THE COMMONWEALTH OF QUETICO
By Mark A. Neikirk
Night has fallen. The solemn black sky is lit only by the pinpoints of stars, most of them configured in patterns indecipherable to those of us ill-educated in the celestial. Andromeda. Aquarius. Aquilla. And those are just the A's.
The B's Big Dipper is out in full grandeur and perfectly reflected in the bay of Basswood Lake, which is as, John Prine once wrote of air, as still as the throttle on a funeral train. The line is from "Mexican Home," which continues, "Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol." Here, far off lightning is doing exactly that, incinerating the darkness with flashes as bright as paparazzi cameras recording a Hollywood happening. It's an odd lightning, lanced by bolts that look less like the recurring Z's of textbook lightning and more like squiggly, white hot wires. Maybe it's the fried filaments of the paparazzi's bulbs.
The storm is contained in a low, horizontal line of clouds that follows the tree line. Above that is a crystalline night sky, its stars calling us back in time toward the Greeks who named them and forward toward an infinity of the unknown and unnamed. We watch on a serene September evening, standing at water's edged by a bay so undisturbed by even a whisper of wind that if you could walk on water you would feel compelled to tiptoe. Yet near enough, a storm has brewed to a boil. How could such fury co-exist beside such serenity except that distance, no matter if measured in miles or minutes, buffers tumult?
And so there is it is, Quetico Provincial Park's Inlet Bay, Basswood Lake, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, our last night in after eight nights out.
In my mind, I return to Kentucky. That always happens in Quetico. A thousand miles ‒ almost to the mile ‒ from home and my mind goes home, carried there by a quiescent wish that home could still be like this; that what had been done to Kentucky had not been done. I think of the Cumberland Falls and how each time I visit the falls I want to be an aboriginal Kentuckian afloat on translucent, turbulent water and hearing the roar of something more turbulent ahead. I turn to the shore, step out, and walk downstream. The sun is long gone but the moon is full. An arc of colors wavers through the mist kicked up by the tumbling water. Upstream, the river was the little things, dwarfed even when passing through gorges it made. Not here. Here, the river is big. Mighty. Everything seems magnified, especially the sound. Were others present, we would need to shout to describe what we were seeing. But this mythical me, the aborigine, is alone in the presence of magnificence as the river fractures and falls. A place of myth would now be my story to return and tell.
How wondrous to have experienced the Cumberland when it was still a story, not a state park. Time, the dimension we cannot navigate, denies us that. Quetico mitigates the denial. It is still possible to go some place where nature is preserved, not caged, even in the 21st Century.
There is a very serious matter of public policy embedded in the contrast between the Cumberland Falls State Park and Quetico Provincial Park, and I use "very" with no reluctance here, though all writers are advised wisely (dare I say, "very wisely") by Twain, who said either take it out or replace each "very" with "damn" and an editor will take it out for you. So I'll go that route: A damn serious matter of public policy. Operationally, a state park and a provincial park aren't much different. One is in a nation with states, the other is in a nation with provinces. So both Cumberland Falls and Quetico are managed by subordinate units of their respective national governments, yet one is managed minus the guard rails, gift shop, viewing platforms, parking lots, picnic tables, and an attraction called "the Cumberland Falls Mining Company, located at the Falls just past the Gift Shop" where you can buy bags of rocks for $10 "and begin your discoveries of real, colorful gemstones and fossils at the gemstone flume. Just place a scoop of rough material on the screen, then rinse with clean water. The gem stones, when wet, will reveal colors and crystal shapes!" The random capitalization and extraneous exclamationpoint mark are the state's, which I'm tempted to say are "the State's!" Also, there is no etymological evidence that gemstone is one word when dry, two when wet, although the word is thus dissevered by the writer commissioned by the commonwealth's constabulary.
Bad as all of this is, it might have been worse. There was once a proposal to clear cut a swath of forest and install a chairlift so that the falls could be seen with no more effort than it takes to purchase a lift ticket. Diet Mountain Dew bottles, the butts of filtered cigarettes, and the occasional Nike could rain down from above and mix with milk jugs, tires, and other trash that washes over the falls and is scattered about the river's otherwise beautiful boulders and drift, both of which have been sculpted by the water, the rocks over eons and the wood over a season or so.
The province of Ontario manages Quetico with an approach so opposite as to be a silk glove against Kentucky's iron fist. The province governs it park with the intent to keep the lakes within as pristine as the day the ice first melted and filled the pockets scraped into the granite by the receding glaciers. It likewise minds Quetico's primordial forests, which in actuality are not primordial at all. They were logged and mined, and consequently required the province's protection to become again what they once were. Regulation, so damned in America, has given Ontario and Canada and the world Quetico.
No one vehemently argues that the regulations should be eased, as we likely would were this a United States park. In our country, we seem perpetually unable to dissuade the advocacy to log, mine, graze, hunt, and otherwise seek profit from our public lands. Look no further than Quetico's American sister, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, now threatened by requests for a massive copper-nickel mine near enough to put the Boundary Waters' hard-won preservation in jeopardy. The adjacent communities want the jobs, as Kentucky communities have wanted mining jobs and still do. We gave into that allure through a 20th Century that returned not economic stability but booms and busts and, in the end, the nation's worst poverty.
There are promises being made in Minnesota that resonate with any Kentuckian who knows the history of how this goes. There is no compatible coexistence of natural beauty and mining's degradation. One wins, one loses. Streams become too fouled to support the fragile trout found in them when our grandfathers were alive. After centuries of existence, Salvelinus fontinalis, the brook trout, was gone in one. Purple mountains majesties lose their sides, their tops, or both. Blown to smithereens. In Hazard, one mountain is being carved into a towering obelisk, as if mining deserves the kind of monument we built to Washington.
There's no denying our collective complicity. Unless and until we can fly into space ‒ into Inlet Bay's dark night sky ‒ and mine the meteors and moons, which harbor the same Periodic Table as Earth, we are destined to mine our own habitat. Coal's apothegm is correct. It keep the lights on. As for copper-nickel, otherwise known as cupronickel, it, too, is part of daily life, from our money to our water pipes. Ironic, isn't it, that our treated water, which must be treated to be fit for consumption, is carried into our homes in pipes that require mining that fouls the water so that it must be treated to be fit for consumption. That by which we live we also perish. To have is to have not. For the convenience of a Super Cuts and a Subway we trade the chance to see a highland meadow in bloom. Whether present as the creation of a God who snapped his fingers or by one who had the patience to let natural selection do the work, the tiny, luminescent brook trout, so sleek and elegant, is just gone. No one mourns really. We just go somewhere else. Quetico maybe. At least until there is no somewhere else left to go.
End of cautionary tale. The people of northern Minnesota will have to decide this one for themselves.
Across the border, Ontario seems drawn not to less regulation but to more. When I first began going to Quetico, live bait was allowed. Those who came to fish brought with them minnows, night crawlers, and leeches, none of which are native species. Concerned, Ontario banned all live bait. We who fish there adjusted. Today, entry into Quetico comes with a flip-chart lecture by the ranger about regulations, including how far away from the water to pee, bath, or wash dishes. Entrants are encouraged not to carry water from one lake to another because spiny water fleas, not native to these waters, are now in some lakes and it would be good if their presence were diminished not fostered. A government and people concerned about the spiny water flea has its heart in the right place.
One day, the province might do what it can to eliminate or at least ease the proliferation of a Quetico favorite of many fishermen, me included, the smallmouth bass. If so, I will miss this feisty, acrobatic fish that is more fun to catch than any other, fries up to perfection, and grows large in Quetico's lakes but does so at the expense of native species, including walleye and trout, which are driven to deeper waters by the invasive predator that I come to Quetico to catch. Should it come this, the end of this world-class smallmouth fishery in the interest of returning the lakes to their more natural inhabitants, then I will celebrate that and come instead for the walleye and trout. It's a small price to keep the management of Quetico moving away from rather than toward construction of a gemstone flume.
