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Of Woods and Words

Ada Igoe

Ada Igoe is proud to be homegrown on homegrown radio. Her radio career at WTIP began at an early age. As a child she tagged along to many of the meetings and fundraisers that lead to WTIP's formation. From 1999-2003, during her teenage years, she co-produced WTIP's Ragamuffin Radio, a weekly children's program. After graduating from the College of St. Scholastica in 2007 with a B.A. in English and Communication, she punted about the globe, temping in both London, England and the Twin Cities before realizing the woods and community of Cook County would always be home. She lives on the Gunflint Trail. Her commentary, "Of Woods and Words" can be heard on WTIP's A.M. Calendar program and on North Shore Weekend Saturday mornings. You can also subscribe to a podcast.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.


What's On:

Of Woods And Words: Raised On Radio

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When my brother and I were very little, our family lived briefly on the edge of the Minnesota prairie. We didn’t have a T.V.  As a result, the only thing we looked forward to more than visits from the bookmobile were Saturday mornings. That’s because every Saturday morning the local community radio station broadcast two children’s radio programs.
The shows came on pretty early on those Saturday mornings: maybe about 6 a.m. It was rare for my brother and I to be up and about at that early hour, so my father faithfully taped the two half-hour shows. Over breakfast a few hours later, we listened to the taped shows.
But, when I was six, my family moved back to my mother’s hometown of Grand Marais. Everyone was a lot happier along the shores of Lake Superior. None of us missed the prairie. However, our Saturday mornings got a lot quieter. We still didn’t own a T.V. Now we also didn’t have a community radio station to tune in to.  The radio show We Like Kids! from Juneau, Alaska no longer followed Vera Deara’s  half-hour of stories at 6 in the morning. There were no tapes to listen to while my brother and I attempted to eat an entire box of cereal in search of the hidden toy inside the box.
Of course we missed having a community radio station. Luckily for us, in the spring of 1992, a dedicated group of volunteers started working to bring radio to Cook County. They held fundraisers, formed partnerships, applied for grants, and marched in almost every parade, big or small, that Grand Marais hosted. By the time all the money was raised to bring community radio to the area, this group of volunteers had the Grand Marais parade circuit down pat. They knew you were meant to parade around the city block designated for parades in downtown Grand Marais twice in the Christmas and Fourth of July parades.
When WTIP began broadcasting in April 1998, my brother and I had outgrown children’s radio programs. But we hadn’t outgrown radio. In WTIP we found volunteer opportunities, internships, and career exploration. We heard new voices and music, kept up on weather and news and became avid listeners of “Small Change.”
Today at the cabin, our radio dial floats between WTIP, MPR, and the CBC. But when I’m driving home, be it from travels, or just a trip to the Twin Cities, it is only when my car radio picks up WTIP that I truly feel I’m home.  Around Two Harbors, when I start to get those first scratchy transmissions from Grand Marais, I know there’s not too much road left to travel that day.
I had a thought a couple months ago, back when WTIP was turning 12 years old. I realized that in the listening range of WTIP, there is an entire generation who has always had a community radio station to tune into. For any community member age 12 or younger, and to be fair, probably a littler older too, there simply hasn’t been a time when they can’t remember there not being WTIP. Maybe some members of this generation spend their weeks looking forward to listening to Rose’s Saturday Morning Story.
If you don’t want your kids to remember a time without community radio, if you spend your weekends looking forward to Saturday morning radio, if it’s the sound of WTIP that signals your homecoming, well, now’s the time to give WTIP your show of support. With your gift of time or funds, we can ensure that WTIP is around to provide entertainment for many, many Saturday mornings to come. Just call 387-1070 or 1-800-473-9847.
Air Date: July 8, 2010


