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Lake visit after long absence sharpens view of time spent with family

My sister-in-law, Ingrid, keeps her late mother’s tradition of writing in the diary on days she’s at the Sponberg camp that’s a short walk through the pines and beach grass from a sandy beach on Lake Superior just west of the Upper Peninsula’s queen city.

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Although I thought it had been five or six years since I’d visited the U.P. – the longest absence in my lifetime – the diary says what my heart has been telling me: It had been twice that long.

In that time, the controversy over the opening of a nickel mine to the west in Big Bay has turned into the regular flow of specialized trucks carrying nickel along Route 550 toward Marquette. On the way they pass Phil’s 550 Store, whose owner, Phil Pearce, a Jerry Garcia-looking character whom the Detroit Free Press called a “cult figure” in the U.P., passed away this past year.

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Word is that someone is going to be taking over the store that has sold T-shirts saying “I didn’t fart, da dog did it” and posted more uplifting messages daily on the portable sign that is a permanent fixture out front. If a Sasquatch did indeed endorse brands of beef jerky, a photo with beaming Phil by the sign would have been one of the stops on the inaugural publicity tour.

An unusually strong storm that brought 80 mph winds off the big lake battered the entire area in October, prompting some property owners on Middle Island Point, where the Sponberg camp sits, to have huge boulders shipped in to shore up the shoreline.

Like the flood that broke the dam along Route 550 roughly a decade ago, it was a periodic reminder of the impermanence of things that makes this area beautiful and as coldly haunting as the deep, mysterious lake that, during my visit, has lapped quietly at its shores.

A steady sun combined with gentle northeast to northwest breezes have kept the warmer surface water in the shallows and pushed the water temperature up near 60 degrees, allowing my brother, both in our 60s, to swim in it as older versions of the young pups who splashed in it as children.

In our first joint visit here since our father’s passing, we both floated on our backs and lifted our bone white toes above the waters as a kind of tribute to the man who perfected the technique as a child here in the 1930s. I have to strain to replicate what he did so gracefully in this pursuit as in others.

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At an art fair we attended near the still standing but long unused downtown dock, I saw a nighttime photo of the still operating Shiras Island ore dock and told a stranger I had made friendly eye contact with of the love of the lakes my Dad developed as a high schooler when, during World War II, he was hired to work on an ore boat when so many local men were overseas. Even in his decline, I went on, any mention of the lakes would buoy his spirits and bring the younger man I knew to the surface.

While diving to the sandy bottom for driftwood sticks I tossed in front of me on my swims, I stopped to pay close attention for the first time to something I surely have seen hundreds of times: The play of sunlight refracted by the waves over the furrows of submerged sand. A series of freeze frames would have given me a better look, but I decided that, in real time, it brought to mind the idea that far away – maybe at the Picture Rocks at Munising — someone was weaving a huge loosely knit afghan with the glowing golden thread that was shifting beneath me.

The ancient boulders that dominate other sections of the lake bottom are darker and more foreboding. Tough enough to endure the forces of the lake, the largest look to be covered with the skin of aged elephants that might one night roll over in their sleep and crush the homes comfortably tucked in between them.

On a walk up and down the beach just before a glowing cloudless sunset, I trailed behind and watched the gentle waves erase the footprints of my brother, three years older, as he walked in front of me. It was a natural reminder of our ultimate comings and goings and of all whose feet made temporary impressions on the sand here.

But this land of pasties and cardamom bread, Trenary toast and coffee that are the pleasures of life, the pines also exhale a steady scent of peace. When the jet skis are and power boats are not on the water, it would be possible to hear the exhale were it not for the sound of gulls arguing in the distance like ill-tempered Tweeters.

By the time this column appears I’ll be home again, this brief pilgrimage ended. But I’ll take with me the image of the U.P. coastline as seen from a floating kayak; the chill feel of the Lake Superior water half a dozen feet under the surface; a small sample of the colored and speckled rocks from the beach at Partridge Island; and the sense that I skim the surface of a planet even more ancient and deeply mysterious as this big, cold lake.

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