Coyotes On the Ice
A new cottage owner was asked by some locals if he'd ever taken
a snowmobile onto the ice. The following story is his report about
what came next:
The group from Beaver left for the silence of the ice-bound lake.
Racing across wind-swept snow that had drifted in waves, they
went for the stillness. A paradox of modern life is that such
tough men on their whirling machines dash across the frozen white
and mirror ice to find peace. The whine of the snowmobile transports
them to a kingdom of ice castles and silence.
I am not an Islander, which is about being born one and growing
up in the cycle of Island life. Knowing your neighbor by his character
and the stories of his family. Living through hard winters and
busy summers and seeing the inside of thingssorrows and
joys, birth and death. And this winter had been hard. In such
places you must know whom you can trust when you make tracks on
a sled from Island to mainland going across.
I was the novice sledder in the group, and I knew enough of Island
life, as a summer resident, to not make a complete fool out of
myself. This pack of Island coyotesthis is what
they resembledwould pounce on me like a wide-eyed doe. I
admitted I could barely turn a machine on a soft slope. Islanders
appreciate the truth, and if they didn't embrace me, their tolerance
was well meaning.
I was the adolescent pup in the pack, to follow the metaphor.
Stay right on his butt and you'll be just fine. When he
turns, you turn. When he stops, you stop. If he goes in the drink,
follow him. Follow him to hell if he wants to go there, which
is where he'll end up anyway. He was the pack leader, and
the pack deferred to him. All except the lone dog, who preferred
roaming ahead and beyondjust on the edge.
It was this loner who suggested I ride along, and generously
provided a sled. Got your insurance paid up? he laughed.
It'll thrill you, and chill you to the bone. The adrenaline
will rush to your frozen toes. He preferred speed to silence.
"It's as good as it gets." Jack Nicholson had that same
wild-eyed look after seeing his psychiatrist in the film of the
same name. This guy had a lot in common with Jack.
His last comment laid down the gauntlet. Despite the rolling
eyes of the women at the Chili Cook-Off, I knew I could not refuse.
Welling up with testosterone from some youthful spring long past,
I blurted out an affirmative Yes. The next morning
I regretted it. He handed me a pinched pair of ice picks with
a gleeful glance. I stammered out, What are these for?
Well, when you take a spill into the drink, you can pull
yourself out better than with your fingernails. Hate to see those
scratch marks around a hole. I realized he said when
and not if. I had heard the story about an able sledder
who plunged into a soft hole two seasons ago and almost died.
It had matured into legend, told at the table at Dalwhinne in
the morning with a causal jocularity that belied the gravity of
the event. When the survivor teased his fellow sledder, who had
pulled him out with a long-sleeved shirt that day, the rescuer
retorted that he had thought about wearing a shirt with short
sleevesand wished he had.
We meet at Indian Point early the next morning. I am filled with
exhilaration and stomach butterflies. Racing to Garden Island,
we are joined by another pack of sled coyotes, howling
in delight as they weave in and out and jockey for position. Free
from the restraints of land, responsibilities, wives, and the
madness of cabin fever, they roam across the ice with
intoxicating abandon. Sleds leap into the air. Free at last!
We round Garden and head north into the vast white open flatness
where sky and ice-bound lake seem one. It should not take long
to cross to Naubinway in the U.P. Cautious and tentative with
my sled, I hang behind the pack as they speed ahead. When I finally
catch up, the group has stopped, and huddles off sleds in disgruntled
disgust. One slams his helmet on the ice. Another paces up and
down, shouting obscenities and pointing to the northeast. The
lead dog talks on his cell phone. Lifting my fogged visor, I strain
to survey the horizon. Then I hear it before I see it. The groans
of heaving sheets of ice rumble in the distance to the churning
engines of the icebreaker Mackinaw. To my left, the unmistakable
red lines emerge in the distance, cutting a huge swath through
the ice. Behind it by several hundred yards follows the tugboat,
Michigan, hauling a barge. The howls of the pack have now turned
from gleeful yapping to long, high angry whines. They nip at each
other's heels as they argue over whether to race around the prowwhich
is like trying to beat a train. In the distance the lone dog races
ahead to the ice-breaker's edge, running back and forth, jumping
and barking as if he could stop the monolith's forward movement.
The heavy hand of the government has spoiled our trip.
