Book Review: The Net Beneath Us

Debut novelist Carol Dunbar is living a dream. She’s been slogging along in the local writing trenches of the Duluth-Superior area for years. She gained some local notoriety and then hit it big, signing with an agent and getting a two-book deal with a national publisher.

But it almost didn’t happen. During a recent Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA) conference Dunbar said that ten years into her twelve-year journey writing her novel, a flood in her office made her want to quit. She printed out a draft of her manuscript and was about to begin querying agents. She had written notes in the margins and on the backs of pages – things she wanted to address before she sent out the document.

Carol Dunbar discusses her book at its launch in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier this year.

Dunbar’s writing office lies underneath two 250-gallon water tanks that serve her off-the-grid home in the woods. The tanks developed a leak. For twenty minutes, water poured into her 10 x 10-foot office and onto her manuscript.

“Water is death to all things writing,” Dunbar said. Her draft was illegible. The books lining her office were destroyed. She couldn’t see how to recover from this catastrophe, and she began to cry.

At some point in the devastation, the voice of one of her characters cut through to her. It was Ethan Arnasson, the father-in-law of Elsa, the novel’s main character. Dunbar said that Ethan told her, “Carol, just give it time.” She knew he was right and felt giddy that, “My fictional character was giving me personal life advice!”

Lucky for us, Dunbar persisted. “The Net Beneath Us,” is set in remote northern Wisconsin, where Elsa, a cossetted city girl turned country widow, must determine how to carry on with two her two children in the unfinished home her husband was building for them. To cope with the challenges she faces, Elsa forges a deeper relationship with the land, learning from the trees her husband loved.

As the book jacket says, the novel is a lyrical exploration of loss, marriage, parenthood, and self-reliance; a tale of how the natural world – without and within us – offers healing, if we can learn where to look. The story is written in a rotating third-person perspective and covers the course of a year.

As a writer with a nature bent, myself, I loved Dunbar’s descriptions of Elsa’s growing connection to the forest that surrounds her home. From a floating puffball that seems sentient, to the underground fungal connections that foster communication among trees, to a mysterious white stag, nature reigns supreme in the story.

However, be prepared. A slow grief lays heavy over it, also. Dunbar’s true account about her husband, which appeared this year in the New York Times Modern Love column, offers a huge hint about the source of her dark inspiration.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads. The writing is so beautiful, I hesitate to nitpick. But it wouldn’t be a full review without some nits. I found that the middle section dragged just a bit. Through multiple examples, this part highlights all the various ways that Elsa feels out of place in her off-the-grid home. I felt like there were too many of these instances. I found myself thinking, “We get it, already!” The other nit occurs near the end where the symbolism of the unfinished second story of Elsa’s home is compared to an unfinished aspect of Else’s psyche. I felt like it would have been stronger and more “literary” not to spell this out for readers so clearly.

At the WWA conference, Dunbar said her book editor encouraged her to change the ending from one “where the dog dies,” (a no-no in literary fiction these days) to something else. After much thought and gnashing of teeth, Dunbar did this, opting instead for the drama of a lost child. This revision works, and it anchors the story even more strongly into the trees and to the white deer.

So, this local woman made good, and we are all the richer for it. I can’t wait to see what gifts her next book will hold for us.

Madeline Island by Sail

The lagoon at the Madeline Island Town Park.

When last we met, Russ, Captain Dave and I were on our way from Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin on our way to Madeline Island. This particular island isn’t part of the national lakeshore because it is inhabited. But the island is near the Lakeshore and offers many opportunities for natural fun.

Our trip to Madeline Island was not as speedy as our trip to Stockton. The wind was slight, and we only made a top speed of 2 knots, far from the 9 knots we made on our way previously. We had to tack several times (zigzag) to reach our destination, but at least the sun was out.

We anchored in Big Bay, which is home to both a town park and a Wisconsin State Park. Many impressive homes lined the shoreline. Seeing how they had protected their shoreline against erosion was interesting. Lake Superior’s water levels have been at record highs the past few years, and the toll that’s taken is obvious along the island’s edges.

A few homeowners have cleared all the trees and vegetation down the water line on their properties, leaving just an expanse of green lawn. This does not seem like a very wise idea in terms of erosion control. For my work with Wisconsin Sea Grant, I write stories about this issue, so I know a bit of whereof I speak.

After we reached Big Bay in the afternoon, we clambered aboard Tinkerbell the dinghy and rowed ashore. The state park offers a boardwalk that parallels the beach and it morphs into the town park, which also sports a boardwalk to a lagoon. We hiked 3-1/2 miles along the shore, visited several times by a buck who also was taking an evening stroll.