Of Woods And Words: The Culture of Leaving

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In this land of summer vacation homes, people are naturally curious about where you’re from. But people always seem to want clarification when they ask me where I’m from and I tell them, “Oh, I’m from here,” “Where’s exactly is ‘here’?” they ask. “What do you mean by town?” In the end, when we’ve gotten it sorted out that I grew up outside of Grand Marais, it seems as though most of the questioners view my answer as uninteresting, almost disappointing. 
When you’re from small town America, an unspoken understanding exists. It’s an understanding that involves graduating from high school, going to college, and eventually, getting a job some place else. Our hometown is meant to shape us, but it seems we’re supposed head out into the great unknown to find a new locale that will sustain us during our adult lives. Returning to our hometown is often held synonymous with failing to launch. 
Of course I thought I would leave, and for a while I did leave. For all my dreams of sipping cosmos in New York City or grabbing a pint in a Dublin pub, I never imagined that in reality, I would be grabbing a diet cola from a gas station in town to perk me up for the 60 mile drive to my home in the woods.
But things happen: love and luck, degrees and decisions. At some point, before we are truly conscious of it, life takes off independently on a crash course for some set destination you didn’t know you’d decided on. It wasn’t clear that I was back in my hometown for the long haul until I realized that for years, deep in my heart I’d been making concessions about the beauty and comfort of the place where I grew up. That I’d grown exceedingly fond of my hometown over the years came as a bit of shock.  
I had a professor in college who told about how discomfiting an adult homecoming can be. After receiving his MFA, he returned home to his parents’ house for a bit while he plotted out his next move. That first morning home, he woke up to find himself lying in a twin bed in a small bedroom filled with Hot Wheels decorations. “What’s wrong with me?” he thought.
But if we can leave the Hot Wheels and the baby dolls behind us and find a way out of our childhood bedrooms, our hometowns often offer a unique place to carve out a life of our own. I spent a winter in the Twin Cities and never learned the names of a single neighbor. How different it is at home where I seem to bump into someone I know whenever I run errands. What’s more, in our little community, we have a vested interest in each other. Here both our successes and failures are more tightly woven than they could ever be in a large city.
I certainly didn’t expect to be the person who would buck this culture of leaving. I never thought I would stay. I know a bigger world than the one I currently exist in is out there. And at times I’m overcome with a need to flee to that bigger world: to sip cosmos in New York City, or grab a pint in Dublin. But in the end, I find a peace here in the Northwoods, in these stomping grounds of my youth. A peace that compels me to stay.
It’s like that saying you see on greeting cards sometimes: I live in my own world, but it’s okay. People know me here.
Airdate: June 24, 2010


Of Woods and Words: The Wave

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I grew up just outside of Grand Marais, or “in town” as we say around these parts. So although I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in Cook County, I am still what you’d call a Gunflint Trail transplant. Least this seem like an overstatement, let me remind you that the sense of geographical location can be so strong in Cook County that people can live here for 30 years and still, not quite, be considered a local.  Because of this pervading mentality, I fear someday soon, someone from the Trail will realize that I didn’t have an hour-long bus ride to school when I was growing up and that they will drag me out of my cabin and shoo me back to town where I belong.
To quell this largely irrational fear, I have done my best to assimilate.  I have kind of conquered my fear of winter driving, I now own a pair of wool pants, and I have been known to go grouse hunting. Sometimes I even go fishing. 
But I remain baffled by “the wave.” That is, when I am driving along the Gunflint, when am I morally obligated to wave at the car in the other lane?   Since I pass by relatively few cars on a typical drive to town, does it behoove me to wave at every car that comes my way?  Or should I be more selective and only wave at vehicles I think I recognize?  After all, when does that fine line between friendly neighbor and creeper crop up anyway?
Also, because my waves look less like waves and more like my right arm is having a spasm, I am afraid my wave will finally give it away to Trail residents that I am not the real deal.  True Gunflint Trail residents don’t have waves that are evocative of an overly excited puppy greeting their master at the end of the day.  True Gunflint Trail residents acknowledge each other stoically as they pass each other, with the nod of a head or the raising of two fingers off the steering wheel.
I have no Scandinavian heritage and I feel that allows me slightly more animated acknowledgements of other people’s presence than the typical Minnesotan.  But since almost everyone I meet on the road does have Scandinavian blood, I feel a responsibility not to completely freak them out by raising my entire hand off the steering wheel to wave at them.  It’s quite the dilemma.   
The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for a canoe outfitter on the Gunflint Trail, which is how I got mixed up in this messy “living on the Trail” business in the first place.  Among other things, one of my daily tasks at the outfitters was to pick up customers who were returning from their canoe trips. One time after I’d picked up a couple and was heading back down the road to the outfitters, a pick-up passed us in the other lane. The guy in the pick up waved. I waved back.
“Did you know that guy?” asked one of the guys in the van I was driving.  “Oh yeah, that’s Whathisface,” I said.  “Ah,” he said. “I thought this might be one of those places where you wave at everyone.”
I hemmed and hawed for a little while about how it kind of is that sort of place and he said he’d grown up in that sort of place too.  During high school, he explained, he’d worked on his uncle’s farm in southern Minnesota. At the time, his uncle had been running for election for some position in the town. To ensure, no hard feelings among the townspeople, the uncle instructed all his employees to rest their elbows on top of the tractors’ steering wheels so their arms bobbed in greeting to whoever passed. It was a really good idea.
I still haven’t perfected my perpetual wave, but if our paths cross on the Trail this summer, be sure to wave.

For WTIP, this is Ada Igoe, with Of Woods and Words.



Of Woods and Words: A Tale of Two Pies

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When in the kitchen, many people strive to get their recipes tasting just as good as Grandma’s. But my grandmother came from the 1950s generation of working moms and she reveled in the advent of convenience food. She loved her instant potatoes, cake mixes, and Jell-O. She didn’t have time for a whole lot of home cooking. But as much as we laughed at some of her culinary under-achievements, the truth is that she was a good baker and that we all miss her raisin rye bread. So every once in a while, I do find myself faced with a dilemma in the kitchen that only a grandma can solve. Like what to do with the shopping bag filled with rhubarb that magically appeared in my fridge last week.
I’m not sure how I end up with a shopping bag overflowing with rhubarb. We seem to be in the business of growing really tiny rhubarb up here at the cabin. The only place the rhubarb in our garden would be an appropriate size is in the front lawn of a dollhouse. Yet there always seems to be someone nearby with way more rhubarb than they know what to do with, and just when I was about to write off this spring as a rhubarb-less one, the shopping bag of rhubarb was thrust at me. It’s one of those springtime miracles. Either that, or rhubarb is to springtime what zucchini is to summer.
My grandmother made exceptional homemade rhubarb pie: So good that her son always requested a rhubarb pie in lieu of a birthday cake.
And whenever I looked at that rhubarb on the fridge’s lowest shelf, I could taste my grandmother’s rhubarb custard pie. So I decided to make that very pie for a dinner date with my parents.
The only issue was that I didn’t actually have a copy of her pie recipe.
I tried to call my mother. No answer.
Then I looked at where I was standing. This was a cabin in Cook County. While I might not have Grandma’s recipe in my recipe collection, something told me the recipe I was looking still might be lurking in the cookbook cupboard. I grabbed a random recipe box and leafed through the pie section. When I pulled out the rhubarb pie recipe, I found Andy’s grandmother’s name scrawled across the top of the card.  
I scanned the ingredients: rhubarb, two eggs, a little flour, a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon . . . . This looked familiar.
By the time I found Andy’s grandma’s rhubarb pie recipe, I was running out of time. As soon as the pie came out of the oven, I wrapped it up in tin foil, and headed for my parents’. With a warm pie in my hands and a “Look what I made” on the tip of my tongue, I burst through my parents’ back door. And came face to face with another pie sitting on my mom’s cooling rack. It looked like someone had found Grandma’s rhubarb pie recipe.
So it was that there were two pies, from two grandmas. When it comes to an overabundance of rhubarb, grandmas always have just the right recipe. And when it comes to an overabundance of pie, most grandmas would tell you to just “eat some more pie.” So we did, and it seemed the pies tasted almost as good as Grandma’s.


Of Woods and Words: Fences Make Good Neighbors

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Like any recent college grad worth their share of student loans in a floundering economy, I spend a fair amount of time at my parents’ place.  Coincidentally, I often pop around near suppertime. Sometimes I sit on their couch and pilfer for spare change. But that’s beside the point. . . .

The point is, that by spending time around my parents’ house, I’ve been able to watch an epic battle unfold over the past year. It’s the classic battle of gardener versus wildlife where my mother takes on the woodchuck family that set up residency in her backyard last spring. The battle of mother versus Mother Nature, if you will.

Remember the old tongue twister: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck? Last summer, my family finally got an answer to that age old question. Apparently woodchucks don’t give a fig about chucking wood, but boy can they make a mess out of a garden.

Last year, my mother would walk up the driveway after work with trepidation in each step, fearful to see what the woodchuck had gotten into in her absence. The herbs on the deck quickly got nipped off. Soon, the flower baskets had been pillaged through. To make matters worse, it seemed that Mama Woodchuck had had babies and before we knew it, there was a whole herd of woodchucks swinging by for lunch at the all-you-can-eat salad bar on a daily basis. Then one day, the woodchucks burrowed beneath the deer fence around the main garden and made a muddle of the salad greens and broccoli.

Robert Frost famously wrote that “good fences make good neighbors.” In Cook County, we don’t have a lot of fences, but despite that fact, we still have some pretty great neighbors. After years of struggling to keep deer and wascally wabbits out of her garden, my mother put up a deer fence a few years back. The fence did its job well enough, but last summer, it failed to prove impervious to woodchucks. It wasn’t a good fence and indeed, the woodchucks were not proving to be good neighbors.

So this spring, a fence building project has taken place in my parents’ backyard that seems comparable to the construction of the Great Wall of China. A 12-inch deep trench was dug around the garden and fencing was buried to barricade the garden from burrowing critters like the woodchucks. Above the ground, the fence stretches up 8 feet to prevent deer from leaping over it.

My mother seems confident that her battle with the woodchuck is coming to a close. I hope the fence proves effective and that the woodchuck clan wanders off before summer’s end.
Up here at the cabin, the kitchen table has been covered with seedlings for the last few weeks. It’s the first year we’re attempting a garden and not only do we not really know what we’re doing, we have no fence up to protect against marauding wildlife. Who’s to say what will happen to these seedlings when we turn them loose to the big scary world?

But, no matter the fences we build or other precautions we take, at its heart gardening in northern Minnesota has always been a practice in what another famous poet, John Keats, called “negative capability.” Keats wrote that negative capability “is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

In her poem entitled “Negative Capability,” northland poet Lezlie Oachs describes the apprehension that fills so many of us as we look forward to the summer’s gardens.

She writes this:
The miracle –
real and right and raw –
is welcoming the Mystery,
living it.

This morning
I’m sowing uncertainty,
watering doubt,
waiting without reaching.

Someday something green
will sprout in this place.
Something small and moist and soft,
open to the sky.

Airdate: May 14, 2010



Of Woods and Words: Things That Go Thump in the Night

I’m not sure why I expected to get a decent amount of sleep when I spent a week in New York City this past month. Turns out, there’s a reason they call New York “the city that never sleeps.” And there is probably no place in the Big Apple where that restless nickname is more applicable than the international youth hostel in upper Manhattan where I stayed with two friends.

Each night, we found our sleep punctuated by any variety of noises. At all hours of the night, people came and went from the room we shared with five other girls. One night, a group of middle school boys held what can only be presumed to have been a bowling party in the room above ours. Another night, a telephone began to ring intermittently at three in the morning. Even in the rare moments when the hostel itself was still, the noise of the city still drifted up through the window. We heard fragments of conversations from passersby in the street below, the whoosh of taxis, the bleating and blaring of sirens. 

Every morning, the three of us stumbled out of the hostel with eyes that felt as though they’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper. Every morning I resolved to pick up a pair of ear plugs. Every day the flurry of sightseeing distracted me from the sleep I hadn’t gotten and every night I returned to the hostel to realize I hadn’t bought ear plugs and that more than likely, another largely sleepless night was in store.

I couldn’t figure out how anyone got any sleep in the city.  It seemed New York City nights were filled with nothing but thumps and bumps that threatened insomnia. Then I realized that what I considered “thumps in the night” in New York could just be white noise to native New Yorkers. They probably didn’t even hear the nearly constant scream of sirens and street noise that left me tossing and turning.

Yet, some people find their own insomnia in the quieter noises of a northwoods night. The vast sense of perceived solitude up here can be uncomfortable to people used to being surrounded by more activity. The thought that there are fairly large creatures out in the woods causing thumps in the night isn’t always the most comforting notion. 

So, it seems how we respond to a thump in the night is influenced by what we’ve come to accept as an everyday occurrence.
I sleep soundly to the sound of squirrels scampering on the deck or the groan of ice in the bay. I don’t worry when the howling wind causes the house to creak and rattle. I know the grumble and scrape of the snow plow truck as it passes by in the middle of the night. Even the discomfiting whirring of a Lifeflight helicopter making its way to the hospital is familiar. 

After I got back from the New York trip, my significant other sat bolt upright in bed one night. “Oh no,” he gasped.  “There’s a bag of garbage in the back of my truck.” The night before we’d seen a black bear lumbering around within a mile of the cabin. It didn’t seem worth leaving the bag of garbage delicacies outside where they might tempt a bear to pay a visit.

“Well, you should probably go get it,” I said, not even bothering to open my eyes.

Andy made the dreaded pajama-clad dash outside to bring the trash into the cabin and, that night, bears lurked both in my subconscious and the woods outside the cabin. If I strained my ear as I drifted off to sleep, I could hear the lake softly lapping at the shore outside. No sirens sounded and, that night, I slept better than I had in an entire week in Manhattan.

Airdate: April 30, 2010



Of Woods and Words: Knitting: Nature or Nurture?

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The other day I was in Duluth at one of the outdoor gear and apparel stores, poking through the selection of discounted wool socks when I overheard the conversation taking place at the checkout counter. As the clerk extolled the virtues of the article of winter clothing a woman had just purchased, the woman admitted she’d just moved to Minnesota from southern California. She seemed a little nervous about the whole thing.

“Get snow tires,” advised the clerk. “Wear layers.” The clerk paused for dramatic effect. “And,” she said. “Take up knitting.”

Over in the sock department, I nodded to myself. It sounded like good advice.

But the more the clerk talked with the woman at the counter, the more knitting started to sound like a coping mechanism. To hear the clerk tell it, knitting up scarves and mittens could be the maker or breaker of a Minnesota winter. The clerk kept using phrases like “that’s what gets us through,” and “it’s keeps us together.”

Oh dear, I thought to myself: what if the thread that keeps Minnesotans sane is as breakable as a strand of wool yarn?

In recent years the hip-ness of knitting has risen decidedly. As a young Minnesotan, I feel it’s safe to say that nearly all of my peers have some familiarity with either knitting or crocheting. I’d always assumed the high frequency of knitters among my friends was a reflection on the general nerdiness of the company I keep. As I listened to the clerk talk, I recognized knitting for what it truly was: a placebo to ward off feelings of insecurity and helplessness that would surely otherwise ensue in this northern climate.

All joking aside, Minnesotans are a pretty hardy bunch. I’m positive there’s something beyond knitting that keeps us in one piece all year. But as I consider the high ratio of knitters in our particular population, it seems there could be something instinctive about the fiber arts in these parts.

All knitters must begin knitting because something sparked their interest in it. My mother taught me to knit years ago and as time passed, knitting has become a significant hobby for me. Knitting may not be an inherent skill, but with a little nurture, knitting can start to feel like nature.

But what is it that makes us a region of ferocious knitters? From the time the leaves start to turn colors in the fall until the leaves bud out again in spring, knitting needles clack across the county. There seems to be an impulse to make warm things for ourselves and our loved ones. As our projects progress, there’s a satisfaction that comes from having something tangible growing in our hands, regardless of the season.

As the seasons shift towards summer, many people stick their knitting needles in a ball of yarn and tuck away their knitting basket until next fall. Vows are made to finish that sweater . . . next winter. But just because the days grow longer, I’m not sure that the knitting instinct goes away. Instead, I think it gets channeled into other things, like flower beds.

Because at its heart, I think the key to the knitting conundrum may be more than a desire to create warm garments in a cold climate. I think the root of our fascination with knitting could stem from a desire to turn something unremarkable, like a ball of yarn, into something spectacular, like a sweater. And it has something to do with watching patterns, designs and beauty unfold in our hands.

Regardless of whether or not you knit, you might share in the impulse that makes knitting nature for so many others. I think the impulse is transferable to other aspects of life. It could be why we knit and garden and farm and write and volunteer for community radio stations. Because even in the deepest snow or muckiest muck, Minnesotan sanity often hangs in helping things to grow.



Of Woods and Words: 'Tis the Season

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When I was growing up, the Christmas tree went up shortly after Thanksgiving and didn’t come down until well into January. The outside Christmas lights stayed up even longer.

“I guess they’re Valentine’s Day lights,” I told someone on an early February evening as we drove past the lights on the rosebushes that lined our driveway. I was a teenager and slightly embarrassed by my family’s lack of togetherness when it came to seasonal decorations. After all, Christmas was months ago. What possible need could there be for cheery little lights? Well, maybe just the fact that for months after Christmas comes and goes, the world remains dark and cold.

Like most young adults setting off in the world, I was determined to do things differently from what I’d known as child.  At least when it came to Christmas decorations. Also like most young adults setting off in the world, I discovered that the habits I was so determined to break away from were in fact, unshakeable. Still, this December, I wrapped the curtain-less curtain rods above my windows with tinsel and hung ornaments from and I vowed then and there that those decorations would be down by Epiphany.

On the morning of January 6th – Epiphany – I pulled out the big plastic bin I keep all my seasonal decorations in and began to systematically put away all the decorations hanging from windows and strewn about the little cabin. But I balked when I reached the kitchen window.  Six snowflakes in a rainbow of colors hung in the bows of red tinsel from the window’s curtain rod. Drawn to their bright colors, I couldn’t resist the three-dimensional ornaments when I spied them in the Victoria and Albert Museum gift shop in London two years before. Now, as they hung in the window, brightening the dark corner of the cabin with color and memories, I felt my strict “decorations down on Epiphany rule” bending.

Snowflakes weren’t really Christmas decorations anyway. More like winter decorations. Heck, I decided, those snowflake ornaments could stay up until the snow melted.

It wasn’t until I reached into my plastic bin to grab the St. Patrick’s Day decorations that I realized the snow outside was dripping off rooftops and turning to slush outside. The snowflake ornaments still hung in the kitchen. For the first time in the four months since I’d hung them up, the snowflakes had started to look a little silly. 

That’s not to say that the snowflakes came down right then and there. Oh no. They hung around until the Easter decorations were overdue for display. My impulse to decorate my minimal living space with somewhat corny seasonal decorates seems to correlate vaguely with the period of time when we are not on daylight savings time. As the light returns and the snow fades away, the need for “self-brightening” diminishes. Once these Easter decorations come down, the Shack will be decoration free until Halloween. And by the time the first wildflowers are popping up, I’ll be swearing that next year I’ll get my act together and take down the Christmas decorations in a timely manner.

But more often than not in northern Minnesota winters, our inherent needs win out over our best-laid plans. In the dark period between fall and spring equinoxes, we learn to make our own brightness. When brightness comes as easily as unseasonal Christmas lights and misplaced snowflakes, we know that at the heart of life, there can’t be much to complain about.  
Airdate: April 2, 2010



Of Woods and Words: Life in the Shack

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When I drove home from work a few weeks ago, the thermometer in my car read 6 below. When I opened the door of my humble little home, I discovered the display on the off-peak electric heater in the corner read 42 degrees. While the heater has kept our home cozy all winter, when the seasons start to change, sometimes it gets confused. With longer, warmer days, the heater doesn’t always anticipate that the night could be much colder than the day. That evening I ran around in a down vest and jacket, turning on space heaters and plugging up the gap under the door. When I was satisfied that I had done everything possible to warm up the cabin, I crawled under several layers of down and flannel and went to sleep.

This fall someone asked what kind of heat we have. When I told her about our somewhat reliable off-peak electric heater, she sniffed.

“Oh,” she said. “I suppose you have running water too.”

I live in a teeny building with electric heat and running water that we call ‘the Shack.’ It’s a term of endearment, but also a descriptive term. The Shack is approximately 12 by 20. Realtors would be hard-pressed with their description of the Shack, but they might call it ‘cozy’ or a ‘fixer-upper.’ An accordion folding door separates the bathroom from the rest of the downstairs living area. Although the shower is accessed through the bathroom, the outer walls of the shower sit in the kitchen next to the oven. We all know about the heater’s tendency to malfunction and I have hit my head on the slanted roof of the loft too many times to recall.

The Shack is so small and tippy in stature that the building is actually chained to the cliff it is nestled next to. I suspect it is chained to the cliff because it once tipped over. I find this thought so discomfiting that I try not to think about it too much.

I don’t want to spin the Shack in either a negative or romantic light. That’s because life in the Shack feels a bit like a rite of passage.

Around here, you don’t have to explain why you shove old towels and that Snuggie you got for Christmas around the doorway to prevent a miniature snow drift from forming in your living room. Tell that story and suddenly you’ll be the one listening to stories of hauling water for five years before the running water got hooked up. Of having to wake up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire. Of frozen pipes and septic alarms. Of not having enough outlets to support both the space heaters and a normal lifestyle so that every morning there was a horrible chilly 15 minutes when your wife had to unplug a space heater so she could blow dry her hair. We all seem to have some memory of compromised living, usually involving a teeny house where plastic and insulation stick out from unfinished window frames.

People almost always end their stories by saying: “That’s what we had when we were starting out.” Someday soon stories about the Shack will end that way too.

For now, well, a 12 by 20 Shack is pretty cushy compared to some living arrangements I’ve heard of. At the end of the day, even when it’s 6 below outside and 42 degrees inside, it’s home.

Airdate: March 18, 2010


The Gunflint Trail, photo by Stephan Hoglund

Of Woods and Words: Driving On Ice

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While my grandfather made his living plowing the roads of Cook County, I am the second generation of reluctant drivers in my family. My mother does not care for winter driving, at all, and I clung so steadfastly to a belief in the absurdity of 90-degree backups that I didn’t bother getting my driver’s license until I turned 21. When I announced this fall that I’d be spending my first winter in six years back in Cook County in a teeny shack halfway up the Gunflint Trail, friends expressed some concern that they’d never see me again. At least not until every last bit of ice had melted off the Gunflint in the spring. Even I had visions of gnawing on a moldering crust of bread in the Shack as I ate through everything in my pantry, too terrified of the snow-packed Gunflint Trail to actually drive the 30 miles to a grocery store.

Because I hadn’t wintered in Cook County since I was 18, my winter driving experience was limited and my confidence in my little car’s winter abilities were low. Early this December, I drove home from a long weekend in the Cities to find the Gunflint Trail wearing its winter coat of ice and snow pack. As I poked along at 30 miles per hour, I cast an eye to the backseat where five bags of groceries sat. For all I knew, those might be the last groceries I saw until April.

But when you spend a winter on the Gunflint Trail, you soon become adept at driving on ice. For one thing, five bags of groceries only last about two weeks at my house.

This winter I have learned the tug of my car as it follows the zigzagging truck ruts I’m at the mercy of on early morning treks to work when I must beat the plows to the Gunflint. I have learned to scan the ditches carefully after dark for the shadowy forms of moose and other wildlife. I have learned the treacherous curves and hills. I have learned to avoid the jarring buzz of my antilock brakes kicking in.

On days when I must go to town, I wait for the plows, trusting that they will clear the roads to the best of their ability and that if I go slow, I’ll be all right. The most important thing winter driving on the Gunflint teaches you is to find a steady pace, to avoid sudden applications of the brake, and not to worry too much about how long the trip’s going to take. Failure to do so results in one of those funny, car-shaped imprints that started to pop up all along the Gunflint ditches during the last week of January. Sometimes I get to town in 35 minutes. Sometimes it takes closer to an hour. But unless we’re in the midst of a massive dumping of snow, if I need to go somewhere, I go. After all, a secluded life in the woods needn’t go hand in hand with an isolated life in the woods.

While I have become comfortable this winter driving the icy Gunflint Trail, I still whisper prayers to various deities whenever I merge onto 35W past Forest Lake. It just doesn’t seem that potentially life-altering decisions, like merges, should take place at 70 miles per hour. Rush hour eludes me. And that’s probably a big part of why I, and so many others up here, have chosen to live a life that requires us to drive on ice for approximately four months out of every year. When given our druthers, we’d rather go slowly and get there when we get there.

Air date: March 6, 2010