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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Woods Flowage © Robert Tuman

December 2008

The gatherer

The places we keep in our hearts and minds form a custom-made sense of wilderness.

Roger Drayna


Woods Flowage
© Robert Tuman

It's diffictul to recall how my collection got started. It could hardly be called acquisitiveness. Other than a desultory boyhood run at stamp collecting, a Navajo rug and a Hopi pot from our Southwestern days, and my father's baptismal certificate executed in Cyrillic script, there is not much of the pack rat in me.

It got started, I guess, Behind the Pattison (see our August 2007 story). If that doesn't strike you with household familiarity, your education in Wisconsin geography has not been neglected. Behind the Pattison was simply the whole province of fields and brushy woods stretching away from the back door of the Martin Pattison Elementary School; it has meaning only for kids who grew up in Superior from the late 1930s through the World War II years.

To the maternal inquiry, "Where are you going?" we'd answer, "Behind the Pattison." Our mothers, who thought it meant the playground or the baseball field, were stunned when, at last, they realized that Behind the Pattison reached as far as the Nemadji River – a good four miles south of town. It was a whole world of endless fascination; a place for kids to wander and wonder and learn, and to cause parents to worry when we came straggling home after dark. All of those adventures remain vivid in my memory and are a part of my collection.

One that stands out over sixty years later is an early Saturday morning in late October. I can picture myself yet, hip-booted and knee-deep in an oozy bottomed, ice-rimmed pothole, just lifting a large muskrat, very sodden and very rigid, from a drowning set. In 1945, its pelt would bring two and a half bucks. Hopalong Cassidy went for a quarter at the Palace Theater matinee. All these years later, I can sense the excitement, the nearness of affluence, as I dropped it into my pack.

At that very moment, high overhead, came the haunting barking of geese. I craned my neck to search for them. They were snows, maybe two hundred of them, mostly in one large wavering vee, startlingly white against the vault of blue autumn sky. In breathless reverence, I followed the receding whiteness as it dimmed with distance. Then, they were gone. Ever more faintly, the barking continued. Then, it too, was gone.

High overhead came the haunting barking of geese...snows, maybe 200 of them, startlingly white against the vault of blue autumn sky.

© Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service
High overhead came the haunting barking of geese...snows, maybe 200 of them, startlingly white against the vault of blue autumn sky. © Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service

The scene is burned into my memory. The skinny kid trapper, the pond, the scraggly willows and popples already gone to the grayness of winter, the sky and the geese. My geese. Forever my treasure. More valuable, I would understand at last, than the lump of muskrat in my pack.

I can still find that pond and deliberately seek it out, now and then, when my travels take me to the Head-of-the-Lakes. It is not very impressive, less so since it is now hemmed in by an oil refinery and offensive petroleum smells assault my nose as I push through the tall swamp vegetation to get a better look. But, it still speaks to me of solitude and bleak beauty and the love of wild places that awakened within me as I roamed the reaches Behind the Pattison.

Unlike the pond, which is mythic, most of my wild places remain beautiful, and I visit them now and again for what they promise of wilderness – even just a momentary glimpse of it.

Along the headwaters of the Bois Brule River up in Douglas County, I can thread my canoe through gauntlets of Ice Age boulders where, close by each shoulder, ragged black spruce stab at the sky and cedars arch over the stream. There may be other canoes ahead or behind me, but their sounds make me think only of the voyageurs who once fought their way up this strong-willed river in search of the Northwest Passage. Aside from that, I hear nothing but the wind and the small sounds of flitting warblers; this could be an Alaskan river.

On clear days, heading west between Hurley and Ashland, there is a sweeping panorama just as U.S. 2 swoops down from Birch Hill. Away to the northwest, beyond the forested miles of the Bad River Indian Reservation and the Kakagon Sloughs, Chequamegon Bay spreads itself in horizontal brightness, a sheet of hammered silver, merging itself with the vastness of Lake Superior. Beyond the Bay, there is a rampart of hazy green, the backbone of the Bayfield Peninsula. It is one of the few places I can sense wilderness without even raising a sweat.

In Marinette County, a slanting ramp of granite juts out not far north of Highway 8. I hike to it so I can sit in the warm April sun and consider tufts of moose moss holding to its coarse face and pine seedlings jamming roots into crevices. Often, for the hawk migration is underway in that season, I'll watch a redtail move in effortless circles, tip its wings, and slide away on the wind.

Several miles cross-country, a spring bursts icy-cold and gin-clear from among the roots of white cedars. Although fishermen, coaxing brookies from beneath the tangle of logs in the K. C. Creek, pass within a hundred feet of it, I've never seen a human footprint in the soft, shadowy earth around it.