A beach teepee on Big Bay, Madeline Island.

Some enterprising person or persons had built a structure out of driftwood on the beach. What are these things called – beach teepees? Enlighten me, please, if you will.

That night we were rocked to sleep on Lake Superior’s swells. It reminded me of slumbering in the cradle as a child. I kept thinking that someone should market a rocking bed for adults – there could be money to be made!

When we weighed anchor the next day, we saw a large vessel with strange implements sticking out of it coming our way. Later, we were able to discern with binoculars that it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Explorer research ship. They steamed into the bay, pushing a huge bow wave, and then stopped abruptly. We were too far away at this point to see what they were doing, but I would guess they were either checking some fishing nets that were in the bay or taking water samples for research.

I’ve written about the Lake Explorer for work several times, but this was the first time I’d seen it out on the water in action – an impressive sight!

Remember when I said (in the previous post) that Russ and I had forgotten much of our sailing skills during the pandemic? Russ has a background in sailing so remembered much more than I did. He usually handled the anchor and navigated while we were under sail. I was good at steering the Neverland when it was motoring. Capn Dave had been very patient with us the first two days of our trip, but not so much this third day.

I felt like we made up for it on our fourth (and last) day of the trip when we successfully navigated the Neverland into the Port Superior Marina without mishap. Capn Dave seemed rather pleased with that. Maybe he’ll invite us back sometime? At least we didn’t run the boat aground. He doesn’t invite those people back. 😊

There’s a saying that it pays to be “brave enough to totally suck at something new.” Sailing is like that for me. It takes a certain amount of hutzpah to try something for which you have no background. Once we docked the boat and Capn Dave took time to show me how to secure the line to a dock cleat, I felt a bit more worthy.

Once we returned home, I kept feeling like I was still on the boat, especially when I was in the shower (an enclosed space complete with the sound of water). I just learned today that the term for that is “landsickness” or “disembarkment syndrome.” It’s where you still feel the rocking of the boat even after you’ve been off it for several days. According to the Wiktionary, it most often afflicts women between the ages of 30 and 60 (which I fit). It’s the reverse of sea sickness, and is something that sailors and passengers experience when going ashore after a long voyage. I’ve felt the same thing since my 20s, so it must just be part of my makeup. Or maybe it means I’m supposed to be at sea most of the time.

Does a case of landsickness mean I’m a real sailor? I don’t think so. I don’t feel like a real sailor yet. I don’t think I could handle a sailboat all by myself. I still don’t know the names of all the lines and sails on the boat. But I’m getting there, slowly.

Let this trip be a lesson in not being afraid to try something relatively new. If there’s something you want to try, go for it! Life is too short to sit on shore, wishing you could be at sea.

Stockton Island by Sail

The “Neverland” anchored in Presque Isle Bay, Stockton Island.

Russ and I meandered east a few hours to the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin last week. We met our sailing friend, Captain Dave, at the Port Superior Marina for a trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior.

We hadn’t been sailing since before the pandemic. We were apprehensive because we were sure we’d forgotten what skills we had gained, but we were more than ready for an adventure. Our plan was to sail around Stockton Island and Madeline Island over the course of four days.

Although I’d been to both places many times, this would be the first time I’d be doing it by sail, and the first time in the off-season: appealing prospects.

We met in the evening at the marina. After loading our gear onto the “Neverland” (a 32-foot Westsail), we headed down the long pier dock to our car in the parking lot so we could go into Bayfield and find an open restaurant – not an easy task on a Sunday evening after tourist season is over.

Ominous clouds had filled the sky. They chose the “perfect” time to unload their watery burden once we were too far down the pier to seek shelter back on the Neverland. We did not have our rain gear on and got soaked before we reached the car. We were immersed in nature immediately, whether we wanted to be or not.

The Port of Superior Marina near Bayfield, WI.

The squall passed by the time we reached Bayfield. Our goal was to eat at the Pickled Herring. We heard they made an awesome whitefish liver appetizer. Captain Dave had eaten there and raved about it. Alas, they were closed, so we chose to eat at Greunke’s Restaurant instead. This would also be a new experience.

We were seated at a table that featured John F. Kennedy Junior memorabilia on the wall. I was not aware that he had visited Bayfield, much less dined at Greunke’s. The restaurant had saved his receipt; he spent $104 on his meal. I hope he didn’t eat all that food by himself!

We noticed that they also offered whitefish livers on the menu. We decided to order them so that Capn Dave could tell us if they measured up to the Pickled Herring’s dish. They come either fried or sautéed with green peppers and onions. We ordered the latter version.

