The Joys of “Going Coastal”

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Six of nine “Going Coastal” authors. From L to R, Evan Sasman, Maxwell Reagan, James Brakken, Judy Budreau, Marie Zhuikov, Eric Chandler. Image by Ryan Swanson.

I’ve been working a lot lately to promote a new anthology of Lake Superior short stories, called “Going Coastal.” I’m finding that promoting a book written by a bunch of other authors versus a book written just by myself is a lot more fun. Having others to share in the workload of doing readings and events is well, way less solitary, and I enjoy helping to promote their writing careers.

We just had an event at a new local bookstore this week. A superb description of it can be found in “Ennyman’s Territory,” a local arts and culture blog written by Ed Newman. His story also includes a link to a recent review of the book.

And if you are ever in the Duluth area, stop by our newest independent book store, Zenith Books. If you love to read, you’ll feel right at home there.

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Zenith Book Store owners Angel and Bob Dobrow with a copy of “Going Coastal.”

Sexual Harassment, Wilderness-Style

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A couple of my crewmates clowning around during a break on a bluff above Mountain Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Back in the early 1980s, my first summer job in college was as a volunteer for a U.S. Forest Service trail crew in northern Minnesota. This was the first year the Superior National Forest ran a volunteer program, and I looked forward to spending time in the woods after living in a big city where trees grew out of cement. Our task was to clear several long-neglected hiking trails along the Canadian Border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The experience not only taught me how to use a crosscut saw, but also an effective and rather devious method to counter sexual harassment. (No saws involved, however!) You see, I was the only female crew member. One woman and four men tromping around and living in the wilderness together, 24-9 (twenty-four hours per day for nine-day shifts). You do the math. Between each shift, we had five days to recover.

Because the boundary waters is a federally designated Wilderness, we were not allowed to accomplish our task via any motorized or mechanical means. This meant we carried in all our gear by hiking or canoe. This gear consisted of hand tools such as axes, saws, nippers, and shovels, plus our own food and camping equipment. We tented on lakes near the trail and fixed up the campsites along the way, too – digging new latrine holes and smoothing out the dirt tent pads.

Volunteering had seemed like such a good idea at the time. But after about four days, I started asking, What have I gotten myself into? We hiked for miles each day. It was June and the blackflies, mosquitoes, and ticks were out in full force. I could easily slap twenty mosquitos into my jeans with one swipe. We used government-issue bug dope that could take the varnish off of furniture – slathering it on at least five times per day. I’d also never cut through a tree before, and learning new sawing and chopping skills was challenging.

Portaging a canoe was new, too. The crew decided a good initiation for me was to carry our heavy aluminum canoe (this was before the era of Kevlar) up the 120+ steps on Stairway Portage between Rose and Duncan lakes. I made it, although my legs were shaking quite badly once I reached the end of the portage.

I tried not to let all the challenges discourage me. After all, I was in the outdoors that I loved. I was reading John Muir and Sigurd Olson’s books and was buoyed by their idyllic descriptions of nature. I wanted to help the wilderness.

I wrote this in my journal:

Save this space
for that lone bird
blending with the sky
and hill-green water.
Save it
for that flight.

I did not complain, and in fact, volunteered for extra work like hiking back to camp to collect a forgotten canteen, or going on a reconnaissance hike with our crew leader to assess the next day’s trail work. It looked overwhelming. The trail hadn’t been maintained in years, and massive piles of fallen trees blocked our path. In some instances, it was going to be easier just to reroute the trail instead of trying to cut through the deadfall.

Randy*, our crew leader, was a 225-lb. fair-haired Swede who was at the mercy of his vices of drinking and smoking cigars. Another notable crew member was Peter*, a divorced 29-year-old who worked odd jobs in Minneapolis – everything from dish washing to acting in television commercials. Handsome, but mercurial and insecure, he seemed mature at times, but at others, like he had a chip on his shoulder. His perpetual five-o’clock-shadow gave him the look of a stereotypical prison convict. He was also always sharpening his knife, which gave me the willies.

