11-Jul-2006 -- “The ride out was long and boring,” remembers Calvin Richard Mabie. Calvin is twelve-years-old and from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. “I slept most of the way,” he recalls. Kyle Matthias Mabie, ten, claims that the ride felt like it was forty miles out into Lake Superior. The day, Tuesday, 11 July 2006, was partly sunny and calm. We had begun at 5:00 AM from Hayward, Wisconsin, driving for one and a half hours north to the city of Ironwood, Michigan. Our minivan was piloted by Calvin and Kyle’s dad and confluence point hunt fledgling, Dean Edward Mabie, my big brother. Warren Apel, A seasoned confluence point hunter, flew up from the windy city to help close out CP 47 North, 90 West. On the way, near Clam Lake, Wisconsin, we spotted a bear strolling along the highway. We slowed to try to photograph the beast, but he stole away into the thick coverage of the woods. Upon entering Ironwood, we stopped for a quick and not-so-healthy bite at Bonshell Café, named for owners Bonny and Shelly. We enjoyed good, greasy diner fare, surrounded by mildly disturbing Mickey Mouse, Elvis, Green Bay Packer and NASCAR motifs; we struggled to find the connections between these and tacitly agreed there was none. Amicable and cautiously conversational, the wait staff and diners eyed and then soon dismissed us.
At around 7:30, we left the café. We motored on through Hurley, Wisconsin, home of the Mighty Fighting Midgets. Clearly, the tensions and struggles over politically correct team names have not cropped up in the sleepy village of Hurley. It appears as though the little people population of Hurley has not yet stormed city hall with pitchforks and torches. Images of football helmets with shakily traced “Midgets” logos were splattered all over the town stadium. As we saw few inhabitants, except for those at the Dairy Queen, I quietly questioned whether it wasn’t possible that we had stumbled upon a little people village, something out of an M. Night Shyamalan film.
Soon we arrived at Black River Harbor, about an hour north of Ironwood and directly on Lake Superior. Here, the moored thirty-eight foot Chris Craft, the Cacchen (as in, “Catchin’” some fish) awaited us with engines humming. We found Captain Bud Johnson on board, relaxing to the “cruddy” sounds (according to Calvin) of country music. The Cacchen is a forty-year-old fishing vessel equipped with a nice mixture of bells and whistles, literally. In addition to a depth finder and Garmin GPS, the ship boasts a complicated truss, beam and outrigger setup that would turn Reub Goldberg green. The fishing set-up offers those trolling thrity-nine lures at varying depths. When a lake trout trips the line from the wooden ski (board) that trails the boat, it causes a snapped bungee to jingle a bell, indicating it’s time to begin the complicated process of hauling in the catch. Not one of us, but for Captain Bud, ever heard said bells; we were surprised that Bud could, considering he could hear little else on the trip.
Bud looked to be in his early sixties. Straw-textured gray hair jutted from under a baseball cap as his belly did from under his tucked, blue denim shirt. Congenial enough, Bud proved somewhat solitary and pensive. His web site assures that “fish is our business,” and so it is. Intriguing to me is the use of the plural “our” in this advertisement, for from what I could surmise, Bud’s Charter Service was a one-man show. Does the “our” suggest others working behind the scenes, or is he using the royal “Our?” Hard to say. True to the advertisement, Bud was all about fishin’. He was concerned that due to this confluence point business, we might not have time to catch any. This was a valid concern, as we were going to have to motor twenty-three miles off shore and then twenty-three miles back to nail the cp. No doubt, Bud was fretting over the guarantee on his web site: “Fish All Day No Fish No Pay” (sic.). With a shrug and a concerned exhalation, Bud continued to air his concern that we weren’t giving him enough time. You see, we had declared early on that the half-day session would suffice. I think that this was Bud’s sneaky way of trying to get us to sign up for a full day. The half-day proved to be long enough. Boy, was it long enough.
We chugged out to 47N 90W as quickly as possible over unusually calm Superior waters. Calvin and Dean slept. Kyle hung. Warren and I chewed Bud’s ear. Suddenly, half way out, Bud had to visit the head. He asked if we wouldn’t mind taking the helm. “How cool is this?” we thought. So, we all got a chance to pilot Bud’s honey, attempting to stay on course with Bud’s preprogrammed GPS trajectory. The captain’s chair sat perched up on a high post, and his 1960s sloop was fitted with gadgets and small label plates reminiscent of Adam West’s Bat Mobile. Small lights glowed behind mysterious dials and the steel steering wheel was set into what looked like the consul of a pimped out MG sports coup. The pilot area was retrofitted with the GPS, radio and other safety features. The below-deck area looked like my Uncle Merv’s late 60’s, early 70’s rec room, complete with wood paneling. Bud was only missing shag carpeting and bumper pool table. This part of the ride I quite enjoyed. Warren and I got to take in the beauty of Michigan’s surprisingly untouched Upper Peninsular coast to the east and watch Wisconsin’s Outer Island (of the Apostle Islands chain) slowly materialize out to the west. While we sliced through a shockingly still Superior, we chatted with Bud about Lake Superior shipping history and perused a nifty, old Lake Superior map that Bud dug out from the cellar.
Then we approached the point. Now, if this were confluence point hunting in India, Thailand or Egypt, Warren and I would already have boatloads of bizarre, unexpected hurdles, glitches, misdirections and miscommunications to share. This is the nature of the developing world and why confluence point hunting is such a kick in it. Conversely, the US simply works too well. Bud was there on time. He wasn’t intoxicated. The boat started. His GPS worked. Safety devices were in view. Bud brought enough fuel and was a gem about throttling forward and backward until we zeroed out on his large-screen GPS. We snapped the shot. That was it. Everything worked exceedingly, perfectly, predictably well. Ho hum.
Now, in the developing world, Warren and I would have urged the captain the keep circling the confluence point until all hunters had zeroed out on their individual GPSs. Heck, we paid for the trip; we should all get to snap the shot. Both Warren and I sensed, however, that Bud had had enough of this GPS business. The look on his face was, “I gave ya yer damn point; now let’s do some fishin,’ so that ya don’t try to stiff me when ya don’t catch nothing!’” Warren (always the diplomat) and I (always a bit afraid of crusty old seamen when I’m twenty-three miles off shore) let it go.
The cp sits sixteen miles, almost perfectly equidistant, from the Porcupine Mountain Range of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Outer Island of Wisconsin’s Apostle Island Chain. The Michigan coast is clear and bold; the “mountains,” which are really big hills, are easily seen. Outer Island proved harder to see but was there all the same.
According to “Lake Superior Fun Facts”, the deepest point of Superior is 1333 feet. The average depth is 489 feet. 47N 90W sits at a depth of around 500 feet. Superior is frighteningly massive and unpredictable, although one might not have gotten that sense on this July day. June and July, incidentally, are the calmest months on Superior while October and November are the roughest. The highest wave crest recorded is thirty-one feet. Superior is said to not give up her dead; if you go down, you are not likely to be found. Its volume is what truly impresses: 440 trillion cubic feet, or 10 % of the world’s fresh water.
After claiming victory and shooting our shots, it was time to do some anglin’—or, should I say, some dredging. That’s what it felt like. With thirty-nine lures suspended at varying depths, one would think that you couldn’t help but at least snag something. The bells didn’t ring, except for Bud. The wooden skis that we dragged did not magically pull to the center of the large wake. We just putted for miles and miles toward shore while Bud occasionally retreated below to emerge again with a new Diet Pepsi. We all looked at each other. I found myself feeling a bit bad about the day.
Only a couple weeks earlier, the boys and Dean had invited me to do some charter fishing with a vibrant, effervescent Captain Craig Best on Lake Michigan. Craig, young, buff and all about fishing, leapt about the deck, thrusting bent rods into our hands so that we could land fighting chinook. The day was invigorating, exciting and fun. When Bud sensed (telepathically, I can only assume) that something was on a line, pulling it in felt like unmucking a mob victim that had been dropped in a polluted river two days earlier. After dragging (not really reeling) in lines and slowly switching them to different cranking apparatuses, one would pull in and net a water-logged lake trout. Water-logged, I say, because the distance it had been dragged before it made its way into the boat drained away any life that this animal might have once enjoyed. It was grabbed from the net and untangled from fishing tess by the rough, impatient hands of Bud. No fight, not much wiggle. Despite the flat-line behavior of the fish brought on board, and the fact that trout really are not dangerous fish, Bud felt it necessary to brain the poor creatures with a wooden cudgel that he kept on hand for just the occasion. Thwack! Thwack! Crunch! went the skulls of the snagged and condemned. It was almost as if Bud were mad at them. It was only too easy to imagine Bud using his handy mini-bat on other creatures—opossum, dogs, me. What disturbed us was his previous passivity, the laconic slump, the sloth-like movements around the deck juxtaposed to the shockingly pure, quick savage strikes. We were all unnerved. The speed and precision with which he sliced and gutted the catch, tossing livers and entrails to floating seagulls, did not add to our comfort level. I was reminded of William Wallace disemboweled by the evil royals before a bloodthirsty crowd.
Anyway, we cruised in after the half day out, paid Bud a bundle (gas was expensive this summer) and drove home, tired more from boredom than activity. Despite the small negatives, as far as I was concerned the day provided good family and friend time. Dean and Warren got to know each other. I got to spend some time with my nephews. What’s more, we nailed an important cp—the last unvisited inland cp in the continental USA. With this, my first cp hunt in the US, I learned that confluence point hunting loses something in the first world. Having just conquered another—29N 80E (write up soon to come)—just a couple days ago in North Eastern India, I am jacked, once again, about cp hunting; the experience again proved wonderfully weird and harrowing, as it seems it only can in the developing world. Helping to close out the US was, indeed, a privilege, and I’m glad I was a part of it.
Each time I go on vacation, I look for unvisited confluences. Years ago I studied the confluence map of the US and wondered how long it would be until each point had been visited. I gave some thought to attempting 37N 116W (the nuclear test site in Nevada) back when it was one of the last "grey dots" left on the US map. And then in January of 2006 I started looking seriously at 47N 90W. I spend the summers in Chicago, and my confluence-hunting friend Doug spends his in Wisconsin. It would be possible for me to drive up to his place, and us to hit the spot together. At first I thought we could take his little water-skiing boat out to the confluence until I read a bit more about Lake Superior. Giant swells that make it appear more like an ocean than a lake, countless wrecks strewn across its floor. Its deep, deep floor. The second largest freshwater lake on the planet. And here we were talking about getting in a boat and going out twenty miles into it. Then hoping we'd have a view of land, and that the weather wouldn't stop us from making it in the first place, then trying to take photos and hoping for no fog. Doug and I played with the idea a bit, then decided to make it a reality. I opted for a flight instead of the 9-hour drive to Doug’s place, and set aside three days for the trip. I flew from Chicago to Minneapolis, then to Duluth, where I rented a car and drove to Wisconsin. Doug’s brother Dean and Dean’s two sons accompanied us on the drive to the boat dock. I traveled through four US states in less than 16 hours, before reaching the little town of Hurley, Michigan (“Home of the Fighting Midgets” -- I am not making that up) where we had breakfast at the Bonshell Cafe. From there it was a short drive through Ironwood, Michigan to the shore of Lake Superior.
Captain Bud Johnson runs a lake fishing charter service out of Black River Harbor. Doug had arranged for him to take us out in a seaworthy vessel that ended up being a much better choice than a pontoon or some other recreational boat. Captain Bud’s GPS guided us directly along the 90 degree meridian from shore to the confluence. It look less than two hours, and Poseidon must have been on our side, because the weather was beautiful, the water was glass-like, and the shores of Michigan’s upper peninsula as well as Wisconsin’s Outer Islands were both visible. We got the photos, celebrated our victory, and did some trout fishing on the way back to shore.
The confluence itself is miles offshore, so the only animals we saw out there were seagulls and lake trout. But on the drive in, we saw deer, rabbits, an orange-winged blackbird, and a black bear, which crossed the road and disappeared into the woods before I could take its photo.