I thought they were passable fare, but Dave said they weren’t as good as their competitor’s. He said the Pickled Herring put some sort of extra spice on theirs that made all the difference. The rest of our food was excellent. In keeping with the theme, I ordered broiled whitefish, which was prepared just right – not too dry/overdone.

Our whitefish liver appetizer. Yum!

We, on the other hand, were not quite dry by the time we returned to the marina. We changed out of our rain-soaked clothes and spent the night in the belly of Neverland, lulled asleep by the creak of dock lines. In the morning, we awoke to the xylophone of sail lines banging on masts in the stiff wind. It was gusting to 25 knots and the sky was overcast — an exciting day to sail!

It only took us a few hours to get to Stockton Island. The Neverland reached its top speed, which is a little over 9 knots. That isn’t as fast as most sailboats go – Capn Dave explained that Westsails are considered “Wet Snails” when it comes to speed, but they are a very safe, heavy boat.

Black bear tracks on Julian Bay Beach, Stockton Island.

We anchored in Presque Isle Bay on the island and rowed ashore in the dinghy, appropriately named “Tinkerbell.” We beached at the end of the park service campground. I was used to seeing people in the campground, so walking past the deserted sites was strange, a little unnerving. We continued onto Julian Bay where we hiked down the beach of the singing sands to the lagoon. We saw a long trail of black bear tracks on that beach as well as the one where we landed Tinkerbell. The island bears were probably roaming far and wide to find enough food to fatten up for winter. A bald eagle flew overhead. A partial rainbow seemed to end over the neighboring island across the lake.

The rainbow ends on Michigan Island.

Back on the Neverland that night, the sky was painfully clear and cold. The Milky Way was easy to see, split by the occasional falling star. Capn Dave fired up the small wood stove inside Neverland, which kept us cozy for an evening of gin rummy and reading.

Fortified in the morning by a breakfast of haggis and eggs, we rowed back ashore and hiked the Quarry Trail, which eventually leads to an old brownstone quarry (no longer in service). We stopped before the quarry and spent and pleasant time on a sandstone ledge, enjoying sun on the lakeshore. Hundreds of colorful mushrooms piqued our interest during the 6-1/2-mile stroll – purples, oranges, reds, yellows, browns. It’s a good fall for mushrooms around here.

A fly agaric mushroom, toxic but not lethal if ingested. Found along the Quarry Trail, Stockton Island.

After another chilly night, we left the following day for Madeline Island. More on that in my next post.

The Neverland anchored in Presque Isle Bay, Stockton Island.

Bikes Before the Storm

“Bikes Before the Storm,” taken at Joni’s Beach on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

A photo I took last summer earned an honorable mention in a national “Coastal Love” contest organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management. The images chosen celebrate America’s coastlines – both salt and freshwater.

Sailboats moor off the beach and I suspect the bikes were there for boaters to use to get around town after they row ashore in their dinghies. I was on the beach for a sunrise shoot, but as you can see, the sun was not cooperating.

Getting photo honors is a first for me, so I’m pretty psyched. You can see the other winners here:

To see more of my photos, visit my photo collection page.

Murals Tied Together by Water

This is a post I wrote for work, but I thought you might enjoy it, too. During the latest St. Louis River Summit, I had the chance to meander over to the library in Superior, Wisconsin, for field trip . . . .

Mural #2 in the Superior Public Library by Carl Gawboy. It shows the area where the Ojibwe people settled on Wisconsin and Minnesota points on Lake Superior and how the points were separated by a giant otter. Image taken with permission by Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant.

What’s in a library that could relate to a river summit? A series of 35 murals line the Superior Public Library walls, showing the history of the area. Many feature the St. Louis River, Duluth-Superior Harbor and Lake Superior.

The murals were painted over 10 years by artist Carl Gawboy, an Elder enrolled in the Bois Fort Band of Chippewa. The murals begin with the Ojibwe creation story and continue through the 20th century, reflecting how people have interacted with the landscape through time.

Local historian and retired librarian Teddie Meronek led the tour. “I like to say I was here at the birth of the murals, but that started long before any paint went on canvas,” Meronek said. She described how Paul Gaboriault, the library director who commissioned the murals, was a former co-worker of Gawboy’s. Gawboy was born in Cloquet, Minnesota, and grew up on a family farm outside of Ely. He eventually taught at Ely High School, which is where he met Gaboriault. The friends both ended up back in the Twin Ports.

To research the murals, Meronek studied Gaboriault’s and Gawboy’s correspondence. She said the library used to be a Super One grocery store. “If you really look at this building it was just a big warehouse. It wasn’t built for a library. Dr. Gaboriault knew, in his way, that it needed something, and the first thing he thought of were murals.”

