Lord of the Lake
Robert James Russell
It is August 2015 and you are hiking on Grand Island alone, in need of space and distance in your life. You’ve hiked some miles to this crescent-shaped beach along Trout Bay and you have decided to camp here, to remain here these five days along this undisturbed stretch of white sand and cerulean water.
You build a fire, eat from cans, swim in the icy waters. You listen to birds overhead, chipmunks squeak and chitter. At dusk, after sipping from cheap bourbon purchased on the mainland—your head dizzy, stirring—you strip naked and dip back into the water. Above you, the crescent moon comes into focus, and you think for a moment on how beautiful it is, staying on a beach the shape of this moon.
Further down the beach, much further, you see another fire roaring and the shapes of people and you hear the echo of their laughter. Beyond the bay, some distance from the island, you see the edge of Pictured Rocks. Your body is shriveled and puckered white, and the stones on the lakebed are round and smooth beneath your feet.
The purchase of Grand Island by the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company began in 1900.
Then-president William Mather saw it as a jewel, an oasis. The island, less than a mile from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, already had a rich history with the area’s native peoples. That history, however—as with histories of most native peoples—was paved over.
The industrialist’s design was a game reserve on the northern half Grand Island, while the southern half would be open to tourists, like-minded wealthy vacationists looking to relax at his resort hotel and to “experience” nature.
It is called a tombolo, the stretch of the island that connects what used to be two separate and distinct islands.
Tombolo is an Italian word, meaning mound. But it is flat here, sandy and full of swales and dry forests and conifer swamps.
You explore, and you realize, on this island only eight miles long, there are bears—around ten, last anyone checked. You are hiking on an old logging path, grown over with poison oak and unfamiliar weeds. You step carefully: the ground is soft and pockmarked with buckled holes here. You wait a moment, wipe the sweat from your forehead, and take a drink of water. You are convinced you see a pile of bear scat up ahead, but realize, soberly, it’s a pile of dried, rotting wood.
You are letting this place get to your head. You wish she was here with you. You walk slowly back to camp.
Mather erected his manor, a low-ceilinged, two-story cottage on the eastern edge of the island overlooking the lake. He cut great towering trunks of spruce and fir and red and white pine to build homes for his staff, the workers, unmolested there --removed—from the rest of the world. He built a fence that bisected the small island. He shaped roads and paths through clusters of aster and false sunflower and goldenrod.
And yet, Mather was, to some degree, a preservationist—he protected the old-growth forests at the center of the island, and he built a perimeter road he would drive tourists around in buggies. He would ply them with stories about the island, its history (insofar as he knew). He would tell them how we must save this space from ruination.
On the last day of your trip, you join up with a tour group. It is the island’s twenty-fifth birthday with the National Forest Service, and they are celebrating with tours and festivities. You are awoken that day when your beach has become overcrowded with day-trippers. Your isolation has vanished. You wonder if the bears, who you assume had already feared you, are even further inland now.
You leave camp with your camera around your neck and you sit on a modified school bus with young parents and their wild children and elderly couples with canes who, you imagine, will have a tough go of it here, along this uneven earth.
The bus drops you off at William Mather’s house and you are allowed to explore it. You are told about the game preserve, his grand plans. There is a hint of longing in the tour guide’s voice, talking about what could have been.
Archaeologists from the local college are here presenting their finds: pottery shards and arrowheads, mostly. You find it interesting, and their enthusiasm for the place, for its history, seems sincere. You listen, nod your head. They allow you to pick up the pieces. You take a piece of what was a plate of some kind, they figure, and you roll it in your hands, admire it. You wonder what it once held.
William Mather did not care to cultivate the walls of thimbleberries and raspberries that lined these new roads and trails he built—wholesome foods, which, over the centuries, had kept native peoples alive. He imported non-native species: elk, caribou, and mule deer, red squirrels and jackrabbits, and grouse, guinea, and turkey.
This was his menagerie. And when the island’s natural worth could not support these creatures, Mather imported vegetation for them to flourish. He took this green space and made it greener, fashioned it in his image. But the island fought back with hard winters and predators like wolf and coyote skating across the winter ice to hunt his prey animals and drive Mather’s dream away. Visitors stopped coming in numbers they once did. The distance, the location, the island itself—it was too much.
Breaking from the tour group, you slow. You find a small, isolated stretch of beach you can only reach by scaling down a small drop-off. The rock below is wet and plunges down ten feet into the clear water. You take off your boots and wick-dry socks, and you dangle your feet in. It’s biting cold, but you leave them, let them numb.
Then you smell campfire smoke and you remember when you were ten. Your neighborhood was heavily forested, hiding how close together the houses really were, and your Dutch neighbor began, that year, to burn leaves in his yard.
Your father hated this. They argued, loudly, about it, for days, and threats were issued. Your father took a swing, but missed, and your Dutch neighbor threatened to call the police. Instead, he erected a tall privacy fence. You, prone to spending entire weekends outdoors playing freeze tag and kick-the-can with the neighbor kids, didn’t understand. You used to go into his yard to pretend and to play. Suddenly, that freedom was gone—here, instead, was this barrier, and for the first time you began to think about land as something to be owned and argued over.
The neighbor moved away a few years after. Your father said he was glad about it. Said, as if he could foresee such a thing, that his yard, his grass, as if once cursed, would now flourish in his absence.
After Mather’s death in 1951, Cleveland Cliffs began to log the forest he’d worked hard to preserve.
In 1959, the hotel closed. Many decades later, in 1990, the island was for sale. A full-page ad was taken out by Cleveland Cliffs in newspapers across the country. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the island—as part of the Hiawatha National Forest—grandfathering in those families who had stayed, who, yet, had some claim on the land.
Now, utility poles run like ribbons along Duck Lake Road, speedboats zip across the water. There is raucous laughter, visiting families gorging on wildberries. Here is a place that exists in two worlds at once—preserved, yes, but owned, too.
You sit on bench among a small grove of sweet-smelling cedar over-looking the lake. You breathe in deep and think: Here is the island, a jagged mass of sandstone strata adrift in the deep waters of Lake Superior, 22.5 square miles of land, thirty-five miles of shoreline, plotted thick with red-berried elder and fly honeysuckle, yellow birch, white and red pine, groves of beech and sugar maple. The Ojibwa people took the first steps on the island; they came to hunt, fish, and gather the native plant foods—this bounty—to create settlements and sacred places. They mapped the island, named its monuments to guide their travels. They learned the course of its streams, the converging of its waters.
You close your eyes and imagine describing the lake to someone who has never seen it before—can they imagine a thing so vast, so deep? You think of the space she has asked from you. You touch the bark of the cedar tree at your side, feel its roughness. You wonder how many others have touched it in its long life.
About the Author: Robert James Russell is the author of New Plains (forthcoming, 2017), Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. "Lord of the Lake" was a finalist in the Parks and Points Fall 2016 Essay Contest. You can find him online here.