Our evenings were spent around the campfire. Collectively, the guys had brought enough liquor to fill a whole backpack, which came out at that time. Their conversations, which centered around whisky, wilderness, women, and hopping trains, were punctuated by swearing. “Sh*t” and “motherf**ker” were their favorites. They called the tourists that we came across “peasants,” as if they were the wilderness-poor who could only stay in the boundary waters for a short time, while we were truly rich because we got to stay here for most of the summer. I tended to agree with them on that point.

Because I was a woman, I slept in my own tent. The guys slept two or three together in the other tents. Near the end of our second trip, several of the guys started making comments at night when we were all in our sleeping bags. They’d yell over, half-joking, half-not, “Hey Marie!  What does it feel like to have a c**t? Hey Marie, come over here, I have something I need your help with.” You get the drift.

I had never encountered anything like this before. I can’t remember if I acknowledged their taunts or not. And where was crew leader Randy during all this? I don’t know. Probably asleep, or feigning sleep. By the second or third night, I was finding their comments tiresome.

The next day, after the hard labor of constructing erosion control bars on a steep portage, the guys went skinny dipping while I was in my tent reading.

After a while, they mentioned getting cold and that they were thinking of coming out of the water. Instantly inspired, I made my move. I came out of my tent and sat on a rock not far from the lake, enjoying the view and all that nature had to offer.

With me sitting there in all my femininity, the guys did not have the courage to walk naked out of the water. So I sat, not talking, for a good long time. After their teeth started to chatter, I stayed a few minutes more, then nonchalantly ducked back into my tent.

You know what? The vulgar comments stopped, and I didn’t even need to complain to any authority figures. I only needed to muster a little spunk and show them what it felt like to be vulnerable (and very cold and shriveled) because of their gender.

The gender thing wasn’t all bad, however. One evening before the harassment started, Peter volunteered to heat up water over the fire and help me wash my hair while the other guys were gone fishing. He rinsed the suds out onto the ground instead of into the lake, which was our drinking water. His fingers massaging the luxurious warm water through my hair felt divine.

We had a nice talk around the fire afterwards, during which he asked me out to a play in the nearest small town. I don’t recall my exact answer, but it was probably something non-committal, given that I had a boyfriend of sorts back at college. And then there was all that knife-sharpening he liked to do….

I found out later from the other crew members that Peter had in fact just gotten out of the state prison, so it was probably a good thing that the hair washing didn’t woo me.

The harassment didn’t stop me from eventually working for the Forest Service. I volunteered again as a photojournalist on another ranger district in the same forest during my first summer after college. That eventually led to my hire as the forest public affairs specialist.

During the five years I was a Forest Service employee, I never got harassed by another employee. But that could be because I had a reputation. 🙂

*Names have been changed.

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The view from one of our campsites on Clearwater Lake.

How Seeing a Bob Dylan Exhibit Made me Happy not to be Famous

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Lyrics to the “Ballad of Donald White.” Dylan wrote them on the cover page in a library book of the people he was staying with in NY City. Needless to say, they did not return the library book. Dylan’s name is on the checkout form on the opposite page.

This weekend I had a chance to visit the Bob Dylan exhibit at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Duluth. I went there for a talk about Dylan given by someone I know. Unbeknownst to me, the time of the talk was changed to an hour later, so I had a long stretch to look at the exhibit beforehand.

And I’m glad I did. I mean, how can I consider myself a true Duluthian if I don’t know at least a little about one of its most famous personages? I learned a lot of new things, and re-remembered some old. But mostly I came away with the sense that it would be creepy to be that famous.

Dylan was born in Duluth in 1941 in the same hospital I was. He lived here until he was five (so said my friend who gave the talk, but Wikipedia says he was six). His father contracted polio (get your vaccinations, people!), necessitating a move to be nearer to relatives in Hibbing, Minn. Dylan graduated from high school in Hibbing and then went to college at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He dropped out after a year and went to seek his fortune (and Woody Guthrie) in New York City.

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A copy of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize diploma for literature.

What both impressed and creeped me out was that the exhibit had things like a copy of Dylan’s birth announcement from the local newspaper, and photos of his early girlfriends, including a letter by his NYC girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, to her mother. In the letter, Suze is chewing out her mother, who obviously didn’t care for Dylan. The exhibit also featured a short note that Dylan wrote to the people he was staying with in NYC, letting them know where he was going and when he’d be back (1 a.m.). He told them not to wait up.

I just can’t imagine being the object of that must interest. I mean, a short note like the one he wrote in NYC would be thrown out by most people. And can you imagine seeing an exhibit under glass filled with photos of your early romantic interests?

But it was obvious that Dylan courted the fame. I mean, even before he was famous he was writing lyrics for friends as keepsakes, and signing his name to them. He went looking for the fame, and found it. Or maybe I am being too hard on him. Maybe he was just expressing and sharing his creativity, and look what happened as a result?

Anyway, I hope I never become that famous. (Although I hardly think there’s any danger of that.) Seeing the exhibit made me much happier to keep writing away in relative obscurity, thank you.

Free Books!

Going Coastal

If you’re active on Goodreads, a book giveaway is currently open for “Going Coastal.” This book is a collection of short stories about Lake Superior. Authors hail from northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. (A story by yours truly is included.)

The stories were chosen by a panel of judges during a contest offered by Lake Superior Writers last year. Lake Superior Writers is a nonprofit group with over 200 members that supports the artistic development of writers and fosters a vibrant literary arts community.

“If you like lighthouses, ships, beaches, ghosts, road trips up the shore, history, storms, agates, islands, family drama, and the mystical power of water, you’ll enjoy this book,” said Marty Sozansky, board chair of Lake Superior Writers.

Like the horizon blurs between sky and water, reality and fantasy merge in these tales of human struggle on the edge of one of the world’s largest lakes. Click here to enter the giveaway and the chance to win one of two copies. The giveaway is open until June 24, 2017.

If you don’t win, you can always purchase the book for $12.95 at Fitger’s Bookstore in Duluth and online through North Star Press, Amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble. Sales support Lake Superior Writers.

When is a Bridge a Bong?

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The Bong Bridge as seen from the water.

I was giving directions to an out-of-town acquaintance the other day when I told them they’d need to drive over the Bong Bridge. They looked at me, wide-eyed, and started snickering.

Yes, it’s true. In Duluth-Superior we have a bridge by the name of Bong. The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge, to be exact. It’s named after a World War II flying ace, but out-of-towners and the uninitiated don’t know that. The name always provokes some kind of reaction.

I was away at college when the bridge was being built and named in the early 1980s. Whenever I returned home and drove on the freeway down the hill into town, I would notice more bridge pillars in the harbor as it slowly came into being. I can’t recall if there was a lot of controversy about the name, but I assume there must have been some.

Although the name is a nice tribute to a local war hero, the people who thought up the name HAD to know it would get shortened to just “Bong Bridge” or just “Bong” in the local vernacular. After all, we have another bridge that spans the same body of water, which is named after John A. Blatnik. Everybody just calls it the “Blatnik.”

“Take the Blatnik to Superior,” we say. Now we can also say, “Take the Bong to Superior.” Most locals know that won’t get you into trouble with the law.

It’s just such a questionable name. I can’t believe it got through the transportation department’s approval process. But Richard Bong must have had a big fan club that overwhelmed common sense when it came to bridge names.

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A mural of Richard Bong and his wife Marge from the Bong Museum in Superior.

We even have a Bong Museum. But it doesn’t contain what you think it might. Not even one. I know. I checked.

The name does make the Bong Bridge easy to remember, I’ll say that for it. While it’s confusing having two bridges that start with a “B” in the area, differentiating between them is easy. The Blatnik is the bridge closest to Lake Superior and it’s named for a guy. Then there’s the other bridge farther inland that’s named for drug paraphernalia.

Maybe the name was a good idea, after all?