The second mural in the series shows the story of how the Superior Harbor opening was created through Wisconsin Point. A giant otter digs as a Native man approaches.

“The great otter represents the Ojibwe religion,” Meronek said. “He is breaking an entryway from Lake Superior into the harbor. The human figure is Nanabozho. He is bringing arts and fire to the land. That was Carl’s interpretation of the legend. The otter is pictured as being so large because it’s representing power.”

According to Gawboy, Lake Superior ties all the murals together, Meronek said. “You can’t always see it in every mural but it’s there. It influences what is going on, which is very true. I’ve lived three blocks from the bay of Lake Superior every day of my life and I can tell you there’s not a day that goes by that the lake doesn’t influence you in some way.”

The location of the horizon line also links the paintings. Meronek said it’s in the same place in each image. As she walked past the murals, she described each one, sharing her impressive knowledge of local history along with personal observations. Other murals include notable buildings and personages, as well as historic events.

Meronek ended the tour on a somber note at a mural of the Edmund Fitzgerald. She often listens to Gordon Lightfoot’s song about the ill-fated ship. “There’s one line in it that always makes me cry: ‘Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours.’ Always beware of Lake Superior, right? I can’t even put my foot in it, it’s too cold! What a beautiful thing though, isn’t it? It’s the greatest of the Great Lakes, right? An inland ocean.”

If you’re ever in Superior, stop in the library and take a look. Of course, if you’re not a Superior resident, you can’t check out a book, but you can check out the murals, so to speak. Not planning a visit soon? You can also see the murals online.

A Close-ish Encounter with a Fox

The curious fox after I crouched down. No, it did not obey the “Danger Thin Ice” sign.

My office sits on a manmade island in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Its windows overlook a stretch of water that leads to the mainland. In addition to water, sky and ice, the view sometimes includes animals like coyotes, bears, groundhogs, birds (lots of waterbirds!), otters, rabbits, and foxes.

This winter, a fox has been frequenting the island. I don’t think it lives here – I don’t see its tracks that often, but maybe the island is one of its winter getaways.

The other day as I was transcribing an interview, I saw the fox pass my office window. It was headed toward the slope along ice and snow-covered water. I leapt out of my chair and grabbed my phone to take pictures. It was cold that day, in the single digits, so I remembered to take my jacket but not my gloves (can’t take pictures with gloves on).

I trotted out the office door and carefully looked around the corner toward the harbor. The fox was far out on the ice by now, but as I stepped away from my office building, it must have noticed my movements and it stopped, looking at me intently.

I took a few photos, but (as you can see) the fox was too distant for anything good. My hands were getting cold, so I put them into my jacket pockets along with my phone. I waited to see what the fox would do. It just stood, watching me.

I wished the fox would come closer. Inspired, I crouched down so that the fox couldn’t see me because of the small hill of snow that lined the slope leading down to the ice. Soon, the fox’s head popped up above the snow hill, his/her eyes still trained on me. Appealing to the fox’s curiosity worked!

I took a few more photos from that vantage. The fox was still too far away. I knew that food was the only thing that might lure it closer. I didn’t have any and don’t really like the idea of feeding wild animals, so I just stayed in my crouch, enjoying the fox’s undivided attention. Its fur was fluffy and full, its color a rich red – quite a handsome animal.

Putting my phone and hands back into my pockets was awkward at this angle so, my icy hands soon told me it was time to go back inside. Besides, I also realized the fox probably thought I was going to give it a handout. I’m sure other people must have. I didn’t want to tease it any longer, so I stood and went into the office.

When I looked out my window again, the fox had moved back onto the ice, but it was still staring intently at the office door. Maybe it thought I was going to come back out with some food. Maybe it missed me, ha ha. It waited a few minutes, walked further, stopped and stared again. This went on several more times before the fox gave up and trotted back to the mainland shore.

Despite the interruption in my work for pay, I felt like I accomplished a lot that day during a few minutes spent communing with a fox.

Superior Skiing

Marie skiing on one of the trails in the Superior Municipal Forest.

If, like me, you live in Duluth and you’ve cross-country skiied every trail and want something new, consider meandering across the bridge to the Superior Municipal Forest for some “superior” skiing in Superior, Wisconsin.

Russ and I tried the ski trails there for the first time this weekend. Since Russ doesn’t quite have his ski legs back yet (after not skiing last season due to an injury) we stuck to the easy red trail, going around both the out and inner loops for a total of 4.1 kilometers.

The trail lives up to its beginner status. It’s fairly flat the whole way, sporting both classic and skating tracks. The trail winds through a forest filled with big ol’ white pines and birch/aspens. The views are inspiring, especially as the sun starts to slant through the trees in the late afternoon.

One thing to note is that you’ll need a ski pass to go on these trails. You can either purchase a seasonal one or a day pass. We purchased a day pass at the self-service kiosk at the trailhead for $5. See the web link in the first paragraph of this post for details. I hear that the city grooms the trails every day, so they are usually in good condition.

And, if you need a dog fix, this is the place for you. The city dog park is right at the trailhead, so you can visit with the dogs as you come and go. You don’t get that with just any old ski trail. Truly superior!

Lullabye Lumber Camp, a Bedtime Story

Once upon a time on Outer Island in Lake Superior, a lumber company cut much of the remaining old growth hemlocks and other trees to make baby furniture. The lumberjacks lived in a camp near sandstone ledges on the shore. They used a railroad built by previous loggers through the middle of the island to haul the heavy logs to a dock for shipping to shore. Eventually, the crew built an air strip so they could go home on weekends.

The company that used the wood was Lullabye Furniture of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. By the 1960s, logging on the island cost too much, so the men left their camp. They also left behind the buildings, old trucks, a stove, a water tank.

Slowly, the forest took its revenge. Snow knocked down the buildings, the trucks rusted, animals carried away seat cushion stuffing for their nests. The forest regrew, swallowing the lumber camp and reclaiming the land as its own.

The End

Outer Island Lighthouse and the Research Project that Wasn’t

Outer Island Lighthouse in 2012.

Last month, I meandered out to the most remote spot in Wisconsin: Outer Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior. Now, the folks on Washington Island off the Door County Peninsula in Lake Michigan might argue that they live in the state’s most remote spot. I guess it’s all in how you define “remote.”

The Milwaukee Journal gives Outer Island this distinction. However, the rest of the internet says it’s Washington Island.

To check on which place is really the remotest, I consulted with the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office. Jim Lacey, associate state cartographer, said he has not tried to define such a spot in the state yet. Is it defined as the farthest outpost of civilization that a person can easily reach, or is it the place farthest from any roads and the hardest to reach?

We went back and forth a couple of times about a worthy definition. Lacey agreed that it wasn’t very hard to get to Washington Island – all a person needed to do is pay for a ferry, drive their car onto it, and they’re set.

The spiral staircase that leads up to the top of the tower.

Outer Island, on the other hand, is twenty-eight miles from the port of Bayfield, Wisconsin, has no ferry and no roads. To get there, a person either needs to have their own boat, spend a couple days paddling a kayak, or pay a small fortune for a water taxi. A water taxi is basically a private motorboat ride. That’s how I traveled to the island last month.

Lacey said, “To sum it up, I’m afraid I don’t have a very satisfying answer for you! I think this is one of those situations where a deceptively simple question gets very complicated, very quickly.”

But, to my way of thinking, the difficulty of access and the lack of civilized conveniences makes Outer Island the “winner” for the remote spot title.

Anyway – I had a great time camping on the island. Visiting the place again reminded me of a research project, which never quite worked at the lighthouse, in part, due to the island’s remoteness.

Nine years ago as part of my job with Wisconsin Sea Grant, I accompanied Chin Wu, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to Outer Island. His goal was to install a webcam atop the lighthouse to track the development of rogue waves and wave patterns off the island’s coast.

Hooking the webcam up to the solar power grid on the lighthouse.

The National Park Service was cooperating with the project, so they drove our small research team out to the island for the installation. Once at the island, the park service staffer let us into the lighthouse and led us to the top of the tower.

We installed the camera and plugged it into the solar power system atop the lighthouse. Thankfully, the day was calm and warm, so hanging around outside ninety feet in the air wasn’t too scary.

I took some great photos, but they were never published because the project didn’t pan out. Why? The webcam needed a cell phone signal in order to transmit the photos. Back then, the cell phone system wasn’t powerful enough on the island for this to work.

The doomed webcam.

Even smart people need to learn things the hard way, sometimes, I guess. It just goes to show that science doesn’t always work out despite the best of intentions. But these photos are too cool to waste, so here you go. Mr. Wu has since gone onto conduct other projects in the Apostle Islands, which were much more successful, such as this WISC-Watch website, which provides tons of info about wave and wind conditions.

Outer Island Sunset

Russ and I meandered to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore last month. We had the privilege of camping on Outer Island for two glorious, warm nights. Lake Superior was so calm, we could hear ore boat engines quietly throbbing even though they were dozens of miles away as they passed the island.

I took this shot from the beach near the lighthouse. You can just see the lighthouse over the tops of the trees by the dock. A wave-worn rock provided a perfect foreground. Can you feel the peace?