There are few places, these days, where water is beyond the reach of the parasitic giardia. Still, nothing but sand hills and gravel ridges stretch away for miles in the direction from which this spring gathers its water. I never hesitate to kneel on the wet carpet of forest debris, plunge my face into it and gulp. My cheeks tingle, my lips become numb and there is momentary aching of my teeth. On a hot July afternoon, these are rewards.

Maxwell Spring in Langlade County is a place where the brook trout, bellicose and aflame with color, begin to gather each October answering the primordial command to perpetuate themselves. I try never to miss this celebration of species continuity.

Not far from there, Woods Flowage, embraced by cedars and pinnacle-topped balsam firs, is good for thick-sided trout, warbler migrations and spicy watercress to garnish a salad.

I must be a slow learner, because it took a good two decades of following these seasonal rites until I realized that I had put together an unusual collection. That idea just sort of emerged in my consciousness like dawn revealing a world of promise around our boyhood campsites. What it is, and continues to become, is my personal, custom-made wilderness, assembled from the places I have known and loved and which please me greatly.

Within its amorphous boundaries are hidden valleys where spring flowers carpet the hardwoods with incredible profusion. There are Lake Superior shorelines, sometimes placid, sometimes booming and groaning with heaving floe ice, sometimes thundering with fearsome power.

A towering moraine in Lincoln County is unfailing for sunsets, for facing a raw November wind, and for listening to the first hard snow crystals rattling among the russet curls of oak leaves.

Sometimes I give names to places, but they will never appear on any topo map. One of these runs through my woods in the Harrison Hills and only to me is it known as the Long Road; it leads me farther into the Hills than any other.

The crown jewel of my collection is a Norway pine grove near the Michigan border. I first visited it back in 1952 when my wife's father hiked me to it. I had borrowed my dad's car to drive Marcy home from college. She had not yet agreed to trade in her sturdy Scottish surname, Ramsay, for my Slovakian one – but I was working on it. The pines, there are about fifty of them, are hidden on a sandy flat enclosed by a U-shaped ridge – on eighty acres Neil had acquired two decades earlier. They are "volunteers." In the lexicon of foresters that means they grew from seed wind-borne from a couple of really big Norways up the steep slope to the west. When first I saw them, they were not impressive, but he liked them, saw the promise they held. They were maybe twenty feet tall then and five or six inches in diameter. Today, they reach up almost a hundred feet, and I can barely get my arms round them.

The place was a favorite of Neil's; over time, it became a favorite of mine. He helped me build a crude little cabin among them; when our kids were little, Marcy and I would take them there for overnights.

In the spring, I can search out trailing arbutus hidden among layers of fallen needles. Later, delicate blue harebells nod in shafts of sunlight. Almost every year, a bear comes through, reaches as high as it can, and claws bark from the same tree asserting territorial rights.

Neil died in 1991, not far from ninety. He was tall and lean and straight – like his trees. Almost to the last, he loved to walk and did so with the easy grace of an athlete. In honesty and physical toughness, he was as uncompromising as these rugged hills and the Highlands of his forebears.

A month or so after he died, I felt the need to visit his woods and struck off through the residual snow of March. Four miles later, I sat admiring his pines and thinking about him – the rivers we had paddled, the trout we had caught, and the grouse we sometimes tumbled out of swift flight.

"Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language."--Aldo Leopold

Suddenly, that light went on again. I recalled Jim's Grove, a clump of alpine fir where climbers bivouac before taking on Long's Peak out in Rocky Mountain National Park. In that instant, I knew, for me, this place would always be Neil's Grove.

I played with the thought as I finished off the last of a thick meat sandwich and drained my thermos of coffee. Then, I cinched up my pack, and started the long walk back to warmth and companionship. Crossing the low ridge, I took another look. Neil's Grove. Perfect!

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was enlightened legislation, and its goal of 61 million acres preserved as true wilderness has now been exceeded. Keeping some natural treasures forever wild is certainly a reasonable commitment for the richest nation in the world. Roads don't have to penetrate every fastness, and every tree need not be calculated in board feet. But we can get to these "real" wilderness areas only occasionally – if we are lucky. So, I go about this business of gathering these small places where I can get the feel – if only briefly – of the wild, the unspoiled and the lovely.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins," said Aldo Leopold, "as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.

That, I suppose, is the whole point. This collection is mine, because it is a part of what I am.

Yet, what is mine may be yours, as well, for reasons known only to you – if they can, indeed, be known. You may be moved by feelings deeper and more profound than mine.

The 107 million acres now designated as wilderness are an achievement. But, let us never forget the importance of the small triumphs like Behind the Pattison and Neil's Grove. Governmental edicts do not protect them. Only our sensitivity and our vigilance can do that.

Writer, retired teacher and former public relations director Roger Drayna lives in Wausau.