Blue Water, Red Metal

One by one, the four diesel engines of the Royale Queen spring to life, breaking the quiet chill and signalling imminent departure. With this sudden sonic interjection, the assembled crowd snaps to attention and assumes queue formation, eyes forward, ready to roll. With a nod and a quick gesture the chief mate signals for boarding to begin, and the passengers shuffle up the short ramp in twos and threes as other crew members move about, stowing gear and doing last minute checks. Within minutes everyone finds a seat and gets settled, and the activity topside tapers off as everything gets squared away that needs to be.

After a final headcount, a deckhand gives the signal and the ropes are cast off and the ferry given a solid shove. The horn sounds twice and is answered a beat later by a cascade of echoes reverberating from all across the harbor. The Queen drifts clear of the wharf, the sterndrive engages with a “clunk,” and the engines rev slightly to push the boat free. Accelerating to a no-wake speed, the ferry follows a slightly curving course across Copper Harbor, headed for open water a mile or so distant. Our destination, invisible over the horizon, is Isle Royale, the long and narrow landmass that forms the “eye” in the wolf’s head of Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh-water lake.

Isle Royale, pronounced “ROY-al”say it the other way and you will be quickly corrected–is not exactly easy to get to. Copper Harbor, the literal end of the road on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the uppermost Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is not the end of the journey. A boat or a float plane takes you the final leg. Most people take this ferry, or one of handful of others, to either Windigo, on the western tip of the island, or Rock Harbor, on the eastern tip. From either of these places the only available form of locomotion is your own two feet, for aside from a few hundred yards of service routes in the vicinity of the two ferry landings, and at Park Headquarters on Mott Island, there are no roads whatsoever on Isle Royale.

The mood among the Royale Queen’s eighty or so passengers hovers somewhere between festive and jubilant. Many, here for the first and perhaps only time, anticipate with palpable excitement the imminent realization of plans that might have been years in the making. Others are repeat visitors, and carry themselves with the relaxed assurance of veterans. Here and there, small groups cluster around spread-out maps, pointing to items of interest, discussing routes, campsites, portages.

This is a popular ride, and if you want a good seat, you had best get here early. We, alas, did not and must settle for windowless, below-decks bench seats in the bow. Dimly lit, noisy and faintly claustrophobic, this part of the boat is also the bounciest, bad news for anyone prone to motion sickness. After only a few minutes on the open waters of the lake, the discontinuous, random rolling and pitching of the boat are already having a minor effect on my equilibrium. This concerns me a little, because it so happens that I have spurned, in a fit of stubbornness or machismo–I’m not quite sure which–my girlfriend’s generous offer of a prophylactic dose of Bonine, and now it’s too late. I detect, or perhaps imagine, a hint of smug told-you-so in her expression as she regards my evident discomfort.

Fortunately the aisles are wide and the decks unobstructed, offering excellent opportunities for pacing or just standing around and watching the miles roll by. Not one to sit for extended periods anyway when there is an alternative, I am happy for the excuse to wander about. Walking is, at first, surprisingly difficult on the pitching deck, and you find yourself saying “excuse me” a lot until you get the hang of it. After a period of adjustment I make a game of it, trying to move about for as long as possible without touching the walls or railings for support. I notice others doing the same. With this change of scenery, my  incipient queasiness vanishes.

Because of its remoteness, the drive to Copper Harbor was a pretty good haul. It took us first along the shore of Keweenaw Bay, across Portage Lake, and then up the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula, topping out almost a thousand feet above Lake Superior, before finally dropping back down to lake level as we closed in on our destination. In a couple of places there were good, distant views, but much of the time it was like driving through a tunnel of green, so thick and lush was the growth. Stands of maple and hemlock a hundred and fifty feet high edge right up to the road.

The encroaching forest seems ancient, primordial, but in reality everything you see is secondary and sometimes tertiary growth because, as it turns out, every square foot of the Keweenaw Peninsula has been clear-cut at one time or another. In fact, in the whole of the Upper Peninsula, just a few smallish parcels nestled in the heart of the nearby Porcupine Mountains have escaped logging, and only because the steep slopes and narrow canyons there prevent the easy deployment of men and equipment. Later in our excursion, we will hike in one of these remnants. To my untrained eye, but for a bit more deadfall the old growth is almost indistinguishable from the new, a reminder of Nature’s considerable recuperative powers.

The green-ness of this place is so pervasive, so powerfully dominating that it comes as a shock to be reminded that it will yield completely in a few short months to the other dominant color of this landscape: white, the color of snow. Lots of it. A roadside attraction drives this point home, showing graphically just how much of it falls here. Twenty feet of it in an average winter, to be precise. The lightest snowfall on record was just over fifteen feet, the heaviest greater than thirty.

Even though it is high summer at the moment, there is no shortage of reminders that winters here are long and harsh. The highways of the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, are crisscrossed by cracks caused by the intense freeze-thaw cycles of the northern winter. As quickly as they form, the cracks are coated with tar by the highway department to minimize further damage. As our rented car rolls along, its tires resonate from the impact each time they hit one of these seams. Each seam is a little thicker or thinner than the one previous, so each “note” has a slightly different pitch and volume. If you use your imagination, the continuous procession of whumps and thunks sounds a lot like a percussion chorus hammering out an avantgarde, highly syncopated rhythm. It is oddly enchanting, this accidental concerto for blacktop and four-door sedan, and my wandering mind fills in the auditory blanks with layers of impromptu melodies. After a while, a goodly little ensemble gathers in my head, and it dawns on me that this might make for a pretty good composition if I can manage to retain it.

As the Keweenaw headlands recede into the distance, the lake opens up and you begin to appreciate what a massive body of water Lake Superior truly is. Nothing but water and more water from horizon to horizon. As if to emphasize this point, ships of ocean-going size come into view to our stern, rounding the Peninsula, headed down-lake to the locks at Sault Saint Marie, and thence to destinations unknown beyond. From the looks of them, these ships are all ore carriers, laden with twenty or forty or sixty thousand tons of taconite extracted from the banded iron formations of the Mesabi Range, two hundred seventy miles distant in central Minnesota. They would have loaded up at one of the giant processing depots in Duluth or Two Harbors, nearly two hundred miles to the west.

Though it isn’t what you would call glamorous, the iron found in them there hills has been an essential player in the story of American economic supremacy. A scattering of huge deposits collectively known as the Iron Range, containing in total many millions of tons of high-grade ore, have for years kept American steel mills churning, and still supply upwards of eighty percent of the raw iron consumed by American industry.  The banded iron formations, so-called because they consist of alternate layers of iron-rich magnetite and silica-rich chert, were laid down over inconceivably vast spans of time in the far distant past, when the Earth was a very different place.

Twenty-five million human lifetimes ago, this area was laced with eroded and barren mountain ranges flanked by shallow seas. There were no fish in the sea, no crustaceans, no bivalves, no corals, no seaweeds. There was, in fact, nothing larger than a microbe because multicellular life did not exist; Nature had not yet gotten around to inventing it. Supporting only a primitive monoculture of simple one-celled cyanobacteria, biologically speaking, the Earth was a pretty boring place.

It was also a pretty hostile one, with a poisonous atmosphere rich in volcanic excretions, and seas that were a roiling, toxic stew of dissolved minerals and noxious gases. Impelled by the gravity of a moon ten times closer than today, the earth’s surface was swept every few hours by enormous tides sometimes hundreds of feet high.

Near what is now the Mesabi Range, the seas were also rich in dissolved iron washed from the rocks of the barren mountains. Cyanobacteria, being photosynthetic, released free oxygen as a waste product, which bonded aggressively with the dissolved iron to form magnetite, a rather dense mineral that quickly settled to the bottom as it came out of solution. Reducing the amount of dissolved iron had the side effect of easing the environment’s toxicity, so that the microbial population blossomed. The oxygen level surged along with the microbial population until all the iron was used up. With nothing to pull it from solution, the waste oxygen built up until it reached poisonous levels, eventually triggering a massive die-off. And so as though at a signal, quadrillions of lifeless one-celled, silica-encased bodies rained down upon the bottom, burying the magnetite layer under a new layer devoid of iron.

After a time, the excess oxygen would dissipate and the process would start all over again. Boom followed bust followed boom in an endlessly repeated cycle for hundreds of millions of years, piling up layer after innumerable layer, until at some point the restless earth rearranged itself and the seas drained away. But there were permanent aftereffects. Over time, all of that excess free oxygen gradually accumulated in the primeval atmosphere, displacing toxic gases and eventually making possible the development of complex life forms with higher metabolic demands.

The first multicellular life forms were structurally simple aggregations of very slightly cooperating single-celled individuals. If you were to break one of these apart it would not die. Rather, each of the parts would begin a new aggregation through simple binary fission. But with the steady and relentless accretion of minuscule changes over billions of generations, the individual cells came to surrender their autonomy to the greater organism, which took on steadily more complex form. Simple asymmetric forms yielded to radially symmetric ones, which in turn yielded to bilaterally symmetric, complex body plans of increasing refinement. Six hundred million solar revolutions after the first multicellular organisms came into being, there exists on Earth an impressively varied collection of life forms, from the very simple to the very complex. Including a certain bipedal, large-brained species notable for its extreme adaptability, its virtuosic use of tools, and its startlingly rapid occupation of almost every corner of the planet.

Though it is clear for the moment, this condition could change in a trice. Lake Superior is known for its dense fogs, which tend to descend without warning, rendering navigation difficult and hazardous. Looking around, I am able to make out fog banks in the distance to the east and northwest. And dead ahead, which has me a little vexed, not so much from a safety standpoint, but because I am looking forward to getting a good view of the Island as we approach it. Fortunately, as the sun climbs and the air warms, the fog bank ahead of us dissipates.

The chilly waters often also generate odd optical effects, in the form of mirages and visual distortions. I experience a good dose of the latter first-hand, as a prominent ridge on the Keweenaw Peninsula gradually takes on the form of a massive inverted ziggurat. It is a striking but transient effect, and after a few minutes the ridge gradually reverts to its former appearance.

The Upper Peninsula is also famous for another type of metal. Deep within the Keweenaw Peninsula are very large copper deposits of exceptional purity. Pure, “native” copper is a rarity in nature–only one other place on Earth is known to have similarly rich deposits–because the metal bonds strongly with sulfur, which is found basically everywhere. Place the two elements together and they will always combine chemically, with an alacrity proportional to the ambient temperature. So, the vast majority of the time, when you find copper, it is in one of its various sulfide forms.

The discovery in the 1840s of this mother lode prompted a “copper rush” that transformed this remote place into a beehive of purposeful activity practically overnight. These rich and uncommonly pure deposits, mined for more than a century, are still eighty percent intact by some estimates. But the brute realities of supply and demand eventually made them unprofitably expensive to work. So one by one the mines closed and the boomtowns faded away. And once again the Keweenaw is a sedate backwater, a place to seek quiet solitude, not a fortune.

Remnants of the copper years are all around, and in places the landscape has the look of a one-time industrial wasteland abandoned and gone to seed. Even after a century of scavenging by collectors and scroungers, copper is plentiful. Cast your eyes alertly downward as you walk the fields, roadsides, and beaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula for a single afternoon and you are likely to be rewarded with a handful of nuggets of the elemental red metal.

Although the exact sequence of events that led to the formation of these unusually pure deposits is not precisely known, the basic outlines are well understood.

The landmasses we call continents are actually blocks of relatively light rock floating like rafts upon the denser, semi-molten rock of the Earth’s interior. The inner earth churns, slowly, with convective motion, driven by the intense heat of the Earth’s deep interior seeking to escape into space. This churning motion pushes the continents about, in much the same way that a bit of froth meanders across the surface of a kettle of boiling soup. Thus the continents are continuously, endlessly rearranged. A God’s-eye view would behold them darting this way and that across the Earth’s surface, speeding up, slowing down, turning and twisting as they go, frequently colliding. But the same forces that push the continents about sometimes also tear them apart and scatter their pieces.

A billion or so years ago, the landmass we now call North America began to split apart along a crack running right down its middle. Nature, as you may have heard, abhors a vacuum, and as so as the crust stretched and thinned, hot rock from the Earth’s interior flowed into the gap, forming massive lava flows, which were also continually wrenched apart as the splitting continued. The massive tensional forces caused the crust throughout to be stressed and heavily cracked. Hot, mineral-laden waters flowed from the earth’s interior along these ready pathways, their dissolved contents precipitating out at the appropriate thermal and chemical thresholds.

Normally quite abundant in volcanic environments, for reasons not entirely understood sulfur was scarce here. And so at the point when conditions were just right for copper to come out of solution, it did so in nearly pure form, and was left behind in the fissures and other void spaces of the existing rock.

For about twenty million years, rifting, as it is called, continued, reaching its greatest extent in the area now occupied by Lake Superior, which remains to this day as a visible reminder. Eventually the forces abated, and the splitting apart ceased before the continent could be ripped entirely in two. But the crack remains, running through the heart of the continent as far south as Kansas, mostly invisible now under many thousands of feet of accumulated sediments.

Though comparatively quiet these days, the Keweenaw Rift isn’t entirely dead. Every couple of hundred years, more or less, it twitches a little. We experience these spasms as earthquakes. The last one, in 1811, centered about 15 miles beneath the junction of the Misssissippi and Ohio Rivers, was so violent that it caused those rivers to flow temporarily backward, flattened settlements for miles around, and caused church bells to ring as far away as Boston.

The Google Earth images I studied in preparation for this trip happened to have been taken on May 9 of this year. In these images you cannot help but notice the thick rafts of ice still clinging to the shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula and in the sheltered coves along Superior’s South shore. This past winter, the coldest since 1979, caused the lake to freeze over more or less completely, a rare happening. In places the ice was a good five feet thick. As a consequence, the lake ice melted much later than usual, and the water is colder than is typical for late July. Rarely reaching 50F even in the warmest years, the surface temperature now hovers at a chilly 38F out in the middle. From a depth of twenty feet or so on down, though, the temperature remains just a couple of degrees above freezing.

As we approach the center of the lake and the chill deepens, one by one passengers desert the observation area on the bow for the heated cabin, until I alone remain. I enjoy complete solitude for an uninterrupted half hour or so until I am joined by a lean and tallish middle-aged fellow with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a matching Van Dyke. Nods of acknowledgement beget polite how-do-you-dos, and a conversation ensues. Hailing from central-lower Michigan, this man has come to Isle Royale for a long-anticipated week of bonding with his son on the eve of the lad’s departure for college. We end up having a wide-ranging conversation about the Lake, the Upper Peninsula, winter driving, climate change, American culture, and geologic history. It is a pretty good conversation lasting a good long while, but eventually, he too deserts the chilly prow for the warmth of the cabin, leaving me in solitude once again.

Isle Royale, actually a collection of some 450 islands, has been described as America’s only true archipelago. If you look at a relief map of it, you get the unmistakable impression of it having been swiped by a giant claw, from northeast to southwest. That impression is no accident. Isle Royale, like everything else hereabouts, was shaped by massive recurrent waves of glaciation over many hundreds of thousands of years. If you had been here twenty thousand years ago, you would have observed a scene of otherworldly desolation, a white wind-swept wasteland of perpetual polar cold. The land itself would have been invisible, buried beneath eight or ten thousand feet of compacted snow, part of an enormous, unbroken ice sheet covering two-thirds of the North American landmass. It’s southern terminus would have been hundreds of miles away, in what is now called Missouri.

Reminders of this history surround you. On the drive up from Green Bay you would have noticed, if you were paying attention, occasional large boulders placed randomly about the fields and gently rolling hills, looking for all appearances as though they were simply dropped in place, which, in fact, they were. These glacial “erratics,” as they are called, were pried loose from larger bodies of rock and carried southward by the massive, slow-flowing ice sheets, in some cases for hundreds of miles. When the glaciers stopped flowing and melted, the boulders were left behind, mute reminders of that slow-motion catastrophe. If you look closely at almost any expanse of exposed bedrock, you are likely to see many deep, parallel scratches, oriented as though by compass along a north-south axis, revealing the direction of glacial flow. The many hills and headlands here all bear the classic rounded aspect typical of glacially eroded landforms. The Great Lakes, including Superior, were themselves gouged from the Earth by these titanic icy juggernauts.

Timing is everything, though, and for the moment, geologically speaking, we enjoy relatively balmy conditions–an interglacial period in scientific parlance–so ice is a seasonal, not permanent feature of this landscape. What permanent ice there is lies many horizons distant, far to the north, in Greenland, Iceland, Ellesmere Island, the seedbeds of future glacial episodes that are all but certain to come.

Around three hours into the four-and-a-half hour trip, the outline of Isle Royale begins to climb over the horizon, and the mood of the passengers noticeably quickens. People steal outside to snatch a glimpse of the long-awaited destination. They point and gesture excitedly at the slowly resolving landmass, picking out familiar features as they come into view. A group of boy scouts from Indiana gathers around its scoutmaster for a final briefing. My girlfriend, who has dozed away most of the passage in her snug, below-decks seat, comes out for a glimpse, but retreats quickly from the chill.

About forty miles long and six or seven miles wide, Isle Royale is crisscrossed with a network of trails that will carry you from one end of the island to another. Hardier sorts take the Greenstone Ridge trail, which follows the crest of the highest of several parallel ridges that run the length of the island and define its topography. Courtesy of its glacial past, Isle Royale is also home to hundreds of lakes and ponds, and a few visitors choose to go the aquatic route, hopping from lake to lake, portaging where necessary. However you go, it is genuine wilderness experience, and aside from the one lodge on the island, only the roughest of accommodations await.

If you have visited both the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale, you cannot help but notice that these two places look an awful lot alike. Same rocks, same topography, same northeast-southwest running landforms. You find copper in both places. If you look a little more closely, you see that the rugged topography in both places faintly resembles a staircase, facing southward in the case of the Keweenaw Peninsula, but northward on Isle Royale. This is no accident. Isle Royale and the Keweenaw happen to be the exposed endpoints of the same geologic formation, which forms an unbroken U shape when shown in cross section. If you dug a tunnel into the formation on Isle Royale and followed it’s contours, you would pass deep under Lake Superior and eventually emerge on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The formation is, in fact, the heart of the ancient rift zone, frozen in place almost exactly as it was when rifting ceased a billion years ago.

Closing in on Rock Harbor, the boat slows from its 16-knot cruising speed down to a stately 5 knots or so as it negotiates narrow Smithwick Channel. The Rock Harbor Lodge and docks are situated in Snug Harbor, a nook within Rock Harbor, proper. Snug Harbor, which turns out to be very well-named, is a tight squeeze, and to dock the skipper must precisely swing the boat about so that it sort of slides sideways against the pier. He aces the landing, and the Queen comes to a halt, perfectly positioned, with a barely detectible thump. This maneuver is, I’m pretty sure, much harder than it looks, and it occurs to me that he may have done this a time or two before.

A contingent of Rangers awaits us as we debark. Aside from being a National Park, Isle Royale is also an International Biosphere Reserve, and as such enjoys special status. For that reason they don’t just turn you loose without instruction. Campers and hikers are separated from those planning to stay at the lodge, and each group given a customized presentation. For a few minutes you are a captive audience as you absorb the applicable heres and theres, dos and don’ts of Isle Royale. Most of which does not apply to us because, alone among the entire group, we are here only for the afternoon, and will be on the Queen when it heads back to Copper Harbor in a little over 2 hours. This leaves just enough time for a quick hike, a quicker lunch at the only restaurant on the island, and a stop at the gift shop to purchase the requisite T-shirt. Probably because of its sheer remoteness, Isle Royale has the longest average stay, four days, of any destination in the National Park system, and I feel rather conspicuous at being so far off the mean.

Authorized by an act of Congress, the National Park Service took possession of Isle Royale in 1940. The initial encounter between the Island’s new owners and its handful of inhabitants, mostly fisherman and trappers, was not a happy one. The Park Service, rather liberally interpreting its mandate to preserve Isle Royale, systematically evicted the inhabitants and confiscated their property. So that the point would not be misunderstood, confiscated properties were usually burned, sometimes as their former owners looked on. After an understandable outcry, this rough practice was abandoned in favor of a kinder and gentler form of expropriation, in which residents were bought out at a non-negotiable nickle or dime on the dollar and given a few days to clear out. Today, the government graciously allows a handful of families–“lifers”–to lease back the few familial homesteads that escaped destruction, with the provision that the rights of occupation expire with the lessees. These days the island has no permanent human presence. Sometime in October or early November, everything is powered down and the generators switched off, the last caretaker leaves on the last boat, and what remains behind is left to the mercy of the elements.

Isolated as it is, people have been coming to Isle Royale for millenia. Mostly they came just to visit, not to stay, because winters on Isle Royale are uniformly harsh, with extreme amounts of snow and deep, punishing cold. Early maps of it typically bore the parenthetic observation “Uninhabitable in Winter.” One imagines the first visitors coming simply to see what was there, driven by that most human of qualities: wanderlust. It must have looked deceptively easy; the closest approach is only 15 miles from what is now Canada, and on a clear day it almost looks like you could reach out and touch it. But it’s a five-hour trip by hand-powered craft even under the best of conditions, and the weather can change in an instant here. Over the centuries, untold thousands must have perished making the transit, lost to accidents or sudden storms. One imagines innumerable beautiful days turned suddenly sour, the wind roaring to gale strength from out of nowhere, fragile dugouts, birch bark canoes, pirogues swamped by waves of unpleasantly surprising heft as their passengers struggled vainly, death coming quickly in the frigid waters.

