail to a two-foot gap of water in the middle of the stream. Two more planks continued from there to the other side. Something was holding them up. “You two hop out and cross.” Mac ordered. Kirsten and I took turns walking along one of the ‘rails’. After I hopped over the submerged middle, I paused to check out the support structure. Both set of planks met over a large bundle of sticks laid out parallel to the banks but open enough to let allow the water to flow through. Clever. I liked that solution.
Mac gunned the Gator and I scampered the rest of the way, turning in time to watch the boards sink until the water was over the hubs while the ATV kept chugging. Kirsten and I stared, holding our breath until the dripping front wheels found purchase on dry land and we had to jump out of the way. Not elegant. But it worked. Cool.
So, about a total of an hour after leaving the train, we took a turn off the logging trail to find a utility shack next to a boat landing and a waiting row boat. The fish-camp island was maybe 200 yards away. We loaded the boxes and headed across. Mac sent me back for our sleeping bags and packs. I was glad there was no audience for my first attempts at rowing. It was not the straightest distance between two points. The return trip was better. As I nosed the boat onto shore, Mac and Kirsten appeared on the lodge porch. “Take your pick of any cabin,” Mac said waving his arm at three units. “Lunch is here in the lodge.”
I shouldered my back pack and headed for cabin three. On the way there I paused to study a four-sided water tower made of saplings with a plastic barrel on top. I followed the input pipe to a pump house with a gas generator and a hose coming from the lake. Made sense. Run the generator only when you needed to fill the water tank and let gravity do the rest.
The cabin was very simple. Plywood walls. Drop-shutters over screened windows. A small stove and firewood box. Three bunk beds. Would we snuggle into one or would she want her own bed? Or, just stay in one of the other cabins? To my relief I watched her approaching our stoop. She smiled broadly as she glanced around the room. “Cool, huh?” I wasn’t picking up any vibes from her as I watched her roll out her sleeping bag on the bunk across from me. Maybe things would change after dark.
Lunch was a loaf of soft white bread, peanut butter and jelly and a jug of water which I had to believe was filtered and boiled from the lake. We both made sandwiches and munched while studying the fishing rods hung along one of the walls. Kirsten allowed that if we weren’t going to have grouse for supper, fresh Brook Trout would go down well. Hank had told her that the lake was full of nothing but ‘brookies’ and that Mac was very protective of them. If any of his fly-in clients brought a minnow bucket along, he would dump them on the ground and stomp on them—no carp in his lake.
From the front porch I watched Mac gathering tools from the tool shed. Before we were finished eating, he motioned for us to join him at the dock. Well fine, I thought, we were here to work. Might as get at it. Once again, I was assigned to the B team. He and Kirsten marched to the end of the dock to pry the old boards loose. My job was to hammer out the old nails, straighten them if bent, save them in a plastic milk bottle and stack the boards. Okay. I believe in conserving resources and re-purposing. But some of the nails were corroded beyond use. Same for the boards—cracked, checked, rotted. So, I separated out re-useable nails from scrap and found a saw and hatchet in the shed to make firewood and kindling from otherwise fragmented boards.
Pleased to be tooling along at productive work, I was a little surprised, and not a little annoyed, when an hour after lunch Mac announced a tea break. But it was his world, his work pace. An hour after that, he announced another work stoppage. This time, munching on a stale Oreo cookie, I asked, “Do you always work in such short spurts?”
“You got a problem with that?”
I glanced at Kirsten. Her furled brow seemed to be asking where I was going with that line of questioning. “Well, yeah, I guess. I have a certain rhythm when I work that keeps me at a task for longer periods of time.” Mac held my eye so long, I thought we’d have to have to start another break. I almost sniggered. I didn’t give a damn about his work patterns. I was having fun watching him try to figure out how to handle me, where I fit in. He wasn’t my boss who was always right. And I wasn’t one of his paying customers who was always right.
He finally unclenched his jaw and said, “This ain’t a factory with eight-hour shifts. Don’t do any good to push through to 5:00 quitting time and have six hours till you go to bed.’