In 1889, a meteor landed not far from where I live. You can still see where. A dozen or so years ago, I was hiking with the grand historian Thomas Dionysius Clark when he was 100 and I was half that. No one knew Kentucky better, loved it more, or walked its woods with greater joy. We came upon a mudslide in the hills outside of Irvine, Ky., on land Daniel Boone once walked as did my own grandfathers. Dr. Clark, leaning on his walking stick and squinting into the sun through a stand of poplar trees and over the sheer drop created by this fresh fissure, commented, "This land is alive. It's still being made." This year, across the continent, another a piece of El Capitan broke off and crashed in an awesome splendor of rock and dust to Yosemite's floor. So yes, nature sometimes wracks itself. Volcanoes erupt. Wildfires consume whole forests. But mostly, it is the hand of man that damages woods and water. We log. We mine. We build dams. Roads. Towns. Highways. We trample. Defoliate. Drain. We burn fossil fuels and heat oceans into saunas that give us winds of hell named Harvey, Irma, Maria.
It is the hand of man that must engage, too, to undo the damage as best we can. Imperfect, the effort is nonetheless our obligation to each other, to our children, to their children, and, I suppose, to God, though given the common conception of God he doesn't need us to do this. Having made the Earth, he would logically be sufficiently omnipotent to restore Eden. But his powers no more absolve us of our responsibilities than a child is relinquished from the duty to pick up his toys simply because his or her parents are more than capable of doing it instead.
Should we not worship this creation? The standard answer in the Judeo-Christian culture is not. Worship the Creator not the creation. Yet in art, we worship the art and are advised against worshiping the artist. Whether applied to Woody Allen or now Harvey Weinstein, much less to Leonardo, the art is easier to love than the man. Maybe it is not an absolute to me that the Creator would object to our worship of his art or least reverence for it. E.O. Wilson, to no apparent avail, has tried to suggest as much. Whether in error or not, other faiths have found room for this kind of reverence, and perhaps not sacrificed their souls in doing so. As the clearly not soulless Pete Seeger wryly sang, "Give me that old time religion, it was good for Aphrodite who wore a see-through nightie, and it's good enough for me" ‒ which I quote only because the song goes on to celebrate the Druids, another old time religion, and celebrates the Druids because they drank fermented fluids and walked naked in the woo-ids. I suppose then, if you wish to discredit them, you might say they were drunk, although any religion built around a young man whose first miracle was turning water into wine might wish to be careful of such condemnation.
I'm going to step away from the fires of hell now, and just return to public policy and say again that in Ontario regulation is like humanity joining in a gift exchange with nature, or let imagine more powerfully that our gift exchange is with God Himself. He gives us nature. In exchange, we protect it. The best gifts bless both those who give and those who receive. So it is when we choose to protect nature. Because of the efforts the citizens of Ontario, a 21st Century person can experience a semblance of what the First Nation people ‒ the Anishinaabe, they are now called ‒ experienced. They, like us, once slipped into Quetico's bays fed by the purling waters of streams over stones that dissolve into a sandy muck from which sprout manomio, the Anishinaabe's word for wild rice. The plant's stout blades stick up from the water into a spiny thicket that thins out as the bay deepens. The outer edges of such marshes are paved in lily pads that, in a light breeze, tilt their pink undersides into view, a tease to something, a skirt lifting. The clear, dark water is malleable by that same wind, responding as a canvas to a brush. An ampler wind maddens the water, awakening Poseidon, who until that moment might have been dreaming through a pleasant slumber back home in warm Aegean depths. When the wind is absent, we say the bay is as smooth as glass, although the Anishinaabe couldn't have. Maybe, upon seeing glass traded to them by European voyageurs, thought it smooth as a bay on a windless day.
Think of it. Otters snort and play as they surely did 100, 200, 500 or 1,000 years ago in these same bays. Their sleek, dark bodies blend so perfectly with the dark water that they seem part of it. They surface seamlessly through a wake of their own making and, in doing so, magically convert water into living mammalian energy, and then submerge to leave the water inantimate again. The scene is timeless and it is a definition of beauty, whether seen today or centuries ago. Birches, green in summer, yellow in fall, reflect into the ripples now as they did then, not out of vanity but as a courtesy to anyone who happens, or happened, by. Water striders, their dance steps ancestral, skitter from here to there without the in-between. If a bug were a blinking eye, it would be a water strider.
Kurt Vonnegut introduced the world to Billy Pilgrim, who became unstuck in time. Who among us would not enjoy that, so long as we could be selective about where we traveled during our back and forth through the continuum? I would pick that still, moonlit night on the Cumberland, long before Lord Cumberland himself was born to privilege and war. That would be one trip. Another would take me to a favorite place in Quetico, maybe the island on Inlet Bay, to see how different, if different at all, it was a millennium ago. Could the black sky be blacker when there were no cities? The stars brighter or the water more reflective of the galaxies above?
But time is not like that. We are not unstuck but stuck as stuck can be. We cannot wander unmoored like Billy Pilgrim or Jules Vernes or the doc in his DeLorean, Emmett Lathrop Brown Ph.D., I'm never more mindful of this than while in Quetico or in the weeks just before or after a trip. After 40 years of going, Quetico has become as much a time of year ‒ a time in the cycle of my life ‒ as it is a place. Standing on a shore, any shore of the many, and casting my eyes upon the water toward the certainty of the land across the water, which makes the lakes' liinear exanse nonetheless finite, I'm mindful of the finite nature of my being here. I will leave this wilderness. Go back home. Back to work. I'll not stand where the Anishinaabe stood for another year. Quetico will feel like something that happened long ago or not at all, like one of the Bush presidencies.
Over and again, I will reconstruct the trip so that it lasts and is accessible to me on demand, like a human DVR. In bed, trying to find sleep, I'll imagine the sweet, repeating paddle strokes that push a canoe through dark, clear water, not effortlessly though it appears effortless when you watch it. At a stoplight, I'll remember the sight of an eagle turning into the sun enough to flash sunlight off his white head and by that confirming his eagleness. In a meeting in which someone drones on, inviting somnolent disregard, I'll call to mind the glory of rest inside a tent, something I've come to enjoy in ways I did not when I first came to Quetico and mistook every ruffle of a leaf for a rapacious bear though at most is a rapacious mouse. Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise, we used to say at such moments, as if Maurice Chevalier had any business out here in the woods.But indeed, the gentlest breeze can inflame imaginations. I think about all of that. About loons calling. About all the mushrooms you see when you walk for firewood. About the sound of fish snatching a bug of the water at night. About a moose we saw once, dying from an attack by a wolf. About a wolf, snarling on the trail. About the night a full, red moon rose over the horizon, creating the illusion as it rose that the woods were on fire.
In Quetico, Kentucky haunts me or harkens me. I not sure which. Back home, Quetico is the infitrator. Kentucky, Quetico. Quetico, Kentucky. They are physically two different places; but in my brain ‒ that three pounds of grey goo that loves to confuse itself ‒ they are metaphysically one, constantly interacting and defining each other. What one is, the other could be. And vice versa. Death or resurrection. We choose. The night falls indeed, and the black sky is an abyss. There, out of sight like grains of sand afloat in a tempestuous sea, are other earths. Or other earths maybe. We don't know.. And if we did, would we go to them, leaving this earth, ours, for pristine earths remiscent of what ours once was?