Superior is famous for its shipwrecks. Thousands are documented and charted, uncounted others are known but to God. The number, when you consider it, seems improbably large. It’s just a lake, for crying out loud, you might think. But special circumstances, rooted in physics, work to drive up the tally. The waters of Lake Superior are uncommonly pure and, as we have established, cold. These two factors combine to increase markedly the internal cohesiveness of the water compared to seawater. As a result, when the wind blows–and it blows a lot–the lake waters rise up to form steep-sided, close-spaced waves of a sort you don’t see anywhere else on Earth. In a big blow the small boats don’t stand a chance, and even the very largest sometimes pay the ultimate price. In 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald, all 730 feet and 26,000 tons of it, went down in a vicious November squall, taking all 29 crew members with it.

With only a couple of hours to spare, our hiking choices are limited, so we opt for a quick 2-mile loop that takes us about halfway to Scofield Point along Rock Harbor before doubling back along Tobin Harbor. Like the Keweenaw Peninsula, the island, at least this part of it, is exceedingly lush. Brooks and seeps abound, and every low spot is its own little bog. Mosquitoes are a constant companion, but you quickly find that if you keep moving they cannot land on you. And if you should stop, they are so large and slow that they are easily dispatched.

At one point the trail forks without explanation. Right or straight? Mentally tossing a coin, we bear right and after a short walk arrive at an unmarked scenic overlook. From this perch maybe fifty feet above the water, we enjoy a panoramic view of Rock Harbor and, beyond the outlying islands, the big Lake itself. The waters are an impossibly deep blue, mirroring the sky above. There is a lull in the conversation and as the echoes die away we find ourselves immersed in a profound, alien silence, broken only by the faintest slapping of tiny wavelets against the rocks below. The utter absence of sound is unnerving at first, and the temptation to break it nearly overwhelming. But after a few seconds it becomes hypnotic. In the sonic vacuum time seems to slow to a state of near-suspension. Seconds seem as minutes. You strain to hear something, anything. And if you concentrate, you do, transmitted on a frequency ordinarily too faint to be detected. You hear the Earth itself, saying: You are a part of me.

A little farther down the main trail, we come to a shallow pit, obviously scooped out by human hands. An accompanying sign explains that this pit is one of hundreds of known sites on Isle Royale at which copper was mined by the Island’s Indian occupants. The aboriginals found the red metal as seductive as later arrivals, and spent much time and effort painstakingly extracting it from the hard rock using only their hands and crude stone tools. Though it had its practical applications, such as in spearpoints, copper was mostly reserved for special uses. Jewelry and artworks made with the metal were traded far and wide, and have been found as far away as Central America. Leaning close to the pit, I clear away a bit of debris to expose the bottom. Even in the shadows, I can clearly see a glint of pure copper filling a narrow fissure. It occurs to me to wonder how many others must have stood in this exact spot over the previous seventy centuries and seen what I now see, and touched what I now touch.

A couple of hundred yards before trail’s end, we come to the remnants of another abandoned mine. This one is much newer than the one we saw earlier. It was dug only 160 years or so ago, not by aboriginals but by pale strangers from a far away land, who likely sold or mortgaged everything they had, and left everything they knew and held dear, to come to this land to make their fortune. Which, if it happened, didn’t happen here. It was a really good vein, alright, running straight as an arrow, right up to the point, 120 feet in, where it came suddenly to an end. And that was that. And so the pale people did the only thing they could, which was to pack up and move on once again, chasing yet other rumor of fortune.

Our short layover at an end, we head back to the Royale Queen for the return trip to Copper Harbor. The water at wharfside is perhaps twenty feet deep, but so clear that if you look at it just right, the ferry appears to be suspended in mid-air. Gazing straight down I can see a nickle on the bottom almost as clearly as though it were on the ground at my feet. As we depart, I watch the bottom fall away until it can no longer be seen, guesstimating well over a hundred feet of depth before it finally becomes indistinguishable.

The returning cohort, more subdued than the group we departed with this morning, is split about fifty-fifty between campers and those who stayed at the lodge. The groups are easily told apart. The campers look tired. Very, very tired. Many are sunburned or have visible scabs from insect bites. Some fall asleep where they sit before the boat even departs. But almost to a man, they look content. I notice one snoozing with a Mona Lisa smile firmly etched on his face. I think I know how he feels.

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