Kirsten is nodding. I get that. If you’re going to be an obstetrician, you don’t work time-clock shifts. Babies come when they want. Mac is giving me slant eyes. He’s not used to being questioned or needing to explain. Tough, buddy. I’m on a roll. “Talk about quitting time. What’s the chance of catching a couple trout for supper tonight?”
Mac stood up, on firm ground now. “It’s out of season,” he barked. Kirsten raised her eyebrows, shrugged. I was going to say more but he noticed my stacked pile of decking planks cut to stove size chunks. “What the hell’ve you been doin’ over there? I want them boards.”
I start to explain. But he thunders on. “Stack ‘em. All of ‘em. Behind the jakes.” He starts to stomp toward the dock, stops, turns around. “We’re having spaghetti for supper.” I look at Kirsten, pleased with myself. She frowns.
I get back to my nail retrieval and board stacking and thinking. He must see this lake as his personal aquarium. Or maybe more like those trout ponds where they let people catch fish and charge them by the pound. So, if he catches fish out of season, he’s like a farmer eating his seed corn. Okay, I get it. Don’t like it. But it is a bit rich to shoot moose and partridges and who knows what else…whenever. But he respects trout season.
That evening after supper, I watched him and Kirsten studying a map of all the lakes in the region while I flipped through old Field and Stream magazines hoping to catch a green light from her. Finally, the long day caught up with me. I loudly excused myself and headed to the cabin hoping to hear Kirsten trailing. No such luck.
The next thing I knew, a loon was wakening me to misty sunlight hovering over the lake. That was nice. Kirsten snoring…not so much. She was turning this into a G-rated, Boy Scout adventure. Disgruntled, I decided to row out aways and lose myself in the fog. When the haze finally burned off, I found myself near the mainland. I rowed closer, thinking I might hop out and explore a little when I heard a guttural grunt. A black bear was feeding in a berry patch. I retreated to deep water and waited for my heart to slow down. Dummy, I scolded myself, you’re in the wilderness. Get your head out of your ass and stay alert. A few deep breaths later, a cloud swept the sun off the lake and a cool breeze made me shiver. Attentive now, I smelled rain and felt a muffled tremor like a truck going by on a distant freeway. Three miles down at the far end of the lake a huge black wall rose over the tree tops. A flicker of lightning. No one needed to tell me that sitting in an aluminum boat in a thunder storm was a bad idea. I rowed like hell, ran the boat up on the beach and flipped it over the way I had found it. Then I bee-lined to the cabin and pulled the props on the shutters causing them to drop with a loud bang. When I got inside, Kirsten was sitting up, rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Storm,” I answered from the open doorway. “Come and watch it tearing down the lake.” Kirsten joined me. Yawned.
“Whoa,” she yelled as we watched a squall line barreling right at the island. Suddenly leaves were flying in our face, into the cabin. It took both of us to push the door closed. Then we hunkered against the wall and listened to crunching, banging and crashing sounds under driving rain. Then it was over. Only soft steady rain tattooed the roof. We stood up slowly and opened the door. A birch tree in the middle of the camp had fallen onto the water tower collapsing it into a pile of sapling poles. Strangely nothing else was harmed. The lodge seemed okay. But in the forest, across from the backside of the island, there was a hundred-yard swath where all the trees were topped as if some giant had come through with a scythe. “Straight line storm,” Kirsten murmured as she eased out the door.
We walked toward the birch tree and smashed water tower. “We’ll need a chain saw to clear-up this mess,” she said half to herself.
“Damn!” I shouted. Mac lay unconscious under a tangle of branches, a gash just over his right temple bleeding freely. I ducked into the tool shed for a bush saw and cleared away enough slashings to get at the random jumble of water tower poles. We both paused, like playing Pick Up Stick, trying to decide which shaft to pull first. I levered one that raised two more. Kirsten tugged Mac out.
“Into the lodge,” I said. “I got his shoulders.”