For awhile the engines grind to a halt. The ship pushes unto
the ice and then slips back. But the action only prompts more
animated debate about a course of action. Had it stopped to let
us go around, thinking we are returning from the U.P. and would
be stranded? Was it a warning, instead? One of us half criticized,
half laughed at the actions of the lone dog. Bet he got
too close and the Captain's called in a helicopter to strafe us!
The lone dog soon returned to sing of his exploit, to the grumbling
of the rest of the pack: Man, that was great to feel the
ice groan and lift under the sled. Nothing like feeling that power.
A kind of tectonic surfing, I suppose. As if cowed by the daring
of the loner, the pack started engines and ran toward the channel's
I lingered behind, contemplating seriously whether the trek was
worth it, whether my life insurance was paid up. One sledder yells
back, Are you coming? Don't think so,
I replied, my proverbial tail between my legs; I think I'll
go back. Okay, just follow the trail home, he
shouted over the whine of his engine. Are they nuts,
I thought. The adolescent dog was wavering.
In a few minutes the lone dog races back to me and circles with
a curious but challenging stare. Where are you goin'?
he snarls. Then, sensing my apprehension, he stops his sled, lifts
his visor, and encourages, "Look, it's great out there. No
problem. Ice must be two feet thick. Only takes three inches to
support you. C'mon, let's ride! You won't regret it. Despite
his rash bravado, I liked the loner. The pack did too. Their complaints
belied a secret admiration. He's one crazy coyote,
I thought. But in reality we recognized him as one of the last
vestiges of the virgin wilderness of Northern Michigan. He was
a Hemmingway character, straight out of Nick Adams. He reminded
me of the freedom and natural wilderness that the Island still
offers. He escaped a profitable business on the mainland to roam
free. Now, he did what he darned well pleased, and I envied him
By the time I reach the open channel, the pack leader is pacing
back and forth near the channel's edge, axe in hand. Clear diamond-blue
ice boulders have been churned in the breaker's wake. Huge jagged
chards glisten in the emerging sunlight; many rise to sharp points.
The pack restlessly follows, baying their discontent at the breaker's
devastation of the path to Naubinway. They speculate about a way
to cross. My stomach churns like the breaker's wake, and the boulders
well up in my throat. Surely, he doesn't think we can cross
fifty feet of smashed ice? I asked the question openly,
but no one replies. Then I decide on another approach. What's
he have the axe for? I ask tentatively. Oh,
someone replies, taking a long drag on his cigarettethis
is not a no-smoking place, that's to cut the tips off the
chards, to make the path clear to cross. He picks up an
ice boulder, tossing it into the channel. It sinks and promptly
bobs to the surface. Okay, I reply, voice cracking.
Yeah, you get goin' fast enough, another mutters,
and these sledsll sail straight across. I had
seen such things in snowmobile commercials, but I hoped against
hope that he was joking.
Forty minutes later, after considerable discussion, the pack
leader rules out a crossing. Either he failed to find a path,
or reason finally prevailed. After a brief exchange about taking
the secondary trip to Mackinaw City, the pack splits. I realize
how few words are necessary in a group that knows each other well.
An outsider rarely discerns the nuances of this unspoken language.
Later, I learned that a group of friends awaited us in Naubinway,
which accounted for the furtive attempts to find a passage. Some
had made the longer trip to Mackinaw before and preferred the
shorter one to Naubinway.
Most depart for home, leaving the quietly experienced pack leader,
the loner, me, and a fourth rider. I am more comfortable, less
likely to make a fool of myself in this smaller, more forgiving
group. The others turn toward Beaver as we head into the emerging
eastern sun toward the Straits of Mackinac.
I grew up in a skiing family, and found my first skis resting
against the fireplace of our lake cottage early one snowy Christmas
morning. That was a time when skiing was a family sport and unspoiled
by the commercialism which later sent the cost of lift tickets
soaring. I turned to cross-country skiing to avoid the long lines
and crowded slopes. When snowmobiles made their appearance on
the scene, our family decried their worth. They were noisy, polluted
the environment, and were not a true sportjust plain unhealthy.