Attack of the Killer Turkeys

Today I meandered over to a gathering at the home of some friends who live in the woods outside of town. I had been to their house before, but this time was different. Instead of my friends meeting me once I got out of my car, I was met by some wild turkeys. Two toms and a hen walked up to my driver’s door before I could get out. The toms were both displaying in an aggressive manner and the hen pecked the ground a few feet away.

It unnerved me that the turkeys knew which car door I would exit. “This can’t be good,” I thought. After futilely waiting a few minutes for them to budge, I decided on an alternate exit strategy. I clambered over the stick shift console and went out the passenger door.

20170507_104836The turkeys immediately spotted me and followed. I walked faster. They walked faster. Soon I was running for my life to the house door. Just in time, my friend opened the door. She deterred the turkeys with a big stick and ushered me quickly into the house. I swear the turkeys would have followed me right inside, had it not been for that stick.

She apologized for the turkeys, saying they “just showed up” about a month ago. Although the turkeys live in the woods, they are obviously imprinted on people for food.

Despite trying several methods, the only way my friends have found to deal with them is to carry sticks whenever they go out. My friends say the turkeys also stand at their sliding glass doors and watch them while they watch television. Creepy!

As others arrived for the gathering, our main source of entertainment was watching their various reactions to the attack turkeys. Most people got off easier than I did because my friends made it out there sooner with their sticks.

Once I eventually left, the turkeys chased my car the whole way down the long driveway, as if getting back at me for my earlier escape. They kept at it until I was able to leave them in a cloud of dust on the main road.

Wild turkeys have been in the news lately because they are becoming more common in northern Minnesota. People are wondering if the department of natural resources (DNR) has stocked them or something. Nope, says the department.

In my travels between the southern and northern parts of Minnesota over the years, I have noticed turkeys along the highway. Every year, they are farther north. (Opossums are coming, too. Yuk!) I guess it was just a matter of time before they reached my friends’ yard.

The DNR calls the turkeys’ range expansion “one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories.” Last year, the DNR expanded the turkey hunt to include all of northeastern Minnesota. The spring season is open from now until May 31.

Turkey hunters, if you are having trouble finding your prey, I know where a couple are. Just ask. 🙂

Remembering Black Sunday in Duluth

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As waves threatened to overtop the pier walls and wind whipped the words from people’s mouths, an intimate ceremony was held earlier this week in Duluth’s Canal Park. The gathering marked 50 years since three brothers and a Coast Guardsman who was trying to find them were swept off the pier during a late April blow. (For more details, please read my earlier post.)

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Ron Prei (left) and Tom Mackay.

Tom Mackay, a friend of the Coast Guardsman, organized the Black Sunday event. It was simple – no microphones, no chairs – just a bunch of people who wanted to remember. We stood on the North Pier near the shore and the Marine Museum, where the plaque for Guardsman Culbertson rests. It’s not far from the gates put up after the drownings to discourage people from walking the piers during bad weather.

Mackay talked about why he feels it’s important to remember the events of that night long ago. He talked about his friend who died. He talked about the power of the lake. He painted a picture of young lives cut short.

Mackay laid four flowers next to the plaque as he does every year on April 30 – one for each death, and then invited Ron Prei, another Coast Guardsman who was part of the rescue attempt, to talk. The soft-spoken Prei’s words were lost to the wind, but in a TV news interview, he described the harrowing conditions of that night and how he’ll never forget.

DSC04055The Halvorson brothers were my cousins – first cousins once removed, or something like that. I was too young when the tragedy happened to remember them, but I remember the effect it had on my family, and the Halvorson family. Later, when we would visit the Halvorson home for dinner, there was the sense of the missing brothers – a blackness that hung in the background and was not overtly acknowledged – at least not when I was around. A certain liveliness was missing. Those feelings were quickly overshadowed by the exuberance of the family’s four other children and the warmth of conversation.

It was good to be part of this public recognition for the boys, the man, and the force that is the lake.

Afterwards, the crowd dispersed, hunched against the cold wind. And we remembered.

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