It was a struggle but we got him laid out on the living room floor. Twenty minutes later we had his head swathed with torn-sheet bandages, his arm splinted with a folded magazine and adhesive tape. Hunkered on either side of him, Kirsten looked at me with the unspoken question…now what? That was new. Felt good. Her looking at me for direction. Think, man, I told myself. Cell phones were out of range for 911and whatever good they could do. Neither of us knew how to use the radio or whom to call if we could. And Mac was still unconscious.
The train. It was now 10:00. The train heads back at 1:15. It took us an hour to get here on the Gator. If we could be on the trail by 11:00 we could go slower and still have enough time. What about fallen trees across the road or the stream, the planks? We’ll need a rope and stuff…and hope we don’t have to use them.
I puffed out my cheeks, blew out, connected with Kirsten’s hazel eyes, waiting. “We’ve got a good chance to catch the train.” I paused. Got an idea. “Get your sleeping bag and a couple of pillows.” I followed her out the door and made my way to the fallen tower. I pulled out two six-foot poles, worked the nails out and scraped off patches of bark. Back in the lodge, we unzipped the sleeping bag, cut holes in the corners of the foot, under the zipper. Same at the head. Then we ran the poles through the holes, top to bottom, slid Mac in the middle and zipped him in.
On the way through the kitchen, I grabbed a piece of toast and a bite of eggs Mac had prepared for breakfast. From the shed, I gathered an ax, a coil of rope, a bow saw, a couple of bungee cords. Gas. Don’t forget to top off the Gator before we leave, I reminded myself. I found Kirsten finishing her breakfast. She handed me a cup of coffee. Smiled with her eyes. Where was that last night, I wondered?
We tucked pillows under and around Mac’s head. He started moaning and stirring. Kirsten talked to him while I wrapped bungee cords around his chest before carrying him to the boat. Kirsten sat in the bow with Mac’s head next to her. I had to row over his legs stretched next to me. At the landing we took our time positioning him on the utility vehicle making sure to pad his back and shoulders with an old tarp. Kirsten sat in the passenger seat bracing his head. I took it slow, easing over bumps and through puddles. We had to stop once to saw limbs fallen across the trail. At the stream, one of the planks had slid about a foot downstream. So, I got out with the axe, walked the left plank until I got near the middle and reached across to hook the axe head on the far side of the plank and draw it in line. Kirsten flashed me that admiring look again before returning to her patient.
When we got to Canyon Park the train was about to leave. We spotted Henry who sized up the situation and helped us carry Mac, loudly complaining, onto the train. I left Kirsten discussing whether they could call ahead to have an ambulance at mile 102 or just keep going all the way into the city.
I sat on the Gator as the train chugged away. Someone had to close up the camp and retrieve our gear. I took my time on the way back, stopped at the stream. I wasn’t going to ride across it again. I would walk the rest of the way in.
That evening, I sat on the porch, feet on the railing, sipping a Labatt’s Blue watching the sun set. I had just eaten a great supper of fried partridge breasts. They didn’t taste gamey to me. And come to think of it, some fried trout would be great for breakfast. I’d have the whole morning to myself, might decide to nail some of the boards on the dock. Maybe all of them. Who knows. I just have to finish loading our backpacks. I had stopped abruptly when I got to Kirsten’s cosmetic bag. I couldn’t resist looking inside. Three condoms and K-Y jelly. Apparently, they weren’t meant for me. Not yet…or not ever. And the way she glommed onto Mac, especially the injured Mac, she’s a doctor—patients first. She could love me but I would always be the trailing spouse. I suddenly recalled a scene from the movie about Iris Murdoch. She is racing down a hill on her bicycle. Her husband is trailing behind, always behind, following her lead. I don’t want to be in charge. Don’t need to be. Just want to be an equal partner. I sighed.
Next afternoon, I left the Gator in Park Canyon and boarded the return train. Henry told me about calling Mac’s wife and her meeting them in the Soo with an ambulance. He shook my hand like we were good buddies when I got off at mile 102.
From the platform I spied Kirsten leaning against my Corolla, hazel eyes locked on mine.