The snow-mobile was the Darth Vader of the forest, despoiling
the peace and solitude of the Jedi Empire. But one side of my
family had gone over to the dark side. Several winters
ago I was enticed to go over as well. Although I suppressed
my enthusiasm on that first ride, I was hooked. But being a good
mid-western Lutheran, my guilt and shame over the event resurrected
my previous sensibilities. Snowmobiles were simply smudge pots
My prejudice dissipated as our smaller pack rounded Hog Island
and hit the open ice. One of my favorite writers, C. S. Lewis,
spent a lifetime exploring his spiritual beliefs, only to conclude
that some things should be enjoyed in the moment rather than analyzed.
In less than a half-hour I left my prejudices behind. Alone on
the open ice in the crisp winter air, wind whistling, one finds
release from earthy cares and discovers the joy of being at one
with the sun and sky, snow and ice. Coupled with the excitement
of an adventure and the risk, it is a glorious experience.
The clouds cast long shadows as we weave our way through mounds
of upturned blue glacial sliversup and down, over and arounduntil
we reach open ice and race across at speeds up to forty miles
an hour. Huge and small shards glisten as if a giant had sprinkled
sparkling diamonds on the lake's surface. As we hit clear ice
the sled occasionally slips and weaves across the translucent
surface. Ahead emerges the Gray's Reef Light, sounding a siren's
note every few seconds. We stop briefly to enjoy the music and
wonder at the height of the edifice, which appears so small through
binoculars from our East Side cottage. In the summer it would
guide great freighters between dangerous shoals, but now it lay
frozen, sleeping, alone, but still sounding out its warning in
wait for spring thaw.
We travel toward Waugashance Point, and encounter birds in flight
and a lone snow goose. Rounding the Point, that wonder of the
Great Lakes suddenly appears in all its majesty: the Big
Mac Bridge. I am sure those born after me take it for granted,
but I am old enough to remember waiting for the ferry before Big
Mac was built, and so it still seems a miracle to me. Her white
towers gleam in the sun, and her elegant cables cast long shadows
on the icy surface below. She looms larger and larger as we approach,
and I wonder if terrorists might ever try to take her down. I
remembered after the tragedy of September 11 that extra security
was added for her protection. The realities of the mainland break
the spell of the lake. I am indeed across.
After lunch in Mackinaw City we retrace our path. Rounding Waugashance
and leaving the Bridge behind, the magical spell of the icy lake
returns. It doesn't take long on the mainland to want to get back
to Beaver. The mainland is a destinationa place to say you
have been; but the Island is a state of mind.
More adventure lays ahead. The loner had left before us and long
ago disappeared off the horizon. It worries the pack leader. He
doesn't like the idea of a single rider negotiating the lake alone.
About a mile out on the white ice, out of nowhere three lanky,
real coyotes appear, their coats agleam. Two turn and lope south,
but one is upon us and racing with the wind alongside our sleds.
We turn north and circle, but he circles with us. Is this play
or tease? Our machines lag behind him. He strikes out ahead, speeding
powerfully, then slows, trotting alongside. His pink tongue lolls,
and his eyes glow white. This animal is at home in his realm.
His long, lithe body surges, bushy tail flowing straight. Wild
and free on an adventure of his owna lone dog of the open
spaces. He knows this world.
Past Gray's Reef, around Hog and Garden, we journey at a leisurely
pace to the rhythm of the setting sun. Clouds dance in winter's
golden glow. As the sun sets, we reach Indian Point and pause
to relish the spirit of camaraderie and the accomplishment of
mastering the long journey. Im surprised to not be cold.
Together we had enjoyed the silence of the great lake in winter.
It had been a good trip. I turned to the pack leader and thanked
him. I expect this is a regular thing for you, I offered,
but it was an adventure of a lifetime for me. He replied
with a note of surprise in his voice, It's that way for
us too. It always is each time. I now understood. It was
not as easy as he had made it out to be, nor as ordinary as his
stoic demeanor suggested. He was a good leader. There was a reason
I was admonished to follow him closely.
The lone dog soon reappeared, dashing recklessly down the bluff
from the Beaver Island Lodge. He joked about our dalliance. Where
in hell have you been? I've already had three beers. What took
you so long?
Free beer flowed for us at the Lodge. The story of the journey
was recounted several times, and embellished and exaggerated to
make it seem more adventuresome than it was. To savor it. Still,
as I looked out into the night across the darkening lake, I imagined
that lone real coyote running northliving the wildness,
freedom, and peace that only the long distance of flat ice on
the run can bring.
The Real Beacon:
Search the Beaver Beacon Web Site & Archive: