Saturday, January 5, 2008

Little Sisters, part I.

Living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula has never been easy for anyone and my life here has not been the exception. As a young man, I found myself struggling to make a living, as did the previous three generations of family, before me. Like some of them, I began to supplement the family income by harvesting wild cranberries.

Gathering cranberries is back breaking work! Usually done on swampy ground, wearing waders, staying dry and not becoming wet, is an absolute must. By using a "picker", a wooden box with small forks to rake the berries into, is the quickest method of harvesting by hand.

After harvesting all the areas close to home, I was soon looking for another place to pick. Rumors had circulated of cranberries being located along a certain shoreline of a very large inland lake. This place would be extremely difficult to get to, no less than eight miles from the paved road and civilization with no houses or camps in between. The route I would take would take me through the woods down a two tracked road for five miles. From there, a canoe would have to be dragged along a path another mile to a small lake. The trip across the small lake would be a mile, upon reaching the shore on the other side, a path another mile long would lead to the larger lake and supposedly the cranberry patch.

An older Frenchman living on the paved road about nine miles from the site, was reported as having been there. Perhaps by talking to this man would be a good idea, considering the amount of effort it would take to even get there. Although this gentleman admitted there was lots of berries to be had, he was very apprehensive about me going there. Apparently, the berries were on a floating bog, that is, a thin layer of earth growing on top of water. A very dangerous situation as over the years many men, horses and oxen have fallen through, never to be seen again. Floating bogs were nothing knew to me, testing the strength of the soil could be done by holding a length of pole in case if I should fall through. Watching the ground literally wave with every step is really something to experience! Walking on water? Almost.....

Even after reassuring the Frenchman, that I wasn't going to attempt this adventure on my own, that help would be needed dragging the canoe anyway, he still was not satisfied. This man did not want me going out there and his demeanor worsened as his attempts of discouraging me not to go there fell on deaf ears. I thanked him for the information he did give me and upon leaving wondered, what was it, with this man?

It was a cold October day with the sky overcast as a hefty teenage boy and I pulled the canoe toward the little lake. This was no easy task, having to stop often to catch our breath. It was with great delight when ahead of us was a break in the tree line that could only be the lake! As we settled down into the canoe a thought ran through my mind that never occurred to me before, could I save this kid if the canoe should happen to tip? Even though we had life jackets on, the water was very cold.

My relief upon making it to the other side without a hitch was soon abated. The second my boots touched the shore, a very uneasy feeling overcame me, enough to really upset my stomach. Could I be having a heart attack? Even though pulling the canoe had been very strenuous, I was in my late twenties and 200 pounds, in the prime of my life, no way! Making matters in worse, the young man was becoming hysterical. Whatever it was he was feeling it too. He wanted to turn around and go back, now!

It took quite awhile to calm him down and a lot of reassurance that everything would be OK. Explaining that our destination was only a little further up the trail, he finally agreed to go on. By having the kid pull the plastic snow toboggan, with the cranberry pickers in it, seemed to keep his mind on task. As he pulled the sled down the trail, it would often tip over, spilling the contents that would have to be reloaded again and again.

My mind raced, what was this feeling that overcame me? It was almost like realizing you're lost only magnified several times over. Having been raised in the north woods and living in the forest almost my entire life, being in strange situations was nothing new to me either. I've been lost before, and once even had to spend the night one cold winter's evening alone in the bush. Never had I experienced this feeling before! Something was definitely amiss!

At last the trail came to an end at the foot of a ridge that masked what laid beyond a vast opening in the forest. As we crested the ridge, there was the lake, it was so large we couldn't see land on the other end of it. Finding the berries was easy, there they were right below us, a crimson sea of cranberries were floating on the water. This was by far the very best patch of berries, I had ever seen before!

Making a pole from a sapling was found nearby to test the floating bog. After stumbling around and almost falling down a couple times it seemed safe enough, especially with a foot or so of water on top of it, seemed to stabilize it. This also made the floating berries easy to pick. Soon both of us were picking and filling the plastic toboggan, that floated nicely along.

The feeling I had earlier subsided somewhat, but I knew something was amiss and wanted to fill up quickly and get the hell out of there. About an hour went by when I thought I heard something and I ordered the boy to stop picking. Sure enough, off in the distance I could hear what sounded like girls singing, like they do while jumping rope. After some pauses, the singing seemed like it was getting closer. This really scared the kid and I quickly dismissed this as sound can travel long distances over water, swamp and such. The boy said that a family lived just down the road from the Frenchman, had two young girls. That must be them, I reassured him and the picking resumed, knowing full well, that was over nine miles away! I've heard dogs barking that was over two miles away, when the wind was just right, but.......

After dumping the berries into plastic garbage bag sacks and loading them on the sled, we headed back down the trail. It would be dark soon and I was for damn sure not to get caught by darkness out there! Looking back as we were leaving to get a good look at the lay of the land, to my surprise there was a dug out section on the ridge! What was it, some kind of foundation?

We ditched the canoe on high ground once we reached the other side of the smaller lake. Sure didn't have to worry about someone swiping it, in that God forsaken place! Sledding the berries back to the truck didn't seem like a chore at all, and we both almost leap up and down for joy seeing the familiarity of the truck!!

On the way back through the woods to the paved road, the boy assured me, that was it for him, he'd never go back there again, no matter how much he was paid. I couldn't blame him, never in my life was I so happy to be leaving such a place! Stopping by the old Frenchman's place on the way back, I gave him a bushel of the berries. He seemed very pleased to get them, but was even more pleased and relieved when it was let on, that I wasn't going back that year....

more later.....

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