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Beacon Archive

May 2003
PDF Version

The Plan for Furnishing the New Health Center

Notice to Voters: Important School Finance Issue

Chamber’s 2003 Citizen of the Year Banquet

James Kenwabakisee Cuts His Own Channel

Beaver Island Wildlife Club News

Patrick Cull, by Gosh

Michigan Townships Association

Coyotes on the Ice

Here comes... the Acacia

On This Date

My Grandfather’s Farm

Skip Duhamel: Our World-class Totem Pole Carver

News from the Townships

The EMS in Action

Charlevoix County Commissioners

Results ... from the Egg Lake Seven

The Way it Was: the Famine in Arranmore

BIBCO Press Release

Leadership Retreat to focus on challenges

Arts & Culture Grant Update

Carrie Podgorski makes Deans List

Local Poet Melissa Bailey wins Prize

17th Annual Beaver Island Talent Show

Native American and Crooked Tree teachers visit Lighthouse School

AmVets raise ribbons and flags for Beaver Island

One Hundred Years Ago

Paradise Bay Dive Shop comes to ... Paradise Bay

Come See “The Vile Veterinarian” - May 2nd 2003

Cindy Turns a Page

Weather or Not

Edgar B. Speer Refloated

Ronald Haggard 1977 - 2000

Lester Gallagher 1918 - 2002

Classified Ads

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 things–sorrows 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 “coyotes”–this is what they resembled–would 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 beyond–just 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 sleeves–and 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 prow–which 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 edge.
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 for that.

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 cigarette–this 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 sleds’ll 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 sport–just 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 on snow.

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 slivers–up and down, over and around–until 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 destination–a 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 own–a 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. I’m 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 north–living the wildness, freedom, and peace that only the long distance of flat ice on the run can bring.

–Ken Zick


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