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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: September 23, 2021

Charmed

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,



**********

One of my childhood memories is of a family camping trip to Ft. Wilkins State Park, Copper Harbor, MI in the mid 1960's. We were accompanied by my Mom's brother and his family, so we had adventure companions. My family did not normally camp, so my parents rented a large, green cloth tent, very leaky and redolent of mold. As I recall it was late summer, but mighty chilly up in the peninsula. The tent triggered my asthma, and we had to shelter inside from hard rainstorms frequently. One night my sister and I retreated to the family VW bug, and the backseat was folded down for a dry bed for the two of us. The upholstery on the seatback was a fiercely picky material, which made sleeping in the cramped quarters very uncomfortable. In short, it was a wonderful trip.

For while I remember wheezing through all those wet and chilly nights, I also remember the stunning scenery, the cobble beach of mighty Lake Superior, the tranquil beauty of Lake Fanny Hooe with its cooperative fish, and the fun of having the cousins to play with. I don't recall being back in that area since. Last week, Mike and I took our little trailer and returned in search of my 50 plus year old memories.

I find the tiny village of Copper Harbor charming. It is all quite reminiscent of Door County 50 years ago ?? quaint, quiet, and blessed with natural beauty so amazing it is hard to believe it is real. In the summer it swells with nearly 300 residents, but at this time of year the majority leave for softer environs, and 87 hardy souls overwinter in the village.

There are few typical tourist attractions. Only a couple of restaurants, with just one true "bar" that I saw on the short main drag. There are a couple of little stores, mostly selling necessities and a few souvenirs. No gas station that we saw. No "Dollar' store, not even a grocery. No swimming pools, (swimming season there being one or two days a summer,) "tourist trains," or lines of people to see anything, although sunrises can be "crowded" on the town dock with a dozen or so people near the coffee and bakery stand. (I highly recommend the mixed berry turnovers.)

The mid-week fall visitors we encountered in the full campground were mostly there for the extensive mountain biking trails, hiking, rock picking, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits. There were few big motorhomes in the campground, instead there were tents, and tiny or small trailers. No one was sitting outside their RV watching TV, and I heard no music playing at the sites. It was refreshing.

The village main street did have a really tiny brewery, established in 2012. They had outdoor seating, so we were comfortable stopping for an afternoon beer. We entered masked up to order, and found about four other people with the bartender, the sole employee. The brewery was small enough that it felt crowded. The barkeeper was trying to charge two beers a customer had ordered and was attempting to pay for with "Apple pay." Unfortunately, while the brewery had a charge card system, it and the bartender had never experienced an "Apple pay" transaction before. After some floundering and expletives the customer had to give up, and left. The bartender watched his frustrated customer depart, and then addressed the rest of us incredulously. "He comes up HERE and all he has to pay for things is that? Where does he think he is? We won't have Apple pay for at least 20 years up here!"

Indeed, we had no cell phone service (thus no navigation system) anywhere in the vicinity unless we drove up Brockway Mountain, which I highly recommend. Most people in the campground went daily to access messages and download maps ?? because not only can you get cell service, it is the most scenic "phone booth" I've ever seen. You can see for miles in any direction, and the first few bright fall trees on neighboring mountains pop like you can reach out and touch them even if they are many miles away. There is talk about eventually getting better internet access but some locals are firmly against it ?? warning that it would attract more people than such a place can accommodate and drive real estate prices skyrocketing. And I have to admit, looking at my phone less often meant I noticed other things, like the two big lake freighters passing by one another far out on mighty Lake Superior.

We got some fish fries from a little food truck, which was also an experience. The vendor keeps erratic hours, apparently around 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., or when he runs out of fresh fish, the only kind he uses. When I saw him at the trailer around 10 a.m., I asked if we could place an order for pickup. "No, just come by," he said. When I asked what time he opened, since no hours were posted, he said "Oh, twelve or twelve thirty." We stopped by at 12:10 and he said it would be another 15 minutes to heat up his fryer. It was so reminiscent of the island dear to my heart, Elbow Cay in the Abacos. "Island time," Northern version. The fish was amazing. Good thing we like fish as his menu was fish fry, or fish taco. Nothing else. Sort of like the old Saturday Night Live skit, "Cheeseburger ?? Pepsi." That is your "choice," take it or leave it.

Copper Harbor is my brother and sister-in-law's "happy place," so were armed with more recommendations than we could possibly fit in. We hiked to isolated and stunning Horseshoe Bay, a steep and slippery trail that wore both of our dogs out; and marveled at Estivant Pines virgin forest, a rare tract of pines more than 400 years old each, spared the logger's axe by a wonderful family. They owned and had the foresight to save this glimpse of the lost past grandeur of the northern forest. It's fun to explore the beautifully restored Fort Wilkins. Even while being bunkered down in the trailer by hard rain several times we put on miles of walking, much of it steep, rugged and challenging. Obviously, there was no TV reception, not even AM radio reception, so we read and napped while the rain pounded the roof of the Tin Hilton. I was so grateful to not be in a leaky, moldy tent.

We did stop at one of the little stores, where a strict mask policy has been in effect uninterrupted since the start of the Covid pandemic. The active senior woman running the store is not concerned about the impact her policy may have on customers ?? she has bigger concerns than money. And she'll tell you as much if you ask, as one unhappy person did while I was within earshot. Later, marveling at her firm policy decision making, I wondered if the absolute requirement to be self-sufficient in the village during winter; and the fact you are a very long way from an ICU bed, perhaps via helicopter; gave her the determination to set her rules and stick to them. I admire her.

When I inquired if there were kids living in the village full time she proudly told me "We have thirteen this year!" The younger students attend the one-room school house, established in 1860, staffed with a teacher and an aide. The four high school students commute to Calumet, 39 minutes away, weather permitting, in this area noted for feet, not inches, of snow.

One of the things I like to do when visiting somewhere is ask myself the question "could I live here?" I'd be driving back and forth to Calumet to shop, visit the library, go to a dentist and almost everything else. I'd have to depend on my neighbors more than I do now. But while I am not looking to move, I'd be happier in Copper Harbor than I would be in Chicago or New York. The place is so rich in natural beauty it leaves me breathless.

Autumn: I welcome you with open arms. May you be long and lovely.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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