Sunday, March 6, 2016

La Dolce Far Niente - Northern Style

It was hard to tell if there would be enough snow for skiing, but it didn't matter much.  We wanted to get away, and we hadn't been to Bayfield in quite a while.

Layer upon layer of doing the same things, not out of respect for tradition, but because they continue to be rewarding. As we turn east on Highway 70 from the freeway, the drive suddenly becomes more interesting. Winter sun, open fields.  long dip down and across the venerable St. Croix River. Brown signs directing passers-by to secluded but mosquito-infested campsites along the river bank. Crex Meadows? Nothing going on there. Siren, Hertel, Spooner. Finally north on Highway 63. The North Woods commences somewhere north of there. I never pass through Cable without thinking about the stuffed raven at the local natural history museum. It's huge.

There is no grand view at Grand View, though there might have been right after they logged the place a hundred years ago.

Washburn is a jivey town on a Friday afternoon, the streets in front of the bars already choked with parked cars. They're doing "Julius Caesar" at the local theater tonight. Will we go? I doubt it.

*   *   *
But now the Black Box wine is open, and we've cooked up the pasta with mushrooms and bell peppers on the little stove in our room. The room sits on a hill above the rest of the motel, which gives it an expansive view of Chequamegon Bay.  I see a single set of lights in the darkness far out on the channel that divides the mainland from Madeline Island. Either the ferry's still running or it's a propeller-driven ice buggy—I can't tell which.

Saturday morning, sunny, blue ski everywhere. A little skiing, but mostly walking, on the Jerry Jolly ski trail. Down to Polk Creek, still covered in snow, then back to Bayfield for a stroll through town. 

We stopped into a coffee shop just as the man behind the counter, who was wearing an immaculate white T-shirt, was pouring himself a latte. "Look at this," he said. "Look at this."

I walked over to look at the design in the foam. Nothing extraordinary, but he seemed excited.

"And in my grandma's tin cup!" he enthused.

While I waited for the latte we'd ordered he kept saying "This is so good! This is so good!" as he paced back and forth behind the counter. His assistant was working the espresso machine.

When my order finally came up, I said, "I hope this will be as good as yours was."

"Almost," he replied with a grin. "I made mine with half-and-half. It's like drinking ice cream!"

Having disposed of the coffee and a bacon-and-cheddar scone, we walked down to the pier to look at the broken ice in the bay. A ferry was visible in the distance and we waited for it to arrive: The Island Queen. The service has been running all winter, we later learned, though the ice fishermen were also taking their chances out on the sheet on the north side of the pier.

Our next stop was Apostle Island Books, where we chatted with the proprietress for quite a while about books, author events,  the local fishing industry, and the challenges facing any small-town independent bookstore.

I was happy to see two books by friends displayed in the window: Jane St. Anthony's Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart and Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar.  And I hunted down another book of pressing interest on the shelf, Ann Lewis's Ship Captain's Daughter, which Demaris kindly set out on the display counter.

By the time we got set to leave, we've been in the store so long that it seemed heartless not to buy something. Demaris had been recommending a local publication about ice-fishing disasters called Lake Superior: Blood on the Ice —in fact, she was holding the thick paperback volume in her hand. Though it didn't sound too hot to me, Hilary was dead-set on buying it. And so we did.

Our final stop was to Bodin's fish market, where you can walk right in and see the workers gutting the day's catch. "Two days ago our men were out on snowmobiles," the man who took our order said. "This morning they went out in boats."

We ran into Mike, who owns the motel we're staying in, on the path that runs between the shipyard and the cliff on the south side of town. He was wearing short shorts—not uncommon for him when the temperature is above zero. He's a friendly guy, a good source of local information, and he likes to talk. "Yeah, in November the lake temperature was still 40 degrees, so they knew the channel could be kept open all winter, and they could continue to run the ferries. Even if the air temperature was below zero the ice would still be melting from the bottom up. That changes their whole year, because they usually lay people off and do repairs in winter."

Mike claims to put in a ninety-five hour week at the motel, and he admits he's ripe for retirement. I'm sure he was a little disappointed when his daughter and son-in-law, who were set to take over the place, announced recently they were moving to central Kansas.

Back in our eyrie above the big lake, we fried up and ate the fish, and then we settled in to read. The fact that your choices are limited helps you to concentrate--at least that's the theory. A lot depends on how well you chose your books in the first place.

I soon lost interest in Umberto Eco's The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, and had a hard time convincing myself to return to the Icelandic classic, Independent People, which it seems I've been reading now for months. I would like to have gotten my hands on Blood on the Ice, to tell you the truth, but Hilary was engrossed in that masterpiece of local color. I finally succeeded in focusing for a few minutes on a book about Orpheus that I'd grabbed off the shelf on a whim just before we left the house, but it was more pleasant simply staring out the window at the shifting ice a half mile out on the lake.

 We left early the next morning, driving in snow flurries under gray skies back down Highway 63. A wolf crossed the road fifty yards in front of us somewhere north of Cable. There was no one behind us, and as I slowed to a stop I spotted him staring back at us from the trees on the side of the highway.

Curiosity fading to indifference, he turned and wandered off into the shadows.

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